All In It K Carries On by John Hay Beith (AKA: Ian Hay)
II. SHELL OUT!
IV. THE PUSH
V. UNBENDING THE
VI. YE MERRIE
IX. TUNING UP
X. FULL CHORUS
XI. THE LAST
XIII. “TWO OLD
IN THE WARS”
The First Hundred Thousand closed with the Battle of Loos.
The present narrative follows certain friends of ours from the scene of
that costly but valuable experience, through a winter campaign in the
neighbourhood of Ypres and Ploegsteert, to profitable participation in
the Battle of the Somme.
Much has happened since then. The initiative has passed once and for
all into our hands; so has the command of the air. Russia has been
reborn, and, like most healthy infants, is passing through an
uproarious period of teething trouble; but now America has stepped in,
and promises to do more than redress the balance. All along the Western
Front we have begun to move forward, without haste or flurry, but in
such wise that during the past twelve months no position, once fairly
captured and consolidated, has ever been regained by the enemy. To-day
you can stand upon certain recently won eminences—Wytchaete Ridge,
Messines Ridge, Vimy Ridge, and Monchy—looking down into the enemy's
lines, and looking forward to the territory which yet remains to be
restored to France.
You can also look back—not merely from these ridges, but from
certain moral ridges as well—over the ground which has been
successfully traversed, and you can marvel for the hundredth time, not
that the thing was well or badly done, but that it was ever done at
But while this narrative was being written, none of these things had
happened. We were still struggling uphill, with inadequate resources.
So, since the incidents of the story were set down, in the main, as
they occurred and when they occurred, the reader will find very little
perspective, a great deal of the mood of the moment, and none at all of
that profound wisdom which comes after the event. For the latter he
must look home—to the lower walks of journalism and the back benches
of the House of Commons.
It is not proposed to carry this story to a third volume. The First
Hundred Thousand, as such, are no more. Like the “Old Contemptibles,”
they are now merged in a greater and more victorious army—in an armed
nation, in fact. And, as Sergeant Mucklewame once observed to me,
“There's no that mony of us left now, onyways.” So with all
reverence—remembering how, when they were needed most, these men did
not pause to reason why or count the cost, but came at once—we bid
ALL IN IT
“K (1)” Carries On
I. WINTER QUARTERS
We are getting into our stride again. Two months ago we trudged into
Bethune, gaunt, dirty, soaked to the skin, and reduced to a comparative
handful. None of us had had his clothes off for a week. Our
ankle-puttees had long dropped to pieces, and our hose-tops, having
worked under the soles of our boots, had been cut away and discarded.
The result was a bare and mud-splashed expanse of leg from boot to
kilt, except in the case of the enterprising few who had devised
artistic spat-puttees out of an old sandbag. Our headgear consisted in
a few cases of the regulation Balmoral bonnet, usually minus “toorie"
and badge; in a few more, of the battered remains of a gas helmet; and
in the great majority, of a woollen cap-comforter. We were bearded like
that incomparable fighter, the poilu, and we were separated by
an abyss of years, so our stomachs told us, from our last square meal.
But we were wonderfully placid about it all. Our regimental pipers,
who had come out to play us in, were making what the Psalmist calls “a
joyful noise” in front; and behind us lay the recollection of a battle,
still raging, in which we had struck the first blow, and borne our full
share for three days and nights. Moreover, our particular blow had
bitten deeper into the enemy's line than any other blow in the
neighbourhood. And, most blessed thought of all, everything was over,
and we were going back to rest. For the moment, the memory of the
sights we had seen, and the tax we had levied upon our bodies and
souls, together with the picture of the countless sturdy lads whom we
had left lying beneath the sinister shade of Fosse Eight, were
beneficently obscured by the prospect of food, sleep, and comparative
After restoring ourselves to our personal comforts, we should
doubtless go somewhere to refit. Drafts were already waiting at the
Base to fill up the great gaps in our ranks. Our companies having been
brought up to strength, a spate of promotions would follow. We had no
Colonel, and only our Company Commander. Subalterns—what was left of
them—would come by their own. N.C.O.'s, again, would have to be
created by the dozen. While all this was going on, and the old names
were being weeded out of the muster-roll to make way for the new, the
Quartermaster would be drawing fresh equipment—packs, mess-tins,
water-bottles, and the hundred oddments which always go astray in times
of stress. There would be a good deal of dialogue of this sort:—
“Private M'Sumph, I see you are down for a new pack. Where is your
“Blawn off ma back, sirr!”
“Where are your puttees?”
“Blawn off ma feet, sirr!”
“Where is your iron ration?”
“Blawn oot o' ma pooch, sirr!”
“Where is your head?”
“Blawn—I beg your pardon, sirr!”—followed by generous reissues all
After a month or so our beloved regiment, once more at full
strength, with traditions and morale annealed by the fires of
experience, would take its rightful place in the forefront of “K (1).”
Such was the immediate future, as it presented itself to the wearied
but optimistic brain of Lieutenant Bobby Little. He communicated his
theories to Captain Wagstaffe.
“I wonder!” replied that experienced officer.
The chief penalty of doing a job of work well is that you are
promptly put on to another. This is supposed to be a compliment.
The authorities allowed us exactly two days' rest, and then packed
us off by train, with the new draft, to a particularly hot sector of
the trench-line in Belgium—there to carry on with the operation known
in nautical circles as “executing repairs while under steam.”
Well, we have been in Belgium for two months now, and, as already
stated, are getting into our stride again.
There are new faces everywhere, and some of the old faces are not
quite the same. They are finer-drawn; one is conscious of less
chubbiness all round. War is a great maturing agent. There is,
moreover, an air of seasoned authority abroad. Many who were second
lieutenants or lance corporals three months ago are now commanding
companies and platoons. Bobby Little is in command of “A” Company: if
he can cling to this precarious eminence for thirty days—that is, if
no one is sent out to supersede him—he becomes an “automatic” captain,
aged twenty! Major Kemp commands the battalion; Wagstaffe is his senior
major. Ayling has departed from our midst, and rumour says that he is
leading a sort of Pooh Bah existence at Brigade Headquarters.
There are sad gaps among our old friends of the rank and file. Ogg
and Hogg, M'Slattery and M'Ostrich, have gone to the happy
hunting-grounds. Private Dunshie, the General Specialist (who, you may
remember, found his true vocation, after many days, as battalion
chiropodist), is reported “missing.” But his comrades are positive that
no harm has befallen him. Long experience has convinced them that in
the art of landing on his feet their departed friend has no equal.
“I doot he'll be a prisoner,” suggests the faithful Mucklewame to
the Transport Sergeant.
“Aye,” assents the Transport Sergeant bitterly; “he'll be a
prisoner. No doot he'll try to pass himself off as an officer, for to
get better quarters!”
(The Transport Sergeant, in whose memory certain enormities of
Dunshie had rankled ever since that versatile individual had abandoned
the veterinary profession, owing to the most excusable intervention of
a pack-mule's off hind leg, was not far out in his surmise, as
subsequent history may some day reveal. But the telling of that story
is still a long way off.)
Company Sergeant-Major Pumpherston is now Sergeant-Major of the
Battalion. Mucklewame is a corporal in his old company. Private Tosh
was “offered a stripe,” too, but declined, because the invitation did
not include Private Cosh, who, owing to a regrettable lapse not
unconnected with the rum ration, had been omitted from the Honours'
List. Consequently these two grim veterans remain undecorated, but they
are objects of great veneration among the recently joined for all that.
So you see us once more in harness, falling into the collar with
energy, if not fervour. We no longer regard War with the least
enthusiasm: we have seen It, face to face. Our sole purpose now is to
screw our sturdy followers up to the requisite pitch of efficiency, and
keep them remorselessly at that standard until the dawn of triumphant
and abiding peace.
We have one thing upon our side—youth.
“Most of our regular senior officers are gone, sir,” remarked
Colonel Kemp one day to the Brigadier—“dead, or wounded, or promoted
to other commands; and I have something like twenty new subalterns.
When you subtract a centenarian like myself, the average age of our
Battalion Mess, including Company Commanders, works out at something
under twenty-three. But I am not exchanging any of them, thanks!”
Trench-life in Belgium is an entirely different proposition from
trench-life in France. The undulating country in which we now find
ourselves offers an infinite choice of unpleasant surroundings.
Down south, Vermelles way, the trenches stretch in a comparatively
straight line for miles, facing one another squarely, and giving little
opportunity for tactical enterprise. The infantry blaze and sputter at
one another in front; the guns roar behind; and that is all there is to
be said about it. But here, the line follows the curve of each little
hill. At one place you are in a salient, in a trench which runs round
the face of a bulging “knowe”—a tempting target for shells of every
kind. A few hundred yards farther north, or south, the ground is much
lower, and the trench-line runs back into a re-entrant, seeking for a
position which shall not be commanded from higher ground in front.
The line is pierced at intervals by railway-cuttings, which have to
be barricaded, and canals, which require special defences. Almost every
spot in either line is overlooked by some adjacent ridge, or enfiladed
from some adjacent trench. It is disconcerting for a methodical young
officer, after cautiously scrutinising the trench upon his front
through a periscope, to find that the entire performance has been
visible (and his entire person exposed) to the view of a Boche trench
situated on a hill-slope upon his immediate left.
And our trench-line, with its infinity of salients and re-entrants,
is itself only part of the great salient of “Wipers.” You may imagine
with what methodical solemnity the Boche “crumps” the interior of that
constricted area. Looking round at night, when the star-shells float up
over the skyline, one could almost imagine one's self inside a complete
circle, instead of a horseshoe.
The machine-gunners of both sides are extremely busy. In the plains
of France the pursuit of their nefarious trade was practically limited
to front-line work. When they did venture to indulge in what they
called “overhead” fire, their friends in the forefront used to summon
them after the performance, and reproachfully point out sundry ominous
rents and abrasions in the back of the front-line parapet. But here
they can withdraw behind a convenient ridge, and strafe Boches a
mile and a half away, without causing any complaints. Needless to say,
Brother Boche is not backward in returning the compliment. He has one
gun in particular which never tires in its efforts to rouse us from
ennui. It must be a long way off, for we can only just hear the
report. Moreover, its contribution to our liveliness, when it does
arrive, falls at an extremely steep angle—so steep, indeed, that it
only just clears the embankment under which we live, and falls upon the
very doorsteps of the dug-outs with which that sanctuary is
This invigorating shower is turned on regularly for ten minutes, at
three, six, nine, and twelve o'clock daily. Its area of activity
includes our tiny but, alas! steadily growing cemetery. One evening a
regiment which had recently “taken over” selected 6 P.M. as a suitable
hour for a funeral. The result was a grimly humorous spectacle—the
mourners, including the Commanding Officer and officiating clergy,
taking hasty cover in a truly novel trench; while the central figure of
the obsequies, sublimely indifferent to the Hun and all his
frightfulness, lay on the grass outside, calm and impassive amid the
whispering hail of bullets.
As for the trenches themselves—well, as the immortal costermonger
observed, “there ain't no word in the blooming language” for them.
In the first place, there is no settled trench-line at all. The
Salient has been a battlefield for twelve months past. No one has ever
had the time, or opportunity, to construct anything in the shape of
permanent defences. A shallow trench, trimmed with an untidy parapet of
sandbags, and there is your stronghold! For rest and meditation, a hole
in the ground, half-full of water and roofed with a sheet of galvanised
iron; or possibly a glorified rabbit-burrow in a canal-bank. These
things, as a modern poet has observed, are all right in the
summer-time. But winter here is a disintegrating season. It rains
heavily for, say, three days. Two days of sharp frost succeed, and the
rain-soaked earth is reduced to the necessary degree of friability.
Another day's rain, and trenches and dug-outs come sliding down like
melted butter. Even if you revet the trenches, it is not easy to drain
them. The only difference is that if your line is situated on the
forward slope of a hill the support trench drains into the
firing-trench; if they are on the reverse slope, the firing-trench
drains into the support trench. Our indefatigable friends Box and Cox,
of the Royal Engineers, assisted by sturdy Pioneer Battalions, labour
like heroes; but the utmost they can achieve, in a low-lying country
like this, is to divert as much water as possible into some other
Brigade's area. Which they do, right cunningly.
In addition to the Boche, we wage continuous warfare with the
elements, and the various departments of Olympus render us
characteristic assistance. The Round Game Department has issued a set
of rules for the correct method of massaging and greasing the feet.
(Major Wagstaff e refers to this as, “Sole-slapping; or What to do in
the Children's Hour; complete in Twelve Fortnightly Parts.”) The Fairy
Godmother Department presents us with what the Quartermaster describes
as “Boots, gum, thigh”; and there has also been an issue of so-called
fur jackets, in which the Practical Joke Department has plainly taken a
hand. Most of these garments appear to have been contributed by animals
unknown to zoology, or more probably by a syndicate thereof. Corporal
Mucklewame's costume gives him the appearance of a St. Bernard dog with
Astrakhan fore legs. Sergeant Carfrae is attired in what looks like the
skin of Nana, the dog-nurse in “Peter Pan.” Private Nigg, an undersized
youth of bashful disposition, creeps forlornly about his duties
disguised as an imitation leopard. As he passes by, facetious persons
pull what is left of his tail. Private Tosh, on being confronted with
his winter trousseau, observed bitterly—
“I jined the Airmy for tae be a sojer; but I doot they must have pit
me doon as a mountain goat!”
Still, though our variegated pelts cause us to resemble an
unsuccessful compromise between Esau and an Eskimo, they keep our
bodies warm. We wish we could say the same for our feet. On good days
we stand ankle-deep; on bad, we are occasionally over the knees. Thrice
blessed then are our Boots, Gum, Thigh, though even these cannot
altogether ward off frost-bite and chilblains.
Over the way, Brother Boche is having a bad time of it: his trenches
are in a worse state than ours. Last night a plaintive voice cried
“Are you dere, Jock? Haf you whiskey? We haf plenty water!”
Not bad for a Boche, the platoon decided.
There is no doubt that whatever the German General Staff may think
about the war and the future, the German Infantry soldier is “fed-up.”
His satiety takes the form of a craving for social intercourse with the
foe. In the small hours, when the vigilance of the German N.C.O.'s is
relaxed, and the officers are probably in their dug-outs, he makes
rather pathetic overtures. We are frequently invited to come out and
shake hands. “Dis war will be ober the nineteen of nex' month!”
(Evidently the Kaiser has had another revelation.) The other morning a
German soldier, with a wisp of something white in his hand, actually
clambered out of the firing-trench and advanced towards our lines. The
distance was barely seventy yards. No shot was fired, but you may be
sure that safety-catches were hastily released. Suddenly, in the tense
silence, the ambassador's nerve failed him. He bolted back, followed by
a few desultory bullets. The reason for his sudden panic was never
rightly ascertained, but the weight of public opinion inclined to the
view that Mucklewame, who had momentarily exposed himself above the
parapet, was responsible.
“I doot he thocht ye were a lion escapit from the Scottish Zoo!”
explained a brother corporal, referring to his indignant colleague's
new winter coat.
Here is another incident, with a different ending. At one point our
line approaches to within fifteen yards of the Boche trenches. One wet
and dismal dawn, as the battalion stood to arms in the neighbourhood of
this delectable spot, there came a sudden shout from the enemy, and an
outburst of rapid rifle fire. Almost simultaneously two breathless and
unkempt figures tumbled over our parapet into the firing-trench. The
fusillade died away.
To the extreme discomfort and shame of a respectable citizen of
Bannockburn, one Private Buncle, the more hairy of the two visitors,
upon recovering his feet, promptly flung his arms around his neck and
kissed him on both cheeks. The outrage was repeated, by his companion,
upon Private Nigg. At the same time both visitors broke into a joyous
chant of “Russky! Russky!” They were escaped Russian prisoners.
When taken to Headquarters they explained that they had been brought
up to perform fatigue work near the German trenches, and had seized
upon a quiet moment to slip into some convenient undergrowth. Later,
under cover of night, they had made their way in the direction of the
firing-line, arriving just in time to make a dash before daylight
discovered them. You may imagine their triumphal departure from our
trenches—loaded with cigarettes, chocolate, bully beef, and other
We have had other visitors. One bright day a Boche aeroplane made a
reconnaissance of our lines. It was a beautiful thing, white and
birdlike. But as its occupants were probably taking photographs of our
most secret fastnesses, artistic appreciation was dimmed by righteous
wrath—wrath which turned to profound gratification when a philistine
British plane appeared in the blue and engaged the glittering stranger
in battle. There was some very pretty aerial manoeuvring, right over
our heads, as the combatants swooped and circled for position. We could
hear their machine-guns pattering away; and the volume of sound was
increased by the distant contributions of “Coughing Clara”—our latest
anti-aircraft gun, which appears to suffer from chronic irritation of
the mucous membrane.
Suddenly the German aeroplane gave a lurch; then righted herself;
then began to circle down, making desperate efforts to cross the
neutral line. But the British airman headed her off. Next moment she
lurched again, and then took a “nosedive” straight into the British
trenches. She fell on open ground, a few hundred yards behind our
second line. The place had been a wilderness a moment before; but the
crowd which instantaneously sprang up round the wreck could not have
been less than two hundred strong. (One observes the same uncanny
phenomenon in London, when a cab-horse falls down in a deserted
street.) However, it melted away at the rebuke of the first officer who
hurried to the spot, the process of dissolution being accelerated by
several bursts of German shrapnel.
Both pilot and observer were dead. They had made a gallant fight,
and were buried the same evening, with all honour, in the little
cemetery, alongside many who had once been their foes, but were now
The housing question in Belgium confronts us with several novel
problems. It is not so easy to billet troops here, especially in the
Salient, as in France. Some of us live in huts, others in tents, others
in dug-outs. Others, more fortunate, are loaded on to a fleet of
motor-buses and whisked off to more civilised dwellings many miles
away. These buses once plied for hire upon the streets of London. Each
bus is in charge of the identical pair of cross-talk comedians who
controlled its destinies in more peaceful days. Strangely attired in
khaki and sheepskin, they salute officers with cheerful bonhomie, and bellow to one another throughout the journey the simple and
primitive jests of their previous incarnation, to the huge delight of
The destination-boards and advertisements are no more, for the buses
are painted a neutral green all over; but the conductor is always ready
and willing to tell you what his previous route was.
“That Daimler behind you, sir,” he informs you, “is one of the
Number Nineteens. Set you down at the top of Sloane Street many a time,
I'll be bound. Ernie”—this to the driver, along the side of the
bus—“you oughter have slowed down when thet copper waved his little
flag: he wasn't pleased with yer, ole son!” (The “copper” is a military
mounted policeman, controlling the traffic of a little town which lies
on our way to the trenches.) “This is a Number Eight, sir. No, that
dent in the staircase wasn't done by no shell. The ole girl got that
through a skid up against a lamp-post, one wet Saturday night in the
Vauxhall Bridge Road. Dangerous place, London!”
We rattle through a brave little town, which is “carrying on” in the
face of paralysed trade and periodical shelling. Soldiers abound. All
are muddy, but some are muddier than others. The latter are going up to
the trenches, the former are coming back. Upon the walls, here and
there, we notice a gay poster advertising an entertainment organised by
certain Divisional troops, which is to be given nightly throughout the
week. At the foot of the bill is printed in large capitals, A HOOGE
SUCCESS! We should like to send a copy of that plucky document to
Brother Boche. He would not understand it, but it would annoy him
Now we leave the town behind, and quicken up along the open road—an
interminable ribbon of pave, absolutely straight, and bordered
upon either side by what was once macadam, but is now a quagmire a foot
deep. Occasionally there is a warning cry of “Wire!” and the outside
fares hurriedly bow from the waist, in order to avoid having their
throats cut by a telephone wire—“Gunners for a dollar!” surmises a
strangled voice—tightly stretched across the road between two poplars.
Occasionally, too, that indefatigable humorist, Ernie, directs his
course beneath some low-spreading branches, through which the upper
part of the bus crashes remorselessly, while the passengers, lying
sardine-wise upon the roof uplift their voices in profane and
“Nothing like a bit o' fun on the way to the trenches, boys! It may
be the last you'll get!” is the only apology which Ernie offers.
* * * * *
Presently our vehicle bumps across a nubbly bridge, and enters what
was once a fair city. It is a walled city, like Chester, and is
separated from the surrounding country by a moat as wide as the upper
Thames. In days gone by those ramparts and that moat could have held an
army at bay—and probably did, more than once. They have done so yet
again; but at what a cost!
We glide through the ancient gateway and along the ghostly streets,
and survey the crowning achievement of the cultured Boche. The great
buildings—the Cathedral, the Cloth Hall—are jagged ruins. The fronts
of the houses have long disappeared, leaving the interiors exposed to
view, like a doll's house. Here is a street full of shops. That heap of
splintered wardrobes and legless tables was once a furniture warehouse.
That snug little corner house, with the tottering zinc counter and the
twisted beer engine, is an obvious estaminet. You may observe the sign,
“Aux Deux Amis,” in dingy lettering over the doorway. Here is an
oil-and-colour shop: you can still see the red ochre and white lead
splashed about among the ruins.
In almost every house the ceilings of the upper floors have fallen
in. Chairs, tables, and bedsteads hang precariously into the room
below. Here and there a picture still adheres to the wall. From one of
the bedposts flutters a tattered and diminutive garment of blue and
white check—some little girl's frock. Where is that little girl now,
we wonder; and has she got another frock?
One is struck above all things with the minute detail of the damage.
You would say that a party of lunatics had been let loose on the city
with coal-hammers: there is hardly a square yard of any surface which
is not pierced, or splintered, or dented. The whole fabric of the place
lies prostrate, under a shroud of broken bricks and broken plaster. The
Hun has said in his majesty: “If you will not yield me this, the last
city in the last corner of Belgium, I can at least see to it that not
one stone thereof remains upon another.—So yah!”
Such is the appearance presented by the venerable and historic city
of Ypres, after fifteen months of personal contact with the apostles of
the new civilisation. Only the methodical and painstaking Boche could
have reduced a town of such a size to such a state. Imagine Chester in
a similar condition, and you may realise the number of shells which
have fallen, and are still falling, into the stricken city.
But—the main point to observe is this. We are inside, and the Boche
is outside! Fenced by a mighty crescent of prosaic trenches, themselves
manned by paladins of an almost incredible stolidity, Ypres still
points her broken fingers to the sky—shattered, silent, but inviolate
still; and all owing to the obstinacy of a dull and unready nation
which merely keeps faith and stands by its friends. Such an attitude of
mind is incomprehensible to the Boche, and we are well content that it
should be so.
II. SHELL OUT!
This, according to our latest subaltern from home, is the title of a
revue which is running in Town; but that is a mere coincidence. The
entertainment to which I am now referring took place in Flanders, and
the leading parts were assigned to distinguished members of “K (1).”
The scene was the Chateau de Grandbois, or some other kind of Bois;
possibly Vert. Not that we called it that: we invariably referred to it
afterwards as Hush Hall, for reasons which will be set forth in due
One morning, while sojourning in what Olympus humorously calls a
rest-camp,—a collection of antiquated wigwams half submerged in a
mud-flat,—we received the intelligence that we were to extricate
ourselves forthwith, and take over a fresh sector of trenches. The news
was doubly unwelcome, because, in the first place, it is always
unpleasant to face the prospect of trenches of any kind; and secondly,
to take over strange trenches in the dead of a winter night is an
experience which borders upon nightmare—the
The opening stages of this enterprise are almost ritualistic in
their formality. First of all, the Brigade Staff which is coming in
visits the Headquarters of the Brigade which is going out—usually a
chateau or farm somewhere in rear of the trenches—and makes the
preliminary arrangements. After that the Commanding Officers and
Company Commanders of the incoming battalions visit their own
particular section of the line. They are shown over the premises by the
outgoing tenants, who make little or no attempt to conceal their
satisfaction at the expiration of their lease. The Colonels and the
Captains then return to camp, with depressing tales of crumbling
parapets, noisome dug-outs, and positions open to enfilade.
On the day of the relief various advance parties go up, keeping
under the lee of hedges and embankments, and marching in single file.
(At least, that is what they are supposed to do. If not ruthlessly
shepherded, they will advance in fours along the skyline.) Having
arrived, they take over such positions as can be relieved by daylight
in comparative safety. They also take over trench-stores, and exchange
trench-gossip. The latter is a fearsome and uncanny thing. It usually
begins life at the “refilling point,” where the A.S.C. motor-lorries
dump down next day's rations, and the regimental transport picks them
An A.S.C. Sergeant mentions casually to a regimental Quartermaster
that he has heard it said at the Supply Depot that heavy firing has
been going on in the Channel. The Quartermaster, on returning to the
Transport Lines, observes to his Quartermaster-Sergeant that the German
Fleet has come out at last. The Quartermaster-Sergeant, when he meets
the ration parties behind the lines that night, announces to a platoon
Sergeant that we have won a great naval victory. The platoon Sergeant,
who is suffering from trench feet and is a constant reader of a certain
pessimistic halfpenny journal, replies gloomily: “We'll have had heavy
losses oorselves, too, I doot!” This observation is overheard by
various members of the ration party. By midnight several hundred yards
of the firing-line know for a fact that there has been a naval disaster
of the first magnitude off the coast of a place which every one calls
Gally Polly, and that the whole of our Division are to be transferred
forthwith to the Near East to stem the tide of calamity.
Still, we must have something to chat about.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Brigade Majors and Adjutants, holding a stumpy pencil in
one hand and a burning brow in the other, are composing Operation
Orders which shall effect the relief, without—
(1) Leaving some detail—the bombers, or the snipers, or the
sock-driers, or the pea-soup experts—unrelieved altogether.
(2) Causing relievers and relieved to meet violently together in
some constricted fairway.
(3) Trespassing into some other Brigade Area. (This is far more
foolhardy than to wander into the German lines.)
(4) Getting shelled.
Pitfall Number One is avoided by keeping a permanent and handy list
of “all the people who do funny things on their own” (as the vulgar
throng call the “specialists"), and checking it carefully before
Number Two is dealt with by issuing a strict time-table, which might
possibly be adhered to by a well-drilled flock of archangels, in broad
daylight, upon good roads, and under peace conditions.
Number Three is provided for by copious and complicated map
Number Four is left to Providence—and is usually the best-conducted
feature of the excursion.
Under cover of night the Battalion sets out, in comparatively small
parties. They form a strange procession. The men wear their
trench-costume—thigh-boots (which do not go well with a kilt),
variegated coats of skins, and woollen nightcaps. Stuffed under their
belts and through their packs they carry newspapers, broken staves for
firewood, parcels from home, and sandbags loaded with mysterious
comforts. A dilapidated parrot and a few goats are all that is required
to complete the picture of Robinson Crusoe changing camp.
Progress is not easy. It is a pitch-black night. By day, this road
(and all the countryside) is a wilderness: nothing more innocent ever
presented itself to the eye of an inquisitive aeroplane. But after
nightfall it is packed with troops and transport, and not a light is
shown. If you can imagine what the Mansion House crossing would be like
if called upon to sustain its midday traffic at midnight—the Mansion
House crossing entirely unilluminated, paved with twelve inches of
liquid mud, intersected by narrow strips of pave, and liberally
pitted with “crump-holes”—you may derive some faint idea of the state
of things at a busy road-junction lying behind the trenches.
Until reaching what is facetiously termed “the shell area”—as if
any spot in this benighted district were not a shell area—the troops
plod along in fours at the right of the road. If they can achieve two
miles an hour, they do well. At any moment they may be called upon to
halt, and crowd into the roadside, while a transport-train passes
carrying rations, and coke, and what is called “R.E. material”—this
may be anything from a bag of nails to steel girders nine feet long—up
to the firing-line. When this procession, consisting of a dozen
limbered waggons, drawn by four mules and headed by a profane person on
horseback—the Transport Officer—has rumbled past, the Company, which
has been standing respectfully in the ditch, enjoying a refreshing
shower-bath of mud and hoping that none of the steel girders are
projecting from the limber more than a yard or two, sets out once more
upon its way—only to take hasty cover again as sounds of fresh and
more animated traffic are heard approaching from the opposite
direction. There is no mistaking the nature of this cavalcade: the long
vista of glowing cigarette-ends tells an unmistakable tale. These are
artillery waggons, returning empty from replenishing the batteries;
scattering homely jests like hail, and proceeding, wherever possible,
at a hand-gallop. He is a cheery soul, the R.A. driver, but his
interpretation of the rules of the road requires drastic revision.
Sometimes an axle breaks, or a waggon side-slips off the pave
into the morass reserved for infantry, and overturns. The result is a
block, which promptly extends forward and back for a couple of miles. A
peculiarly British chorus of inquiry and remonstrance—a blend of
biting sarcasm and blasphemous humour—surges up and down the line;
until plunging mules are unyoked, and the offending vehicle man-handled
out of sight into the inky blackness by the roadside; or, in extreme
cases, is annihilated with axes. Everything has to make way for a
ration train. To crown all, it is more than likely that the calmness
and smooth working of the proceedings will be assisted by a burst of
shrapnel overhead. It is a most amazing scrimmage altogether. One of
those members of His Majesty's Opposition who are doing so much at
present to save our country from destruction, by kindly pointing out
the mistakes of the British Government and the British Army, would
refer to the whole scene as a pandemonium of mismanagement and
ineptitude. And yet, though the scene is enacted night after night
without a break, there is hardly a case on record of the transport
being surprised upon these roads by the coming of daylight, and none
whatever of the rations and ammunition failing to get through.
It is difficult to imagine that Brother Boche, who on the other side
of that ring of star-shells is conducting a precisely similar
undertaking, is able, with all his perfect organisation and cast-iron
methods, to achieve a result in any way superior to that which Thomas
Atkins reaches by rule of thumb and sheer force of character.
* * * * *
At length the draggled Company worms its way through the press to
the fringe of the shell-area, beyond which no transport may pass. The
distance of this point from the trenches varies considerably, and
depends largely upon the caprice of the Boche. On this occasion,
however, we still have a mile or two to go—across country now, in
single file, at the heels of a guide from the battalion which we are
Guides may be divided into two classes—
(1) Guides who do not know the way, and say so at the outset.
(2) Guides who do not know the way, but leave it to you to discover
There are no other kinds of guides.
The pace is down to a mile an hour now, except in the case of men in
the tail of the line, who are running rapidly. It is a curious but
quite inexplicable fact that if you set a hundred men to march in
single file in the dark, though the leading man may be crawling like a
tortoise, the last man is compelled to proceed at a profane double if
he is to avoid being left behind and lost.
Still, everybody gets there somehow, and in due course the various
Company Commanders are enabled to telephone to their respective
Battalion Headquarters the information that the Relief is completed.
For this relief, much thanks!
After that the outgoing Battalion files slowly out, and the
newcomers are left gloomily contemplating their new abiding-place, and
“I wonder if there is any Division in the whole blessed
Expeditionary Force, besides ours, which ever does a single damn thing
to keep its trenches in repair!”
All of which brings us back to Hush Hall, where the Headquarters of
the outgoing Brigade are handing over to their successors.
Hush Hall, or the Chateau de Quelquechose, is a modern country
house, and once stood up white and gleaming in all its brave finery of
stucco, conservatories, and ornamental lake, amid a pleasant wood not
far from a main road. It is such a house as you might find round about
Guildford or Hindhead. There are many in this fair countryside, but few
are inhabited now, and none by their rightful owners. They are all
marked on the map, and the Boche gunners are assiduous map-readers.
Hush Hall has got off comparatively lightly. It is still habitable, and
well furnished. The roof is demolished upon the side most exposed to
the enemy, and many of the trees in the surrounding wood are broken and
splintered by shrapnel. Still, provided the weather remains passable,
one can live there. Upon the danger-side the windows are closed and
shuttered. Weeds grow apace in the garden. No smoke emerges from the
chimneys. (If it does, the Mess Corporal hears about it from the Staff
Captain.) A few strands of barbed wire obstruct the passage of those
careless or adventurous persons who may desire to explore the forbidden
side of the house. The front door is bolted and barred: visitors, after
approaching stealthily along the lee of a hedge, like travellers of
dubious bona fides on a Sunday afternoon, enter unobtrusively by
the back door, which is situated on the blind side of the chateau.
Their path thereto is beset by imploring notices like the following:—
THE SLIGHTEST MOVEMENT DRAWS SHELL
FIRE. KEEP CLOSE TO THE HEDGE
A later hand has added the following moving postscript:—
WE LIVE HERE. YOU DON'T!
It was the Staff Captain who was responsible for the rechristening
of the establishment.
“What sort of place is this new palace we are going to doss in?”
inquired the Machine-Gun Officer, when the Staff Captain returned from
his preliminary visit.
The Staff Captain, who was a man of a few words, replied—
“It's the sort of shanty where everybody goes about in felt
slippers, saying 'Hush!'“
* * * * *
Brigade Headquarters—this means the Brigadier, the Brigade Major,
the Staff Captain, the Machine-Gun Officer, the Signal Officer, mayhap
a Padre and a Liaison Officer, accompanied by a mixed multitude of
clerks, telegraphists, and scullions—arrived safely at their new
quarters under cover of night, and were hospitably received by the
outgoing tenants, who had finished their evening meal and were girded
up for departure. In fact, the Machine-Gun Officer, Liaison Officer,
and Padre had already gone, leaving their seniors to hold the fort till
the last. The Signal Officer was down in the cellar, handing over ohms,
amperes, short-circuits, and other mysterious trench-stores to his
Upon these occasions there is usually a good deal of time to fill in
between the arrival of the new brooms and the departure of the old.
This period of waiting may be likened to that somewhat anxious interval
with which frequenters of race-courses are familiar, between the finish
of the race and the announcement of the “All Right!” The outgoing
Headquarters are waiting for the magic words—“Relief Complete!” Until
that message comes over the buzzer, the period of tension endures. The
main point of difference is that the gentleman who has staked his
fortune on the legs of a horse has only to wait a few minutes for the
confirmation of his hopes; while a Brigadier, whose bedtime (or even
breakfast-time) is at the mercy of an errant platoon, may have to sit
up all night.
“Sit down and make yourselves comfortable,” said A Brigade to X
X Brigade complied, and having been furnished with refreshment, led
off with the inevitable question—
“Does one—er—get shelled much here?”
There was a reassuring coo from A Brigade.
“Oh, no. This is a very healthy spot. One has to be careful, of
course. No movement, or fires, or anything of that kind. A sentry or
two, to warn people against approaching over the open by day, and
you'll be as cooshie as anything!” (“Cooshie” is the latest word here.
That and “crump.”)
“I ought to warn you of one thing,” said the Brigadier. “Owing to
the surrounding woods, sound is most deceptive here. You will hear
shell-bursts which appear quite close, when in reality they are quite a
distance away. That, for instance!”—as a shell exploded apparently
just outside the window. “That little fellow is a couple of hundred
yards away, in the corner of the wood. The Boche has been groping about
there for a battery for the last two days.”
“Is the battery there?” inquired a voice.
“No; it is farther east. But there is a Gunner's Mess about two
hundred yards from here, in that house which you passed on the way up.”
“Oh!” observed X Brigade.
Gunners are peculiar people. When professionally engaged, no men
could be more retiring. They screen their operations from the public
gaze with the utmost severity, shrouding batteries in screens of
foliage and other rustic disguises. If a layman strays anywhere near
one of these arboreal retreats, a gunner thrusts out a visage enflamed
with righteous wrath, and curses him for giving the position away. But
in his hours of relaxation the gunner is a different being. He billets
himself in a house with plenty of windows: he illuminates all these by
night, and hangs washing therefrom by day. When inclined for exercise,
he goes for a promenade across an open space labelled—“Not to be used
by troops by daylight.” Therefore, despite his technical excellence and
superb courage, he is an uncomfortable neighbour for establishments
like Hush Hall.
In this respect he offers a curious contrast to the Sapper. Off
duty, the Sapper is the most unobtrusive of men—a cave-man, in fact.
He burrows deep into the earth, or the side of a hill, and having
secured the roof of this cavern against direct hits by ingenious
contrivances of his own manufacture, constructs a suite of furniture of
a solid and enduring pattern, and lives the life of a comfortable
recluse. But when engaged in the pursuit of his calling, the Sapper is
the least retiring of men. The immemorial tradition of the great Corps
to which he belongs has ordained that no fire, however fierce, must be
allowed to interfere with a Sapper in the execution of his duty. This
rule is usually interpreted by the Sapper to mean that you must not
perform your allotted task under cover when it is possible to do so
under fire. To this is added, as a rider, that in the absence of an
adequate supply of fire, you must draw fire. So the Sapper walks
cheerfully about on the tops of parapets, hugging large and conspicuous
pieces of timber, or clashing together sheets of corrugated iron, as
happy as a king.
“You will find this house quite snug,” continued the Brigadier. “The
eastern suite is to be avoided, because there is no roof there; and if
it rains outside for a day, it rains in the best bedroom for a week.
There is a big kitchen in the basement, with a capital range. That's
all, I think. The chief thing to avoid is movement of any kind. The
leaves are coming off the trees now—”
At this moment an orderly entered the room with a pink telegraph
“Relief complete, sir!” announced the Brigade Major, reading it.
“Good work!” replied both Brigadiers, looking at their watches
simultaneously, “considering the state of the country.” The Brigadier
of “A” rose to his feet.
“Now we can pass along quietly,” he said. “Good luck to you. By the
way, take care of Edgar, won't you? Any little attention which you can
show him will be greatly appreciated.”
“Who is Edgar?”
“Oh, I thought the Staff Captain would have told you. Edgar is the
swan—the last of his race, I'm afraid, so far as this place is
concerned. He lives on the lake, and usually comes ashore to draw his
rations about lunch-time. He is inclined to be stand-offish on one
side, as he has only one eye; but he is most affable on the other.
Well, now to find our horses!”
As the three officers departed down the backdoor steps, a hesitating
voice followed them—“H'm! Is there any place where one can go—a
cellar, or any old spot of that kind—just in case we are—”
“Bless you, you'll be all right!” was the cheery reply. (The
outgoing Brigade is always excessively cheery.) “But there are dug-outs
over there—in the garden. They haven't been occupied for some months,
so you may find them a bit ratty. You won't require them, though.
Whizz! Boom! Bang! Crash! Wump!
“It's just as well,” mused the Brigade Major, turning in his sleep
about three o'clock the following morning, “that they warned us about
the deceptive sound of the shelling here. One would almost imagine that
it was quite close.... That last one was heavy stuff: it shook the
whole place!... This is a topping mattress: it would be rotten having
to take to the woods again after getting into really cooshie quarters
at last.... There they go again!” as a renewed tempest of shells rent
the silence of night. “That old battery must be getting it in the
neck!... Hallo, I could have sworn something hit the roof that time! A
loose slate, I expect! Anyhow ...”
The Brigade Major, who had had a very long day, turned over and went
to sleep again.
The next morning, a Sunday, broke bright and clear. Contrary to his
usual habit, the Brigade Major took a stroll in the garden before
breakfast. The first object which caught his eye, as he came down the
back-door steps, was the figure of the Staff Captain, brooding
pensively over a large crater, close to the hedge. The Brigade Major
“I wonder if that was there yesterday!” he observed, referring to
“Couldn't have been,” growled the Staff Captain. “We walked to the
house along this very hedge. No craters then!”
“True!” agreed the Brigade Major amiably. He turned and surveyed the
garden. “That lawn looks a bit of a golf course. What lovely bunkers!”
“They appear to be quite new, too,” remarked the Staff Captain
thoughtfully. “Come to breakfast!”
On their way back they found the Brigadier, the Machine-Gun Officer,
and the Padre, gazing silently upward.
“I wonder when that corner of the house got knocked off,” the M.G.O.
“Fairly recently, I should say,” replied the Brigadier.
“Those marks beside your bedroom window, sir,—they look pretty
fresh!” interpolated the Padre, a sincere but somewhat tactless
Brigade Headquarters regarded one another with dubious smiles.
“I wonder,” began a tentative voice, “if those fellows last
night were indulging in a leg-pull—what is called in this country a
lire-jambe—when they assured us—”
A shell came shrieking over the tree-tops, and fell with a
tremendous splash into the geometrical centre of the lake, fifty yards
* * * * *
For the next two hours, shrapnel, “whizz-bangs,” “Silent Susies,”
and other explosive wildfowl raged round the walls of Hush Hall. The
inhabitants thereof, some twenty persons in all, were gathered in
various apartments on the lee side.
“It is still possible,” remarked the Brigadier, lighting his pipe,
“that they are not aiming at us. However, it is just as inconvenient to
be buried by accident as by design. As soon as the first direct hit is
registered upon this imposing fabric, we will retire to the dug-outs.
Send word to the kitchen that every one is to be ready to clear out of
the house when necessary.”
Next moment there came a resounding crash, easily audible above the
tornado raging in the garden, followed by the sound of splintering
glass. Hush Hall rocked. The Mess waiter appeared.
“A shell has just came in through the dining-room window, sirr,” he
informed the Mess President, “and broke three of they new cups!”
“How tiresome!” said the Brigadier. “Dug-outs, everybody!”
There were no casualties, which was rather miraculous. Late in the
afternoon Brigade Headquarters ventured upon another stroll in the
garden. The tumult had ceased, and the setting Sabbath sun glowed
peacefully upon the battered countenance of Hush Hall. The damage was
not very extensive, for the house was stoutly built. Still, two
bedrooms, recently occupied, were a wreck of broken glass and
splintered plaster, while the gravel outside was littered with lead
sheeting and twisted chimney-cans. The shell which had aroused the
indignation of the Mess waiter by entering the dining-room window, had
in reality hit the ground directly beneath it. Six feet higher, and the
Brigadier's order to clear the house would have been entirely
The Brigade Major and the Staff Captain surveyed the unruffled
surface of the lake—a haunt of ancient peace in the rays of the
setting sun. Upon the bosom thereof floated a single, majestic,
one-eyed swan, performing intricate toilet exercises. It was Edgar.
“He must have a darned good dug-out somewhere!” observed the Brigade
III. WINTER SPORTS: VARIOUS
Hush Hall having become an even less desirable place of residence
than had hitherto been thought possible, Headquarters very sensibly
sent for their invaluable friends, Box and Cox, of the Royal Engineers,
and requested that they would proceed to make the place proof against
shells and weather, forthwith, if not sooner.
Those phlegmatic experts made a thorough investigation of the
resources of the establishment, and departed mysteriously, after the
fashion of the common plumber of civilisation, into space. Three days
later they returned, accompanied by a horde of acolytes, who, with
characteristic contempt for the pathetic appeals upon the
notice-boards, proceeded to dump down lumber, sandbags, and corrugated
iron roofing in the most exposed portions of the garden.
This done, some set out to shore up the ceilings of the basement
with mighty battens of wood, and to convert that region into a nest of
cunningly devised bedrooms. Others reinforced the flooring above with a
layer of earth and brick rubble three feet deep. On the top of all this
they relaid not only the original floor, but eke the carpet.
“The only difference from before, sir,” explained Box to the
admiring Staff Captain, “is that people will have to walk up three
steps to get into the dining-room now, instead of going in on the
“I wonder what the Marquise de Chilquichose will think of it all
when she returns to her ancestral home,” mused the Staff Captain.
“If anything,” maintained the invincible Box, “we have improved it
for her. For example, she can now light the chandelier without standing
on a chair—without getting up from table, in fact! However, to resume.
The fireplace, you will observe, has not been touched. I have left a
sort of well in the floor all round it, lined with some stuff I found
in Mademoiselle's room. At least,” added Box coyly, “I think it must
have been Mademoiselle's room! You can sit in the well every evening
after supper. The walls of this room”—prodding the same—“are lined
with sandbags, covered with tapestry. Pretty artistic—what?”
“Extremely,” agreed the Staff Captain. “You will excuse my raising
the point, I know, but can the apartment now be regarded as
“Against everything but a direct hit. I wouldn't advise you to sleep
on this floor much, but you could have your meals here all right. Then,
if the Boche starts putting over heavy stuff, you can pop down into the
basement and have your dessert in bed. You'll be absolutely safe there.
In fact, the more the house tumbles down the safer you will be. It will
only make your protection shell thicker. So if you hear heavy thuds
overhead, don't be alarmed!”
“I won't,” promised the Staff Captain. “I shall lie in bed, drinking
a nice hot cup of tea, and wondering whether the last crash was the
kitchen chimney, or only the drawing-room piano coming down another
storey. Now show me my room.”
“We have had to put you in the larder,” explained Box
apologetically, as he steered his guest through a forest of struts with
an electric torch. “At least, I think it's the larder: it has a sort of
meaty smell. The General is in the dairy—a lovely little suite, with
white tiles. The Brigade Major has the scullery: it has a sink, so is
practically as good as a flat in Park Place. I have run up cubicles for
the others in the kitchen. Here is your little cot. It is only six feet
by four, but you can dress in the garden.”
“It's a sweet little nest, dear!” replied the Staff Captain,
quite hypnotised by this time. “I'll just get my maid to put me into
something loose, and then I'll run along to your room, and we'll have a
nice cosy gossip together before dinner!”
* * * * *
In due course we removed our effects from the tottering and
rat-ridden dug-outs in which we had taken sanctuary during the
shelling, and prepared to settle down for the winter in our new
“We might be very much worse off!” we observed the first
evening, listening to the comfortably muffled sounds of shells
And we were right. Three days later we received an intimation from
the Practical Joke Department that we were to evacuate our present
sector of trenches (including Hush Hall) forthwith, and occupy another
part of the line.
In all Sports, Winter and Summer, the supremacy of the Practical
Joke Department is unchallenged.
Meanwhile, up in the trenches, the combatants are beguiling the time
in their several ways.
Let us take the reserve line first—the lair of Battalion
Headquarters and its appurtenances. Much of our time here, as
elsewhere, is occupied in unostentatious retirement to our dug-outs, to
avoid the effects of a bombardment. But a good amount—an increasing
amount—of it is devoted to the contemplation of our own shells
bursting over the Boche trenches. Gone are the days during which we
used to sit close and “stick it out,” consoling ourselves with the
vague hope that by the end of the week our gunners might possibly have
garnered sufficient ammunition to justify a few brief hours'
retaliation. The boot is on the other leg now. For every Boche battery
that opens on us, two or three of ours thunder back a reply—and that
without any delays other than those incidental to the use of that
maddening instrument, the field-telephone. During the past six months
neither side has been able to boast much in the way of ground actually
gained; but the moral ascendancy—the initiative—the offensive—call
it what you will—has changed hands; and no one knows it better than
the Boche. We are the attacking party now.
The trenches in this country are not arranged with such geometric
precision as in France. For instance, the reserve line is not always
connected with the firing-lines by a communication-trench. Those
persons whose duty it is to pay daily visits to the
fire-trenches—Battalion Commanders, Gunner and Sapper officers, an
occasional Staff Officer, and an occasional most devoted Padre—perform
the journey as best they may. Sometimes they skirt a wood or hedge,
sometimes they keep under the lee of an embankment, sometimes they
proceed across the open, with the stealthy caution of persons playing
musical chairs, ready to sit down in the nearest shell-crater the
moment the music—in the form of a visitation of “whizz-bangs”—strikes
It is difficult to say which kind of weather is least favourable to
this enterprise. On sunny days one's movements are visible to Boche
observers upon distant summits; while on foggy days the Boche gunners,
being able to see nothing at all, amuse themselves by generous and
unexpected contributions of shrapnel in all directions. Stormy weather
is particularly unpleasant, for the noise of the wind in the trees
makes it difficult to hear the shell approaching. Days of heavy rain
are the most desirable on the whole, for then the gunners are too busy
bailing out their gun-pits to worry their heads over adventurous
pedestrians. One learns, also, to mark down and avoid particular
danger-spots. For instance, the southeast corner of that wood, where a
reserve company are dug in, is visited by “Silent Susans” for about
five minutes each noontide: it is therefore advisable to select some
other hour for one's daily visit. (Silent Susan, by the way, is not a
desirable member of the sex. Owing to her intensely high velocity she
arrives overhead without a sound, and then bursts with a perfectly
stunning detonation and a shower of small shrapnel bullets.) There is a
fixed rifle-battery, too, which fires all day long, a shot at a time,
down the main street of the ruined and deserted village named
Vrjoozlehem, through which one must pass on the way to the front-line
trenches. Therefore in negotiating this delectable spot, one shapes a
laborious course through a series of back yards and garden-plots,
littered with broken furniture and brick rubble, allowing the
rifle-bullets the undisputed use of the street. The mention of
Vrjoozlehem—that is not its real name, but a simplified form of
it—brings to our notice the wholesale and whole-hearted fashion in
which the British Army has taken Belgian institutions under its wing.
Nomenclature, for instance. In France we make no attempt to interfere
with this: we content ourselves with devising a pronounceable variation
of the existing name. For example, if a road is called La Rue de Bois,
we simply call it “Roodiboys,” and leave it at that. On the same
principle, Etaples is modified to “Eatables,” and Sailly-la-Bourse to
“Sally Booze.” But in Belgium more drastic procedure is required. A
Scotsman is accustomed to pronouncing difficult names, but even he is
unable to contend with words composed almost entirely of the letters
j, z, and v. So our resourceful Ordnance Department has
issued maps—admirable maps—upon which the outstanding features of the
landscape are marked in plain figures. But instead of printing the
original place-names, they put “Moated Grange,” or “Clapham Junction,”
or “Dead Dog Farm,” which simplifies matters beyond all possibility of
error. (The system was once responsible, though, for an unjust if
unintentional aspersion upon the character of a worthy man. The C.O. of
a certain battalion had occasion to complain to those above him of the
remissness of one of his chaplains. “He's a lazy beggar, sir,” he said.
“Over and over again I have told him to come up and show himself in the
front-line trenches, but he never seems to be able to get past
The naming of the trenches themselves has been left largely to local
enterprise. An observant person can tell, by a study of the numerous
name-boards, which of his countrymen have been occupying the line
during the past six months. “Grainger Street” and “Jesmond Dene” give
direct evidence of “Canny N'castle.” “Sherwood Avenue” and “Notts
Forest” have a Midland flavour. Lastly, no great mental effort is
required to decide who labelled two communication trenches “The
Gorbals” and “Coocaddens” respectively!
Some names have obviously been bestowed by officers, as “Sackville
Street,” “The Albany,” and “Burlington Arcade” denote. “Pinch-Gut” and
“Crab-Crawl” speak for themselves. So does “Vermin Villa.” Other
localities, again, have obviously been labelled by persons endowed with
a nice gift of irony. “Sanctuary Wood” is the last place on earth where
any one would dream of taking sanctuary; while “Lovers' Walk,” which
bounds it, is the scene of almost daily expositions of the choicest
brand of Boche “hate.”
And so on. But one day, when the War is over, and this mighty
trench-line is thrown open to the disciples of the excellent Mr.
Cook—as undoubtedly it will be—care should be taken that these
street-names are preserved and perpetuated. It would be impossible to
select a more characteristic and fitting memorial to the brave hearts
who constructed them—too many of whom are sleeping their last sleep
within a few yards of their own cheerful handiwork.
After this digression we at length reach the firing-line. It is
quite unlike anything of its kind that we have hitherto encountered. It
is situated in what was once a thick wood. Two fairly well-defined
trenches run through the undergrowth, from which the sentries of either
side have been keeping relentless watch upon one another, night and
day, for many months. The wood itself is a mere forest of poles: hardly
a branch, and not a twig, has been spared by the shrapnel. In the
no-man's-land between the trenches the poles have been reduced to mere
stumps a few inches high.
It is behind the firing-trench that the most unconventional scene
presents itself. Strictly speaking, there ought to be—and generally
is—a support-line some seventy yards in rear of the first. This should
be occupied by all troops not required in the firing-trench. But the
trench is empty—which is not altogether surprising, considering that
it is half-full of water. Its rightful occupants are scattered through
the wood behind—in dug-outs, in redoubts, or en plein air
—cooking, washing, or repairing their residences. The whole scene
suggests a gipsy encampment rather than a fortified post. A hundred
yards away, through the trees, you can plainly discern the Boche
firing-trench, and the Boche in that trench can discern you: yet never
a shot comes. It is true that bullets are humming through the air and
glancing off trees, but these are mostly due to the enterprise of
distant machine-guns and rifle-batteries, firing from some position
well adapted for enfilade. Frontal fire there is little or none. In the
front-line trenches, at least, Brother Boche has had enough of it. His
motto now is, “Live and let live!” In fact, he frequently makes
plaintive statements to that effect in the silence of night.
You might think, then, that life in Willow Grove would be a tranquil
affair. But if you look up among the few remaining branches of that
tall tree in the centre of the wood, you may notice shreds of some
material flapping in the breeze. Those are sandbags—or were. Last
night, within the space of one hour, seventy-three shells fell into
this wood, and the first of them registered a direct hit upon the
dug-out of which those sandbags formed part. There were eight men in
that dug-out. The telephone-wires were broken in the first few minutes,
and there was some delay before word could be transmitted back to
Headquarters. Then our big guns far in rear spoke out, until the
enemy's batteries (probably in response to an urgent appeal from their
own front line) ceased firing. Thereupon “A” Company, who at Bobby
Little's behest had taken immediate cover in the water-logged
support-trench, returned stolidly to their dug-outs in Willow Grove.
Death, when he makes the mistake of raiding your premises every day,
loses most of his terrors and becomes a bit of a bore.
This morning the Company presents its normal appearance: its numbers
have been reduced by eight—c'est tout! It may be some one
else's turn to-morrow, but after all, that is what we are here for.
Anyhow, we are keeping the Boches out of “Wipers,” and a bit over. So
we stretch our legs in the wood, and keep the flooded trench for the
Let us approach a group of four which is squatting sociably round a
small and inadequate fire of twigs, upon which four mess-tins are
simmering. The quartette consists of Privates Cosh and Tosh, together
with Privates Buncle and Nigg, preparing their midday meal.
“Tak' off your damp chup, Jimmy,” suggested Tosh to Buncle, who was
officiating as stoker. “Ye mind what the Captain said aboot smoke?”
“It wasna the Captain: it was the Officer,” rejoined Buncle
(It may here be explained, at the risk of another digression, that
no length of association or degree of intimacy will render the average
British soldier familiar with the names of his officers. The Colonel is
“The C.O.”; the Second in Command is “The Major”; your Company
Commander is “The Captain,” and your Platoon Commander “The Officer.”
As for all others of commissioned rank in the regiment, some
twenty-four in all, they are as nought. With the exception of the
Quartermaster, in whose shoes each member of the rank and file hopes
one day to stand, they simply do not exist.)
“Onyway,” pursued the careful Tosh, “he said that if any smoke was
shown, all fires was tae be pitten oot. So mind and see no' to get a
cauld dinner for us all, Jimmy!”
“Cauld or het,” retorted the gentleman addressed, “it's little
dinner I'll be gettin' this day! And ye ken fine why!” he added darkly.
Private Tosh removed a cigarette from his lower lip and sighed
“For the last time,” he announced, with the air of a righteous man
suffering long, “I did not lay ma hand on your dirrty wee bit ham!”
“Maybe,” countered the bereaved Buncle swiftly, “you did not lay
your hand upon it; but you had it tae your breakfast for all that,
“I never pit ma hand on it!” repeated Tosh doggedly.
“No? Then I doot you gave it a bit kick with your foot,” replied the
“Or got some other body tae luft it for him!” suggested Private
Nigg, looking hard at Tosh's habitual accomplice, Cosh.
“I had it pitten in an auld envelope from hame, addressed with my
name,” continued the mourner. “It couldna hae got oot o' that by
“Weel,” interposed Cosh, with forced geniality, “it's no a thing tae
argie-bargie aboot. Whatever body lufted it, it's awa' by this time.
It's a fine day, boys!”
This flagrant attempt to raise the conversation to a less
controversial plane met with no encouragement. Private Buncle, refusing
to be appeased, replied sarcastically—
“Aye, is it? And it was a fine nicht last nicht, especially when the
shellin' was gaun on! Especially in number seeven dug-oot!”
There was a short silence. Number seven dug-out was no more, and
five of its late occupants were now lying under their waterproof
sheets, not a hundred yards away, waiting for a Padre. Presently,
however, the pacific Cosh, who in his hours of leisure was addicted to
mild philosophical rumination, gave a fresh turn to the conversation.
“Mphm!” he observed thoughtfully. “They say that in a war every man
has a bullet waiting for him some place or other, with his name on it!
Sooner or later, he gets it. Aye! Mphm!” He sucked his teeth
reflectively, and glanced towards the Field Ambulance. “Sooner or
“What for would he pit his name on it, Wully?” inquired Nigg, who
was not very quick at grasping allusions.
“He wouldna pit on the name himself,” explained the philosopher.
“What I mean is, there's a bullet for each one of us somewhere over
there”—he jerked his head eastward—“in a Gairman pooch.”
“What way could a Gairman pit my name on a bullet?” demanded Nigg
triumphantly. “He doesna ken it!”
“Man,” exclaimed Cosh, shedding some of his philosophic calm, “can
ye no unnerstand that what I telled ye was jist a mainner of speakin'?
When I said that a man's name was on a bullet, I didna mean that it was
“Then what the hell did ye mean?” inquired the mystified
disciple—not altogether unreasonably.
Private Tosh made a misguided but well-meaning attempt to straighten
out the conversation.
“He means, Sandy,” he explained in a soothing voice, “that the name
was just stampit on the bullet. Like—like—like an identity disc!” he
The philosopher clutched his temples with both hands.
“I dinna mean onything o' the kind,” he roared. “What I intend tae
imply is this, Sandy Nigg. Some place over there there is a
bullet in a Gairman's pooch, and one day that bullet will find its way
intil your insides as sure as if your name was written on it! That's
what I meant. Jist a mainner of speakin'. Dae ye unnerstand me the
But it was the injured Buncle who replied—like a lightning-flash.
“Never you fear, Sandy, boy!” he proclaimed to his perturbed ally.
“That bullet has no' gotten your length yet. Maybe it never wull.
There's mony a thing in this worrld with one man's name on it that
finds its way intil the inside of some other man.” He fixed Tosh with a
relentless eye. “A bit ham, for instance!”
It was a knock-out blow.
“For ony sake,” muttered the now demoralised Tosh, “drop the
subject, and I'll gie ye a bit ham o' ma ain! There's just time tae
“What kin' o' a fire is this?”
A cold shadow fell upon the group as a substantial presence inserted
itself between the debaters and the wintry sunshine. Corporal
Mucklewame was speaking, in his new and awful official voice, pointing
an accusing finger at the fire, which, neglected in the ardour of
discussion, was smoking furiously.
“Did you wish the hale wood tae be shelled?” continued Mucklewame
sarcastically. “Put oot the fire at once, or I'll need tae bring ye all
before the Officer. It is a cauld dinner ye'll get, and ye'll deserve
In the fire-trench—or perhaps it would be more correct to call it
the water-trench—life may be short, and is seldom merry; but it is not
often dull. For one thing, we are never idle.
A Boche trench-mortar knocks down several yards of your parapet.
Straightway your machine-gunners are called up, to cover the gap until
darkness falls and the gaping wound can be stanched with fresh
sandbags. A mine has been exploded upon your front, leaving a crater
into which predatory Boches will certainly creep at night. You summon a
posse of bombers to occupy the cavity and discourage any such
enterprise. The heavens open, and there is a sudden deluge. Immediately
it is a case of all hands to the trench-pump! A better plan, if you
have the advantage of ground, is to cut a culvert under the parapet and
pass the inundation on to a more deserving quarter. In any case you
need never lack healthful exercise.
While upon the subject of mines, we may note that this branch of
military industry has expanded of late to most unpleasant dimensions.
The Boche began it, of course—he always initiates these undesirable
pastimes,—and now we have followed his lead and caught him up.
To the ordinary mortal, to become a blind groper amid the dark
places of the earth, in search of a foe whom it is almost certain death
to encounter there, seems perhaps the most idiotic of all the idiotic
careers open to those who are idiotic enough to engage in modern
warfare. However, many of us are as much at home below ground as above
it. In most peaceful times we were accustomed to spend eight hours a
day there, lying up against the “face” in a tunnel perhaps four feet
high, and wielding a pick in an attitude which would have convulsed any
ordinary man with cramp. But there are few ordinary men in “K(1)” There
is never any difficulty in obtaining volunteers for the Tunnelling
So far as the amateur can penetrate its mysteries, mining, viewed
under our present heading—namely, Winter Sports—offers the following
advantages to its participants:—
(1) In winter it is much warmer below the earth than upon its
surface, and Thomas Atkins is the most confirmed “frowster” in the
(2) Critics seldom descend into mines.
(3) There is extra pay.
The disadvantages are so obvious that they need not be enumerated
In these trenches we have been engaged upon a very pretty game of
subterranean chess for some weeks past, and we are very much on our
mettle. We have some small leeway to make up. When we took over these
trenches, a German mine, which had been maturing (apparently unheeded)
during the tenancy of our predecessors, was exploded two days after our
arrival, inflicting heavy casualties upon “D” Company. Curiously
enough, the damage to the trench was comparatively slight; but the
tremendous shock of the explosion killed more than one man by
concussion, and brought down the roofs of several dug-outs upon their
sleeping occupants. Altogether it was a sad business, and the Battalion
swore to be avenged.
So they called upon Lieutenant Duff-Bertram—usually called Bertie
the Badger, in reference to his rodent disposition—to make the first
move in the return match. So Bertie and his troglodyte assistants sank
a shaft in a retired spot of their own selecting, and proceeded to
burrow forward towards the Boche lines.
After certain days Bertie presented himself, covered in clay, before
Colonel Kemp, and made a report.
Colonel Kemp considered.
“You say you can hear the enemy working?” he said.
“Pretty near, sir.”
“A few yards.”
“What do you propose to do?”
Bertie the Badger—in private life he was a consulting mining
engineer with a beautiful office in Victoria Street and a nice taste in
spats—scratched an earthy nose with a muddy forefinger.
“I think they are making a defensive gallery, sir,” he announced.
“Let us have your statement in the simplest possible language,
please,” said Colonel Kemp. “Some of my younger officers,” he added
rather ingeniously, “are not very expert in these matters.”
Bertie the Badger thereupon expounded the situation with solemn
relish. By a defensive gallery, it appeared that he meant a lateral
tunnel running parallel with the trench-line, in such a manner as to
intercept any tunnel pushed out by the British miners.
“And what do you suggest doing to this Piccadilly Tube of theirs?”
inquired the Colonel.
“I could dig forward and break into it, sir,” suggested Bertie.
“That seems a move in the right direction,” said the Colonel. “But
won't the Boche try to prevent you?”
“He will wait until the head of my tunnel gets near enough, and then
blow it in.”
“That would be very tiresome of him. What other alternatives are
open to you?”
“I could get as near as possible, sir,” replied Bertie calmly, “and
then blowup his gallery.”
“That sounds better. Well, exercise your own discretion, and don't
get blown up unless you particularly want to. And above all, be quite
sure that while you are amusing yourself with the Piccadilly Tube, the
wily Boche isn't burrowing past you, and under my parapet, by
the Bakerloo! Good luck! Report any fresh development at once.”
So Bertie the Badger returned once more to his native element and
proceeded to exercise his discretion. This took the form of continuing
his aggressive tunnel in the direction of the Boche defensive gallery.
Next morning, encouraged by the absolute silence of the enemy's miners,
he made a farther and final push, which actually landed him in the
“Piccadilly Tube” itself.
“This is a rum go, Howie!” he observed in a low voice to his
corporal. “A long, beautiful gallery, five by four, lined with wood,
electrically lighted, with every modern convenience—and not a Boche in
“Varra bad discipline, sir!” replied Corporal Howie severely.
“Are you sure it isn't a trap?”
“It may be, sirr; but I doot the oversman is awa' to his dinner, and
the men are back in the shaft, doing naething.” Corporal Howie had been
an “oversman” himself, and knew something of subterranean labour
“Well, if you are right, the Boche must be getting demoralised. It
is not like him to present us with openings like this. However, the
first thing to do is to distribute a few souvenirs along the gallery.
Pass the word back for the stuff. Meanwhile I shall endeavour to test
your theory about the oversman's dinner-hour. I am going to creep along
and have a look at the Boche entrance to the Tube. It's down there, at
the south end, I think. I can see a break in the wood lining. If you
hear any shooting, you will know that the dinner-hour is over!”
At the end of half an hour the Piccadilly Tube was lined with
sufficient explosive material—securely rammed and tamped—to ensure
the permanent closing of the line. Still no Boche had been seen or
“Now, Howie,” said Bertie the Badger, fingering the fuse, “what
“About what, sirr?” inquired Howie, who was not quite au fait
with current catch-phrases.
“Are we going to touch off all this stuff now, and clear out, or are
we going to wait and see?”
“I would like fine—” began the Corporal wistfully.
“So would I,” said Bertie. “Tell the men to get back and out; and
you and I will hold on until the guests return from the banquet.”
“Varra good, sirr.”
For another half-hour the pair waited—Bertie the Badger like a dog
in its kennel, with his head protruding into the hostile gallery, while
his faithful henchman crouched close behind him. Deathly stillness
reigned, relieved only by an occasional thud, as a shell or
trench-mortar bomb exploded upon the ground above their heads.
“I'm going to have another look round the corner,” said Bertie at
last. “Hold on to the fuse.”
He handed the end of the fuse to his subordinate, and having wormed
his way out of the tunnel, proceeded cautiously on all-fours along the
gallery. On his way he passed the electric light. He twisted off the
bulb and crawled on in the dark.
Feeling his way by the east wall of the gallery, he came presently
to the break in the woodwork. Very slowly, lying flat on his stomach
now, he wriggled forward until his head came opposite the opening. A
low passage ran away to his left, obviously leading back to the Boche
trenches. Three yards from the entrance the passage bent sharply to the
right, thus interrupting the line of sight.
“There's a light burning just round that bend,” said Bertie the
Badger to himself. “I wonder if it would be rash to go on and have a
look at it!”
He was still straining at this gnat, when suddenly his elbow
encountered a shovel which was leaning against the wall of the gallery.
It tumbled down with a clatter almost stunning. Next moment a hand came
round the bend of the tunnel and fired a revolver almost into the
Another shot rang out directly after.
The devoted Howie, hastening to the rescue, collided sharply with a
solid body crawling towards him in the darkness.
“Curse you, Howie!” said the voice of Bertie the Badger, with
refreshing earnestness. “Get back out of this! Where's your fuse?”
The pair scrambled back into their own tunnel, and the end of the
fuse was soon recovered. Almost simultaneously three more
revolver-shots rang out.
“I thought I had fixed that Boche,” murmured Bertie in a
disappointed voice. “I heard him grunt when my bullet hit him. Perhaps
this is another one—or several. Keep back in the tunnel, Howie,
confound you, and don't breathe up my sleeve! They are firing straight
along the gallery now. I will return the compliment. Ouch!”
“What's the matter, sirr?” inquired the anxious voice of Howie, as
his officer, who had tried to fire round the corner with his left hand,
gave a sudden exclamation and rolled over upon his side.
“I must have been hit the first time,” he explained. “Collar-bone, I
think. I didn't know, till I rested my weight on my left elbow....
Howie, I am going to exercise my discretion again. Somebody in this
gallery is going to be blown up presently, and if you and I don't get a
move on, p.d.q., it will be us! Give me the fuse-lighter, and wait for
me at the foot of the shaft. Quick!”
Very reluctantly the Corporal obeyed. However, he was in due course
joined at the foot of the shaft by Bertie the Badger, groaning
profanely; and the pair made their way to the upper regions with all
possible speed. After a short interval, a sudden rumbling, followed by
a heavy explosion, announced that the fuse had done its work, and that
the Piccadilly Tube, the fruit of many toilsome weeks of Boche
calculation and labour, had been permanently closed to traffic of all
Bertie the Badger received a Military Cross, and his abettor the
But the newest and most fashionable form of winter sport this season
is The Flying Matinee.
This entertainment takes place during the small hours of the
morning, and is strictly limited to a duration of ten minutes—quite
long enough for most matinees, too. The actors are furnished by a unit
of “K(1)” and the role of audience is assigned to the inhabitants of
the Boche trenches immediately opposite. These matinees have proved an
enormous success, but require most careful rehearsal.
It is two A.M., and comparative peace reigns up and down the line.
The rain of star-shells, always prodigal in the early evening, has died
down to a mere drizzle. Working and fatigue parties, which have been
busy since darkness set in at five o'clock,—rebuilding parapets,
repairing wire, carrying up rations, and patrolling debatable
areas,—have ceased their labours, and are sleeping heavily until the
coming of the wintry dawn shall rouse them, grimy and shivering, to
another day's unpleasantness.
Private Hans Dumpkopf, on sentry duty in the Boche firing-trench,
gazes mechanically over the parapet; but the night is so dark and the
wind so high that it is difficult to see and quite impossible to hear
anything. He shelters himself beside a traverse, and waits patiently
for his relief. It begins to rain, and Hans, after cautiously
reconnoitring the other side of the traverse, to guard against prowling
sergeants, sidles a few yards to his right beneath the friendly cover
of an improvised roof of corrugated iron sheeting, laid across the
trench from parapet to parados. It is quite dry here, and comparatively
warm. Hans closes his eyes for a moment, and heaves a gentle sigh.
Next moment there comes a rush of feet in the darkness, followed by
a metallic clang, as of hobnailed boots on metal. Hans, lying prostrate
and half-stunned beneath the galvanised iron sheeting, which, dislodged
from its former position by the impact of a heavy body descending from
above, now forms part of the flooring of the trench, is suddenly aware
that this same trench is full of men—rough, uncultured men, clad in
short petticoats and the skins of wild animals, and armed with
knobkerries. The Flying Matinee has begun, and Hans Dumpkopf has got in
by the early door.
Each of the performers—there are fifty of them all told—has his
part to play, and plays it with commendable aplomb. One, having
disarmed an unresisting prisoner, assists him over the parapet and
escorts him affectionately to his new home. Another clubs a
recalcitrant foeman over the head with a knobkerry, and having thus
reduced him to a more amenable frame of mind, hoists him over the
parapet and drags him after his “kamarad.”
Other parties are told off to deal with the dug-outs. As a rule, the
occupants of these are too dazed to make any resistance,—to be quite
frank, the individual Boche in these days seems rather to welcome
captivity than otherwise,—and presently more of the “bag” are on their
way to the British lines.
But by this time the performance is drawing to a close. The alarm
has been communicated to the adjacent sections of the trench, and
preparations for the ejection of the intruders are being hurried
forward. That is to say, German bombers are collecting upon either
flank, with the intention of bombing “inwards” until the impudent foe
has been destroyed or evicted. As we are not here to precipitate a
general action, but merely to round up a few prisoners and do as much
damage as possible in ten minutes, we hasten to the finale. As in most
finales, one's actions now become less restrained—but, from a brutal
point of view, more effective. A couple of hand-grenades are thrown
into any dug-out which has not yet surrendered. (The Canadians, who
make quite a speciality of flying matinees, are accustomed, we
understand, as an artistic variant to this practice, to fasten an
electric torch along the barrel of a rifle, and so illuminate their
lurking targets while they shoot.) A sharp order passes along the line;
every one scrambles out of the trench; and the troupe makes its way
back, before the enemy in the adjacent trenches have really wakened up,
to the place from which it came. The matinee, so far as the actors are
concerned, is over.
Not so the audience. The avenging host is just getting busy. The
bombing-parties are now marshalled and proceed with awful solemnity and
Teutonic thoroughness to clear the violated trench. The procedure of a
bombing-party is stereotyped. They begin by lobbing hand-grenades over
the first traverse into the first bay. After the ensuing explosion,
they trot round the traverse in single file and occupy the bay. This
manoeuvre is then repeated until the entire trench is cleared. The
whole operation requires good discipline, considerable courage, and
carefully timed co-operation with the other bombing-party. In all these
attributes the Boche excels. But one thing is essential to the complete
success of his efforts, and that is the presence of the enemy. When,
after methodically desolating each bay in turn (and incidentally
killing their own wounded in the process), the two parties meet
midway—practically on top of the unfortunate Hans Dumpkopf, who is
still giving an imitation of a tortoise in a corrugated shell—it is
discovered that the beautifully executed counter-attack has achieved
nothing but the recapture of an entirely empty trench. The birds have
flown, taking their prey with them. Hans is the sole survivor, and
after hearing what his officer has to say to him upon the subject,
bitterly regrets the fact.
Meanwhile, in the British trenches a few yards away, the box-office
returns are being made up. These take the form, firstly, of some
twenty-five prisoners, including one indignant officer—he had been
pulled from his dug-out half asleep and frog-marched across the British
lines by two private soldiers well qualified to appreciate the richness
of his language—together with various souvenirs in the way of arms and
accoutrements; and secondly, of the knowledge that at least as many
more of the enemy had been left permanently incapacitated for further
warfare in the dug-outs. A grim and grisly drama when you come to
criticise it in cold blood, but not without a certain humour of its
own—and most educative for Brother Boche!
But he is a slow pupil. He regards the profession of arms and the
pursuit of war with such intense and solemn reverence that he cannot
conceive how any one calling himself a soldier can be so criminally
frivolous as to write a farce round the subject—much less present the
farce at a Flying Matinee. That possibly explains why the following
stately paragraph appeared a few days later in the periodical
communique which keeps the German nation in touch with its Army's
During the night of Jan. 4th-5th attempts were made by strong
detachments of the enemy to penetrate our line near
S.E. of Ypres. The attack failed utterly.
“And they don't even realise that it was only a leg-pull!” commented
the Company Commander who had stage-managed the affair. “These people
simply don't deserve to have entertainments arranged for them at all.
Well, we must pull the limb again, that's all!”
And it was so.
IV. THE PUSH THAT FAILED
“I wonder if they really mean business this time,” surmised that
youthful Company Commander, Temporary Captain Bobby Little, to Major
“It sounds like it,” said Wagstaffe, as another salvo of
“whizz-bangs” broke like inflammatory surf upon the front-line
trenches. “Intermittent strafes we are used to, but this all-day
performance seems to indicate that the Boche is really getting down to
it for once. The whole proceeding reminds me of nothing so much as our
own 'artillery preparation' before the big push at Loos.”
“Then you think the Boches are going to make a push of their own?”
“I do; and I hope it will be a good fat one. When it comes, I fancy
we shall be able to put up something rather pretty in the way of a
defence. The Salient is stiff with guns—I don't think the Boche quite
realises how stiff! And we owe the swine something!” he added
through his teeth.
There was a pause in the conversation. You cannot hold the Salient
for three months without paying for the distinction; and the regiment
had paid its full share. Not so much in numbers, perhaps, as in
quality. Stray bullets, whistling up and down the trenches, coming even
obliquely from the rear, had exacted most grievous toll. Shells and
trench-mortar bombs, taking us in flank, had extinguished many valuable
lives. At this time nothing but the best seemed to satisfy the Fates.
One day it would be a trusted colour-sergeant, on another a couple of
particularly promising young corporals. Only last week the
Adjutant—athlete, scholar, born soldier, and very lovable schoolboy,
all most perfectly blended—had fallen mortally wounded, on his morning
round of the fire-trenches, by a bullet which came from nowhere. He was
the subject of Wagstaffe's reference.
“Is it not possible,” suggested Mr. Waddell, who habitually
considered all questions from every possible point of view, “that this
bombardment has been specially initiated by the German authorities, in
order to impress upon their own troops a warning that there must be no
Christmas truce this year?”
“If that is the Kaiser's Christmas greeting to his loving
followers,” observed Wagstaffe drily, “I think he might safely have
left it to us to deliver it!”
“They say,” interposed Bobby Little, “that the Kaiser is here
“How do you know?”
“It was rumoured in 'Comic Cuts.'“ (“Comic Cuts” is the stately
Summary of War Intelligence issued daily from Olympus.)
“If that is true,” said Wagstaffe, “they probably will attack. All
this fuss and bobbery suggest something of the kind. They remind me of
the commotion which used to precede Arthur Roberts's entrance in the
old days of Gaiety burlesque. Before your time, I fancy, Bobby?”
“Yes,” said Bobby modestly. “I first found touch with the Gaiety
over 'Our Miss Gibbs.' And I was quite a kid even then,” he added, with
characteristic honesty. “But what about Arthur Roberts?”
“Some forty or fifty years ago,” explained Wagstaffe, “when I was in
the habit of frequenting places of amusement, Arthur Roberts was
leading man at the establishment to which I have referred. He usually
came on about half-past eight, just as the show was beginning to lose
its first wind. His entrance was a most tremendous affair. First of all
the entire chorus blew in from the wings—about sixty of them in ten
seconds—saying “Hurrah, hurrah, girls!” or something rather subtle of
that kind; after which minor characters rushed on from opposite sides
and told one another that Arthur Roberts was coming. Then the band
played, and everybody began to tell the audience about it in song. When
everything was in full blast, the great man would appear—stepping out
of a bathing-machine, or falling out of a hansom-cab, or sliding down a
chute on a toboggan. He was assisted to his feet by the chorus, and
then proceeded to ginger the show up. Well, that's how this present
entertainment impresses me. All this noise and obstreperousness are
leading up to one thing—Kaiser Bill's entrance. Preliminary
bombardment—that's the chorus getting to work! Minor characters—the
trench-mortars—spread the glad news! Band and chorus—that's
the grand attack working up to boiling-point! Finally, preceded by
clouds of gas, the Arch-Comedian in person, supported by spectacled
coryphees in brass hats! How's that for a Christmas pantomime?”
“Rotten!” said Bobby, as a shell sang over the parapet and burst in
the wood behind.
Kaiser or no Kaiser, Major Wagstaffe's extravagant analogy held
good. As Christmas drew nearer, the band played louder and faster; the
chorus swelled higher and shriller; and it became finally apparent that
something (or somebody) of portentous importance was directing the
Between six and seven next morning, the Battalion, which had stood
to arms all night, lifted up its heavy head and sniffed the misty
dawn-wind—an east wind—dubiously. Next moment gongs were clanging up
and down the trench, and men were tearing open the satchels which
contained their anti-gas helmets.
Major Wagstaffe, who had been sent up from Battalion Headquarters to
take general charge of affairs in the firing-trench, buttoned the
bottom edge of his helmet well inside his collar and clambered up on
the firing-step to take stock of the position. He crouched low, for a
terrific bombardment was in progress, and shells were almost grazing
Presently he was joined by a slim young officer similarly disguised.
It was the Commander of “A” Company. Wagstaffe placed his head close to
Bobby's left ear, and shouted through the cloth—
“We shan't feel this gas much. They're letting it off higher up the
Bobby, laboriously inhaling the tainted air inside his
helmet,—being preserved from a gas attack is only one degree less
unpleasant than being gassed,—turned his goggles northward.
In the dim light of the breaking day he could discern a
greenish-yellow cloud rolling across from the Boche trenches on his
“Will they attack?” he bellowed.
Wagstaffe nodded his head, and then cautiously unbuttoned his collar
and rolled up the front of his helmet. Then, after delicately sampling
the atmosphere by a cautious sniff, he removed his helmet altogether.
Bobby followed his example. The air was not by any means so pure as
might have been desired, but it was infinitely preferable to that
inside a gas-helmet.
“Nothing to signify,” pronounced Wagstaffe. “We're only getting the
edge of it. Sergeant, pass down that men may roll up their helmets, but
must keep them on their heads. Now, Bobby, things are getting
interesting. Will they attack, or will they not?”
“What do you think?” asked Bobby.
“They are certainly going to attack farther north. The Boche does
not waste gas as a rule—not this sort of gas! And I think he'll attack
here too. The only reason why he has not switched on our anaesthetic is
that the wind isn't quite right for this bit of the line. I think it is
going to be a general push. Bobby, have a look through this sniper's
loophole. Can you see any bayonets twinkling in the Boche trenches?”
Bobby applied an eye to the loophole.
“Yes,” he said, “I can see them. Those trenches must be packed with
“Absolutely stiff with them,” agreed Wagstaffe, getting out his
revolver. “We shall be in for it presently. Are your fellows all ready,
The youthful Captain ran his eye along the trench, where his
Company, with magazines loaded and bayonets fixed, were grimly awaiting
the onset. There had been an onset similar to this, with the same
green, nauseous accompaniment, in precisely the same spot eight months
before, which had broken the line and penetrated for four miles. There
it had been stayed by a forlorn hope of cooks, brakesmen, and officers'
servants, and disaster had been most gloriously retrieved. What was
going to happen this time? One thing was certain: the day of stink-pots
“When do you think they'll attack?” shouted Bobby to Wagstaffe,
battling against the noise of bursting shells.
“Quite soon—in a minute or two. Their guns will stop directly—to
lift their sights and set up a barrage behind us. Then, perhaps the
Boche will step over his parapet. Perhaps not!”
The last sentence rang out with uncanny distinctness, for the German
guns with one accord had ceased firing. For a full two minutes there
was absolute silence, while the bayonets in the opposite trenches
twinkled with tenfold intent.
Then, from every point in the great Salient of Ypres, the British
Possibly the Imperial General Staff at Berlin had been misinformed
as to the exact strength of the British Artillery. Possibly they had
been informed by their Intelligence Department that Trades Unionism,
had ensured that a thoroughly inadequate supply of shells was to hand
in the Salient. Or possibly they had merely decided, after the playful
habit of General Staffs, to let the infantry in the trenches take their
chance of any retaliation that might be forthcoming.
Whatever these great men were expecting, it is highly improbable
that they expected that which arrived. Suddenly the British batteries
spoke out, and they all spoke together. In the space of four minutes
they deposited thirty thousand high-explosive shells in the
Boche front-line trenches—yea, distributed the same accurately and
evenly along all that crowded arc. Then they paused, as suddenly as
they began, while British riflemen and machine-gunners bent to their
But few received the order to fire. Here and there a wave of men
broke over the German parapet and rolled towards the British
lines—only to be rolled back crumpled up by machine-guns. Never once
was the goal reached. The great Christmas attack was over. After months
of weary waiting and foolish recrimination, that exasperating race of
bad starters but great stayers, the British people, had delivered “the
goods,” and made it possible for their soldiers to speak with the enemy
in the gate upon equal—nay, superior, terms.
“Is that all?” asked Bobby Little, peering out over the parapet, a
little awe-struck, at the devastation over the way.
“That is all,” said Wagstaffe, “or I'm a Boche! There will be much
noise and some irregular scrapping for days, but the tin lid has been
placed upon the grand attack. The great Christmas Victory is off!”
Then he added, thoughtfully, referring apparently to the star
“We have been and spoiled his entrance for him, haven't we?”
V. UNBENDING THE BOW
There is a certain type of English country-house female who is said
to “live in her boxes.” That is to say, she appears to possess no home
of her own, but flits from one indulgent roof-tree to another; and
owing to the fact that she is invariably put into a bedroom whose
wardrobe is full of her hostess's superannuated ball-frocks and winter
furs, never knows what it is to have all her “things” unpacked at once.
Well, we out here cannot be said to live in our boxes, for we do not
possess any; but we do most undoubtedly live in our haversacks and
packs. And this brings us to the matter in hand—namely, so-called
“Rest-Billets.” The whole of the hinterland of this great trench-line
is full of tired men, seeking for a place to lie down in, and living in
their boxes when they find one.
At present we are indulging in such a period of repose; and we
venture to think that on the whole we have earned it. Our last rest was
in high summer, when we lay about under an August sun in the district
round Bethune, and called down curses upon all flying and creeping
insects. Since then we have undergone certain so-called “operations” in
the neighbourhood of Loos, and have put in three months in the Salient
of Ypres. As that devout adherent of the Roman faith, Private Reilly,
of “B” Company, put it to his spiritual adviser—
“I doot we'll get excused a good slice of Purgatory for this,
We came out of the Salient just before Christmas, in the midst of
the mutual unpleasantness arising out of the grand attack upon the
British line which was to have done so much to restore the waning
confidence of the Hun. It was meant to be a big affair—a most majestic
victory, in fact; but our new gas-helmets nullified the gas, and our
new shells paralysed the attack; so the Third Battle of Ypres was not
yet. Still, as I say, there was considerable unpleasantness all round;
and we were escorted upon our homeward way, from Sanctuary Wood to
Zillebeke, and from Zillebeke to Dickebusche, by a swarm of angry and
Next day we found ourselves many miles behind the firing-line, once
more in France, with a whole month's holiday in prospect, comfortably
conscious that one could walk round a corner or look over a wall
without preliminary reconnaissance or subsequent extirpation.
As for the holiday itself, unreasonable persons are not lacking to
point out that it is of the busman's variety. It is true that we are no
longer face to face with the foe, but we—or rather, the
authorities—make believe that we are. We wage mimic warfare in full
marching order; we fire rifles and machine-guns upon improvised ranges;
we perform hazardous feats with bombs and a dummy trench. More galling
still, we are back in the region of squad-drill, physical exercises,
and handling of arms—horrors of our childhood which we thought had
been left safely interned at Aldershot.
But the authorities are wise. The regiment is stiff and out of
condition: it is suffering from moral and intellectual “trench-feet.”
Heavy drafts have introduced a large and untempered element into our
composition. Many of the subalterns are obviously “new-jined”—as the
shrewd old lady of Ayr once observed of the rubicund gentleman at the
temperance meeting. Their men hardly know them or one another by sight.
The regiment must be moulded anew, and its lustre restored by the
beneficent process vulgarly known as “spit and polish.” So every
morning we apply ourselves with thoroughness, if not enthusiasm, to
tasks which remind us of last winter's training upon the Hampshire
But the afternoon and evening are a different story altogether. If
we were busy in the morning, we are busier still for the rest of the
day. There is football galore, for we have to get through a complete
series of Divisional cup-ties in four weeks. There is also a Brigade
boxing-tournament. (No, that was not where Private Tosh got his black
eye: that is a souvenir of New Year's Eve.) There are entertainments of
various kinds in the recreation-tent. This whistling platoon, with
towels round their necks, are on their way to the nearest convent, or
asylum, or Ecole des Jeunes Filles—have no fear; these establishments
are untenanted!—for a bath. There, in addition to the pleasures of
ablution, they will receive a partial change of raiment.
Other signs of regeneration are visible. That mysterious-looking
vehicle, rather resembling one of the early locomotives exhibited in
the South Kensington Museum, standing in the mud outside a farm-billet,
its superheated interior stuffed with “C” Company's blankets, is
performing an unmentionable but beneficent work.
Buttons are resuming their polish; the pattern of our kilts is
emerging from its superficial crust; and Church Parade is once more
becoming quite a show affair.
Away to the east the guns still thunder, and at night the
star-shells float tremblingly up over the distant horizon. But not for
us. Not yet, that is. In a few weeks' time we shall be back in another
part of the line. Till then—Company drill and Cup-Ties! Carpe diem!
It all seemed very strange and unreal to Second-Lieutenant Angus
M'Lachlan, as he alighted from the train at railhead, and supervised
the efforts of his solitary N.C.O. to arrange the members of his draft
in a straight line. There were some thirty of them in all. Some were
old hands—men from the First and Second Battalions, who had been home
wounded, and had now been sent out to leaven “K(1).” Others were
Special Reservists from the Third Battalion. These had been at the
Depot for a long time, and some of them stood badly in need of a little
active service. Others, again, were new hands altogether—the product
of “K to the nth.” Among these Angus M'Lachlan numbered himself,
and he made no attempt to conceal the fact. The novelty of the sights
around him was almost too much for his insouciant dignity as a
Angus M'Lachlan was a son of the Manse, and incidentally a child of
Nature. The Manse was a Highland Manse; and until a few months ago
Angus had never, save for a rare visit to distant Edinburgh, penetrated
beyond the small town which lay four miles from his native glen, and of
whose local Academy he had been “dux.” When the War broke out he had
been upon the point of proceeding to Edinburgh University, where he had
already laid siege to a bursary, and captured the same; but all these
plans, together with the plans of countless more distinguished persons,
had been swept to the winds by the invasion of Belgium. On that date
Angus summoned up his entire stock of physical and moral courage and
informed his reverend parent of his intention to enlist for a soldier.
Permission was granted with quite stunning readiness. Neil M'Lachlan
believed in straight hitting both in theology and war, and was by no
means displeased at the martial aspirations of his only son. If he
quitted himself like a man in the forefront of battle, the boy could
safely look forward to being cock of his own Kirk-Session in the years
that came afterwards. One reservation the old man made. His son, as a
Highland gentleman, would lead men to battle, and not merely accompany
them. So the impatient Angus was bidden to apply for a Commission—his
attention during the period of waiting being directed by his parent to
the study of the campaigns of Joshua, and the methods employed by that
singular but successful strategist in dealing with the Philistine.
Angus had a long while to wait, for all the youth of England—and
Scotland too—was on fire, and others nearer the fountain of honour had
to be served first. But his turn came at last; and we now behold him,
as typical a product of “K to the nth” as Bobby Little had been
of “K(1),” standing at last upon the soil of France, and inquiring in a
soft Highland voice for the Headquarters of our own particular
He had half expected, half hoped, to alight from the train amidst a
shower of shells, as he knew the Old Regiment had done many months
before, just after the War broke out. But all he saw upon his arrival
was an untidy goods yard, littered with military stores, and peopled by
British privates in the deshabille affected by the British Army
when engaged in menial tasks.
Being quite ignorant of the whereabouts of his regiment—when last
heard of they had been in trenches near Ypres—and failing to recollect
the existence of that autocratic but indispensable genius loci,
the R.T.O., Angus took uneasy stock of his surroundings and wondered
what to do next.
Suddenly a friendly voice at his elbow remarked—
“There's a queer lot o' bodies hereaboot, sirr.”
Angus turned, to find that he was being addressed by a short, stout
private of the draft, in a kilt much too big for him.
“Indeed, that is so,” he replied politely. “What is your name?”
“Peter Bogle, sirr. I am frae oot of Kirkintilloch.” Evidently
gratified by the success of his conversational opening, the little man
“I would like fine for tae get a contrack oot here after the War.
This country is in a terrible state o' disrepair.” Then he added
“I'm a hoose-painter tae a trade.”
“I should not like to be that myself,” replied Angus, whose early
training as a minister's son was always causing him to forget the
social gulf which is fixed between officers and the rank-and-file.
“Climbing ladders makes me dizzy.”
“Och, it's naething! A body gets used tae it,” Mr. Bogle assured
Angus was about to proceed further with the discussion, when the
cold and disapproving voice of the Draft-Sergeant announced in his
“An officer wishes to speak to you, sir.”
Second-Lieutenant M'Lachlan, suddenly awake to the enormity of his
conduct, turned guiltily to greet the officer, while the Sergeant
abruptly hunted the genial Private Bogle back into the ranks.
Angus found himself confronted by an immaculate young gentleman
wearing two stars. Angus, who only wore one, saluted hurriedly.
“Morning,” observed the stranger. “You in charge of this draft?”
“Yes, sir,” said Angus respectfully.
“Right-o! You are to march them to 'A' Company billets. I'll show
you the way. My name's Cockerell. Your train is late. What time did you
leave the Base?”
“Indeed,” replied Angus meekly, “I am not quite sure. We had barely
landed when they told me the train would start at seventeen-forty. What
time would that be—sir?”
“About a quarter to ten: more likely about midnight! Well, get your
bunch on to the road, and—Hallo, what's the matter? Let go!”
The new officer was gripping him excitedly by the arm, and as the
new officer stood six-foot-four and was brawny in proportion, Master
Cockerell's appeal was uttered in a tone of unusual sincerity.
“Look!” cried Angus excitedly. “The dogs, the dogs!”
A small cart was passing swiftly by, towed by two sturdy hounds of
unknown degree. They were pulling with the feverish enthusiasm which
distinguishes the Dog in the service of Man, and were being urged to
further efforts by a small hatless girl carrying the inevitable large
“All right!” explained Cockerell curtly. “Custom of the country, and
The impulsive Angus apologised; and the draft, having been safely
manoeuvred on to the road, formed fours and set out upon its march.
“Are the Battalion in the trenches at present, sir?” inquired Angus.
“No. Rest-billets two miles from here. About time, too! You'll get
lots of work to do, though.”
“I shall welcome that,” said Angus simply. “In the depot at home we
were terribly idle. There is a windmill!”
“Yes; one sees them occasionally out here,” replied Cockerell drily.
“Everything is so strange!” confessed the open-hearted Angus. “Those
dogs we saw just now—the people with their sabots—the country carts,
like wheelbarrows with three wheels—the little shrines at the
cross-roads—the very children talking French so glibly—”
“Wonderful how they pick it up!” agreed Cockerell. But the sarcasm
was lost on his companion, whose attention was now riveted upon an
approaching body of infantry, about fifty strong.
“What troops are those, please?”
Cockerell knitted his brows sardonically.
“It's rather hard to tell at this distance,” he said; “but I rather
think they are the Grenadier Guards.”
Two minutes later the procession had been met and passed. It
consisted entirely of elderly gentlemen in ill-fitting khaki, clumping
along upon their flat feet and smoking clay pipes. They carried shovels
on their shoulders, and made not the slightest response when called
upon by the soldierly old corporal who led them to give Mr. Cockerell
“eyes left!” On the contrary, engaged as they were in heated
controversy or amiable conversation with one another, they cut him
Angus M'Lachlan said nothing for quite five minutes. Then—
“I suppose,” he said almost timidly, “that those were members of a
Reserve Regiment of the Guards?”
Cockerell, who had never outgrown certain characteristics which most
of us shed upon emerging from the Lower Fourth, laughed long and loud.
“That crowd? They belong to one of the Labour Battalions. They make
roads, and dig support trenches, and sling mud about generally.
Wonderful old sportsmen! Pleased as Punch when a shell falls within
half a mile of them. Something to write home about. What? I say, I
pulled your leg that time! Here we are at Headquarters. Come and report
to the C.O. Grenadier Guards! My aunt!”
* * * * *
Angus, although his Celtic enthusiasm sometimes led him into traps,
was no fool. He soon settled down in his new surroundings, and found
favour with Colonel Kemp, which was no light achievement.
“You won't find that the War, in its present stage, calls for any
display of genius,” the Colonel explained to Angus at their first
interview. “I don't expect my officers to exhibit any quality but the
avoidance of sloppiness. If I detail you to be at a certain
spot, at a certain hour, with a certain number of men—a ration-party,
or a working-party, or a burial-party, or anything you like,—all I ask
is that you will be there, at the appointed hour, with the whole
of your following. That may not sound a very difficult feat, but
experience has taught me that if a man can achieve it, and can be
relied upon to achieve it, say, nine times out of ten—well, he is
a pearl of price; and there is not a C.O. in the British Army who
wouldn't scramble to get him! That's all, M'Lachlan. Good morning!”
By punctilious attention to this sound advice Angus soon began to
build up a reputation. He treated war-worn veterans like Bobby Little
with immense respect, and this, too, was counted to him for
righteousness. He exercised his platoon with appalling vigour. Upon
Company route-marches he had to be embedded in some safe place in the
middle of the column; in fact, his enormous stride and pedestrian
enthusiasm would have reduced his followers to pulp. At Mess he was
mute: like a wise man, he was feeling for his feet.
But being, like Moses, slow of tongue, he provided himself with an
Aaron. Quite inadvertently, be it said. Bidden to obtain a servant for
his personal needs, he selected the only man in the Battalion whose
name he knew—Private Bogle, the ci-devant painter of houses.
That friendly creature obeyed the call with alacrity. If his
house-painting was no better than his valeting, then his prospects of a
“contrack” after the War were poor indeed; but as a Mess waiter he was
a joy for ever. Despite the blood-curdling whispers of the Mess
Corporal, his natural urbanity of disposition could not be stemmed. Of
the comfort of others he was solicitous to the point of oppressiveness.
A Mess waiter's idea of efficiency as a rule is to stand woodenly at
attention in an obscure corner of the room. When called upon, he starts
forward with a jerk, and usually trips over something—probably his own
feet. Not so Private Bogle.
“Wull you try another cup o' tea, Major?” he would suggest at
breakfast to Major Wagstaffe, leaning affectionately over the back of
“No, thank you, Bogle,” Major Wagstaffe would reply gravely.
“Weel, it's cauld onyway,” Bogle would rejoin, anxious to endorse
his superior's decision.
Or—in the same spirit—
“Wull I luft the soup now, sir?”
“Varra weel: I'll jist let it bide the way it is.”
* * * * *
Lastly, Angus M'Lachlan proved himself a useful
acquisition—especially in rest-billets—as an athlete. He arrived just
in time to take part—no mean part, either—in a Rugby Football match
played between the officers of two Brigades. Thanks very largely to his
masterly leading of the forwards, our Brigade were preserved from
defeat at the hands of their opponents, who on paper had appeared to be
Rugby Football “oot here” is a rarity, though Association, being
essentially the game of the rank-and-file, flourishes in every green
field. But an Inverleith or Queen's Club crowd would have recognised
more than one old friend among the thirty who took the field that day.
There were those participating whose last game had been one of the
spring “Internationals” in 1914, and who had been engaged in a
prolonged and strenuous version of an even greater International ever
since August of that fateful year. Every public school in Scotland was
represented—sometimes three or four times over—and there were
numerous doughty contributions from establishments south of the Tweed.
The lookers-on were in different case. They were to a man
devoted—nay, frenzied—adherents of the rival code. In less spacious
days they had surged in their thousands every Saturday afternoon to
Ibrox, or Tynecastle, or Parkhead, there to yell themselves into
convulsions—now exhorting a friend to hit some one a kick on the nose,
now recommending the foe to play the game, now hoarsely consigning the
referee to perdition. To these, Rugby Football—the greatest of all
manly games—was a mere name. Their attitude when the officers appeared
upon the field was one of indulgent superiority—the sort of
superiority that a brawny pitman exhibits when his Platoon Commander
steps down into a trench to lend a hand with the digging.
But in five minutes their mouths were agape with scandalised
astonishment; in ten, the heavens were rent with their protesting
cries. Accustomed to see football played with the feet, and to demand
with one voice the instant execution of any player (on the other side)
who laid so much as a finger upon the ball or the man who was playing
it, the exhibition of savage and promiscuous brutality to which their
superior officers now treated them shocked the assembled spectators to
the roots of their sensitive souls. Howls of virtuous indignation burst
forth upon all sides.
When the three-quarter-backs brought off a brilliant passing run,
there were stern cries of “Haands, there, referee!” When Bobby Little
stopped an ugly rush by hurling himself on the ball, the supporters of
the other Brigade greeted his heroic devotion with yells of execration.
When Angus M'Lachlan saved a certain try by tackling a speedy wing
three-quarter low and bringing him down with a crash, a hundred voices
demanded his removal from the field. And, when Mr. Waddell, playing a
stuffy but useful game at half, gained fifty yards for his side by a
series of judicious little kicks into touch, the spectators groaned
aloud, and remarked caustically—
“This maun be a Cup-Tie, boys! They are playin' for a draw, for tae
get a second gate!”
Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, both for players and
spectators. And so home to tea, domesticity, and social intercourse. In
this connection it may be noted that our relations with the inhabitants
are of the friendliest. On the stroke of six—oh yes, we have our
licensing restrictions out here too!—half a dozen kilted warriors
stroll into the farm-kitchen, and mumble affably to Madame—
“Bone sworr! Beer?”
France boasts one enormous advantage over Scotland. At home, you
have at least to walk to the corner of the street to obtain a drink:
“oot here” you can purchase beer in practically every house in a
village. The French licensing laws are a thing of mystery, but the
system appears roughly to be this. Either you possess a license, or you
do not. If you do you may sell beer, and nothing else. If you do not,
you may—or at any rate do—sell anything you like, including beer.
However, we have left our friends thirsty.
Their wants are supplied with cheerful alacrity, and, having been
accommodated with seats round the stove, they converse with the family.
Heaven only knows what they talk about, but talk they do—in the
throaty unintelligible Doric of the Clydeside, with an occasional
Gallicism, like, “Allyman no bon!” or “Compree?” thrown in as a sop to
foreign idiosyncracies. Madame and family respond, chattering French
(or Flemish) at enormous speed. The amazing part of it all is that
neither side appears to experience the slightest difficulty in
understanding the other. One day Mr. Waddell, in the course of a
friendly chat with his hostess of the moment—she was unable to speak a
word of English—received her warm congratulations upon his
contemplated union with a certain fair one of St. Andrew (to whom
reference has previously been made in these pages). Mr. Waddell, a very
fair linguist, replied in suitable but embarrassed terms, and asked for
the source of the good lady's information.
“Mais votre ordonnance, m'sieur!” was the reply.
Tackled upon the subject, the “ordonnance” in question, Waddell's
servant—a shock-headed youth from Dundee—admitted having communicated
the information; and added—
“She's a decent body, sirr, the lady o' the hoose. She lost her
husband, she was tellin' me, three years ago. She has twa sons in the
Airmy. Her auld Auntie is up at the top o' the hoose—lyin' badly, and
no expectin' tae rise.”
And yet some people study Esperanto!
We also make ourselves useful. “K(1)” contains members of every
craft. If the pig-sty door is broken, a carpenter is forthcoming to
mend it. Somebody's elbow goes through a pane of glass in the
farm-kitchen: straightway a glazier materialises from the nearest
platoon, and puts in another. The ancestral eight-day clock of the
household develops internal complications; and is forthwith dismembered
and reassembled, “with punctuality, civility, and despatch,” by a
gentleman who until a few short months ago had done nothing else for
And it was in this connection that Corporal Mucklewame stumbled on
to a rare and congenial job, and incidentally made the one joke of his
One afternoon a cow, the property of Madame la fermiere,
developed symptoms of some serious disorder. A period of dolorous
bellowing was followed by an outburst of homicidal mania, during which
“A” Company prudently barricaded itself into the barn, the sufferer
having taken entire possession of the farmyard. Next, and finally—so
rapidly did the malady run its course—a state of coma intervened; and
finally the cow, collapsing upon the doorstep of the Officers' Mess,
breathed her last before any one could be found to point out to her the
liberty she was taking.
It was decided to hold a post-mortem—firstly, to ascertain
the cause of death; secondly, because it is easier to remove a dead cow
after dissection than before. Madame therefore announced her intention
of sending for the butcher, and was upon the point of doing so when
Corporal Mucklewame, in whose heart, at the spectacle of the stark and
lifeless corpse, ancient and romantic memories were stirring—it may be
remembered that before answering to the call of “K(1)” Mucklewame had
followed the calling of butcher's assistant at Wishaw—volunteered for
the job. His services were cordially accepted by thrifty Madame; and
the Corporal, surrounded by a silent and admiring crowd, set to work.
The officers, leaving the Junior Subaltern in charge, went with one
accord for a long country walk.
Half an hour later Mucklewame arrived at the seat of the deceased
animal's trouble—the seat of most of the troubles of mankind—its
stomach. After a brief investigation, he produced therefrom a small bag
of nails, recently missed from the vicinity of a cook-house in course
of construction in the corner of the yard.
Abandoning the role of surgical expert for that of coroner,
Mucklewame held the trophy aloft, and delivered his verdict—
“There, boys! That's what comes of eating your iron ration without
Here is an average billet, and its personnel.
The central feature of our residence is the refuse-pit, which fills
practically the whole of the rectangular farmyard, and resembles (in
size and shape only) an open-air swimming bath. Its abundant
contents are apparently the sole asset of the household; for if you
proceed, in the interests of health, to spread a decent mantle of
honest earth thereover, you do so to the accompaniment of a harmonised
chorus of lamentation, very creditably rendered by the entire family,
who are grouped en masse about the spot where the high
diving-board ought to be.
Round this perverted place of ablution runs a stone ledge, some four
feet wide, and round that again run the farm buildings—the house at
the top end, a great barn down one side, and the cowhouse, together
with certain darksome piggeries and fowl-houses, down the other. These
latter residences are occupied only at night, their tenants preferring
to spend the golden hours of day in profitable occupation upon the
happy hunting ground in the middle.
Within the precincts of this already overcrowded establishment are
lodged some two hundred British soldiers and their officers. The men
sleep in the barn, their meals being prepared for them upon the Company
cooker, which stands in the muddy road outside, and resembles the
humble vehicle employed by Urban District Councils for the preparation
of tar for road-mending purposes. The officers occupy any room which
may be available within the farmhouse itself. The Company Commander has
the best bedroom—a low-roofed, stone-floored apartment, with a very
small window and a very large bed. The subalterns sleep where they
can—usually in the grenier, a loft under the tiles, devoted to
the storage of onions and the drying, during the winter months, of the
family washing, which is suspended from innumerable strings stretched
from wall to wall.
For a Mess, there is usually a spare apartment of some kind. If not,
you put your pride in your pocket and take your meals at the kitchen
table, at such hours as the family are not sitting humped round the
same with their hats on, partaking of soup or coffee. (This appears to
be their sole sustenance.) A farm-kitchen in northern France is a
scrupulously clean place—the whole family gets up at half-past four in
the morning and sees to the matter—and despite the frugality of her
own home menu, the fermiere can produce you a perfect
omelette at any hour of the day or night.
This brings us to the kitchen-stove, which is a marvel. No massive
and extravagant English ranges here! There is only one kind: we call it
the Coffin and Flower-pot. The coffin—small, black, and highly
polished—projects from the wall about four feet, the further end being
supported by what looks like an ornamental black flower-pot standing on
a pedestal. The coffin is the oven, and the flower-pot is the stove.
Given a handful of small coal or charcoal, Madame appears capable of
keeping it at work all day, and of boiling, baking, or roasting you
Then there is the family. Who or what they all are, and where they
all sleep, is a profound mystery. The family tree is usually headed by
a decrepit and ruminant old gentleman in a species of yachting-cap. He
sits behind the stove—not exactly with one foot in the grave, but with
both knees well up against the coffin—and occasionally offers a
mumbled observation of which no one takes the slightest notice.
Sometimes, too, there is an old, a very old, lady. Probably she is some
one's grandmother, or great-grandmother, but she does not appear to be
related to the old gentleman. At least, they never recognise one
another's existence in any way.
There are also vague people who possess the power of becoming
invisible at will. They fade in and out of the house like wraiths:
their one object in life appears to be to efface themselves as much as
possible. Madame refers to them as “refugies”; this the
sophisticated Mr. Cockerell translates, “German spies.”
Next in order come one or two farmhands—usually addressed as
“'Nri!” and “'Seph!” They are not as a rule either attractive in
appearance or desirable in character. Every man in this country, who
is a man, is away, as a matter of course, doing a man's only
possible duty under the circumstances. This leaves 'Nri and 'Seph, who
through physical or mental shortcomings are denied the proud privilege,
and shamble about in the muck and mud of the farm, leering or
grumbling, while Madame exhorts them to further activity from the
kitchen door. They take their meals with the family: where they sleep
no one knows. External evidence suggests the cow-house.
Then, the family. First, Angele. She may be twenty-five, but is more
probably fifteen. She acts as Adjutant to Madame, and rivals her mother
as deliverer of sustained and rapid recitative. She milks the cows,
feeds the pigs, and dragoons her young brothers and sisters. But though
she works from morning till night, she has always time for a smiling
salutation to all ranks. She also speaks English quite creditably—a
fact of which Madame is justly proud. “College!” explains the mother,
full of appreciation for an education which she herself has never
known, and taps her learned daughter affectionately upon the head.
Next in order comes Emile. He must be about fourteen, but War has
forced manhood on him. All day long he is at work, bullying very large
horses, digging, hoeing, even ploughing. He is very much a boy, for all
that. He whistles excruciatingly—usually English music-hall
melodies—grins sheepishly at the officers, and is prepared at any
moment to abandon the most important tasks, in order to watch a man
cleaning a rifle or oiling a machine-gun. We seem to have encountered
Emile in other countries than this.
After Emile, Gabrielle. Her age is probably seven. If you were to
give her a wash and brush-up, dress her in a gauzy frock, and exchange
her thick woollen stockings and wooden sabots for silk and dancing
slippers, she would make a very smart little fairy. Even in her native
state she is a most attractive young person, of an engaging coyness. If
you say: “Bonjour, Gabrielle!” she whispers: “B'jour M'sieur le
Capitaine”—or, “M'sieur le Caporal”; for she knows all badges of
rank—and hangs her head demurely. But presently, if you stand quite
still and look the other way, Gabrielle will sidle up to you and
squeeze your hand. This is gratifying, but a little subversive of
strict discipline if you happen to be inspecting your platoon at the
Gabrielle is a firm favourite with the rank and file. Her particular
crony is one Private Mackay, an amorphous youth with flaming red hair.
He and Gabrielle engage in lengthy conversations, which appear to be
perfectly intelligible to both, though Mackay speaks with the solemn
unction of the Aberdonian, and Gabrielle prattles at express speed in a
patois of her own. Last week some unknown humorist, evidently
considering that Gabrielle was not making sufficient progress in her
knowledge of English, took upon himself to give her a private lesson.
Next morning Mackay, on sentry duty at the farm gate, espied his little
friend peeping round a corner.
“Hey, Garibell!” he observed cheerfully. (No Scottish private ever
yet mastered a French name quite completely.)
Gabrielle, anxious to exhibit her new accomplishment, drew nearer,
smiled seraphically, and replied—
Last of the bunch comes Petit Jean, a chubby and close-cropped youth
of about six. Petit Jean is not his real name, as he himself
indignantly explained when so addressed by Major Wagstaffe.
“Moi, z'ne suis pas Petit Jean; z'suis Maurrrice!”
Major Wagstaffe apologised most humbly, but the name stuck.
Petit Jean is an enthusiast upon matters military. He possesses a
little wooden rifle, the gift of a friendly “Ecossais,” tipped with a
flashing bayonet cut from a biscuit-tin; and spends most of his time
out upon the road, waiting for some one to salute. At one time he used
to stand by the sentry, with an ancient glengarry crammed over his
bullet head, and conform meticulously to his comrade's slightest
movement. This procedure was soon banned, as being calculated to bring
contempt and ridicule upon the King's uniform, and Petit Jean was
assigned a beat of his own. Behold him upon sentry-go.
A figure upon horseback swings round the bend in the road.
“Here's an officer, Johnny!” cries a friendly voice from the farm
Petit Jean, as upright as a post, brings his rifle from
stand-at-ease to the order, and from the order to the slope, with the
epileptic jerkiness of a marionette, and scrutinises the approaching
officer for stars and crowns. If he can discern nothing but a star or
two, he slaps the small of his butt with ferocious solemnity; but if a
crown, or a red hatband, reveals itself, he blows out his small chest
to its fullest extent and presents arms. If the salute is
acknowledged—as it nearly always is—Petit Jean is crimson with
gratification. Once, when a friendly subaltern called his platoon to
attention, and gave the order, “Eyes right!” upon passing the
motionless little figure at the side of the road, Petit Jean was so
uplifted that he committed the military crime of deserting his post
while on duty—in order to run home and tell his mother about it.
* * * * *
Last of all we arrive at the keystone of the whole fabric—Madame
herself. She is one of the most wonderful women in the world. Consider.
Her husband and her eldest son are away—fighting, she knows not where,
amid dangers and privations which can only be imagined. During their
absence she has to manage a considerable farm, with the help of her
children and one or two hired labourers of more than doubtful use or
reliability. In addition to her ordinary duties as a parent and
fermiere, she finds herself called upon, for months on end, to
maintain her premises as a combination of barracks and almshouse. Yet
she is seldom cross—except possibly when the soldats steal her
apples and pelt the pigs with the cores—and no accumulations of labour
can sap her energy. She is up by half-past four every morning; yet she
never appears anxious to go to bed at night. The last sound which
sleepy subalterns hear is Madame's voice, uplifted in steady discourse
to the circle round the stove, sustained by an occasional guttural
chord from 'Nri and 'Seph. She has been doing this, day in, day out,
since the combatants settled down to trench-warfare. Every few weeks
brings a fresh crop of tenants, with fresh peculiarities and unknown
proclivities; and she assimilates them all.
The only approach to a breakdown comes when, after paying her little
bill—you may be sure that not an omelette nor a broken window will be
missing from the account—and wishing her “Bonne chance!” ere you
depart, you venture on a reference, in a few awkward, stumbling
sentences, to the absent husband and son. Then she weeps, copiously,
and it seems to do her a world of good. All hail to you, Madame—the
finest exponent, in all this War, of the art of Carrying On! We know
now why France is such a great country.
VI. YE MERRIE BUZZERS
Practically all the business of an Army in the field is transacted
by telephone. If the telephone breaks down, whether by the Act of God
or of the King's Enemies, that business is at a standstill until the
telephone is put right again.
The importance of the disaster varies with the nature of the
business. For instance, if the wire leading to the Round Game
Department is blown down by a March gale, and your weekly return of Men
Recommended for False Teeth is delayed in transit, nobody minds very
much—except possibly the Deputy Assistant Director of Auxiliary Dental
Appliances. But if you are engaged in battle, and the wires which link
up the driving force in front with the directing force behind are
devastated by a storm of shrapnel, the matter assumes a more—nay, a
most—serious aspect. Hence the superlative importance in modern
warfare of the Signal Sections of the Royal Engineers—tersely
described by the rank-and-file as the “Buzzers,” or the “Iddy-Umpties.”
During peace-training, the Buzzer on the whole has a very pleasant
time of it. Once he has mastered the mysteries of the Semaphore and
Morse codes, the most laborious part of his education is over.
Henceforth he spends his days upon some sheltered hillside, in company
with one or two congenial spirits, flapping cryptic messages out of a
blue-and-white flag at a similar party across the valley.
A year ago, for instance, you might have encountered an old friend,
Private M'Micking,—one of the original “Buzzers” of “A” Company, and
ultimately Battalion Signal Sergeant—under the lee of a pine wood near
Hindhead, accompanied by Lance-Corporal Greig and Private Wamphray,
regarding with languid interest the frenzied efforts of three of their
colleagues to convey a message from a sunny hillside three quarters of
a mile away.
“Here a message comin' through, boys,” announces the Lance-Corporal.
“They're in a sair hurry: I doot the officer will be there. Jeams, tak'
it doon while Sandy reads it.”
Mr. James M'Micking seats himself upon a convenient log. In order
not to confuse his faculties by endeavouring to read and write
simultaneously, he turns his back upon the fluttering flag, and bends
low over his field message-pad. Private Wamphray stands facing him, and
solemnly spells out the message over his head.
“Tae g-o-c—I dinna ken what that means—r-e-d, reid
“All richt; that'll be Haslemere,” says Private M'Micking,
scribbling down the word. “Go on, Sandy!”
Private Wamphray, pausing to expectorate, continues—
“R-e-c-o-n-n-o-i-t-r—Cricky, what a worrd! Let's hae it repeatit.”
Wamphray flaps his flag vigorously,—he knows this particular signal
only too well,—and the word comes through again. The distant
signaller, slowing down a little, continues,—
“'Reconnoitring patrol reports hostile cavalry scou—'“
“That'll be 'scouts,'“ says the ever-ready M'Micking. “Carry on!”
Wamphray continues obediently,—“'Country'; stop; 'Have thrown out
flank guns'; stop; 'Shall I advance or re—'“
“—tire,” gabbles M'Micking, writing it down.
“—'where I am'; stop; 'From O C Advance Guard'; stop; message
“And aboot time, too!” observes the scribe severely. “Haw, Johnny!”
The Lance-Corporal, who has been indulging in a pleasant reverie
upon a bank of bracken, wakes up and reads the proffered message.
* * * * *
“Tae G O C, Reid Airmy, Hazlemere. Reconnoitring patrol reports
hostile cavalry scouts country. Have thrown oot flank guns. Shall I
advance or retire where I am? From O C Advance Guard.”
“This message doesna sound altogether sense,” he observes mildly.
“That 'shall' should be 'wull,' onyway. Would it no' be better to get
it repeatit? The officer—”
“I've given the 'message-read' signal now,” objects the indolent
“How would it be,” suggests the Lance-Corporal, whose besetting sin
is a penchant for emendation, “if we were tae transfair yon
stop, and say: 'Reconnoitring patrol reports hostile cavalry scouts.
Country has thrown oot flank guns'?”
“What does that mean?” inquires M'Micking scornfully.
“I dinna ken; but these messages about Generals and sic'-like
At this moment, as ill-luck will have it, the Signal Sergeant
appears breasting the hillside. He arrives puffing—he has seen twenty
years' service—and scrutinises the message.
“You boys,” he says reproachfully, “are an aggravate altogether.
Here you are, jumping at your conclusions again! After all I have been
telling you! See! That worrd in the address should no' be Haslemere at
all. It's just a catch! It's Hazebroucke—a Gairman city that we'll be
capturing this time next year. 'Scouts' is no 'scouts,' but
'scouring'—meaning 'sooping up.' 'Guns' should be 'guarrd,' and
'retire' should be 'remain.' Mind me, now; next time, you'll be up
before the Captain for neglect of duty. Wamphray, give the 'C.I.,' and
let's get hame to oor dinners!”
But “oot here” there is no flag-wagging. The Buzzer's first
proceeding upon entering the field of active hostilities is to get
underground, and stay there.
He is a seasoned vessel, the Buzzer of to-day, and a person of
marked individuality. He is above all things a man of the world.
Sitting day and night in a dug-out, or a cellar, with a telephone
receiver clamped to his ear, he sees little; but he hears much, and
overhears more. He also speaks a language of his own. His one task in
life is to prevent the letter B from sounding like C, or D, or P, or T,
or V, over the telephone; so he has perverted the English language to
his own uses. He calls B “Beer,” and D “Don,” and so on. He salutes the
rosy dawn as “Akk Emma,” and eventide as “Pip Emma.” He refers to the
letter S as “Esses,” in order to distinguish it from F. He has no
respect for the most majestic military titles. To him the Deputy
Assistant Director of the Mobile Veterinary Section is merely a
lifeless formula, entitled Don Akk Don Emma Vic Esses.
He is also a man of detached mind. The tactical situation does not
interest him. His business is to disseminate news, not to write leading
articles about it. (O si sic omnes!) You may be engaged in a
life-and-death struggle for the possession of your own parapet with a
Boche bombing-party; but this does not render you immune from a pink
slip from the Signal Section, asking you to state your reasons in
writing for having mislaid fourteen pairs of “boots, gum, thigh,”
lately the property of Number Seven Platoon. A famous British soldier
tells a story somewhere in his reminiscences of an occasion upon which,
in some long-forgotten bush campaign, he had to defend a zareba against
a heavy attack. For a time the situation was critical. Help was badly
needed, but the telegraph wire had been cut. Ultimately the attack
withered away, and the situation was saved. Almost simultaneously the
victorious commander was informed that telegraphic communication with
the Base had been restored. A message was already coming through.
“News of reinforcements, I hope!” he remarked to his subordinate.
But his surmise was incorrect. The message said, quite simply:—
“Your monthly return of men wishing to change their religion is
twenty-four hours overdue. Please expedite.”
There was a time when one laughed at that anecdote as a playful
invention. But we know now that it is true, and we feel a sort of pride
in the truly British imperturbability of our official machinery.
Thirdly, the Buzzer is a humourist, of the sardonic variety. The
constant clash of wits over the wires, and the necessity of framing
words quickly, sharpens his faculties and acidulates his tongue.
Incidentally, he is an awkward person to quarrel with. One black night,
Bobby Little, making his second round of the trenches about an hour
before “stand-to,” felt constrained to send a telephone message to
Battalion Headquarters. Taking a good breath,—you always do this
before entering a trench dug-out,—he plunged into the noisome cavern
where his Company Signallers kept everlasting vigil. The place was in
total darkness, except for the illumination supplied by a strip of
rifle-rag burning in a tin of rifle-oil. The air, what there was of it,
was thick with large, fat, floating particles of free carbon. The
telephone was buzzing plaintively to itself, in unsuccessful
competition with a well-modulated quartette for four nasal organs,
contributed by Bobby's entire signalling staff, who, locked in the
inextricable embrace peculiar to Thomas Atkins in search of warmth,
were snoring harmoniously upon the earthen floor.
The signaller “on duty”—one M'Gurk—was extracted from the heap and
put under arrest for sleeping at his post. The enormity of his crime
was heightened by the fact that two undelivered messages were found
upon his person.
Divers pains and penalties followed. Bobby supplemented the sentence
with a homily on the importance of vigilance and despatch. M'Gurk,
deeply aggrieved at forfeiting seven days' pay, said nothing, but bided
his time. Two nights later the Battalion came out of trenches for a
week's rest, and Bobby, weary and thankful, retired to bed in his hut
at 9 P.M., in comfortable anticipation of a full night's repose.
His anticipations were doomed to disappointment. He was roused from
slumber—not without difficulty—by Signaller M'Gurk, who appeared
standing by his bedside with a guttering candle-end in one hand and a
pink despatch-form in the other. The message said:—
“Prevailing wind for next twenty-four hours probably S.W., with some
Mindful of his own recent admonitions, Bobby thanked M'Gurk
politely, and went to sleep again.
M'Gurk called again at half-past two in the morning, with another
message, which announced:—
“Baths will be available for your Company from 2 to 3 P.M.
Bobby stuffed the missive under his air-pillow, and rolled over
without a word. M'Gurk withdrew, leaving the door of the hut open.
His next visit was about four o'clock. This time the message said:—
“A Zeppelin is reported to have passed over Dunkirk at 5 P.M.
yesterday afternoon, proceeding in a northerly direction.”
Bobby informed M'Gurk that he was a fool and a dotard, and cast him
M'Gurk returned at five-thirty, bearing written evidence that the
Zeppelin had been traced as far as Ostend.
This time his Company Commander promised him that if he appeared
again that night he would be awarded fourteen days' Field Punishment
The result was that upon sitting down to breakfast at nine next
morning, Bobby found upon his plate yet another message—from his
Commanding Officer—summoning him to the Orderly-room on urgent matters
But Bobby scored the final and winning trick. Sending for M'Gurk and
Sergeant M'Micking, he said:—
“This man, Sergeant, appears to be unable to decide when a message
is urgent and when it is not. In future, whenever M'Gurk is on night
duty, and is in doubt as to whether a message should be delivered at
once or put aside till morning, he will come to you and ask for your
guidance in the matter. Do you understand?”
“Perrfectly, sirr!” replied the Sergeant, outwardly calm.
“M'Gurk, do you understand?”
M'Gurk looked at Bobby, and then round at Sergeant M'Micking. He
received a glance which shrivelled his marrow. The game was up. He
grinned sheepishly, and answered,—
Having briefly set forth the character and habits of the Buzzer, we
will next proceed to visit the creature in his lair. This is an easy
feat. We have only to walk up the communication-trench which leads from
the reserve line to the firing-line. Upon either side of the trench,
neatly tacked to the muddy wall by a device of the hairpin variety, run
countless insulated wires, clad in coats of various colours and all
duly ticketed. These radiate from various Headquarters in the rear to
numerous signal stations in the front, and were laid by the Signallers
themselves. (It is perhaps unnecessary to mention that that single wire
running, in defiance of all regulations, across the top of the trench,
which neatly tipped your cap off just now, was laid by those playful
humourists, the Royal Artillery.) It follows that if we accompany these
wires far enough we shall ultimately find ourselves in a signalling
Our only difficulty lies in judicious choice, for the wires soon
begin to diverge up numerous byways. Some go to the fire-trench, others
to the machine-guns, others again to observation posts—or
O.P.'s—whence a hawk-eyed Forward Observing Officer, peering all day
through a chink in a tumble-down chimney or sandbagged loophole, is
sometimes enabled to flash back the intelligence that he can discern
transport upon such a road in rear of the Boche trenches, and will such
a battery kindly attend to the matter at once?
However, chance guides us to the Signal dug-out of “A” Company,
where, by the best fortune in the world, Private M'Gurk in person is
installed as officiating sprite. Let us render ourselves invisible, sit
down beside him, and “tap” his wire.
In the dim and distant days before such phrases as “Boche,” and
“T.N.T.,” and “munitions,” and “economy” were invented; when we lived
in houses which possessed roofs, and never dreamed of lying down
motionless by the roadside when we heard a taxi-whistle blown thrice,
in order to escape the notice of approaching aeroplanes,—in short, in
the days immediately preceding the war,—some of us said in our haste
that the London Telephone Service was The Limit! Since then we have
made the acquaintance of the military field-telephone, and we feel
distinctly softened towards the young woman at home who, from her
dug-out in “Gerrard,” or “Vic.,” or “Hop.,” used to goad us to impotent
frenzy. She was at least terse and decided. If you rang her up and
asked for a number, she merely replied,—
(a) “Number engaged”;
(b) “No reply”;
(c) “Out of order”—
as the case might be, and switched you off. After that you took a
taxi to the place with which you wished to communicate, and there was
an end of the matter. Above all, she never explained, she never
wrangled, she spoke tolerably good English, and there was only one of
her—or at least she was of a uniform type.
Now, if you put your ear to the receiver of a field-telephone, you
find yourself, as it were, suddenly thrust into a vast subterranean
cavern, filled with the wailings of the lost, the babblings of the
feeble-minded, and the profanity of the exasperated. If you ask a
high-caste Buzzer—say, an R.E. Signalling Officer—why this should be
so, he will look intensely wise and recite some solemn gibberish about
earthed wires and induced currents.
The noises are of two kinds, and one supplements the other. The
human voice supplies the libretto, while the accompaniment is provided
by a syncopated and tympanum-piercing ping-ping, suggestive of a
giant mosquito singing to its young.
The instrument with which we are contending is capable (in theory)
of transmitting a message either telephonically or telegraphically. In
practice, this means that the signaller, having wasted ten sulphurous
minutes in a useless attempt to convey information through the medium
of the human voice, next proceeds, upon the urgent advice of the
gentleman at the other end, and to the confusion of all other
inhabitants of the cavern, to “buzz” it, employing the dots and dashes
of the Morse code for the purpose.
It is believed that the wily Boche, by means of ingenious and
delicate instruments, is able to “tap” a certain number of our trench
telephone messages. If he does, his daily Intelligence Report must
contain some surprising items of information. At the moment when we
attach our invisible apparatus to Mr. M'Gurk's wire, the Divisional
Telephone system appears to be fairly evenly divided between—
(1) A Regimental Headquarters endeavouring to ring up its Brigade.
(2) A glee-party of Harmonious Blacksmiths, indulging in the Anvil
(3) A choleric Adjutant on the track of a peccant Company Commander.
(4) Two Company Signallers, engaged in a friendly chat from
different ends of the trench line.
(5) An Artillery F.O.O., endeavouring to convey pressing and
momentous information to his Battery, two miles in rear.
(6) The Giant Mosquito aforesaid.
The consolidated result is something like this:—
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (affably). Hallo, Brigade! Hallo,
Brigade! HALLO, BRIGADE!
THE MOSQUITO. Ping!
THE ADJUTANT (from somewhere in the Support Line, fiercely).
Give me B Company!
THE FORWARD OBSERVING OFFICER (from his eyrie). Is that C
Battery? There's an enemy working-party—
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (from B Company's Station). Is that
yoursel', Jock? How's a' wi' you?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER (from D Company's Station). I'm daen
fine! How's your—
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. HALLO, BRIGADE!
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company?
A MYSTERIOUS AND DISTANT VOICE (politely.) No, sir; this is
Akk and Esses Aitch.
THE ADJUTANT (furiously). Then for the Lord's sake get off
THE MOSQUITO. Ping! Ping!
THE ADJUTANT. And stop that ——————buzzing!
THE MOSQUITO. Ping! Ping! PING!
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery? There's—
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (peevishly). What's that you're
THE F.O.O. (perseveringly). Is that C Battery? There's an
enemy working-party in a coppice at—
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. This is Beer Company, sir. Weel, Jock, did
ye get a quiet nicht?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. Oh, aye. There was a wee—
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery? There's—
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. No, sir. This is Don Company. Weel, Jimmy,
there was a couple whish-bangs came intil—
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. HALLO, BRIGADE!
A CHEERFUL COCKNEY VOICE. Well, my lad, what abaht it?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (getting to work at once). Hold the
line, Brigade. Message to Staff Captain. “Ref. your S.C. fourr stroke
seeven eight six, the worrking-parrty in question—”
THE F.O.O. (seeing a gleam of hope). Working-party? Is that C
Battery? I want to speak to—
THE ADJUTANT. } BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS. } Get off the line! REGIMENTAL
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Haw, Jock, was ye hearin' aboot Andra?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. No. Whit was that?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Weel—
THE F.O.O. (doggedly). Is that C Battery?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (resolutely). “The worrking-parrty in
question was duly detailed for tae proceed to the rendiss vowse at”—
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company, curse you?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (quite impervious to this sort of thing
),—“the rendiss vowse, at seeven thirrty Akk Emma, at point H two B
eight nine, near the cross-roads by the Estamint Repose dee
Bicyclistees, for tae”—honk! honkle! honk!
BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS (compassionately). You're makin' a
'orrible mess of this message, ain't you? Shake your transmitter, do!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (after dutifully performing this
operation). Honkle, honkle, honk. Yang!
BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS. Buzz it, my lad, buzz it!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (dutifully). Ping, ping! Ping, ping!
Ping, ping, ping! Ping—
GENERAL CHORUS. Stop that ——, ——, ——, ——buzzing!
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Weel, Andra says tae the Sergeant-Major of
Beer Company, says he—
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. No, sir; this is Beer Company.
THE ADJUTANT (fortissimo). I said Beer Company!
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Oh! I thocht ye meant Don Company, sir.
THE ADJUTANT. Why the blazes haven't you answered me sooner?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (tactfully). There was other messages
comin' through, sir.
THE ADJUTANT. Well, get me the Company Commander.
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Varra good, sirr.
A pause. Regimental Headquarters being engaged in laboriously
“buzzing” its message through to the Brigade, all other conversation is
at a standstill. The Harmonious Blacksmiths seize the opportunity to
give a short selection. Presently, as the din dies down—
THE F.O.O. (faint, yet pursuing). Is that C Battery?
A JOVIAL VOICE. Yes.
THE F.O.O. What a shock! I thought you were all dead. Is that you,
THE JOVIAL VOICE. It is. What can I do for you this morning?
THE F.O.O. You can boil your signal sentry's head!
THE JOVIAL VOICE. What for?
THE F.O.O. For keeping me waiting.
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Righto! And the next article?
THE F.O.O. There's a Boche working-party in a coppice two hundred
yards west of a point—
THE MOSQUITO (with renewed vigour). Ping, ping!
THE F.O.O. (savagely). Shut up!
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Working-party? I'll settle them. What's the map
THE F.O.O. They are in Square number—
THE HARMONIOUS BLACKSMITHS (suddenly and stunningly). Whang!
THE F.O.O. Shut up! They are in Square—
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Hallo, Headquarters! Is the Adjutant there?
Here's the Captain tae speak with him.
AN EAGER VOICE. Is that the Adjutant?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. No, sirr. He's away tae his office. Hold
the line while I'll—
THE EAGER VOICE. No you don't! Put me straight through to C
Battery—quick! Then get off the line, and stay there! (Much buzzing.) Is that C Battery?
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Yes, sir.
THE EAGER VOICE. I am O.C. Beer Company. They are shelling my front
parapet, at L8, with pretty heavy stuff. I want retaliation, please.
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Very good, sir. (The voice dies away.)
A SOUND OVER OUR HEADS (thirty seconds later). Whish! Whish!
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. Did ye hear that, Jimmy?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (with relish). Mphm! That'll sorrt
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery?
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Yes. What luck, old son?
THE F.O.O. You have obtained two direct hits on the Boche parapet.
Will you have a cocoanut or a ci—
THE JOVIAL VOICE. A little less lip, my lad! Now tell me all about
your industrious friends in the Coppice, and we will see what we can do
* * * * *
And so on. Apropos of Adjutants and Company Commanders, Private
Wamphray, whose acquaintance we made a few pages back, was ultimately
relieved of his position as a Company Signaller, and returned
ignominiously to duty, for tactless if justifiable interposition in one
of these very dialogues.
It was a dark and cheerless night in mid-winter. Ominous noises in
front of the Boche wire had raised apprehensive surmises in the breast
of Brigade Headquarters. A forward sap was suspected in the region
opposite the sector of trenches held by “A” Company. The trenches at
this point were barely forty yards apart, and there was a very real
danger that Brother Boche might creep under his own wire, and possibly
under ours too, and come tumbling over our parapet.
To Bobby Little came instructions to send a specially selected
patrol out to investigate the matter. Three months ago he would have
led the expedition himself. Now, as a full-blown Company Commander, he
was officially precluded from exposing his own most responsible person
to gratuitous risks. So he chose out that recently-joined enthusiast,
Angus M'Lachlan, and put him over the parapet on the dark night in
question, accompanied by Corporal M'Snape and two scouts, with orders
to probe the mystery to its depth and bring back a full report.
It was a ticklish enterprise. As is frequently the case upon these
occasions, nervous tension manifested itself much more seriously at
Headquarters than in the front-line trenches. The man on the spot is,
as a rule, much too busy with the actual execution of the enterprise in
hand to distress himself by speculation upon its ultimate outcome. It
may as well be stated at once that Angus duly returned from his quest,
with an admirable and reassuring report. But he was a long time absent.
Hence this anecdote.
Bobby had strict orders to report all “developments,” as they
occurred, to Headquarters by telephone. At half-past eleven that night,
as Angus M'Lachlan's colossal form disappeared, crawling, into the
blackness of night, his superior officer dutifully rang up Battalion
Headquarters, and announced that the venture was launched. It is
possible that the Powers Behind were in possession of information as to
the enemy's intentions unrevealed to Bobby; for as soon as his opening
announcement was received, he was switched right through to a very
august Headquarters indeed, and commanded to report direct.
Long-distance telephony in the field involves a considerable amount
of “linking-up.” Among other slaves of the Buzzer who assisted in
establishing the necessary communications upon this occasion was
Private Wamphray. For the next hour and a half it was his privilege in
his subterranean exchange, to sit, with his receiver clamped to his
ear, an unappreciative auditor of dialogues like the following:—
“Is that 'A' Company?”
“Any news of your patrol?”
Again, five minutes later:—
“Is that 'A' Company?”
“Has your officer returned yet?”
“No, sir. I will notify you when he does.”
This sort of thing went on until nearly one o'clock in the morning.
Towards that hour, Bobby, who was growing really concerned over Angus's
prolonged absence, cut short his august interlocutor's fifteenth
inquiry and joined his Sergeant-Major on the firing-step. The two had
hardly exchanged a few low-pitched sentences when Bobby was summoned
back to the telephone.
“Is that Captain Little?”
“Has your patrol come in?”
Captain's Little's last answer was delivered in a distinctly
insubordinate manner. Feeling slightly relieved, he returned to the
firing-step. Two minutes later Angus M'Lachlan and his posse rolled
over the parapet, safe and sound, and Bobby was able, to his own great
content and that of the weary operators along the line, to announce,—
“The patrol has returned, sir, and reports everything quite
satisfactory. I am forwarding a detailed statement.”
Then he laid down the receiver with a happy sigh, and crawled out of
the dug-out on to the duck-board.
“Now we'll have a look round the sentries, Sergeant-Major,” he said.
But the pair had hardly rounded three traverses when Bobby was haled
back to the Signal Station.
“Why did you leave the telephone just now?” inquired a cold voice.
“I was going to visit my sentries, sir.”
“But I was speaking to you.”
“I thought you had finished, sir.”
“I had not finished. If I had finished, I should have
informed you of the fact, and would have said' Good-night!'“
“How does one choke off a tripe-merchant of this type?”
wondered the exhausted officer.
From the bowels of the earth came the answer to his unspoken
question—delivered in a strong Paisley accent—
“For Goad's sake, kiss him, and say 'Good-Nicht,' and hae done with
As already stated, Private Wamphray was returned to his platoon next
But to regard the Buzzer simply and solely as a troglodyte, of
sedentary habits and caustic temperament, is not merely hopelessly
wrong: it is grossly unjust. Sometimes he goes for a walk—under some
such circumstances as the following.
The night is as black as Tartarus, and it is raining heavily.
Brother Boche, a prey to nervous qualms, is keeping his courage up by
distributing shrapnel along our communication-trenches. Signal-wires
are peculiarly vulnerable to shrapnel. Consequently no one in the
Battalion Signal Station is particularly surprised when the line to
“Akk” Company suddenly ceases to perform its functions.
Signal-Sergeant M'Micking tests the instrument, glances over his
shoulder, and observes,—
“Line BX is gone, some place or other. Away you, Duncan, and sorrt
Mr. Duncan, who has been sitting hunched over a telephone,
temporarily quiescent, smoking a woodbine, heaves a resigned sigh,
extinguishes the woodbine and places it behind his ear; hitches his
repairing-wallet nonchalantly over his shoulder, and departs into the
night—there to grope in several inches of mud for the two broken ends
of the wire, which may be lying fifty yards apart. Having found them,
he proceeds to effect a junction, his progress being impeded from time
to time by further bursts of shrapnel. This done, he tests the new
connection, relights his woodbine, and splashes his way back to
Headquarters. That is a Buzzer's normal method of obtaining fresh air
More than that. He is the one man in the Army who can fairly
describe himself as indispensable.
In these days, when whole nations are deployed against one another,
no commander, however eminent, can ride the whirlwind single-handed.
There are limits to individual capacity. There are limits to direct
control. There are limits to personal magnetism. We fight upon a
collective plan nowadays. If we propose to engage in battle, we begin
by welding a hundred thousand men into one composite giant. We weld a
hundred thousand rifles, a million bombs, a thousand machine-guns, and
as many pieces of artillery, into one huge weapon of offence, with
which we arm our giant. Having done this, we provide him with a
brain—a blend of all the experience and wisdom and military genius at
our disposal. But still there is one thing lacking—a nervous system.
Unless our giant have that,—unless his brain be able to transmit its
desires to his mighty limbs,—he has nothing. He is of no account; the
enemy can make butcher's-meat of him. And that is why I say that the
purveyor of this nervous system—our friend the Buzzer—is
indispensable. You can always create a body of sorts and a brain of
sorts. But unless you can produce a nervous system of the highest
excellence, you are foredoomed to failure.
Take a small instance. Supposing a battalion advances to the attack,
and storms an isolated, exposed position. Can they hold on, or can they
not? That question can only be answered by the Artillery behind them.
If the curtain of shell-fire which has preceded the advancing battalion
to its objective can be “lifted” at the right moment and put down
again, with precision, upon a certain vital zone beyond the captured
line, counter-attacks can be broken up and the line held. But the
Artillery lives a long way—sometimes miles—in rear. Without
continuous and accurate information it will be more than useless; it
will be dangerous. (A successful attacking party has been shelled out
of its hardly won position by its own artillery before now—on both
sides!) Sometimes a little visual signalling is possible: sometimes a
despatch-runner may get back through the enemy's curtain of fire; but
in the main your one hope of salvation hangs upon a slender thread of
insulated wire. And round that wire are strung some of the purest gems
of heroism that the War has produced.
At the Battle of Loos, half a battalion of “K(1)” pushed forward
into a very advanced hostile position. There they hung, by their teeth.
Their achievement was great; but unless Headquarters could be informed
of their exact position and needs, they were all dead men. So Corporal
Greig set out to find them, unreeling wire as he went. He was blown to
pieces by an eight-inch shell, but another signaller was never lacking
to take his place. They pressed forward, these lackadaisical
non-combatants, until the position was reached and communication
established. Again and again the wire was cut by shrapnel, and again
and again a Buzzer crawled out to find the broken ends and piece them
together. And ultimately, the tiny, exposed limb in front having been
enabled to explain its exact requirements to the brain behind, the
necessary help was forthcoming and the Fort was held.
Next time you pass a Signaller's Dug-out peep inside. You will find
it occupied by a coke brazier, emitting large quantities of carbon
monoxide, and an untidy gentleman in khaki, with a blue-and-white
device upon his shoulder-straps, who is humped over a small black
instrument, luxuriating in a “frowst” most indescribable. He is reading
a back number of a rural Scottish newspaper which you never heard of.
Occasionally, in response to a faint buzz, he takes up his transmitter
and indulges in an unintelligible altercation with a person unseen. You
need feel no surprise if he is wearing the ribbon of the Distinguished
VII. PASTURES NEW
The outstanding feature of to-day's intelligence is that spring is
coming—has come, in fact.
It arrived with a bump. March entered upon its second week with
seven degrees of frost and four inches of snow. We said what was
natural and inevitable to the occasion, wrapped our coats of skins more
firmly round us, and made a point of attending punctually when the rum
ration was issued.
Forty-eight hours later winter had disappeared. The sun was blazing
in a cloudless sky. Aeroplanes were battling for photographic rights
overhead; the brown earth beneath our feet was putting forth its first
blades of tender green. The muck-heap outside our rest-billet displayed
unmistakable signs of upheaval from its winter sleep. Primroses
appeared in Bunghole Wood; larks soared up into the sky above No Man's
Land, making music for the just and the unjust. Snipers, smiling
cheerfully over the improved atmospheric conditions, polished up their
telescopic sights. The artillery on each side hailed the birth of yet
another season of fruitfulness and natural increase with some more than
usually enthusiastic essays in mutual extermination. Half the Mess
caught colds in their heads.
Frankly, we are not sorry to see the end of winter. Caesar, when he
had concluded his summer campaign, went into winter quarters. Caesar,
as Colonel Kemp once huskily remarked, knew something!
Still, each man to his taste. Corporal Mucklewame, for one, greatly
prefers winter to summer.
“In the winter,” he points out to Sergeant M'Snape, “a body can
breathe withoot swallowing a wheen bluebottles and bum-bees. A body can
aye streitch himself doon under a tree for a bit sleep withoot getting
wasps and wee beasties crawling up inside his kilt, and puddocks
craw-crawing in his ear! A body can keep himself frae sweitin'—”
“He can that!” assents M'Snape, whose spare frame is more vulnerable
to the icy breeze than that of the stout corporal.
However, the balance of public opinion is against Mucklewame. Most
of us are unfeignedly glad to feel the warmth of the sun again. That
working-party, filling sandbags just behind the machine-gun
emplacement, are actually singing. Spring gets into the blood, even in
this stricken land. The Boche over the way resents our efforts at
Sing us a song, a song of Bonnie Scotland!
Any old song will do.
By the old camp-fire, the rough-and-ready choir
Join in the chorus too.
“You'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road”—
'Tis a song that we all know,
To bring back the days in Bonnie Scotland,
Where the heather and the bluebells—
The Boche, a Wagnerian by birth and upbringing, cannot stand any
more of this, so he has fired a rifle-grenade at the glee-party—on the
whole a much more honest and direct method of condemnation than that
practiced by musical critics in time of peace. But he only elicits an
encore. Private Nigg perches a steel helmet on the point of a bayonet,
and patronisingly bobs the same up and down above the parapet.
These steel helmets have not previously been introduced to the
reader's notice. They are modelled upon those worn in the French
Army—and bear about as much resemblance to the original pattern as a
Thames barge to a racing yacht. When first issued, they were greeted
with profound suspicion. Though undoubtedly serviceable,—they saved
many a crown from cracking round The Bluff the other day,—they were
undeniably heavy, and they were certainly not becoming to the peculiar
type of beauty rampant in “K(1).” On issue, then, their recipients
elected to regard the wearing of them as a peculiarly noxious form of
“fatigue.” Private M'A. deposited his upon the parapet, like a
foundling on a doorstep, and departed stealthily round the nearest
traverse, to report his new headpiece “lost through the exigencies of
military service.” Private M'B. wore his insecurely perched upon the
top of his tam-o'-shanter bonnet, where it looked like a very large
ostrich egg in a very small khaki nest. Private M'C. set his up on a
convenient post, and opened rapid fire upon it at a range of six yards,
surveying the resulting holes with the gloomy satisfaction of the
vindicated pessimist. Private M'D. removed the lining from his, and
performed his ablutions in the inverted crown.
“This,” said Colonel Kemp, “will never do. We must start wearing the
dashed things ourselves.”
And it was so. Next day, to the joy of the Battalion, their officers
appeared in the trenches selfconsciously wearing what looked like small
sky-blue wash-hand basins balanced upon their heads. But discipline was
excellent. No one even smiled. In fact, there was a slight reaction in
favour of the helmets. Conversations like the following were
“I'm tellin' you, Jimmy, the C.O. is no the man for tae mak' a show
of himself like that for naething. These tin bunnets must be some use.
Wull we pit oors on?”
“Awa' hame, and bile your held!” replied the unresponsive James.
“They'll no stop a whish-bang,” conceded the apostle of progress,
“but they would keep off splunters, and a wheen bullets, and—and—”
“And the rain!” supplied Jimmy sarcastically.
This gibe suddenly roused the temper of the other participant in the
“I tell you,” he exclaimed, in a voice shrill with indignation,
“that these ——helmets are some ——use!”
“And I tell you,” retorted James earnestly, “that these
——helmets are no ————use!”
When two reasonable persons arrive at a controversial impasse, they usually agree to differ and go their several ways. But in “K(1)"
we prefer practical solutions. The upholder of helmets hastily thrust
his upon his head.
“I'll show you, Jimmy!” he announced, and clambered up on the
“And I'll ——well show you, Wullie!” screamed James, doing
Simultaneously the two zealots thrust their heads over the parapet,
and awaited results. These came. The rifles of two Boche snipers rang
out, and both demonstrators fell heavily backwards into the arms of
By all rights they ought to have been killed. But they were both
very much alive. Each turned to the other triumphantly, and
“I tellt ye so!”
There was a hole right through the helmet of Jimmy, the unbeliever.
The fact that there was not also a hole through his head was due to his
forethought in having put on a tam-o'-shanter underneath. The net
result was a truncated “toorie.” Wullie's bullet had struck his helmet
at a more obtuse angle, and had glanced off, as the designer of the
smooth exterior had intended it to do.
At first glance, the contest was a draw. But subsequent
investigation elicited the fact that Jimmy in his backward fall had
bitten his tongue to the effusion of blood. The verdict was therefore
awarded, on points, to Wullie, and the spectators dispersed in an
orderly manner just as the platoon sergeant came round the traverse to
change the sentry.
We have occupied our own present trenches since January. There was a
time when this sector of the line was regarded as a Vale of Rest.
Bishops were conducted round with impunity. Members of Parliament came
out for the week-end, and returned to their constituents with
first-hand information about the horrors of war. Foreign journalists,
and sight-seeing parties of munition-workers, picnicked in Bunghole
Wood. In the village behind the line, if a chance shell removed tiles
from the roof of a house, the owner, greatly incensed, mounted a ladder
and put in some fresh ones.
But that is all over now. “K(1)”—hard-headed men of business,
bountifully endowed with munitions—have arrived upon the scene, and
the sylvan peace of the surrounding district is gone. Pan has dug
The trouble began two months ago, when our Divisional Artillery
arrived. Unversed in local etiquette, they commenced operations by
“sending up”—to employ a vulgar but convenient catch-phrase—a
strongly fortified farmhouse in the enemy's support line. The Boche, by
way of gentle reproof, deposited four or five small “whizz-bangs” in
our front-line trenches. The tenants thereof promptly telephoned to
“Mother,” and Mother came to the assistance of her offspring with a
salvo of twelve-inch shells. After that. Brother Boche, realising that
the golden age was past, sent north to the Salient for a couple of
heavy batteries, and settled down to shell Bunghole village to pieces.
Within a week he had brought down the church tower: within a fortnight
the population had migrated farther back, leaving behind a few
patriots, too deeply interested in the sale of small beer and picture
postcards to uproot themselves. Company Headquarters in Bunghole Wood
ceased to grow primroses and began to fill sandbags.
A month ago the village was practically intact. The face of the
church tower was badly scarred, but the houses were undamaged. The
little shops were open; children played in the streets. Now, if you
stand at the cross-roads where the church rears its roofless walls, you
will understand what the Abomination of Desolation means. Occasionally
a body of troops, moving in small detachments at generous intervals,
trudges by, on its way to or from the trenches. Occasionally a big
howitzer shell swings lazily out of the blue and drops with a crash or
a dull thud—according to the degree of resistance encountered—among
the crumbling cottages. All is solitude.
But stay! Right on the cross-roads, in the centre of the village,
just below the fingers of a sign-post which indicates the distance to
four French townships, whose names you never heard of until a year ago,
and now will never forget, there hangs a large, white, newly painted
board, bearing a notice in black letters six inches high. Exactly
underneath the board, rubbing their noses appreciatively against the
sign-post, stand two mules, attached to a limbered waggon, the property
of the A.S.C. Their charioteers are sitting adjacent, in a convenient
shell-hole, partaking of luncheon.
“That was a rotten place we' ad to wait in yesterday, Sammy,”
observes Number One. “The draught was somethink cruel.”
The recumbent Samuel agrees. “This little 'oiler is a bit of all
right,” he remarks. “When you've done strarfin' that bully-beef, 'and
it over, ole man!”
He leans his head back upon the lip of the shell-hole, and gazes
pensively at the notice-board six feet away. It says:—
Here is another cross-roads, a good mile farther forward—and less
than a hundred yards behind the fire-trench. It is dawn.
The roads themselves are not so distinct as they were. They are
becoming grass-grown: for more than a year—in daylight at least—no
human foot has trodden them. The place is like hundreds of others that
you may see scattered up and down this countryside—two straight, flat,
metalled country roads, running north and south and east and west,
crossing one another at a faultless right angle.
Of the four corners thus created, one is—or was—occupied by an
estaminet: you can still see the sign, Estaminet au Commerce,
over the door. Two others contain cottages,—the remains of cottages.
At the fourth, facing south and east, stands what is locally known as a
“Calvaire,”—bank of stone, a lofty cross, and a life-size figure of
Christ, facing east, towards the German lines.
This spot is shelled every day—has been shelled every day for
months. Possibly the enemy suspects a machine-gun or an observation
post amid the tumble-down buildings. Hardly one brick remains upon
another. And yet—the sorrowful Figure is unbroken. The Body is riddled
with bullets—in the glowing dawn you may Count not five but fifty
wounds—but the Face is untouched. It is the standing miracle of this
most materialistic war. Throughout the length of France you will see
the same thing.
Agnostics ought to come out here, for a “cure.”
With spring comes also the thought of the Next Push.
But we do not talk quite so glibly of pushes as we did. Neither, for
that matter, does Brother Boche. He has just completed six weeks'
pushing at Verdun, and is beginning to be a little uncertain as to
which direction the pushing is coming from.
No; once more the military textbooks are being rewritten. We started
this war under one or two rather fallacious premises. One was that
Artillery was more noisy than dangerous. When Antwerp fell, we
rescinded that theory. Then the Boche set out to demonstrate that an
Attack, provided your Artillery preparation is sufficiently thorough,
and you are prepared to set no limit to your expenditure of
Infantry, must ultimately succeed. To do him justice, the Boche
supported his assertions very plausibly. His phalanx bundled the
Russians all the way from Tannenburg to Riga. The Austrians adopted
similar tactics, with similar results.
We were duly impressed. The world last summer did not quite realize
how far the results of the campaign were due to German efficiency and
how far to Russian unpreparedness. (Russia, we realise now, found
herself in the position of the historic Mrs. Partington, who
endeavoured to repel the Atlantic with a mop. This year, we understand,
she is in a position to discard the mop in favour of something far, far
Then came—Verdun. Military science turned over yet another page,
and noted that against consummate generalship, unlimited munitions, and
selfless devotion on the part of the defence, the most spectacular and
highly-doped phalanx can spend itself in vain. Military science also
noted that, under modern conditions, the capture of this position or
that signifies nothing: the only method of computing victory is to
count the dead on either side. On that reckoning, the French at Verdun
have already gained one of the great victories of all time.
“In fact,” said Colonel Kemp, “this war will end when the Boche has
lost so many men as to be unable to man his present trench-line, and
“You don't think, sir, that we shall make another Push?” suggested
Angus M'Lachlan eagerly. The others were silent: they had experienced a
“Not so long as the Boche continues to play our game for us, by
attacking. If he tumbles to the error he is making, and digs himself in
again—well, it may become necessary to draw him. In that case,
M'Lachlan, you shall have first chop at the Victoria Crosses. Afraid I
can't recommend you for your last exploit, though I admit it must have
required some nerve!”
There was unseemly laughter at this allusion. Four nights previously
Angus had been sent out in charge of a wiring-party. He had duly
crawled forth with his satellites, under cover of darkness, on to No
Man's Land; and, there selecting a row of “knife-rests” which struck
him as being badly in need of repair, had well and truly reinforced the
same with many strands of the most barbarous brand of barbed wire.
This, despite more than usually fractious behaviour upon the part of
Next morning, through a sniper's loophole, he exhibited the result
of his labours to Major Wagstaffe. The Major gazed long and silently
upon his subordinate's handiwork. There was no mistaking it. It stood
out bright and gleaming in the rays of the rising sun, amid its dingy
surroundings of rusty ironmongery. Angus M'Lachlan waited anxiously for
a little praise.
“Jolly good piece of work,” said Major Wagstaffe at last. “But tell
me, why have you repaired the Boche wire instead of your own?”
“The only enemy we have to fear,” continued Colonel Kemp, rubbing
his spectacles savagely, “is the free and independent British voter—I
mean, the variety of the species that we have left at home. Like the
gentleman in Jack Point's song, 'He likes to get value for money'; and
he is quite capable of asking us, about June or July, 'if we know that
we are paid to be funny?'—before we are ready. What's your view of the
situation at home, Wagstaffe? You're the last off leave.”
Wagstaffe shook his head.
“The British Nation,” he said, “is quite mad. That fact, of course,
has been common property on the Continent of Europe ever since Cook's
Tours were invented. But what irritates the orderly Boche is that there
is no method in its madness. Nothing you can go upon, or take hold of,
or wring any advantage from.”
“Well, take compulsory service. For generations the electorate of
our country has been trained by a certain breed of politician—the
Bandar-log of the British Constitution—to howl down such a low and
degrading business as National Defence. A nasty Continental custom,
they called it. Then came the War, and the glorious Voluntary System
got to work.”
“Aided,” the Colonel interpolated, “by a campaign of mural
advertisement which a cinema star's press agent would have boggled at!”
“Quite so,” agreed Wagstaffe. “Next, when the Voluntary System had
done its damnedest—in other words, when the willing horse had been
worked to his last ounce—we tried the Derby Scheme. The manhood of the
nation was divided into groups, and a fresh method of touting for
troops was adopted. Married shysters, knowing that at least twenty
groups stood between them and a job of work, attested in comparatively
large numbers. The single shysters were less reckless—so much less
reckless, in fact, that compulsion began to materialise at last.”
“But only for single shysters,” said Bobby Little regretfully.
“Yes; and the married shyster rejoiced accordingly. But the single
shyster is a most subtle reptile. On examination, it was found that the
single members of this noble army of martyrs were all 'starred,' or
'reserved', or 'ear-marked'—or whatever it is that they do to these
careful fellows. So the poor old married shyster, who had only attested
to show his blooming patriotism and encourage the others, suddenly
found himself confronted with the awful prospect of having to defend
his country personally, instead of by letter to the halfpenny press.
Then the fat was fairly in the fire! The married martyr—”
“Come, come, old man! Not all of them!” said Colonel Kemp. “I have a
married brother of my own, a solicitor of thirty-eight, who is simply
clamouring for active service!”
“I know that, sir,” admitted Wagstaffe quickly. “Thank God, these
fellows are only a minority, and a freak minority at that; but freak
minorities seem to get the monopoly of the limelight in our unhappy
“The whole affair,” mused the Colonel, “can hardly be described as a
frenzied rally round the Old Flag. By God,” he broke out suddenly, “it
fairly makes one's blood boil! When I think of the countless good
fellows, married and single, but mainly married, who left all
and followed the call of common decency and duty the moment the War
broke out—most of them now dead or crippled; and when I see this
miserable handful of shirkers, holding up vital public business while
the pros and cons of their wretched claims to exemption are
considered—well, I almost wish I had been born a Boche!”
“I don't think you need apply for naturalisation papers yet,
Colonel,” said Wagstaffe. “The country is perfectly sound at heart over
this question, and always was. The present agitation, as I say, is
being engineered by the more verminous section of our incomparable
daily Press, for its own ends. It makes our Allies lift their eyebrows
a bit; but they are sensible people, and they realise that although we
are a nation of lunatics, we usually deliver the goods in the end. As
for the Boche, poor fellow, the whole business makes him perfectly
rabid. Here he is, with all his splendid organisation and brutal
efficiency, and he can't even knock a dent into our undisciplined,
back-chatting, fool-ridden, self-depreciating old country! I, for one,
sympathise with the Boche profoundly. On paper, we don't deserve
“But we shall!” remarked that single-minded paladin, Bobby Little.
“Of course we shall! And what's more, we are going to derive a
national benefit out of this war which will in itself be worth the
price of admission!”
“How?” asked several voices.
Wagstaffe looked round the table. The Battalion were for the moment
in Divisional Reserve, and consequently out of the trenches. Some one
had received a box of Coronas from home, and the mess president had
achieved a bottle of port. Hence the present symposium at Headquarters
Mess. Wagstaffe's eyes twinkled.
“Will each officer present,” he said, “kindly name his pet aversion
among his fellow-creatures?”
“A person or a type?” asked Mr. Waddell cautiously.
Colonel Kemp led off.
“Male ballet-dancers,” he said.
“Fat, shiny men,” said Bobby Little, “with walrus mustaches!”
“All conscientious objectors, passive resisters, pacifists, and
other cranks!” continued the orthodox Waddell.
“All people who go on strike during war-time,” said the Adjutant.
There was an approving murmur—then silence.
“Your contribution, M'Lachlan?” said Wagstaffe.
Angus, who had kept silence from shyness, suddenly blazed out:—
“I think,” he said, “that the most contemptible people in the world
to-day are those politicians and others who, in years gone by,
systematically cried down anything in the shape of national defence or
national inclination to personal service, because they saw there were
no votes in such a programme; and who now”—Angus's
passion rose to fever-heat,—“stand up and endeavour to cultivate
popular favour by reviling the Ministry and the Army for want of
preparedness and initiative. Such men do not deserve to live! Oh,
But Angus's peroration was lost in a storm of applause.
“You are adjudged to have hit the bull's-eye, M'Lachlan,” said
Colonel Kemp. “But tell us, Wagstaffe, your exact object in compiling
this horrible catalogue.”
“Certainly. It is this. Universal Service is a fait accompli
at last, or is shortly going to be—and without anything very much in
the way of exemption either. When it comes, just think of it! All these
delightful people whom we have been enumerating will have to toe the
line at last. For the first time in their little lives they will learn
the meaning of discipline, and fresh air, and esprit de corps.
Isn't that worth a war? If the present scrap can only be prolonged for
another year, our country will receive a tonic which will carry it on
for another century. Think of it! Great Britain, populated by men who
have actually been outside their own parish; men who know that the
whole is greater than the part; men who are too wide awake to go on
doing just what the Bandar-log tell them, and allow themselves
to be used as stalking-horses for low-down political ramps! When we, going round in bath-chairs and on crutches, see that sight—well, I
don't think we shall regret our missing arms and legs quite so much,
Colonel. War is Hell, and all that; but there is one worse thing than a
long war, and that is a long peace!”
“I wonder!” said Colonel Kemp reflectively. He was thinking of his
wife and four children in distant Argyllshire.
But the rapt attitude and quickened breath of Temporary Captain
Bobby Little endorsed every word that Major Wagstaffe had spoken. As he
rolled into his “flea-bag” that night, Bobby requoted to himself, for
the hundredth time, a passage from Shakespeare which had recently come
to his notice. He was not a Shakespearian scholar, nor indeed a student
of literature at all; but these lines had been sent to him, cut out of
a daily almanac, by an equally unlettered and very adorable confidante
“And gentlemen in England now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day!”
Bobby was the sort of person who would thoroughly have enjoyed the
Battle of Agincourt.
VIII. “THE NON-COMBATANT”
We will call the village St. Gregoire. That is not its real name;
because the one thing you must not do in war-time is to call a thing by
its real name. To take a hackneyed example, you do not call a spade a
spade: you refer to it, officially, as Shovels, General Service, One. This helps to deceive, and ultimately to surprise, the enemy; and as
we all know by this time, surprise is the essence of successful
warfare. On the same principle, if your troops are forced back from
their front-line trenches, you call this “successfully straightening
out an awkward salient.”
But this by the way. Let us get back to St. Gregoire. Hither,
mud-splashed, ragged, hollow-cheeked, came our battalion—they call us
the Seventh Hairy Jocks nowadays—after four months' continuous
employment in the firing-line. Ypres was a household word to them;
Plugstreet was familiar ground; Givenchy they knew intimately; Loos was
their wash-pot—or rather, a collection of wash-pots, for in winter all
the shell-craters are full to overflowing. In addition to their
prolonged and strenuous labours in the trenches, the Hairy Jocks had
taken part in a Push—a part not altogether unattended with glory, but
prolific in casualties. They had not been “pulled out” to rest and
refit for over six months, for Divisions on the Western Front were not
at that period too numerous, the voluntary system being at its last
gasp, while the legions of Lord Derby had not yet crystallised out of
the ocean of public talk which held them in solution. So the Seventh
Hairy Jocks were bone tired. But they were as hard as a rigorous winter
in the open could make them, and—they were going back to rest at last.
Had not their beloved C.O. told them so? And he had added, in a voice
not altogether free from emotion, that if ever men deserved a solid
rest and a good time, “you boys do!”
So the Hairy Jocks trudged along the long, straight, nubbly French
road, well content, speculating with comfortable pessimism as to the
character of the billets in which they would find themselves.
Meanwhile, ten miles ahead, the advance party were going round the
town in quest of the billets.
Billet-hunting on the Western Front is not quite so desperate an
affair as hunting for lodgings at Margate, because in the last
extremity you can always compel the inhabitants to take you in—or at
least, exert pressure to that end through the Mairie. But at the
best one's course is strewn with obstacles, and fortunate is the
Adjutant who has to his hand a subaltern capable of finding lodgings
for a thousand men without making a mess of it.
The billeting officer on this, as on most occasions, was our friend
Cockerell,—affectionately known to the entire Battalion as
“Sparrow,”—and his qualifications for the post were derived from three
well-marked and invaluable characteristics, namely, an imperious
disposition, a thick skin, and an attractive bonhomie of manner.
Behold him this morning dismounting from his horse in the place
of St. Gregoire. Around him are grouped his satellites—the
Quartermaster-Sergeant, four Company Sergeants, some odd orderlies, and
a forlorn little man in a neat drab uniform with light blue
facings,—the regimental interpreter. The party have descended, with
the delicate care of those who essay to perform acrobatic feats in
kilts, from bicycles—serviceable but appallingly heavy machines of
Government manufacture, the property of the “Buzzers,” but commandeered
for the occasion. The Quartermaster-Sergeant, who is not accustomed to
strenuous exercise, mops his brow and glances expectantly round the
place. His eye comes gently to rest upon a small but
Lieutenant Cockerell examines his wrist-watch.
“Half-past ten!” he announces. “Quartermaster-Sergeant!”
“Sirr!” The Quartermaster-Sergeant unglues his longing gaze from the
estaminet and comes woodenly to attention.
“I am going to see the Town Major about a billeting area. I will
meet you and the party here in twenty minutes.”
Master Cockerell trots off on his mud-splashed steed, followed by
the respectful and appreciative salutes of his followers—appreciative,
because a less considerate officer would have taken the whole party
direct to the Town Major's office and kept them standing in the street,
wasting moments which might have been better employed elsewhere, until
it was time to proceed with the morning's work.
* * * * *
“How strong are you?” inquired the Town Major.
Cockerell told him. The Town Major whistled.
“That all? Been doing some job of work, haven't you?”
Cockerell nodded, and the Town Major proceeded to examine a
large-scale plan of St. Gregoire, divided up into different-coloured
“We are rather full up at present,” he said; “but the Cemetery Area
is vacant. The Seventeenth Geordies moved out yesterday. You can have
that.” He indicated a triangular section with his pencil.
Master Cockerell gave a deprecatory cough.
“We have come here, sir,” he intimated dryly, “for a change of
The stout Town Major—all Town Majors are stout—chuckled.
“Not bad for a Scot!” he conceded. “But it's quite a cheery
district, really. You won't have to doss down in the cemetery itself,
you know. These two streets here—” he flicked a pencil—“will hold
practically all your battalion, at its present strength. There's a
capital house in the Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau which will do for
Battalion Headquarters. The corporal over there will give you your
billets de logement.”
“Are there any other troops in the area, sir?” asked Cockerell, who,
as already indicated, was no child in these matters.
“There ought not to be, of course. But you know what the Heavy
Gunners and the A.S.C. are! If you come across any of them, fire them
out. If they wear too many stars and crowns for you, let me know, and I
will perform the feat myself. You fellows need a good rest and no
worries, I know. Good-morning.”
At ten minutes to eleven Cockerell found the Quartermaster-Sergeant
and party, wiping their mustaches and visibly refreshed, at the exact
spot where he had left them; and the hunt for billets began.
“A” Company were easily provided for, a derelict tobacco factory
being encountered at the head of the first street. Lieutenant Cockerell
accordingly detached a sergeant and a corporal from his train, and
passed on. The wants of “B” Company were supplied by commandeering a
block of four dilapidated houses farther down the street—all in
comparatively good repair except the end house, whose roof had been
disarranged by a shell during the open fighting in the early days of
This exhausted the possibilities of the first street, and the party
debouched into the second, which was long and straggling, and composed
entirely of small houses.
“Now for a bit of the retail business!” said Master Cockerell
resignedly. “Sergeant M'Nab, what is the strength of 'C' Company?”
“One hunner and thairty-fower other ranks, sirr,” announced Sergeant
M'Nab, consulting a much-thumbed roll-book.
“We shall have to put them in twos and threes all down the street,”
said Cockerell. “Come on; the longer we look at it the less we shall
like it. Interpreter!”
The forlorn little man, already described, trotted up, and saluted
with open hand, French fashion. His name was Baptiste Bombominet (“or
words to that effect,” as the Adjutant put it), and may have been so
inscribed upon the regimental roll; but throughout the rank and file
Baptiste was affectionately known by the generic title of “Alphonso.”
The previous seven years had been spent by him in the congenial and
blameless atmosphere of a Ladies' Tailor's in the west end of London,
where he enjoyed the status and emoluments of chief cutter. Now, called
back to his native land by the voice of patriotic obligation, he found
himself selected, by virtue of a residence of seven years in England,
to act as official interpreter between a Scottish Regiment which could
not speak English, and Flemish peasants who could not speak French. No
wonder that his pathetic brown eyes always appeared full of tears.
However, he followed Cockerell down the street, and meekly embarked
upon a contest with the lady Inhabitants thereof, in which he was
hopelessly outmatched from the start.
At the first door a dame of massive proportions, but keen business
instincts, announced her total inability to accommodate soldats,
but explained that she would be pleased to entertain officiers
to any number. This is a common gambit. Twenty British privates in your
grenier, though extraordinarily well-behaved as a class, make a
good deal of noise, buy little, and leave mud everywhere. On the other
hand, two or three officers give no trouble, and can be relied upon to
consume and pay for unlimited omelettes and bowls of coffee.
That seasoned vessel, Lieutenant Cockerell, turned promptly to the
Sergeant and Corporal of “C” Company.
“Sergeant M'Nab,” he said, “you and Corporal Downie will billet
here.” He introduced hostess and guests by an expressive wave of the
hand. But shrewd Madame was not to be bluffed.
“Pas de sergents, Monsieur le Capitaine!” she exclaimed. “
“Ils sont officiers—sous-officiers,” explained Cockerell,
rather ingeniously, and moved off down the street.
At the next house the owner—a small, wizened lady of negligible
physique but great staying power—entered upon a duet with Alphonso,
which soon reduced that very moderate performer to breathlessness. He
shrugged his shoulders feebly, and cast an appealing glance towards the
“What does she say?” inquired Cockerell.
“She say dis' ouse no good, sair! She 'ave seven children, and one
“Let me see,” commanded the practical officer.
He insinuated himself as politely as possible past his reluctant
opponent, and walked down the narrow passage into the kitchen. Here he
turned, and inquired—
“Er—ou est la pauvre petite chose?“
Madame promptly opened a door, and displayed a little girl in bed—a
very flushed and feverish little girl.
Cockerell grinned sympathetically at the patient, to that young
lady's obvious gratification; and turned to the mother.
“Je suis tres—triste,” he said; “j'ai grand misericorde.
Je ne placerai pas de soldats ici. Bon jour!“
By this time he was in the street again. He saluted politely and
departed, followed by the grateful regards of Madame.
No special difficulties were encountered at the next few houses. The
ladies at the house-door were all polite; many of them were most
friendly; but naturally each was anxious to get as few men and as many
officers as possible—except the proprietess of an estaminel,
who offered to accommodate the entire regiment. However, with a little
tact here and a little firmness there, Master Cockerell succeeded in
distributing “C” Company among some dozen houses. One old gentleman,
with a black alpaca cap and a six-days beard, proprietor of a lofty
establishment at the corner of the street, proved not only
recalcitrant, but abusive. With him Cockerell dealt promptly.
“Ca suffit!” he announced. “Montres-moi votre grenier!
The old man, grumbling, led the way up numerous rickety staircases
to the inevitable loft under the tiles. This proved to be a noble
apartment thirty feet long. From wall to wall stretched innumerable
“We can get a whole platoon in here,” said Cockerell contentedly.
“Tell him, Alphonso. These people,” he explained to Sergeant M'Nab,
“always dislike giving up their lofts, because they hang their laundry
there in winter. However, the old boy must lump it. After all, we are
in this country for his health, not ours; and he gets paid for every
man who sleeps here. That fixes 'C' Company. Now for 'D'! The other
side of the street this time.”
Quarters were found in due course for “D” Company; after which
Cockerell discovered a vacant building-site which would serve for
transport lines. An empty garage was marked down for the
Quartermaster's ration store, and the Quartermaster-Sergeant promptly
faded into its recesses with a grateful sigh. An empty shop in the Rue
Jean Jacques Rousseau, conveniently adjacent to Battalion Headquarters,
was appropriated for that gregarious band, the regimental signallers
and telephone section; while a suitable home for the Anarchists, or
Bombers, together with their stock-in-trade, was found in the basement
of a remote dwelling on the outskirts of the area.
After this, Lieutenant Cockerell, left alone with Alphonso and the
orderly in charge of his horse, heaved a sigh of exhaustion and
transferred his attention from his notebook to his watch.
“That finishes the rank and file,” he said. “I breakfasted at four
this morning, and the battalion won't arrive for a couple of hours yet.
Alphonso, I am going to have an omelette somewhere. I shall want you in
half an hour exactly. Don't go wandering off for the rest of the day,
pinching soft billets for yourself and the Sergeant-Major and your
other pals, as you usually do!”
Alphonso saluted guiltily—evidently the astute Cockerell had
“touched the spot”—and was turning away, when suddenly the billeting
officer's eye encountered an illegible scrawl at the very foot of his
“Stop a moment, Alphonso! I have forgotten those condemned
machine-gunners, as usual. Strafe them! Come on! Once more into
the breach, Alphonso! There is a little side-alley down here that we
have not tried.”
The indefatigable Cockerell turned down the Rue Gambetta, followed
by Alphonso, faint but resigned.
“Here is the very place!” announced Cockerell almost at once. “This
house, Number Five. We can put the gunners and their little guns into
that stable at the back, and the officer can have a room in the house
itself. Sonnez, for the last time before lunch!”
The door was opened by a pleasant-faced young woman of about thirty,
who greeted Cockerell—tartan is always popular with French
ladies—with a beaming smile, but shook her head regretfully upon
seeing the billet de logement in his hand. The inevitable duet
with Alphonso followed. Presently Alphonso turned to his superior.
“Madame is ver' sorry, sair, but an officier is here
“Show me the officier!” replied the prosaic Cockerell.
The duet was resumed.
“Madame say,” announced Alphonso presently, “that the officier
is not here now; but he will return.”
“So will Christmas! Meanwhile I am going to put an Emma Gee
officer in here.”
Alphonso's desperate attempt to translate the foregoing idiom into
French was interrupted by Madame's retirement into the house, whither
she beckoned Cockerell to follow her. In the front room she produced a
frayed sheet of paper, which she proffered with an apologetic smile.
The paper said:—
This billet is entirely reserved for the Supply Officer of this
District. It is not to be occupied by troops passing through the town.
Lieutenant Cockerell whistled softly and vindictively through his
“Well,” he said, “for consummate and concentrated nerve, give me the
underlings of the A.S.C.! This pot-bellied blighter not only butts into
an area which doesn't belong to him, but actually leaves a chit to warn
people off the grass even when he isn't here! He hasn't signed the
document, I observe. That means that he is a newly joined subaltern,
trying to get mistaken for a Brass Hat! I'll fix him!”
With great stateliness Lieutenant Cockerell tore the offending
screed into four portions, to the audible concern of Madame. But the
Lieutenant smiled reassuringly upon her.
“Je vous donnerai un autre, vous savez,” he assured her.
He sat down at the table, tore a leaf from his Field Service Pocket
Book, and wrote:—
The Supply Officer of the District is at liberty to occupy this
billet only at such times as it is not required by the troops of the
Signed, F.J. Cockerell,
Lieut. &Asst. Adj.,
7th B. &W. Highes.
“That's a pretty nasty one!” he observed with relish. Then, having
pinned the insulting document conspicuously to the mantelpiece, he
observed to the mystified lady of the house:—
“Voila, Madame. Si l'officier reviendra, je le verrai moi-meme,
avec grand plaisir. Bon jour!”
And with this dark saying Sparrow Cockerell took his departure.
The Battalion, headed by their tatterdemalion pipers, stumped into
the town in due course, and were met on the outskirts by the billeting
party, who led the various companies to their appointed place. After
inspecting their new quarters, and announcing with gloomy satisfaction
that they were the worst, dirtiest, and most uncomfortable yet
encountered, everybody settled down in the best place he could find,
and proceeded to make himself remarkably snug.
Battalion Headquarters and the officers of “A” Company were billeted
in an imposing mansion which actually boasted a bathroom. It is true
that there was no water, but this deficiency was soon made good by a
string of officers' servants bearing buckets. Beginning with Colonel
Kemp, who was preceded by an orderly bearing a small towel and a large
loofah, each officer performed a ceremonial ablution; and it was a
collection of what Major Wagstaffe termed “bright and bonny young
faces” which collected round the Mess table at seven o'clock.
It was in every sense a gala meal. Firstly, it was weeks since any
one (except Second Lieutenant M'Corquodale, newly joined, and
addressed, for painfully obvious reasons, as “Tich") had found himself
at table in an apartment where it was possible to stand upright.
Secondly, the Mess President had coaxed glass tumblers out of the
ancient concierge; and only those who have drunk from enamelled
ironware for weeks on end can appreciate the pure joy of escape from
the indeterminate metallic flavour which such vessels impart to all
beverages. Thirdly, these same tumblers were filled to the brim with
inferior but exhilarating champagne—purchased, as they euphemistically
put it in the Supply Column, “locally.” Lastly, the battalion had
several months of hard fighting behind it, probably a full month's rest
before it, and the conscience of duty done and recognition earned
floating like a halo above it. For the moment memories of Nightmare
Wood and the Kidney Bean Redoubt—more especially the latter—were
effaced. Even the sorrowful gaps in the ring round the table seemed
The menu, too, was almost pretentious. First came the hors
d'oeuvres—a tin of sardines. This was followed by what the Mess
Corporal described as a savoury omelette, but which the
Second-in-Command condemned as “a regrettable incident.”
“It is false economy,” he observed dryly to the Mess President, “to
employ Mark One  eggs as anything but hand-grenades.”
[Footnote 1: In the British army each issue of arms or equipment
receives a distinctive “Mark.” Mark I denotes the earliest issue.]
However, the tide of popular favour turned with the haggis,
contributed by Lieutenant Angus M'Lachlan, from a parcel from home.
Even the fact that the Mess cook, an inexperienced aesthete from
Islington, had endeavoured to tone down the naked repulsiveness of the
dainty with discreet festoons of tinned macaroni, failed to arouse the
resentment of a purely Scottish Mess. The next course—the beef ration,
hacked into the inevitable gobbets and thinly disguised by a sprinkling
of curry powder—aroused no enthusiasm; but the unexpected production
of a large tin of Devonshire cream, contributed by Captain Bobby
Little, relieved the canned peaches of their customary monotony. Last
of all came a savoury—usually described as the
savoury—consisting of a raft of toast per person, each raft carrying
an abundant cargo of fried potted meat, and provided with a passenger
in the shape of a recumbent sausage.
A compound of grounds and dish-water, described by the optimistic
Mess Corporal as coffee, next made its appearance, mitigated by a
bottle of Cointreau and a box of Panatellas; and the Mess turned itself
to more intellectual refreshment. A heavy and long-overdue mail had
been found waiting at St. Gregoire. Letters had been devoured long ago.
Now, each member of the Mess leaned back in his chair, straightened his
weary legs under the table, and settled down, cigar in mouth, to the
perusal of the Spectator or the Tatler, according to rank
and literary taste.
Colonel Kemp, unfolding a week-old Times, looked over his
glasses at his torpid disciples.
“Where is young Sandeman?” he inquired.
Young Sandeman was the Adjutant.
“He went out to the Orderly Room, sir, five minutes ago,” replied
“I only want to give him to-morrow's Orders. No doubt he'll be back
presently. I may as well mention to you fellows that I propose to allow
the men three clear days' rest, except for bathing and re-clothing.
After that we must do Company Drill, good and hard, so as to polish up
the new draft, who are due to-morrow. I am going to start a
bombing-school, too: at least seventy-five per cent. of the Battalion
ought to pass the test before we go back to the line. However, we need
not rush things. We should be here in peace for at least a month. We
must get up some sports, and I think it would be a sound scheme to have
a singsong one Saturday night. I was just saying, Sandeman,”—this to
the Adjutant, who reentered the room at that moment,—“that it would be
The Adjutant laid a pink field-telegraph slip before his superior.
“This has just come in from Brigade Headquarters, sir,” he said. “I
have sent for the Sergeant-Major.”
The Colonel adjusted his glasses and read the despatch. A deathly,
sickening silence reigned in the room. Then he looked up.
“I am afraid I was a bit previous,” he said quietly. “The Royal
Stickybacks have lost the Kidney Bean, and we are detailed to go up and
retake it. Great compliment to the regiment, but a trifle mistimed! You
young fellows had better go to bed. Parade at 4 A.M., sharp!
Good-night! Come along to the Orderly Room, Sandeman.”
The door closed, and the Mess, grinding the ends of their cigars
into their coffee-cups, heaved themselves resignedly to their aching
“There ain't,” quoted Major Wagstaffe, “no word in the blooming
language for it!”
The Kidney Bean Redoubt is the key to a very considerable sector of
It lies just behind a low ridge. The two horns of the bean are drawn
back out of sight of the enemy, but the middle swells forward over the
skyline and commands an extensive view of the country beyond. Direct
observation of artillery fire is possible: consequently an armoured
observation post has been constructed here, from which gunner officers
can direct the fire of their batteries with accuracy and elegance. Lose
the Kidney Bean, and the boot is on the other leg. The enemy has the
upper ground now: he can bring observed artillery fire to bear upon all
our tenderest spots behind the line. He can also enfilade our
Well, as already stated, the Twenty-Second Royal Stickybacks had
lost the Kidney Bean. They were a battalion of recent formation,
stout-hearted fellows all, but new to the refinements of intensive
trench warfare. When they took over the sector, they proceeded to leave
undone various vital things which the Hairy Jocks had always made a
point of doing, and to do various unnecessary things which the Hairy
Jocks had never done. The observant Hun promptly recognised that he was
faced by a fresh batch of opponents, and, having carefully studied the
characteristics of the newcomers, prescribed and administered an
exemplary dose of frightfulness. He began by tickling up the
Stickybacks with an unpleasant engine called the Minenwerfer,
which despatches a large sausage-shaped projectile in a series of
ridiculous somersaults, high over No Man's Land into the enemy's
front-line trench, where it explodes and annihilates everything in that
particular bay. Upon these occasions one's only chance of salvation is
to make a rapid calculation as to the bay into which the sausage is
going to fall, and then double speedily round a traverse—or, if
possible, two traverses—into another. It is an exhilarating pastime,
but presents complications when played by a large number of persons in
a restricted space, especially when the persons aforesaid are not
unanimous as to the ultimate landing-place of the projectile.
After a day and a night of these aerial torpedoes the Hun proceeded
to an intensive artillery bombardment. He had long coveted the Kidney
Bean, and instinct told him that he would never have a better
opportunity of capturing it than now. Accordingly, two hours before
dawn, the Redoubt was subjected to a sudden, simultaneous, and
converging fire from all the German artillery for many miles round, the
whole being topped up with a rain of those crowning instruments of
demoralisation, gas-shells. At the same time an elaborate curtain of
shrapnel and high explosive was let down behind the Redoubt, to serve
the double purpose of preventing either the sending up of
reinforcements or the temporary withdrawal of the garrison.
At the first streak of dawn the bombardment was switched off, as if
by a tap; the curtain fire was redoubled in volume; and a massed attack
swept across the disintegrated wire into the shattered and pulverised
Redoubt. Other attacks were launched on either flank; but these were
obvious blinds, intended to prevent a too concentrated defence of the
Kidney Bean. The Royal Stickybacks—what was left of them—put up a
tough fight; but half of them were lying dead or buried, or both,
before the assault was launched, and the rest were too dazed and
stupefied by noise and chlorine gas to withstand—much less to
repel—the overwhelming phalanx that was hurled against them. One by
one they went down, until the enemy troops, having swamped the Redoubt,
gathered themselves up in a fresh wave and surged towards the
reserve-line trenches, four hundred yards distant. At this point,
however, they met a strong counter-attack, launched from the Brigade
Reserve, and after heavy fighting were bundled back into the Redoubt
itself. Here the German machine-guns had staked out a defensive line,
and the German retirement came to a standstill.
Meanwhile a German digging party, many hundred strong, had been
working madly in No Man's Land, striving to link up the newly acquired
ground with the German lines. By the afternoon the Kidney Bean was not
only “reversed and consolidated,” but was actually included in the
enemy's front trench system. Altogether a well-planned and admirably
executed little operation.
Forty-eight hours later the Kidney Bean Redoubt was recaptured, and
remains in British hands to this day. Many arms of the Service took
honourable part in the enterprise—heavy guns, field guns,
trench-mortars, machine-guns; Sappers and Pioneers; Infantry in various
capacities. But this narrative is concerned only with the part played
by the Seventh Hairy Jocks.
“Sorry to pull you back from rest, Colonel,” said the Brigadier,
when the commander of the Hairy Jocks reported; “but the Divisional
General considers that the only feasible way to hunt the Boche from the
Kidney Bean is to bomb him out of it. That means trench-fighting, pure
and simple. I have called you up because you fellows know the ins and
outs of the Kidney Bean as no one else does. The Brigade who are in the
line just now are quite new to the place. Here is an aeroplane
photograph of the Redoubt, as at present constituted. Tell off your own
bombing parties; make your own dispositions; send me a copy of your
provisional orders; and I will fit my plan in with yours. The Corps
Commander has promised to back you with every gun, trench-mortar,
culverin, and arquebus in his possession.”
In due course Battalion Orders were issued and approved. They dealt
with operations most barbarous amid localities of the most homelike
sound. Number Nine Platoon, for instance (Commander Lieutenant
Cockerell), were to proceed in single file, carrying so many grenades
per man, up Charing Cross Road, until stopped by the barrier which the
enemy were understood to have erected in Trafalgar Square, where a
bombing-post and at least one machine-gun would probably be
encountered. At this point they were to wait until Trafalgar Square had
been suitably dealt with by a trench-mortar. (Here followed a paragraph
addressed exclusively to the Trench-Mortar Officer.) After this the
bombers of Number Three Platoon would bomb their way across the Square
and up the Strand. Another party would clear Northumberland Avenue,
while a Lewis gun raked Whitehall. And so on. Every detail was thought
out, down to the composition of the parties which were to “clean up"
afterwards—that is, extract the reluctant Boche from various
underground fastnesses well known to the extractors. The whole
enterprise was then thoroughly rehearsed in some dummy trenches behind
the line, until every one knew his exact part. Such is modern warfare.
Next day the Kidney Bean Redoubt was in British hands again. The
Hun—what was left of him after an intensive bombardment of twenty-four
hours—had betaken himself back over the ridge, via the remnants
of his two new communication trenches, to his original front line. The
two communication trenches themselves were blocked and sandbagged, and
were being heavily supervised by a pair of British machine-guns.
Fighting in the Redoubt itself had almost ceased, though a humorous
sergeant, followed by acolytes bearing bombs, was still “combing out"
certain residential districts in the centre of the maze. Ever and anon
he would stoop down at the entrance of some deep dug-out, and bawl—
“Ony mair doon there? Come away, Fritz! I'll gie ye five seconds.
Yin, Twa, Three—”
Then, with a rush like a bolt of rabbits, two or three
close-cropped, grimy Huns would scuttle up from below and project
themselves from one of the exits; to be taken in charge by grinning
Caledonians wearing “tin hats” very much awry, and escorted back
through the barrage to the “prisoners' base” in rear.
All through the day, amidst unremitting shell fire and local
counter-attack, the Hairy Jocks reconsolidated the Kidney Bean; and
they were so far successful that when they handed over the work to
another battalion at dusk, the parapet was restored, the machine-guns
were in position, and a number of “knife-rest” barbed-wire
entanglements were lying just behind the trench, ready to be hoisted
over the parapet and joined together in a continuous defensive line as
soon as the night was sufficiently dark.
One by one the members of Number Nine Platoon squelched—for it had
rained hard all day—back to the reserve line. They were utterly
exhausted, and still inclined to feel a little aggrieved at having been
pulled out from rest; but they were well content. They had done the
State some service, and they knew it; and they knew that the higher
powers knew it too. There would be some very flattering reading in
Divisional Orders in a few days' time.
Meanwhile, their most pressing need was for something to eat. To be
sure, every man had gone into action that morning carrying his day's
rations. But the British soldier, improvident as the grasshopper,
carries his day's rations in one place, and one place only—his
stomach. The Hairy Jocks had eaten what they required at their
extremely early breakfast: the residue thereof they had abandoned.
About midnight Master Cockerell, in obedience to a most welcome
order, led the remnants of his command, faint but triumphant, back from
the reserve line to a road junction two miles in rear, known as Dead
Dog Corner. Here the Battalion was to rendezvous, and march back
by easy stages to St. Gregoire. Their task was done.
But at the cross-roads Number Nine Platoon found no Battalion: only
a solitary subaltern, with his orderly. This young Casabianca informed
Cockerell that he, Second Lieutenant Candlish, had been left behind to
“bring in stragglers.”
“Stragglers?” exclaimed the infuriated Cockerell. “Do we look like
“No,” replied the youthful Candlish frankly; “you look more like
sweeps. However, you had better push on. The Battalion isn't far ahead.
The order is to march straight back to St. Gregoire and re-occupy
“What about rations?”
“Rations? The Quartermaster was waiting here for us when we
rendezvoused, and every man had a full ration and a tot of rum.”
(Number Nine Platoon cleared their parched throats expectantly.) “But I
fancy he has gone on with the column. However, if you leg it you should
catch them up. They can't be more than two miles ahead. So long!”
But the task was hopeless. Number Nine Platoon had been bombing,
hacking, and digging all day. Several of them were slightly
wounded—the serious cases had been taken off long ago by the
stretcher-bearers—and Cockerell's own head was still dizzy from the
fumes of a German gas-shell.
He lined up his disreputable paladins in the darkness, and spoke—
“Sergeant M'Nab, how many men are present?”
“Eighteen, sirr.” The platoon had gone into action thirty-four
“How many men are deficient of an emergency ration? I can make a
good guess, but you had better find out.”
Five minutes later the Sergeant reported. Cockerell's guess was
correct. The British private has only one point of view about the
portable property of the State. To him, as an individual, the sacred
emergency ration is an unnecessary encumbrance, and the carrying
thereof a “fatigue.” Consequently, when engaged in battle, one of the
first (of many) things which he jettisons is this very ration. When all
is over, he reports with unctuous solemnity that the provender in
question has been blown out of his haversack by a shell. The
Quartermaster-Sergeant writes it off as “lost owing to the exigencies
of military service,” and indents for another.
Lieutenant Cockerell's haversack contained a packet of meat-lozenges
and about half a pound of chocolate. These were presented to the
“Hand these round as far as they will go, Sergeant,” said Cockerell.
“They'll make a mouthful a man, anyhow. Tell the platoon to lie down
for ten minutes; then we'll push off. It's only fifteen miles. We ought
to make it by breakfast-time ...”
Slowly, mechanically, all through the winter night the victors
hobbled along. Cockerell led the way, carrying the rifle of a man with
a wounded arm. Occasionally he checked his bearings with map and
electric torch. Sergeant M'Nab, who, under a hirsute and attenuated
exterior, concealed a constitution of ferro-concrete and the heart of a
lion, brought up the rear, uttering fallacious assurances to the
faint-hearted as to the shortness of the distance now to be covered,
and carrying two rifles.
The customary halts were observed. At ten minutes to four the men
flung themselves down for the third time. They had covered about seven
miles, and were still eight or nine from St. Gregoire. The everlasting
constellation of Verey lights still rose and fell upon the eastern
horizon behind them, but the guns were silent.
“There might be a Heavy Battery dug in somewhere about here,” mused
Cockerell. “I wonder if we could touch them for a few tins of bully.
Hallo, what's that?”
A distant rumble came from the north, and out of the darkness loomed
a British motor-lorry, lurching and swaying along the rough cobbles of
the pave. Some of Cockerell's men were lying dead asleep in the
middle of the road, right at the junction. The lorry was going twenty
miles an hour.
“Get into the side of the road, you men!” shouted Cockerell, “or
they'll run over you. You know what these M.T. drivers are!”
With indignant haste, and at the last possible moment, the kilted
figures scattered to either side of the narrow causeway. The usual
stereotyped and vitriolic remonstrances were hurled after the great
hooded vehicle as it lurched past.
And then a most unusual thing happened. The lorry slowed down, and
finally stopped, a hundred yards away. An officer descended, and began
to walk back. Cockerell rose to his weary feet and walked to meet him.
The officer wore a major's crown upon the shoulder-straps of his
sheepskin-lined “British Warm” and the badge of the Army Service Corps
upon his cap. Cockerell, indignant at the manner in which his platoon
had been hustled off the road, saluted stiffly, and muttered:
“Good-morning!” said the Major. He was a stout man of nearly fifty,
with twinkling blue eyes and a short-clipped mustache. Cockerell judged
him to be one of the few remnants of the original British Army.
“I stopped,” explained the older man, “to apologise for the
scandalous way that fellow drove over you. It was perfectly damnable;
but you know what these converted taxi-drivers are! This swine forgot
for the moment that he had an officer on board, and hogged it as usual.
He goes under arrest as soon as we get back to billets.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” said Master Cockerell, entirely thawed.
“I'm afraid my chaps were lying all over the road; but they are pretty
well down and out at present.”
“Where have you come from?” inquired the Major, turning a curious
eye upon Cockerell's prostrate followers.
Cockerell explained When he had finished, he added wistfully—
“I suppose you have not got an odd tin or two of bully to give away,
sir? My fellows are about—”
For answer, the Major took the Lieutenant by the arm and led him
towards the lorry.
“You have come,” he announced, “to the very man you want. I am
practically Mr. Harrod. In fact, I am a Corps Supply Officer. How would
a Maconochie apiece suit your boys?”
Cockerell, repressing the ecstatic phrases which crowded to his
tongue, replied that that was just what the doctor had ordered.
“Where are you bound for?” continued the Major.
“Of course. You were pulled out from there, weren't you? I am going
to St. Gregoire myself as soon as I have finished my round. Home to
bed, in fact. I haven't had any sleep worth writing home about for four
nights. It is no joke tearing about a country full of shell-holes,
hunting for people who have shifted their ration-dump seven times in
four days. However, I suppose things will settle down again, now that
you fellows have fired Brother Boche out of the Kidney Bean. Pretty
fine work, too! Tell me, what is your strength, here and now?”
“One officer,” said Cockerell soberly, “and eighteen other ranks.”
“All that's left of your platoon?”
Cockerell nodded. The stout Major began to beat upon the tailboard
of the lorry with his stick.
“Sergeant Smurthwaite!” he shouted.
There came a muffled grunt from the recesses of the lorry. Then a
round and ruddy face rose like a harvest moon above the tailboard, and
a stertorous voice replied respectfully—
“Let down this tailboard; load this officer's platoon into the
lorry; issue them with a Maconochie and a tot of rum apiece; and don't
forget to put Smee under arrest for dangerous driving when we get back
“Very good, sir.”
Ten minutes later the survivors of Number Nine Platoon, soaked to
the skin, dazed, slightly incredulous, but at peace with all the world,
reclined close-packed upon the floor of the swaying lorry. Each man
held an open tin of Mr. Maconochie's admirable ration between his
knees. Perfect silence reigned: a pleasant aroma of rum mellowed the
already vitiated atmosphere.
In front, beside the chastened Mr. Smee, sat the Major and Master
Cockerell. The latter had just partaken of his share of refreshment,
and was now endeavouring, with lifeless fingers, to light a cigarette.
The Major scrutinised his guest intently. Then he stripped off his
British Warm coat—incidentally revealing the fact that he wore upon
his tunic the ribbons of both South African Medals and the
Distinguished Service Order—and threw it round Cockerell's shoulders.
“I'm sorry, boy!” he said. “I never noticed. You are chilled to the
bone. Button this round you.”
Cockerell made a feeble protest, but was cut short.
“Nonsense! There's no sense in taking risks after you've done your
Cockerell assented, a little sleepily. His allowance of rum was
bringing its usual vulgar but comforting influence to bear upon an
“I see you have been wounded, sir,” he observed, noting with a
little surprise two gold stripes upon his host's left sleeve—the
sleeve of a “non-combatant.”
“Yes,” said the Major. “I got the first one at Le Gateau. He was
only a little fellow; but the second, which arrived at the Second Show
at Ypres, gave me such a stiff leg that I am only an old crock now. I
was second-in-command of an Infantry Battalion in those days. In these,
I am only a peripatetic Lipton. However, I am lucky to be here at all:
I've had twenty-seven years' service. How old are you?”
“Twenty,” replied Cockerell. He was too tired to feel as ashamed as
he usually did at having to confess to the tenderness of his years.
The Major nodded thoughtfully.
“Yes,” he said; “I judged that would be about the figure. My son
would have been twenty this month, only—he was at Neuve Chapelle. He
was very like you in appearance—very. His mother would have been
interested to meet you. You might as well take a nap for half an hour.
I have two more calls to make, and we shan't get home till nearly
seven. Lean on me, old man. I'll see you don't tumble overboard ...”
So Lieutenant Cockerell, conqueror of the Kidney Bean, fell asleep,
his head resting, with scandalous disregard for military etiquette,
upon the shoulder of the stout Major.
An hour or two later, Number Nine Platoon, distended with
concentrated nourishment and painfully straightening its cramped limbs,
decanted itself from the lorry into a little cul-de-sac opening
off the Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau in St. Gregoire. The name of the
cul-de-sac was the Rue Gambetta.
Their commander, awake and greatly refreshed, looked round him and
realised, with a sudden sense of uneasiness, that he was in familiar
surroundings. The lorry had stopped at the door of Number Five.
“I don't suppose your Battalion will get back for some time,” said
the Major. “Tell your Sergeant to put your men into the stable behind
this house—there's plenty of straw there—and—”
“Their own billet is just round the corner, sir,” replied Cockerell.
“They might as well go there, thank you.”
“Very good. But come in with me yourself, and doss here for a few
hours. You can report to your C.O. later in the day, when he arrives.
This is my pied-a-terre,”—rapping on the door. “You won't find
many billets like it. As you see, it stands in this little backwater,
and is not included in any of the regular billeting areas of the town.
The Town Major has allotted it to me permanently. Pretty decent of him,
wasn't it? And Madame Vinot is a dear. Here she is! Bonjour, Madame
Vinot! Avez-vous un feu—er—inflamme pour moi dans la chambre
?” Evidently the Major's French was on a par with Cockerell's.
But Madame understood him, bless her!
“Mais oui, M'sieur le Colonel!” she exclaimed cheerfully—the
rank of Major is not recognised by the French civilian population—and
threw open the door of the sitting-room, with a glance of compassion
upon the Major's mud-splashed companion, whom she failed to recognise.
A bright fire was burning in the open stove.
Immediately above, pinned to the mantelpiece and fluttering in the
draught, hung Cockerell's manifesto upon the subject of non-combatants.
He could recognise his own handwriting across the room. The Major saw
“Hallo, what's that hanging up, I wonder?” he exclaimed. “A
memorandum for me, I expect; probably from my old friend 'Dados.'
Let us get a little more light.”
[Footnote 1: D.A.D.O.S. Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance
He crossed to the window and drew up the blind. Cockerell moved too.
When the Major turned round, his guest was standing by the stove, his
face scarlet through its grime.
“I'm awfully sorry, sir,” said Cockerell, “but that
notice—memorandum—of yours has dropped into the fire.”
“If it came from Dados,” replied the Major, “thank you very much!”
“I can't tell you, sir,” added Cockerell humbly, “what a fool I
But the apology referred to an entirely different matter.
IX. TUNING UP
It is just one year to-day since we “came oot.” A year plays havoc
with the “establishment” of a battalion in these days of civilised
warfare. Of the original band of stout-hearted but inexperienced
Crusaders who crossed the Channel in the van of The First Hundred
Thousand, in May, 1915,—a regiment close on a thousand strong, with
twenty-eight officers,—barely two hundred remain, and most of these
are Headquarters or Transport men. Of officers there are five—Colonel
Kemp, Major Wagstaffe, Master Cockerell, Bobby Little, and Mr. Waddell,
who, by the way, is now Captain Waddell, having succeeded to the
command of his old Company.
Of the rest, our old Colonel is in Scotland, essaying ambitious
pedestrian and equestrian feats upon his new leg. Others have been
drafted to the command of newer units, for every member of “K(1)” is a
Nestor now. Others are home, in various stages of convalescence.
Others, alas! will never go home again. But the gaps have all been
filled up, and once more we are at full strength, comfortably conscious
that whereas a year ago we were fighting to hold a line, and play for
time, and find our feet, while the people at home behind us were making
good, now we are fighting for one thing and one thing only; and that
is, to administer the knock-out blow to Brother Boche.
Our last casualty was Ayling, who left us under somewhat unusual
Towards the end of our last occupancy of trenches the local Olympus
decided that what both sides required, in order to awaken them from
their winter lethargy, or spring lassitude (or whatever it is that
Olympus considers that we in the firing-line are suffering from for the
moment), was a tonic. Accordingly orders were issued for a Flying
Matinee, or trench raid. Each battalion in the Division was to submit a
scheme, and the battalion whose scheme was adjudged the best was to be
accorded the honour—so said the Practical Joke Department—of carrying
out the scheme in person. To the modified rapture of the Seventh Hairy
Jocks their plan was awarded first prize. Headquarters, after a little
excusable recrimination on the subject of unnecessary zeal and
misguided ambition, set to work to arrange rehearsals of our highly
Brother Boche has grown “wise” to Flying Matinees nowadays, and to
score a real success you have to present him with something
comparatively novel and unexpected. However, our scheme had been
carefully thought out; and, given sufficient preparation, and an
adequate cast, there seemed no reason to doubt that the piece would
have a highly successful run of one night.
At one point in the enemy's trenches opposite to us his barbed-wire
defences had worn very thin, and steps were taken by means of
systematic machine-gun fire to prevent him repairing them. This spot
was selected for the raid. A party of twenty-five was detailed. It was
to be led by Angus M'Lachlan, and was to slip over the parapet on a
given moonless night, crawl across No Man's Land to within striking
distance of the German trench, and wait. At a given moment the signal
for attack would be given, and the wire demolished by a means which
need not be specified here. Thereupon the raiding party were to dash
forward and—to quote the Sergeant-Major—“mix themselves up in it.”
Two elements are indispensable in a successful trench-raid—surprise
and despatch. That is to say, you must deliver your raid when and where
it is least expected, and then get home to bed before your victims have
had time to set the machinery of retaliation in motion. Steps were
therefore taken, firstly, to divert the enemy's attention as far as
possible from the true objective of the raid, by a sudden and furious
bombardment of a sector of trenches three hundred yards away; and
secondly, to ensure as far as possible, that the raid, having commenced
at 2 A.M., should conclude at 2.12, sharp.
In order to cover the retirement of the excursionists, Ayling was
ordered to arrange for machine-gun fire, which should sweep the enemy's
parapet for some hundreds of yards upon either flank, and so encourage
the enemy to keep his head down and mind his own business.
The raid itself was a brilliant success. Dug-outs were bombed,
emplacements destroyed, and a respectable bag of captives brought over.
But the element of surprise, upon which so much insistence was laid
above, was visited upon both attackers and attacked. To the former the
contribution came from that well-meaning but somewhat addlepated
warrior, Private Nigg, who formed one of the raiding party.
Nigg's allotted task upon this occasion was to “comb out” certain
German dug-outs. (It may be mentioned that each man had a specific duty
to perform, and a specific portion of the trench opposite to perform it
in; for the raid had been rehearsed several times in a dummy trench
behind the lines constructed exactly to scale from an aeroplane
photograph.) For this purpose he was provided with bombs. Shortly
before two o'clock in the morning the party, headed by Angus M'Lachlan,
crawled over the parapet during a brief lull in the activities of the
Verey lights, and crept steadily, on hands and knees, across No Man's
Land. Fifty yards from the enemy's wire was a collection of
shell-holes, relics of a burst of misdirected energy on the part of a
six-inch battery. Here the raiders disposed themselves, and waited for
Now, it is an undoubted fact, that if you curl yourself up, with two
or three preliminary twirls, after the fashion of a dog going to bed,
in a perfectly circular shell-hole, on a night as black as the inside
of the dog in question, you are extremely likely to lose your sense of
direction. This is what happened to Private Nigg. He and his infernal
machines lay uneasily in their appointed shell-hole for some ten
minutes, surrounded by Verey lights which shot suddenly into the sky
with a disconcerting plop, described a graceful parabola, burst
into dazzling flame, and fluttered sizzling down. One or two of these
fell quite near Nigg's party, and continued to burn upon the ground,
but the raiders sank closer into their shell-holes, and no alarm
resulted. Once or twice a machine-gun had a scolding fit, and bullets
whispered overhead. But, on the whole, the night was quiet.
Then suddenly, with a shattering roar, the feint-artillery
bombardment broke forth. Simultaneously word was passed along the
raiding line to stand by. Next moment Angus M'Lachlan and his followers
rose to their feet in the black darkness, scrambled out of their nests,
and dashed forward to the accomplishment of their mission.
When Nigg, who had paused a moment to collect his bombs, sprang out
of his shell-hole, not a colleague was in sight. At least, Nigg could
see no one. However, want of courage was not one of his failings. He
bounded blindly forward by himself.
Try as he would he could not overtake the raiding party. However,
this mattered little, for suddenly a parapet loomed before him. In this
same parapet, low down, Nigg beheld a black and gaping
aperture—plainly a loophole of some kind.
Without a moment's hesitation, Nigg hurled a Mills grenade straight
through the loophole, and then with one wild screech of “Come away,
boys!” took a flying leap over the parapet—and landed in his own
trench, in the arms of Corporal Mucklewame.
As already noted, it is difficult, when lying curled up in a
circular shell-hole in the dark, to maintain a true sense of direction.
So the first-fruits of the raid was Captain Ayling, of the Emma
Gees. He had stationed himself in a concrete emplacement in the
front line, the better to “observe” the fire of his guns when it should
be required. Unfortunately this was the destination selected by the
misguided Niggs for his first (and as it proved, last) bomb. The
raiders came safely back in due course, but by that time Ayling,
liberally (but by a miracle not dangerously) ballasted with assorted
scrap-iron, was on his way to the First Aid Post.
At the present moment we are right back at rest once more, and are
being treated with a consideration, amounting almost to indulgence,
which convinces us that we are being “fattened up”—to employ the
gruesome but expressive phraseology of the moment—for some
particularly strenuous enterprise in the near future.
Well, we are ready. It is nine months since Loos, and nearly six
since we scraped the nightmare mud of Ypres from our boots, gum,
thigh, for the last time. Our recent casualties have been
light—our only serious effort of late has been the recapture of the
Kidney Bean—the new drafts have settled down, and the young officers
have been blooded. And above all, victory is in the air. We are going
into our next fight with new-born confidence in the powers behind us.
Loos was an experimental affair; and though to the humble instruments
with which the experiment was made the proceedings were less hilarious
than we had anticipated, the results were enormously valuable to a
greatly expanded and entirely untried Staff.
“We shall do better this time,” said Major Wagstaffe to Bobby
Little, as they stood watching the battalion assemble, in workmanlike
fashion, for a route-march. “There are just one or two little points
which had not occurred to us then. We have grasped them now, I think.”
“Well, you remember we all went into the Loos show without any very
lucid idea as to how far we were to go, and where to knock off for the
day, so to speak. The result was that the advance of each Division was
regulated by the extent to which the German wire in front of it had
been cut by our artillery. Ours was well and truly cut, so we
penetrated two or three miles. The people on our left never started at
all. Lord knows, they tried hard enough. But how could any troops get
through thirty feet of uncut wire, enfiladed by machine-guns? The
result was that after forty-eight hours' fighting, our whole attacking
front, instead of forming a nice straight line, had bagged out into a
series of bays and peninsulas.”
“Our crowd wasn't even a peninsula,” remarked Bobby with feeling.
“For an hour or so it was an island!”
“I think you will find that in the next show we shall go forward,
after intensive bombardment, quite a short distance; then consolidate;
then wait till the whole line has come up to its appointed
objective; then bombard again; then go forward another piece; and so
on. That will make it impossible for gaps to be created. It will also
give our gunners a chance to cover our advance continuously. You
remember at Loos they lost us for hours, and dare not fire for fear of
hitting us. In fact, I expect that in battle plans of the future,
instead of the artillery trying to conform to the movements of the
infantry, matters will be reversed. The guns, after preliminary
bombardment, will create a continuous Niagara of exploding shells upon
a given line, marked in everybody's map, and timed for an exact period,
just beyond the objective; and the infantry will stroll up into
position a comfortable distance behind, reading the time-table, and dig
themselves in. Then the barrage will lift on to the next line, and we
shall toddle forward again. That's the new plan, Bobby! Close artillery
cooeperation, and a series of limited objectives!”
“It sounds all right,” agreed Bobby. “We shall want a good many
guns, though, shan't we?”
“We shall. But don't let that worry you. It is simply raining guns
at the Base now. In fact, my grandmother in the War Office”—this
mythical relative was frequently quoted by Major Wagstaffe, and
certainly her information had several times proved surprisingly
correct—“tells me that by the beginning of next year we shall have
enough guns, of various calibres, to make a continuous line, hub to
hub, from one end of our front to the other.”
“Golly!” observed Captain Little, with respectful relish.
“That means,” continued Wagstaffe, “that we shall be able to blow
Brother Boche's immediate place of business to bits, and at the same
time take on his artillery with counter-battery work. Our shell-supply
is practically unlimited now; so when the next push comes, we
foot-sloggers ought to have a more gentlemanly time of it than we had
at Loos and Wipers. And I'll tell you another thing, Bobby. We shall
have command of the air too.”
“That will be a pleasant change,” remarked Bobby. “I'm getting tired
of putting my fellows under arrest for rushing out of carefully
concealed positions in order to gape up at Boche planes going over.
Angus M'Lachlan is as bad as any of them. The fellow—”
“But you have not seen many Boche planes lately?”
“No. Certainly not so many.”
“And the number will grow beautifully less. Our little friends in
the R.F.C. are getting fairly numerous now, and their machines have
been improved out of all knowledge. They are rapidly assuming the
position of top dog. Moreover, the average Boche does not take kindly
to flying. It is too—too individualistic a job for him. He likes to
work in a bunch with other Boches, where he can keep step, and maintain
dressing, and mark time if he gets confused. In the air one cannot mark
time, and it worries Fritz to death. I think you will see, in the next
unpleasantness, that we shall be able to maintain our aeroplane
frontier somewhere over the enemy third line. That means that we shall
make our own dispositions with a certain degree of privacy, and the
Boche will not. Also, when our big guns get to work, they will not need
to fire blindly, as in the days of our youth, but will be directed by
one of our R.F.C. lads, humming about in his little bus above the
target, perhaps fifteen miles from the gun. Hallo, there go the pipes!
Tell your men to fall in.”
“The whole business,” observed Bobby, as he struggled into his
equipment, “sounds so attractive that I am beginning quite to look
forward to the next show!”
“Don't forget the Boche machine-guns, my lad,” replied Wagstaffe.
“One seldom gets the chance,” grumbled Bobby. “Is there no way of
knocking them out?”
“Well—” Wagstaffe looked intensely mysterious—“of course one never
knows, but—have you heard any rumours on the subject?”
“I have. About—”
“About the Hush! Hush! Brigade?”
“Yes,” he said. “Young Osborne, my best subaltern after Angus,
disappeared last month to join it. Tell me, what is the—”
“Hush! Hush!” said Major Wagstaffe. “Mefiez vous! Taisez vous! and so on!”
The battalion moved off.
So much for the war-talk of veterans. Now let us listen to the
“Bogle,” said Angus M'Lachlan to his henchman, “I think we shall
have to lighten this Wolseley valise of mine. With one thing and
another it weighs far more than thirty-five pounds.”
“That's a fact, sirr,” agreed Mr. Bogle. “It carries ower mony books
in the heid of it.”
They shook out the contents of the valise upon the floor of Angus's
bedroom—a loft over the kitchen in “A” Company's farm billet—and
proceeded to prune Angus's personal effects. There were boots, socks,
shaving-tackle, maps, packets of chocolate, and books of every size,
but chiefly of the ever-blessed sevenpenny type.
“A lot of these things will have to go, Bogle,” said Angus
regretfully. “The colonel has warned officers about their kits, and it
would never do to have mine turned back from the waggon at the last
Mr. Bogle pricked up his ears. “The waggon? Are we for off again,
sirr?” he inquired.
“Indeed I could not say,” replied the cautious Angus; “but it is
well to be ready.”
“The boys was saying, sirr,” observed Bogle tentatively, “that there
was to be another grand battle soon.”
“It is more than likely,” said Angus, with an air of profound
wisdom. “Here we are in June, and we must take the offensive, sooner or
later, or summer will be over.”
“What kind o' a battle will it be this time, sirr?” inquired Bogle
“Oh, our artillery will pound the German trenches for a week or two,
and then we shall go over the parapet and drive them back for miles,”
said Angus simply.
“And what then, sirr?”
“What then? We shall go on pushing them until another Division
Bogle nodded comprehendingly. He now had firmly fixed in his mind
the essential details of the projected great offensive of 1916. He was
not interested to go further in the matter. And it is this very
faculty—philosophic trust, coupled with absolute lack of
imagination—which makes the British soldier the most invincible person
in the world. The Frenchman is inspired to glorious deeds by his great
spirit and passionate love of his own sacred soil; the German fights as
he thinks, like a machine. But the British Tommy wins through owing to
his entire indifference to the pros and cons of the tactical situation.
He settles down to war like any other trade, and, as in time of peace,
he is chiefly concerned with his holidays and his creature comforts. A
battle is a mere incident between one set of billets and another.
Consequently he does not allow the grim realities of war to obsess his
mind when off duty. One might almost ascribe his success as a soldier
to the fact that his domestic instincts are stronger than his military
Put the average Tommy into a trench under fire how does he comport
himself? Does he begin by striking an attitude and hurling defiance at
the foe? No, he begins by inquiring, in no uncertain voice, where his
——dinner is? He then examines his new quarters. Before him stands a
parapet, buttressed mayhap with hurdles or balks of timber, the whole
being designed to preserve his life from hostile projectiles. How does
he treat this bulwark? Unless closely watched, he will begin to chop it
up for firewood. His next proceeding is to construct for himself a
place of shelter. This sounds a sensible proceeding, but here again it
is a case of “safety second.” A British Tommy regards himself as
completely protected from the assaults of his enemies if he can lay a
sheet of corrugated-iron roofing across his bit of trench and sit
underneath it. At any rate it keeps the rain off, and that is all that
his instincts demand of him. An ounce of comfort is worth a pound of
He looks about him. The parapet here requires fresh sandbags; there
the trench needs pumping out. Does he fill sandbags, or pump, of his
own volition? Not at all. Unless remorselessly supervised, he will
devote the rest of the morning to inventing and chalking up a title for
his new dug-out—“Jock's Lodge,” or “Burns' Cottage,” or “Cyclists'
Rest”—supplemented by a cautionary notice, such as—No Admittance.
This Means You. Thereafter, with shells whistling over his head, he
will decorate the parapet in his immediate vicinity with picture
postcards and cigarette photographs. Then he leans back with a happy
sigh. His work is done. His home from home is furnished. He is now at
leisure to think about “they Gairmans” again. That may sound like an
exaggeration; but “Comfort First” is the motto of that lovable but
imprudent grasshopper, Thomas Atkins, all the time.
A sudden and pertinent thought occurred to Mr. Bogle, who possessed
a Martha-like nature.
“What way, sir, will a body get his dinner, if we are to be fighting
for twa-three days on end?”
“Every man,” replied Angus, “will be issued, I expect, with two
days' rations. But the Colonel tells me that during hard fighting a man
does not feel the desire for food—or sleep either for that matter.
Perhaps, during a lull, it may occur to him that he has not eaten since
yesterday, and he may pull out a bit of biscuit or chocolate from his
pocket, just to nibble. Or he may remember that he has had no sleep for
twenty-four hours—so he just drops down and sleeps for ten minutes
while there is time. But generally, matters of ordinary routine drop
out of a man's thoughts altogether.”
“That's a queer-like thing, a body forgetting his dinner!” murmured
“Of course,” continued Angus, warming to his theme like his own
father in his pulpit, “if Nature is expelled with a pitchfork in this
manner, for too long, tamen usque recurret.”
“Is that a fact?” replied Bogle politely. He always adopted the line
of least resistance when his master took to audible rumination. “Weel,
I'll hae to be steppin', sir. I'll pit these twa blankets oot in the
sun, in some place where the dooks frae the pond will no get dandering
ower them. And if you'll sorrt your books, I'll hand ower the yins ye
dinna require to the Y.M.C.A. hut ayont the village.”
Bogle cherished a profound admiration for Lieutenant M'Lachlan both
as a scholar and a strategist, and absorbed his deliverances with a
care and attention which enabled him to misquote the same quite
fluently to his own associates. That very evening he set forth the
coming plan of campaign, as elucidated to him by his master, to a mixed
assemblage at the Estaminet au Clef des Champs. Some of the
party were duly impressed; but Mr. Spike Johnson, a resident in
peaceful times of Stratford-atte-Bow, the recognised humourist of the
Sappers' Field Company attached to the Brigade, was pleased to be
“It won't be no good you Jocks goin' over no parapet to attack no
'Uns,” he said, “after what 'appened last week!”
This dark saying had the effect of rousing every Scottish soldier in
the estaminet to a state of bristling attention.
“And what was it,” inquired Private Cosh with heat, “that happened
“Why,” replied Mr. Johnson, who had been compounding this jest for
some days, and now saw his opportunity to deliver it with effect at
short range, “your trenches got raided last Wednesday, when you was in'
em. By the Brandyburgers, I think it was.”
The entire symposium stared at the jester with undisguised
“Our—trenches,” proclaimed Private Tosh with forced calm, “were
never raided by no—Brandyburrrgerrs! Was they, Jimmie?”
Mr. Cosh corroborated, with three adjectives which Mr. Tosh had not
Spike Johnson merely smiled, with the easy assurance of a man who
has the ace up his sleeve.
“Oh yes, they was!” he reiterated.
“They werre not!” shouted half a dozen voices.
The next stage of the discussion requires no description. It
terminated, at the urgent request of Madame from behind the bar, and
with the assistance of the Military Police, in the street outside.
“And now, Spike Johnson,” inquired Private Cosh, breathing heavily
but much refreshed, “can you tell me what way Gairmans could get intil
the trenches of a guid Scots regiment withoot bein' seen?”
“I can,” replied Mr. Johnson with relish, “and I will. They got in
all right, but you didn't see them, because they was disguised.”
Cosh and Tosh snorted disdainfully, and Private Nigg, who was
present with his friend Buncle, inquired—
“What way was they disguised?”
Like lightning came the answer—
“As a joke! Oh, you Jocks.”
Cosh and Tosh (who had already been warned by the Police sergeant)
merely glared and gurgled impotently. Private Nigg, who, as already
mentioned, was slightly wanting in quickness of perception, was led
away by the faithful Buncle, to have the outrage explained to him at
leisure. It was Private Bogle who intervened, and brought the
intellectual Goliath crashing to the ground.
“Man, Johnson,” he remarked, and shook his head mournfully, “youse
ought to be varra careful aboot sayin' things like that to the likes of
us. 'Deed aye!”
“What for, ole son?” inquired the jester indulgently.
“Naithing,” replied Bogle with artistic reticence.
“Come along—aht with it!” insisted Johnson. “Cough it up, duckie!”
“Man, man,” cried Bogle with passionate earnestness, “dinna gang
“What the 'ell for?” inquired Johnson, impressed despite
“What for?” Bogle's voice dropped to a ghostly whisper. “Has it ever
occurred to you, my mannie, what would happen tae the English—if
Scotland was tae make a separate peace?”
And Mr. Bogle retired, not before it was time, within the sheltering
portals of the estaminet, where not less than seven inarticulate
but appreciative fellow-countrymen offered him refreshment.
X. FULL CHORUS
An Observation Post—or “O Pip,” in the mysterious patois of
the Buzzers—is not exactly the spot that one would select either for
spaciousness or accessibility. It may be situated up a chimney or up a
tree, or down a tunnel bored through a hill. But it certainly enables
you to see something of your enemy; and that, in modern warfare, is a
very rare and valuable privilege.
Of late the scene-painter's art—technically known as camouflage
—has raised the concealment of batteries and their observation posts to
the realm of the uncanny. According to Major Wagstaffe, you can now
disguise anybody as anything. For instance, you can make up a battery
of six-inch guns to look like a flock of sheep, and herd them into
action browsing. Or you can despatch a scouting party across No Man's
Land dressed up as pillar-boxes, so that the deluded Hun, instead of
opening fire with a machine-gun, will merely post letters in
them—valuable letters, containing military secrets. Lastly, and more
important still, you can disguise yourself to look like nothing at all,
and in these days of intensified artillery fire it is very seldom that
nothing at all is hit.
The particular O Pip with which we are concerned at present,
however, is a German post—or was a fortnight ago, before the opening
of the Battle of the Somme.
For nearly two years the British Armies on the Western Front have
been playing for time. They have been sticking their toes in and
holding their ground, with numerically inferior forces and inadequate
artillery support, against a nation in arms which has set out, with
forty years of preparation at its back, to sweep the earth. We have
held them, and now der Tag has come for us. The deal has passed
into our hand at last. A fortnight ago, ready for the first time to
undertake the offensive on a grand and prolonged scale,—Loos was a
mere reconnaissance compared with this,—the New British Army went over
the parapet shoulder to shoulder with the most heroic Army in the
world—the Army of France—and attacked over a sixteen-mile front in
the Valley of the Somme.
It was a critical day for the Allies: certainly it was a most
critical day in the history of the British Army. For on that day an
answer had to be given to a very big question indeed. Hitherto we had
been fighting on the defensive—unready, uphill, against odds. It would
have been no particular discredit to us had we failed to hold our line.
But we had held it, and more. Now, at last, we were ready—as ready as
we were ever likely to be. We had the men, the guns, and the munitions.
We were in a position to engage the enemy on equal, and more than
equal, terms. And the question that the British Empire had to answer in
that day, the First of July 1916, was this: “Are these new amateur
armies of ours, raised, trained, and equipped in less than two years,
with nothing in the way of military tradition to uphold them—nothing
but the steady courage of their race: are they a match for, and more
than a match for, that grim machine-made, iron-bound host that lies
waiting for them along that line of Picardy hills? Because if they are
not, we cannot win this war. We can only make a stalemate of it.”
We, looking back now over a space of twelve months, know how our
boys answered that question. In the greatest and longest battle that
the world had yet seen, that Army of city clerks, Midland farm-lads,
Lancashire mill-hands, Scottish miners, and Irish corner-boys, side by
side with their great-hearted brethren from Overseas, stormed positions
which had been held impregnable for two years, captured seventy
thousand prisoners, reclaimed several hundred square miles of the
sacred soil of France, and smashed once and for all the German-fostered
fable of the invincibility of the German Army. It was good to have
lived and suffered during those early and lean years, if only to be
present at their fulfilment.
But at this moment the battle was only beginning, and the bulk of
their astounding achievement was still to come. Nevertheless, in the
cautious and modest estimate of their Commander-in-Chief, they had
already done something.
After ten days and nights of continuous fighting, said the
first official report, our troops have completed the methodical
capture of the whole of the enemy's first system of defence on a front
of fourteen thousand yards. This system of defence consisted of
numerous and continuous lines of fire trenches, extending to depths of
from two thousand to four thousand yards, and included five strongly
fortified villages, numerous heavily entrenched woods, and a large
number of immensely strong redoubts. The capture of each of these
trenches represented an operation of some importance, and the whole of
them are now in our hands.
Quite so. One feels, somehow, that Berlin would have got more out of
such a theme.
* * * * *
Now let us get back to our O Pip. If you peep over the shoulder of
Captain Leslie, the gunner observing officer, as he directs the fire of
his battery, situated some thousands of yards in rear, through the
medium of map, field-glass, and telephone, you will obtain an excellent
view of to-morrow's field of battle. Present in the O Pip are Colonel
Kemp, Wagstaffe, Bobby Little, and Angus M'Lachlan. The latter had been
included in the party because, to quote his Commanding Officer, “he
would have burst into tears if he had been left out.”
Overhead roared British shells of every kind and degree of
unpleasantness, for the ground in front was being “prepared” for the
coming assault. The undulating landscape, running up to a low ridge on
the skyline four miles away, was spouting smoke in all
directions—sometimes black, sometimes green, and sometimes, where
bursting shell and brick-dust intermingled, blood-red. Beyond the ridge
all-conquering British aeroplanes occupied the firmament, observing for
“mother” and “granny” and signalling encouragement or reproof to these
ponderous but sprightly relatives as their shells hit or missed the
“Yes, sir,” replied Leslie to Colonel Kemp's question, “that is
Longueval, on the slope opposite, with the road running through on the
way to Flers, over the skyline. That is Delville Wood on its right. As
you see, the guns are concentrating on both places. That is Waterlot
Farm, on this side of the wood—a sugar refinery. Regular nest of
machine-guns there, I'm told.”
“No doubt we shall be able to confirm the rumour to-morrow,” said
Colonel Kemp drily. “That is Bernafay Wood on our right, I suppose?”
“Yes, sir. We hold the whole of that. The pear-shaped wood out
beyond it—it looks as if it were joined on, but the two are quite
separate really—is Trones Wood. It has changed hands several times.
Just at present I don't think we hold more than the near end. Further
away, half-right, you can see Guillemont.”
“In that case,” remarked Wagstaffe, “our right flank would appear to
be strongly supported by the enemy.”
“Yes. We are in a sort of right-angled salient here. We have the
enemy on our front and our right. In fact, we form the extreme right of
the attacking front. Our left is perfectly secure, as we now hold
Mametz Wood and Contalmaison. There they are.” He waved his glass to
the northwest. “When the attack takes place, I understand that our
Division will go straight ahead, for Longueval and Delville Wood, while
the next Division makes a lateral thrust out to the right, to push the
Boche out of Trones Wood and cover our flank.”
“I believe that is so,” said the Colonel. “Bobby, take a good look
at the approaches to Longueval. That is the scene of to-morrow's
Bobby and Angus obediently scanned the village through their
glasses. Probably they did not learn much. One bombarded French village
is very like another bombarded French village. A cowering assemblage of
battered little houses; a pitiful little main street, with its
eviscerated shops and estaminets; a shattered church-spire.
Beyond that, an enclosure of splintered stumps that was once an
orchard. Below all, cellars, reinforced with props and sandbags, and
filled with machine-guns. Voila tout!
Presently the Gunner Captain passed word down to the telephone
operator to order the battery to cease fire.
“Knocking off?” inquired Wagstaffe.
“For the present, yes. We are only registering this morning. Not all
our batteries are going at once, either. We don't want Brother Boche to
know our strength until we tune up for the final chorus. We calculate
“There is a comfortable sense of decency and order about the way we
fight nowadays,” said Colonel Kemp. “It is like working out a problem
in electrical resistance by a nice convenient algebraical formula. Very
different from the state of things last year, when we stuck it out by
employing rule of thumb and hanging on by our eyebrows.”
“The only problem we can't quite formulate is the machine-gun,” said
Leslie. The Boche's dug-outs here are thirty feet deep. When crumped by
our artillery he withdraws his infantry and leaves his machine-gunners
behind, safe underground. Then, when our guns lift and the attack comes
over, his machine-gunners appear on the surface, hoist their guns after
them with a sort of tackle arrangement, and get to work on a
prearranged band of fire. The infantry can't do them in until No Man's
Land is crossed, and—well, they don't all get across, that's all!
However, I have heard rumours—”
“So have we all,” said Colonel Kemp.
“I forgot to tell you, Colonel,” interposed Wagstaffe, “that I met
young Osborne at Divisional Headquarters last night. You remember, he
left us some time ago to join the Hush! Hush! Brigade.”
“I remember,” said the Colonel.
By this time the party, including the Gunner Captain, were filing
along a communication trench, lately the property of some German
gentlemen, on their way back to headquarters.
“Did he tell you anything, Wagstaffe?” continued Colonel Kemp.
“Not much. Apparently the time of the H.H.B. is not yet. But he made
an appointment with me for this evening—in the gloaming, so to speak.
He is sending a car. If all he says is true, the Boche Emma Gee
is booked for an eye-opener in a few weeks' time.”
That evening a select party of sight-seers were driven to a secluded
spot behind the battle line. Here they were met by Master Osborne,
obviously inflated with some important matter.
“I've got leave from my C.O. to show you the sights, sir,” he
announced to Colonel Kemp. “If you will all stand here and watch that
wood on the opposite side of this clearing, you may see something. We
don't show ourselves much except in late evening, so this is our parade
The little group took up its appointed stand and waited in the
gathering dusk. In the east the sky was already twinkling with
intermittent Verey lights. All around the British guns were thundering
forth their hymns of hate—full-throated now, for the hour for the next
great assault was approaching.
Wagstaffe's thoughts went back to a certain soft September night
last year, when he and Blaikie had stood on the eastern outskirts of
Bethune listening to a similar overture—the prelude to the Battle of
Loos. But this overture was ten times more awful, and, from a material
British point of view, ten times more inspiring. It would have thrilled
old Blaikie's fighting spirit, thought Wagstaffe. But Loos had taken
his friend from him, and he, Wagstaffe, only was left. What did fate
hold in store for him to-morrow? he wondered. And Bobby? They had both
escaped marvellously so far. Well, better men had gone before them.
Fingers of steel bit into his biceps muscle, and the excited whinny
of Angus M'Lachlan besought him to look!
Down in the forest something stirred. But it was not the note
of a bird, as the song would have us believe. From the depths of the
wood opposite came a crackling, crunching sound, as of some prehistoric
beast forcing its way through tropical undergrowth. And then, suddenly,
out from the thinning edge there loomed a monster—a monstrosity. It
did not glide, it did not walk. It wallowed. It lurched, with now and
then a laborious heave of its shoulders. It fumbled its way over a low
bank matted with scrub. It crossed a ditch, by the simple expedient of
rolling the ditch out flat, and waddled forward. In its path stood a
young tree. The monster arrived at the tree and laid its chin lovingly
against the stem. The tree leaned back, crackled, and assumed a
horizontal position. In the middle of the clearing, twenty yards
farther on, gaped an enormous shell-crater, a present from the Kaiser.
Into this the creature plunged blindly, to emerge, panting and puffing,
on the farther side. Then it stopped. A magic opening appeared in its
stomach, from which emerged, grinning, a British subaltern and his
And that was our friends' first encounter with a “Tank.” The
secret—unlike most secrets in this publicity-ridden war—had been
faithfully kept; so far the Hush! Hush! Brigade had been little more
than a legend even to the men high up. Certainly the omniscient Hun
received the surprise of his life when, in the early mist of a
September morning some weeks later, a line of these selfsame tanks
burst for the first time upon his incredulous vision, waddling
grotesquely up the hill to the ridge which had defied the British
infantry so long and so bloodily—there to squat complacently down on
the top of the enemy's machine-guns, or spout destruction from her own
up and down beautiful trenches which had never been intended for
capture. In fact, Brother Boche was quite plaintive about the matter.
He described the employment of such engines as wicked and brutal, and
opposed to the recognised usages of warfare. When one of these
low-comedy vehicles (named the Creme-de-Menthe) ambled down the
main street of the hitherto impregnable village of Flers, with
hysterical British Tommies slapping her on the back, he appealed to the
civilised world to step in and forbid the combination of vulgarism and
“Let us at least fight like gentlemen,” said the Hun, with simple
dignity. “Let us stick to legitimate military devices—the murder of
women and children, and the emission of chlorine gas. But Tanks—no!
One must draw the line somewhere!”
But the ill-bred Creme-de-Menthe took no notice. None
whatever. She simply went waddling on—towards Berlin.
“An experiment, of course,” commented Colonel Kemp, as they returned
to headquarters—“a fantastic experiment. But I wish they were ready
now. I would give something to see one of them leading the way into
action to-morrow. It might mean saving the lives of a good many of my
XI. THE LAST SOLO
It was dawn on Saturday morning, and the second phase of the Battle
of the Somme was more than twenty-four hours old. The programme had
opened with a night attack, always the most difficult and uncertain of
enterprises, especially for soldiers who were civilians less than two
years ago. But no undertaking is too audacious for men in whose veins
the wine of success is beginning to throb. And this undertaking, this
hazardous gamble, had succeeded all along the line. During the past day
and night, more than three miles of the German second system of
defences, from Bazentin le Petit to the edge of Delville Wood, had
received their new tenants; and already long streams of not altogether
reluctant Hun prisoners were being escorted to the rear by perspiring
but cheerful gentlemen with fixed bayonets.
Meanwhile—in case such of the late occupants of the line as were
still at large should take a fancy to revisit their previous haunts,
working-parties of infantry, pioneers, and sappers were toiling at full
pressure to reverse the parapets, run out barbed wire, and bestow
machine-guns in such a manner as to produce a continuous lattice-work
of fire along the front of the captured position.
All through the night the work had continued. As a result, positions
were now tolerably secure, the intrepid “Buzzers” had included the
newly grafted territory in the nervous system of the British
Expeditionary Force, and Battalion Headquarters and Supply Depots had
moved up to their new positions.
To Colonel Kemp and his Adjutant Cockerell, ensconced in a dug-out
thirty feet deep, furnished with a real bed, electric-light fittings,
and ornaments obviously made in Germany, entered Major Wagstaffe,
encrusted with mud, but as imperturbable as ever. He saluted.
“Good-morning, sir. You seem to have struck a cushie little home
“Yes. The Boche officer harbours no false modesty about
acknowledging his desire for creature comforts. That is where he scores
off people like you and me, who pretend we like sleeping in mud. Have
you been round the advanced positions?”
“Yes. There is some pretty hard fighting going on in the village
itself—the Boche still holds the north-west corner—and in the wood on
the right. 'A' Company are holding a line of broken-down cottages on
our right front, but they can't make any further move until they get
more bombs. The Boche is occupying various buildings opposite, but in
no great strength at present. However, he seems to have plenty of
“I have sent up more bombs,” said the Colonel. “What about 'B'
“'B' have reached their objective, and consolidated. 'C' and 'D' are
lying close up, ready to go forward in support when required. I think
'A' could do with a little assistance.”
“I don't want to send up 'C' and 'D',” replied the Colonel, “until
the Divisional Reserve arrives. The Brigade has just telephoned through
that reinforcements are on the way. When they get here, we can afford
to stuff in the whole battalion. Are 'A' Company capable of handling
the situation at present?”
“Yes, I think so. Little is directing his platoons from a convenient
cellar. He was in touch with them all when I left. But it is possible
that the Boche may make a rush when it grows a bit lighter. At present
he is too demoralised to attempt anything beyond intermittent
Colonel Kemp turned to Cockerell.
“Get Captain Little on the telephone,” he said, “and tell him, if
the enemy displays any disposition to counter-attack, to let me know at
once.” Then he turned to Wagstaffe, and asked the question which always
lurks furtively on the tongue of a commanding officer.
“'A' Company have caught it rather badly crossing the open. 'B' got
off lightly. Glen is commanding them now: Waddell was killed leading
his men in the rush to the final objective.”
Colonel Kemp sighed.
“Another good boy gone—veteran, rather. I must write to his wife.
Fairly newly married, I fancy?”
“Four months,” said Wagstaffe briefly.
“What was his Christian name, do you know?”
“Walter, I think, sir,” said Cockerell.
Colonel Kemp, amid the stress of battle, found time to enter a note
in his pocket-diary to that effect.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, up in the line, 'A' Company were holding on grimly to
what are usually described as “certain advanced elements” of the
Village fighting is a confused and untidy business, but it possesses
certain redeeming features. The combatants are usually so inextricably
mixed up that the artillery are compelled to refrain from
participation. That comes later, when you have cleared the village of
the enemy, and his guns are preparing the ground for the inevitable
So far 'A' Company had done nobly. From the moment when they had
lined up before Montauban in the gross darkness preceding yesterday's
dawn until the moment when Bobby Little led them in one victorious rush
into the outskirts of the village, they had never encountered a
setback. By sunset they had penetrated some way farther; now creeping
stealthily forward under the shelter of a broken wall to hurl bombs
into the windows of an occupied cottage; now climbing precariously to
some commanding position in order to open fire with a Lewis gun; now
making a sudden dash across an open space. Such work offered peculiar
opportunities to small and well-handled parties—opportunities of which
Bobby Little's veterans availed themselves right readily.
Angus M'Lachlan, for instance, accompanied by a small following of
seasoned experts, had twice rounded up parties of the enemy in cellars,
and had despatched the same back to Headquarters with his compliments
and a promise of more. Mucklewame and four men had bombed their way
along a communication trench leading to one of the side streets of the
village—a likely avenue for a counter-attack—and having reached the
end of the trench, had built up a sandbag barricade, and had held the
same against the assaults of hostile bombers until a Vickers
machine-gun had arrived in charge of an energetic subaltern of that
youthful but thriving organisation, the Suicide Club, or Machine-Gun
Corps, and closed the street to further Teutonic traffic.
During the night there had been periods of quiescence, devoted to
consolidation, and here and there to snatches of uneasy slumber. Angus
M'Lachlan, fairly in his element, had trailed his enormous length in
and out of the back-yards and brick-heaps of the village, visiting
every point in his irregular line, testing defences; bestowing praise;
and ensuring that every man had his share of food and rest. Unutterably
grimy but inexpressibly cheerful, he reported progress to Major
Wagstaffe when that nocturnal rambler visited him in the small hours.
“Well, Angus, how goes it?” inquired Wagstaffe.
“We have won the match, sir,” replied Angus with simple seriousness.
“We are just playing the bye now!”
And with that he crawled away, with the unnecessary stealth of a
small boy playing robbers, to encourage his dour paladins to further
“We shall probably be relieved this evening,” he explained to them,
“and we must make everything secure. It would never do to leave our new
positions untenable by other troops. They might not be so
reliable”—with a paternal smile—“as you! Now, our right flank is not
safe yet. We can improve the position very much if we can secure that
estaminet, standing up like an island among those ruined houses on
our right front. You see the sign, Aux Bons Fermiers, over the
door. The trouble is that a German machine-gun is sweeping the
intervening space—and we cannot see the gun! There it goes again. See
the brick-dust fly! Keep down! They are firing mainly across our front,
but a stray bullet may come this way.”
The platoon crouched low behind their improvised rampart of brick
rubble, while machine-gun bullets swept low, with misleading
claquement, along the space in front of them, from some hidden
position on their right. Presently the firing stopped. Brother Boche
was merely “loosing off a belt,” as a precautionary measure, at
commendably regular intervals.
“I cannot locate that gun,” said Angus impatiently. “Can you,
“It is not in the estamint itself, sirr,” replied M'Snape.
(“Estamint” is as near as our rank and file ever get to estaminet.) “It seems to be mounted some place higher up the street. I doubt they
cannot see us themselves—only the ground in front of us.”
“If we could reach the estaminet itself,” said Angus
thoughtfully, “we could get a more extended view. Sergeant Mucklewame,
select ten men, including three bombers, and follow me. I am going to
find a jumping-off place. The Lewis gun too.”
Presently the little party were crouching round their officer in a
sheltered position on the right of the line—which for the moment
appeared to be “in the air.” Except for the intermittent streams of
machine-gun fire, and an occasional shrapnel-burst overhead, all was
quiet. The enemy's counter-attack was not yet ready.
“Now listen carefully,” said Angus, who had just finished scribbling
a despatch. “First of all, you, Bogle, take this message to the
telephone, and get it sent to Company Headquarters. Now you others. We
will wait till that machine-gun has fired another belt. Then, the
moment it has finished, while they are getting out the next belt, I
will dash across to the estaminet over there. M'Snape, you will
come with me, but no one else—yet. If the estaminet seems
capable of being held, I will signal to you, Sergeant Mucklewame, and
you will send your party across, in driblets, not forgetting the Lewis
gun. By that time I may have located the German machine-gun, so we
should be able to knock it out with the Lewis.”
Further speech was cut short by a punctual fantasia from the gun in
question. Angus and M'Snape crouched behind the shattered wall,
awaiting their chance. The firing ceased.
“Now!” whispered Angus.
Next moment officer and corporal were flying across the open, and
before the mechanical Boche gunner could jerk the new belt into
position, both had found sanctuary within the open doorway of the
Nay, more than both; for as the panting pair flung themselves into
shelter, a third figure, short and stout, in an ill-fitting kilt,
tumbled heavily through the doorway after them. Simultaneously a stream
of machine-gun bullets went storming past.
“Just in time!” observed Angus, well pleased. “Bogle, what are you
“I was given tae unnerstand, sirr,” replied Mr. Bogle calmly, “when
I jined the regiment, that in action an officer's servant stands by his
“That is true,” conceded Angus; “but you had no right to follow me
against orders. Did you not hear me say that no one but Corporal
M'Snape was to come?”
“No, sirr. I doubt I was away at the 'phone.”
“Well, now you are here, wait inside this doorway, where you can see
Sergeant Mucklewame's party, and look out for signals. M'Snape, let us
find that machine-gun.”
The pair made their way to the hitherto blind side of the building,
and cautiously peeped through a much-perforated shutter in the
“Do you see it, sirr?” inquired M'Snape eagerly.
“See it? Fine! It is right in the open, in the middle of the street.
He relinquished his peep-hole. The German machine-gun was mounted in
the street itself, behind an improvised barrier of bricks and sandbags.
It was less than a hundred yards away, sited in a position which,
though screened from the view of Angus's platoon farther down, enabled
it to sweep all the ground in front of the position. This it was now
doing with great intensity, for the brief public appearance of Angus
and M'Snape had effectually converted intermittent into continuous
“We must get the Lewis gun over at once,” muttered Angus. “It can
knock that breastwork to pieces.”
He crossed the house again, to see if any of Mucklewame's men had
They had not. The man with the Lewis gun was lying dead halfway
across the street, with his precious weapon on the ground beside him.
Two other men, both wounded, were crawling back whence they came,
taking what cover they could from the storm of bullets which whizzed a
few inches over their flinching bodies.
Angus hastily semaphored to Mucklewame to hold his men in check for
the present. Then he returned to the other side of the house.
“How many men are serving that gun?” he said to M'Snape. “Can you
“Only two, sirr, I think. I cannot see them, but that wee breastwork
will not cover more than a couple of men.”
“Mphm,” observed Angus thoughtfully. “I expect they have been left
behind to hold on. Have you a bomb about you?”
The admirable M'Snape produced from his pocket a Mills grenade, and
handed it to his superior.
“Just the one, sirr,” he said.
“Go you,” commanded Angus, his voice rising to a more than usually
Highland inflection, “and semaphore to Mucklewame that when he hears
the explosion of this”—he pulled out the safety-pin of the
grenade and gripped the grenade itself in his enormous paw—“followed,
probably, by the temporary cessation of the machine-gun, he is to bring
his men over here in a bunch, as hard as they can pelt. Put it as
briefly as you can, but make sure he understands. He has a good
signaller with him. Send Bogle to report when you have finished. Now
repeat what I have said to you.... That's right. Carry on!”
M'Snape was gone. Angus, left alone, pensively restored the
safety-pin to the grenade, and laid the grenade upon the ground beside
him. Then he proceeded to write a brief letter in his field
message-book. This he placed in an envelope which he took from his
breast pocket. The envelope was already addressed—to the Reverend
Neil M'Lachlan, The Manse, in a very remote Highland village.
(Angus had no mother.) He closed the envelope, initialled it, and
buttoned it up in his breast pocket again. After that he took up his
grenade and proceeded to make a further examination of the premises.
Presently he found what he wanted; and by the time Bogle arrived to
announce that Sergeant Mucklewame had signalled “message understood,”
his arrangements were complete.
“Stay by this small hole in the wall, Bogle,” he said, “and the
moment the Lewis gun arrives tell them to mount it here and open fire
on the enemy gun.”
He left the room, leaving Bogle alone, to listen to the melancholy
rustle of peeling wall-paper within and the steady crackling of bullets
without. But when, peering through the improvised loophole, he next
caught sight of his officer, Angus had emerged from the house by the
cellar window, and was creeping with infinite caution behind the
shelter of what had once been the wall of the estaminet's
back-yard (but was now an uneven bank of bricks, averaging two feet
high), in the direction of the German machine-gun. The gun, oblivious
of the danger now threatening its right front, continued to fire
steadily and hopefully down the street.
Slowly, painfully, Angus crawled on, until he found himself within
the right angle formed by the corner of the yard. He could go no
further without being seen. Between him and the German gun lay the
cobbled surface of the street, offering no cover whatsoever except one
mighty shell-crater, situated midway between Angus and the gun, and
full to the brim with rainwater.
A single peep over the wall gave him his bearings. The gun was too
far away to be reached by a grenade, even when thrown by Angus
M'Lachlan. Still, it would create a diversion. It was a time bomb. He
He stretched out his long arm to its full extent behind him, gave
one mighty overarm sweep, and with all the crackling strength of his
mighty sinews, hurled the grenade.
It fell into the exact centre of the flooded shell-crater.
Angus said something under his breath which would have shocked a
disciple of Kultur. Fortunately the two German gunners did not hear
him. But they observed the splash fifty yards away, and it relieved
them from ennui, for they were growing tired of firing at
nothing. They had not seen the grenade thrown, and were a little
puzzled as to the cause of the phenomenon.
Four seconds later their curiosity was more than satisfied. With a
muffled roar, the shell-hole suddenly, spouted its liquid contents and
other debris straight to the heavens, startling them
considerably and entirely obscuring their vision.
A moment later, with an exultant yell, Angus M'Lachlan was upon
them. He sprang into their vision out of the descending cascade—a
towering, terrible, kilted figure, bare-headed and Berserk mad. He was
barely forty yards away.
Initiative is not the forte of the Teuton. Number One of the
German gun mechanically traversed his weapon four degrees to the right
and continued to press the thumb-piece. Mud and splinters of brick
sprang up round Angus's feet; but still he came on. He was not twenty
yards away now. The gunner, beginning to boggle between waiting and
bolting, fumbled at his elevating gear, but Angus was right on him
before his thumbs got back to work. Then indeed the gun spoke out with
no uncertain voice, for perhaps two seconds. After that it ceased fire
Almost simultaneously there came a triumphant roar lower down the
street, as Mucklewame and his followers dashed obliquely across into
the estaminet. Mucklewame himself was carrying the derelict
Lewis gun. In the doorway stood the watchful M'Snape.
“This way, quick!” he shouted. “We have the Gairman gun spotted, and
the officer is needing the Lewis!”
But M'Snape was wrong. The Lewis was not required.
A few moments later, in the face of brisk sniping from the houses
higher up the street, James Bogle, officer's servant,—a member of that
despised class which, according to the Bandar-log at home, spend
the whole of its time pressing its master's trousers and smoking his
cigarettes somewhere back in billets,—led out a stretcher party to the
German gun. Number One had been killed by a shot from Angus's revolver.
Number Two had adopted Hindenburg tactics, and was no more to be seen.
Angus himself was lying, stone dead, a yard from the muzzle of the gun
which he, single-handed, had put out of action.
His men carried him back to the Estaminet aux Bons Fermiers,
with the German gun, which was afterwards employed to good purpose
during the desperate days of attacking and counter-attacking which
ensued before the village was finally secured. They laid him in the
inner room, and proceeded to put the estaminet in a state of
defence—ready to hold the same against all comers until such time as
the relieving Division should take over, and they themselves be
enabled, under the kindly cloak of darkness, to carry back their
beloved officer to a more worthy resting-place.
In the left-hand breast pocket of Angus's tunic they found his last
letter to his father. Two German machine-gun bullets had passed through
it. It was forwarded with a covering letter, by Colonel Kemp. In the
letter Angus's commanding officer informed Neil M'Lachlan that his son
had been recommended posthumously for the highest honour that the King
bestows upon his soldiers.
* * * * *
But for the moment Mucklewame's little band had other work to occupy
them. Shelling had recommenced; the enemy were mustering in force
behind the village; and presently a series of counter-attacks were
launched. They were successfully repelled, in the first instance by the
remainder of “A” Company, led in person by Bobby Little, and, when the
final struggle came, by the Battalion Reserve under Major Wagstaffe.
And throughout the whole grim struggle which ensued, the Estaminet
aux Bons Fermiers, tenanted by some of our oldest friends, proved
itself the head and corner of the successful defence.
Two steamers lie at opposite sides of the dock. One is painted a
most austere and unobtrusive grey; she is obviously a vessel with no
desire to advertise her presence on the high seas. In other words, a
transport. The other is dazzling white, ornamented with a good deal of
green, supplemented by red. She makes an attractive picture in the
early morning sun. Even by night you could not miss her, for she goes
about her business with her entire hull outlined in red lights, regatta
fashion, with a great luminous Red Cross blazing on either counter. Not
even the Commander of a U-boat could mistake her for anything but what
she is—a hospital ship.
First, let us walk round to where the grey ship is discharging her
cargo. The said cargo consists of about a thousand unwounded German
With every desire to be generous to a fallen foe, it is quite
impossible to describe them as a prepossessing lot. Not one man walks
like a soldier; they shamble. Naturally, they are dirty and unshaven,.
So are the wounded men on the white ship: but their outstanding
characteristic is an invincible humanity. Beneath the mud and blood
they are men—white men. But this strange throng are grey—like their
ship. With their shifty eyes and curiously shaped heads, they look like
nothing human. They move like overdriven beasts. We realise now why it
is that the German Army has to attack in mass.
They pass down the gangway, and are shepherded into form in the dock
shed by the Embarkation Staff, with exactly the same silent briskness
that characterises the R.A.M.C., over the way. Their guard, with fixed
bayonets, exhibit no more or no less concern over them than over
half-a-dozen Monday morning malefactors paraded for Orderly Room.
Presently they will move off, possibly through the streets of the town;
probably they will pass by folk against whose kith and kin they have
employed every dirty trick possible in warfare. But there will be no
demonstration: there never has been. As a nation we possess a certain
number of faults, on which we like to dwell. But we have one virtue at
least—we possess a certain sense of proportion; and we are not
disposed to make subordinates suffer because we cannot, as yet, get at
They make a good haul. Fifteen German regiments are here
represented—possibly more, for some have torn off their
shoulder-straps to avoid identification. Some of the units are thinly
represented; others more generously. One famous Prussian regiment
appears to have thrown its hand in to the extent of about five hundred.
Still, as they stand there, filthy, forlorn, and dazed, one suddenly
realises the extreme appropriateness of a certain reference in the
Litany to All Prisoners and Captives.
We turn to the hospital ship.
Two great 'brows,' or covered gangways, connect her with her native
land. Down these the stretchers are beginning to pass, having been
raised from below decks by cunning mechanical devices which cause no
jar; and are being conveyed into the cool shade of the dock-shed. Here
they are laid in neat rows upon the platform, ready for transfer to the
waiting hospital train. Everything is a miracle of quietness and order.
The curious public are afar off, held aloof by dock-gates. (They are
there in force to-day, partly to cheer the hospital trains as they pass
out, partly for reasons connected with the grey-painted ship.) In the
dock-shed, organisation and method reign supreme. The work has been
going on without intermission for several days and nights; and still
the great ships come. The Austurias is outside, waiting for a place at
the dock. The Lanfranc is half-way across the English Channel; and
there are rumours that the mighty Britannic has selected this, the
busiest moment in the opening fortnight of the Somme Battle, to arrive
with a miscellaneous and irrelevant cargo of sick and wounded from the
Mediterranean. But there is no fuss. The R.A.M.C. Staff Officers,
unruffled and cheery, control everything, apparently by a crook of the
finger. The stretcher-bearers do their work with silent aplomb.
[Footnote 1: These three hospital ships were all subsequently sunk
by German submarines.]
The occupants of the stretchers possess the almost universal feature
of a six days' beard—always excepting those who are of an age which is
not troubled by such manly accretions. They lie very still—not with
the stillness of exhaustion or dejection, but with the comfortable
resignation of men who have made good and have suffered in the process;
but who now, with their troubles well behind them, are enduring present
discomfort under the sustaining prospect of clean beds, chicken diet,
and ultimate tea-parties. Such as possess them are wearing Woodbine
stumps upon the lower lip.
They are quite ready to compare notes. Let us approach, and listen,
to a heavily bandaged gentleman who—so the label attached to him
informs us—is Private Blank, of the Manchesters, suffering from three
“G.S.” machine-gun bullet wounds.
“Did the Fritzes run? Yes—they run all right! The last lot saved us
trouble by running towards us—with their 'ands up! But their
machine-guns—they gave us fair 'Amlet till we got across No Man's
Land. After that we used the baynit, and they didn't give us no more
vexatiousness. Where did we go in? Oh, near Albert. Our objective was
Mary's Court, or some such place.” (It is evident that the Battle of
the Somme is going to add some fresh household words to our war
vocabulary. 'Wipers' is a veteran by this time: 'Plugstreet,' 'Booloo,'
and 'Armintears' are old friends. We must now make room for 'Monty
Ban,' 'La Bustle,' 'Mucky Farm,' 'Lousy Wood,' and 'Martinpush.')
“What were your prisoners like?”
“'Alf clemmed,” said the man from Manchester.
“No rations for three days,” explained a Northumberland Fusilier
close by. One of his arms was strapped to his side, but the other still
clasped to his bosom a German helmet. A British Tommy will cheerfully
shed a limb or two in the execution of his duty, but not all the might
and majesty of the Royal Army Medical Corps can force him to relinquish
a fairly earned 'souvenir.' In fact, owing to certain unworthy
suspicions as to the true significance of the initials, “R.A.M.C.,” he
has been known to refuse chloroform.
“They couldn't get nothing up to them for four days, on account of
our artillery fire,” he added contentedly.
“'Barrage,' my lad!” amended a rather superior person with a
lance-corporal's stripe and a bandaged foot.
Indeed, all are unanimous in affirming that our artillery
preparation was a tremendous affair. Listen to this group of officers
sunning themselves upon the upper deck. They are 'walking cases,' and
must remain on board, with what patience they may, until all
the'stretcher cases' have been evacuated.
“Loos was child's play to it,” says one—a member of a certain
immortal, or at least irrepressible Division which has taken part in
every outburst of international unpleasantness since the Marne. “The
final hour was absolute pandemonium. And when our new trench-mortar
batteries got to work too,—at sixteen to the dozen,—well, it was bad
enough for us; but what it must have been like at the business
end of things, Lord knows! For a few minutes I was almost a pro-Boche!”
Other items of intelligence are gleaned. The weather was 'rotten':
mud-caked garments corroborate this statement. The wire, on the whole,
was well and truly cut to pieces everywhere; though there were spots at
which the enemy contrived to repair it. Finally, ninety per cent. of
the casualties during the assault were due to machine-gun fire.
But the fact most clearly elicited by casual conversation is
this—that the more closely you engage in a battle, the less you know
about its progress. This ship is full of officers and men who were in
the thick of things for perhaps forty-eight hours on end, but who are
quite likely to be utterly ignorant of what was going on round the next
traverse in the trench which they had occupied. The wounded Gunners are
able to give them a good deal of information. One F.O.O. saw the French
“It was wonderful to see them go in,” he said. “Our Batteries were
on the extreme right of the British line, so we were actually touching
the French left flank. I had met hundreds of poilus back in
billets, in cafes, and the like. To look at them strolling down
a village street in their baggy uniforms, with their hands in their
pockets, laughing and chatting to the children, you would never have
thought they were such tigers. I remember one big fellow a few weeks
ago, home on leave—permission—who used to frisk about with a
big umbrella under his arm! I suppose that was to keep the rain off his
tin hat. But when they went for Maricourt the other day, there weren't
many umbrellas about—only bayonets! I tell you, they were marvels!”
It would be interesting to hear the poilu on his Allies.
The first train moves off, and another takes its place. The long
lines of stretchers are thinning out now. There are perhaps a hundred
left. They contain men of all units—English, Scottish, and Irish.
There are Gunners, Sappers, and Infantry. Here and there among them you
may note bloodstained men in dirty grey uniforms—men with dull,
expressionless faces and closely cropped heads. They are tended with
exactly the same care as the others. Where wounded men are concerned,
the British Medical Service is strictly neutral.
A wounded Corporal of the R.A.M.C. turns his head and gazes
thoughtfully at one of those grey men.
“You understand English, Fritz?” he enquires.
Apparently not. Fritz continues to stare woodenly at the roof of the
“I should like to tell 'im a story, Jock,” says the Corporal to his
other neighbour. “My job is on a hospital train. 'Alf-a-dozen 'Un
aeroplanes made a raid behind our lines; and seeing a beautiful Red
Cross train—it was a new London and North Western train, chocolate and
white, with red crosses as plain as could be—well, they simply
couldn't resist such a target as that! One of their machines swooped
low down and dropped his bombs on us. Luckily he only got the rear
coach; but I happened to be in it! D' yer 'ear that, Fritz?”
“I doot he canna unnerstand onything,” remarked the Highlander.
“He's fair demoralised, like the rest. D' ye ken what happened tae me?
I was gaun' back wounded, with this—” he indicates an arm
strapped close to his side—“and there was six Fritzes came crawlin'
oot o' a dug-oot, and gave themselves up tae me—me, that was
gaun' back wounded, withoot so much as my jack-knife!
“Did you 'ear,” enquired a Cockney who came next in the line, “that
all wounded are going to 'ave a nice little gold stripe to wear—a
stripe for every wound?”
There was much interest at this.
“That'll be fine,” observed a man of Kent, who had been out since
Mons, and been wounded three times. “Folks'll know now that I'm not a
“Where will us wear it?” enquired a gigantic Yorkshireman, from the
“Wherever you was 'it, lad!” replied the Cockney humourist.
“At that rate,” comes the rueful reply, “I shall 'ave to stand oop
to show mine!”
But now R.A.M.C. orderlies are at hand, and the symposium comes to
an end. The stretchers are conveyed one by one into the long open
coaches of the train, and each patient is slipped sideways, with
gentleness and dispatch, into his appointed cot.
One saloon is entirely filled with officers—the severe cases in the
cots, the rest sitting where they can. A newspaper is passed round.
There are delighted exclamations, especially from a second lieutenant
whose features appear to be held together entirely by strips of
plaster. Such parts of the countenance as can be discerned are smiling
“I knew we were doing well,” says the bandaged one, devouring
the headlines; “but I never knew we were doing as well as this.
Official, too! Somme Battle—what? Sorry! I apologise!” as a groan ran
round the saloon.
“Nevermind,” said an unshaven officer, with a twinkling eye, and a
major's tunic wrapped loosely around him. “I expect that jest will be
overworked by more people than you for the next few weeks. Does anybody
happen to know where this train is going to?”
“West of England, somewhere, I believe,” replied a voice.
There was an indignant groan from various north countrymen.
“I suppose it is quite impossible to sort us all out at a time like
this,” remarked a plaintive Caledonian in an upper cot; “but I fail to
see why the R.A.M.C. authorities should go through the mockery of
asking every man in the train where he wants to be taken, when the
train can obviously only go to one place—or perhaps two. I was asked.
I said 'Edinburgh'; and the medical wallah said, 'Righto! We'll send
you to Bath!'“
“I think I can explain,” remarked the wounded major. “These trains
usually go to two places—one half to Bath, the other, say, to Exeter.
Bath is nearer to Edinburgh than Exeter, so they send you there. It is
kindly meant, but—”
“I say,” croaked a voice from another cot,—its owner was a young
officer who must just have escaped being left behind at a Base hospital
as too dangerously wounded to move,—“is that a newspaper down there?
Would some one have a look, and tell me if we have got Longueval all
right? Longueval? Long—I got pipped, and don't quite—”
The wounded major turned his head quickly.
“Hallo, Bobby!” he observed cheerfully. “That you? I didn't notice
Bobby Little's hot eyes turned slowly on Wagstaffe, and he exclaimed
“Hallo, Major! Cheeroh! Did we stick to Longueval all right? I've
been dreaming about it a bit, and—”
“We did,” replied Wagstaffe—“thanks to 'A' Company.”
Bobby Little's head fell back on the pillow, and he remarked
“Thanks awfully. I think I can sleep a bit now. So long! See you
His eyes closed, and he sighed happily, as the long train slid out
from the platform.
XIII. “TWO OLD SOLDIERS, BROKEN IN
The smoking-room of the Britannia Club used to be exactly like the
smoking-room of every other London Club. That is to say, members
lounged about in deep chairs, and talked shop, or scandal—or
slumbered. At any moment you might touch a convenient bell, and a
waiter would appear at your elbow, like a jinnee from a jar, and accept
an order with silent deference. You could do this all day, and the
jinnee never failed to hear and obey.
That was before the war. Now, those idyllic days are gone. So is the
waiter. So is the efficacy of the bell. You may ring, but all that will
materialise is a self-righteous little girl, in brass buttons, who will
shake her head reprovingly and refer you to certain passages in the
Defence of the Realm Act.
Towards the hour of six-thirty, however, something of the old spirit
of Liberty asserts itself. A throng of members—chiefly elderly
gentlemen in expanded uniforms—assembles in the smoking-room,
occupying all the chairs, and even overflowing on to the tables and
window-sills. They are not the discursive, argumentative gathering of
three years ago. They sit silent, restless, glancing furtively at their
The clocks of London strike half-past six. Simultaneously the door
of the smoking-room is thrown open, and a buxom young woman in cap and
apron bounces in. She smiles maternally upon her fainting flock, and
“The half-hour's gone. Now you can all have a drink!”
What would have happened if the waiter of old had done this thing,
it is difficult to imagine. But the elderly gentlemen greet their Hebe
with a chorus of welcome, and clamour for precedence like children at a
school-feast. And yet trusting wives believe that in his club, at
least, a man is safe!
Major Wagstaffe, D.S.O., having been absent from London upon urgent
public affairs for nearly three years, was not well versed in the
newest refinements of club life. He had arrived that morning from his
Convalescent Home in the west country, and had already experienced a
severe reverse at the hands of the small girl with brass buttons on
venturing to order a sherry and bitters at 11.45 A.M. Consequently, at
the statutory hour, his voice was not uplifted with the rest; and he
was served last. Not least, however; for Hebe, observing his empty
sleeve, poured out his soda-water with her own fair hands, and offered
to light his cigarette.
This scene of dalliance was interrupted by the arrival of Captain
Bobby Little. He wore the ribbon of the Military Cross and walked with
a stick—a not unusual combination in these great days. Wagstaffe made
room for him upon the leather sofa, and Hebe supplied his modest wants
with an indulgent smile.
An autumn and a winter had passed since the attack on Longueval.
From July until the December floods, the great battle had raged. The
New Armies, supplied at last with abundant munitions, a seasoned Staff,
and a concerted plan of action, had answered the question propounded in
a previous chapter in no uncertain fashion. Through Longueval and
Delville Wood, where the graves of the Highlanders and South Africans
now lie thick, through Flers and Martinpuich, through Pozieres and
Courcelette, they had fought their way, till they had reached the
ridge, with High Wood at its summit, which the Boche, not altogether
unreasonably, had regarded as impregnable. The tide had swirled over
the crest, down the reverse slope, and up at last to the top of that
bloodstained knoll of chalk known as the Butte de Warlencourt. There
the Hun threw in his hand. With much loud talk upon the subject of
victorious retirements and Hindenburg Lines, he withdrew himself to a
region far east of Bapaume; with the result that now some thousand
square miles of the soil of France had been restored once and for all
to their rightful owners.
But Bobby and Wagstaffe had not been there. All during the autumn
and winter they had lain softly in hospital, enjoying their first rest
for two years. Wagstaffe had lost his left arm and gained a decoration.
Bobby, in addition to his Cross, had incurred a cracked crown and a
permanently shortened leg. But both were well content. They had done
their bit—and something over; and they had emerged from the din of war
with their lives, their health, and their reason. A man who can achieve
that feat in this war can count himself fortunate.
Now, passed by a Medical Board as fit for Home Service, they had
said farewell to their Convalescent Home and come to London to learn
what fate Olympus held in store for them.
“Where have you been all day, Bobby?” enquired Wagstaffe, as they
sat down to dinner an hour later.
“Down in Kent,” replied Bobby briefly.
“Very well: I will not probe the matter. Been to the War Office?”
“Yes. I was there this morning. I am to be Adjutant of a Cadet
school, at Great Snoreham. What sort of a job is that likely to be?”
“On the whole,” replied Wagstaffe, “a Fairy Godmother Department
job. It might have been very much worse. You are thoroughly up to the
Adjutant business, Bobby, and of course the young officers under you
will be immensely impressed by your game leg and bit of ribbon. A very
“What are they going to do with you?” asked Bobby in his turn.
“I am to command our Reserve Battalion, with acting rank of
Lieutenant-Colonel. Think of that, my lad! They have confirmed you in
your rank as Captain, I suppose?”
“Good! The only trouble is that you will be stationed in the South
of England and I in the North of Scotland; so we shall not see quite so
much of one another as of late. However, we must get together
occasionally, and split a tin of bully for old times' sake.”
“Bully? By gum!” said Bobby thoughtfully. “I have almost forgotten
what it tastes like. (Fried sole, please; then roast lamb.) Eight
months in hospital do wash out certain remembrances.”
“But not all,” said Wagstaffe.
“No, not all. I—I wonder how our chaps are getting on, over there.”
“Yes. It is so hard to get definite news.”
“They were in the Arras show. Did better than ever; but—well, they
required a big draft afterwards.”
“The third time!” sighed Bobby. “Did any one write to you about it?”
“Yes. Who do you think?”
“Some one in the regiment?”
“I didn't know there were any of the old lot left. Who was it?”
“Mucklewame? You mean to say the Boche hasn't got him yet?
It's like missing Rheims Cathedral.”
“Yes, they got him at Arras. Mucklewame is in hospital. Fortunately
his chief wound is in the head, so he's doing nicely. Here is his
Bobby took the pencilled screed, and read:—
Sir,—I take up my pen for to inform you that I am now in hospital
in Glasgow, having become a cassuality on the 18th inst.
I was struck on the head by the nose-cap of a German shell (now in
the possession of my guidwife). Unfortunately I was wearing one of they
steel helmets at the time, with the result that I sustained a serious
scalp-wound, also very bad concussion. I have never had a liking for
they helmets anyway.
The old regiment did fine in the last attack. They were specially
mentioned in Orders next day. The objective was reached under heavy
fire and position consolidated before we were relieved next morning.
“Good boys!” interpolated Bobby softly.
Colonel Carmichael, late of the Second Battn., I think, is now in
command. A very nice gentleman, but we have all been missing you and
They tell me that I will be for home service after this. My head is
doing well, but the muscules of my right leg is badly torn. I should
have liked fine for to have stayed out and come home with the other
boys when we are through with Berlin.
Having no more to say, sir, I will now draw to a close.
After the perusal of this characteristic Ave atque Vale! the
two friends adjourned to the balcony, overlooking the Green Park. Here
they lit their cigars in reminiscent silence, while neighbouring
search-lights raked the horizon for Zeppelins which no longer came. It
was a moment for confidences.
“Old Mucklewame is like the rest of us,” said Wagstaffe at last.
“Wanting to go back, and all that. I do too—just because I'm here,
I suppose. A year ago, out there, my chief ambition was to get home,
with a comfortable wound and a comfortable conscience.”
“Same here,” admitted Bobby.
“It was the same with practically every one,” said Wagstaffe. “If
any man asserts that he really enjoys modern warfare, after, say, six
months of it, he is a liar. In the South African show I can honestly
say I was perfectly happy. We were fighting in open country, against an
adversary who was a gentleman; and although there was plenty of risk,
the chances were that one came through all right. At any rate, there
was no poison gas, and one did not see a whole platoon blown to pieces,
or buried alive, by a single shell. If Brother Boer took you prisoner,
he did not stick you in the stomach with a saw-edged bayonet. At the
worst he pinched your trousers. But Brother Boche is a different
proposition. Since he butted in, war has descended in the social scale.
And modern scientific developments have turned a sporting chance of
being scuppered into a mathematical certainty. And yet—and yet—old
Mucklewame is right. One hates to be out of it—especially at
the finish. When the regiment comes stumping through London on its way
back to Euston—next year, or whenever it's going to be—with their
ragged pipers leading the way, you would like to be at the head of 'A'
Company, Bobby, and I would give something to be exercising my old
function of whipper-in. Eh, boy?”
“Never mind,” said practical Bobby. “Perhaps we shall be on
somebody's glittering Staff. What I hate to feel at present is that the
other fellows, out there, have got to go on sticking it, while we—”
“And by God,” exclaimed Wagstaffe, “what stickers they are—and
were! Did you ever see anything so splendid, Bobby, as those
six-months-old soldiers of ours—in the early days, I mean, when we
held our trenches, week by week, under continuous bombardment, and our
gunners behind could only help us with four or five rounds a day?”
“I never did,” said Bobby, truthfully.
“I admit to you,” continued Wagstaffe, “that when I found myself
pitchforked into 'K(1)' at the outbreak of the war, instead of getting
back to my old line battalion, I was a pretty sick man. I hated
everybody. I was one of the old school—or liked to think I was—and
the ways of the new school were not my ways. I hated the new officers.
Some of them bullied the men; some of them allowed themselves to be
bullied by N.C.O.'s. Some never gave or returned salutes, others went
about saluting everybody. Some came into Mess in fancy dress of their
own design, and elbowed senior officers off the hearthrug. I used to
marvel at the Colonel's patience with them. But many of them are dead
now, Bobby, and they nearly all made good. Then the men! After ten
years in the regular Army I hated them all—the way they lounged, the
way they dressed, the way they sat, the way they spat. I wondered how I
could ever go on living with them. And now—I find myself wondering how
I am ever going to live without them. We shall not see their like
again. The new lot—present lot—are splendid fellows. They are
probably better soldiers. Certainly they are more uniformly trained.
But there was a piquancy about our old scamps in 'K(1)' that was
unique—priceless—something the world will never see again.”
“I don't know,” said Bobby thoughtfully. “That Cockney regiment
which lay beside us at Albert last summer was a pretty priceless lot.
Do you remember a pair of fat fellows in their leading platoon? We
called them Fortnum and Mason!”
“I do—particularly Fortnum. Go on!”
“Well, their bit of trench was being shelled one day, and Fortnum,
who was in number one bay with five other men, kept shouting out to
Mason, who was round a traverse and out of sight, to enquire how he was
getting on. 'Are you all right, Bill?' 'Are you sure you're all
right, Bill?' 'Are you still all right, Bill?' and so on. At
last Bill, getting fed up with this unusual solicitude, yelled back:
'What's all the anxiety abaht, eh?' And Fortnum put his head round the
traverse and explained. 'We're getting up a little sweepstake in our
bay,' he said, 'abaht the first casuality, and I've drawn you, ole
“That must have been the regiment that had the historic poker
party,” he said.
“What yarn was that?”
“I heard it from the Brigadier—four times, to be exact. Five men
off duty were sitting in a dug-out playing poker. A gentleman named
'Erb had just gone to the limit on his hand, when a rifle-grenade came
into the dug-out from somewhere and did him in. While they were waiting
for the stretcher-bearers, one of the other players picked up 'Erb's
hand and examined it. Then he laid it down again, and said: 'It doesn't
matter, chaps. Poor 'Erb wouldn't a made it, anyway. I 'ad four
“Tommy has his own ideas of fun, I'll admit,” said Bobby. “Do you
remember those first trenches of ours at Festubert? There was a dead
Frenchman buried in the parapet—you know how they used to bury people
in those days?”
“I did notice it. Go on.”
“Well, this poor chap's hand stuck out, just about four feet from
the floor of the trench. My dug-out was only a few yards away, and I
never saw a member of my platoon go past that spot without shaking the
hand and saying, Good-morning, Alphonse!' I had it built up with
sandbags ultimately, and they were quite annoyed!”
“They have some grisly notions about life and death,” agreed
Wagstaffe, “but they are extraordinarily kind to people in trouble,
such as wounded men, or prisoners. You can't better them.”
“And now there are five millions of them. We are all in it, at
“We certainly are—men and women. I'm afraid I had hardly realised
what our women were doing for us. Being on service all the time, one
rather overlooks what is going on at home. But stopping a bullet puts
one in the way of a good deal of inside information on that score.”
“You mean hospital work, and so on?”
“Yes. One meets a lot of wonderful people that way! Sisters, and
ward-maids, and V.A.D.'s—”
“I love all V.A.D.'s!” said Bobby, unexpectedly.
“Why, my youthful Mormon?”
“Because they are the people who do all the hard work and get no
“Like Second Lieutenants—eh?”
“Yes, that is the idea. They have a pretty hard time, you know,”
continued Bobby confidentially: “And nothing heroic, either. Giving up
all the fun that a girl is entitled to; washing dishes; answering the
door-bell; running up and downstairs; eating rotten food. That's the
“What is her name?” enquired the accusing voice of Major Wagstaffe.
Then, without waiting to extort an answer from the embarrassed Bobby:—
“You are quite right. This war has certainly brought out the best in
our women. The South African War brought out the worst. My goodness,
you should have seen the Mount Nelson Hotel at Capetown in those days!
But they have been wonderful this time—wonderful. I love them all—the
bus-conductors, the ticket-punchers, the lift-girls—one of them nearly
shot me right through the roof of Harrod's the other day—and the
window-cleaners and the page-girls and the railway-portresses! I divide
my elderly heart among them. And I met a bunch of munition girls the
other day, Bobby, coming home from work. They were all young, and most
of them were pretty. Their faces and hands were stained a bright
orange-colour with picric acid, and will be, I suppose, until the Boche
is booted back into his stye. In other words, they had deliberately
sacrificed their good looks for the duration of the war. That takes a
bit of doing, I know, innocent bachelor though I am. But bless you,
they weren't worrying. They waved their orange-coloured hands to me,
and pointed to their orange-coloured faces, and laughed. They were
proud of them; they were doing their bit. They nearly made me cry,
Bobby. Yes, we are all in it now; and those of us who come out of it
are going to find this old island of ours a wonderfully changed place
to live in.”
“How? Why?” enquired Bobby. Possibly he was interested in
Wagstaffe's unusual expansiveness: possibly he hoped to steer the
conversation away from the topic of V.A.D.'s—possibly towards it. You
“Well,” said Wagstaffe, “we are all going to understand one another
a great deal better after this war.”
“Who? Labour and Capital, and so on?”
“'Labour and Capital' is a meaningless and misleading expression,
Bobby. For instance, our men regard people like you and me as
Capitalists; the ordinary Brigade Major regards us as Labourers, and
pretty common Labourers at that. It is all a question of degree. But
what I mean is this. You can't call your employer a tyrant and an
extortioner after he has shared his rations with you and never spared
himself over your welfare and comfort through weary months of
trench-warfare; neither, when you have experienced a working-man's
courage and cheerfulness and reliability in the day of battle, can you
turn round and call him a loafer and an agitator in time of peace—can
you? That is just what the Bandar-log overlook, when they jabber
about the dreadful industrial upheaval that is coming with peace. Most
of all have they overlooked the fact that with the coming of peace this
country will be invaded by several million of the wisest men that she
has ever produced—the New British Army. That Army will consist of men
who have spent three years in getting rid of mutual misapprehensions
and assimilating one another's point of view—men who went out to the
war ignorant and intolerant and insular, and are coming back wise to
all the things that really matter. They will flood this old country,
and they will make short work of the agitator, and the alarmist, and
the profiteer, and all the nasty creatures that merely make a noise
instead of doing something, and who crab the work of the Army
and Navy—more especially the Navy—because there isn't a circus
victory of some kind in the paper every morning. Yes, Bobby, when our
boys get back, and begin to ask the Bandar-log what they did
in the Great War—well, it's going to be a rotten season for
There was silence again. Presently Bobby spoke:—
“When our boys get back! Some of them are never coming back again,
“Still,” said Wagstaffe, “what they did was worth doing, and what
they died for was worth while. I think their one regret to-day would be
that they did not live to see their own fellows taking the
offensive—the line going forward on the Somme; the old tanks waddling
over the Boche trenches; and the Boche prisoners throwing up their
hands and yowling 'Kamerad'! And the Kut unpleasantness cleaned up, and
all the kinks in the old Salient straightened out! And Wytchaete and
Messines! You remember how the two ridges used to look down into our
lines at Wipers and Plugstreet? And now we're on top of both of them!
Some of our friends out there—the friends who are not coming
back—would have liked to know about that, Bobby. I wish they could,
“Perhaps they do,” said Bobby simply.
It was close on midnight. Our “two old soldiers, broken in the
wars,” levered themselves stiffly to their feet, and prepared to
“Heigho!” said Wagstaffe. “It is time for two old wrecks like us to
be in bed. That's what we are, Bobby—wrecks, dodderers, has-beens! But
we have had the luck to last longer than most. We have dodged the
missiles of the Boche to an extent which justifies us in claiming that
we have followed the progress of their war with a rather more than
average degree of continuity. We were the last of the old crowd, too.
Kemp has got his Brigade, young Cockerell has gone to be a Staff
Captain, and—you and I are here. Some of the others dropped out far
too soon. Young Lochgair, old Blaikie—”
“Waddell, too,” said Bobby. “We joined the same day.”
“And Angus M'Lachlan. I think he would have made the finest soldier
of the lot of us,” added Wagstaffe. “You remember his remark to me,
that we only had the bye to play now? He was a true prophet: we are
dormy, anyhow. (Only cold feet at Home can let us down now.) And he
only saw three months' service! Still, he made a great exit from this
world, Bobby, and that is the only thing that matters in these days.
Ha! H'm! As our new Allies would say, I am beginning to 'pull heart
stuff' on you. Let us go to bed. Sleeping here?”
“Yes, till to-morrow. Then off on leave.”
“How much have you got?”
“A month. I say?”
“Are you doing anything on the nineteenth?”
Wagstaffe regarded his young friend suspiciously.
“Is this a catch of some kind?” he enquired.
“Oh, no. Will you be my—” Bobby turned excessively pink, and
completed his request.
Wagstaffe surveyed him resignedly.
“We all come to it, I suppose,” he observed.
“Only some come to it sooner than others. Are you of age, my lad?
Have your parents—”
“I'm twenty-two,” said Bobby shortly.
“Will the bridesmaids be pretty?”
“They are all peaches,” replied Bobby, with enthusiasm. “But nothing
whatever,” he added, in a voice of respectful rapture, “compared with