The Shrapnel of
Their Friends by Stephen Crane
From over the knolls came the tiny sound of a cavalry bugle singing
out the recall, and later, detached parties of His Majesty's 2nd
Hussars came trotting back to where the Spitzbergen infantry sat
complacently on the captured Rostina position. The horsemen were well
pleased, and they told how they had ridden thrice through the
helterskelter of the fleeing enemy. They had ultimately been checked by
the great truth, and when a good enemy runs away in daylight he sooner
or later finds a place where he fetches up with a jolt, and turns face
the pursuitnotably if it is a cavalry pursuit. The Hussars had
discreetly withdrawn, displaying no foolish pride of corps at that
There was a general admission that the Kicking Twelfth had taken the
chief honours of the day, but the artillery added that if the guns had
not shelled so accurately the Twelfth's charge could not have been made
so successfully, and the three other regiments of infantry, of course,
did not conceal their feelings, that their attack on the enemy's left
had withdrawn many rifles that would have been pelting at the Twelfth.
The cavalry simply said that but for them the victory would not have
Corps' prides met each other face to face at every step, but the
Kickers smiled easily and indulgently. A few recruits bragged, but they
bragged because they were recruits. The older men did not wish it to
appear that they were surprised and rejoicing at the performance of the
regiment. If they were congratulated they simply smirked, suggesting
that the ability of the Twelfth had been long known to them, and that
the charge had been a little thing, you know, just turned off in the
way of an afternoon's work.
Major-General Richie encamped his troops on the position which they
had from the enemy. Old Colonel Sponge of the Twelfth redistributed his
officers, and the losses had been so great that Timothy Lean got
command of a company. It was not much of a company. Fifty-three smudged
and sweating men faced their new commander. The company had gone into
action with a strength of eighty-six. The heart of Timothy Lean beat
high with pride. He intended to be some day a general, and if he ever
became a general, that moment of promotion was not equal in joy to the
moment when he looked at his new possession of fifty-three vagabonds.
He scanned the faces, and recognised with satisfaction one old sergeant
and two bright young corporals. Now, said he to himself, I have here
a snug little body of men with which I can do something. In him burned
the usual fierce fire to make them the best company in the regiment. He
had adopted them; they were his men. I will do what I can for you, he
said. Do you the same for me.
The Twelfth bivouacked on the ridge. Little fires were built, and
there appeared among the men innumerable blackened tin cups, which were
so treasured that a faint suspicion in connection with the loss of one
could bring on the grimmest of fights. Meantime certain of the privates
silently readjusted their kits as their names were called out by the
sergeants. These were the men condemned to picket duty after a hard day
of marching and fighting. The dusk came slowly, and the colour of the
countless fires, spotting the ridge and the plain, grew in the falling
darkness. Far-away pickets fired at something.
One by one the men's heads were lowered to the earth until the ridge
was marked by two long shadowy rows of men. Here and there an officer
sat musing in his dark cloak with a ray of a weakening fire gleaming on
his sword-hilt. From the plain there came at times the sound of battery
horses moving restlessly at their tethers, and one could imagine he
heard the throaty, grumbling curse of the drivers. The moon died
swiftly through flying light clouds. Far-away pickets fired at
In the morning the infantry and guns breakfasted to the music of a
racket between the cavalry and the enemy, which was taking place some
miles up the valley.
The ambitious Hussars had apparently stirred some kind of a hornet's
nest, and they were having a good fight with no officious friends near
enough to interfere. The remainder of the army looked toward the fight
musingly over the tops of tin cups. In time the column crawled lazily
forward to see.
The Twelfth, as it crawled, saw a regiment deploy to the right, and
saw a battery dash to take position. The cavalry jingled back grinning
with pride and expecting to be greatly admired. Presently the Twelfth
was bidden to take seat by the roadside and await its turn. Instantly
the wise menand there were more than threecame out of the east and
announced that they had divined the whole plan. The Kicking Twelfth was
to be held in reserve until the critical moment of the fight, and then
they were to be sent forward to win a victory. In corroboration, they
pointed to the fact that the general in command was sticking close to
them, in order, they said, to give the word quickly at the proper
moment. And in truth, on a small hill to the right, Major-General
Richie sat on his horse and used his glasses, while back of him his
staff and the orderlies bestrode their champing, dancing mounts.
It is always good to look hard at a general, and the Kickers were
transfixed with interest. The wise men again came out of the east and
told what was inside the Richie head, but even the wise men wondered
what was inside the Richie head.
Suddenly an exciting thing happened. To the left and ahead was a
pounding Spitzbergen battery, and a toy suddenly appeared on the slope
behind the guns. The toy was a man with a flagthe flag was white save
for a square of red in the centre. And this toy began to wig-wag
wag-wig, and it spoke to General Richie under the authority of the
captain of the battery. It said: The 88th are being driven on my
centre and right.
Now, when the Kicking Twelfth had left Spitzbergen there was an
average of six signalmen in each company. A proportion of these
signallers had been destroyed in the first engagement, but enough
remained so that the Kicking Twelfth read, as a unit, the news of the
88th. The word ran quickly. The 88th are being driven on my centre and
Richie rode to where Colonel Sponge sat aloft on his big horse, and
a moment later a cry ran along the column: Kim up, the Kickers. A
large number of the men were already in the road, hitching and twisting
at their belts and packs. The Kickers moved forward.
They deployed and passed in a straggling line through the battery,
and to the left and right of it. The gunners called out to them
carefully, telling them not to be afraid.
The scene before them was startling. They were facing a country cut
up by many steep-sided ravines, and over the resultant hills were
retreating little squads of the 88th. The Twelfth laughed in its
exultation. The men could now tell by the volume of fire that the 88th
were retreating for reasons which were not sufficiently expressed in
the noise of the Rostina shooting. Held together by the bugle, the
Kickers swarmed up the first hill and laid on the crest. Parties of the
88th went through their lines, and the Twelfth told them coarsely its
several opinions. The sights were clicked up to 600 yards, and, with a
crashing volley, the regiment entered its second battle.
A thousand yards away on the right the cavalry and a regiment of
infantry were creeping onward. Sponge decided not to be backward, and
the bugle told the Twelfth to go ahead once more. The Twelfth charged,
followed by a rabble of rallied men of the 88th, who were crying aloud
that it had been all a mistake.
A charge in these days is not a running match. Those splendid
pictures of levelled bayonets, dashing at headlong pace towards the
closed ranks of the enemy are absurd as soon as they are mistaken for
the actuality of the present. In these days charges are likely to cover
at least the half of a mile, and to go at the pace exhibited in the
pictures a man would be obliged to have a little steam engine inside of
The charge of the Kicking Twelfth somewhat resembled the advance of
a great crowd of beaters who, for some reason, passionately desired to
start the game. Men stumbled; men fell; men swore; there were cries:
This way! Come this way! Don't go that way! You can't get up
that way! Over the rocks the Twelfth scrambled, red in the face,
sweating and angry. Soldiers fell because they were struck by bullets,
and because they had not an ounce of strength left in them. Colonel
Sponge, with a face like a red cushion, was being dragged windless up
the steeps by devoted and athletic men. Three of the older captains lay
afar back, and swearing with their eyes because their tongues were
temporarily out of service.
And yet-and-yet, the speed of the charge was slow. From the position
of the battery, it looked as if the Kickers were taking a walk over
some extremely difficult country.
The regiment ascended a superior height, and found trenches and dead
men. They took seat with the dead, satisfied with this company until
they could get their wind. For thirty minutes purple-faced stragglers
rejoined from the rear. Colonel Sponge looked behind him, and saw that
Richie, with his staff, had approached by another route, and had
evidently been near enough to see the full extent of the Kickers'
exertions. Presently Richie began to pick a way for his horse towards
the captured position. He disappeared in a gully between two hills.
Now it came to pass that a Spitzbergen battery on the far right took
occasion to mistake the identity of the Kicking Twelfth, and the
captain of these guns, not having anything to occupy him in front,
directed his six 3·2's upon the ridge where the tired Kickers lay side
by side with the Rostina dead. A shrapnel came swinging over the
Kickers, seething and fuming. It burst directly over the trenches, and
the shrapnel, of course, scattered forward, hurting nobody. But a man
screamed out to his officer: By God, sir, that is one of our own
batteries! The whole line quivered with fright. Five more shells
streaked overhead, and one flung its hail into the middle of the 3rd
battalion's line, and the Kicking Twelfth shuddered to the very centre
of its heart, and arose, like one man, and fled.
Colonel Sponge, fighting, frothing at the month, dealing blows with
his fist right and left, found himself confronting a fury on horseback.
Richie was as pale as death, and his eyes sent out sparks. What does
this conduct mean? he flashed out between his fastened teeth.
Sponge could only gurgle: The batterythe batterythe battery!
The battery? cried Richie, in a voice which sounded like pistol
shots. Are you afraid of the guns you almost took yesterday? Go back
there, you white-livered cowards! You swine! You dogs! Curs! Curs!
Curs! Go back there!
Most of the men halted and crouched under the lashing tongue of
their maddened general. But one man found desperate speech, and yelled:
General, it is our own battery that is firing on us!
Many say that the General's face tightened until it looked like a
mask. The Kicking Twelfth retired to a comfortable place, where they
were only under the fire of the Rostina artillery. The men saw a staff
officer riding over the obstructions in a manner calculated to break
his neck directly.
The Kickers were aggrieved, but the heart of the colonel was cut in
twain. He even babbled to his major, talking like a man who is about to
die of simple rage. Did you hear what he said to me? Did you hear what
he called us? Did you hear what he called us?
The majors searched their minds for words to heal a deep wound.
The Twelfth received orders to go into camp upon the hill where they
had been insulted. Old Sponge looked as if he were about to knock the
aide out of the saddle, but he saluted, and took the regiment back to
the temporary companionship of the Rostina dead.
Major-General Richie never apologised to Colonel Sponge. When you
are a commanding officer you do not adopt the custom of apologising for
the wrong done to your subordinates. You ride away; and they
understand, and are confident of the restitution to honour. Richie
never opened his stern, young lips to Sponge in reference to the scene
near the hill of the Rostina dead, but in time there was a general
order No. 20, which spoke definitely of the gallantry of His Majesty's
12th regiment of the line and its colonel. In the end Sponge was given
a high decoration, because he had been badly used by Richie on that
day. Richie knew that it is hard for men to withstand the shrapnel of
A few days later the Kickers, marching in column on the road, came
upon their friend the battery, halted in a field; and they addressed
the battery, and the captain of the battery blanched to the tips of his
ears. But the men of the battery told the Kickers to go to the
devilfrankly, freely, placidly, told the Kickers to go to the devil.
And this story proves that it is sometimes better to be a private.