Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison
To the bewildered youths--British, Australian,
Canadian, and German--who were killed in that wood a few miles
beyond Amiens on August 8, 1918,
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
2 In the Trenches
3 Out on Rest
4 Back to the Round
5 On Rest Again
9 Over the Top
10 An Interlude
It is after midnight on payday. Some of the recruits are
beginning to dribble into the barracks bunk room after a night's
carousal down the line.
"Down the line" in Montreal is Cadieux Street, St. Elizabeth
Street, La Gauchetière Street, Vitre Street, Craig
Street--a square mile of dilapidated, squalid red brick houses
with red lights shining through the transoms, flooding the
sidewalks with an inviting, warm glow. The houses are known by
their numbers, 169 or 72 or 184.
Some of us are lying in our bunks, uncovered, showing our
heavy grey woolen underwear--regulation Army issue.
The heavy odour of stale booze and women is in the air. A few
jaundiced electric lights burn here and there in the barn-like
bunk room although it is long after "lights out".
In the bunk next to mine lies Anderson, a middle-aged,
slightly bald man. He comes from somewhere in the backwoods of
northern Ontario and enlisted a few weeks ago. He was a Methodist
lay preacher in civilian life. He is reading his bible. The
roistering arrivals annoy him. The conversation is shouted across
the bunk room:
"-- -- 'three bucks?' I says. 'What the hell! D'yuh know
there's a war on? I don't wantta buy yuh,' I says, 'I only want
yuh for about twenty minutes.'"
There is a roar of laughter.
"-- -- 'I'm thirsty,' I says. 'Where's the water?' When she's
gone I dips into her pocketbook and sneaks me two bucks."
A skeptical silence greets this.
"-- -- yeah, that's what you wish had happened."
"Ask Brownie, he heard her bellyachin'--dincha, Brownie?"
A singing, drunken trio bursts through the door of the bunk
room and for a moment drowns out the controversy.
A young lad, not more than seventeen, staggers to the centre
of the room and retches into the slop-can.
Obscene roars from the bunks.
The boy sways.
"Hold it, Billy, hold it."
"Missed it, by God!"
A howl of delight.
The boy staggers back to his bunk. His face is a greenish
yellow under the dim lights.
In the far corner of the dormitory some of the boys begin to
sing a war song. They sing with a mock pathos.
I don't want to die, I don't want to die,
The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar,
I don't want to go up the line any more.
Take me over the sea, where Heinie he can't get at
Oh, my, I'm too young to die,
I want to go home.
Catcalls and hootings greet the end of the song. There is a
silence and then the desultory conversation is resumed. The
remarks are addressed to no one in particular. They are hurled
into the centre of the room and he who wills may reply.
"-- -- hey, lissen, fellers, don't none of you go down to 184
any more; they threw one of our men out tonight."
"Sure, we'll bust her joint up."
I look at Anderson. His forehead is drawn into furrows. He
frowns. Little beads of perspiration stand out on his red face.
The room is fouled with the odours of dissipation. He waits
cautiously for a lull in the conversation. With a spring he jumps
into the middle of the room, the seat of the underwear which is
too big for him hanging comically in his rear. In an evangelical
voice he cries:
"Men, do you know you're sinning in the eyes of the Lord?"
A salvo of oaths greets him.
"Go to hell."
"Take a jump in the lake."
He is undeterred. He continues:
"Some of you men would put your bodies where I wouldn't put my
"Shut up, sky pilot."
"It's good for pimples."
He stands on the bare floor facing the torrent of ribaldry.
His long face is set. His voice sounds like an insistent piccolo
above the braying of trombones.
"Well, anyway, God didn't make your bodies for
He goes back to his bed.
The orderly sergeant crashes through the door and faces us
The room is quiet.
* * * *
Our train is to leave Bonaventure Station at eight. At four
the officers try to get the men in shape. More than half the
battalion is drunk. Pails of black coffee are brought around.
Some of the bad ones have buckets of cold water sluiced over
It takes an hour to line the men up for parade outside the
barracks. Men are hauled out of their bunks and strapped into
their equipment. They stare vacantly into the faces of those who
Outside in the streets we hear the sounds of celebration.
Fireworks are being exploded in our honour.
The drunks are shoved into position.
The officers take their places.
The band strikes up and we march and stagger from the parade
square into the street.
Outside a mob cheers and roars.
Women wave their handkerchiefs.
When we come to the corner of St. Catherine and Windsor
streets a salvo of fireworks bursts over the marching column. It
letters the night in red, white, and blue characters. The pale
faces of the swaying men shine under the sputtering lights. Those
of us who are sober steady our drunken comrades.
Flowers are tossed into the marching ranks.
Sleek men standing on the broad wide steps of the Windsor
Hotel throw packages of cigarettes at us. Drunken, spiked heels
crush roses and cigarettes underfoot.
The city has been celebrating the departure of the battalion.
All day long the military police had been rounding up our men in
saloons, in brothels. We are heroes, and the women are hysterical
now that we are leaving. They scream at us:
"Goodbye and good luck, boy-y-y-ys."
They break our ranks and kiss the heavily laden boys. A
befurred young woman puts her soft arm around my neck and kisses
me. She smells of perfume. After the tense excitement of the day
it is delightful. She turns her face to me and laughs. Her eyes
are soft. She has been drinking a little. Her fair hair shines
from under a black fur toque. I feel lonely. I do not want to go
to war. She marches along by my side. The battalion is no longer
marching. It straggles, disorganised, down the street leading to
I am only eighteen and I have not had any experiences with
women like this. I like this girl's brazenness.
"Kiss me, honey," she commands. I obey. I like all this
confusion now. War--heroes--music--the fireworks--this girl's
kiss. Nobody notices us. I hang on to her soft furry arm. I cling
to it as the station looms at the bottom of the street.
She is the last link between what I am leaving and the war. In
a few minutes she will be gone. I am afraid now. I forget all my
fine heroic phrases. I do not want to wear these dreadfully heavy
boots, nor carry this leaden pack. I want to fling them away and
stay with this fair girl who smells faintly of perfume. I grip
her arm tightly. I think I could slip away unseen with her. We
could run through the crowd, far away somewhere. I remember the
taunting song, "Oh, my, I'm too young to die." I am
hanging on to her arm.
"Hey, soldier boy, you're hurting my arm."
We are at the station. We are hustled inside. We stagger into
the trains. We drop into seats. We wait, for hours, it seems. The
train does not move. The singing and cheering outside dies down.
In a little while the station is deserted. Only a few lonely
baggage men and porters move here and there. At last the train
slowly begins to move . . .
The boys lie like sacks of potatoes in the red plush-covered
seats. Some of us are green under the gills. White-faced, we reel
to the toilets. The floor is slimy and wet.
In the Trenches
We leave the piles of rubble that was once a little Flemish
peasant town and wind our way, in Indian file, up through the
muddy communication trench. In the dark we stumble against the
sides of the trench and tear our hands and clothing on the bits
of embedded barbed wire that runs through the earth here as
though it were a geological deposit.
Fry, who is suffering with his feet, keeps slipping into holes
and crawling out, all the way up. I can hear him coughing and
panting behind me.
I hear him slither into a water-filled hole. It has a green
scum on it. Brown and I fish him out.
"I can't go any farther," he wheezes. "Let me lie here, I'll
come on later."
We block the narrow trench and the oncoming men stumble on us,
banging their equipment and mess-tins on the sides of the ditch.
Some trip over us. They curse under their breaths.
Our captain, Clark, pushes his way through the mess. He is an
Imperial, an Englishman, and glories in his authority.
"So it's you again," he shouts. "Come on, get up. Cold feet,
eh, getting near the line?"
Fry mumbles something indistinctly. I, too, offer an
explanation. Clark ignores me.
"Get up, you're holding up the line," he says to Fry.
Fry does not move.
"No wonder we're losing the bloody war," Clark says loudly.
The men standing nearby laugh. Encouraged by his success, the
"Here, sergeant, stick a bayonet up his behind--that'll make
him move." A few of us help Fry to his feet, and somehow we
manage to keep him going.
We proceed cautiously, heeding the warnings of those ahead of
us. At last we reach our positions.
* * * *
It is midnight when we arrive at our positions. The men we are
relieving give us a few instructions and leave quickly, glad to
It is September and the night is warm. Not a sound disturbs
the quiet. Somewhere away far to our right we hear the faint
sound of continuous thunder. The exertion of the trip up the line
has made us sweaty and tired. We slip most of our accoutrements
off and lean against the parados. We have been warned that the
enemy is but a few hundred yards off, so we speak in whispers. It
is perfectly still. I remember nights like this in the
Laurentians. The harvest moon rides overhead.
Our sergeant, Johnson, appears around the corner of the bay,
stealthily like a ghost. He gives us instructions:
"One man up on sentry duty! Keep your gun covered with the
rubber sheet! No smoking!"
He hurries on to the next bay. Fry mounts the step and peers
into No Man's Land. He is rested now and says that if he can only
get a good pair of boots he will be happy. He has taken his boots
off and stands in his stockinged feet. He shows us where his heel
is cut. His boots do not fit. The sock is wet with blood. He
wants to take his turn at sentry duty first so that he can rest
later on. We agree.
Cleary and I sit on the firing-step and talk quietly.
"So this is war."
"Yes, just like the country back home, eh?"
We talk of the trench; how we can make it more
We light cigarettes against orders and cup our hands around
them to hide the glow. We sit thinking. Fry stands motionless
with his steel helmet shoved down almost over his eyes. He leans
against the parapet motionless. There is a quiet dignity about
his posture. I remember what we were told at the base about
falling asleep on sentry duty. I nudge his leg. He grunts.
"Asleep?" I whisper.
"No," he answers, "I'm all right."
"What do you see?"
"Nothing. Wire and posts."
"I'm all right."
The sergeant reappears after a while. We squinch our
"Everything OK here?"
"Look out over there. They got the range on us. Watch
We light another cigarette. We continue our aimless talk.
"I wonder what St. Catherine Street looks like--"
"Same old thing, I suppose--stores, whores, theatres--"
"Like to be there just the same--"
We sit and puff our fags for half a minute or so.
I try to imagine what Montreal looks like. The images are
murky. All that is unreality. The trench, Cleary, Fry, the moon
overhead--this is real.
In his corner of the bay Fry is beginning to move from one
foot to another. It is time to relieve him. He steps down and I
take his place. I look into the wilderness of posts and wire in
front of me.
After a while my eyes begin to water. I see the whole army of
wire posts begin to move like a silent host towards me.
I blink my eyes and they halt.
I doze a little and come to with a jerk.
So this is war, I say to myself again for the hundredth time.
Down on the firing-step the boys are sitting like dead men. The
thunder to the right has died down. There is absolutely no
I try to imagine how an action would start. I try to fancy the
preliminary bombardment. I remember all the precautions one has
to take to protect one's life. Fall flat on your belly, we had
been told time and time again. The shriek of the shell, the
instructor in trench warfare said, was no warning because the
shell travelled faster than its sound. First, he had said, came
the explosion of the shell--then came the shriek and then you
hear the firing of the gun . . .
From the stories I heard from veterans and from newspaper
reports I conjure up a picture of an imaginary action. I see
myself getting the Lewis gun in position. I see it spurting darts
of flame into the night. I hear the roar of battle. I feel
elated. Then I try to fancy the horrors of the battle. I see
Cleary, Fry, and Brown stretched out on the firing-step. They are
stiff and their faces are white and set in the stillness of
death. Only I remain alive.
An inaudible movement in front of me pulls me out of the
dream. I look down and see Fry massaging his feet. All is still.
The moon sets slowly and everything becomes dark.
The sergeant comes into the bay again and whispers to me:
"Keep your eyes open now--they might come over on a raid now
that it's dark. The wire's cut over there--" He points a little
to my right.
I stand staring into the darkness. Everything moves rapidly
again as I stare. I look away for a moment and the illusion
Something leaps towards my face.
I jerk back, afraid.
Instinctively I feel for my rifle in the corner of the
It is a rat.
It is as large as a tomcat. It is three feet away from my face
and it looks steadily at me with its two staring, beady eyes. It
is fat. Its long tapering tail curves away from its padded
hindquarters. There is still a little light from the stars and
this light shines faintly on its sleek skin. With a darting
movement it disappears. I remember with a cold feeling that it
was fat, and why.
Cleary taps my shoulder. It is time to be relieved.
* * * *
Over in the German lines I hear quick, sharp reports. Then the
red-tailed comets of the minenwerfer sail high in the air,
making parabolas of red light as they come towards us. They look
pretty, like the fireworks when we left Montreal. The sergeant
rushes into the bay of the trench, breathless. "Minnies," he
shouts, and dashes on.
In that instant there is a terrific roar directly behind
The night whistles and flashes red.
The trench rocks and sways.
Mud and earth leap into the air, come down upon us in
We throw ourselves upon our faces, clawing our nails into the
soft earth in the bottom of the trench.
This one crashes to splinters about twenty feet in front of
Part of the parapet caves in.
We try to burrow into the ground like frightened rats.
The shattering explosions splinter the air in a million
fragments. I taste salty liquid on my lips. My nose is bleeding
from the force of the detonations.
SOS flares go up along our front calling for help from our
artillery. The signals sail into the air and explode, giving
forth showers of red, white, and blue lights held aloft by a
The sky is lit by hundreds of fancy fireworks like a night
The air shrieks and catcalls.
Still they come.
I am terrified. I hug the earth, digging my fingers into every
crevice, every hole.
A blinding' flash and an exploding howl a few feet in front of
My bowels liquefy.
Acrid smoke bites the throat, parches the mouth. I am beyond
mere fright. I am frozen with an insane fear that keeps me
cowering in the bottom of the trench. I lie flat on my belly,
waiting . . .
Suddenly it stops.
The fire lifts and passes over us to the trenches in the
We lie still, unable to move. Fear has robbed us of the power
to act. I hear Fry whimpering near me. I crawl over to him with
great effort. He is half covered with earth and debris. We begin
to dig him out.
To our right they have started to shell the front lines. It is
about half a mile away. We do not care. We are safe.
Without warning it starts again.
The air screams and howls like an insane woman.
We are getting it in earnest now. Again we throw ourselves
face downward on the bottom of the trench and grovel like savages
before this demoniac frenzy.
The concussion of the explosions batters against us.
I am knocked breathless.
I recover and hear the roar of the bombardment.
It screams and rages and boils like an angry sea. I feel a
prickly sensation behind my eyeballs.
A shell lands with a monster shriek in the next bay. The
concussion rolls me over on my back. I see the stars shining
serenely above us. Another lands in the same place. Suddenly the
stars revolve. I land on my shoulder. I have been tossed into the
I begin to pray.
"God--God--please . . ."
I remember that I do not believe in God. Insane thoughts race
through my brain. I want to catch hold of something, something
that will explain this mad fury, this maniacal congealed hatred
that pours down on our heads. I can find nothing to console me,
nothing to appease my terror. I know that hundreds of men are
standing a mile or two from me pulling gun lanyards, blowing us
to smithereens. I know that and nothing else.
I begin to cough. The smoke is thick. It rolls in heavy clouds
over the trench, blurring the stabbing lights of the
A shell bursts near the parapet.
Fragments smack the sandbags like a merciless shower of steel
A piece of mud flies into my mouth. It is cool and refreshing.
It tastes earthy. Suddenly it stops again.
I bury my face in the cool, damp earth. I want to weep. But I
am too weak and shaken for tears.
We lie still, waiting . . .
* * * *
We do not know what day it is. We have lost count. It makes no
difference whether it is Sunday or Monday. It is merely another
day--a day on which one may die.
The shelling a few nights ago smashed our section of the
trench. We built it up again and the next night another shell
demolishes it. We are now exposed to rifle fire on our left
flank. There are snipers in the woods about half a mile away. All
day long we have to crawl on our bellies. Brownie straightened up
for a moment when he was going to the latrine yesterday and a
sniper knocked his helmet off. He came into the dugout and
related his experience to us:
"God, a man can't even pump ship without being shot at. Some
* * * *
We are supposed to be resting, but rest is impossible; we are
being eaten alive by lice. We cannot sleep for them. We sit and
talk, and dig feverishly in our chests, under our arms, between
our legs. Our rambling conversation is interrupted by sharp
little cracks as we crush the vermin between our thumbnails. A
tiny drop of blood spurts in one's face as they are crushed.
We talk of our experiences with the minenwerfer--the
mine-throwing trench mortars--the other night. Cleary speaks
"I thought I was dead a dozen times. When that sandbag caught
me on the head I thought I was a goner."
I quote: "He who lives more lives than one, more deaths than
one must die."
"A line from one of Wilde's poems."
He looks at me for a moment in silence.
"Who is this guy, Wilde?" Fry asks.
I start to tell him, but the words sound hollow and flat here.
I stress the scandalous features of the story and repeat an
epigram that once sounded so sparkling in my high-school days.
Fry closes his eyes and turns his head away. I begin to feel down
the seam of my trousers for lice.
* * * *
Tomorrow we are to be relieved. We keep talking about it all
day. We are going insane with scratching. My chest is a raw
wound. When I am awake I scratch as little as possible, but when
I sleep I scratch until I bleed and the pain wakes me up.
Yesterday when I crawled into the dugout after sentry duty, I
heard Brown moaning in his sleep and scratching under his
The sapper who was helping us repair the trench the other
night said that the Germans brought the lice with them from
"They are a filthy rice; the bloody swine," he added in a
I suggested that possibly the dirt and the dead bodies might
be the cause. He looked at me sharply and said:
"I says they're Heinie lice and I knaow. They got black
stripes on their backs, 'aven't they? In Blighty I never saw a
louse with black stripes on them. They're bloody bosches. I
* * * *
On the way down to the latrine yesterday I noticed that a
shell had torn a hole into one of the sides of the communication
trench. Some wire stuck out from the hole, some old cans of
unopened bully beef, and the toe of a boot.
It was an officer's boot made of soft brown leather.
I tugged at it until it gave way a little and then it came
It was filled with a decaying foot. The odour was sickening. I
dropped it in disgust.
When I came back, Brown limped towards the latrine. He was
gone quite a while; when he returned he had a pair of soft brown
leather shoes tucked under his arm.
"I found them near the -- -- house," he said. "They're dirty,
but with a little cleaning they'll be all right. They're just the
right size. I tried them on."
He sat down beside me and took his shoe and sock off. "Look at
this," he said, showing me his foot. The back of his heel was as
raw as a lump of meat.
Out on Rest
We are out on rest now for the third time. We are in a little
peasant village; a score or so of neglected, half-ruined houses
and as many barns, pigsties, sheds. The officers occupy a
deserted chateau. My section is quartered in a large barn with a
gaping roof. Successive battalions have rested here and have used
the planks of the roof as fuel. We continue the tradition. In the
yard outside is a towering manure pile, sodden with rich
plant-nourishing, steaming juices which we smell even in our
Each man has a pile of ancient grey straw on which he makes
his bed. It is so vermin-infested that if one stands and listens
when it is quiet he can hear the scraping and scurrying of the
It is late afternoon; we are through with the day's fatigues
and are sitting about digging mud off our boots, shining brass
buttons, cleaning and oiling our rifles, and killing lice in
We have long since learned that the word rest is
another military term meaning something altogether different.
Take artillery duel, for example. We are in the line--suddenly
the enemy artillery begins to bombard us. We cower behind the
sandbags, trembling, white-faced, tight-lipped. Our own guns
reply. They begin to hammer the enemy's front line. The
infantrymen on both sides suffer, are killed, wounded. This is
called an artillery duel.
We are taken from the trenches and march for endless hours to
billets. The first day out we really rest. Then begins an
interminable routine of fatigues. We march, drill, shine buttons,
do guard duty, serve as batmen for the officers, practice
grenade-throwing, machine gunnery, and at night we are taken by
lorry behind the lines to do wiring and trench-digging. This is
called out on rest.
Clark, our captain, does not make life any too pleasant for
us. He is tall and blond and takes an insufferable pride in his
uniform. He wears very light, smart buckskin riding breeches in
and out of the trenches. His leather is brightly polished and his
equipment and insignia gleam malignantly in contrast with our
seedy, mud-stained uniforms. Yesterday he gave us a stern lecture
on cleanliness and ordered that we must shave every day. It gives
you greater morale, he said. How can you expect to kill a German
when you feel like dying yourself? he asked. It is bitter cold,
and when we shaved this morning in the cold water our faces were
blue for hours afterwards.
* * * *
Today Brownie came under Clark's displeasure. Wherever there
is a stray bit of barbed wire Brown is sure to be hooked onto it.
His uniform is almost in tatters. The stuff is shoddy and comes
apart easily. Before drill this morning Clark hauled him over the
coals for being a disgrace to the company. Brownie stood erect
and glared. This infuriated Clark and he ordered Brown's name be
taken for "silent insolence".
Brown is now sitting on his pile of straw muttering
imprecations at his officer.
"I'll kill the bastard--that's what I'll do. I'm just waiting
until we get into a real scrap. I'll plug the son of a bitch
between the shoulder blades."
We go on with our scraping and polishing. We are silent in the
face of the torrent of oaths and complaints which stream from
After a while Broadbent, the lance-corporal, begins our
favourite game. Between the cracking of lice he says:
"If you had a wish what would you wish for?"
Brown is the first wisher.
"I wish that bloody bastard Clark was dead."
"A lot of good that's gonna do you," says Fry. "That won't put
beans in your belly."
"Just the same, I'd give a month's pay to see him stretched
"Clean sheets," a voice says from a darkened corner of the
barn. It is Cleary. "Great big, white, cool sheets and no lice,
and I'm willing to let White Breeches live."
We all agree.
We are filthy, our bodies are the colour of the earth we have
been living in these past months. We are alive with vermin and
sit picking at ourselves like baboons. It is months since we have
been out of our clothes. We begin to talk of the last time we
slept between sheets. A flood of reminiscences begins. Brown
forgets his hatred for Clark for the moment and rhapsodises over
his last night in a real bed.
Brown is a farmer's son. He came from Prince Edward Island. He
is tall, awkward, and continually stumbling into things. He does
not grasp ideas quickly, not even the simple military ones, and
this has made him the butt for the ridicule of his mates and an
object of hatred for Clark. He is about the same age as most of
us--nineteen or twenty.
He is the only married man in the section. Two weeks before
the battalion left Montreal a girl whom he knew back home came to
the barracks and they got married. He obtained permission from
the colonel to live outside. They took a furnished room somewhere
and for two weeks Brown enjoyed complete and absolute married
We now know every little detail of that honeymoon. While
waiting to entrain or lying in dugouts between fatigues, Brown
has gradually pieced together for us the brief few days of his
married life. He starts to tell us again of his last night with
"The last night I slept between clean white sheets was with my
wife. Oh, man!"
He smiles in contemplation.
We urge him to tell us more. We know the story in all its
minute variations, but we egg him on.
It is one of the many ways we can forget the war for a few
moments. The joking is raw, cruel, and we know it, but continue
We have heard every physical and emotional foible of Martha's.
It seems as though we are all married to her. We know, as well as
Brown does, that she has a large mole on her right thigh near her
hip; he has told us of all her reactions to his advances on the
marital night. We enjoy these confidences like the moujik who,
when he could have no vodka, preferred talking about it.
Anderson, the ex-lay preacher, is with us. His wish is that
the war would end, but this is against the rules of the game. The
wish must be specific. His is ruled out.
"I wish I was home with Martha," says Brown.
The wishing is resumed. It begins in earnest when someone
wishes for food.
"What's the use of wishing for weeks in bed with a fat wench.
Why, Brownie, you'd cave in after the first ten minutes. We
haven't had a decent meal for months. I mean a meal. I'd give
everything I own for a big helping of English roast beef, red
inside and tapering off to a crisp brown outside--big brown baked
potatoes split open on top and sprinkled with a little
paprika--and a great hunk of Yorkshire pudding. Top that off with
a bottle of cool ale."
He sucks his saliva loudly and closes his eyes. After a while
he adds: "And by roast beef I mean beef and not horses'
meat--it's gotta be soft, juicy, and red with a little blood
oozing out of it."
"And to think," says Fry, "of all the good meals I turned down
in my life. Many's the time I passed up a big dish of brown beef
stew with red carrots and yellow turnips floating in it, just to
run out and grab a ham sandwich in a restaurant. If I ever get
out of this, I'll never refuse a thing my mother sets before
"What's the matter with a ham sandwich?" Broadbent asks.
"And to think that I once told the old lady that roast goose
was too rich for me and turkey was too dry. I can see that goose
now, stuffed with apples and chestnuts and little rivers of fat
running down the sides."
It is Broadbent's turn:
"The best meal I ever had was when I got my five days' leave
in London. A tart took me to a place in Soho. Man, I put it away
until I thought I would bust. You know, I think that soldiering
makes your belly shrink--"
At this we lapse into silence.
We are hungry.
It is four o'clock and it is a full hour before we will get
our hunk of grey war bread dipped in bacon grease and a mess-tin
full of pale unsweetened tea.
* * * *
We have learned who our enemies are--the lice, some of our
officers, and Death.
Of the first two we speak continually, the last we rarely
Strangely, we never refer to the Germans as our enemy. In the
week-old newspaper which comes up from the base we read of the
enemy and the Hun, but this is newspaper talk and we place no
stock in it. Instead we call him Heinie and Fritz. The nearest we
get to unfriendliness is when we call him "square-head". But our
persistent and ever present foe is the louse.
We have been sleeping in our clothes now for months. It is
impossible to take them off. It is winter and the barn is cold.
We have rigged up a stove of sorts made of some piping and tin
which we found nearby. We sit facing the fire and talk in a
rambling fashion. As we talk we hunt for lice. Fry suddenly
appears at the door with a flatiron in his hand.
"What's that for?" Broadbent asks.
"The goddamned lice," Fry grunts.
"What are you going to do? Brain 'em?"
"You just watch."
He takes a board and places his tunic on the board. We watch
closely. He heats the iron over the fire and then runs the hot
iron down the seam. There is a quick series of cracks. Little
spurts of blood come in a stream from the inside of the seam. Fry
looks up triumphantly.
"That's the way to kill 'em, by God. And it kills the eggs,
We all take our tunics and trousers off and begin to iron the
lice out of our clothes.
"How about the straw?" Anderson asks. "It's alive."
We see that this will be an endless game.
"Anyway," says Fry, "we'll sleep tonight for a couple of
Johnson, the sergeant, appears at the door.
"Brown," he says, "orderly room for you."
Brown puts on his tunic and puttees and we look him over to
see that he is properly dressed for his appearance before the
colonel. He goes out.
In the meantime our food comes around--a hunk of bread the
size of a fist, a piece of cheese, a raw onion, and a mess-tin
full of unsweetened tea.
We are smoking after supper and Brown reappears.
"What d'yuh get?" we ask.
"Two hours pack drill," he answers and sits down to eat. We
have nothing to say, so we sit by quietly as he munches his
* * * *
In a field beyond the few houses and barns which form the
village is the parade ground. It is nearly dark. Out of the
twilight heavily laden forms emerge. The earth is soft and soggy.
Brown, like the others, is ready for his pack drill. He is
dressed in his greatcoat, carries full equipment and pack, rifle,
and one hundred and twenty rounds of ammunition in his pouches.
Johnson, the sergeant, is in charge. He inspects each man; there
are about ten.
Fry and I stand nearby and watch.
Twenty heels smack together.
Johnson is not satisfied.
"Now, then, smarter than that! As you were!"
The men relax.
He repeats the order.
Again and again.
Finally he gives the order to march. It is growing darker.
"On the double."
The men begin to trot. Their equipment rattles and bangs. The
men in the rear begin to lag.
"Get it right now, youse guys in the rear. We'll stay here all
night if you don't snap into it."
Around and around they trot, clanging and banging. The mud is
squishy and sticks to the boots of the trotters.
Fry mutters under his breath. "Come on, let's go. I can't bear
to see it."
The running, grotesque squad passes us. We hear their panting
and wheezing. Even in the half-dark we can see the red, strained
faces, the wide-opened eyes.
We can stand it no longer: we know the agony of the jumping
pack, the banging of the entrenching tools on the buttocks, the
leaden ammunition tugging at aching shoulders. We walk away
towards the estaminet.
As we walk we hear Johnson shout: "Come on, make it snappy,"
and we hear a slight acceleration of the clanging of the
"That's the hell of it," says Fry. "Eighteen days in the line,
get the guts shelled out of yuh--and then all the thanks yuh get
is this--" He jerks his thumb towards the parade ground.
We enter the estaminet. The warm sour odour of wine
fills our nostrils. Voices, cheered by wine, call to us. We sit
down at a table. The madame, red-faced, mountainous bosom, beady
eyes, serves us with a bottle of vin rouge.
"He'll be too damned tired to come down here after he's done,"
The heat, the wine, goes to our heads. We feel that we ought
to do something for poor Brownie, but we cannot think of
This is war; there is so much misery, heartaches, agony, and
nothing can be done about it. Better to sit here and drink the
sour, hard wine and try to forget. The blue haze of tobacco smoke
begins to sway a little.
Better to forget . . .
But it is not easy to forget. Fry's wine makes him talkative,
moody, bitter. His face wears an ugly expression of half sneer,
"They take everything from us: our lives, our blood, our
hearts; even the few lousy hours of rest, they take those, too.
Our job is to give, and theirs is to take . . ."
We order another bottle.
Back to the Round
Six days in reserve near the light artillery, six days in
supports, six days in the front trenches--and then out to rest.
Five or six days out on rest and then back again; six days, six
Endlessly in and out. Different sectors, different names of
trenches, different trenches, but always the same trenches, the
same yellow, infested earth, the same screaming shells, the same
comet-tailed "minnies" with their splintering roar. The same
rats, fat and sleek with their corpse-filled bellies, the same
gleaming gimlet eyes. The same lice which we carry with us
wherever we go. In and out, in and out, endlessly, sweating,
endlessly, endlessly . . . Somewhere it is summer, but here are
the same trenches. The trees here are skeletons holding stubs of
stark, shell-amputated arms towards the sky. No flowers grow in
this waste land.
This is our fifth day in the front line, one more day and out
we go back to rest.
For the past few days it has been raining ceaselessly. We are
soaked and chilled.
It is near dawn.
As the smudge of grey appears in the east, the odours of the
trenches rise in a miasmal mist on all sides of us. The soaked
earth here is nothing but a thin covering for the putrescence
which lies underneath; it smells like a city garbage dump in
mid-August. We are sunk in that misery which men fall into
through utter hopelessness.
We are in a shallow trench and last night the enemy trench
mortars blew away part of the parapet, so that now we are exposed
to enfilade fire from our left.
We will have to wait until nightfall to repair it.
They are sniping at us.
About two hundred yards from us there is a little wood, and in
this wood there are snipers hidden somewhere among the trees.
The broken parapet does not hide us and we have to crawl
around on our hands and knees because the sniper can shoot
down the length of our trench.
We remember what the instructor in trench warfare told us at
the base. "Enfilade fire is fire directed down the length of a
line or trench. It is fire coming from the flanks. Keep low."
But the instructor is at the base, safe and comfortable, and
we are here in this muddy trench.
Six short days in a trench!
It is nothing, it seems; less than a week, but it seems like
an eternity as we wait for night when we shall be relieved.
The dugouts here are filled with water and we live in hastily
constructed funk-holes, holes burrowed into the side of the
parapet or parados. We are wet to the skin.
Why do we crawl about here?
It would be better, it seems, to dash into No Man's Land and
chance death, or down the communication trench to temporary
safety--and a firing squad. But we are disciplined. Months of
training on the rolling Sussex downs, at the base, in the periods
of rest, have stiffened us. We must carry on, carry on . . .
In a thousand ways this has been drilled into our heads. The
salute, the shining of our brass buttons, the correct way to
twist a puttee, and so on. A thousand thundering orders! A
thousand trivial rules, each with a penalty for an infraction,
has made will-less robots of us all. All, without exception . .
Half a mile from our partly exposed trench, hidden in the
hollow of a tree, sits a sniper holding an oiled, perfect
Every night they bring him his rations, maybe with a little
extra schnapps, for I know our snipers get an extra rum
Sooner or later this German sniper, who keeps us cowering in
cold fear, will be caught in an advance by our troops.
We will fall upon him and bayonet him like a hapless trench
rat. He will crawl out of his hiding place as the first wave
swarms about him menacingly. He will hold his trembling hands on
high and stammer the international word for compassion and mercy.
He will say that beautiful word comrade, a word born in
suffering and sorrow, but we will stab him down shouting to one
another, "Hey, look, we found a sniper!" And our faces will
harden, our inflamed eyes will become slits, and men will stab
futilely at his prostrate body.
But now they bring him his little extra rations.
His rifle is fitted with telescopic sights so that we are
brought quite close to him. Slowly he elevates his weapon, looks
through the glass, and sees his target as though it is but a few
feet away. Then he pulls the trigger and one of us drops out of
In our shattered trench we move about almost doubled over in
two, much as a man does who is suffering with abdominal pains.
Sometimes to get relief we crawl, like babies, on all fours.
The sniper's rifle cracks and we flop down grovelling in the
muddy bottom of the trench. Minutes pass before we move. No one
is dead and slowly we face each other with grey, sheepishly
We lie cowering in the bottom of the trench.
There is nothing to do until rations come up, and we talk in
It is greying in the east.
The war sleeps.
The machine-gunners are quiet.
"You'd think a guy would like to die living a life like this,"
says Fry. "But we flop just the same."
"How do you know you're gonna get killed for sure?" says
Anderson does not speak, he lies with his cheek glued to the
ground. His lips move in prayer. He gives us the creeps.
"Maybe you'd only go blind or go batty or something."
"Yeah, that's it. How do you know you're gonna get
We all agree that a swift death would be a pleasant thing. At
the crack of the distant rifle we cower lower in silent fear.
It is dawn now.
Soon a carrier will bring us our rations, and as soon as it is
divided between us and we have filled our bellies, we will go to
sleep and leave one man on sentry duty.
It is quiet. The guns are quiet. Even the sniper is quiet. It
is half an hour since last his rifle sent us flopping into the
Over the trench a few sparrows squabble and chirp with
carefree energy. They swoop down on the sandbagged parapet and
sit looking at us with perky heads cocked to one side.
We look at them in amazement.
They startle us with their noisy merriment, these foolish
birds who may live in peaceful fields and forests and who come to
look for food on a barren, waste battlefield.
They fly away suddenly towards the German lines.
"They're lost, I guess," Brown says.
The ration carrier crawls round the corner of the bay of the
trench and dumps a hairy sandbag half filled with grub on the
firing-step. He says nothing and walks away. He is tired; he has
been carrying food all night.
We take turns in sharing the food among ourselves. Today it is
He spreads his rubber sheet along the firing-step. He bends
low and empties the food into the sheet; a piece of yellow
cheese, three large Spanish onions, a paper container of
Australian jam labelled strawberry, but made of figs and
artificially flavoured with chemicals which we can taste but do
not mind; some tea, sugar, condensed milk, and a great hunk of
grey war bread.
With hungry, grimy fingers he deftly cuts, slices, divides the
food. We look on with greedy, alert eyes to see that justice is
being done. From time to time he looks nervously over his
shoulder in the direction of the concealed sniper in the distant
woods. Our eyes follow his. His glance catches mine and he smiles
"Don't want to die before breakfast, eh?" he says.
I smile and nod and look at the food.
Anderson stands up to get a better view of the food. He leans
over my shoulder.
Broadbent snarls a warning.
We are nervous.
The grub is soon divided into five equal parts. We each take
our share and stuff it into our haversacks. We will eat it at
leisure in the funk-hole after stand-down. The sun will soon rise
and the immediate danger of an attack will be over.
Brown shakes the rubber sheet clean of bread crumbs and bits
of onion skin.
Now he will divide the sugar. Precious sugar with which we
will sweeten the strong, hot tea that comes up at midnight in
large Thermos cans. Tea so bitter that it curls one's tongue.
Strong tea, alive with tannic acid to soothe frayed,
trench-shattered nerves, tea to still a thumping heart. Sugar to
make it palatable. We watch him in silence.
The rusty spoon for dishing out sugar and such things is stuck
between two sandbags in the parapet over his head.
Glad to straighten himself up for a second, Brown stands up to
reach for it.
He turns to look in the direction of the woods to his
In that instant his head snaps back viciously from the impact
of the bullet.
The report of the rifle fills our ears like the sound of a
He sags to the bottom of the sloppy trench.
His neck is twisted at a foolish, impossible angle.
Between his eyes, a little over the bridge of his nose, is a
small neat hole. A thin, red stream runs from it.
No one moves.
On the parados to the rear of us a bit of slimy grey matter
jiggles as it sticks to the hairy sacking of the sandbag.
At the crack of the sniper's rifle we crouched lower in the
trench and looked with stupid amazement as Brown's body fell
clumsily into our midst.
We look without resentment towards the woods. We are animated
only by a biting hunger for safety. Safety . . .
The sun is rising slowly now, it throws a pink pearly light on
the parados behind us and colours the motionless bit of Brown's
Everything is quiet.
It is stand-down along the whole front.
The sun warms us a little. We look towards the east, towards
the German lines from whence came the swift bullet that had
thrown Brown's body awkwardly among us; we look towards the east
where the rising sun now slowly begins to climb into the heavens
. . .
We pull the heavy, limp body out of the mud. Its neck is
twisted in such a manner that it seems to be asking a question of
We lay it on the firing-step and cover it with a grey woollen,
regulation blanket. The blanket is short; it hides the head but
reaches only to the ankles. The muddy boots stick out in
The sugar is not yet divided. Some of it is spilled and
dissolved in the bottom of the trench. Broadbent salvages as much
of it as he can. Dispensing with the spoon, he uses his hands. He
scoops the remaining sugar into four instead of five parts.
Soon a stretcher-bearer will come and take the body down to
company headquarters. Broadbent takes the bread and cheese out of
Brown's haversack and shares it with us.
"Anyway," he explains, "he can't eat any more . . ."
On Rest Again
We are relieved. Down the long, winding communication trenches
and at last out onto the open field. It is shortly after
midnight, and we straggle past belching light field artillery and
silhouetted, silent waiting tanks.
We reach a road.
We are ordered to fall in.
Horse- and tractor-drawn guns, monster swaying supply-lorries
roar, chug, and clatter on the cobble-paved road.
The horses strain at their harness.
The enemy knows that here is a crossroad.
He knows that the road is alive with troops and traffic at
this hour. He sprays the road with overhead shrapnel.
A long-drawn-out hiss and wail and then a vicious, snarling
explosion overhead. The dark is stabbed with a burst of red
flame. We duck our heads and hunch our shoulders
Instantly there is confusion everywhere. The drivers yell
furiously at the animals. The chauffeurs grind their gears into
More red stabs into the blackness over our heads.
They come faster and faster.
The air whines.
One bursts directly over us. The metal balls rattle on the
cobblestones in front of us.
We take to the fields.
But the vehicles must stay on the road. A lorry gets stuck and
blocks the road. Whips snap like revolver shots over the heads of
the struggling beasts. The horses rear on their hind legs, their
mouths drip white flaky foam. Their eyes are distended like those
of frightened women. The drivers crack their whips, calling them
foul names. We ask one another why we must wait here under this
No one knows.
The rain of steel continues.
A horse is wounded.
We hear the beast's shriek above the howl of the bombardment.
It is one of the four horses drawing a light field-piece. The
wounded animal whirls around, dragging his mute, pawing mates
with him. The team careers for a moment and crashes into the
A shell bursts over the lorry.
The driver is hurled from his seat.
He is wounded. His cries mingle with the piteous shrieking of
the wounded horses.
Two animals are now prone and the other two tear at the
harness and kick wildly at the cannon.
Two stretcher-bearers appear and try to extricate the
lorry-driver, who is being kicked to death by the frantic
The road is an inferno.
The fire subsides.
We hear the explosions on another road to our left . . .
We are ordered to fall in. Four men in our company are
wounded. They are carried away to the field dressing station
nearby. We begin our trek towards billets.
We march for hours.
Down dark shell-torn roads, past ruined, gutted corpses of
houses which once sheltered peaceful peasant families here. We
march at a quick pace even though we are unutterably tired. Where
are we going? we wonder.
We have been marching for two hours. The stately poplars which
line the road here are less scarred. Here and there we see a
peasant's house which is not destroyed. We see a faint light
showing from behind the tightly drawn blinds. People live here!
Our set faces relax. We look at one another and smile wanly.
At last we come to a narrow-gauge railhead. It is still dark.
We are ordered to halt. The heat of our exhausted bodies loosens
the foul trench odours which cling to us. We throw ourselves
panting onto the softness of a bordering field.
It is strangely quiet. Only in the distance do we hear the
rumbling of massed artillery fire. We never escape this ominous
thunder. It is the link which binds us to our future. Out on
rest, miles behind the lines, we hear it. It is a reminder to us
that the line is still there; that we must return. We lie
prostrate, still . . .
Nearby the tiny narrow-gauge engine puffs energetically,
giving off little clouds of white feathery steam which float
slowly over us. We look about us with hungry eyes.
Smoke that is not the harbinger of death!
A field which is not the hiding place of thousands of men
lurking in trenches to tear each other apart!
The dark, silent, brooding sky above us which does not pour
shrieking, living steel upon our heads . . . !
Cleary rolls closer to me, he talks.
We are lying near a field of blossoming beans. The air is
filled with the heavy fragrance. We take deep, long inhalations.
Our bodies are cooling and the foul trench odours cease stirring.
We hear the buzzing and humming of nocturnal insects. Here is
life. Fragrant, peaceful life . . . The scent of the blossoms
beats on us in waves, undulating.
I lie on my back. I look at the stars. We talk quietly as
though fearful of disturbing this restful silence.
"What is it?"
"Yes, beans; they smell like this when they are in
"Jeez, I thought beans. . ." He makes a crude joke about
beans, an Army joke.
"It's a shame about Brownie."
"Maybe . . ."
"Yeah, I suppose so--better out of it."
Fry rolls over to where we are lying and joins in the
"Naw. Free for all."
"Just sayin' about Brownie."
"Aw, I don't know. Better out of it."
"D'you smell it, Fry?"
"Yes, what is it?"
"I thought beans only--" Again the same joke. A soldier's
joke--a joke born of bitterness and suffering. A joke to dispel
horror. A joke to make one weep.
"Yeah, they smell like this when they're in blossom."
"It's a shame about Brownie. He'd love this. Always talking
about potatoes and beans and how he hoed 'em. Remember how he
told that frog farmer how to dig his spuds?"
"Yeah, he came from Prince Edward Island."
"Prince Edward Island potatoes. Used to see them back home in
"Well, now he's pushin' them up."
"He sure liked to talk about farming."
"Gee, I was sorry I kidded him about her."
"It used to get under his skin."
We speak respectfully of Brown now. He is dead. He is not the
awkward, stupid boy we knew. He is a symbol. He is a dead farmer.
Martha is a widow now because of his death.
We become silent and lie on our backs waiting for the order to
* * * *
We clamber into the toylike open cars. We are jammed tight. We
wait for hours, it seems, until the train begins to start.
Through wide fields, through sleeping little villages, past
dark woods we go. We lean against the rattling sides. We begin to
nod with the monotonous rocking of the train. On and on! We know
we are going for a long rest. On and on we go, racing away from
the front, back towards peace, quiet, human voices . . . No
shells, no trenches. The rattling of the wheels takes up the
thought. No shells, no trenches, no shells, no trenches . . .
We wake up.
The train has come to a stop.
It is dawn.
We stumble out of the cars and line up along the track. We are
near a large village. We are detailed off into sections and
marched away to billets.
The guide for our section takes us to a large barn. We remove
our equipment and fling ourselves down to sleep.
It is afternoon when we wake. We begin to look for water and
the toilets. We find out where the cookhouse is. We start to make
the barn more livable. Rumours are afloat that we will rest here
for two weeks.
One man says that he heard a captain say to a sergeant that we
are out for a month.
Fry has been up for some time. He comes into the sunlit
entrance of the barn full of information.
"It's payday. You can get good cognac here for five francs a
bottle. We're here for a month. It's a big village. I saw three
He utters the information breathlessly.
We pelt him with questions.
We jump up and begin to dress.
We run with our mess-tins to the cookhouse.
On the way we hear all sorts of rumours again. As we wait in
line before the field kitchens we talk.
". . . two months."
"How d'you know?"
"Sergeant told me."
"Aw . . ."
"Ask him . . ."
"Big scrap. Gonna fatten us up. Two months' rest. See, they're
givin' us real bacon. Sugar in the coffee."
"Aw, latrine rumours!"
* * * *
We line up in alphabetical order before the paymaster. We
present our little brown pay books, he makes an entry, and gives
us a few crisp notes. We salute and walk away gleefully.
Pay. Cognac, eggs and chips, wine, sardines, canned peaches,
biscuits. Fry said there were some good-looking Janes in this
town. It is six o'clock.
Fry meets me and we start off towards the estaminet
"I'm gonna eat until my belly begins to creak."
We enter the estaminet. The familiar odour of warm sour
wine strikes us. We order six eggs apiece, a mountain of browned
potato chips, a bottle of wine each. The hefty madame serves us
We fall to without speaking. We wolf our food. We swallow
glasses of wine. The room is full of hungry soldiers. We wipe the
yellow bottoms of our plates with chunks of bread and sit back
contented, at last.
The wine has warmed our insides.
Fry shouts to the madame. "Hey, madame, encore, encore
. . ."
He points to his empty bottle. Two more bottles are put before
us. We drink slowly now, rolling the sharp wine under our
We get up after a while. We stagger slightly. In the corner of
the room a crap game is in progress. We try our luck for a couple
of minutes, and when we have lost ten francs each we go back to
our table. We order another bottle of wine.
Fry becomes moody. His voice is thick with wine. I, too, am a
little groggy. It is a fine, forgetful feeling. The fat madame
behind her counter seems more sullen. She sways a little, it
seems. The room is a bedlam. In the corner where the crap game is
going on, the shouts become louder and louder. Fry puts his hand
in his pocket and counts the money.
"Ten francs. C'mon, let's get another bottle of
We go to the counter and order a quart of red wine and a
bottle of cognac. We take the bottles and stagger out into the
street. Men are roaring down the street. There is no light save
from the moon. We hear the whirr of an aeroplane motor high over
our heads. Fry carries the wine, I the cognac.
I suggest that we take the liquor to the barn and that we
drink it there. We start down the street towards our billets.
Others are walking in our direction. A pair of girls walk in
front of us. Fry feels gay and shouts the few French phrases he
"Hey, mam'selle, voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce
The girls giggle. They are youngsters about sixteen or so.
They still wear their hair in plaits down their backs.
They do not quicken their paces. That's a good sign.
Encouraged, Fry sings to them. There is a note of bitterness
in his hilarity:
Après la guerre finis, et les soldats parti,
Mademoiselle in the family way,
Après la guerre finis.
The girls turn a corner and run down a side street.
"What the hell would they be wanting with us?" he says, "with
all the damned one-pips* around. C'mon, let's finish the stuff
We walk on a bit until we reach an open field. We draw the
cork of the bottle of cognac and take long swigs from it.
In between whiles we tell sentimental stories of our lives to
Gradually we grow incoherent.
The houses nearby begin to spin around.
I lie down in the cool grass . . .
I feel a jab in my back. I look up. It is an MP.
"C'mon, c'mon, back to billets."
I am still groggy. I waken Fry.
We struggle to our feet.
He stares at me stupidly, blinking his eyes like a rooster. We
start off down the road, back to our billets. Our unsteady heavy
footsteps echo in the silent street.
Over our shoulders we hear the faint thunder of the line.
* * * *
The inhabitants of the town are wretched creatures. Their
houses are quartered with officers and non-coms. We sleep in
their barns. Their men are at the front and many fields lie
fallow. There is a shortage of food and most of the women and
girls are thin, scraggy objects. The only fleshy person in the
whole place is madame of the estaminet.
It is after drill in the afternoon. Cleary is sitting beside
me oiling his rifle.
"Get any yet?"
"Scraggy-looking crew," I reply.
"Any port in a storm."
He leans over towards me and tells me the important secret of
". . . so I'm walking down past battalion headquarters and
there's a little French tart, a little thin but a bit of all
right, just the same. Kind of lively eyes, big like.
Vonlez-vous coucher, I says, and she oui-oui's me.
She takes me down to her mother's place and we go into a shed.
'Combien,' I says to her as we go in. 'Bully bif,' she
says. Can you imagine that--for a tin of bully beef. Man, I'll
bet there'll be a run on the quartermaster's stores."
Anderson has been listening in. He gives Cleary a withering
"Godless swine, these frogs. No morals. Small wonder that
their country is laid in ruins."
". . . aw, shut up, Anderson. Well, anyway, I gives her the
* * * *
The afternoons are pleasant. We walk in twos and threes out
into the woods. Some of us lie beneath trees smoking, soaking in
every peaceful minute. The food is good and there is lots of it.
We have been here ten days now. Payday is long since past and we
have recovered from our riotous pay night. There is no money
among us and we smoke the biting ration cigarettes.
A rumour has it that we are to go in the line in a few days. A
motor car from divisional headquarters was parked in front of
battalion headquarters all morning. That is bad.
We enjoy the last few days with all our might. Soon we will go
back in the line and there are persistent rumours of an
To the north the cannonading has been furious the last few
nights. Last night the walls of the barn shook slightly with the
force of the distant bombardment.
The insistent rumble woke me and I walked out into the open.
Up towards Belgium the sky flashed like the aurora borealis. Our
food has been too good.
We are being fattened for the slaughter.
* * * *
It is warm and Fry has discovered a little stream about three
kilometres from the village. We decide to go swimming. About ten
of us set off across the fields. It is late afternoon and the sun
slants down upon us as we shout and laugh.
We have nearly lost that aged, harassed look which we wear
when we are in the line. We are youngsters again. Most of us are
under twenty. Anderson is the only matured man among us. He is
We reach the little river. It is lined with tall bushes and
here we tear off our uniforms. Broadbent is the first to undress
and plunges into the water with a loud splash, the kind known to
boys as a bellywopper. His body is fair and lithe.
During the long winter months in the line, bodies did not
exist for us. We were men in uniform; clumsy, bundled, heavy
uniforms. It is amazing now to see that we have slim, hard,
graceful bodies. Our faces are tanned and weather-beaten and that
aged look which the trench gives us still lingers a bit, but our
bodies are the bodies of boys.
We plunge naked into the clear water, splashing about and
shouting to each other. Only Anderson does not undress fully. He
wears his heavy grey regulation underwear. We tease him. He walks
gingerly to the water's edge and pokes a toe into the stream. Fry
creeps up behind him and shoves him splash into the water. We
shout and yell and come to his rescue, dragging him to the bank.
Broadbent starts to undo his underwear.
"Come on, Anderson, let's see your body. We know you're a
boy," he says in baby fashion.
Anderson fumes, sputters, and strikes out. His face is red and
he shouts deadly threats. We laugh and leap into the water.
We duck one another and throw water into each other's faces. A
few lads from the village stand on the bank and look at us in
silence. They have the faces of little old men. We motion to them
to join us but they shake their heads gravely.
Who can describe the few moments of peace and sunshine in a
solder's life? The animal pleasure in feeling the sun on a naked
body. The cool, caressing, lapping water. The feeling of
security, of deep inward happiness . . .
In the distance the rumble of the guns is faint but persistent
like the subdued throbbing of violins in a symphony. I am still
here, it says. You may sleep quietly at night in sweet-smelling
hay, you may lie sweating under a tree after drill and marvel at
the fine tracings on a trembling leaf over your head, but I am
here and you must come back to my howling madness, to my
senseless volcanic fury. I am the link that binds you to your
future, it mutters.
But the water is cool and inviting and the afternoon grows
older. The stream gurgles and swishes against the bank on which
we stand. I shake the thought of the guns from my mind.
About a hundred yards up towards the line there is a bend in
the stream. "Let's race to the bend and back," Fry shouts. "The
last man back buys the wine tonight."
We dive into the water and start upstream. Cleary comes to the
surface last but turns and quickly swims towards the bank
He stands on the bank and calls us out of the water in a
strange voice. He points to the water nearby.
We clamber out and crowd near him. We follow his pointing
finger with our eyes. There is something dark in the water near
It is a dead body. It is wearing the field blue French
uniform. We see the thin red stripe wriggling up the trouser leg.
An underwater growth has caught a bit of the uniform and the body
sways to and fro, moved by the current. In the water it looks
bloated and enormous.
Our day is spoiled by this lonely dead soldier, carried to us
from the front by the sparkling, sunlit water of the Somme.
We do not say anything to each other. We dry ourselves on our
underwear and start to dress.
He is different, this Frenchman, from the hundreds of corpses
we have seen in the line. We thought we were safe. We thought we
could forget the horrors of the line for a brief few weeks--and
here this swollen reminder drifts from the battlefield to spoil a
sunny afternoon for us . . .
We are back in the line.
This is a noisy front. It is in constant turmoil. There is no
rest. The enemy rains an endless storm of fire upon us. At night
the wire is hammered by the artillery and we live in perpetual
fear of raids.
There is talk of an offensive.
Out on rest we behaved like human beings; here we are merely
soldiers. We know what soldiering means. It means saving your own
skin and getting a bellyful as often as possible . . . that and
Camaraderie--esprit de corps--good
fellowship--these are words for journalists to use, not for us.
Here in the line they do not exist.
We fight among ourselves.
The morning rations come up. The food is spread out on the
rubber sheet and we start to divide it among ourselves. Bread,
the most coveted of all the food, is the bone of contention
today. Cleary is sharing it out.
Broadbent suspects that his piece is smaller than the
An oath is spat out.
In a moment they are at each other's throats like hungry,
They strike at each other with their fists, they kick with
their heavy boots. We intervene, tear them apart, and push them
into separate corners of the dugout. Blood streams from Cleary's
cheek. Broadbent is alive with hate, white with passion.
"You bloody rat."
"Aw, shut up, Broadbent. Leave him be."
"Who's a rat?"
"Come on, come on, cut it out."
"Any man that'll steal another man's bread . . ."
They rush at each other again. Again we pull them apart.
Cleary wipes the blood from his face. He scowls and holds his
hunk of bread in his hands like an animal. Then slowly he begins
to gnaw at it.
* * * *
We never become accustomed to the shellfire. Its terror for us
increases with each passing day. The days out on rest ease our
harried nerves, but as soon as we are back in the line again we
are as fearful and jumpy as the newest recruit. With the first
hiss and roar of a shell we become terror-stricken as of old.
We look at each other with anxious, frightened faces.
Our lips tighten.
Our eyes open wide.
We do not talk.
What is there to say?
* * * *
Talk of the coming offensive continues.
The sector becomes more tumultuous.
The guns rage all night.
We "stand to" long before dawn and wait at the parapets
expecting an attack until long after sunrise.
The fatigues are innumerable.
Every night there are wiring parties, sapping parties,
carrying parties. We come back exhausted from these trips. We
throw ourselves down in the dugouts for an hour's sleep.
But we do not rest.
There is no time for rest. We stagger around like drunken,
forsaken men. Life has become an insane dream.
Sleep, sleep--if only we could sleep.
Our faces become grey. Each face is a different shade of grey.
Some are chalk-coloured, some with a greenish tint, some yellow.
But all of us are pallid with fear and fatigue.
It is three in the morning.
Our section is just back from a wiring party.
The guns are quiet.
Dawn is a short while off . . .
We sit on the damp floor of the dugout.
We have one candle between us and around this we sit chewing
at the remains of the day's rations.
Suddenly the bombardment begins.
The shells begin to hammer the trench above.
The candlelight flickers.
We look at each other apprehensively. We try to talk as though
the thing we dread most is not happening.
The sergeant stumbles down the steps and warns us to keep our
battle equipment on.
The dugout is an old German one; it is braced by stout wooden
beams. We look anxiously at the ceiling of the hole in which we
The walls of the dugout tremble with each crashing
The air outside whistles with the rush of the oncoming
The German gunners are "feeling" for our front line.
The crashing of the shells comes closer and closer. Our ears
are attuned to the nuances of a bombardment. We have learned to
identify each sound.
They are landing on the parapet and in the trench itself
We do not think of the poor sentry, a new arrival, whom we
have left on lookout duty.
We crowd closer to the flickering candle.
Upstairs the trench rings with a gigantic crack as each shell
lands. An insane god is pounding it with Cyclopean fists, madly,
We sit like prehistoric men within the ring of flickering
light which the candle casts. We look at each other silently.
A shell shatters itself to fragments near the entrance of the
The candle is snuffed out by the concussion.
We are in complete darkness.
Another shell noses its shrieking way into the trench near the
entrance and explodes. The dugout is lit by a blinding red flash.
Part of the earthen stairway caves in.
In the blackness the rigging and thudding over our heads
sounds more malignant, more terrible.
We do not speak.
Each of us feels an icy fear gripping at the heart.
With a shaking hand Cleary strikes a match to light the
candle. The small flame begins to spread its yellow light.
Grotesque, fluttering shadows creep up the trembling walls.
Another crash directly over our heads!
It is dark again.
Fry speaks querulously:
"Gee, you can't even keep the damned thing lit."
At last the flame sputters and flares up.
Broadbent's face is green.
The bombardment swells, howls, roars.
The force of the detonations causes the light of the candle to
become a steady, rapid flicker. We look like men seen in an
ancient, unsteady motion picture.
The fury of the bombardment makes me ill at the stomach.
Broadbent gets up and staggers into a corner of our
Fry starts a conversation.
We each say a few words trying to keep the game alive. But we
speak in broken sentences. We leave thoughts unfinished. We can
think of only one thing--will the beams in the dug-out hold?
We lapse into fearful silences.
We clench our teeth.
It seems as though the fire cannot become more intense. But it
becomes a little more rapid--then more rapid. The pounding
increases in tempo like a noise in the head of one who is going
under an anesthetic. Faster.
The explosions seem as though they are taking place in the
dugout itself. The smoke of the explosives fills the room.
Fry breaks the tension.
"The lousy swine," he says. "Why don't they come on over, if
We all speak at once. We punctuate our talk with vile epithets
belittling the sexual habits of the enemy. We seem to get relief
in this fashion.
In that instant a shell hurtles near the opening over our
heads and explodes with a snarling roar. Clods of earth and
pieces of the wooden supports come slithering down the
It is dark again. In the darkness we hear Anderson speak in
his singsong voice:
"How do you expect to live through this with all your swearing
and taking the Lord's name in vain?"
For once we do not heap abuse and ribaldry on his head. We do
We sit in the darkness, afraid even to light the candle. It
seems as though the enemy artillerymen have taken a dislike to
our candle and are intent on blowing it out.
I look up the shattered stairway and see a few stars shining
in the sky.
At least we are not buried alive!
The metallic roar continues.
Fry speaks: "If I ever live through this, I'll never swear
again, so help me God."
We do not speak, but we feel that we will promise anything to
be spared the horror of being buried alive under tons of earth
and beams which shiver over our heads with each explosion. Bits
of earth from the ceiling begin to fall . . .
Suddenly, as quickly as it began, the bombardment stops.
We start to clear up the debris from the bottom of the
To think we could propitiate a senseless god by abstaining
What god is there as mighty as the fury of a bombardment? More
terrible than lightning, more cruel, more calculating than an
How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways again and
hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can
only torment sinners with sulphur, we who have seen a hell that
no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly
Yes, all of us have prayed during the maniac frenzy of a
Who can live through the terror-laden minutes of drumfire and
not feel his reason slipping, his manhood dissolving?
Selfish, fear-stricken prayers--prayers for safety, prayers
for life, prayers for air, for salvation from the death of being
buried alive . . .
Back home they are praying, too--praying for victory--and that
means that we must lie here and rot and tremble forever . . .
We clear away the debris and go to the top of the broken
It is quiet and cool.
* * * *
All night long the artillery to our left up north booms and
A ration carrier comes in with a rumour that the Germans have
broken through up in Belgium. We are unmoved by this piece of
news. We only speculate how it will affect our futures. The enemy
victory does not fill us with either fear or hatred. We are
We lie in the dugout talking. Cleary says that the
breakthrough will cause our withdrawal from this sector and that
we will be sent to fill the gap up north.
". . . we're bloody shock troops, that's what we are."
"Whenever the imperials* cave in, up we go."
* English troops.
"The lousy bastards won't fight unless there's a row of
Canadian bayonets behind 'em."
". . . lookit all the glory yuh get. Canadians saved the
"It's beer we want. To hell with the glory."
* * * *
We talk of when the war will end. On nights when there is
little doing, this is a good topic of conversation.
"It'll last for at least twenty years."
"They're making sure about reinforcements. They give the
Waacs* ten days' leave and ten quid for every kid they get."
"It'll all be over by Christmas."
"Like hell. First they said three months, then six, then a
year. It's two years now and it's only started."
"It won't be over until every officer has an MC."
* Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
"Why the hell should they want the war to end? They got lots
of damn fools like us who'll enlist, and when they stop enlisting
they'll drag 'em in."
Anderson speaks up. He is cleaning his rifle in the corner of
"The war will end on August the first, nineteen
"Got it all figured out, eh?"
"No. But the Lord has figured it out for me. 'And the beast
which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the
feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion.' Now what
does that mean?"
"Well, what does it mean?"
"It's all in the Book of Revelation."
"But what does it mean? It sounds like Greek to me."
"The leopard is France, the bear is Russia, and the lion is
"Where's Canada in this deal?"
A sleepy voice from the corner of the dugout answers:
"Canada is under the lion's tail."
"'And I saw one of his heads wounded to death; and his deadly
wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.'
That was the first year of the war. 'And power was given unto him
to continue forty and two months.' Now forty-two months is three
and a half years and that means that the war ends on the first of
August next year."
"Yeah, but do the generals know it, that's what I wanna
"Better write 'em a letter about it. They might forget the
Anderson lapses into a martyred silence as he always does when
we jolly him about his biblical revelations. There is no
shellfire now and he is not taken seriously.
The conversation drifts, lags, and rambles on until it reaches
the ultimate point of all trench conversations--the discussion of
"Well, one night I was with a tart in London and she
* * * *
There is a call for volunteers for a brigade raid. A hundred
men are to go over. Some of our section offer themselves, I among
There is a rumour that the volunteers will receive ten days'
leave either in Paris or London.
We stand in the dugout which is battalion headquarters. We
feel quite important. The colonel is giving us last
We are to destroy the enemy's trenches and we are to bring
back prisoners. We are to have a two-minute preliminary
bombardment in order to smash the enemy wire and to keep the
sentries' heads down. We are to rush the trenches as soon as the
fire lifts and drop depth charges into dugouts. At the end of
five minutes red flares will be lit on our parapets. This will be
the signal that it is time to return and will show us the
The raid is to take place shortly after midnight.
We are each given a sizeable shot of rum and sent back to
At midnight we start on the way up to the front line. We each
carry a pocketful of ammunition, a few Mills grenades, and our
All our letters, pay books, and other means of identification
are left behind.
I have left my papers with Cleary.
The rum has made me carefree and reckless. I feel fine.
* * * *
We are lying out in front of our wire, waiting for the signal
to leap up. It is quiet. Now and then a white Very light sizzles
into the air and illuminates the field as though it were
We lie perfectly still.
Over in the German lines we hear voices--they are about fifty
yards from where we now lie.
I look at the phosphorescent lights on the face of my
Two minutes to go.
MacLeod, the officer in charge of the raiding party, crawls
over to where we lie and gives us a last warning.
"Remember," he whispers, "red flares on our parapets is the
signal to come back . . ."
In that instant the sky behind us is stabbed with a thousand
flashes of flame.
The earth shakes.
The air hisses, whistles, screams over our heads.
They are firing right into the trenches in front of us.
Clouds of earth leap into the air.
The barrage lasts a minute and then lifts to cut off the
enemy's front line from his supports.
In that moment we spring up.
We fire as we run.
The enemy has not had time to get back on his firing-steps.
There is no reply to our fire.
We race on.
Fifty yards--forty yards--thirty yards!
My brain is unnaturally cool. I think to myself: This is a
raid, you ought to be excited and nervous. But I am calm.
I can see the neatly piled sandbags on the enemy parapets.
Our guns are still thundering behind us.
Suddenly yellow, blinding bursts of flame shoot up from the
ground in front of us.
Above the howl of the artillery I hear a man scream as he is
We race on.
We fire our rifles from the hip as we run.
The grenades cease to bark.
With a yell we plunge towards the parapets and jump, bayonets
first, into the trench.
Two men are in the bay into which we leap. Half a dozen of our
men fall upon them and stab them down into a corner.
Very lights soar over the trench, lighting the scene for
We separate, looking for prisoners and dugouts.
Depth charges are dropped into the underground dwellings and
hiding places. The trench shakes with hollow, subterranean
Somewhere nearby a machine gun comes to life and sweeps over
our heads into No Man's Land.
The enemy artillery has sacrificed the front line and is
hammering the terrain between their lines and ours.
Green rockets sail into the black sky. It is the German call
The whole front wakes up.
Guns bark, yelp, snarl, roar on all sides of us.
I run down the trench looking for prisoners. Each man is for
I am alone.
I turn the corner of a bay. My bayonet points forward--on
I proceed cautiously.
Something moves in the corner of the bay. It is a German. I
recognise the pot-shaped helmet. In that second he twists and
reaches for his revolver.
I lunge forward, aiming at his stomach. It is a lightning,
The thrust jerks my body. Something heavy collides with the
point of my weapon.
I become insane.
I want to strike again and again. But I cannot. My bayonet
does not come clear. I pull, tug, jerk. It does not come out.
I have caught him between his ribs. The bones grip my blade. I
Of a sudden I hear him shriek. It sounds far-off as though
heard in the moment of waking from a dream.
I have a man at the end of my bayonet, I say to myself.
His shrieks become louder and louder.
We are facing each other--four feet of space separates us.
His eyes are distended; they seem all whites, and look as
though they will leap out of their sockets.
There is froth in the corners of his mouth which opens and
shuts like that of a fish out of water.
His hands grasp the barrel of my rifle and he joins me in the
effort to withdraw. I do not know what to do.
He looks at me piteously.
I put my foot up against his body and try to kick him off. He
shrieks into my face.
He will not come off.
I kick him again and again. No use.
His howling unnerves me. I feel I will go insane if I stay in
this hole much longer . . .
It is too much for me. Suddenly I drop the butt of my rifle.
He collapses into the corner of the bay. His hands still grip the
barrel. I start to run down the bay.
A few steps and I turn the corner.
I am in the next bay. I am glad I cannot see him. I am
Out of the roar of the bombardment I think I hear voices. In a
flash I remember that I am unarmed. My rifle--it stands between
me and death--and it is in the body of him who lies there trying
to pull it out.
I am terrified.
If they come here and find me they will stab me just as I
stabbed him--and maybe in the ribs, too.
I run back a few paces but I cannot bring myself to turn the
corner of the bay in which he lies. I hear his calls for help.
The other voices sound nearer.
I am back in the bay.
He is propped up against his parados. The rifle is in such a
position that he cannot move. His neck is limp and he rolls his
head over his chest until he sees me.
Behind our lines the guns light the sky with monster dull red
flashes. In this flickering light this German and I enact our
I move to seize the butt of my rifle. Once more we are face to
face. He grabs the barrel with a childish movement which seems to
say: You may not take it, it is mine. I push his hands away. I
My tugging and pulling works the blade in his insides.
Again those horrible shrieks!
I place the butt of the rifle under my arm and turn away,
trying to drag the blade out. It will not come.
I think: I can get it out if I unfasten the bayonet from the
rifle. But I cannot go through with the plan, for the blade is in
up to the hilt and the wound which I have been clumsily mauling
is now a gaping hole. I cannot put my hand there.
Suddenly I remember what I must do.
I turn around and pull my breech-lock back. The click sounds
sharp and clear.
He stops his screaming. He looks at me, silently now.
He knows what I am going to do.
A white Very light soars over our heads. His helmet has fallen
from his head. I see his boyish face. He looks like a Saxon; he
is fair and under the light I see white down against green
I pull my trigger. There is a loud report. The blade at the
end of my rifle snaps in two. He falls into the corner of the bay
and rolls over. He lies still.
I am free.
But I am only free to continue the raid. It seems as though I
have been in this trench for hours. Where are the red flares? I
look towards our lines and see only the flickering orange gun
flashes leaping into the black sky.
The air is full of the smoke of high explosives. Through the
murk I see two heads coming out of the ground. It is an entrance
to a dugout. The heads are covered with the familiar pot-shaped
helmets--we use a more vulgar term to describe them. Apparently
this was a dugout our men had overlooked.
I cock my breech-lock and raise the rifle to my shoulder. The
first one sees me and throws his hands high into the air.
"Kamarad--Kamarad," he shouts.
His mate does likewise.
Suddenly the sky over in the direction of our lines becomes
smudged with a red glow.
The flares! The signal to return!
"Come with me," I shout into their ears. I start to drag them
with me. They resist and hold back.
They stand with their backs glued to the side of the trench
and look at me with big frightened eyes. They are boys of about
seventeen. Their uniforms are too big for them and their thin
necks poke up out of enormous collars.
schiessen!" the nearest one shouts, stupidly shaking his
I reassure him. I search them for weapons and then sling my
rifle over my shoulder as an evidence of good faith. We start off
down the trench towards a sap which leads out into No Man's
We are back in the bay where he with my bayonet in his ribs
lies in the corner. I pass him quickly as though I do not know
The one nearest to me throws himself on the dead soldier.
I spring upon him.
The red flares colour the sky. It is the signal to return, and
here this maniac tries to keep me in this trench forever. I grab
him by the slack of his collar and start to tear him away.
He looks up at me with the eyes of a dog and says:
"Mein Bruder--eine minute--mein
The red flares grow brighter in the sky over my shoulder.
The other prisoner looks at me with sad eyes and repeats:
"Ja, ja, das ist sein Bruder."
"Schnell," I shout into the kneeling one's ears. He
nods and takes a few letters and papers from his brother's
pockets and follows me into the sap.
The earth leaps into the air on all sides of us. I point
towards our lines and we begin to run. The field is being swept
by machine-gun fire.
I do not see any of our men. We are alone.
We run and stumble over stray bits of embedded barbed wire. We
pick ourselves up and run again. It is miraculous how we can
live, even for a moment, in this fire. A shell explodes about
twenty yards from us. The brother falls. We pick him up and carry
him into a discarded communication trench that runs from the
German lines to ours.
The fire grows fiercer. We can distinguish shells of every
calibre. The air begins to snarl and bark over our heads. They
are using overhead shrapnel.
We stop and feel in the darkness for a funk-hole or a dugout.
We find a hole in the side of the trench and wait there while the
storm of living steel rages about us.
It is black inside. The unhurt prisoner pulls a stub of a
candle out of his tunic pocket. I light it; it flickers with the
force of the nearby detonations.
The brother hugs his wounded leg and rocks to and fro with
pain. We examine him. He has been hit in the calf of his right
leg. We take the emergency dressings from our tunics and pour
iodine into the open hole of his flesh. He winces and then
shrieks as the stuff eats into his tissue. I apply a gauze and
his mate starts to bind the wound with bandages.
By signs and with my meagre German I make them understand that
we will wait here until the force of the barrage abates. I pull
out a package of cigarettes and offer them one each. We light up
from the candle and sit smoking.
I point to the wounded one's leg and ask him how he feels. He
shakes his head and moans:
"Ach, ach, mein Bruder!" He points back towards the
He begins to weep and talk rapidly at the same time. I cannot
understand. I can distinguish only two words--"Bruder" and
"Mutter." The other prisoner nods his head solemnly,
affirming what his comrade says:
"Ja, ja, das ist wahr--das ist sein Bruder,
I sit looking at them silently.
There is nothing to say.
How can I say to this boy that something took us both, his
brother and me, and dumped us into a lonely, shrieking hole at
night--it armed us with deadly weapons and threw us against each
I imagined that I see the happy face of the mother when she
heard that her two boys were to be together. She must have
written to the older one, the one that died at the end of my
bayonet, to look after his young brother. Take care of each other
and comfort one another, she wrote, I am sure.
Who can comfort whom in war? Who can care for us, we who are
set loose at each other and tear at each other's entrails with
silent gleaming bayonets?
I want to tell these boys what I think, but the gulf of
language separates us.
We sit silently, waiting for the storm of steel to die
The wounded one's cigarette goes out. I move the candle
towards his mouth. He puts his thin hand to mine to steady it.
The cigarette is lit. He looks into my eyes with that same
doggish look and pats my hand in gratitude.
"Du bist ein guter Soldat," he says, his eyes filling
with tears. I pat his shoulder.
With his hand he describes a circle. The motion takes in his
trenches and ours, the thundering artillery, the funk-hole,
everything. In a little-boy voice he says:
"Ach, es ist schrecklich--schrecklich . . ."
* * * *
The explosions die down.
We decide to move.
I motion to them that we are to go forward.
We crawl out of the dugout.
We support Karl's brother, one on each side of him.
There is no shellfire here. To the rear they are shelling our
artillery batteries, but here there is only a steady sweep of
machine-gun fire. As we are in the discarded trench we are in no
At last we reach the sap that leads to our trenches.
The sentry challenges us and we are allowed to pass.
Clark is waiting, checking off the names of those who return.
He looks with approval at the two prisoners.
I am ordered to take the prisoners down to battalion
In the headquarters' dugout there are about fifty men
congregated. I am greeted with shouts of approval by the
officers. It seems that mine are the only prisoners brought
The colonel slaps me on the back.
I ask that the prisoners be treated nicely.
"Of course--of course," says the colonel in a gruff voice.
They are taken into a corner and given some food and rum--to
warm them up and make them talk.
One of the men in our company comes up to me and whispers:
"They're talking of giving you an MM."*
* Military Medal.
I watch the noisy scene quite calmly. The officers and men are
flushed with the freely flowing rum. The colonel honours me by
calling me to his table and offering me his bottle of whisky. I
take a drink.
I am amazed that I do not tremble and shake after the
experiences of the night.
They are talking of the casualties of the raid. MacLeod was
killed by a grenade as we leaped into the trenches. Forty men are
missing out of the hundred who went over.
And over there--?
One of the captains in another company takes the little red
and black striped fatigue cap from the head of the wounded
prisoner and gives it to me.
I refuse to take it.
"Here," he shouts boisterously, "here, take it and send it
home to your mother as a souvenir."
He stuffs the cap into my pocket.
Outside an occasional shell screams over our heads and
explodes, shaking the dugout.
The terrific noise is gone.
The raid is over.
Forty men--a young officer--two prisoners and--Karl. I think
about this calmly but sadly.
* * * *
The raiders are excused from duty for the remainder of the
term in the line. We are sent back to the reserve dugouts. They
The effect of the rum begins to wear off.
I try to sleep.
I am proud of myself. I have been tested and found not
I lie on my blanket and think of the raid. I feel quietly sure
of myself. I went through all that without breaking down.
I feel colder now that the rum no longer acts.
I begin to shiver. I draw my greatcoat over my head.
I begin to shake.
"Cold," I say to myself, "cold."
My hands shake--my whole body. I am trembling all over.
"Fool," I say to myself, "fool; why are you trembling? The
raid is over. You are safe. You will get an MM--ten days' leave
in London or Paris."
I try to decide where I shall go, to Paris or to London, but
the thoughts do not stick.
The image of Karl, he who died on my bayonet, seems to stand
before my eyes.
The shaking becomes worse. The movements are those of one who
I begin to sob.
I am alone.
I am living through the excitement of the raid all over again;
but I cannot relieve myself with action now.
I do not think things now; I feel them.
Who was Karl? Why did I have to kill him?
Forty men lost--why? MacLeod killed--why?
I do not want to lie here. I am frightened at being alone.
I get to my feet and start up the stairs leading to the
communication trench. An officer comes stumbling down the stairs.
He recognises me. He sees my frightened eyes.
"Here, here," he says, "what's the matter?--where are you
I mumble something.
He offers me his flask. It is filled with rum. I take a long
swig. It burns my insides.
* * * *
I stumble along the trench looking for my section. It is quite
dark, there are no lights in the sky. No moon, no stars.
I reach the front line. I recognise faces. My name is called.
It is Fry. He grasps my hand and shakes it heartily. His face is
"You did fine, I hear," he says. "They're all talking about
it. You're going to get the MM."
"Where's Cleary?" I ask.
"He got it," Fry replies.
"Where? How?" I ask.
"Right over here." He points a finger. "As soon as the barrage
started they sent over a couple of heavies. A hunk of shell caved
his helmet in. He's down at the MO's dugout."
I dash off down the trench. I begin to cry. Tears stream down
It begins to rain.
The drops fall on my tin helmet, making a ping-pong noise. The
water splashes my face. It trickles down the gaping collar of my
The trench becomes muddy and I slip and flounder in the
The front is quiet. Not a sound rips through the silence.
I see a lone figure looming out of the darkness. It is a
company runner. I ask where the medical officer's dugout is. He
directs me. I stagger on.
Odour of chemicals. It is the MO's dugout. I stumble down the
Wounded men are lying all over the earthen floor. The MO sees
me. He is an elderly man. He smiles.
"What is it, son?"
"Cleary--Cleary, 'A' company," I stammer.
I nod my head.
He puts his arm on my shoulder.
"I'm sorry--he won't live."
I stand still. I say nothing.
"Do you want to see him?"
"Yes," I say at last.
He takes me to a corner and points to a khaki blood-soaked
bundle. It is Cleary. His head lies on a small pile of hairy
sandbags. His chin rests heavily on his collarbone. His face is a
yellowish green. His eyes are closed. The eyelids flutter
slightly. Over his right eye, in his forehead, there is a gaping
wound out of which thick red blood flows. Part of the jaw is
ripped off. He is breathing heavily--half snoring. His face is
I turn to the doctor.
"Is he conscious?"
He shakes his head.
"No, he's out of it. Knocked out. Bad fracture of the skull.
He'll soon pass out."
As we talk Cleary gives aloud snort. His legs and arms
convulse and jerk spasmodically.
Then he lies still.
I explain to the MO that there are some of my papers in the
tunic of the corpse. I ask permission to take them. He nods
I stuff the papers in my pockets and run out into the slippery
I walk back to the dugouts reserved for the survivors of the
raiding party. I throw myself down on the blanket. I cannot
sleep. I am calm now. It is quiet. I think:
Why was I so terrified when I thought of Karl, the prisoner's
brother? Why did I stand frozen as the MO told me that Cleary was
dying? Why did tears choke me as I looked at his oozing wound in
his head, at his jaw which was half torn away?
The questions press on my brain--cry aloud for an answer. I
toss and turn in my searching. It does not come.
It is better, I say to myself, not to seek for answers. It is
better to live like an unreasoning animal.
Ask me no questions--I'll tell you no lies.
At the base a sergeant once told me that all a soldier needed
was a strong back and a weak mind.
Better not to ask questions. Better not to . . .
Well . . . Cleary is dead. Dead with a hole in his head . . .
with his jaw shot away . . .
Maybe he was better off. No more war for him--no more
fatigues--no more Clark . . .
But why did you feel as though your insides were being forced
up through your throat as you saw him die? I say to myself.
I had seen other men die. Hundreds, thousands, maybe . . .
He was a clerk in an office back home. Maybe if he hadn't died
here--like this--he would have married a stenographer in the
office in which he worked. He would have had children and maybe
he would have been run over by a taxicab.
Or maybe he would have contracted a venereal disease in a
Cadieux Street dive and died of paresis. Maybe.
And Karl . . . ?
Maybe he was a farmer or a mechanic. Who knows?--he could have
died in a hundred ways in civilian life.
What is so terrible about the death of one of these
boys--about the death of one of us?
I guess it is because we do not want to die--because we hang
on so pitifully to life as it slips away. Our lives are
stolen--taken from us unawares.
Back home our lives were more or less our own--more or less,
there we were factors in what we were doing. But here we are no
more factors than was the stripling Isaac whom the hoary, senile
Abraham led to the sacrificial block . . .
But it is better not to think . . .
I pull my coat over my head. I feel warm and drowsy.
At last sleep comes, mercifully . . .
A dirty, squat, coal-smudged city.
The black north of France. In the days of peace black with the
soot of coal, now blackened with the smoke of war.
On the outskirts of the town is a huge slag heap. The adjacent
coal mine is idle--but intact. The city is within range of heavy
artillery fire. The countryside around the city is pockmarked
with shells. But the mine stands intact. It is a miracle.
Béthune. A few miles behind the Canadian front! A haven
of rest for the Canadians--tired and trench-weary.
Béthune with its narrow, grimy streets. Its undersized
mining population which walks down the streets with that peculiar
stunted walk of human moles. Wine shops, stores, egg and chip
No shells scream into the town.
Aeroplanes fly harmlessly over it.
The mine building with its shower-baths!
The tolerated brothel!
Yes, Béthune is a haven--a soldiers' haven.
* * * *
We march towards the city singing our smutty marching songs.
Songs laden with humour--gallows humour, the Germans call it.
There is something terrifying in the eagerness with which we sing
A song to forget the horror of the trenches!
A song to forget our dead!
A song to forget the unforgettable!
Our bellies are full. We have rested for a night. It is late
afternoon and now we are marching towards Béthune with its
wine shops, gambling dives, its safe streets--its
Let the thunder of the artillery boom behind us. We are
marching away from it.
Seven hundred men, hard, tough, and war-bitten.
Our feet beat the rhythm for the songs.
Oh, madam, have you a daughter fine, parley voo.
Oh, madam, have you a daughter fine, parley voo.
Oh, madam, have you a daughter fine,
Fit for a soldier up the line,
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
And then the answer:
Oh, yes, I have a daughter fine,
Fit for a soldier up the line,
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
Mile after mile the verses are roared out with a
half-terrified, half-Rabelaisian boisterousness. Then the
So the little black bastard he grew and he grew, parley
The little black bastard he grew and he grew, parley
The little black bastard he grew and he grew,
And he learned to love the ladies too,
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
And a word for the generals:
Oh, the generals have a bloody good time
Fifty miles behind the line.
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
Left, right, left, right, roar the dirty marching songs:
Oh, wash me in the water
That you washed your dirty daughter,
And I shall be whiter
Than the whitewash on the wall . . .
Left, right, left--roar the dirty marching songs. Tomorrow we
may be dead. The world is shot to pieces. Nothing matters. There
are no ten commandments. Let 'er go!
* * * *
Anderson complains to the chaplain of the battalion.
"Suppose we were bombed or something. Imagine them going to
meet their God with a dirty marching song on their lips!"
But we continue to sing our songs--shouting and singing down
the terror that grips each heart:
Mad'mselle from Armentières, parley voo.
Oh, mad'mselle from Armentières, parley voo.
Mad'mselle from Armentières,
Hadn't been ----ed for forty years.
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
* * * *
We are billeted on the outskirts of the town. We are to be
inspected by the Chief of Staff and we are busy polishing our
green brass buttons and oiling our rifles.
We march for a few kilometres out to a large field south of
the town. An army of little French boys stand on the side-lines,
watching us as we are drawn up for inspection.
We wait for hours.
We shift from foot to foot.
At last a convoy of automobiles comes streaming down the road
leading to the field.
The company commanders shout orders.
We draw ourselves up stiffly.
A car swerves onto the parade ground. It comes to a stop.
An orderly dashes out and swings the door open.
A little grey-haired man steps out. His uniform is bedecked
with gold and red facings.
Seven hundred rifles are smacked into vertical positions
before our staring faces.
Behind us the band bursts into two lines of the national
Oh, Canada, oh, Canada,
Oh, Canada, we stand on guard for thee . . .
The general lifts a tired hand to the visor of his
Behind him stands a group of young aides. They languidly
survey us as we stand at the salute.
The general starts to walk down the ranks. He is followed by
We are standing as rigid as though ramrods were shoved up our
We are motionless.
A louse comes to life in one of my armpits. The itch is
unbearable. I want to drop my rifle and scratch. I try not to
think of it, but the biting of the beast is an inescapable fact.
Mind over matter does not work here. To move would mean the
orderly room and a few days' loss of pay. I stand still.
The inspection takes but a few minutes. The general gets into
his car and drives off.
We are marched back to our billets. On the way back we
". . . a little runt, ain't he?"
"Got a cushy job, too."
"Bet he's got a hundred batmen to shine his leather."
"He's got fifty medals . . ."
"Yeah, but he'll never die in a lousy trench like Brownie and
"God, no. Generals die in bed."
"Well, that's a pretty good place to die."
Anderson speaks up:
"Where would we be without generals--"
Clark shouts an order:
"March at ease!"
That means we may sing:
Oh, the generals have a bloody good time
Fifty miles behind the line.
Hincky, dincky, parley voo.
* * * *
We are marched over for our quarterly bath. There are
shower-baths in the mine buildings. It is three months since we
have been under hot water. Now we will bathe our lousy, scratched
But even here water is scarce. We strip and stand waiting for
the water to be turned on. Fifteen seconds under the steaming
water and then out. We soap ourselves, covering our bodies with a
thick lather. Fifteen seconds under the water again for
We go naked into another room for our fumigated underwear. In
the seams and crotches of the fresh underclothing we see lurking
pale lice as large as rice grains.
* * * *
It is dusk on payday.
In the centre of the town, in a red-brick house, is the
brothel. The house has six girls on duty all of the time--three
for the privates and three for the officers. The officers have a
private entrance. But inside, it is said, the girls do not
recognise this distinction of military rank.
There are no lights in the town. In the dusk the queue extends
for two streets. Three hundred men stand waiting.
The children of the town pass the line silently. Women and
their men pass by.
The boys in line joke:
"Hell, you gotta wait in line for everything in war."
The younger soldiers grumble impatiently at the delay, but
older ones wait stolidly.
As the night grows darker the queue becomes a long silent line
of avid men who stare hungrily at the brightly lit door of the
house as it opens every now and then and emits a khaki-clad
figure which hurries off into the dark.
The line moves up one pace . . .
* * * *
There are no fatigues for a few days. I walk down the roads at
night. It is good to get away from the company for a few hours.
Sometimes I sit in a civilian estaminet and drink wine and
listen to the natives talking. It sounds pleasant to hear words
which one does not comprehend. In these native estaminets
the price of wine is cheaper than in the ones frequented by the
soldiers. The French here think that every Canadian soldier is a
millionaire. They do not understand why we throw our money away
It is early evening. The sun has set. The men are sleeping
after supper or sitting in the wet canteens, drinking beer. I
fill a large pouch with tobacco which has been sent to me from
home. I stuff the bowl of my pipe and light up, and set off down
one of the roads which lead away from the town.
I walk along puffing at my pipe. Nearby I hear the sound of
fowl clucking as they are disturbed in their sleep. A pig grunts
somewhere in the twilight.
I pass a peasant cottage. An old man sits at the door. He
greets me. I stop. He speaks a little English. We talk.
He sniffs hungrily at the smoke which curls from the bowl of
my pipe. Tobacco is scarce with the natives. There is a
government monopoly, and most of it is sent to the French
soldiers at the front. The natives smoke horrible black stuff,
expensive and hard to get.
He holds out a gnarled, brown hand. It is twisted into the
pathetic begging gesture.
"Tabac?" he asks.
I hesitate. One is not generous in war.
His eyes beseech me. I give him my pouch. He takes a blackened
pipe from his pocket and eagerly fills his bowl.
We smoke in silence.
He takes a deep inhalation of the fragrant Virginia tobacco
and exhales with deep sighs of satisfaction.
After a while we talk again.
He asks if I like Béthune.
"Yes," I say. "They don't shell it, do they?"
"Do you know, m'sieu, why the Boches do not bombard the city?
It is a fortified town. You must surely know?"
I ask why.
"That mine there"--he points towards the slag heap which
towers over the fields--"it is owned"--he lowers his voice for no
apparent reason--"it is owned by the Germans--so they do not
shell it. But my barn here"--he points to a demolished wood
barn--"it was shelled last month. Cr-r-r-ung! and a year's work
was done in. Their own coal mines they will not destroy,
He breaks off.
"It is better not to talk of such things, eh, m'sieu? It is
even better not to think of them?"
He asks me into the house.
Inside we sit and talk. He gives me a glass of white table
wine and I offer him half a franc. He takes it.
Presently a girl of about eighteen or so comes into the house.
Apparently she has been doing some light chores. She smiles at
me. She is dark, like so many of these northerners, and has
olive, ruddy cheeks. Her hair is shiny black. As she smiles her
eyes wrinkle up and seem to disappear behind her high cheekbones;
at the same time the bridge of her nose creases, giving her a
I ask if they have a spare bed. I do not relish the idea of
sleeping in billets tonight. I offer to pay. Her father
I undo my puttees and make myself comfortable. I fill my pipe
and sit near the door smoking and talking to the girl. Presently
she goes into the corner of the room and talks with her father. I
hear them whispering.
I sit and look over the silhouette of the slag heap in the
direction of the line. The rumble of the artillery fills the air
and the gun flashes colour the early night sky. It is nice to sit
here and watch it . . .
A hand is on my shoulder. It is the girl.
"You please give fader tabac? Canadien have many."
The skin on her nose creases again and her eyes twinkle. She
runs her hand up the back of my head.
I cannot refuse her. I give her half the contents of my pouch.
She runs to her father with the treasure. He nods to me
gratefully from his corner.
I continue to sit and think, watching the flashes in the
It grows darker and darker.
It is black.
The lights disappear altogether from the sky.
The rumble ceases.
The night's bombardment is over.
I knock the ashes from my bowl.
The old man is standing beside me.
"Come," he says, "I will show you where to sleep." He leads me
up a narrow stairway and down a little hall. The house is dark
and quiet. No lights are permitted.
He opens a door. It is black inside the room.
"You sleep here," he says.
I walk in. He closes the door.
I fumble in the dark and find a chair. I start to undress. I
am tired and the thought of a night in a bed hastens my
movements. At last I am undressed. I feel in the darkness for the
I throw myself onto it.
In the dark my hand feels a warm, hard woman's body. I smell
peasant odours--earth, manure, sweat . . . Her hot breath beats
into my face. We do not speak . . .
* * * *
In the morning I sleep late. I dress in a hurry and get into
billets late for breakfast. Fry and Broadbent tell me that I am
wanted at company headquarters.
My leave has come through!
I rush back to my billets. I hastily pack and get ready to go.
I draw my pay. In the evening I start down the line.
There are about twenty-five of us in the cattle car which
halts and bumps its way down towards the base. The train creaks
and comes to a halt every few miles. It is night but we cannot
sleep. We talk and smoke.
"I'm gonna walk into the best restaurant in London and I'm
gonna say to the waiter, 'Bring me everything on the menu.'"
"Yeah, you think you can eat a lot. Well, let me tell you that
your belly is all shrunk up. Last time I was on leave I got sick
"I'm gonna sleep the whole ten days."
"God, another day and we'll be sleeping in clean sheets . .
* * * *
We are still in the cattle car. We pass an encampment for war
prisoners. The emaciated-looking Germans stand looking, as silent
and motionless as owls. One of them waves his hand at us as we
ride past. We wave back at them. We throw them cigarettes and
cans of bully beef.
At last we arrive at the base. We wait in line for our soup
and later are assigned to motor lorries which will take us to the
It is three o'clock in the morning.
We are weary with the long hours of travel. I walk out of the
soot-coloured ugly Waterloo Station and hail a cab. I give the
driver the name of a little hotel.
I am taken up to a room. I ask where the bathroom is. In a few
minutes I am scrubbing myself vigorously.
It is five o'clock when I turn in. I stretch myself royally
between the cool white sheets. Outside I hear the rumble of early
morning traffic. I listen hungrily.
The hollow, echoing sound of horses' hoof beats. The roll of
wheels on the macadam. The growl of an omnibus as it passes my
I snuggle contentedly under the sheets and fall asleep.
* * * *
It is late afternoon when I awake.
I dress leisurely, soaking in each quiet moment. The room is
peaceful. It is years since I have been alone like this. I polish
my boots, shine my buttons, and leave the hotel.
On the steps I light a cigarette and look around me. Nobody
notices me. The traffic of the city flows on all sides of me.
It is dusk and the few lights permitted are shaded so as not
to be visible from the air. I walk to the corner. A woman passes
me and whispers:
Too early for that.
First I must get a drink and then a bellyful of food.
I walk into a restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue. I order a meal
and a bottle of wine. After the first few mouthfuls I notice that
I am not very hungry. That man on the leave train was right. I
drink a glass of wine and light a cigarette.
Well, I am happy, anyhow.
The waiter sees the insignia on my shoulders. He is a tall,
pale cockney. He hovers over me.
"'Ow is it over there?"
I do not feel like talking.
"Lousy," I reply.
A pretty girl sits opposite me. She leans across the table and
asks for a match.
I give her a light.
We walk out of the restaurant together.
Her name is Gladys. We walk along the streets talking and
laughing. She is an excellent companion for a soldier on leave.
She does not mention the war.
We are in the Strand near Fleet Street.
"Let's have a drink," she says.
"Don't say 'sure'," she says, "it sounds American. Say 'of
"But I am an American."
"I don't like Americans."
"All right, then I'm a Canadian."
We walk into the family entrance to a pub and order two
doubleheaders of Scotch. We sit and drink and talk.
"Where shall we go tonight?"
"Anywhere you say."
"Do you want to go to the Hippodrome?"
We order another drink. I feel flushed.
We walk out of the public house and into the humming
She puts her arm in mine and we walk up the street. Her body
is close to mine. I feel its contours, its firmness. There is an
odour of perfume.
She looks at me with wide-open eyes.
"Yes. I love all the boys." She squeezes my arm. I do not like
She hastens to explain:
"I have enough for you all, poor lads."
My frown breaks a little.
"Now, then, let's not talk of things like that," she says.
The whisky is racing through my veins. I feel boisterous. I
swagger. The thought of the trenches does not intrude itself
I buy the tickets for the theatre. Inside, the performance has
On the stage a vulgar-faced comic is prancing up and down the
apron of the stage singing. Behind him about fifty girls dressed
in gauzy khaki stage uniforms, who look like lewd female Tommies,
dance to the tune of the music. Their breasts bob up and down as
they dance and sing:
Oh, it's a lovely war.
What do we care for eggs and ham
When we have plum and apple jam?
Quick march, right turn.
What do we do with the money we earn?
Oh, oh, oh, it's a lovely war.
The tempo is quick, the orchestra crashes, the trombones
slide, the comic pulls impossible faces.
The audience shrieks with laughter. Gladys laughs until tears
roll down her face.
The chorus marches into the wings. A Union Jack comes down at
the back of the stage. The audience applauds and cheers.
I feel miserable.
The fat comic--the half-undressed actresses--somehow make me
think of the line. I look about me. There are very few men on
leave in the theatre. The place is full of smooth-faced
civilians. I feel they have no right to laugh at jokes about the
I hear Gladys's voice.
"Don't you like it, boy?"
"No, these people have no right to laugh."
"But, silly, they are trying to forget."
"They have no business to forget. They should be made to
The comic on the stage has cracked a joke. The audience goes
into spasms of laughter. My voice is drowned out.
Gladys pats my arm.
A jolly-faced rotund civilian in evening dress sitting near me
"I say, he's funny, isn't he?"
I stare at him.
He turns to his female companion. I hear him whisper:
I cannot formulate my hatred of these people. My head is fuzzy
but I feel that people should not be sitting laughing at jokes
about plum and apple jam when boys are dying out in France. They
sit here in stiff shirts, their faces and jowls are smooth with
daily shaving and dainty cosmetics, their bellies are full, and
out there we are being eaten by lice, we are sitting trembling in
shivering dugouts . . .
I feel blue. The effect of the Scotch has worn off.
"Come on, let's have a drink," Gladys says.
We go to the back of the auditorium and order two drinks. It
is a long wait and we have several drinks before the curtain goes
Finally the show ends and we go out into the street.
Swarms of well-dressed men and women stand about in the lobby
smoking and talking, waiting for their motor cars. There are many
uniforms but they are not uniforms of the line. I see the
insignia of the non-combatant units--Ordnance Corps, Army Service
Corps, Paymasters. I feel out of place in all this glitter.
"Come on," I say to Gladys, "let's get out of here."
She is angry with me as we walk down the street.
"You're spoiling your leave. Can't you forget the front for
the few days you have before you?"
We are back in the pub.
She tells me amusing little bits of her life and I listen.
". . . so when he left me I decided I'd stay on in London. I
didn't know what to do so I took rooms in Baker Street and made a
living that way. But I'm not like other girls . . ."
* * * *
Inside of her room a fire burns in the grate.
It is warm and cheery.
She takes off her hat and gloves, and prepares to make tea.
The room is furnished with the taste of a woman of her
profession. Ah, but it is welcome after two years in the line! I
sit on a dainty settee facing the fire.
She comes back with tea and a small bottle of rum.
"Shall I lace it for you?"
I nod. She pours a little rum into the hot tea. We sit back
and drink. She nestles up against me and with her free hand she
takes off her shoes, then she slips off a stocking. As we talk
she slowly undresses. Finally she stands up in only a gauzy
The rum is tingling in every nerve. The fire throws a red glow
over her white skin.
She sits on my lap and then jumps up.
"My, but your uniform is rough."
I take a roll of pound notes out of my pocket. I put them on
the table close at hand.
"Listen," I say. "I like you. Let me stay here for my ten
"I was going to say that to you, but I was afraid you might
misunderstand me. Most of my boys spend their whole leave with
me. I don't like them running off in the morning. It's a little
insulting--" She ends with a little laugh.
The fire crackles on the hearth. The rum sings in my head. The
heat of the fire beats on my face. Her slim white body entices
Bang! An explosion in the street.
I leap to my feet.
My heart thumps.
"Silly. That's only a motorcycle backfiring. You poor thing!
Your face is white."
She puts her hands on my face and looks anxiously at me.
I try to laugh.
* * * *
We lie in bed. From a neighbouring clock the hour strikes. It
is three o'clock.
One day gone!
Gladys's head lies in the crook of my arm.
Her body makes a friendly, conscious movement. It is one of
the many ways that lovers speak without words.
"Yes," I say in a whisper.
A tear comes to life and rolls down my face. She puts her
hands to my eyes and wipes them.
"Then what are you crying about?"
I do not answer.
"You won't be cross if I tell you something?"
I shake my head.
"I always feel sad when the boys cry in my bed. It makes me
feel that it is my fault in some way."
"You're not angry because I have mentioned the other
I shake my head.
Cool hands on my face.
Her silken hair brushes against my cheek.
"Now, now--go to sleep, boy."
The clock booms the quarter-hour. I close my eyes.
* * * *
I wake with the odour of grilled bacon in my nostrils. The
curtains in the room are drawn. I do not know what time it is but
I am rested. Rested and famished. In another room I hear the
sizzling sound of cooking.
Gladys comes into the room. She is dressed in a calico
housedress. She smiles at me and says:
She brings a cup of tea to me and we talk of the plans for the
I dress and come into the other room which is a combination
dining and sitting room and parlour.
There is a glorious breakfast on the table, grilled bacon,
crisp and brown, two fried eggs, a pot of marmalade, a mound of
toast, golden yellow and brown, and tea. I fall to.
Gladys looks on approvingly. How well this woman understands
what a lonely soldier on leave requires.
"Eat, boy," she says.
She does not call me by name but uses "boy" instead. I like
it. In a dozen different ways she makes me happy: a pat on the
arm, a run of her hand through my hair.
She is that delightful combination of wife, mother, and
courtesan--and I, a common soldier on leave, have her!
I slip into my tunic which by some mystery is now cleaned and
pressed, and we go out into the street and walk towards the
* * * *
The days slip by.
It is a week since I have been here with Gladys.
We are at table. She is a capable cook, and delights in
showing me that her domestic virtues are as great as her amorous
ones. I do not gainsay either.
We are drinking tea and discussing the plans for the evening.
I do not like a moment to slip by without doing something. I am
"I should like to go to Whitechapel this evening," I say.
She looks at me with surprise.
"I've heard so much about it. I want to see it."
"It's not nice there."
"I know, but I want to see more of London than just its music
halls, Hyde Park, and its very wonderful pubs."
"But very low people live there, criminals and such
things--you will be robbed."
"Well, I don't mind. I am a criminal. Did I ever tell you that
I committed murder?"
She looks up with a jerk. Her eyes look at me with
"It was some time ago. I came into a place where an enemy of
mine was and I stabbed him and ran off," I explain.
Her eyes are wide open. She is horrified. She does not
I laugh and relate that the murder took place in a trench and
that my enemy wore a pot-shaped helmet.
Her face glows with a smile.
"You silly boy. I thought you had really murdered
* * * *
I am alone.
I walk past statues of dead kings.
As I walk out in the bright sunlit street I heave a sigh of
relief. Well, I have been to Westminster Abbey. It is a duty.
As I come out, an Anglican curate sees my listless face.
It is wartime and no introductions are necessary.
"You look tired."
"Yes. Going back tomorrow."
"Itching to get back, I'll wager."
"I'll be itching after I get back."
He laughs. He is the type known as a fighting parson--very
athletic and boisterous.
"Ha, ha, that is a good one--you'll be itching
after you get back. I must remember that one."
He asks if I will have tea with him at a nearby tea room. The
mustiness of the Abbey has dulled my wits and I can think of no
ready excuse, so I accept.
We are seated at the table. He asks me innumerable questions
about the war.
Isn't the spirit of the men simply splendid? Sobered every one
up. West End nuts who never took a single thing seriously leading
their men into machine-gun fire armed only with walking
I remark that this is bad military procedure and add that it
sounds like a newspaper story.
"Absolutely authentic, dear boy; a friend of mine came back
and told me he saw it with his own eyes. Here, have a cigarette."
I take one. I sit and smoke and listen to his views on the war. I
am ill at ease and want to get back to Gladys.
He talks on.
". . . but the best thing about the war, to my way of
thinking, is that it has brought out the most heroic qualities in
the common people, positively noble qualities . . ."
He goes on and on.
I feel that it would be useless to tell him of Brownie, of how
Karl died, of the snarling fighting among our own men over a
crust of bread . . .
I offer to pay for the tea. He protests.
"No, no, by Jove, nothing too good for a soldier on
leave--this is mine."
We part at the corner of the street.
"Goodbye, good luck, and God bless you, old man."
I hurry back to Gladys. Tonight is our last night
* * * *
The last day.
I am to leave Waterloo Station at noon. I have slept late.
Gladys and I eat breakfast in silence. She is sad that I must go,
of that there is no doubt. As I pack my things she brings a
parcel to me which contains food, a bottle of whisky, and
cigarettes. I kiss her lightly as a gesture of thanks; she clings
to me and hides her face from me.
Well, these things come to an end sooner or later . . .
We are at the station. The waiting room is crowded with
soldiers coming to London on leave. I envy them.
I say goodbye to Gladys. She puts her arms around me. I feel
her body being jerked by sobs. I kiss her passionately. She is
all the things I have longed for in the long months in the
trenches--and now I must go.
Her eyes are red and wet with tears. Her nose is red.
She looks up to me pathetically with weepy eyes.
"Have you been happy, boy?"
I think of the beautiful hours we have spent together and I
Crowds mill on both sides of us. We are jostled.
I do not know how to go. I decide to be abrupt.
"Well, I think I'll have to be going."
Once more we embrace. She holds me tightly. I feel tears
springing to my eyes. I lift her face to mine and kiss her wet
I run through the gate.
I look back.
She waves a crumpled handkerchief at me.
I wave my hand.
I climb into the carriage.
The train begins to move . . .
Over the Top
Back at the front.
I find the battalion a few miles behind the reserve lines.
They have just had a short rest. We are getting ready to move.
There is intense excitement everywhere and of course innumerable
rumours. We are going to the south of France, to a quiet front
for a real rest--we are going north to Belgium--there is to be a
terrific offensive, we are to be shock troops--and so on. The air
is thick with these rumours--latrine rumours we call them.
A batch of unused recruits have come up, which gives us reason
to believe that we are not going out on rest. The recruits look
with amazement at the feverish preparations, they get in our way,
ask foolish questions, and make nuisances of themselves
The artillery roar up front swells as night falls.
It is dark when the battalion is ready. We fall in outside of
our billets and march out of the little deserted, shell-torn
We march all night. Ten minutes' rest every hour. The road is
jammed with clanging artillery. There is a steady stream going
Yes, we are going into action; of that there can be no doubt.
The rumours of an offensive these past months have not been idle
It is autumn. We are wearing our greatcoats and the hours of
marching leave us wet with sweat. We cease talking among
ourselves. Breath is valuable. The packs tug at our shoulders.
The accoutrements bang and clank against each other.
Men begin to fall out of the ranks.
The road becomes rougher. Shell holes everywhere. Gaps in the
marching column grow wider. Clark runs up and down his company
"Close up those goddamned gaps."
We run, painfully breaking the rhythm of the march.
It is dark. Up ahead of us we see white lights shooting above
the horizon. Very lights! We are getting nearer to the line.
We pass through a charred, ruined village. Guns come to life
on both sides of the road. Heavy artillery. From behind skeletons
of houses the mouths of the guns shoot tongues of red flame into
the night. The detonations startle us with their suddenness. We
Renaud, an undersized French Canadian recruit, marches by my
side. He came up on the train with me when I returned from leave
and has attached himself to me. He complains that he has a pain
in his side. It is a miracle how he can stagger along under his
load. I do not know how he ever passed the doctor.
His knees sag. In the dark I see his pale face, it is twisted
"It hurts me here," he says, putting his hand to his left side
near the groin.
"If it gets worse, fall out," I say.
It is long after midnight. We have been marching for nearly
six hours. We lie alongside the road for our ten-minute rest.
Up ahead of us a bombardment is going on. A road is being
shelled with overhead shrapnel. We see the red bursts in the air.
We do not speak to each other.
"I cannot go on. I have a pain here."
Clark passes us as we rest.
"I will have to fall out, sir," the recruit says.
Clark turns on him with a cold smile.
"Cold feet, eh," he says, and he walks on.
It is time to fall in. Renaud cannot get to his feet. Clark
walks over to him.
"Fall in there, you," he orders.
The recruit begins to cry. The company is drawn up, waiting.
Renaud does not move. He lies by the edge of the road with his
hand pressed to his side. Clark stands over the prostrate
The recruit does not move. The officer takes him by the scruff
of the neck and hauls him to his feet.
"You yellow-livered little bastard. Fall in."
Renaud hobbles to his place. We begin our march . . .
* * * *
All night long the guns blaze and storm. We sit in the damp
dugouts and wait for the order to move forward. The recruits are
frightened. They sit among themselves and talk in whispers.
We have been told that we are going over the top in a few
days. There are no fatigues. We wait and sleep.
I am lying in a corner half asleep on a pile of sandbags. I
feel someone tugging at my left breast pocket. I push the
intruder away with a sleepy movement of my hand. I doze again.
Once more he tugs. I wake up fully.
It is a rat gnawing at my pocket in which I have some
biscuits. I sit up and it retreats a little. I look at it and it
bares its teeth. I reach for my rifle. It dashes into a hole.
* * * *
In the front line.
It is midnight.
We are to go over at five.
It is jet black.
The enemy is nervous tonight.
He keeps hammering at our line with heavy artillery.
The rum comes up and our lieutenant rations it out.
We stand in the trenches receiving last-minute orders. Zero
hour is five o'clock sharp. We synchronise our watches.
The hours drag.
Suddenly our guns in the rear open up.
The German line becomes alive with red shell bursts.
The fury of our cannons grows wilder and wilder.
Firework signals leap into the air behind the German
The guns maul each other's lines.
Machine guns sweep No Man's Land.
We crouch in the corner of the bay waiting . . .
The bombardment swells and seethes. The air overhead whistles,
drones, and shrieks.
We are smashing their lines and batteries. The reply is weak.
Their guns are nearly silenced.
As far as one can see to the left and right the night flickers
with gun flashes.
Renaud comes to my side. His face is white. He asks a
"When do we go over?" His voice is trembling.
I look at my watch.
"Ten minutes," I say. I am sorry for him. I ask him to stay
with me during the attack. He moves closer to me.
Fry, Broadbent, and Anderson are in the one bay with us. We
prop the jumping-off ladder against the parapet.
The intensity of the bombardment seems to have reached its
peak. The trench shivers with the force of the blasting.
Fry comes to my side. He holds his hand out.
"So long," he says. "I won't come out of this."
"Don't be crazy."
"Yes, I'm going to get it this time." His lips are stretched
tight over his teeth. "And I don't care, either. I'm fed up."
He holds the Lewis gun ready to throw it up over the
Suddenly No Man's Land becomes a curtain of fire. A million
shells seem to explode out there. Smoke curls heavenwards. The
fierce flicker is blinding.
We are to advance behind the sheet of seething flame.
I look at Renaud. His eyes are wide open. He keeps licking his
parched lips. I shout a few last warnings into his ear. "Don't
run. Keep well behind the barrage. If you run into it you'll be
torn to pieces."
Clark comes into the bay. He looks at his watch. He shouts
something. We do not hear what he shouts but we know it is the
order to go over.
We clamber up the ladder and out onto the field.
All along the line men are advancing with their rifles on
We walk slowly. The curtain of fire moves on,
Out of the smoke behind us tanks crawl like huge beetles
spitting fire. They pass us. From one of the holes a hand waves
On and on!
We walk behind the raging curtain of flame. The earth trembles
and shakes as though it was tortured by an earthquake. Our steps
We have advanced about a hundred yards.
There is no enemy fire.
It is nearly dawn. A blue-grey light appears.
Renaud walks by my side. His face is red with excitement now.
To my left Anderson and Fry walk together.
We reach the German front line.
It is pulverised.
Legs and arms in grey rags lie here and there. The trenches
are almost flattened.
In the smoke-murk I step on something. It is soft. I look
down. It is the ripped-open stomach of a German.
We walk on. The shield of fire advances.
Through the haze of smoke we see a wood about a hundred yards
ahead of us. The barrage leaps upon it. Torn trunks of trees fly
into the air. Large branches fall near us. We dodge them.
We are in the wood.
We advance cautiously for fear of snipers.
There is a movement in one of the trees which has remained
standing. Broadbent raises his rifle to his shoulder and shoots
into the shattered branches.
A rifle drops--and then the man. He holds his shoulder from
whence comes a thin trickle of blood. The rifle is fitted with
Some of our boys rush to him and cover him with their rifles.
The wounded sniper crawls on his knees towards us. He is
middle-aged and has a grey walrus mustache--fatherly-looking. His
hands are folded in the gesture which pleads for pity.
"Drei Kinder--three children," he shrieks.
We are on top of him.
Broadbent runs his bayonet into the kneeling one's throat. The
Some of us kick at the prostrate body as we pass it. It
quivers a little with each kick.
It begins to rain.
It pours. Sheets of it.
Up in the sky we see flashes of lightning, but we cannot hear
the thunder for the roar of the artillery.
The earth is pulverised from the heavy bombardment and this
mixes with the rain, soon making a thin half-liquid mud. It is
ankle-deep. We flounder and slip and fall as we walk.
The barrage lifts.
We run through the mud slowly. It holds our boots. We slip and
stagger. We are covered with mud. We can hear the thunder now; it
is tame after the barrage.
Machine guns hammer at us.
Men begin to fall.
Shells explode out in front, showering us with slime.
We are held up.
The field has become a sea of mud.
Our light artillery is coming up behind us. The drivers are
lashing at the horses. The mud is almost knee-deep. The wheels
stick. The rain pours down upon us ceaselessly.
Near me a driver dismounts and grabs hold of the reins and
tries to pull his horses out of the mud. The beasts struggle and
hold back. He strikes the animal nearest to him with the stock of
his whip. He beats its face. Blood spurts from the animal's nose.
It screams. The heavy steel guns sink lower into the mud.
Each step is agony. The mud sucks us down. But we keep going
Grenades land in the mud and do not explode.
We are near their trenches. With a superhuman effort we run
towards them. We can see the enemy leaving his positions and
fleeing to the rear. We slide out of the mud of the field into
the half-water-filled trenches.
We have gained our objective.
We start to bail the water out of the trench. We repair the
parapets. Our saturated clothes hang on us like leaden
I look at my watch. It is six o'clock.
One hour to cross that field!
* * * *
The rain stops. It is quiet.
We open our haversacks and start to eat.
At noon they begin to shell our line. The fire is weak. It
lasts about ten minutes.
Suddenly it stops.
We put the Lewis gun on the parapet. Broadbent works it while
Anderson stands by feeding him ammunition.
The Germans run slowly across the muddy field towards us.
There are swarms of them. I fire my rifle point-blank into the
They keep coming.
To my right the Lewis gun leaps and tugs as though it were a
When they are about fifty yards from us they break and run
back to their lines again. We continue to fire until we cannot
see them any longer.
It is quiet save for the swishing sound of the rain which has
In front of our lines we can hear their wounded calling for
help. They moan and howl.
We settle down to rest.
Suddenly machine-gun fire opens up. We jump to the
They are coming again!
They advance in waves, in close formation .We stand on the
firing-step and shoot into the closely packed ranks.
Every shot tells. My rifle is hot. On all sides of us machine
guns hammer at the attacking ranks.
They are insane, it seems.
We cannot miss them.
On and on they come.
Above the clatter of the Lewis guns I can hear snatches of
song. They are singing.
They are close to us. I fire carefully.
They are close enough to throw grenades.
I see their ranks waver for a moment and then they start to
run slowly towards us. Our line is a line of flame. Every gun is
The singing is quite distinct now.
I can see faces clearly.
Each burst of Broadbent's gun cuts a swath in the front ranks
of the attacking troops.
They are close to our trenches. Their singing has become a
shriek which we hear above the hammering of our rifles and
I am filled with a frenzied hatred for these men. They want to
kill me but I will stay here and shoot at them until I am either
shot or stabbed down. I grit my teeth. We are snarling, savage
Their dead and wounded are piled up about four deep.
They climb over them as they advance.
Suddenly they break and retreat.
We have repulsed them again. Their wounded crawl towards our
trenches. We shoot at them.
The shrieking and howling out in front of us sounds like a
madhouse in turmoil.
We sink down to the bottom of our trenches exhausted.
It is quiet once more.
Out in front the wounded men still howl. One of them crawls
into our trench and falls near us. Half of his face is shot
His breath smells of ether! No wonder they attacked like
Fry has a flesh wound in his right arm. We dress the wound. It
is not serious and we advise him to go back as soon as it is
Out in front the cries of the wounded are worse than ever. We
look at each other with drawn, frightened faces.
* * * *
The afternoon wears on. We busy ourselves with repairing the
trench. We dig it deeper and sandbag our parapets. Behind the
German lines we hear them preparing for another attack. We hear
It is nearly dusk.
They begin to shell our trench. They have not got the correct
range and the shells fall short in No Man's Land. The shells leap
among the bodies of the wounded and dead. The lashing of the
bombardment starts them shrieking again. It hurls torn limbs and
entrails into our trench.
* * * *
We are lost.
Our ammunition is short.
Fry comes into our bay. His arm is stiff, he cannot move
We talk of retreating. We work out a plan for falling
Anderson begins to pray in a subdued, scared voice:
"O Lord, look down upon me. Search me out in Thine infinite
pity . . ."
Broadbent turns on him in disgust.
"For the Lord's sake, Anderson, don't tell God where you are
or we'll all get killed. Stop whining."
The shells come closer and closer.
We decide to fall back if the coming counterattack threatens
to be successful.
The fire lifts.
We "stand to".
We place the Lewis gun on the parapet and begin to sweep the
field. Anderson is working the gun. Broadbent supplies him with
freshly filled pans of ammunition.
Across the field we see them climbing out of their trenches.
At last our artillery comes to life. Overhead shrapnel hisses
over our heads and cracks to fragments in the face of the
Still they come. The field is full of them. We see their
officers out in front of them. Bullets whiz past our heads and
smack against the parados in the rear. The firing grows
They are about a hundred yards from us. At a given moment they
fling themselves down. In that moment their artillery begins to
hammer at our trench. They have the range now. The shells scream
and whistle and crash into the trenches, on the parapets, behind
us, on all sides of us.
We cower down. We cannot face the fire.
The trench begins to cave in.
Sandbags are blown into the air.
The trench is nearly flattened.
The shelling lifts and passes to the rear.
Out in front we hear a maddened howl.
They are coming!
We look behind us. They have laid down a barrage to cut us
We are doomed.
Anderson jumps from his gun and lies grovelling in the bottom
of the shallow trench. I tell Renaud to keep firing his rifle
from the corner of the bay. Broadbent takes the gun and I stand
by feeding him with what ammunition we have left.
They are close to us now.
They are hurling hand grenades.
Broadbent sweeps his gun but still they come.
The field in front is smothered with grey smoke.
I hear a long-drawn-out hiss.
I look to my right from where the sound comes. A stream of
flame is shooting into the trench.
In the front rank of the attackers a man is carrying a square
tank strapped to his back. A jet of flame comes from a nozzle
which he holds in his hand. There is an odour of chemicals.
Broadbent shrieks in my ear:
"Get that bastard with the flame."
I take my rifle and start to fire. Broadbent sweeps the gun in
the direction of the flame-thrower also. Anderson looks nervously
to the rear.
"Grenades," I shout to him.
He starts to hurl bombs into the ranks of the storm
Odour of burning flesh. It does not smell unpleasant.
I hear a shriek to my right but I cannot turn to see who it
We continue to fire towards the flame-thrower. Broadbent puts
a fresh pan on the gun. He pulls the trigger. The gun spurts
flame. He sprays the flame-thrower. A bullet strikes the tank on
his back. There is a hissing explosion. The man disappears in a
cloud of flame and smoke.
To my right the shrieking becomes louder.
It is Renaud.
He has been hit by the flame-thrower.
Flame sputters on his clothing. Out of one of his eyes tongues
of blue flame flicker. His shrieks are unbearable.
He throws himself into the bottom of the trench and rolls
around trying to extinguish the fire. As I look at him his
clothing bursts into a sheet of flame. Out of the hissing ball of
fire we still hear him screaming.
Broadbent looks at me and then draws his revolver and fires
three shots into the flaming head of the recruit.
The advance is held up for a while. The attackers are lying
down taking advantage of whatever cover they can find. They are
firing at us with machine guns.
We decide to retreat.
I motion to Fry to jump up over the parados. At that moment
Clark crawls into the bay. He motions to Fry who is about to
crawl over the top of the trench to come down. Fry points to his
"Get the hell down here," Clark shouts.
Fry does not obey but still points to his arm.
Clark draws his revolver. Broadbent steps up to intervene.
Clark turns. Fry reaches into his holster with his left hand. He
fires at the officer's back. Clark sags to the bottom of the
trench with a look of wonder in his face.
It is nearly dark.
Out in front the firing increases. Broadbent goes to the gun
and throws a last pan on it. He sweeps across the field. We hop
up over the parados and start to run to the rear.
The shells burst all around us.
We are ankle-deep in mud.
On all sides of us men are running back.
Behind us we hear the Germans shriek as they make the final
rush for the abandoned trench.
We run slowly. The rain starts to drizzle again. We pass the
cadavers of artillery horses. A shower of shells explodes in
front of us. We are near the woods again. There we will find
shelter from the sledgehammer strokes of the bombardment.
Fry and Anderson run in front, Broadbent and I to the
Behind us the enemy is sweeping at us with his machine guns.
With our remaining energy we make a spurt towards the stumps of
trees behind which we will find shelter.
A shell lands in front of us.
Fry's legs from the knees down are torn from under him.
He runs a few paces on his gushing stumps and collapses.
As I pass him he entwines my legs with his hands.
"Save me," he screams into my face. "Don't leave me here
I shake him off and run towards the woods with Broadbent.
We run past the mutilated trees and at last find ourselves
near our old trench again. An officer calls us into a bay. Other
men of our company are there. Broadbent is detailed for sentry
duty. I crawl into a dugout and go to sleep.
* * * *
The sector is a sea of mud. From the rear they have built a
"duckboard" road--strips of wood nailed together and laid across
a roadway of sandbags.
Down one of these roads what is left of the battalion dribbles
down towards the rear. We pass corpses stuck in the mud--walking
wounded who became dizzy and fell into the thin black ooze and
At last we reach a cobblestone road. It feels good to have
something solid under one's feet. We find a refreshment dugout
and pile in for cocoa and bread and butter. In the light of the
oil lamp we look haggard and worn. Our faces are black with the
mud through which the stubble of beards protrudes. We are a
Our officer, a lieutenant from Company "D" is in charge of us.
He calls the roll. Broadbent and I are the only survivors of our
section. Anderson got lost somewhere in the woods.
We climb into waiting lorries outside of the shelter. Gears
grind. We begin our ride back to rest.
The lorries stop. We get out. In the dark we fall in and start
to march somewhere. We are far from the line. It is nearly
My boots are twisted and hard after being wet. They cut into
my feet. Every step I take shoots a pain up my leg. I limp as I
march. The sun comes up and still we keep going.
We pass houses without gaping holes in them. Children peep out
from behind half-opened doors and stare at us as we straggle
past. Finally we come to a halt in a neat village. The
inhabitants rush out to look at us.
There is no shortage of billets. Broadbent and I are quartered
together in a real house. No barns or pigsties this time.
The house is occupied by an old woman about seventy, her
husband, and two young women.
I limp into the dining room of the cottage. I sink into a
chair. I untwist my puttees and take my boots and socks off. The
sock sticks to my bloody foot. It is as raw-looking as an
uncooked hamburger steak. The old woman kneels down by my side
and takes my foot in her hand.
"My poor one . . . my poor one," she says in French.
She gives hurried orders to her gnarled husband and to her
daughters. They bring hot water and a basin of olive oil.
She takes my bruised foot and bathes it in the hot water. I
wince as she immerses it. It stings. She pours the oil over the
raw wound. It is soothing. She wraps my feet in makeshift
bandages. In between whiles she tells me that she has two sons in
the war. She takes two soiled photographs from a pocket-book and
points sadly to the likenesses.
The daughters help me upstairs to a room which the old lady
has set aside for me. As I go up the stairs Broadbent grins at me
and says: "You sure get all the luck."
The mail for the battalion comes up. Most of the boys to whom
packages are addressed are either wounded or killed. We share
them among ourselves. Rations are plentiful too. There are no
fatigues and wine is cheap here. Madame with whom we are billeted
is like a mother to us. We begin to put on flesh.
In the evening we sit listening to her telling us stories of
her two boys. The old man sits by and nods his head in agreement.
We are becoming quite domesticated.
* * * *
Recruits come up from the base. The battalion is being filled
up. New officers are assigned to us. Discipline tightens.
We are taken out every morning now for two hours' drill.
Broadbent is made a sergeant and I am given two chevrons. He
jokes with me about my promotion:
"You know what a corporal is?"
"A batman for the privates. You get hell from the officers and
no rest from your men."
There are new faces on all sides of us. Broadbent and I stick
together. We have many things in common . . .
We have been in this village more than a month now. At last
the order comes that we are to move on. The villagers stand in
their doorways and look silently at us as we are drawn up. One of
the girls comes out and puts a parcel of food into my hands.
"Company, by the right, quick--march!"
The old lady runs along by the side of my section for a few
She puts her face up to mine and kisses me.
"Remember," she says, "take good care of your feet . . ."
The girls and women wave their hands to us. A company of
little boys--those serious-faced little boys of northern
France--escort us to the outskirts of the village. We turn to the
right and swing up towards the line.
We are in reserves on a quiet front up north close to the
Belgian border. Reports of a German breakthrough reach us. We
hear that the enemy is close to Paris. To the south we hear
continuous artillery thunder. Our officers give us talks on the
need for determination and courage. They tell us that we are not
to become panic-stricken. There is no danger.
That night we are relieved and marched towards the rear.
The next morning we are drawn up for parade and addressed by
the commander of the division. He tells us that the
commander-in-chief has chosen the Canadian corps to act as shock
troops to break the German offensive. We are to be a flying
column, and wherever the line weakens we are to be rushed in to
fill the gap.
"I hope," he concludes, "that you will conduct yourselves to
the greater glory of Canadian arms."
The term "Canadian arms" sounds strange to us. Most of us are
clerks, students, farmers, and mechanics--but staff officers have
a way of speaking like that. To us this business of military
glory and arms means carrying parties, wiring fatigues, wet
clothes, and cowering in a trench under shell-fire. We stand
rigid and listen to the harangue.
We are marched to a road on which an endless line of motor
lorries stands. They are enormous five-ton affairs. We pile on.
We are crowded in--twenty to a truck. We start towards the
We ride all day. As far as we can see the line of black
lorries stretches before us. We dash through villages, past
forests and lonely farmhouses without a stop. Occasionally we
change our direction.
In the afternoon we stop while the lorries are refuelled. We
look about for the field kitchens. There are none. We are
The men begin to grumble.
"Hey, when do we eat?"
"How about some grub?"
We are told we will get our rations when we arrive at our
destination the next morning. Talk becomes mutinous.
A voice shouts:
"Are we downhearted?"
There is a medley of replies:
"You're goddamned right; we are."
"T'hell with the war."
"We want grub."
We climb into the lorries and the tiresome ride begins
We are still riding. The bumping and bouncing of the lorries
has tired us out completely.
The road becomes rougher. There must have been a battle in
this vicinity, for the roads are full of fresh, yellow shell
holes. It is impossible to lie down to rest; there is little room
and the jolting of the truck is almost unbearable. We recline
against the fenced sides of the lorry. We have not stopped for
We defecate from between the bars at the side of the bouncing
truck--a difficult and unpleasant task.
We stand, sit, or recline in attitudes of hopeless despair. We
are hungry, thirsty--we have smoked our last few cigarettes. A
light drizzle begins to fall; there is no tarpaulin covering over
the top of the truck.
To the left, up towards the line a mile or two away, we see an
ammunition dump blowing itself up in sporadic explosions. It must
have been hit by a stray shell. In the blackness of the night it
looks as though a boy had thrown a match among a giant heap of
fireworks. We have seen these things before--they keep on going
off for weeks--open-air enormous storage places for ammunition
supplies, sometimes a mile square in area.
We crowd to the side of the truck to watch the sight. We talk
among ourselves about it.
"They say those 'coalbox' shells cost five thousand dollars
"Can you imagine what a little barrage costs, then?"
We lapse into silence as we try to calculate the possible cost
of a preliminary bombardment. After a while someone says in an
"Millions, I guess."
"Then what must a scrap like Passchendaele cost? They were
hammering away there for months. First the Belgians tried to take
it, then the Imperials, then the Anzacs, and then we did. They
must've fired millions of shells . . ."
This problem in mathematics is too much for us. If one
twelve-inch shell costs five thousand dollars, then a major
battle must cost--it is too much . . .
"I bet that dump going up over there must cost a billion
"And I'll bet somebody is making a profit on those shells
whether they are fired at the Germans or whether they just blow
up . . ."
"Sure they do."
A surprised voice from a corner says:
"Just think of all the people that's getting a big hunk of
swag out of it. Shoes, grub, uniforms, bully beef . . ."
He breaks off.
We all join in enumerating the various materials of war on
which someone may be making a profit.
". . . and big profits, too."
The lorry hits the side of a shell hole and knocks the breath
out of us for a while.
We continue the conversation.
"Sure, and I'll bet that those people don't want the
war to end in a hurry."
"At Étaples when I was goin' on my leave I heard a
madame in an estaminet say she hoped the war never
ended--with her gettin' five francs for a bottle of vinegar what
she called vin blanc. Why should she?"
"All of us wish the war was over, but believe me, there's
plenty that don't."
". . . there's those that make the shells, the clothes; them
that sell the food, rifles, socks, underwear, ships, boots . .
Others break in:
"Flags, aeroplanes, artillery . . ."
"Officers with cushy jobs in Blighty . . ."
"Paymasters in Millbank . . ."
"Society dames playing the Florence Nightingale with wounded
officers . . ."
". . . these men who are making money on the war have wives
and daughters and women . . ."
". . . there must be millions of them . . . !"
". . . and in every country, too. In Germany and France and
America . . . !"
". . . and they're all praying to God tonight for the war to
last forever while we're riding in this goddamned lorry . .
". . . and God must be listening to them. Look how long it's
been going on."
The thought of people benefiting from our misery throws us
into a melancholy silence.
Broadbent has abstained from joining the conversation. It is a
little mutinous in tone and as a sergeant he did not take part.
After a while he answers the last speaker.
"Maybe they're making money out of it, but they don't really
want it to go on. They don't think of it the way we do. To them,
I suppose, it's just--a war."
But the mutinous grumbler will not be downed.
"Yeah, that's it. To them it's only a war but we have to fight
From out of the corner of the lorry, a voice--we are strangers
to each other since so many recruits have come up--we do not
recognise each other's voices--this voice says:
"There's two kinds of people in this world--there's those that
like wars and those that fight 'em, pal."
There is a sudden downpour of rain. We are soaked to the skin.
The lorry rumbles and bounces on. We are tossed about like
quarters of beef on the way to market. We try to rest . . .
* * * *
It is still raining in the morning when the lorries come to a
stop. We scramble out, eager to stretch our legs. We are stiff
with the cold and the wet. We are famished. We look about
anxiously for the cook wagons. There are none. The officers
explain that our rations did not catch up with us and that we
will eat as soon as they arrive.
We are in a deserted village. There is no food to be found
anywhere. We are assigned to billets and sit miserably listening
to the rain beating down on the roof of the barn in which we are
quartered. We search under the straw for food. We find a piece of
hard, moldy bread--we share it among ourselves and eat it.
Later in the morning we pile into the lorries again. We start
back up north again. We do not try to understand why we are going
back. We are simply going.
The day passes without event. We stop several times but still
there is no food. Our officers are ashamed to face us and in
truth they are little better off than we are.
Still the line of lorries races into the night over
We scrape the linings of our pockets for shreds and crumbs of
tobacco, and with this we roll cigarettes in coarse paper. We
pass the soggy makeshift cigarettes around from mouth to
Up towards the front we hear the thunder of the artillery, it
rises and falls but never fully subsides. Now and then from
various points it breaks out into a rapid tempo.
We stop during the night in a gutted village. Straggling,
haggard English troops pour into the streets from the road
leading down from the line. They are pale, like us, from the lack
of sleep. Many of them are walking wounded.
"How is it up there?" we ask.
"'Orrible. 'Einie 'as come through and no mistake."
We try to cadge some cigarettes, but there are none to be
Into the lorries again.
We ride all through the night.
The roads are becoming smoother. Apparently we are going
further behind the lines.
We are so exhausted that we begin to doze and nod a little.
Feet, legs, arms, rifles, and equipment are jumbled together in
the cramped quarters. Every now and then there is a shakeup as
someone tries to make himself more comfortable.
"Hey," cries a drowsy voice, "take your foot off my face."
"Aw, take your face off my foot," comes the answer.
* * * *
There is a greenish blur in the sky in the east. It is not
The lorries come to a halt.
Sleepy faces look up to see where we are. We climb down and
look about with groggy eyes. My tongue is almost hardened for the
want of water. If only we had cigarettes--
No food. Promises. We are doubtful but we have no alternative
but to wait.
We line up. The roll is called. The command is given and we
march up a gravel road towards the line. Our stomachs are flat
through hunger, and our packs tug painfully at our shoulders. Our
clothes are still wet with the rain.
The fields on the sides of the road on which we march are
freshly plowed, but we do not see a single inhabitant nor any
sign of life from the houses which we pass. No smoke from the
chimneys. Farm implements stand idle in the fields.
As we march, houses appear more numerous. Soon they line the
road. Still no sign of life in any of them. It seems as though a
pestilence had swept over this part of the country. We do not see
any signs of fighting, not even a solitary shell hole.
Soon we are in cobble-paved streets. We see shops.
No shopkeepers. We look at the signs over the entrances of the
We are in the city of Arras.
It is a large city for northern France. There are hotels,
churches, stores, wine shops. It is broad daylight now, but there
is not a single soul in sight other than the marching troops. Our
heavy footsteps echo down the empty streets.
There is an old-world quaintness about the buildings. We pass
a soft brown Gothic cathedral, and in a few minutes are marching
past the enormous rococo Hôtel de Ville. We look at
the signs at the street corners. We read: Grande Place.
The square is flanked by Flemish houses which are built with
their upper stories projecting over the footways and supported by
columns so as to form an arcade. Not a civilian soul can be
We halt. We are in one of the main streets. On both sides of
the street are stores--grocery stores, tobacco shops, clothing
stores, wine shops. In the windows we see displays of food and
cigarettes temptingly set out--tins of lobster, glass jars of
caviar, tinsel-capped magnums of champagne. I look through a
glass window and read: Veuve Cliquot--the bottle looks
important and inviting. In another window I read: Smoke De
We ask our captain--a fidgety, middle-aged man by the name of
Penny--why the town is deserted. He explains that the Germans
dropped a few long-range shells into the city a few days ago, and
the inhabitants, thinking that Heinie was about to enter, fled,
leaving the city as we now see it.
We rest on the curb of the street, looking hungrily at the
food and cigarettes behind the thin glass partitions. Little
knots of soldiers gather and talk among themselves.
As I stand talking to Broadbent a man in the company ahead of
us idly kicks a cobblestone loose from its bed. He picks it up
and crashes it through a wide gleaming shop window. The crash and
the sound of the splintering, falling glass stills the hum of
conversation. The soldier steps through the window and comes out
with a basket full of cigarettes. He tosses packages to his
More men stream through the gaping windows.
Officers run here and there trying to pacify the men.
As far as I can see, men are hurling stones through windows
and clambering in for supplies.
The street is a mass of scurrying soldiers.
Discipline has disappeared.
I step through an open, splintered window and soon come out
laden with tins of peas, lobster, caviar, bottles of wine.
Broadbent and I visit many shops. In each are crowds of soldiers
ransacking shelves, cupboards, cellars. Some of them are chewing
food as they pillage.
When we have filled our bags with food, drink, and cigarettes
we make off to look for a place to rest.
We climb through a window of a pretentious-looking dwelling.
It is deserted. We prowl through the house. In the dining room
the table is set for the next meal. There is no sign of
disorder--the inhabitants must have fled without preparation of
We dump our sacks down in the centre of the room and begin to
prepare the food. In a little while we are tackling lobster
salad, small French peas, bread and butter, and washing it down
with great gulps of Sauternes. We do not speak, but simply devour
the food with wolfish greed.
At last we are sated. We search in the sacks and find tins of
choice Turkish cigarettes. We light up, putting our dirty feet on
the table, and smoke in luxury.
We hunt through the house and find the owner's room. Water is
boiled and soon we are shaved and powdered with the late owners
razor and talcum. We throw ourselves on the valanced beds and
* * * *
We are wakened by the sound of crashing noises downstairs. We
descend. A party is going on in the drawing room. Some of our men
have found the house. They are drunk. Some sprawl on the
old-fashioned brocaded gilt furniture. Some dance with each
More men arrive.
One of the recruits, a machine-gunner, draws his revolver from
his holster and takes potshots at a row of china plates which
line a shelf over the mantelpiece.
His companions upbraid him:
"Hey, cut out that bloody shooting; you're filling the damned
room with smoke."
The conversation is boastful and rowdy.
"Some of the men bust into the church and took all the gold
and silver ornaments . . ."
". . . I looked in at headquarters, the officers are havin' a
great time too. Oh, it's a lovely war . . ."
". . . There's wine cellars in this town as big as a house.
They'll never get the outfit out of here . . ."
"They'll send for the MPs . . ."
"We'll give 'em what for when they come, don't worry . .
Broadbent and I go out into the street. It is nearly dark. Men
stagger about burdened with bags of loot. They are tipsy. The
officers are nowhere to be seen. Up towards the line the sky is
beginning to be lit with the early evening's gun flashes.
Over to the south side of the town a red glow colours the sky.
Some of our men must have set fire to some houses. As we look we
see flames and a shower of sparks leap into the air.
We look at each other in amazement.
"Do you know that this is looting a town?" Broadbent says.
"Of course it is."
"There will be merry hell to pay for this."
We turn into the Grande Place. Men lie drunk in the
gutters. Others run down the street howling, blind drunk.
There is nothing to do, so we walk into a wine shop. We find a
bottle of cognac and drink it between us. We go out again.
The streets are bedlams.
From the houses come sounds of pianos as though they were
being played by madmen. Men laugh, sing, brawl.
We find an officer and ask where we are to report. He is a
little drunk too. He does not know and staggers on.
The flames of the fire to the south leap higher and
Overhead we hear the whirr of motors. Planes are reporting
that the city is occupied. Shells begin to scream into the city.
The detonations sound louder in the echoing streets.
Falling masonry and bricks make it dangerous to stay out of
The shells come faster and faster.
Bodies begin to litter the streets.
The explosions swell into the steady roar of a
The streets are lit with the flashes of the shell bursts.
Buildings take fire.
Men run to shelter. The revelry turns into nightmare.
Broadbent and I find a deep cellar. Over our heads the rafters
shiver with the force of the shell bursts.
Other men come streaming down the stairs. The bombardment has
Sacks of food and drink are piled into the corners of the
After a while we fall asleep . . .
* * * *
In the morning we awake with champagne hangovers. We feel
groggy and thirsty. We go out into the streets. Soldiers are
scurrying about carrying sacks of looted provisions.
By noon most of the men are drunk again. Men stagger through
the streets waving empty wine bottles. Some of them have found a
French quartermaster storehouse where some French officer
uniforms were stored. They cut ludicrous figures in the
ill-fitting blue tunics.
News of the looting has spread to Army headquarters.
A detachment of mounted English Military Police approach the
The police are our traditional enemies.
We organise a volunteer defense corps.
We post ourselves on the roofs of houses which overlook the
road which leads into the city. We are armed with rifles, machine
guns, hand grenades.
As the police canter close to the town they are met with a
burst of rifle fire.
Two horses are hit and rear madly into the air. The MPs draw
rein and about-face.
This is our first victory over the police. The retreat is
greeted with cheers.
We celebrate the event by going back into the main streets and
drinking more wine.
Comrades meet and relate incidents of the day.
". . . the officers are as drunk as we are . . ."
". . . two guys got into a cellar that had one of those big
vats . . . they turned on the faucet and started to drink out of
their mess-tins . . . got so drunk that they forgot to turn it
off after a while . . . when we looked through the trap door this
morning they were floating in about five feet of wine . . ."
". . . God, who would've thought that plain gravel-crushers
like us would ever get rich pickins like this. . ."
". . . the soldier's dream come true, all right, all right . .
". . . hey, the frogs is supposed to be our allies . . ."
"What, with vin rouge at five francs a bottle?"
"Well, why the hell didn't they bring the grub up . . . ?"
* * * *
Later in the afternoon the officers appear.
Men are rounded up.
We have had our fill.
Companies are reorganised.
MPs patrol the streets.
Our company is taken to a huge chalk pit on the outskirts of
We get ready to go up the line.
Night comes and we start our trek up towards the front
trenches. In our packs we carry tinned goods, bottles of wine,
pieces of cheap jewellery. We have discarded our blankets and
extra pair of shoes to make way for the loot.
We are bleary-eyed and groggy . . .
* * * *
The enemy offensive stopped just outside of Arras.
The front is quiet.
We lie in the newly built dugouts and recover from the
after-effects of the looting. Many of the men have terrific pains
in the stomach. We have eaten too many tins of lobster and other
dubious canned ware. There are some cases of ptomaine poisoning.
We have no money and we play poker with cans of food, bottles of
wine, stolen trinkets as stakes.
There is nothing to do but lie in the dugouts and talk. Once
in a while a heavy shell drones on its way to the rear.
". . . it's about time this goddamned war ended."
Grunts of approval.
". . . first we take one of their lousy trenches and then they
take it back. It's a bloody game of see-saw. They ought to call
the goddamned thing a draw."
". . . what the hell are we fightin' for, anyhow . . . ?"
"Search me . . ."
"Do we wanna fight . . . ?"
"Quit bellyachin' . . ."
"Well, I'm askin' yuh."
"Naw, 'course not. Ast me somethin' easy."
". . . and Heinie don't wanna fight either, does he?"
". . . and most of the officers don't either . . ."
". . . and the frogs . . ."
"Well, then what the hell do we fight for?"
One of the men begins to sing:
"I wanna go home, I wanna go home,
The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar--"
"Well, what're you gonna do about it?"
"I say the gravel-crushers on both sides ought to say 't'hell
with it,' and start to walk down the communication trenches . .
Silence greets this unusual proposition. We sit thinking and
smoking. After a while someone speaks up:
"Yeah, and what would happen then, eh?"
Another silence. A voice from one of the corners is heard:
"Why, you goddamned fool, the bloody war would be over; that's
what would happen."
Broadbent feels that the conversation has gone too far. He
feels the responsibility of his three stripes. He intervenes:
"C'mon, there--cut it out--cut it out. This kind of talk ain't
gonna get you anywhere. It only makes you feel lousy."
"Listen, pal, we can't feel any lousier than we feel right
"Well, it won't do you any good."
We lapse into another silence. Presently the same voice from
the corner says:
"God! Imagine all the gravel-crushers on both sides walking
down the line. Can yuh see the faces on the MPs?"
He laughs out loud and then:
"Fat chance. If we had any bloody brains we wouldn't be here
in the first place."
Like most serious trench conversations, the talk seems
fruitless, so we speak of more trivial things . . .
* * * *
It is the night of the third day. We are being relieved.
An American battalion comes up. This is their first trip into
the line. They talk loudly and light cigarettes. The night is
quiet. They call to each other as though no enemy lay in hiding a
few hundred yards off.
"Hey, when does the war start?" they shout towards the German
"Oh, boy, wait until Fritzie hears we're here."
We plead with them to speak quietly.
"Aw, t'hell . . ."
"Let's get goin'."
"Can the Kaiser."
"For the love of God keep quiet until we get out and then make
all the goddamned noise you want to . . ."
Flickering matches appear here and there. The shouting
continues. We turn our posts over to them and file down the
communication trenches. We walk rapidly for we know what will
happen if the noise continues.
Overhead we hear the hum of planes.
Finally we reach the road leading to the rear.
"They'll get all the war they want soon enough . . ."
Suddenly we hear the roar of bombardment. The front lines are
We continue our trek towards the rear.
Stretcher-bearers pass us on the way up to the line.
We are far behind the lines. No threat of death reaches us
here. The countryside blooms. We have been out on rest now for
nearly a month. The battalion is built up to battle strength. We
drill every morning under the merciless sun.
We hear rumours of battles. The idea persists among us that
the Germans will win the war.
We are too far from the line to hear the rumble of the
We start "going over the tapes." White tapes are laid on the
ground representing trenches that we will later have to assault.
We practice the assault again and again.
We have adopted a new technique of attack. We no longer charge
in waves, instead we make short rushes by sections in Indian
file. In this fashion each section of six or eight men offers
less target to the enemy, only the man in front is visible to the
enemy. The section springs to its feet, rushes a few yards, and
flings itself down while another section on the flank makes its
rush. This is called "infiltration." It is a German tactic. Under
the midday sun we leap to our feet again and again and dash
towards the imaginary trenches and throw ourselves into the brush
or onto the stones and brambles.
* * * *
The company is drawn up ready to be dismissed. Our captain
reads an official report on the American attack on
". . . all ranks are warned of the danger of 'bunching' during
an attack. At Château-Thierry our allies, the Americans,
advanced towards the enemy lines, and at the first show of
resistance, huddled together in groups which offered superb
targets for the German artillery. This resulted in unnecessary
loss of life altogether out of proportion to the gains made . .
Discipline becomes more severe. The official automaton salute
is insisted upon. After three years in the line we are taken out
and taught to salute properly.
We go over the tapes more often.
We go on long route marches.
The food becomes poor.
We are being hardened.
* * * *
It is the first week in August. We are marched over to a
neighbouring village occupied by brigade headquarters. It is a
stifling day. The earth is baked. As we march we kick up clouds
of fine dust. Our uniforms are powdered with it. It mixes with
our sweat and we streak it across our faces with our hands. When
we spit, the spittle drops like little balls of mud. Someone
attempts to start a song, but we are too parched.
We rest for a few minutes before entering the village. The
usual crowd of little boys is waiting to escort us down the main
We fall in and tighten our equipment. The battalion band
strikes up and we swing down the cobblestone road past the
brigade headquarters. The general stands by the side of the road.
We snap our heads in his direction. The officers salute by
hand. From other parts of the village we hear more bands
Finally we draw up, soaked in sweat, in the parade ground on
the outskirts of the village. Our faces are as red as the poppies
of which the war poets are writing back home. We are burdened
down by our packs. Our hot woolen uniforms stick to us and chafe
the skin wherever they touch. We form a brigade square--one
battalion on each side. We stand erect as though we were driven
into the ground like so many fence posts.
The brigadier-general comes into the square. The bugles sound
the general's salute.
We present arms. Our bayonets flash in the sunlight. The
general acknowledges the salute. We stand at ease.
An aide hands the brigadier-general a paper and he reads to
". . . and after the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed,
not a helping hand was offered to our wounded comrades . . . no
instance of barbarism in the world's history can equal the
sinking of this hospital ship . . . think of it, more than three
hundred wounded Canadians struggling in the choppy waters of the
English Channel . . ."
The white morning sun shimmers on the general's brass and
polished leather as he reads us the report. He speaks calmly and
dispassionately, which lends weight and authenticity to his
". . . the lifeboats were sprayed by machine-gun fire as the
nurses appealed in vain to the laughing men on the U-boat . . .
the amputation cases went to the bottom instantly . . . they
couldn't swim, poor chaps . . . the salt water added to their
dying agony . . ."
Well, we had seen the frenzy of the attackers when they came
over reeking with ether. It is easy to believe this story.
The general continues:
". . . men, we are going into action in a few days, and we
will be given an opportunity to avenge the lives of our murdered
comrades . . . an enemy like the German--no, I will not call him
German--an enemy like the Hun does not merit humane treatment in
war . . . very well, if they choose to suspend the accepted rules
for conducting civilised warfare, by God, two can play at that
game . . ."
The hard faces of the men harden still more as the story
Other staff officers address us:
". . . history will recall that the gallant Canadians did not
allow this wanton act of barbarism to go unavenged . . ."
A man shuffles uneasily here and there in the ranks.
". . . the battle in which we will soon be engaged will be
remembered by generations still unborn as the Battle of
Llandovery Castle . . ."
More men shuffle in the ranks. A non-com spits out an order to
Our colonel speaks out. We like him. He has risen from the
". . . I'm not saying for you not to take prisoners. That's
against international rules. All that I'm saying is that if you
take any we'll have to feed 'em out of our rations . . ."
Some of us laugh at this. Most of us are silent, however.
We march back through that cloud of rolling dust.
* * * *
We move closer to the front. We march by night, footsore and
smelling sour of sweat, and sleep like dead men during the
blistering August days.
All night long we tramp up the poplar-lined roads. Every now
and then we are forced off the gravel onto the fields to make way
for the tanks, tractors, and heavy artillery which rolls in a
metallic stream towards the trenches.
We are now within range of heavy shellfire. We can see the
flashes of the guns up yonder.
At dawn we take refuge in woods or in unused reserve trenches.
As the sun rises all life, it seems, is suspended. Neither man
nor beast stirs. We are utterly exhausted. The tanks and heavy
guns sprawl like sleeping dinosaurs covered with camouflage
The month of drill and training has made us nervous. We are
irritable like overtrained prizefighters. We squabble with each
The area behind the lines swarms with troops and artillery.
What havoc the enemy could play, if he only knew!
We lie in a wood right behind the heavy artillery lines. It is
midday. We are jumpy. Near us a few birds chirp gaily as though
no war was in progress. In our maniac fear we think that the
birds will give our position away. We curse them:
"Get the hell away from here, you bloody bastards . . ."
We sit up bleary-eyed and angry.
We throw stones at them.
They fly away, frightened.
We go back to sleep.
* * * *
It is night.
We are to go into action tomorrow morning.
We are to take no prisoners. We say this on all sides. It has
become an unofficial order. It is an understood thing.
Rumours spread. We are all to have ten days' leave in Paris
after the scrap. This is to be the last battle in the war. After
this--then home! General Foch is personally taking charge of the
advance. And so on.
We hear reports of the artillery preparation which is to
precede our attack. There are five lines of artillery on the
twenty-mile front standing hub to hub. Shells will explode every
second in every three-foot area within Heinie's lines. One man
figures out that a louse will not be able to live through a fire
of such intensity.
We sit in the dugout. We cannot sleep.
We talk aimlessly:
"What's the best way of not taking prisoners?" asks a
There are conflicting opinions.
One is for the use of the bayonet.
"Anyone that would do what those bastards did to the hospital
ship ought to get a bayonet. It'd give me plenty of satisfaction,
"Grenades are good . . ."
"Yeah, that's right. Pat him on the back and then slip a bomb
in his pocket when he ain't lookin' and say, ''Raus mit
ihm, Heinie!' He runs about twenty yards and up he goes. I
did that to a Fritz at Vimy. He just came apart . . ."
"The bayonet makes a messy job of it," Broadbent says. "The
guts stick to the blade when you withdraw . . ."
A recruit screws his face up, sickened.
"It's the suction that does that," the sergeant explains.
". . . a rifle makes a neat job. The bullet is hot when it
hits. It sterilises as it goes through."
One of the latest arrivals, a First Contingent man, speaks up.
He has been silent so far.
"Why shouldn't we kill the bastards? Sure, we ought to kill
'em. At Ypres in 1915 I saw one of our officers crucified to a
barn door . . ."
We look at him with respect. He has a yellow, elongated face
and deep hollow eyes. He looks like a man who has seen terrible
". . . he had a Heinie bayonet through each hand and one
through his feet. Crucified, by God."
The colonel comes into the dugout. He mixes freely with us and
"Well, boys, we'll have lots of souvenirs tomorrow, eh?"
* * * *
It is an hour before dawn. It is warm. There is not a sound to
hint that this is a battlefield. Nocturnal insects buzz and hum.
Birds chirp and sing. We lie hidden in an abandoned field of
ripening wheat. We are waiting for zero hour. It is unusually
From behind the German lines we hear the indistinct, far-away
voices of men calling to one another. Hitherto this has been a
quiet front and the enemy is unsuspecting.
Far, far behind our lines we hear the dull boom of a
twelve-inch gun. Boom!
Half a minute later we hear another hollow report. Boom! These
are the signals heralding the approach of the moment of
The third detonation!
Instantaneously the whole world becomes a flickering inferno
of howling steel. The roar of the barrage is unbearable. My
We spring to our feet and advance slowly behind the
pulverising curtain of fire which dances before us. A veritable
whining canopy of steel arches over our heads.
Behind us a wave of tanks advance. They soon pass us. We are
literally advancing behind a wall of steel.
The air is thick with the pale yellow smoke of high
explosives--the colour of boarding-house tea.
I feel a warm trickle on the sides of my neck. My ears are
bleeding from the force and fury of the detonations.
We advance slowly; sections in Indian file. We walk at a
snail-like even gait. Penny advances in front of his company and
directs the pace. Sometimes we halt waiting for the barrage to
move on out of the range of danger to us. A wave of Penny's hand
and we move on.
We reach the front line. It is deserted. The enemy must have
anticipated the attack and withdrawn in advance.
The second line is reached and still no resistance. We walk on
calmly. The barrage has annihilated everything in its iron-shod
march. The trenches are flattened.
The fire lifts.
Out in front we hear the tanks blazing away at the enemy's
The air clears a little.
Out of the thin smoke hazy, silhouetted figures emerge.
"Here they come . . ." we shout to each other.
We bring our rifles to our hips, half on guard.
The figures run with funny jerky steps towards us, holding
their hands high above their heads.
We open rifle fire as we advance. The silhouettes begin to
topple over. It is just like target practice.
They come closer.
There are hundreds of them. They are unarmed. They open their
mouths wide as though they are shouting something of great
importance. The rifle fire drowns out their words. Doubtless they
are asking for mercy. We do not heed. We are avenging the sinking
of the hospital ship. We continue to fire.
Everything is indistinct in the smoke and it is not easy to
pick them off.
They are nearly on top of us. There is a look of amazement in
their faces as we shoot. We are firing point-blank now.
The grey figures continue to fall, one by one, until only a
handful is left.
They realise they are doomed and they scream. We can hear them
now even above the rifle fire, we are so close.
Their voices are shrill. They are mostly youngsters.
They throw themselves into the crater of a shell hole. They
cower there. Some of our men walk to the lip of the hole and
shoot into the huddled mass of Germans. Clasped hands are held up
from out of the funnel-shaped grave. The hands shake eloquently
asking for pity. There is none. Our men shoot into the crater. In
a few seconds only a squirming mass is left. As I pass the hole I
see the lips of a few moving. I turn away.
We continue to advance. Still there is no resistance.
Suddenly the earth in front of us begins to shoot up little
fountains of dirt. Rifle fire.
We begin to run. In front of us there is an incline and beyond
We run faster.
We run still faster.
The fire becomes hotter.
Men begin to fall.
Machine guns hammer in front of us. My section throws itself
into a shell hole. We wait for the fire to subside. The tanks are
out in front of us. We will wait . . .
* * * *
Our colonel crawls into the hole.
"What the hell are you doing here--get out," he shouts,
pointing to the ridge ahead of us.
We share the pans of ammunition between us. I carry the Lewis
gun. We are dead tired and start to run towards the ridge. On all
sides of us men are running with slow, clumsy movements. The
machine gun bounces on my shoulder. The ammunition pans clatter
against the backs of those who carry them. Each step becomes
At last we reach the foot of the hill.
We start up. It is hard to breathe. It is hot and we drip with
sweat. Behind and on top of the hill the machine guns spurt and
The blood rushes through my head like a thundering torrent. My
body is a hammering cauldron of sound. My ears ring, my head
buzzes. My heart knocks like a faulty racing-motor piston.
Overhead an occasional shell crashes into fragments, but this
is not what holds our eyes glued ahead of us in hypnotic terror.
On the top of the ridge little spurts of yellow earth leap up!
They have withdrawn from the ridge and are now sweeping it with
machine-gun fire. We quicken our pace.
On and on!
Mess-tins and entrenching tools strapped to our backs clang
and bang against our buttocks.
Halfway up the hill we slow down. We are weighted down by our
burdens. Our movements are like those of one pursued in a
On and up!
We are near the top. A few more steps and we will fling
ourselves down on the crest of the ridge and get the gun into
action. A few more steps!
Our lungs and throats whistle. Our faces are reddish blue with
exertion. The veins on our necks stand out like black twisted
On the flanks the ridge is taken. Shells explode
The little spurts of yellow earth continue to leap up in front
of us as though mischievous boys were throwing stones from behind
the hill. But from behind the hill comes the noise as though a
thousand riveting machines had gone mad.
We are on top of the ridge. A few more steps to the other
I stumble and fall. I jump to my feet and run a few steps. I
fall again. I try to get on my feet but my right leg gives
My right foot feels numb. I look at it; it is spurting a ruby
fountain. The top of the bubbling stream glistens in the sun.
I feel empty inside, nauseous.
I am frightened.
As though speaking to a stranger, I say:
"My God, I am wounded." I look at the blood with surprise.
I roll into a shell hole for safety.
Our guns are hammering into the valley below. They begin to
move forward. I lie where I am. The sound of the fighting moves
away from me, farther, farther . . . The enemy is falling
I look at my foot. It is still spurting blood--an artery must
be cut. Something must be done. I make my handkerchief into a
tourniquet and tie it tightly above my ankle. I twist it until my
foot feels cold. The blood ceases to spurt and drips now; drip,
drip . . .
I am weak. My mouth is dry and my throat cries for water. I
look into my water bottle--it is empty. I remember that I emptied
it coming through the biting smoke of the barrage.
I lean against the side of the cone-shaped shell hole and
watch the dark red blood ooze out of the hole in my boot onto the
yellow earth and sink in.
The noise of the battle sounds fainter and fainter . . .
I am alone in this hole. Nearby I hear men groaning and
howling--I forgot all about the others when I saw the blood
leaping from my heavy, dirty boot.
An hour passes. The boot is covered with nearly black hardened
blood. I am wearing a boot of congealed blood, it seems.
Wounded, I say to myself again and again. Wounded--home--no
more war now--no more lice--a bed.
I am glad. I look gratefully at the torn boot, at the
blood-soaked piece of earth on which it limply rests. I am
glad--glad--soon I will see lights coming from houses and hear
the voices of women and feel their cool hands on my face.
Yes . . . I am happy.
I begin to cry.
A sharp pain shoots up my leg.
I feel in my pockets for a cigarette. Fortunately I have one.
I light up and fill my lungs with the soothing smoke. I exhale
with a sigh of happy relief. My pain seems less . . .
* * * *
I am thirsty. My mouth is gummy for the lack of saliva. I
crawl out of the shell hole, dragging my wounded foot after me. I
will find one of the killed and take his water bottle.
I slide into a large shell crater. A man lies huddled at the
It is Broadbent.
One of his legs hangs by a mere strip of skin and flesh to his
thigh. He opens his eyes and smiles weakly. His face is bathed in
sweat and pain. His lips move slightly. He is speaking. I put my
head close to his and listen.
"I can't look at it--tell me is it off?" he whispers.
I lift his head up and give him a drink of the water I have
found. It is lukewarm. He drinks.
At the bottom of the hole there is a wide black pool of blood.
His partly amputated leg is twisted at a grotesque
angle--suddenly the strip of skin and flesh breaks. The leg moves
"Tell me is it off?"
I cannot answer him.
The pool of blood grows as though it were fed by a
subterranean spring. It fills the narrow, conical bottom of the
hole. He lies with his face twisted so that he does not see his
". . . all the time--you know, in the night when I'd
think--this is the thing I was scared of most . . ." He
His face is a dirty white--it is turning green. His eyes are
half closed. His breathing becomes heavier. The deep whistling
intakes sound above all the other sounds of the field.
I move to alter my position. His eyes follow me, beseeching me
not to forsake him. I reassure him.
"Is it off--all of it, I mean?" he asks.
"Rest quiet," I say, avoiding his question. "The
stretcher-bearers will soon be here."
He looks at my foot and smiles faintly.
"You're lucky. A Blighty. No more fatigues--"
The heavy blistering August sun drags itself higher into the
sky. The noise of the battle is a dull rumble now. Midday insects
drone sleepily. In the side of the shell hole there is an opening
of an anthill. I watch the beady insects scurrying in and out.
Two of them struggle to carry a little ball of ordure uphill.
Again and again it topples them over. They try again, others come
to their aid, and finally it is taken into the dark little
After a long while he speaks again.
"I know it isn't off--I can feel my toe when I wriggle it--it
can't be off."
But the leg lies motionless near the pool of blood. He does
not look to see, however.
His breath comes faster. He looks up to the globe of fire
which seems to hang motionless in the sky. Tears roll down his
dirty green cheeks.
"I know it--I'm dying--God--and I'm glad. I don't want to go
back--like this. . ." He moves his hand listlessly towards his
thigh. His face glistens in the sun. "Mother," he whimpers like a
child, "mother . . ."
Like the hundreds of other men I had seen die, Broadbent dies
like a little boy too--weeping, calling for his mother.
Tears cease to stream down his face. He lies perfectly
In the rear I hear the stretcher-bearers calling to each
* * * *
The hospital train moves slowly towards Boulogne. It stops
here and there to pick up more cargo.
We come to a halt and a bright-faced cockney girl comes into
our car. She wears the uniform of a Waac. In one of the berths a
man has died during the journey, but this does not deter us from
joking with the newcomer. We shout our greetings to the girl.
". . . what's the matter with you?"
"I'm sick . . . goin' 'ome to Blighty."
"You don't look sick."
"But I am."
"What are you sick of?"
"I've got mumps under the waistcoat."
"Mumps under the . . . ?"
"I'm goin't' 'ave a bybie . . . ten quid and a long
* * * *
We stop at a junction near an officers' hospital. The door of
the car is swung open and a man is carried aboard. The orderlies
rest the stretcher in the aisle of the car and look for a berth
for the newcomer.
He is a young German subaltern. He is pallid with pain. He
looks at us coldly as we greet him and does not answer. He turns
to one of the orderlies. He speaks perfect English.
"If this is occupied by privates, I ask that I be removed to
The men in the berths hoot and shout:
"Throw the bastard off."
"We don't want the damned swine . . ."
"Too good for us, eh, square-head?"
The officer maintains a frozen composure under the barrage of
oaths and taunts which assail him. Finally he turns to one of the
"Well, are you going to take me to an officers' van?"
The orderly hesitates and says:
"Orders were to bring you in here"--he hesitates and
The subaltern looks beyond him as though he were an automaton
"I wish to see the commanding officer of the train."
The orderly leaves to find the medical officer in charge.
There is a tense silence in the van. The subaltern lies on his
In a little while the orderly returns and the German is
carried into another van.
From one of the upper berths a voice, choked with hatred,
"God--seems like only their bloody privates is Huns--their
officers is"--he spits the last word out with
disgust--"gentlemen." After a moment he adds: "And
we're--we're--" He cannot find the word and lapses into
Another voice says:
"What the hell did you think this was--a privates' war?
Listen, brother, all we gotta do is fight it. That's all."
* * * *
We are lying on our stretchers on the quay at Boulogne,
waiting to be carried onto the hospital ship.
We wait for hours.
It is nearly evening.
A light drizzle begins to fall. Under the lights the fine
drops of rain sparkle on the grey regulation blankets.
The wound in my foot begins to ache as though it were being
An orderly passes. I ask him for a cigarette. He stops for a
moment to talk with me.
"Is it dangerous crossing?" I ask. "They say they torpedo them
once in a while--like the Llandovery Castle!"
"The Llandovery Castle?" He laughs contemptuously.
"That was bloody murder, brother. Our officers oughta be shot for
that. She was carryin' supplies and war material--it's a
goddamned shame, that's what I say."
He looks over his shoulder at the looming black outlines of
the waiting ship.
"You're lucky," he says, "this one is only carryin' wounded .
The Llandovery Castle--carrying supplies--war
material--I see the general reading us the report of the sinking
just before the battle of Amiens--I see the bright sun shimmering
on his brass--I hear his cold, dispassionate voice--"couldn't
swim, poor chaps--wanton act--must not go unavenged . . ."
I remember the funny jerky steps of the prisoners as they came
running towards us with their hands held high above their
heads--I see the clasped hands lifted over the lip of the shell
hole as we fired into it--clasped hands silently asking for pity
. . .
The orderly's voice breaks in:
"Well--give my regards to Blighty--have one for me."
I am carried up the gangplank.