AN EPISODE OF THE GREAT WAR
AUTHOR OF "THE RED HORIZON,"
"THE RAT-PIT ... .. CHILDREN OF THE DEAD END," ETC.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
If we forget the Fairies,
And tread upon their rings,
God will perchance forget us,
And think of other things.
When we forget you, Fairies,
Who guard our spirits' light:
God will forget the morrow,
And Day forget the Night.
THE justice of the cause which endeavours to achieve its object by the murdering and maiming of Mankind is apt to be doubted by a man who has come through a bayonet charge. The dead lying on the fields seem to ask, "Why has this been done to us? Why have you done it, brothers? What purpose has it served?" The battleline is a secret world, a world of curses. The guilty secrecy of war is shrouded in lies, and shielded by bloodstained swords; to know it you must be one of those who wage it, a party to dark and mysterious orgies of carnage. War is the purge of repleted kingdoms, needing a close place for its operations.
I have tried in this book to give, as far as I am allowed, an account of an attack in which I took part. Practically the whole book was written in the scene of action, and the chapter dealing with our night at Les Brebis, prior to the Big. Push, was written in the trench between midnight and dawn of September 25th; the concluding chapter in the hospital at Versailles two days after I had been wounded at Loos.
|IN THE ADVANCE TRENCHES|
|OUT FROM NOUEX-LES-MINES .|
|PREPARATIONS FOR LOOS .|
|BEFORE THE CHARGE|
|OVER THE TOP ...|
|ACROSS THE OPEN|
|GERMANS AT LOOS .|
|HOW MY COMRADES FARED .|
|AT LOOS .|
|A NIGHT IN LOOS .|
|A PRISONER OF WAR|
|THE CHAPLAIN .|
|A LOVER AT LOOS|
|THE RATION PARTY .|
|BACK AT LOOS|
|FOR BLIGHTY .|
IN THE ADVANCE TRENCHES
Now when we take the cobbled road
We often took before,
Our thoughts are with the hearty lads
Who tread that way no more.
Oh !boys upon the level fields,
If you could call to mind
The wine of Café Pierre le Blanc
You wouldn't stay behind.
But when we leave the trench at night,
And stagger neath our load,
Grey, silent ghosts as light as air
Come with us down the road.
And when we sit us down to drink
You sit beside us too,
And drink at Café Pierre le Blanc
As once you used to do.
THE Company marched from the village of Les Brebis at nightfall; the moon, waning a little at one of its corners, shone brightly amidst the stars in the east, and under it, behind the German lines, a burning mine threw a flame, salmon pink and wreathed in smoke, into the air. Our Company was sadly thinned now. it had cast off many---so many of its men at Cuinchy, Givenchy, and Vermelles. At each of these places there are graves of the London Irish boys who have been killed in action.
We marched through a world of slag heaps and chimney stacks, the moonlight flowing down the sides of the former like mist, the smoke stood up from the latter straight as the chimneys themselves. The whirr of machinery in the mine could be heard, and the creaking wagon wheels on an adjoining railway spoke out in a low, monotonous clank the half strangled message of labour.
Our way lay up the hill, at the top we came into full view of the night of battle, the bursting shells up by Souchez, the flash of rifles by the village of Vermelles, the long white searchlights near Lens, and the star-shells, red, green and electric-white, rioting in a splendid blaze of colour over the decay, death and pity of the firing line. We could hear the dull thud of shells bursting in the fields and the sharp explosion they made amidst the masonry of deserted homes; you feel glad that the homes are deserted, and you hope that if any soldiers are billeted there they are in the safe protection of the cellars.
The road by which we marched was lined with houses all in various stages of collapse, some with merely a few tiles shot out of the roofs, others levelled to the ground. Some of the buildings were still peopled; at one home a woman was putting up the shutters and we could see some children drinking coffee from little tin mugs inside near the door; the garret of the house was blown in, the rafters stuck up over the tiles like long, accusing fingers, charging all who passed by with the mischief which had happened. The cats were crooning love songs on the roofs, and stray dogs slunk from the roadway as we approached. In the villages, with the natives gone and the laughter dead, there are always to be found stray dogs and love-making cats. The cats raise their primordial, instinctive yowl in villages raked with artillery fire, and poor lone dogs often cry at night to the moon, and their plaint is full of longing.
We marched down the reserve slope of the hill in silence. At the end of the road was the village; our firing trench fringed the outer row of houses. Two months before an impudent red chimney stack stood high in air here; but humbled now, it had fallen upon itself, and its own bricks lay still as sandbags at its base, a forgotten ghost with blurred outlines, it brooded, a stricken giant.
The long road down the hill was a tedious, deceptive way; it took a deal of marching to make the village. Bill Teake growled. "One would think the place was tied to a string," he grumbled, "and some one pullin' it away!"
We were going to dig a sap out from the front trench towards the German line; we drew our spades and shovels for the work from the Engineers' store at the rear and made our way into the labyrinth of trenches. Men were at their posts on the fire positions, their Balaclava helmets resting on their cars, their bayonets gleaming bright in the moonshine, their hands close to their rifle barrels. Sleepers lay stretched out on the banquette with their overcoats over their heads and bodies. Out on the front the Engineers had already taped out the night's work; our battalion had to dig some two hundred and fifty yards of trench 3 ft. wide and 6 ft. deep before dawn, and the work had to be performed with all possible dispatch. Rumour spoke of thrilling days ahead; and men spoke of a big push which was shortly to take place. Between the lines there are no slackers; the safety of a man so often depends upon the dexterous handling of his spade; the deeper a man digs, the better is his shelter from bullet and bomb; the spade is the key to safety.
The men set to work eagerly, one picked up the earth with a spade and a mate shovelled the loose stuff out over the meadow. The grass, very long now and tapering tall as the props that held the web of wire entanglements in air, shook gently backwards and forwards as the slight breezes caught it. The night was wonderfully calm and peaceful; it seemed as if heaven and earth held no threat for the men who delved in the alleys of war.
Out ahead lay the German trenches. I could discern their line of sandbags winding over the meadows and losing itself for a moment when it disappeared behind the ruins of a farm-house ---a favourite resort of the enemy snipers, until our artillery blew the place to atoms. Silent and full of mystery as it lay there in the moonlight, the place had a strange fascination for me. How interesting it would be to go out there beyond our most advanced outpost and have a peep at the place all by myself. Being a stretcher-bearer there was no necessity for me to dig; my work began when my mates ceased their labours and fell wounded.
Out in front of me lay a line of barbed wire entanglements.
"Our wire?" I asked the Engineer.
"No---the Germans'," he answered.
I noticed a path through it, and I took my way to the other side. Behind me I could hear the thud of picks and the sharp, rasping sound of shovels digging into the earth, and now and again the whispered words of command passing from. lip to lip. The long grass impeded my movements, tripping me as I walked, and lurking shellholes caught me twice by the foot and flung me to the ground. Twenty yards out from the wire I noticed in front of me something moving on the ground, wiggling, as I thought, towards the enemy's line. I threw myself flat and watched.
There was no mistaking it now; it was a man, belly flat on the ground, moving off from our lines. Being a non-combatant I had no rifle, no weapon to defend myself with if attacked. I wriggled back a few yards, then got to my feet, recrossed the line of wires and found a company-sergeant-major speaking to an officer.
"There's somebody out there lying on the ground," I said. "A man moving off towards the German trenches."
The three of us went off together and approached the figure on the ground, which had hardly changed its position since I last saw it. It was dressed in khaki, the dark barrel of a rifle stretched out in front. I saw stripes on a khaki sleeve. . . .
"One of a covering-party?" asked the sergeant-major.
"That's right," came the answer from the grass, and a white face looked up at us.
"Quiet?" asked the S.-M.
"Nothing doing," said the voice from the ground. "It's cold lying here, though. We've been out for four hours."
"I did not think that the covering-party was so far out," said the officer and the two men returned to their company.
I sat in the long grass with the watcher; he was the sergeant in command of the covering party.
"Are your party out digging?" he asked.
"Yes, out behind us," I answered. "Is the covering-party a large one?"
"About fifty of us," said the sergeant. "They've all got orders to shoot on sight when they see anything suspicious. Do you hear the Germans at work out there?"
I listened; from the right front came the sound of hammering.
"They're putting up barbed wire entanglements and digging a sap," said the sergeant. "Both sides are working and none are fighting. I must have another smoke," said the sergeant.
"But it's dangerous to strike a light here," I said.
"Not in this way," said the sergeant, drawing a cigarette and a patent flint tinder-lighter from his pocket. Over a hole newly dug in the earth, as if with a bayonet, the sergeant leant, lit the cigarette in its little dug-out, hiding the glow with his hand.
"Do you smoke?" he asked.
"Yes, I smoke," and the man gave me a cigarette.
It was so very quiet lying there. The grasses nodded together, whispering to one another. To speak of the grasses whispering during the day is merely a sweet idea; but God! they do whisper at night. The ancients called the winds the Unseen Multitude; the grasses are long, tapering fingers laid on the lips of the winds. "Hush !" the night whispers. "Hush!" breathes the world. The grasses touch your cars, saying sleepily, "Hush! be quiet!"
At the end of half an hour I ventured to go nearer the German lines. The sergeant told me to be careful and not to go too close to the enemy's trenches or working parties. "And mind your own covering-party when you're coming in," said the sergeant. "They may slip you a bullet or two if you're unlucky."
Absurd silvery shadows chased one another up and down the entanglement props. In front, behind the German lines, I could hear sounds of railway wagons being shunted, and the clank of rails being unloaded. The enemy's transports were busy; they clattered along the roads, and now and again the neighing of horses came to my cars. On my right a working party was out; the clank of hammers filled the air. The Germans were strengthening their wire entanglements; the barbs stuck out, I could see them in front of me, waiting to rip our men if ever we dared to charge. I had a feeling of horror for a moment. Then, having one more look round, I went back, got through the line of outposts, and came up to our working party, which was deep in the earth already. Shovels and picks were rising and falling, and long lines of black clay bulked up on either side of the trench.
I took off my coat, got hold of a mate's idle shovel, and began to work.
"That my shovel?" said Bill Teake.
"Yes, I'm going to do a little," I answered. "It would never do much lying on the slope."
"I suppose. it wouldn't," he answered. "Will you keep it goin' for a spell?"
"I'll do a little bit with it," I answered.
"You've got to go to the back of the trenches if you're wanting to smoke."
"That's where I'm goin'," Bill replied. "'Ave yer got any matches?"
I handed him a box and bent to my work. It was quite easy to make headway; the clay was crisp and brittle, and the pick went in easily, making very little sound. M'Crone, one of our section, was working three paces ahead, shattering a square foot of earth at every blow of his instrument.
"It's very quiet here," he said. "I suppose they won't fire on us, having their own party out. By Jove, I'm sweating at this."
"When does the shift come to an end?" I asked.
"At dawn," came the reply. He rubbed the perspiration from his brow as he spoke. "The nights are growing longer," he said, "and it will soon be winter again. It will be cold then."
As he spoke we heard the sound of rifle firing out by the German wires. Half a dozen shots were fired, then followed a long moment of silent suspense.
"There's something doing," said Pryor, leaning on his pick. "I wonder what it is."
Five minutes afterwards a sergeant and two men came in from listening patrol and reported to our officer.
"We've just encountered a strong German patrol between the lines," said the sergeant. "We exchanged shots with them and then withdrew. We have no casualties, but the Germans have one man out of action, shot through the stomach
"How do you know it went through his stomach?" asked the officer.
"In this way," said the sergeant. "When we fired one of the Germans (we were quite close to them) put his hands across his stomach and fell to the ground yellin' 'Mein Gutt! Mein Gutt!'"
"So it did get 'im in the guts then," said Bill Teake, when he heard of the incident.
"You fool!" exclaimed Pryor. "It was 'My God' that the German said."
"But Pat 'as just told me that the German said 'Mine Gut," Bill protested.
"Well Mein Gott' (the Germans pronounce 'Gott' like 'Gutt' on a dark night) is the same as 'My God," said Pryor.
"Well, any'ow, that's just wot the Allymongs would say," Bill muttered. "It's just like them to call God Almighty nick names."
When dawn showed pale yellow in a cold sky, and stars were fading in the west, we packed up and took our way out and marched back to Nouex-les-Mines, there to rest for a day or two.
OUT FROM NOUEX-LES-MINES
Every soldier to his trade---
Trigger sure and bayonet keen---
But we go forth to use a spade
Marching out from Nouex-les-Mines.
AS I was sitting in the Café Pierre le Blanc helping Bill Teake, my Cockney mate, to finish a bottle of vin rouge, a snub-nosed soldier with thin lips who sat at a table opposite leant towards me and asked:
"Are you MacGill, the feller that writes?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Thought I twigged yer from the photo of yer phiz in the papers," said the man with the snub nose, as he turned to his mates who were illustrating a previous fight in lines of beer representing trenches on the table.
"See!" he said to them, "I knew 'im the moment I clapped my eyes on 'im."
'Sold your tongue," one of the men, a ginger-headed fellow, who had his trigger finger deep in beer, made answer. Then the dripping finger rose slowly and was placed carefully on the table.
"This," said Carrots, "is Richebourg, this drop of beer is the German trench, and these are our lines. Our regiment crossed at this point and made for this one, but somehow or another we missed our objective. just another drop of beer and I'll show you where we got to; it was---Blimey! where's that bloomin' beer? 'Oo the 'ell! Oh! it's Gilhooley!"
I had never seen Gilhooley before, but I had often heard talk of him. Gilhooley was an Irishman and fought in an English regiment; he was notorious for his mad escapades, his dare-devil pranks, and his wild fearlessness. Now he was opposite to me, drinking a mate's beer, big, broad-shouldered, ungainly Gilhooley.
The first impression the sight of him gave me was one of almost irresistible strength; I felt that if he caught a man around the waist with his hand he could, if he wished it, squeeze him to death. He was clumsily built, but an air of placid confidence in his own strength gave his figure a. certain grace of its own. His eyes glowed brightly under heavy brows, his jowl thrust forward aggressively seemed to challenge all upon whom he fixed his gaze. It looked as if vast passions hidden in the man were thirsting to break free and rout everything. Gilhooley was a dangerous man to cross. Report had it that he was a bomber, and a master in this branch of warfare. Stories were told about. him how he went over to the German trenches near Vermelles at dusk every day for a fortnight, and on each visit flung half a dozen bombs into the enemy's midst. Then he sauntered back to his own lines and reported to an officer, saying, "By Jasus! I go them out of it!"
Once, when a German sniper potting at our trenches in Vermelles picked off a few of our men, an exasperated English subaltern gripped a Webley revolver and clambered over the parapet.
"I'm going to stop that damned sniper," said the young officer. "I'm going to earn the V.C. Who's coming along with me?"
"I'm with you," said Gilhooley, scrambling lazily out into the open with a couple of pet bombs in his hand. "By Jasus! we'll get him out of it!"
The two men went forward for about twenty yards, when the officer fell with a bullet through his head.' Gilhooley turned round and called back, "Any other officer wantin' to earn the V.C.?"
There was no reply: Gilhooley sauntered back, waited in the trench till dusk, when he went across to the sniper's abode with a bomb and "got him out of it."
A calamity occurred a few days later. The irrepressible Irishman was fooling with a bomb in the trench when it fell and exploded. Two soldiers were wounded, and Gilhooley went off to the Hospital at X. with a metal reminder of his discrepancy wedged in the soft of his thigh. There he saw Colonel Z., or "Up-you-go-and-the-best-of-luck," as Colonel Z. is known to the rank and file of the B.E.F.
The hospital at X. is a comfortable place, and the men are in no hurry to leave there for the trenches; but when Colonel Z. pronounces them fit they must hasten to the fighting line again.
Four men accompanied Gilhooley when he was considered fit for further fight. The five appeared before the Colonel.
"How do you feel?" the Colonel asked the first man.
"Not well at all," was the answer. "I can't eat 'ardly nuffink."
"That's the sort of man required up there," Colonel Z. answered. "So up you go and the best of luck."
"How far can you see?" the Colonel asked the next man, who had complained that his eyesight was bad.
"Only about fifty yards," was the answer.
"Your regiment is in trenches barely twenty-five yards from those of the enemy," the Colonel told him. "So up you go, and the best of luck."
"Off you go and find the man who wounded you," the third soldier was told; the fourth man confessed that he had never killed a German.
"You had better double up," said the Colonel. "It's time you killed one."
It came to Gilhooley's turn.
"How many men have you killed?" he was asked.
"In and out about fifty," was Gilhooley's answer.
"Make it a hundred then," said the Colonel; "and up you go, and the best of luck."
"By Jasus! I'll get fifty more out of it in no time," said Gilhooley, and on the following day he sauntered into the Café Pierre le Blanc in Nouex-les-Mines, drank another man's beer, and sat down on a chair at the table where four glasses filled to the brim stood sparkling in the lamplight.
Gilhooley, penniless and thirsty, had an unrivalled capacity for storing beer in his person.
"Back again, Gilhooley?" someone remarked in a diffident voice.
"Back again!" said Gilhooley wearily, putting his hand in the pocket of his tunic and taking out a little round object about the size of a penny inkpot.
"I hear there's going to be a big push shortly," he muttered. "This," he said, holding the bomb between trigger finger and thumb, "will go bang into the enemy's trenches next charge."
A dozen horror-stricken eyes gazed at the bomb for a second, and the soldiers in the café remembered how Gilhooley once, in a moment of distraction, forgot that a fuse was lighted, then followed a hurried rush, and the café was almost, deserted by the occupants. Gilhooley smiled wearily, replaced the bomb in his pocket, and set himself the task of draining the beer glasses.
My momentary thrill of terror died away when the bomb disappeared, and, leaving Bill, I approached the Wild Man's table and sat down.
"Gilhooley?" I said.
"Eh, what is it?" he interjected.
"Will you have a drink with me?" I hurried to inquire. "Something better than this beer for a change. Shall we try champagne?"
"Yes, we'll try it," he said sarcastically, and a queer smile hovered about his eyes. Somehow I had a guilty sense of doing a mean action.
I called to Bill.
"Come on, matey," I said.
Bill approached the table and sat down. I called for a bottle of champagne.
"This is Gilhooley, Bill," I said to my mate. "He's the bomber we've heard so much about."
"I suppose ye'll want to know everythin' about me now, seein' ye've asked me to take a drop of champagne," said Gilhooley, his voice rising. "Damn yer champagne. You think I'm a bloomin' alligator in the Zoo, d'ye? Give me a bun and I'll do anythin' ye want me to."
"That, men should want to speak to you is merely due to your fame," I said. "In the dim recesses of the trenches men speak of your exploits with bated breath ---"
"What the devil are ye talkin' about?" asked Gilhooley.
"About you," I said.
He burst out laughing at this and clinked glasses with me when we drank, but he seemed to forget Bill.
For the rest of the evening he was in high good humour, and before leaving he brought out his bomb and showed that it was only a dummy one, harmless as an egg-shell.
"But let me get half a dozen sergeants round a rum jar and out comes this bomb!" said Gilhooley. "Then they fly like hell and I get a double tot of rum."
"It's a damned good idea," I said. "What is he wanting?"
I pointed at the military policeman who had just poked his head through the café door. He looked round the room, taking stock of the occupants.
"All men of the London Irish must report to their companies at once," he shouted.
"There's somethin' on the blurry boards again," said Bill Teake. "I suppose we've got to get up to the trenches to-night. We were up last night diggin'," he said to Gilhooley.
Gilhooley shrugged his shoulders, took a stump of a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.
"Take care of yourselves," he said as he went out.
At half-past nine we marched out of Nouex-les-Mines bound for the trenches where we had to continue the digging which we had started the night before.
The brigade holding the firing line told us that the enemy were registering their range during the day, and the objective was the trench which we had dug on the previous night. . . . Then we knew that the work before us was fraught with danger; we would certainly be shelled when operations started. In single file, with rifles and picks over their shoulders, the boys went out into the perilous space between the lines. The night was grey with rain; not a star was visible in the drab expanse of cloudy sky, and the wet oozed from sandbag and dugout; the trench itself was sodden, and slush squirted about the boots that shuffled along; it was a miserable night. One of our men returned to the post occupied by the stretcher-bearers; he had become suddenly unwell with a violent pain in his stomach. We took him back to the nearest dressing-station and there he was put into an Engineers' wagon which was returning to the village in which our regiment was quartered.
Returning, I went out into the open between the lines. Our men were working across the front, little dark, blurred figures in the rainy greyness, picks and shovels were rising and falling, and lumps of earth were being flung out on to the grass. The enemy were already shelling on the left, the white flash of shrapnel and the red, lurid flames of bursting concussion shells lit up the night. So far the missiles were either falling short or overshooting their mark, and nobody had been touched. I just got to our company when the enemy began to shell it. There was a hurried flop to earth in the newly-dug holes, and I was immediately down flat on my face on top of several prostrate figures, a shrapnel burst in front, and a hail of singing bullets dug into the earth all round. A concussion shell raced past overhead and broke into splinters by the fire trench, several of the pieces whizzing back as far as the working party.
There followed a hail of shells, flash on flash, and explosion after explosion over our heads; the moment was a ticklish one, and I longed for the comparative safety of the fire trench. Why had I come out? I should have stopped with the other stretcher-bearers. But what did it matter? I was in no greater danger than any of my mates; what they had to stick I could stick, for the moment at least.
The shelling subsided as suddenly as it had begun. I got up again to find my attention directed towards something in front; a dark figure kneeling on the ground. I went forward and found a dead soldier, a Frenchman, a mere skeleton with the flesh eaten away from his face, leaning forward on his entrenching tool over a little hole that he had dug in the ground months before.
A tragedy was there, one of the sorrowful sights of war. The man, no doubt, had been in a charge---the French made a bayonet attack across this ground in the early part of last winter---and had been wounded. Immediately he was struck he got out his entrenching tool and endeavoured to dig himself in. A few shovelsful of earth were scooped out when a bullet struck him, and he leaned forward on his entrenching tool, dead. Thus I found him; and the picture in the grey night was one of a dead man resting for a moment as he dug his own grave.
"See that dead man?" I said to one of the digging party.
"H'm! there are hundreds of them lying here," was the answer, given almost indifferently. "I had to throw four to one side before I could start digging!"
I went back to the stretcher-bearers again; the men of my own company were standing under a shrapnel-proof bomb store, smoking and humming ragtime in low, monotonous voices. Music hall melodies are so melancholy at times, so full of pathos, especially on a wet night under shell fire.
"Where are the other stretcher-bearers?" I asked.
"They've gone out to the front to their companies," I was told. "Some of their men have been hit."
"No one knows," was the answer. "Are our boys all right?"
"As far as I could see they're safe; but they're getting shelled in an unhealthy manner."
"They've left off firing now," said one of my mates. "You should've seen the splinters coming in here a minute ago, pit! pit! plop! on the sandbags. It's beastly out in the open."
A man came running along the trench, stumbled into our shelter, and sat down on a sandbag.
"You're the London Irish?" he asked.
"'Stretcher-bearers," I said. "Have you been out?"
"My God! I have," he answered. "'Tisn't half a do, either. A shell comes over and down I flops in the trench. My mate was standing on the parapet and down he fell atop of me. God! 'twasn't half a squeeze; I thought I was burst like a bubble.
"'Git 'off, matey,' I yells, 'I'm squeezed to death!'
"'Squeezed to death,' them was my words, But he didn't move, and something warm and sloppy ran down my face. It turned me sick. . . . I wriggled out from under and had a look. . . . He was dead, with half his head blown away. . . . Your boys are sticking to the work out there; just going on with the job as if nothing was amiss. When is the whole damned thing to come to a finish?"
A momentary lull followed, and a million sparks fluttered earthwards from a galaxy of searching star-shells.
"Why are such beautiful lights used in the killing of men?" I asked myself. Above in the quiet the gods were meditating, then, losing patience, they again burst into irrevocable rage, seeking, as it seemed, some obscure and fierce retribution.
The shells were loosened again; there was no escape from their frightful vitality, they crushed, burrowed, exterminated; obstacles were broken down, and men's lives were flicked out like flies off a window pane. A dug-out flew skywards, and the roof beams fell in the trench at our feet. We crouched under the bomb-shelter, mute, pale, hesitating. Oh! the terrible anxiety of men who wait passively for something to take place and always fearing the worst!"
"Stretcher-bearers at the double!"
We met him, crawling in on all fours like a beetle, the first case that came under our care. We dressed a stomach wound in the dug-out, and gave the boy two morphia tablets. . . . He sank into unconsciousness and never recovered. His grave is out behind the church of Loos-Gohelle, and his cap hangs on the arm of the cross that marks his sleeping place. A man had the calf of his right leg blown away; he died from shock; another got a bullet through his skull, another . . . But why enumerate how young lives were hurled away from young bodies? . . .
On the field of death, the shells, in colossal joy, chorused their terrible harmonies, making the heavens sonorous with their wanton and unbridled frenzy; star-shells, which seemed at times to be fixed on ceiling of the sky, oscillated in a dazzling whirl of red and green---and men died.
. . . We remained in the trenches the next day. They were very quiet, and we lay at case in our dug-outs, read week-old papers, wrote letters and took turns on sentry-go. On our front lay a dull brown, monotonous level and two red-brick villages, Loos and Hulluch. Our barbed-wire entanglement, twisted and shell-scarred, showed countless rusty spikes which stuck out ominous and forbidding. A dead German hung on a wire prop, his feet caught in a cheval de frise, the skin of his face peeling away from his bones, and his hand clutching the wire as if for support. He had been out there for many months, a foolhardy foe who got a bullet through his head when examining our defences.
Here, in this salient, the war had its routine and habits, everything was done with regimental precision, and men followed the trade of arms as clerks follow their profession: to each man was allocated his post, he worked a certain number of hours, slept at stated times, had breakfast at dawn, lunch at noon, and tea at four. The ration parties called on the cave-dwellers with the promptitude of the butcher and baker, who attend to the needs of the villa-dwellers.
The postmen called at the dug-outs when dusk was settling, and delivered letters and parcels. Letter-boxes were placed in the parados walls and the hours of collection written upon them in pencil or chalk. Concerts were held in the big dug-outs, and little supper parties were fashionable when parcels were bulky. Tea was drunk in the open, the soldiers ate at looted tables, spread outside the dug-out doors. Over the "Savoy" a picture of the Mother of Perpetual Succour was to be seen and the boys who lived there swore that it brought them good luck; they always won at Banker and Brag. All shaved daily and washed with perfumed soaps.
The artillery exchanged shots every morning just to keep the guns clean. Sometimes a rifle shot might be heard, and we would ask, "Who is firing at the birds on the wire entanglements?" The days were peaceful then, but now all was different. The temper of the salient had changed.
In the distance we could see Lens, a mining town with many large chimneys, one of which was almost hidden in its own smoke. No doubt the Germans were working the coal mines. Loos looked quite small, there was a big slag-heap on its right, and on its left was a windmill with shattered wings. We had been shelling the village persistently for days, and, though it was not battered as Philosophé and Maroc were battered, many big, ugly rents and fractures were showing on the red-brick houses.
But it stood its beating well; it takes a lot of strafing to bring down even a jerry-built village. Houses built for a few hundred francs in times of peace, cost thousands of pounds to demolish in days of war. I suppose war is the most costly means of destruction.
Rumours flew about daily. Men spoke of a big push ahead, fixed the date for the great charge, and, as proof of their gossip, pointed at innumerable guns and wagons of shell which came through Les Brebis and Nouex-les-Mines daily. Even the Germans got wind of our activities, and in front of the blue-black slag-heap on the right of Loos they placed a large white board with the question written fair in big, black letters:
"WHEN IS THE, BIG PUSH COMING OFF?
WE ARE WAITING."
A well-directed shell blew the board to pieces ten minutes after it was put up.
I had a very nice dug-out in these trenches. It burrowed into the chalk, and its walls were as white as snow. When the candle was lit in the twilight, the most wonderfully soft shadows rustled over the roof and walls. The shadow of an elbow of chalk sticking out in the wall over my bed looked like the beak of a great formless vulture. On a closer examination I found that I had mistaken a wide-diffused bloodstain for a shadow. A man had come into the place once and he died there; his death was written in red on the wall.
I named the dug-out "The Last House in the World." Was it not? It was the last tenanted house in our world.
Over the parapet of the trench was the Unknown with its mysteries deep as those of the grave.
PREPARATIONS FOR LOOS
"Death will give us all a clean sheet."---DUDLEY PRYOR.
WE, the London Irish Rifles, know Les Brebis well, know every café and estaminet, every street and corner, every house, broken or sound, every washerwoman, wineshop matron, handy cook, and pretty girl. Time after time we have returned from the trenches to our old billet to find the good housewife up and waiting for us. She was a lank woman, made and clothed anyhow. Her garments looked as if they had been put on with a pitchfork. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, and one felt that if her tightly strained eyelids relaxed their grip for a moment the eyes would roll out on the floor. Her upper teeth protruded, and the point of her receding chin had lost itself somewhere in the hollow of her neck. Her pendant breasts hung flabbily, and it was a miracle how her youngest child, Gustave, a tot of seven months, could find any sustenance there. She had three children, who prattled all through the peaceful hours of the day. When the enemy shelled Les Brebis the children were bundled down into the cellar, and the mother went out to pick percussion caps from the streets. These she sold to officers going home on leave. The value of the percussion cap was fixed by the damage which the shell had done. A shell which fell on Les Brebis school and killed many men was picked up by this good woman, and at the present moment it is in my possession. We nicknamed this woman "Joan of Arc."
We had a delightful billet in this woman's house. We came in from war to find a big fire in the stove and basins of hot, steaming café-au-lait on the table. If we returned from duty dripping wet through the rain, lines were hung across from wall to wall, and we knew that morning would find our muddy clothes warm and dry. The woman would count our number as we entered. One less than when we left! The missing man wore spectacles. She remembered him and all his mannerisms. He used to nurse her little baby boy, Gustave, and play games with the mite's toes. What had happened to him? He was killed by a shell, we told her. On the road to the trenches he was hit. Then a mist gathered in the woman's eyes, and two tears rolled down her cheeks. We drank our café-au-lait.
"Souvenir," was the reply through sobs, and we thanked her for the kindness. Upstairs we bundled into our room, and threw our equipment down on the clean wooden floor, lit a candle and undressed. All wet clothes were flung downstairs, where the woman would hang them up to dry. Everything was the same here as when we left; save where the last regiment had, in a moment of inspiration, chronicled its deeds in verse on the wall. Pryor, the lance-corporal, read the poem aloud to us:
"Gentlemen, the Guards,
When the brick fields they took
The Germans took the hook
And left the Gentlemen in charge!'
The soldiers who came and went voiced their griefs on this wall, but in latrine language and Rabelaisian humour. Here were three proverbs written in a shaky hand:
"The Army pays good money, but little of it."
"In the Army you are sertin to receive what you get."
"The wages of sin and a soldir is death."
Under these was a couplet written by a fatalist:
"I don't care if the Germans come,
If I have an extra tot of rum."
Names of men were scrawled everywhere on the wall, from roof to floor. Why have some men this desire to scrawl their names on every white surface they see, I often wonder? One of my mates, who wondered as I did, finally found expression in verse, which glared forth accusingly from the midst of the riot of names in the room:
"A man's ambition must be small
Who writes his name upon this wall,
And well he does deserve his pay
A measly, mucky bob a day."
The woman never seemed to mind this scribbling on the wall; in Les Brebis they have to put up with worse than this. The house of which I speak is the nearest inhabited one to the firing line. Half the houses in the street are blown down, and every ruin has its tragedy. The natives are gradually getting thinned out by the weapons of war. The people refuse to quit their homes. This woman has a sister in Nouex-les-Mines, a town five kilometres further away from the firing line, but she refused to go there. "The people of Nouex-les-Mines are no good," she told us. "I would not be where they are. Nobody can trust them."
The history of Les Brebis must, if written, be written in blood. The washerwoman who washed our shirts could tell stories of adventure that would eclipse tales of romance as the sun eclipses a brazier. Honesty and fortitude are the predominant traits of the Frenchwoman.
Once I gave the washerwoman my cardigan jacket to wash, and immediately afterwards we were ordered off to the trenches. When we left the firing line we went back to Nouex-les-Mines. A month passed before the regiment got to Les Brebis again. The washerwoman called at my billet and brought back the cardigan jacket, also a franc piece which she had found in the pocket. On the day following the woman was washing her baby at a pump in the street and a shell blew her head off. Pieces of the child were picked up, a hundred yards away. The washerwoman's second husband (she had been married twice) was away at the war; all that remained in the household now was a daughter whom Pryor, with his nicknaming craze, dubbed "Mercédès."
But here in Les Brebis, amidst death and desolation, wont and use held their sway. The cataclysm of a continent had not changed the ways and manners of the villagers, they took things phlegmatically, with fatalistic calm. The children played in the gutters of the streets, lovers met beneath the stars and told the story of ancient passion, the miser hoarded his money, the preacher spoke to his Sunday congregation, and the plate was handed round for the worshippers' sous, men and women died natural deaths, children were born, females chattered at the street pumps and circulated rumours about their neighbours. . . . All this when wagons of shells passed through the streets all day and big guns travelled up nearer the lines every night. Never had Les Brebis known such traffic. Horses, limbers and guns, guns, limbers and horses going and coming from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn. From their emplacements in every spinney and every hollow in the fields the guns spoke earnestly and continuously. Never had guns voiced such a threat before. They were everywhere; could there be room for another in all the spaces of Les Brebis and our front line? It was impossible to believe it, but still they came up, monsters with a mysterious air of detachment perched on limbers with caterpillar wheels, little field guns that flashed metallic glints to the café lamps, squat trench howitzers on steel platforms impassive as toads. . . .
The coming and passing was a grand poem, and the poem found expression in clanging and rattle in the streets of Les Brebis through the days and nights of August and September, 1915. For us, we worked in our little ways, dug advanced trenches under shell fire in a field where four thousand dead Frenchmen were wasting to clay. These men had charged last winter and fell to maxim and rifle fire; over their bodies we were to charge presently and take Loos and the trenches behind. The London Irish were to cross the top in the first line of attack, so the rumour said.
One evening, when dusk was settling in the streets, when ruined houses assumed fantastic shapes, and spirits seemed to be lurking in the shattered piles, we went up the streets of Les Brebis on our way to the trenches. Over by the church of Les Brebis, the spire of which was sharply defined in the clear air, the shells were bursting and the smoke of the explosions curled above the red roofs of the houses. The enemy was bombarding the road ahead, and the wounded were being carried back to the dressing stations. We met many stretchers on the road. The church of Bully-Grenay had been hit, and a barn near the church had been blown in on top of a platoon of soldiers which occupied it. We had to pass the church. The whole battalion seemed to be very nervous, and a presentiment of something evil seemed to fill the minds of the men. The mood was not of common occurrence, but this unaccountable depression permeates whole bodies of men at times.
We marched in silence, hardly daring to breathe. Ahead, under a hurricane of shell, Bully-Grenay was withering to earth. The night itself was dark and subdued, not a breeze stirred in the poplars which lined the long, straight road. Now and again, when a star-shell flamed over the firing line, we caught a glimpse of Bully-Grenay, huddled and helpless, its houses battered, its church riven, its chimneys fractured and lacerated. We dreaded passing the church; the cobbles on the roadway there were red with the blood of men.
We got into the village, which was deserted even by the soldiery; the civil population had left the place weeks ago. We reached the church, and there, arm in arm, we encountered a French soldier and a young girl. They took very little notice of us, they were deep in sweet confidences which only the young can exchange. The maiden was "Mercédès." The sight was good; it was as a tonic to us. A load seemed to have been lifted off our shoulders, and we experienced a light and airy sensation of heart. We reached the trenches without mishap, and set about our work. The enemy spotted us digging a new sap, and he began to shell with more than usual vigour. We were rather unlucky, for four of our men were killed and nine or ten got wounded.
Night after night we went up to the trenches and performed our various duties. Keeps and redoubts were strengthened and four machine guns were placed where only one stood before. Always while we worked the artillery on both sides conducted a loud-voiced argument,; concussion shells played havoc with masonry, and shrapnel shells flung their deadly freight on roads where the transports hurried, and where the long-eared mules sweated in the traces of the limbers of war. We spoke of the big work ahead, but up till the evening preceding Saturday, September 25th, we were not aware of the part which we had to play in the forthcoming event. An hour before dusk our officer read instructions, and outlined the plan of the main attack, which would start at dawn on the following day, September 25th, 1915.
In co-operation with an offensive movement by the 10th French Army on our right, the 1st and 4th Army Corps were to attack the enemy from a point opposite Bully-Grenay on the south to the La Bassée Canal on the north. We had dug the assembly trenches on our right opposite Bully-Grenay; that was to be the starting point for the 4th Corps---our Corps. Our Division, the 47th London, would lead the attack of the 4th Army Corps, and the London Irish would be the first in the fight. Our objective was the second German trench which lay just in front of Loos village and a mile away from our own first line trench. Every movement of the operations had been carefully planned, and nothing was left to chance. Never had we as many guns as now, and these guns had been bombarding the enemy's positions almost incessantly for ten days. Smoke bombs would be used. The thick fumes resulting from their explosion between the lines would cover our advance. At five o'clock all our guns, great and small, would open up a heavy fire. Our aircraft had located most of the enemy's batteries, and our heavy guns would be trained on these until they put them out of action. Five minutes past six our guns would lengthen their range and shell the enemy's reserves, and at the same moment our regiment would get clear of the trenches and advance in four lines in extended order with a second's interval between the lines. The advance must be made in silence at a steady pace.
Stretcher bearers had to cross with their companies; none of the attacking party must deal with the men who fell out on the way across. A party would be detailed out to attend to the wounded who fell near the assembly trenches. . . . The attack had been planned with such intelligent foresight that our casualties would be very few. The job before us was quite easy and simple.
"What do you think of it?" I asked my mate, Bill Teake. "I think a bottle of champagne would be very nice."
'Just what I thought myself," said Bill. "I see Dudley Pryor is off to the café already. I've no money. I'm pore as a mummy."
"You got paid yesterday," I said with a laugh. "You get poor very quickly."
An embarrassed smile fluttered around his lips.
"A man gets. pore 'cordin' to no rule," he replied. "Leastways, I do."
"Well, I've got a lot of francs," I said. "We may as well spend it."
"You're damned right," he answered. "Maybe we'll not 'ave a chance to---"
"It doesn't matter a damn whether---"
"The officer says it will be an easy job. I don't know the----"
He paused. We understood things half spoken.
"Champagne?" I hinted.
"Nothing like champagne," said Bill.
BEFORE THE CHARGE
Before I joined the Army
I lived in Donegal,
Where every night the Fairies,
Would hold their carnival.
But now I'm out in Flanders,
Where men like wheat-ears fall,
And it's Death and not the Fairies
Who is holding carnival.
I POKED my head through the upper window of our billet and looked down the street. An ominous calm brooded over the village, the trees which lined the streets stood immovable in the darkness, with lone shadows clinging to the trunks. On my right, across a little rise, was the firing line. In the near distance was the village of Bully-Grenay, roofless and tenantless, and further off was Philosophé, the hamlet with its dark-blue slag-heap bulking large against the horizon. Souchez in the hills was as usual active; a heavy artillery engagement was in progress. White and lurid splashes of flame dabbed at the sky, and the smoke, rising from the ground, paled in the higher air; but the breeze blowing away from me carried the tumult and thunder far from my cars. I looked on a conflict without sound; a furious fight seen but unheard.
A coal-heap near the village stood, colossal and threatening; an engine shunted a long row of wagons along the railway line which fringed Les Brebis. In a pit by the mine a big gun began to speak loudly, and the echo of its voice palpitated through the room and dislodged a tile from the roof. . . . My mind was suddenly permeated by a feeling of proximity to the enemy. He whom we were going to attack at dawn seemed to be very close to me. I could almost feel his presence in the room. At dawn I might deprive him of life and he might deprive me of mine. Two beings give life to a man, but one can deprive him of it. Which is the greater mystery? Birth or death? They who are responsible for the first may take pleasure, but who can glory in the second? . . . To kill a man. . . . To feel for ever after the deed that you have deprived a fellow being of life!
"We're beginning to strafe again," said Pryor, coming to my side as a second reverberation shook the house. "It doesn't matter. I've got a bottle of champagne and a box of cigars."
"I've got a bottle as well," I said.
"There'll be a hell of a do to-morrow," said Pryor.
"I suppose there will," I replied. "The officer said that our job will be quite an easy one."
"H'm!" said Pryor.
I looked down at the street and saw Bill Teake.
"There's Bill down there," I remarked. "He's singing a song. Listen."
"I like your smile,
I like your style,
I like your soft blue dreamy eyes---'"
"There's passion in that voice," I said. "Has he fallen in love again?"
A cork went plunk! from a bottle behind me, and Pryor from the shadows of the room answered, "Oh, yes! He's in love again; the girl next door is his fancy now."
"Oh, so it seems," I said. "She's out at the pump now and Bill is edging up to her as quietly as if he were going to loot a chicken off its perch."
Bill is a boy for the girls; he finds a new love at every billet. His fresh flame was a squat stump of a Millet girl in short petticoats and stout sabots. Her eyes were a deep black, her teeth very white. She was a comfortable, good-natured girl, "a big 'andful of love," as he said himself, but she was not very good-looking.
Bill sidled up to her side and fixed an earnest gaze on the water falling from the pump; then he nudged the girl in the hip with a playful hand and ran his fingers over the back of her neck.
"Allez vous en!" she cried, but otherwise made no attempt to resist Bill's advances.
"Allez voos ong yerself!" said Bill, and burst into song again.
`She's the pretty little girl from Nowhere,
Nowhere at all.
She's the-' ----'"
He was unable to resist the temptation any longer, and he clasped the girl round the waist and planted a kiss on her cheek. The maiden did not relish this familiarity. Stooping down she placed her hand in the pail, raised a handful of water and flung it in Bill's face. The Cockney retired crestfallen and spluttering, and a few minutes afterwards he entered the room.
"Yes, I think that there are no women on earth to equal them," said Pryor to me, deep in a prearranged conversation. "They have a grace of their own and a coyness which I admire. I don't think that any women are like the women of France."
"'Oo?" asked Bill Teake, sitting down on the floor.
"Pat and I are talking about the French girls," said Pryor. "They're splendid."
"H'm!" grunted Bill in a colourless voice.
"Not much humbug about them," I remarked.
"I prefer English gals," said Bill. "They can make a joke and take one. As for the French gals, ugh!"
"But they're not all alike," I said. "Some may resent advances in the street, and show a temper when they're kissed over a pump."
"The water from the Les Brebis pumps is very cold," said Pryor.
We could not see Bill's face in the darkness, but we could almost feel our companion squirm.
"'Ave yer got some champagne, Pryor?" he asked with studied indifference. "My froat's like sandpaper."
"Plenty of champagne, matey," said Pryor in a repentant voice. "We're all going to get drunk to-night. Are you?"
"Course I am," said Bill. "It's very comfy to 'ave a drop of champagne."
"More comfy than a kiss even," said Pryor.
As he spoke the door was shoved inwards and our corporal entered. For a moment he stood there without speaking, his long, lank form darkly outlined against the half light.
"Well, corporal?" said Pryor interrogatively.
"Why don't you light a candle?" asked the corporal. "I thought that we were going to get one another's addresses."
"So we were," I said, as if just remembering a decision arrived at a few hours previously. But I had it in my mind all the time.
Bill lit a candle and placed it on the floor while I covered up the window with a ground sheet. The window looked out on the firing line three kilometres away, and the light, if uncovered, might be seen by the enemy. I glanced down the street and saw boys in khaki strolling aimlessly about, their cigarettes glowing. . . . The starshells rose in the sky out behind Bully-Grenay, and again I had that feeling of the enemy's presence which was mine a few moments before.
Kore, another of our section, returned from a neighbouring café, a thoughtful look in his dark eyes and a certain irresolution in his movements. His delicate nostrils and pale lips quivered nervously, betraying doubt and a little fear of the work ahead at dawn. Under his arm he carried a bottle of champagne which he placed on the floor beside the candle. Sighing a little, he lay down at full length on the floor, not before he brushed the dust aside with a newspaper. Kore was very neat and took great pride in his uniform, which fitted him like an eyelid.
Felan and M'Crone came in together, arm in arm. The latter was in a state of subdued excitement; his whole body shook as if he were in fever; when he spoke his voice was highly pitched and unnatural, a sign that he was under the strain of great nervous tension. Felan looked very much at ease, though now and again he fumbled with the pockets of his tunic, buttoning and unbuttoning the flaps and digging his hands into his pockets as if for something which was not there. He had no cause for alarm; he was the company cook and, according to regulations, would not cross in the charge.
"Blimey! you're not 'arf a lucky dawg!" said Bill, glancing at Felan. "I wish I was the cook to-morrow."
"I almost wish I was myself."
"Wot d'yer mean?"
"Do you expect an Irishman is going to cook bully-beef when his regiment goes over the top?" asked Felan. "For shame!"
We rose, all of us, shook him solemnly by the hand, and wished him luck.
"Now, what about the addresses?" asked Kore. "It's time we wrote them down."
"It's as well to get it over," I said, but no one stirred. We viewed the job with distrust. By doing it we reconciled ourselves to a dread inevitable; the writing of these addresses seemed to be the only thing that stood between us and death. If we could only put it off for another little while. . . .
"We'll 'ave a drink to 'elp us,' said Bill, and a cork went plonk! The bottle was handed round, and each of us, except the corporal, drank in turn until the bottle was emptied. The corporal was a teetotaller.
"Now we'll begin," I said. The wine had given me strength. "If I'm killed write to ---- and tell them that my death was sudden---easy."
"That's the thing to tell them," said the corporal. "It's always best to tell them at home that death was sudden and painless. It's not much of a consolation, but----"
"It's the only thing one can do," said Felan.
"I've nobody to write to," said Pryor, when his turn came. "There's a Miss----. But what the devil does it matter! I've nobody to write to, nobody that cares a damn what becomes of me," he concluded. "At least I'm not like Bill," he added.
"And who will I write to for you, Bill?" I asked.
Bill scratched his little white potato of a nose, puckered his lips, and became thoughtful. I suddenly realised that Bill was very dear to me.
"Not afraid, matey?" I asked.
"Naw," he answered in a thoughtful voice.
"A man has only to die once, anyhow," said Felan.
"Greedy! 'Ow many times d'yer want ter die?" asked Bill. "But I s'pose if a man 'ad nine lives like a cat 'e wouldn't mind dyin' once."
"But suppose," said Pryor.
"S'pose," muttered Bill. "Well, if it 'as got to be it can't be 'elped. . . . I'm not goin' to give any address to anybody," he said. "I'm goin' to 'ave a drink."
We were all seated on the floor round the candle which was stuck in the neck of an empty champagne bottle. The candle flickered faintly, and the light made feeble fight with the shadows in the corners. The room was full of the aromatic flavour of Turkish cigarettes and choice cigars, for money was spent that evening with the recklessness of men going out to die. Teake handed round a fresh bottle of champagne and I gulped down a mighty mouthful. My shadow, flung by the candle on the white wall, was a grotesque caricature, my nose stretched out like a beak, and a monstrous bottle was tilted on demoniac lips. Pryor pointed at it with his trigger finger, laughed, and rose to give a quotation from Omar, forgot the quotation, and sat down again. Kore was giving his home address to the corporal, Bill's hand trembled as he raised a match to his cigar. Pryor was on his feet again, handsome Pryor, with a college education.
"What does death matter?" he said. "It's as natural to die as it is to be born, and perhaps the former is the easier event of the two. We have no remembrance of birth and will carry no remembrance of death across the bourne from which there is no return. Do you know what Epictetus said about death, Bill?"
"Wot regiment was 'e in?" asked Bill.
"He has been dead for some eighteen hundred years."
"Epictetus said, 'Where death is I am not, where death is not I am,' " Pryor continued. "Death will give us all a clean sheet. If the sergeant who issues short rum rations dies on the field of honour (don't drink all the champagne, Bill) we'll talk of him when he's gone as a damned good fellow, but alive we've got to borrow epithets from Bill's vocabulary of vituperation to speak of the aforesaid non-commissioned abomination."
"Is 'e callin' me names, Pat?" Bill asked me.
I did not answer for the moment, for Bill was undergoing a strange transformation. His head was increasing in size, swelling up until it almost filled the entire room. His little potato of a nose assumed fantastic dimensions. The other occupants of the room diminished in bulk and receded into far distances. I tried to attract Pryor's attention to the phenomenon, but the youth receding with the others was now balancing a champagne bottle on his nose, entirely oblivious of his surroundings.
"Be quiet, Bill," I said, speaking with difficulty. "Hold your tongue!"
I began to feel drowsy, but another mouthful of champagne renewed vitality in my body. With this feeling came a certain indifference towards the morrow. I must confess that up to now I had a vague distrust of my actions in the work ahead. My normal self revolted at the thought of the coming dawn; the experiences of my life had not prepared me for one day of savage and ruthless butchery. To-morrow I had to go forth prepared to do much that I disliked. . . . I had another sip of wine; we were at the last bottle now.
Pryor looked out of the window, raising the blind so that little light shone out into the darkness.
"A Scottish division are passing through the street, in silence, their kilts swinging," he said. "My God! it does look fine." He arranged the blind again and sat down. Bill was cutting a sultana cake in neat portions and handing them round.
"Come, Felan, and sing a song," said M'Crone.
"My voice is no good now," said Felan, but by his way of speaking, we knew that he would oblige.
"Now, Felan, come along!" we chorused.
Felan wiped his lips with the back of his hand, took a cigar between his fingers and thumb and put it out by rubbing the lighted end against his. trousers. Then he placed the cigar behind his ear.
"Well, what will I sing?" he asked.
"Any damned thing," said Bill.
"'The Trumpeter,' and we'll all help," said Kore.
Felan leant against the wall, thrust his head back, closed his eyes, stuck the thumb of his right hand into a buttonhole of his tunic and began his song.
His voice, rather hoarse, but very pleasant, faltered a little at first, but was gradually permeated by a note of deepest feeling, and a strange, unwonted passion surged through the melody. Felan was pouring his soul into the song. A moment ago the singer was one with us; now he gave himself up to the song, and the whole lonely romance of war, its pity and its pain, swept through the building and held us in its spell. Kore's mobile nostrils quivered. M'Crone shook as if with ague. We all listened, enraptured, our eyes shut as the singer's were, to the voice that quivered through the smoky room. I could not help feeling that Felan himself listened to his own song, as something which was no part of him, but which affected him strangely.
"'Trumpeter, what are you sounding now?
Is it the call I'm seeking?'
'Lucky for you if you hear it all
For my trumpet's but faintly speaking---
I'm calling 'em home. Come home! Come home!
Tread light o'er the dead in the valley,
Who are lying around
Face down to the ground,
And they can't hear---'"
Felan broke down suddenly, and, coming across the floor, he entered the circle and sat down.
"'Twas too high for me," he muttered huskily. "My voice has gone to the dogs. . . . One time---"
Then he relapsed into silence. None of us spoke, but we were aware that Felan knew how much his song had moved us.
"Have another drink," said Pryor suddenly, in a thick voice. "'Look not upon the wine when it is red,'" he quoted. "But there'll be something redder than wine to-morrow!"
"I wish we fought wiv bladders on sticks; it would be more to my taste," said Bill Teake.
"Ye're not having a drop at all, corporal," said M'Crone. "Have a sup; it's grand stuff."
The corporal shook his head. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, his hands under his thighs. He had a blunt nose with wide nostrils, and his grey, contemplative eyes kept roving slowly round the circle as if he were puzzling over our fate in the charge to-morrow.
"I don't drink," he said. "If I can't do without it now after keeping off it so long, I'm not much good."
"Yer don't know wot's good for yer," said Bill, gazing regretfully at the last half-bottle. "There's nuffink like fizz. My ole man's a devil fer 'is suds; so'm I."
The conversation became riotous, questions and replies got mixed and jumbled. "I suppose we'll get to the front trench anyhow; maybe to the second. But we'll get flung back from that." "Wish we'd another bloomin' bottle of fizz." "S'pose our guns will not lift their range quick enough when we advance. We'll have any amount of casualties with our own shells." "The sergeant says that our objective is the crucifix in Loos churchyard." "Imagine killing men right up to the foot of the Cross." . . .
Our red-headed platoon sergeant appeared at the top of the stairs, his hair lurid in the candle light.
"Enjoying yourselves, boys?" he asked, with paternal solicitude. The sergeant's heart was in his platoon,
"'Avin'a bit of a frisky," said Bill. "Will yer 'ave a drop ?"
"I don't mind," said the sergeant. He spoke almost in a whisper, and something seemed to be gripping at his throat.
He put the bottle to his lips and paused for a moment.
"Good luck to us all!" he said, and drank.
"We're due to leave in fifteen minutes," he told us. "Be ready when you hear the whistle blown in the street. Have a smoke now, for no pipes or cigarettes are to be lit on the march."
He paused for a moment, then, wiping his moustache with the back of his hand, he clattered downstairs.
The night was calm and full of enchantment. The sky hung low and was covered with a greyish haze. We marched past Les Brebis Church up a long street where most of the houses were levelled to the ground. Ahead the star-shells rioted in a blaze of colour, and a few rifles were snapping viciously out by Hohenzollern Redoubt, and a building on fire flared lurid against the eastern sky. Apart from that silence and suspense, the world waited breathlessly for some great event. The big guns lurked on their emplacements, and now and again we passed a dark-blue muzzle peeping out from its cover, sentinel, as it seemed, over the neatly piled stack of shells which would furnish it with its feed at dawn.
At the fringe of Bully-Grenay we left the road and followed a straggling path across the level fields where telephone wires had fallen down and lay in wait to trip unwary feet. Always the whispers were coming down the line: "Mind the wires!" "Mind the shell-holes!" "Gunpit on the left. Keep clear." "Mind the dead mule on the right," etc.
Again we got to the road where it runs into the village of Maroc. A church stood at the entrance and it was in a wonderful state of preservation. just as we halted for a moment on the roadway the enemy sent a solitary shell across which struck the steeple squarely, turning it round, but failing to overthrow it.
"A damned good shot," said Pryor approvingly.