It's "Carry on!" and "Carry on!" and "Carry on!" all day,
And when we cannot carry on, they'll carry us away
To slumber sound beneath the ground, pore beggars dead and gone,
'Til Gabriel shouts on judgment Day, "Get out and carry on!"
ON Michaelmas Eve things were quiet; the big guns were silent, and the only sign of war was in the star-shells playing near Hill 70; the rifles pinging up by Bois Hugo, and occasional clouds of shrapnel incense which the guns offered to the god they could not break, the Tower Bridge of Loos. We had not been relieved yet, but we hoped to get back to Les Brebis for a rest shortly. The hour was midnight, and I felt very sleepy. The wounded in our sector had been taken in, the peace of the desert was over the level land and its burden of unburied dead. I put on my overcoat, one that I had just found in a pack on the roadway, and went into a barn which stood near our trench. The door of the building hung on one hinge. I pulled it off, placed it on the floor, and lay on it. With due caution I lit a cigarette, and the smoke reeked whitely upwards to the skeleton roof which the shell fire had stripped of nearly all its tiles.
My body was full of delightful pains of weariness, my mind was full of contentment. The moon struggled through a rift in the clouds and a shower of pale light streamed through the chequered framework overhead. The tiles which had weathered a leaden storm showed dark against the sky, queer shadows played on the floor, and in the subdued moonlight, strange, unexpected contrasts were evoked. In the corners, where the shadows took on definite forms, there was room for the imagination to revel in. The night of ruination with its soft moonlight and delicate shading had a wonderful fascination of its own. The enemy machine gun, fumbling for an opening, chirruped a lullaby as its bullets pattered against the wall. I was under the spell of an enchanting poem. "How good, how very good it is to be alive," I said.
My last remembrance before dozing off was of the clatter of picks and shovels on the road outside. The sanitary squad was at work burying the dead. I fell asleep.
I awoke to find somebody tugging at my elbow and to hear a voice which I recognised as W.'s, saying, "It's only old Pat."
"What's wrong?" I mumbled, raising myself on my elbow and looking round. The sanitary diggers were looking at me, behind them the Twin Towers stood out dark against the moonlight. Girders, ties and beams seemed to have been outlined with a pen dipped in molten silver. I was out in the open.
"This isn't half a go," said one of the men, a mate of mine, who belonged to the sanitary squad. "We thought you were a dead 'un. We dug a deep grave, put two in and there was room for another. Then L. said that there was a bloke lying on a door inside that house, and in we goes and carries you out-door and all. You're just on the brink of your grave now."
I peeped over the side and down a dark hole with a bundle of khaki and a white face at the bottom.
"I refuse to be buried," I muttered, and took up my bed and walked.
As I lay down again in the building which I had left to be buried, I could hear my friends laughing. It was a delightful joke. In a moment I was sound asleep.
I awoke with a start to a hell-riot of creaking timbers and tiles falling all around me. I got to my feet and crouched against the wall shuddering, almost paralyzed with fear. A tense second dragged by. The tiles ceased to fall and I looked up at the place where the roof had been. But the roof was gone; a shell had struck the centre beam, raised the whole construction as a lid is raised from a teapot, and flung it over into the street. . . . I rushed out into the trench in undignified haste, glad of my miraculous escape from death, and stumbled across Bill Teake as I fell into the trench.
"Wot's wrong with yer, mate?" he asked.
I drew in a deep breath and was silent for a moment. I was trying to regain my composure.
"Bill," I replied, "this is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I've led such an exemplary life that St. Michael and All Angels in Paradise want me to visit them. They caused the sanitary squad to dig my grave to-night, and when I refused to be buried they sent a shell along to strafe me. I escaped. I refuse to be virtuous from now until the end of my days."
" 'Ave a drop of rum, Pat," said Bill, uncorking a bottle.
"Thank you, Bill," I said, and drank. I wiped my lips.
"Are we going to be relieved?" I asked.
"In no time," said Bill. "The 22nd London are coming along the trench now. We're going back to Les Brebis."
"Good," I said.
"'Ave another drop of rum," said Bill.
He left me then and I began to make up my pack. It was useless for me to wait any longer. I would go across the fields to Les Brebis.
The night grew very dark, and heavy clouds gathered overhead. The nocturnal rustling of the field surrounded me, the dead men lay everywhere and anyhow, some head-downwards in shell-holes, others sitting upright as they were caught by a fatal bullet when dressing their wounds. Many were spread out at full length, their legs close together, their arms extended, crucifixes fashioned from decaying flesh wrapped in khaki. Nature, vast and terrible, stretched out on all sides; a red star-shell in the misty heavens looked like a lurid wound dripping with blood.
I walked slowly, my eyes fixed steadily on the field ahead, for I did not desire to trip over the dead, who lay everywhere. As I walked a shell whistled over my head and burst against the Twin Towers, and my gaze rested on the explosion. At that moment I tripped on something soft and went headlong across it. A dozen rats slunk away into the darkness as I fell. I got to my feet again and looked at the dead man. The corpse was a mere condensation of shadows with a blurred though definite outline. It was a remainder and a reminder; a remnant of clashing steel, of rushing figures, of loud-voiced imprecations of war, a reminder of mad passion, of organised hatred, of victory and defeat.
Engirt with the solitude and loneliness of the night it wasted away, though no waste could alter it now; it was a man who was not; henceforth it would be that and that alone.
For the thing there was not the quietude of death and the privacy of the tomb, it was outcast from its kind. Buffeted by the breeze, battered by the rains it rotted in the open. Worms feasted on its entrails, slugs trailed silverly over its face, and lean rats gnawed at its flesh. The air was full of the thing, the night stank with its decay.
Life revolted at that from which life was gone, the quick cast it away for it was not of them. The corpse was one with the mystery of the night, the darkness and the void.
In Loos the ruined houses looked gloomy by day, by night they were ghastly. A house is a ruin when the family that dwelt within its walls is gone; but by midnight in the waste, how horrible looks the house of flesh from which the soul is gone. We are vaguely aware of what has happened when we look upon the tenantless home, but man is stricken dumb when he sees the tenantless body of one of his kind. I could only stare at the corpse until I felt that my eyes were as glassy as those on which I gazed. The stiffness of the dead was communicated to my being, the silence was infectious; I hardly dared to breathe.
"This is the end of all the mad scurry and rush," I said. "What purpose does it serve? And why do I stand here looking at the thing?" There were thousands of dead around Loos; fifty thousand perhaps, scattered over a few square miles of country, unburied. Some men, even, might still be dying.
A black speck moved along the earth a few yards away from me, slunk up to the corpse and disappeared into it, as it were. Then another speck followed, and another. The rats were returning to their meal.
The bullets whistled past my ears. The Germans had a machine gun and several fixed rifles trained on the Vallé cross-roads outside Loos, and all night long these messengers of death sped out to meet the soldiers coming up the road and chase the soldiers going down.
The sight of the dead man and the rats had shaken me; I felt nervous and could not restrain myself from looking back over my shoulder at intervals. I had a feeling that something was following me, a Presence, vague and terrible, a spectre of the midnight and the field of death. I am superstitious after a fashion, and I fear the solitude of the night and the silent obscurity of the darkness.
Once, at Vermelles, I passed through a deserted trench in the dusk. There the parapet and parados were fringed with graves, and decrepit dug-outs leant wearily on their props like hags on crutches. A number of the dug-outs had fallen in, probably on top of the sleeping occupants, and no one had time to dig the victims out. Such things often happen in the trenches, and in wet weather when the sodden dug-outs cave in, many men are buried alive.
The trench wound wayward as a river through the fields, its traverse steeped in shadow, its bays full of mystery. As I walked through the maze my mind was full of presentiments of evil. I was full of expectation, everything seemed to be leading up to happenings weird and uncanny, things which would not be of this world. The trench was peopled with spectres; soldiers, fully armed, stood on the fire-steps, their faces towards the enemy. I could see them as I entered a bay, but on coming closer the phantoms died away.
The boys in khaki were tilted sandbags heaped on the banquette, the bayonets splinters of wood sharply defined against the sky. As if to heighten the illusion, torn ground-sheets, hanging from the parados, made sounds like travelling shells, as the breezes caught them and brushed them against the wall.
I went into a bay to see something dark grey and shapeless bulked in a heap on the fire-step. Another heap of sandbags I thought. But no! In the darkness of the weird locality realities were exaggerated and the heap which I thought was a large one was in reality very small; a mere soldier, dead in the trench, looked enormous in my eyes. The man's bayonet was pressed between his elbow and side, his head bending forward almost touched the knees, and both the man's hands were clasped across it as if for protection. A splinter of shell which he stooped to avoid must have caught him. He now was the sole occupant of the deserted trench, this poor, frozen effigy of fear. The trench was a grave unfilled. . . . I scrambled over the top and took my way across the open towards my company.
Once, at midnight, I came through the deserted village of Bully-Grenay, where every house was built exactly like its neighbour. War has played havoc with the pattern, however, most of the houses are shell-stricken, and some are levelled to the ground. The church stands on a little knoll near the coal-mine, and a shell has dug a big hole in the floor of the aisle. A statue of the Blessed Virgin sticks head downwards in the hole; how it got into this ludicrous position is a mystery.
The Germans were shelling the village as I came through. Shrapnel swept the streets and high explosives played havoc with the mine; I had no love for a place in such a plight. In front of me a limber was smashed to pieces, the driver was dead, the offside wheeler dead, the nearside wheeler dying and kicking its mate in the belly with vicious hooves. On either side of me were deserted houses with the doors open and shadows brooding in the interior. The cellars would afford secure shelter until the row was over, but I feared the darkness and the gloom more than I feared the shells in the open street. When the splinters swept perilously near to my head I made instinctively for an open door, but the shadows seemed to thrust me back with a powerful hand. To save my life I would not go into a house and seek refuge in the cellars.
I fear the solitude of the night, but I can never ascertain what it is I fear in it. I am not particularly interested in the supernatural, and spiritualism and table-rapping is not at all to my taste. In a crowded room a spirit in my way of thinking loses its dignity and power to impress, and at times I am compelled to laugh at those who believe in manifestations of disembodied spirits.
Once, at Givenchy, a soldier in all seriousness spoke of a strange sight which he had seen. Givenchy Church has only one wall standing, and a large black crucifix with its nailed Christ is fixed to this wall. From the trenches on a moonlight night it is possible to see the symbol of sorrow with its white figure which seems to keep eternal watch over the line of battle. The soldier of whom I speak was on guard; the night was very clear, and the enemy were shelling Givenchy Church. A splinter of shell knocked part of the arm of the cross away. The soldier on watch vowed that he saw a luminous halo settle round the figure on the Cross. It detached itself from its nails, came down to the ground, and put the fallen wood back to its place. Then the Crucified resumed His exposed position again on the Cross. It was natural that the listeners should say that the sentry was drunk.
It is strange how the altar of Givenchy Church and its symbol of Supreme Agony has escaped destruction. Many crosses in wayside shrines have been untouched though the locality in which they stand is swept with eternal artillery fire.
But many have fallen; when they become one with the rubble of a roadway their loss is unnoticed. It is when they escape destruction that they become conspicuous. They are like the faithful in a storm at sea who prayed to the Maria del Stella and weathered the gale. Their good fortune became common gossip. But gossip, historical and otherwise, is mute upon those who perished.
BACK AT LOOS
The dead men lay on the shell-scarred plain,
Where death and the autumn held their reign
Like banded ghosts in the heavens grey
The smoke of the conflict died away.
The boys whom I knew and loved were dead,
Where war's grim annals were writ in red,
In the town of Loos in the morning.
THE ruined village lay wrapped in the silence of death. It was a corpse over which the stars came out like funeral tapers. The star-shells held the heaven behind Loos, forming into airy constellations which vanished at a breath. The road, straight as an arrow, pitted with shell-holes and bearing an incongruous burden of dead mules, dead men, broken limbers, and vehicles of war, ran in front of us straight up to and across the firing line into the France that was not France. Out there behind the German lines were the French villagers and peasantry, fearing any advance on our part, much more even than the Germans feared it, even as much as the French behind our lines feared a German advance.
The indefatigable shrapnel kills impartially; how many civilians in Loos and Lens have fallen victims to the furious 75's? In France the Allies fight at a disadvantage; a few days previously a German ammunition depot had been blown up in Lille, and upwards of a hundred French civilians were killed. How much more effective it would have been if the civilians had been Germans!
Our battalion was returning to the trenches after a fortnight's rest in H------, a village in the rear. We had handed over the trench taken from the Germans to the 22nd London Regiment before leaving for H------. In H------ we got a new equipment, fresh clothing, good boots and clean shirts; now we were ready for further work in active warfare.
We were passing through Loos on the way to the trenches. What a change since we had been there last! The adaptive French had taken the village in hand; they had now been there for three days. Three days, and a miracle had been accomplished. Every shell-crater in the street was filled up with dead horses, biscuit tins, sandbags and bricks, and the place was made easy for vehicle traffic. Barricades, behind which machine guns lurked privily, were built at the main crossings. An old bakery was patched up and there bread was baked for the soldiers. In a cellar near the square a neat wine-shop displayed tempting bottles which the thirsty might purchase for a few sous.
The case with which the French can accommodate themselves to any change has been a constant source of wonder to me. In Les Brebis I saw roofs blown off the village houses at dawn, at noon I saw the natives putting them on again; at Cuinchy I saw an ancient woman selling café-au-lait at four sous a cup in the jumble of bricks which was once her home. When the cow which supplied the milk was shot in the stomach the woman still persisted in selling coffee, café noir, at three sous a cup. When a civilian is killed at Mazingarbe the children of the place sell the percussion cap of the death-dealing shell for half a franc. Once when I was there an old crone was killed when washing her feet at a street pump. A dozen or more percussion caps were sold that day; every garçon in the neighbourhood claimed that the aluminium nose-cap in his possession was the one that did the foul deed. When I was new to France I bought several of these ghastly relies, but in a few weeks I was out trying to sell. There was then, however, a slump in nose-caps, and I lost heavily.
The apt process of accommodation which these few incidents may help to illustrate is peculiar to the French; they know how to make the best of a bad job and a ruined village. They paved the streets with dead horses; drew bread from the bricks and stored wine in the litter that was Loos. That is France, the Phoenix that rises resplendent from her ashes; France that like her Joan of Arc will live for ever because she has suffered; France, a star, like Rabelais, which can cast aside a million petty vices when occasion requires it and glow with eternal splendour, the wonder of the world.
The Munster Fusiliers held a trench on the left of Loos and they had suffered severely. They had been in there for eight days, and the big German guns were active all the time. In one place the trench was filled in for a distance of three hundred yards. Think of what that means. Two hundred men manned the deep, cold alley dug in the clay. The shells fell all round the spot, the parados swooped forward, the parapet dropped back, they were jaws which devoured men. The soldiers went in there, into a grave that closed like a trap. None could escape. When we reopened the trench, we reopened a grave and took out the dead.
The night we came to relieve those who remained alive was clear and the stars stood out cold and brilliant in the deep overhead; but a grey haze enveloped the horizon, and probably we would have rain before the dawn. The trenches here were dug recently, make-shift alleys they were, insecure and muddy, lacking dugouts, fire-places, and every accommodation that might make a soldier's life bearable. They were fringed with dead; dead soldiers in khaki lay on the reverse slope of the parapet, their feet in the grass, their heads on the sandbags; they lay behind the parados, on the levels, in the woods, everywhere. Upwards of eleven thousand English dead littered the streets of Loos and the country round after the victory, and many of these were unburied yet.
A low-lying country, wet fields, stagnant drains, shell-rent roads, ruined houses, dead men, mangled horses. To us soldiers this was the only apparent result of the battle of Loos, a battle in which we fought at the start, a battle which was not yet ended. We knew nothing of the bigger issues of the fight. We had helped to capture several miles of trenches and a few miles of country. We brought our guns forward, built new emplacements, to find that the enemy knew his abandoned territory so well that he easily located the positions of our batteries. Before the big fight our guns round Les Brebis and Maroc were practically immune from observation; now they were shelled almost as soon as they were placed. We thrust our salient forward like a duck's bill, and our trenches were subject to enfilade fire and in some sectors our men were even shelled from the rear.
Our plan of attack was excellent, our preparations vigorous and effective, as far as they went. Our artillery blew the barbed wire entanglements of the first German trench to pieces, at the second trench the wire was practically untouched.
Our regiment entered this latter trench where it runs along in front of Loos. We followed on the heels of the retreating Germans. Our attack might have been more effective if the real offensive began here, if fresh troops were flung at the disorganised Germans when the second trench was taken. Lens might easily have fallen into our hands.
The fresh divisions coming up on Sunday and Monday had to cope with the enemy freshly but strongly entrenched on Hill 70. The Guards Division crossed from Maroc in open order on the afternoon of Sunday, the 26th, and was greeted by a furious artillery fire which must have worked great havoc amongst the men. I saw the advance from a distance. I think it was the most imposing spectacle of the fight. What struck me as very strange at the time was the Division crossing the open when they might have got into action by coming along through the trenches. On the level the men were under observation all the time. The advance, like that of the London Irish, was made at a steady pace.
What grand courage it is that enables men to face the inevitable with untroubled front. Despite the assurance given by the Higher Command about the easy task in front of us, the boys of our regiment, remembering Givenchy and Richebourg, gave little credence to the assurance; they anticipated a very strong resistance, in fact none of them hoped to get beyond the first German trench.
It is easy to understand why men are eager "to get there," as the favourite phrase says, once they cross the parapet of the assembly trench. "There," the enemy's line, is comparatively safe, and a man can dodge a blow or return one. The open offers no shelter; between the lines luck alone preserves a man; a soldier is merely a naked babe pitted against an armed gladiator. Naturally he wants "to get there" with the greatest possible speed; in the open he is beset with a thousand dangers, in the foeman's trench he is confronted with but one or two.
I suppose "the desire to get there," which is so often on the lips of the military correspondent, is as often misconstrued. The desire to get finished with the work is a truer phrase. None wish to go to a dentist, but who would not be rid of an aching tooth?
The London Irish advance was more remarkable than many have realized. The instinct of self-preservation is the strongest in created beings, and here we see hundreds of men whose premier consideration was their own personal safety moving forward to attack with the nonchalance of a church parade. Perhaps the men who kicked the football across were the most nervous in the affair. Football is an exciting pastime, it helped to take the mind away from the crisis ahead, and the dread anticipation of death was forgotten for the time being. But I do not think for a second that the ball was brought for that purpose.
Although we captured miles of trenches, the attack in several parts stopped on open ground where we had to dig ourselves in. This necessitated much labour and afforded little comfort. Dug-outs there were none, and the men who occupied the trenches after the fight had no shelter from shell-splinters and shrapnel. From trenches such as these we relieved all who were left of the Munster Fusiliers.
The Germans had placed some entanglements in front of their position, and it was considered necessary to examine their labours and see what they had done. If we found that their wire entanglement was strong and well fastened our conclusions would be that the Germans were not ready to strike, that their time at the moment was devoted to safeguarding themselves from attack. If, on the other hand, their wires were light, fragile and easily removed, we might guess that an early offensive on our lines would take place. Lieutenant Y. and two men went across to have a look at the enemy's wires; we busied ourselves digging a deeper trench; as a stretcher-bearer I had no particular work for the moment, so I buried a few of the dead who lay on the field.
On our right was a road which crossed our trench and that of the Germans, a straight road lined with shell-scarred poplars running true as an arrow into the profundities of the unknown. The French occupied the trench on our right, and a gallant Porthos (I met him later) built a barricade of sand-bags on the road, and sitting there all night with a fixed rifle, he fired bullet after bullet, down the highway. His game was to hit cobbles near the German trenches, from there the bullet went splattering and ricochetting, hopping and skipping along the road for a further five hundred yards, making a sound like a pebble clattering down the tiles of a roof. Many a Boche coming along that road must have heartily cursed the energetic Porthos.
Suddenly the report of firearms came from the open in front, then followed two yells, loud and agonising, and afterwards silence. What had happened? Curiosity prompted me to rush into the trench, leaving a dead soldier half buried, and make inquiries. All the workers had ceased their labour, they stood on the fire-steps staring into the void in front of them, their ears tensely strained. Something must have happened to the patrol, probably the officer and two men had been surprised by the enemy and killed. . . .
As we watched, three figures suddenly emerged from the greyness in front, rushed up to the parapet, and flung themselves hastily into the trench. The listening patrol had returned. Breathlessly they told a story.
They had examined the enemy's wire and were on the way back when one of the men stumbled into a shell-hole' on the top of three Germans who were probably asleep. The Boches scrambled to their feet and faced the intruders. The officer fired at one and killed him instantly, one of our boys ran another through the heart with the bayonet, the third German got a crack on the head with a rifle-butt and collapsed, yelling. Then the listening patrol rushed hurriedly in, told their story and consumed extra tots of rum when the exciting narrative was finished.
The morning country was covered with white fogs; Bois Hugo, the wood on our left, stood out an island in a sea of milk. Twenty yards away from the trench was the thick whiteness, the unknown. Our men roamed about the open picking up souvenirs and burying dead. Probably in the mist the Germans were at work, too. . . . All was very quiet, not a sound broke the stillness, the riot of war was choked, suffocated, in the cold, soft fog.
All at once an eager breeze broke free and swept across the parapet, driving the fog away. In the space of five seconds the open was bare, the cloak which covered it was swept off. Then we saw many things.
Our boys in khaki came rushing back to their trench, flinging down all souvenirs in their haste to reach safety; the French on our right scampered to their burrows, casting uneasy eyes behind them as they ran. A machine gun might open and play havoc. Porthos had a final shot down the road, then he disappeared and became one with the field.
But the enemy raced in as we did; their indecorous haste equalled ours. They had been out, too. One side retreated from the other, and none showed any great gallantry in the affair. Only when the field was clear did the rifles speak. Then there was a lively ten minutes and a few thousand useless rounds were wasted by the combatants before they sat down to breakfast.
"A strategic retreat," said Pryor. "I never ran so quickly in all my life. I suppose it is like this every night, men working between the lines, engineers building entanglements, covering parties sleeping out their watch, listening patrols and souvenir hunters doing their little bit in their own particular way. It's a funny way of conducting a war."
"It's strange," I said.
"We have no particular hatred for the men across the way," said Pryor. "My God, the trenches tone a man's temper. When I was at home (Pryor had just had ten days' furlough) our drawing-room bristled with hatred of some being named the Hun. Good Heavens! you should hear the men past military age revile the Hun. If they were out here we couldn't keep them from getting over the top to have a smack at the foe. And the women! If they were out here, they would just simply tear the Germans to pieces. I believe that we are the wrong men, we able-bodied youths With even tempers. It's the men who are past military age who should be out here."
Pryor was silent for a moment.
"I once read a poem, a most fiery piece of verse," he continued; "and it urged all men to take part in the war, get a gun and get off to Flanders immediately. Shame on those who did not go! The fellow who wrote that poem is a bit of a literary swell, and I looked up his name in 'Who's Who,' and find that he is a year or two above military age. If I were a man of seventy and could pick up fury enough to write that poem, I'd be off to the recruiting agent the moment the last line was penned, and I'd tell the most damnable lies to get off and have a smack at the Hun. But that literary swell hasn't enlisted yet."
"And never will," Pryor concluded, placing a mess-tin of water on a red-hot brazier.
Breakfast would be ready shortly.
"If you're lucky you'll get killed quick; if you're damned lucky you'll get 'it where it don't 'urt, and sent back to Blighty."---BILL TEAKE'S PHILOSOPHY.
SOME min have all the damned luck that's agoin'," said Corporal Flaherty. "There's Murney, and he's been at home two times since he came out here. Three months ago he was allowed to go home and see his wife and to welcome a new Murney into the wurl'. Then in the Loos do the other day he got a bit of shrapnel in his heel and now he's home again. I don't seem to be able to get home at all. I wish I had got Murney's shrapnel in my heel. . . . I'm sick of the trenches; I wish the war was over."
"What were you talking to the Captain about yesterday?" asked Rifleman Barty, and he winked knowingly.
"What the devil is it to you?" inquired Flaherty.
"It's nothin' at all to me," said Barty. "I would just like to know."
"Well, you'll not know," said the Corporal.
"Then maybe I'll be allowed to make a guess," said Barty. "You'll not mind me guessin', will yer."
"Hold your ugly jaw!" said Flaherty, endeavouring to smile, but I could see an uneasy look in the man's eyes. "Ye're always blatherin.'"
"Am I?" asked Barty, and turned to us. "Corp'ril Flaherty," he said, "is goin' home on leave to see his old woman and welcome a new Flaherty into the world, just like Murney did three months ago."
Flaherty went red in the face, then white. He fixed a killing look on Barty and yelled at him: "Up you get on the fire-step and keep on sentry till I tell ye ye're free. That'll be a damned long time, me boy!"
"You're a gay old dog, Flaherty," said Barty, making no haste to obey the order. "One wouldn't think that there was so much in you; isn't that so, my boys? Papa Flaherty wants to get home!"
Barty winked again and glanced at the men who surrounded him. There were nine of its there altogether; sardined in the bay of the trench which the Munster Fusiliers held a few days ago. Nine! Flaherty, whom I knew very well, a Dublin man with a wife in London, Barty a Cockney of Irish descent, the Cherub, a stout, youth with a fresh complexion, soft red lips and tender blue eyes, a sergeant, a very good fellow and kind to his men. . . . The others I knew only slightly, one of them a boy of nineteen or twenty had just come out from England; this was his second day in the trenches.
The Germans were shelling persistently all the morning, but missing the trench every time. They were sending big stuff across, monster 9.2 shells which could not keep pace with their own sound; we could hear them panting in from the unknown---three seconds before they had crossed our trench to burst in Bois Hugo, the wood at the rear of our line. Big shells can be seen in air, and look to us like beer bottles whirling in space; some of the men vowed they got thirsty when they saw them. Lighter shells travel more quickly: we only become aware of these when they burst; the boys declare that these messengers of destruction have either got rubber heels or stockinged soles.
"I wish they would stop this shelling," said the Cherub in a low, patient voice. He was a good boy, he loved everything noble and he had a generous sympathy for all his mates. Yes, and even for the men across the way who were enduring the same hardships as himself in an alien trench.
"You know, I get tired of these trenches sometimes," he said diffidently. "I wish the war was over and done with."
I went round the traverse into another bay less crowded, sat down on the fire-step and began to write a letter. I had barely written two words when a shell in stockinged soles burst with a vicious snarl, then another came plonk! . . . A shower of splinters came whizzing through the air. . . . Round the corner came a man walking hurriedly, unable to run because of a wound in the leg; another followed with a lacerated cheek, a third came along crawling on hands and knees and sat down opposite on the floor of the trench.
How lucky to have left the bay was my first thought, then I got to my feet and looked at the man opposite. It was Barty.
"Where did you get hit?" I asked.
"There!" he answered, and pointed at his boot which was torn at the toecap. "I was just going to look over the top when the shell hit and a piece had gone right through my foot near the big toe. I could hear it breaking through; it was like a dog crunching a bone. Gawd! it doesn't 'arf give me gip!"
I took the man's boot off and saw that the splinter of shell had gone right through, tearing tendons and breaking bones. I dressed the wound.
"There are others round there," an officer, coming up, said to me. I went back to the bay to find it littered with sandbags and earth, the parapet had been blown in. In the wreckage I saw Flaherty, dead; the Cherub, dead, and five others disfigured, bleeding and lifeless. Two shells had burst on the parapet, blew the structure in and killed seven men. Many others had been wounded; those with slight injuries hobbled away, glad to get free from the place, boys who were badly hurt lay in the clay and chalk, bleeding and moaning. Several stretcher-bearers had arrived and were at work dressing the wounds. High velocity shells were bursting in the open field in front, and shells of a higher calibre were hurling bushes and branches sky-high from Bois Hugo.
I placed Barty on my back and carried him down the narrow trench. Progress was difficult, and in places where the trench had been three parts filled with earth from bursting shells I had to crawl on all fours with the wounded man on my back. I had to move very carefully round sharp angles on the way; but, despite all precautions, the wounded foot hit against the wall several times. When this happened the soldier uttered a yell, then followed it up with a meek apology. "I'm sorry, old man; it did 'urt awful!"
Several times we sat down on the fire-step and rested. Once when we sat, the Brigadier-General came along and stopped in front of the wounded man.
"How do you feel?" asked the Brigadier.
"Not so bad," said the youth, and a wan smile flitted across his face. "It'll get me 'ome to England, I think."
"Of course it will," said the officer. "You'll he back in blighty in a day or two. Have you had any morphia?"
"Well, take two of these tablets," said the Brigadier, taking a little box from his pocket and emptying a couple of morphia pills in his hand. 'Just put them under your tongue and allow them to dissolve. . . . Good luck to you, my boy!"
The Brigadier walked away; Barty placed the two tablets under his tongue.
"Now spit them out again," I said to Barty.
"Why?" he asked.
"I've got to carry you down," I explained. "I use one arm to steady myself and the other to keep your wounded leg from touching the wall of the trench. You've got to grip my shoulders. Morphia will cause you to lose consciousness, and when that happens I can't carry you any further through this alley. You'll have to lie here till it's dark, when you can be taken across the open."
Barty spat out the morphia tablets and crawled upon my back again. Two stretcher-bearers followed me carrying a wounded man on a blanket, a most harrying business. The wounded man was bumping against the floor of the trench all the time, the stretcher-bearer in front had to walk backwards, the stretcher-bearer at rear was constantly tripping on the folds of the blanket. A mile of trench had to be traversed before the dressing-station was reached and it took the party two hours to cover that distance. An idea of this method of bringing wounded away from the firing-line may be gathered if you, reader, place a man in a blanket and, aided by a friend, carry him across the level floor of your drawing-room. Then, consider the drawing-room to be a trench so narrow in many places that the man has to be turned on his side to get him through, and in other places so shaky that the slightest touch may cause parados and parapet to fall in on top of you.
For myself, except when a peculiar injury necessitates it, I seldom use a blanket. I prefer to place the wounded person prone on my back, get a comrade stretcher-bearer to hold his legs and thus crawl out of the trench with my burden. This, though trying on the knees, is not such a very difficult feat.
"How do you feel now, Barty?" I asked my comrade as we reached the door of the dressing-station.
"Oh, not so bad, you know," he answered. "Will the M.O. give me some morphia when we get in?"
"No doubt," I said.
I carried him in and placed him on a stretcher on the floor. At the moment the doctor was busy with another case.
"Chummy," said Barty, as I was moving away.
"Yes," I said, coming back to his side.
"It's like this, Pat," said the wounded boy. "I owe Corporal Darvy a 'arf-crown, Tubby Sinter two bob, and Jimmy James four packets of fags ---woodbines. Will you tell them when you go back that I'll send out the money and fags when I go back to blighty?"
"All right," I replied. "I'll let them know."
"The villa dwellers have become cave-dwellers."---DUDLEY PRYOR.
THE night was intensely dark, and from the door of the dug-out I could scarcely see the outline of the sentry who stood on the banquette fifteen yards away. Standing on tip-toe, I could glance over the parapet, and when a star-shell went up I could trace the outline of a ruined mill that stood up, gaunt and forbidding, two hundred yards away from our front line trench. On the left a line of shrapnel-swept trees stood in air, leafless and motionless. Now and again a sniper's bullet hit the sandbags with a crack like a whip.
Lifeless bodies still lay in the trench; the blood of the wounded whom I had helped to carry down to the dressing-station was still moist on my tunic and trousers. In a stretch of eight hundred yards there was only one dug-out, a shaky construction, cramped and leaky, that might fall in at any moment.
"Would it be wise to light a fire?" asked Dilly, my mate, who was lying on the earthen floor of the dug-out. "I want a drop of tea. I didn't have a sup of tea all day."
"The officers won't allow us to light a fire," I said. "But if we hang a ground-sheet over the door the light won't get through. Is there a brazier?" I asked.
"Yes, there's one here," said Dilly. "I was just going to use it for a pillow, I feel so sleepy."
He placed a ground-sheet over the door while speaking and I took a candle from my pocket, lit it and placed it in a little niche in the wall. Then we split some wood with a clasp-knife, placed it on a brazier, and lit a fire over which we placed a mess-tin of water.
The candle flickered fitfully, and dark shadows lurked in the corners of the dug-out. A mouse peeped down from between the sandbags on the roof, its bright little eyes glowing with mischief. The ground-sheet hanging over the door was caught by a breeze and strange ripples played across it. We could hear from outside the snap of rifle bullets on the parapet. . . .
"It's very quiet in here," said Dilly. "And I feel so like sleep. I hope none get hit to-night. I don't think I'd be able to help with a stretcher down to the dressing-station until I have a few hours' sleep. . . . How many wounded did we carry out to-day? Nine?"
" Nine or ten," I said.
"Sharney was badly hit," Dilly said. "I don't think he'll pull through."
"It's hard to say," I remarked, fanning the fire with a newspaper. "Felan, the cook, who was wounded in the charge a month ago, got a bullet in his shoulder. It came out through his back. I dressed his wound. It was ghastly. The bullet pierced his lung, and every time he breathed some of the air from the lung came out through his back. I prophesied that he would live for four or five hours. I had a letter from him the other day. He's in a London hospital and is able to walk about again. He was reported dead, too, in the casualty list."
"Some people pluck up wonderfully," said Dilly. "Is the tea ready?"
"It's ready," I said.
We sat down together, rubbing our eyes, for the smoke got into them, and opened a tin of bully beef. The beef with a few biscuits and a mess-tin of warm tea formed an excellent repast. When we had finished eating we lit our cigarettes.
"Have you got any iodine?" Dilly suddenly inquired.
"None," I answered. "Have you?"
"I got my pocket hit by a bullet coming up here," Dilly answered. "My bottle got smashed."
Iodine is so necessary when dressing wounds. Somebody might get hit during the night. . . .
"I'll go to the dressing-station and get some," I said to Dilly. "You can have a sleep."
I put my coat on and went out, clambered up the rain-sodden parados and got out into the open where a shell-hole yawned at every step, and where the dead lay unburied. A thin mist lay low, and solitary trees stood up from a sea of milk, aloof, immobile. The sharp, penetrating stench of wasting flesh filled the air.
I suddenly came across two lone figures digging a hole in the ground. I stood still for a moment and watched them. One worked with a pick, the other with a shovel, and both men panted as they toiled. When a star-shell went up they threw themselves flat to earth and rose to resume their labours as the light died away.
Three stiff and rigid bundles wrapped in khaki lay on the ground near the diggers, and, having dug the hole deep and wide, the diggers turned to the bundles; tied a string round each in turn, pulled them forward and shoved them into the hole. Thus were three soldiers buried.
I stopped for a moment beside the grave.
"Hard at work, boys?" I said.
"Getting a few of them under," said one of the diggers. "By God, it makes one sweat, this work. Have you seen a dog about at all?" was the man's sudden inquiry.
"No," I answered. "I've heard about that dog. Is he not supposed to be a German in disguise?"
"He's old Nick in disguise," said the digger. "He feeds on the dead, the dirty swine. I don't like it all. Look! there's the dog again."
Something long, black and ghostly took shape in the mist ten yards away and stood there for a moment as if inspecting us. A strange thrill ran through my body.
"That's it again," said the nearest digger. "I've seen it three times to-night; once at dusk down by Loos graveyard among the tombstones, again eating a dead body, and now---some say it's a ghost."
I glanced at the man, then back again at the spot where the dog had been. But now the animal was gone.
An air of loneliness pervaded the whole place, the sounds of soft rustling swept along the ground: I. could hear a twig snap, a man cough, and in the midst of all the little noises which merely accentuated the silence, it suddenly rose long-drawn and eerie, the howl of a lonely dog.
"The dirty swine," said the digger. "I wish somebody shot it."
"No one could shoot the animal," said the other worker. "It's not a dog; it's the devil himself."
My way took me past Loos church and churchyard; the former almost levelled to the ground, the latter delved by shells and the bones of the dead villagers flung broadcast to the winds of heaven. I looked at the graveyard and the white headstones. Here I saw the dog again. The silver light of a star-shell shot aslant a crumpled wall and enabled me to see a long black figure, noiseless as the shadow of a cloud, slink past the little stone crosses and disappear. Again a howl, lonely and weird, thrilled through the air.
I walked down the main street of Loos where dead mules lay silent between the shafts of their limbers. It was here that I saw Gilhooley die, Gilhooley the master bomber, Gilhooley the Irishman.
"Those damned snipers are in thim houses up the street," he said, fingering a bomb lovingly. "But, by Jasus, we'll get them out of it." Then he was shot. This happened a month ago.
In the darkness the ruined houses assumed fantastic shapes, the fragment of a standing wall became a gargoyle, a demon, a monstrous animal. A hunchback leered down at me from a roof as I passed, his hump in air, his head thrust forward on knees that rose to his face. Further along a block of masonry became a gigantic woman who was stepping across the summit of a mountain, her shawl drawn over her head and a pitcher on her shoulder.
In the midst of the ruin and desolation of the night of morbid fancies, in the centre of a square lined with unpeopled houses, I came across the Image of Supreme Pain, the Agony of the Cross. What suffering has Loos known? What torture, what sorrow, what agony? The crucifix was well in keeping with this scene of desolation;
Old Mac of the R.A.M.C. was sitting on a blanket on the floor of the dressing-station when I entered. Mac is a fine singer and a hearty fellow; he is a great friend of mine.
"What do you want now?" he asked.
"A drop of rum, if you have any to spare," I answered.
"You're a devil for your booze," Mac said, taking the cork out of a water bottle which he often uses for an illegitimate purpose. "There's a wee drappie goin', man."
"Not bad, a wee drappie," said Mac. "Ay, mon! it's health tae the navel and marrow to the bones."
"Are all the others in bed?" I asked. Several hands worked at the dressing-station, but Mac was the only one there now.
"They're having a wee bit kip down in the cellar," said Mac. "I'll get down there if you clear out."
"Give me some iodine, and I'll go," I said.
He filled a bottle, handed it to me, and I went out again to the street. A slight artillery row was in progress now, our gunners were shelling the enemy's trenches and the enemy were at work battering in our parapets.
A few high explosives were bursting at the Twin Towers of Loos and light splinters were singing through the air. Bullets were whizzing down the street and snapping at the houses. I lit a cigarette and smoked, concealing the glowing end under my curved fingers.
Something suddenly seemed to sting my wrist and a sharp pain shot up my arm. I raised my hand and saw a dark liquid dripping down my palm on to my fingers.
"I wonder if this will get me back to England," I muttered, and turned back to the dressing-station.
Mac had not gone down to the cellar; the water bottle was still uncorked.
'Tack again?" he inquired.
"It looks like it," I replied.
"You're bleeding, Pat," he exclaimed, seeing the blood on my hand. "Strafed, you bounder, you're strafed."
He examined my wound and dressed it.
"Lucky dog," he said, handing me the water bottle. "You're for blighty, man, for blighty. I wish to God I was! Is it raining now?" he asked.
"It is just starting to come down," I said. "How am I to get out of this?" I inquired.
"There'll be an ambulance up here in a wee," Mac said, then he laughed. "Suppose it gets blown to blazes," he said.
"It's a quiet night," I remarked, but I was seized with a certain nervousness. "God! it would be awkward if I really got strafed now, on the way home."
"It often happens, man," said Mac, "and we are going to open all our guns on the enemy at two o'clock. They're mobilizing for an attack, it's said."
"At two o'clock," I repeated. "It's a quarter to two now. And it's very quiet.'
"It'll not be quiet in a minute," said my friend.
I had a vivid impression. In my mind I saw the Germans coming up to their trench through the darkness, the rain splashing on their rifles and equipment, their forms bent under the weight which they carried. No doubt they had little bundles of firewood with them to cook their breakfasts at dawn. They were now thanking God that the night was quiet, that they could get into the comparative shelter of the trenches in safety. Long lines of men in grey, keeping close to the shelter of spinneys sunk in shadow; transport wagons rumbling and jolting, drivers unloading at the "dumps," ration parties crossing the open with burdens of eatables; men thinking of home and those they loved as they sat in their leaky dug-outs, scrawling letters by the light of their guttering candles. This was the life that went on in and behind the German lines in the darkness and rain.
Presently hell would burst open and a million guns would bellow of hatred and terror. I supposed the dead on the fields would be torn and ripped anew, and the shuddering quick out on the open where no discretion could preserve them and no understanding keep them, would plod nervously onward, fear in their souls and terror in their faces.
Our own men in the trenches would hear the guns and swear at the gunners. The enemy would reply by shelling the trench in which our boys were placed. The infantry always suffers when Mars riots. All our guns would open fire. . . . It would be interesting to hear them speak.
I would remain here while the cannonade was on. . . . It would be safer and wiser to go than stay, but I would stay.
"Is there another ambulance besides the one due in a minute or two coming up before dawn, Mac?" I asked.
"Another at four o'clock," Mac announced sleepily. He lay on the floor wrapped in his blanket and was just dozing off.
"I'm finished with war for a few weeks at least," I muttered. "I'm pleased. I hope I get to England. Another casualty from Loos. The dead are lying all round here; civilians and soldiers. A dead child lying in a trench near Hulluch. I suppose somebody has buried it. I wonder how it got there. . . . The line of wounded stretches from Lens to Victoria Station on this side, and from Lens to Berlin on the other side. . . . How many thousand dead are there in the fields round there? . . . There will be many more, for the battle of Loos is still proceeding. . . . Who is going to benefit by the carnage, save the rats which feed now as they have never fed before? . . . What has brought about this turmoil, this tragedy that cuts the heart of friend and foe alike? . . . Why have millions of men come here from all corners of Europe to hack and slay one another? What mysterious impulse guided them to this maiming, murdering, gouging, gassing, and filled them with such hatred? Why do we use the years of peace in preparation for war? Why do men well over the military age hate the Germans more than the younger and more sober souls in the trenches? Who has profited by this carnage? Who will profit? Why have some men joined in the war for freedom?"
Suddenly I was overcome with a fit of laughter, and old Mac woke up.
"What the devil are you kicking up such a row for?" he grumbled.
"Do you remember B-----, the fellow whose wound you dressed one night a week ago? Bald as a trout, double chin and a shrapnel wound in his leg. He belonged to the ----- Regiment."
"I remember him," said Mac.
"I knew him in civil life," I said. "He kept a house of some repute in ------. The sons of the rich came there secretly at night; the poor couldn't afford to. Do you believe that B------- joined the Army in order to redress the wrongs of violated Belgium?"
Mac sat up on the floor, his Balaclava helmet pulled down over his cars, and winked at me.
"Ye're drunk, ye bounder, ye're drunk," he said. "Just like all the rest, mon. We'll have no teetotallers after the war."
He lay down again.
"I know a man who was out here for nine months and he never tasted drink," I said.
Mac sat up again, an incredulous look on his face.
"Who was he?" he asked.
"The corporal of our section," I replied.
"Well, that's the first I've heard o'," said Mac. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"Got killed in the charge," I answered. "I saw him coming back wounded, crawling along with his head to the ground like a dog scenting the trail."
Sleep was heavy in my eyes and queer thoughts ran riot in my head. "What is to be the end of this destruction and decay? That is what it means, this war. Destruction, decay, degradation. We who are here know its degradation; we, the villa dwellers, who have become cave dwellers and make battle with club and knobkerry; the world knows of the destruction and decay of war. Man will recognise its futility before he recognises its immorality. . . . Lines of men marching up long, poplar-lined roads to-day; to-morrow the world grows sick with their decay. . . . They are now one with Him. . . . Yes, there He is, hanging on the barbed wires. I shall go and speak to Him.
The dawn blushed in the east and grew redder and redder like a curtain of blood-and from Souchez to Ypres the poppy fields were of the same red colour, a plain of blood. For miles and miles the barbed wire entanglements wound circuitously through the levels, brilliant with starclusters of dew-drops hung from spike, barb and intricate traceries of gossamer. Out in front of my bay gleamed the Pleiades which had dropped from heaven during the night and clustered round a dark grey bulk of clothing by one of the entanglement props. I knew the dark grey bulk, it was He; for days and nights He had hung there, a huddled heap; the Futility of War.
I was with Him in a moment endeavouring to help Him. In the dawn He was not repulsive, He was almost beautiful, but His beauty was that of the mirage which allures to a more sure destruction. The dew-drops were bright on His beard, His hair and His raiment; but His head sank low upon the wires and I could not see His face.
A dew-drop disappeared from the man's beard as I watched and then another. Round me the glory of the wires faded; the sun, coming out warm and strong, dispelled the illusion of the dawn; the galaxy faded, leaving but the rugged props, the ghastly wires and the rusty barbs nakedly showing in the poppy field.
I saw now that He was repulsive, abject, pitiful lying there, His face close to the wires, a thousand bullets in his head. Unable to resist the impulse I endeavoured to turn His face upward, but was unable; a barb had pierced His eye and stuck there, rusting in the socket from which sight was gone. I turned and ran away from the thing into the bay of the trench. The glory of the dawn had vanished, my soul no longer swooned in the ecstasy of it; the Pleiades had risen, sick of that which they decorated, the glorious disarray of jewelled dew-drops was no more, that which endured the full light of day was the naked and torturing contraption of war. Was not the dawn buoyant, like the dawn of patriotism? Were not the dew-decked wires war seen from far off? Was not He in wreath of Pleiades glorious death in action? But a ray of light more, and what is He and all with Him but the monstrous futility of war. . . . Mac tugged at my shoulder and I awoke.
"Has the shelling begun?" I asked.
"It's over, mon," he said. "It's four o'clock now. You'll be goin' awa' from here in a minute or twa."
"And these wounded?" I asked, looking round. Groaning and swearing they lay on their stretchers and in bloodstained blankets, their ghastly eyes fixed upon the roof. They had not been in when I fell asleep.
"The enemy replied to our shellin'," said Mac curtly.
"Ay, 'e replied," said a wounded man, turning on his stretcher. "'E replied. Gawd, 'e didn't 'arf send some stuff back! It was quiet enough before our blurry artillery started. They've no damned consideration for the pore infantry. .. . . Thank Gawd, I'm out of the whole damn business. . . . I'll take damn good care that I . . ."
"The ambulance car is here," said Mac. "All who can walk, get outside."
The rain was falling heavily as I entered the Red Cross wagon, 3008 Rifleman P. MacGill, passenger on the Highway of Pain, which stretched from Loos to Victoria Station.