Part 3 out of 4
although at that time they could only claim to have brought down one
'plane, and that in a descent so far behind the German lines that its
fate was uncertain.
It must be admitted that the gunners on the whole made excellent
shooting, and if they did not destroy their target, or even make him
turn back, they fulfilled the almost equally useful object of making
him keep so high that he could do little useful observing. But the
short periods of time spent by the section in shooting were no more
than enough to add a pleasant flavor of sport to life, and on the
whole, since the weather was good and the German gunnery was not--or at
least not good enough to be troublesome to the section--life during
that month moved very pleasantly.
But at last there came a day when it looked as if some of the
inconveniences of war were due to arrive. The German aeroplane appeared
as usual one morning just after the section had completed breakfast.
The methodical regularity of hours kept by the German pilots added
considerably to the comfort and convenience of the section by allowing
them to time their hours of sleep, their meals, or an afternoon run by
the O.C. on the motor into the near-by town, so as to fit in nicely
with the duty of anti-aircraft guns.
On this morning at the usual hour the aeroplane appeared, and the
gunners, who were waiting in handy proximity to the cars, jumped to
their stations. The muzzles of the two-pounder pom-poms moved slowly
after their target, and when the range-indicator told that it was
within reach of their shells the first gun opened with a trial beltful.
"Bang--bang--bang--bang!" it shouted, a string of shells singing
and sighing on their way into silence. In a few seconds,
"Puff--puff--puff--puff!" four pretty little white balls broke out and
floated solid against the sky. They appeared well below their target,
and both the muzzles tilted a little and barked off another flight of
shells. This time they appeared to burst in beautiful proximity to the
racing aeroplane, and immediately the two-pounders opened a steady and
accurate bombardment. The shells were evidently dangerously close to
the 'plane, for it tilted sharply and commenced to climb steadily; but
it still held on its way over the British lines, and the course it was
taking it was evident would bring it almost directly over the Blue
Marines and their guns. The pom-poms continued their steady yap-yap,
jerking and springing between each, round, like eager terriers jumping
the length of their chain, recoiling and jumping, and yelping at every
jump. But although the shells were dead in line the range was too
great, and the guns slowed down their rate of fire, merely rapping off
an occasional few rounds to keep the observer at a respectful distance,
without an unnecessary waste of ammunition.
Arrived above them, the aeroplane banked steeply and swung round in a
"Dash his impudence," growled the captain. "Slap at him again, just for
luck." The only effect the resulting slap at him had, however, was to
show the 'plane pilot that he was well out of range and to bring him
spiraling steeply down a good thousand feet. This brought him within
reach of the shells again, and both guns opened rapidly, dotting the
sky thickly with beautiful white puffs of smoke, through which the
enemy sailed swiftly. Then suddenly another shape and color of smoke
appeared beneath him, and a red light burst from it flaring and
floating slowly downwards. Another followed, and then another, and the
'plane straightened out its course, swerved, and flashed swiftly off
down-wind, pursued to the limit of their range by the raving pom-poms.
"Which it seems to me," said the Blue Marine sergeant reflectively,
"that our Tauby had us spotted and was signaling his guns to call and
leave a card on us."
That afternoon showed some proof of the correctness of the sergeant's
supposition; a heavy shell soared over and dropped with a crash in an
open field some two hundred yards beyond the outermost house of the
hamlet. In five minutes another followed, and in the same field blew
out a hole about twenty yards from the first. A third made another hole
another twenty yards off, and a fourth again at the same interval.
When the performance ceased, the captain and his lieutenant held a
conference over the matter. "It looks as if we'd have to shift," said
the captain. "That fellow has got us marked down right enough."
"If he doesn't come any nearer," said the lieutenant, "we're all right.
We won't need to take cover when the shelling starts, and even if the
guns are shooting when the German is shelling, the armor-plate will
easily stand off splinters from that distance."
"Yes," said the captain. "But do you suppose our friend the Flighty Hun
won't have a peep at us to-morrow morning to see where those shells
landed? If he does, or if he takes a photograph, those holes will show
up like a chalk-mark on a blackboard; then he has only to tell his gun
to step this way a couple of hundred yards and we get it in the neck.
I'm inclined to think we'd better up anchor and away."
"We're pretty comfortable here, you know," urged the lieutenant, "and
it's a pity to get out. It might be that those shots were blind chance.
I vote for waiting another day, anyhow, and seeing what happens. At the
worst we can pack up and stand by with steam up; then if the shells
pitch too near we can slip the cable and run for it"
"Right-oh!" said the captain.
Next morning the enemy aeroplane appeared again at its appointed hour
and sailed overhead, leaving behind it a long wake of smoke-puffs; and
at the same hour in the afternoon as the previous shelling the German
gun opened fire, dropping its first shell neatly fifty yards further
from the shell-holes of the day before. The aeroplane, of course, had
reported, or its photograph had shown, the previous day's shells to
have dropped apparently fifty yards to the left of the hamlet. The gun
accordingly corrected its aim and opened fire on a spot fifty yards
more to the right. For hours it bombarded that suffering field
energetically, and at the end of that time, when they were satisfied
the shelling was over, the Blue Marines climbed from their cellar. Next
morning the aeroplane appeared again, and the Blue Marines allowed it
this time to approach unattacked. Convinced probably by this and the
appearance of the numerous shell-pits scattered round the gun position,
the aeroplane swooped lower to verify its observations. Unfortunately
another anti-aircraft gun a mile further along the line thought this
too good an opportunity to miss, and opened rapid fire. The 'plane
leaped upward and away, and the Blue Marines sped on its way with a
stream of following shells.
"If the Huns' minds work on the fixed and appointed path, one would
expect the same old field will get a strafing this afternoon," said the
captain afterwards. "The airman will have seen the village knocked
about, and if he knew that those last shells came from here he'll just
conclude that yesterday's shooting missed us, and the gunners will have
another whale at us this afternoon."
He was right; the gun had "another whale" at them, and again dug many
holes in the old field.
But next morning the Germans played a new and disconcerting game. The
aeroplane hovered high above and dropped a light, and a minute later
the Blue Marines heard a shrill whistle, that grew and changed to a
whoop, and ended with the same old crash in the same old field.
"Now," said the captain. "Stand by for trouble. That brute is spotting
for his gun."
The aeroplane dropped a light, turned, and circled round to the left.
Five minutes later another shell screamed over, and this time fell
crashing into the hamlet. The hit was palpable and unmistakable; a huge
dense cloud of smoke and mortar-, lime-, and red brick-dust leapt and
billowed and hung heavily over the village.
"This," said the captain rapidly, "is where we do the rabbit act. Get
to cover, all of you, and lie low."
They did the rabbit act, scuttling amongst the broken houses to the
shelter of their cellar and diving hastily into it. Another shell
arrived, shrieking wrathfully, smashed into another broken house, and
scattered its ruins in a whirlwind of flying fragments.
Now Mary, of course, was in the cellar with the rest, and Mary's garden
was in full view from the cellar entrance, and twenty or twenty-five
yards from it. The rest of the party were surprised to see Mary, as the
loud clatter of falling stones subsided, leap for the cellar steps, run
up them, and disappear out into the open. He was back in a couple of
minutes. "I just wondered," he said breathlessly, "if those blighters
had done any damage to my vegetables." When another shell came he
popped up again for another look, and this time he dodged back and said
many unprintable things until the next shell landed. He looked a little
relieved when he came back this time. "This one was farther away," he
said, "but that one afore dropped somebody's hearth-stone inside a
dozen paces from my onion bed." For the next half-hour the big shells
pounded the village, tearing the ruins apart, battering down the walls,
blasting huge holes in the road and between the houses, re-destroying
all that had already been destroyed, and completing the destruction of
some of the few parts that had hitherto escaped.
Between rounds Mary ran up and looked out. Once he rushed across to his
garden and came back cursing impotently, to report a shell fallen close
to the garden, his carefully erected forcing frames shattered to
splinters by the shock, and a hail of small stones and the ruins of an
iron stove dropped obliteratingly across his carrots.
"If only they'd left this crazy shooting for another week," said Mary,
"a whole lot of those things would have been ready for pulling up. The
onions is pretty near big enough to eat now, and I've half a mind to
pull some o' them before that cock-eyed Hun lands a shell in me garden
and blows it to glory."
Later he ran out, pulled an onion, a carrot, and a lettuce, brought
them back to the cellar, proudly passed them round, and anxiously
demanded an opinion as to whether they were ready for pulling, and
counsel as to whether he ought to strip his garden.
"Now look here!" said the sergeant at last; "you let your bloomin'
garden alone; I'm not going to have you running out there plucking
carrot and onion nosegays under fire. If a shell blows your garden
half-way through to Australia, I can't help it, and neither can you.
I'll be quite happy to split a dish of spuds with you if so be your
garden offers them up; but I'm not going to have you casualtied
rescuing your perishing radishes under fire. Nothing'll be said to me
if your garden is strafed off the earth; but there's a whole lot going
to be said if you are strafed along with it, and I have to report that
you had disobeyed orders and not kept under cover, and that I had
looked on while you broke ship and was blown to blazes with a boo-kay
of onions in your hand. So just you anchor down there till the owner
pipes to carry on."
Mary had no choice but to obey, and when at last the shelling was over
he rushed to the garden and examined it with anxious care. He was in a
more cheerful mood when he rejoined the others. "It ain't so bad," he
said. "Total casualties, half the carrots killed, the radish-bed
severely wounded (half a chimney-pot did that), and some o' the onions
slightly wounded by bits of gravel. But what do you reckon the owner's
going to do now? Has he given any orders yet?"
No orders had been given, but the betting amongst the Blue Marines was
about ninety-seven to one in favor of their moving. Sure enough, orders
were given to pack up and prepare to move as soon as it was dark, and
the captain went off with a working party to reconnoiter a new position
and prepare places for the cars. Mary was sent off in "the shore boat"
(otherwise the light runabout which carried them on duty or pleasure to
and from the ten-mile-distant town) with orders to draw the day's
rations, collect the day's mail, buy the day's papers, and return to
the village, being back not later than five o'clock.
It was made known that the position to which the captain contemplated
moving was one in a clump of trees within half a mile of the position
they were leaving. Mary was hugely satisfied. "That ain't half bad," he
said when he heard. "I can walk over and water the garden at night, and
pop across any time between the Tauby's usual promenade hours and do a
bit o' weeding, and just keep an eye on things generally. And inside a
week we're going to have carrots for dinner every day, _and_ spring
onions. Hey, my lads! what about bread and cheese and spring onions,
He climbed aboard the run-about, drove out of the yard, and rattled off
down the road. He executed his commissions, and was sailing happily
back to the village, when about a mile short of it a sitting figure
rose from the roadside, stepped forward, and waved an arresting hand.
To his surprise, Mary saw that it was one of the Blue Marines.
"What's up?" he said, as the Marine came round to the side and
proceeded to step on board.
"Orders," said the Marine briefly. "I was looking out for you. Change
course and direction and steer for the new anchorage."
"The idea being wot!" asked Mary.
"We've been in action again," said the Marine gloomily. "Only two
shells this time, but they did more damage than all the rest put
together this morning."
"More damage?" gasped Mary. "Wot--wot have they damaged?"
The Marine ticked off the damages on his fingers one by one.
"Car hit, badly damaged, and down by the stern; gun out of
action--mounting smashed; the sergeant hit, piece of his starboard leg
carried away; and five men slightly wounded."
He dropped his hands, which Mary took as a sign that the tally was
finished. "Is that all?" he said, and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Strewth! I thought you was going to tell me that my garden had been
This is not a story, it is rather a fragment, beginning where usually a
battle story ends, with a man being "casualtied," showing the principal
character only in a passive part--a very passive part--and ending, I am
afraid, with a lot of unsatisfactory loose ends ungathered up. I only
tell it because I fancy that at the back of it you may find some hint
of the spirit that has helped the British Army in many a tight corner.
Private Wally Ruthven was knocked out by the bursting of a couple of
bombs in his battalion's charge on the front line German trenches. Any
account of the charge need not be given here, except that it failed,
and the battalion making it, or what was left of them, beaten back.
Private Wally knew nothing of this, knew nothing of the renewed British
bombardment, the renewed British attack half a dozen hours later, and
again its renewed failure. All this time he was lying where the force
of the bomb's explosion had thrown him, in a hole blasted out of the
ground by a bursting shell. During all that time he was unconscious of
anything except pain, although certainly he had enough of that to keep
his mind very fully occupied. He was brought back to an agonizing
consciousness by the hurried grip of strong hands and a wrenching lift
that poured liquid flames of pain through every nerve in his mangled
body. To say that he was badly wounded hardly describes the case; an
R.A.M.C. orderly afterwards described his appearance with painful
picturesqueness as "raw meat on a butcher's block," and indeed it is
doubtful if the stretcher-bearers who lifted him from the shell-hole
would not rather have left him lying there and given their brief time
and badly needed services to a casualty more promising of recovery, if
they had seen at first Private Ruthven's serious condition. As it was,
one stretcher-bearer thought and said the man was dead, and was for
tipping him off the stretcher again. Ruthven heard that and opened his
eyes to look at the speaker, although at the moment it would not have
troubled him much if he had been tipped off again. But the other
stretcher-bearer said there was still life in him; and partly because
the ground about them was pattering with bullets, and the air about
them clamant and reverberating with the rush and roar of passing and
exploding shells and bombs, and that particular spot, therefore, no
place or time for argument; partly because stretcher-bearers have a
stubborn conviction and fundamental belief--which, by the way, has
saved many a life even against their own momentary judgment--that while
there is life there is hope, that a man "isn't dead till he's buried,"
and finally that a stretcher must always be brought in with a load, a
live one if possible, and the nearest thing to alive if not, they
brought him in.
The stretcher-bearers carried their burden into the front trench and
there attempted to set about the first bandaging of their casualty. The
job, however, was quite beyond them, but one of them succeeded in
finding a doctor, who in all the uproar of a desperate battle was
playing Mahomet to the mountain of such cases as could not come to him
in the field dressing station. The orderly requested the doctor to come
to the casualty, who was so badly wounded that "he near came to bits
when we lifted him." The doctor, who had several urgent cases within
arm's length of him as he worked at the moment, said that he would come
as soon as he could, and told the orderly in the meantime to go and
bandage any minor wounds his casualty might have. The bearer replied
that there were no minor wounds, that the man was "just nothing but one
big wound all over"; and as for bandaging, that he "might as well try
to do first aid on a pound of meat that had run through a mincing
machine." The doctor at last, hobbling painfully and leaning on the
stretcher-bearer--for he himself had been twice wounded, once in the
foot by a piece of shrapnel, and once through the tip of the shoulder
by a rifle bullet--came to Private Ruthven. He spent a good deal of
time and innumerable yards of bandages on him, so that when the
stretcher-bearers brought him into the dressing station there was
little but bandages to be seen of him. The stretcher-bearer delivered a
message from the doctor that there was very little hope, so that
Ruthven for the time being was merely given an injection of morphia and
The approaches to the dressing station and the station itself were
under so severe a fire for some hours afterwards that it was impossible
for any ambulance to be brought near it. Such casualties as could walk
back walked, others were carried slowly and painfully to a point which
the ambulances had a fair sporting chance of reaching intact. One way
and another a good many hours passed before Ruthven's turn came to be
removed. The doctor who had bandaged him in the firing-line had by then
returned to the dressing station, mainly because his foot had become
too painful to allow him to use it at all. Merely as an aside, and
although it has nothing to do with Private Ruthven's case, it may be
worth mentioning that the same doctor, having cleaned, sterilized, and
bandaged his wounds, remained in the dressing station for another
twelve hours, doing such work as could be accomplished sitting in a
chair and with one sound and one unsound arm. He saw Private Ruthven
for a moment as he was being started on his journey to the ambulance;
he remembered the case, as indeed everyone who handled or saw that case
remembered it for many days, and, moved by professional interest and
some amazement that the man was still alive, he hobbled from his chair
to look at him. He found Private Ruthven returning his look; for the
passing of time and the excess of pain had by now overcome the effects
of the morphia injection. There was a hauntingly appealing look in the
eyes that looked up at him, and the doctor tried to answer the question
he imagined those eyes would have conveyed.
"I don't know, my boy," he said, "whether you'll pull through, but
we'll do the best we can for you. And now we have you here we'll have
you back in hospital in no time, and there you'll get every chance
He imagined the question remained in those eyes still unsatisfied, and
that Ruthven gave just the suggestion of a slow head-shake.
"Don't give up, my boy," he said briskly. "We might save you yet. Now
I'm going to take away the pain for you," and he called an orderly to
bring a hypodermic injection. While he was finding a place among the
bandages to make the injection, the orderly who was waiting spoke: "I
believe, sir, he's trying to ask something or say something."
It has to be told here that Private Ruthven could say nothing in the
terms of ordinary speech, and would never be able to do so again.
Without going into details it will be enough to say that the whole
lower part of--well, his face--was tightly bound about with bandages,
leaving little more than his nostrils, part of his cheeks, and his eyes
clear. He was frowning now and again, just shaking his head to denote a
negative, and his left hand, bound to the bigness of a football in
bandages, moved slowly in an endeavor to push aside the doctor's hands.
"It's all right, my lad," the doctor said soothingly. "I'm not going to
The frown cleared for an instant and the eloquent eyes appeared to
smile, as indeed the lad might well have smiled at the thought that
anyone could "hurt" such a bundle of pain. But although it appeared
quite evident that Ruthven did not want morphia, the doctor in his
wisdom decreed otherwise, and the jolting journey down the rough
shell-torn road, and the longer but smoother journey in the
sweetly-sprung motor ambulance, were accomplished in sleep.
When he wakened again to consciousness he lay for some time looking
about him, moving only his eyes and very slowly his head. He took in
the canvas walls and roof of the big hospital marquee, the
scarlet-blanketed beds, the flitting figures of a couple of
silent-footed Sisters, the screens about two of the beds; the little
clump of figures, doctor, orderlies, and Sister, stooped over another
bed. Presently he caught the eye of a Sister as she passed swiftly the
foot of his bed, and she, seeing the appealing look, the barely
perceptible upward twitch of his head that was all he could do to
beckon, stopped and turned, and moved quickly to his side. She smoothed
the pillow about his head and the sheets across his shoulders, and
"I wonder if there is anything you want?" she said. "You can't tell me,
can you? just close your eyes a minute if there is anything I can do.
Shut them for yes--keep them open for no."
The eyes closed instantly, opened, and stared upward at her.
"Is it the pain?" she said. "Is it very dreadful?"
The eyes held steady and unflickering upon hers. She knew well that
there they did not speak truth, and that the pain must indeed be very
"We can stop the pain, you know," she said "Is that what you want?"
The steady unwinking eyes answered "No" again, and to add emphasis to
it the bandaged head shook slowly from side to side on the pillow.
The Sister was puzzled; she could find out what he wanted, of course,
she was confident of that; but it might take some time and many
questions, and time just then was something that she or no one else in
the big clearing hospital could find enough of for the work in their
hands. Even then urgent work was calling her; so she left him,
promising to come again as soon as she could.
She spoke to the doctor, and presently he came back with her to the
bedside. "It's marvelous," he said in a low tone to the Sister, "that
he has held on to life so long."
Private Ruthven's wounds had been dressed there on arrival, before he
woke out of the morphia sleep, and the doctor had seen and knew.
"There is nothing we can do for him," he said, "except morphia again,
to ease him out of his pain."
But again the boy, his brow wrinkling with the effort, attempted with
his bandaged hand to stay the needle in the doctor's fingers.
"I'm sure," said the Sister, "he doesn't want the morphia; he told me
so, didn't you?" appealing to the boy.
The eyes shut and gripped tight in an emphatic answer, and the Sister
explained their code.
"Listen!" she said gently. "The doctor will only give you enough to
make you sleep for two or three hours, and then I shall have time to
come and talk to you. Will that do!"
The unmoving eyes answered "No" again, and the doctor stood up.
"If he can bear it, Sister," he said, "we may as well leave him. I
can't understand it, though. I know how those wounds must hurt."
They left him then, and he lay for another couple of hours, his eyes
set on the canvas roof above his head, dropped for an instant to any
passing figure, lifting again to their fixed position. The eyes and the
mute appeal in them haunted the Sister, and half a dozen times, as she
moved about the beds, she flitted over to him, just to drop a word that
she had not forgotten and she was coming presently.
"You want me to talk to you, don't you?" she said. "There is something
you want me to find out?"
"Yes--yes--yes," said the quickly flickering eyelids.
The Sister read the label that was tied to him when he was brought in.
She asked questions round the ward of those who were able to answer
them, and sent an orderly to make inquiries in the other tents. He came
back presently and reported the finding of another man who belonged to
Ruthven's regiment and who knew him. So presently, when she was
relieved from duty--the first relief for thirty-six solid hours of
physical stress and heart-tearing strain--she went straight to the
other tent and questioned the man who knew Private Ruthven. He had a
hopelessly shattered arm, but appeared mightily content and amazingly
cheerful. He knew Wally, he said, was in the same platoon with him;
didn't know much about him except that he was a very decent sort; no,
knew nothing about his people or his home, although he remembered--yes,
there was a girl. Wally had shown him her photograph once, "and a real
ripper she is too." Didn't know if Wally was engaged to her, or
anything more about her, and certainly not her name.
The Sister went back to Wally. His wrinkled brow cleared at the sight
of her, but she could see that the eyes were sunk more deeply in his
head, that they were dulled, no doubt with his suffering.
"I'm going to ask you a lot of questions," she said, "and you'll just
close your eyes again if I speak of what you want to tell me. You do
want to tell me something, don't you?"
To her surprise, the "Yes" was not signaled back to her. She was
puzzled a moment. "You want to ask me something?" she said.
"Yes," the eyelids flicked back.
"Is it about a girl?" she asked. ("No.")
"Is it about money of any sort?" ("No.")
"Is it about your mother, or your people, or your home? Is it about
She had paused after each question and went on to the next, but seeing
no sign of answering "Yes" she was baffled for a moment. But she felt
that she could not go to her own bed to which she had been dismissed,
could not go to the sleep she so badly needed, until she had found and
answered the question in those pitiful eyes. She tried again.
"Is it about your regiment?" she asked, and the eyes snapped "Yes," and
"Yes," and "Yes" again. She puzzled over that, and then went back to
the doctor in charge of the other ward and brought back with her the
man who "knew Wally." Mentally she clapped her hands at the light that
leaped to the boy's eyes. She had told the man that it was something
about the regiment he wanted to know; told him, too, his method of
answering "Yes" and "No," and to put his questions in such, a form that
they could be so answered.
The friend advanced to the bedside with clumsy caution.
"Hello, Wally!" he said cheerfully. "They've pretty well chewed you up
and spit you out again, 'aven't they? But you're all right, old son,
you're going to pull through, 'cause the O.C. o' the Linseed
Lancers[Footnote: Medical Service.] here told me so. But Sister here
tells me you want to ask something about someone in the old crush." He
hesitated a moment. "I can't think who it would be," he confessed. "It
can't be his own chum, 'cause he 'stopped one,' and Wally saw it and
knew he was dead hours before. But look 'ere," he said determinedly,
"I'll go through the whole bloomin' regiment, from the O.C. down to the
cook, by name and one at a time, and you'll tip me a wink and stop me
at the right one. I'll start off with our own platoon first; that ought
to do it," he said to the Sister.
"Perhaps," she said quickly, "he wants to ask about one of his
officers. Is that it?" And she turned to him.
The eyes looked at her long and steadily, and then closed flutteringly
"We're coming near it," she said, "although he didn't seem sure about
"Look 'ere," said the other, with a sudden inspiration, "there's no
good o' this 'Yes' and 'No' guessin' game; Wally and me was both in the
flag-wagging class, and we knows enough to--there you are." He broke
off in triumph and nodded to Wally's flickering eyelids, that danced
rapidly in the long and short of the Morse code.
"Y-e-s. Ac-ac-ac."[Footnote: Ac-ac-ac: three A's, denoting a full stop.
In "Signalese" similar-sounding letters are given names to avoid
confusion. A is Ac; T, Toe; D, Don; P, Pip; M, Emma, etc.]
"Yes," he said. "If you'll get a bit of paper, Sister, you can write
down the message while I spells it off. That's what you want, ain't it,
The Sister took paper and pencil and wrote the letters one by one as
the code ticked them off and the reader called them to her.
"Ready. Begins!" Go on, Miss, write it down," as she hesitated.
"Don-I-Don--Did; W-E--we; Toc-ac-K-E--take; Toc-H-E--the;
Toc-R-E-N-C-H--trench; ac-ac-ac. Did we take the trench?"
The signaler being a very unimaginative man, possibly it might never
have occurred to him to lie, to have told anything but the blunt truth
that they did not take the trench; that the regiment had been cut to
pieces in the attempt to take it; that the further attempt of another
regiment on the same trench had been beaten back with horrible loss;
that the lines on both sides, when he was sent to the rear late at
night, were held exactly as they had been held before the attack; that
the whole result of the action was _nil_--except for the casualty list.
But he caught just in time the softly sighing whispered "Yes" from the
unmoving lips of the Sister, and he lied promptly and swiftly,
efficiently and at full length.
"Yes," he said. "We took it. I thought you knew that, and that you was
wounded the other side of it; we took it all right. Got a hammering of
course, but what was left of us cleared it with the bayonet. You should
'ave 'eard 'em squeal when the bayonet took 'em. There was one big
He was proceeding with a cheerful imagination, colored by past
experiences, when the Sister stopped him. Wally's eyes were closed.
"I think," she said quietly, "that's all that Wally wants to know.
Isn't it, Wally?"
The lids lifted slowly and the Sister could have cried at the glory and
satisfaction that shone in them. They closed once softly, lifted
slowly, and closed again tiredly and gently. That is all. Wally died an
AN OPEN TOWN
_"Yesterday hostile artillery shelled the town of_ ---- _some miles
behind our lines, without military result. Several civilians were
killed_."--EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH.
Two officers were cashing checks in the Bank of France and chatting
with the cashier, who was telling them about a bombardment of the town
the day before. The bank had removed itself and its business to the
underground vaults, and the large room on the ground floor, with its
polished mahogany counters, brass grills and desks, loomed dim and
indistinct in the light which filtered past the sandbags piled outside.
The walls bore notices with a black hand pointing downwards to the
cellar steps, and the big room echoed eerily to the footsteps of
customers, who tramped across the tiled floor and disappeared
downstairs to the vaults.
"One shell," the cashier was saying, "fell close outside there," waving
a hand up the cellar steps. "_Bang! crash!_ we feel the building
shake--so." His hands left their task of counting notes, seized an
imaginary person by the lapels of an imaginary coat and shook him
"The noise, the great c-r-rash, the shoutings, the little squeals, and
then the peoples running, the glasses breaking--tinkle--tinkle--you
have seen the smoke, thick black smoke, and smelling--pah!"
He wrinkled his nose with disgust. "At first--for one second--I think
the bank is hit; but no, it is the street outside. Little stones--yes,
and splinters, through the windows; they come and hit all round,
inside--rap, rap, rap!" His darting hand played the splinters' part,
indicating with little pointing stabs the ceiling and the walls.
"Mademoiselle there, you see? yes! one little piece of shell," and he
held finger and thumb to illustrate an inch-long fragment.
The two officers looked at Mademoiselle, an exceedingly pretty young
girl, sitting composedly at a typewriter. There was a strip of plaster
marring the smooth cheek, and at the cashier's words she looked round
at the young officers, flashed them a cheerful smile, and returned to
her hammering on the key-board.
"My word, Mademoiselle," said one of the officers. "Near thing, eh? I
wonder you are not scared to carry on."
The girl turned a slightly puzzled glance on them.
"Monsieur means," explained the cashier friendlily to her, "is it that
you have no fear--_peur_, to continue the affairs?"
Mademoiselle smiled brightly and shook her head. "But no," she said
cheerfully, "it is nossings," and went back to her work.
"Jolly plucky girl, I think," said the officer. "Nearly as plucky as
she is pretty. I say, old man, my French isn't up to handling a
compliment like that; see if you can--"
He did not finish the sentence, for at that moment there was a faint
far-off _bang_, and they sensed rather than felt a faint quiver in the
solid earth beneath their feet. The cashier held up one hand and stood
with head turned sideways in an attitude of listening.
"You hear?" he said, arching his eyebrows.
"What was it?" said the officer. "Sounded like a door banging
"No, no," said the cashier. "They have commenced again. It is the same
hour as last time, and the time before."
Mademoiselle had stopped typing, and the ledger clerk at the desk
behind her had also ceased work and sat listening; but after a moment
Mademoiselle threw a little smile towards them--a half-pleased,
half-deprecating little smile, as of one who shows a visitor something
interesting, something one is glad to show, and then resumed her
clicking on the typewriter. The ledger clerk, too, went back to work,
and the cashier said off-handedly: "It is not near--the station
perhaps--yes!" as if the station were a few hundred miles off, instead
of a few hundred yards. He finished rapidly counting his bundle of
notes and handed them to the officer.
When the two emerged from the bank they found the street a good deal
quieter than when they had entered it. They walked along towards the
main square, noticing that some of the shopkeepers were calmly putting
up their shutters, while others quietly continued serving the few
customers who were hurriedly completing their purchases. As the two
walked along the narrow street they heard the thin savage whistle of an
approaching shell and a moment later a tremendous _bang_! They and
everybody else near them stopped and looked round, up and down the
street, and up over the roofs of the houses. They could see nothing,
and had turned to walk on when something crashed sharply on a roof
above them, bounced off, and fell with a rap on the cobble-stones in
the street. A child, an eager-faced youngster, ran from an arched
gateway and pounced on the little object, rose, and held up a piece of
stone, with intense annoyance and disgust plainly written on his face,
threw it from him with an exclamation of disappointment.
The two walked on chuckling. "Little bounder!" said one. "Thought he'd
got a souvenir; rather a sell for him--what?"
In the main square, they found a number of market women packing up
their little stalls and moving off, others debating volubly and looking
up at the sky, pointing in the direction of the last sound, and clearly
arguing with each other as to whether they should stay or move. A
couple of Army Transport wagons clattered across the square. One
driver, with the reins bunched up in his hand and the whip under his
arm, was busily engaged striking matches and trying to light a
cigarette; the other, allowing his horses to follow the first wagon,
and with his mouth open, gazed up into the sky as if he expected to see
the next shell coming. A few civilians scattered about the square were
walking briskly; a woman, clutching the arm of a little boy, ran,
dragging him, with his little legs going at a rapid trot. More
civilians, a few men in khaki, and some in French uniform, were
standing in archways or in shop-doors.
There was another long whistle, louder and harsher this time, and
followed by a splintering crash and rattle. The groups in the doorways
flicked out of sight; the people in the open half halted and turned to
hurry on, or in some cases, without looking round, ran hurriedly to
cover. Stones and little fragments of debris clacked down one by one,
and then in a little pattering shower on the stones of the square. The
last of the market women, hesitating no longer, hurriedly bundled up
their belongings and hastened off. The two officers turned into a cafe
with a wide front window, seated themselves near this at a little
marble table, and ordered beer. There were about a score of officers in
the room, talking or reading the English papers. All of them had very
clean and very close-shaven faces, and very dirty and weather-stained,
mud-marked clothes. For the most part they seemed a great deal more
interested in each other, in their conversations, and in their papers,
than in any notice of the bombardment. The two who were seated near the
window had a good view from it, and extracted plenty of interest from
watching the people outside.
Another shell whistled and roared down, burst with a deep angry bellow,
a clattering and rending and splintering sound of breaking stone and
wood. This time bigger fragments of stone, a shower of broken tiles and
slates rattled down into the square; a thick cloud of dirty black
smoke, gray and red tinged with mortar and brick-dust, appeared up
above the roofs on the other side of the square, spread slowly and
thickly, and hung long, dissolving very gradually and thinning off in
In the cafe there was silence for a moment, and many remarks about
"coming rather close" and "getting a bit unhealthy," and a jesting
inquiry of the proprietor as to the shelter available in the cellar
with the beer barrels. A few rose and moved over to the window; one or
two opened the door, to stand there and look round.
"Look at that old girl in the doorway across there," said one. "You
would think she was frightened she was going to get her best bonnet
The woman's motions had, in fact, a curious resemblance to those of one
who hesitated about venturing out in a heavy rainstorm. She stood in
the doorway and looked round, drew back and spoke to someone inside,
picked up a heavy basket, set it down, stepped into the door, glanced
carefully and calculatingly up at the sky and across the square in the
direction she meant to take, moved back again and picked up her basket,
set it firmly on her arm, stepped out and commenced to hobble at an
ungainly cumbersome trot across the square. She was no more than
half-way across when the shriek of another shell was heard approaching.
She stopped and cast a terrified glance about her, dumped the basket
down on the cobbles, and resumed the shambling trot at increased speed.
A soldier in khaki crossing the square also commenced to run for cover
as his ear caught the sound of the shell; passing near the woman's
basket, he stooped and grabbed it and doubled on with it after its
A group of soldiers standing in the archway shouted laughter and
encouragement, pretending they were watching a race, urging on the
"Go on, Khaki! go on!--two to one on the fat girl; two to one--I lay
the fie-ald." Their cries and clapping shut off, and they disappeared
like diving ducks as the shell roared down, struck with a horrible
crash one of the buildings in a side-street just off the square, burst
it open, and flung upward and outward a flash of blinding light, a
spurt of smoke, a torrent of flying bricks and broken stones. Through
the rattle and clatter of falling masonry and flying rubbish there
came, piercing and shrill, the sound of a woman's screams. They choked
off suddenly, and for some seconds there were no sounds but those of
falling fragments, jarring and hailing on the cobble-stones, of broken
glass crashing and tinkling from dozens of windows round the square.
As the noises of the explosion died away, figures crowded out anxiously
into the doorways again, and stood there and about the pavements,
looking round, pointing and gesticulating, and plainly prepared to run
back under cover at the first sign of warning. The half-dozen men who
had cheered the race across the square emerged from the archway, looked
around, and then set off running, keeping close under the shelter of
the houses, and disappearing into the thick smoke and dust that still
hung a thick and writhing curtain about the street-end in the corner of
The two officers who had sat at the cafe window looked at one another.
"You heard that squeal?" said one.
"Yes," said the other; "I think we might trot over. You knowing a
little bit about surgery might be useful."
"Oh, I dunno," said the first. "But, anyhow, let's go."
They paid their bill and went out, and as they crossed the square they
met a couple of the soldiers who had disappeared into the smoke. They
were moving at the double, but at a word from the officers they halted.
Both wore the Red Cross badge of the Army Medical Corps on their arms,
and one explained hurriedly that they were going for an ambulance, that
there was a woman killed, one man and a woman and two children badly
wounded. They ran on, and the two officers moved hastily towards the
shell-struck house. The smoke was clearing now, and it was possible to
see something of the damage that had been done.
The shell apparently had struck the roof, had ripped and torn it off,
burst downwards and outwards, blowing out the whole face of the upper
story, the connecting-wall and corner of the houses next to it, part of
the top-floor, and a jagged gap in the face of the lower story. The
street was piled with broken bricks and tiles, with splinters of stone,
with uprooted cobbles, with fragments and beams, bits of furniture,
ragged-edged planks, fragments of smoldering cloth. As the two walked,
their feet crunched on a layer of splintered glass and broken crockery.
The air they breathed reeked with a sharp chemical odor and the stench
of burning rags.
The R.A.M.C. men had collected the casualties, and were doing what they
could for them, and the officer who was "a bit of a surgeon" gave them
what help he could. The casualties were mangled cruelly, and one of
them, a child, died before the ambulance came.
The shells began to come fast now. One after another they poured in,
the last noise of their approach before they struck sounding like the
rush and roar of an express train passing through a tunnel. No more
fell near the square; but the two officers, returning across it, with
the terrifying rush of its projectiles in their ears, moved hastily and
puffed sighs of relief as they reached the door of the cafe again.
"I just about want a drink," said the one who was "a bit of a surgeon."
"Thank Heaven I didn't decide to go into the Medical. The more I see of
that job the less I like it."
The other shuddered. "How these surgeons do it at all," he said, "beats
me. I had to go outside when you started to handle that kiddie. Sorry I
couldn't stay to help you."
"It didn't matter," said the first. "Those Medical fellows did all I
wanted, and anyhow you were better employed giving a hand to stop that
building catching light."
The two had their drink and prepared to move again.
"Time we were off, I suppose," said the first. "Our lot must be getting
ready to take the road presently, and we ought to be there."
So they moved and dodged through the quiet streets, with the shells
still whooping overhead and bursting noisily in different parts of the
town. On their way they entered a shop to buy some slabs of chocolate.
The shop was empty when they entered, but a few stout raps on the
counter brought a woman, pale-faced but volubly chattering, up a ladder
and through a trapdoor in the shop-floor. She served them while the
shells still moaned overhead, talking rapidly, apologizing for keeping
them waiting, and explaining that for the children's sake she always
went down into the cellar when the shelling commenced, wishing them, as
they gathered up their parcels and left, "bonne chance," and making for
the trap-door and the ladder as they closed the shop-door.
About the main streets there were few signs of the shells' work, except
here and there a litter of fragments tossed over the roofs and sprayed
across the road. But, passing through a small side square, the two
officers saw something more of the effect of "direct hits." In the
square was parked a number of ambulance wagons, and over a building at
the side floated a huge Red Cross flag. Eight or nine shells had been
dropped in and around the square. Where they had fallen were huge round
holes, each with a scattered fringe of earth and cobble-stones and
broken pavement. The trees lining the square showed big white patches
on their trunks where the bark had been sliced by flying fragments,
branches broken, hanging and dangling, or holding out jagged white
stumps. Leaves and twigs and branches were littered about the square
and heaped thick under the trees. The brick walls of many of the houses
round were pitted and pocked and scarred by the shell fragments. The
face of one house was marked by a huge splash, with solid center and a
ragged-edged outline of radiating jerky rays, reminding one immediately
of a famous ink-maker's advertisement. The bricks had taken the
impression of the explosion's splash exactly as paper would take the
ink's. Practically every window in the square had been broken, and in
the case of the splash-marked house, blown in, sash and frame complete.
One ambulance wagon lay a torn and splintered wreck, and pieces of it
were flung wide to the four corners of the square. Another was
overturned, with broken wheels collapsed under it, and in the Red Cross
canvas tilts of others gaped huge tears and rents.
At one spot a pool of blood spread wide across the pavement, and still
dripping and running sluggishly and thickly into and along the stone
gutter, showed where at least one shell had caught more than brick and
stone and tree, although now the square was deserted and empty of life.
And even as the two hurriedly skirted the place another shell hurtled
over, tripped on the top edge of a roof across the square and exploded
with an appalling clatter and burst of noise. The roof vanished in a
whirlwind of smoke and dust, and the officers jumped from the doorway
where they had flung themselves crouching, and finished their passage
of the square at a run.
"Hottish corner," said one, as they slowed to a walk some distance
"Silly fools," growled the other. "What do they want to hoist that huge
Red Cross flag up there for, where any airman can see it? Fairly asking
for it, I call it."
When they came to the outskirts of the town they found rather more
signs of life. People were hanging about their doorways and the shops,
fewer windows were shuttered, fewer faces peeped from the tiny grated
windows of the cellars. And up the center of the road, with lordly
calm, marched three Highlanders. The smooth swing of their kilts, their
even, unhurried step, the shoulders well back, and the elbows a shade
outturned, the bonnets cocked to a precisely same angle on the upheld
heads, all bespoke either an amazing ignorance of, or a bland
indifference to, the bombardment. Their march was stopped by a sentry,
who shouted to them and moved out from the pavement. Some sort of
argument was going on as the officers approached, and in passing they
heard the finish of it.
"You were pit there tae warn folk," a Highlander was saying. "Weel,
ye've dune that, so we'll awa on oor road. We're nae fonder o' shells
than y'are yersel. But we'd look bonnie, wouldn't we, t' be tellin' the
Cameron lads we promised to meet, that we were feared for a bit
And after they had passed, the officers looked back and saw the three
Scots swinging their kilts and swaggering imperturbably on to the town,
and their meeting with the "Cameron lads."
There were no more shells, but that afternoon a Taube paid another of
its frequent visits and vigorously bombed the railway station again,
driving the inhabitants back once more to the inadequate shelter of
their cellars and basements. And yet, as the same two officers marched
with their battalion through the town towards the firing-line that
evening, they found the streets quite normally bustling and astir, and
there seemed to be no lack of light in the shops and houses and about
the streets. Here and there as they passed, children stood stiffly to
attention and gravely saluted the battalion, young women and old turned
to call a cheery "Bonne Chance" to the soldiers, to smile bravely and
wave farewells to them.
"Plucky bloomin' lot, ain't they, Bill?" said one man, and blew a kiss
to three girls waving from a window.
"I takes off my 'at to them," said his mate. "What wi' Jack Johnsons
and airyplane bombs, you might expec' the population to have emigrated
in a bunch. The Frenchmen is a plucky enough crowd, but the women--My
"Airyplanes every other day," said the first man. "But I don't notice
any darkened streets and white-painted kerbs; and we don't 'ear the
inhabitants shrieking about protection from air raids, or 'Where's the
anti-aircraft guns?' or 'Who's responsible for air defense?' or 'A baa
the Government that don't a baa the air raids!' 'say la gerr,' says
they, and shrugs their shoulders, and leaves it go at that."
They were in a darker side-street now, and the glare of the burning
house shone red in the sky over the roof tops. "Somebody's 'appy 'ome
gone west," remarked one man, and a mouth-organ in the ranks answered,
with cheerful sarcasm, "Keep the Home Fires Burning!"
_"It is reported that_ ... "--EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
The "it" and the "that" which were reported, and which the despatch
related in another three or four lines, concerned the position of a
forward line of battle, but have really nothing to do with this
account, which aims only at relating something of the method by which
"it was reported" and the men whose particular work was concerned only
with the report as a report, a string of words, a jumble of letters, a
huddle of Morse dots and dashes.
The Signaling Company in the forward lines was situated in a very damp
and very cold cellar of a half-destroyed house. In it were two or three
tables commandeered from upstairs or from some houses around. That one
was a rough deal kitchen table, and that another was of polished wood,
with beautiful inlaid work and artistic curved and carven legs, the
spoils of some drawing-room apparently, was a matter without the
faintest interest to the signalers who used them. To them a table was a
table, no more and no less, a thing to hold a litter of papers, message
forms, telephone gear, and a candle stuck in a bottle. If they had
stopped to consider the matter, and had been asked, they would probably
have given a dozen of the delicate inlaid tables for one of the rough
strong kitchen ones. There were three or four chairs about the place,
just as miscellaneous in their appearance as the tables. But beyond the
tables and chairs there was no furniture whatever, unless a scanty heap
of wet straw in one corner counts as furniture, which indeed it might
well do since it counted as a bed.
There were fully a dozen men in the room, most of them orderlies for
the carrying of messages to and from the telephonists. These men came
and went continually. Outside it had been raining hard for the greater
part of the day, and now, getting on towards midnight, the drizzle
still held and the trenches and fields about the signalers' quarters
were running wet, churned into a mass of gluey chalk-and-clay mud. The
orderlies coming in with messages were daubed thick with the wet mud
from boot-soles to shoulders, often with their puttees and knees and
thighs dripping and running water as if they had just waded through a
stream. Those who by the carrying of a message had just completed a
turn of duty, reported themselves, handed over a message perhaps,
slouched wearily over to the wall farthest from the door, dropped on
the stone floor, bundled up a pack or a haversack, or anything else
convenient for a pillow, lay down and spread a wet mackintosh over
them, wriggled and composed their bodies into the most comfortable, or
rather the least uncomfortable possible position, and in a few minutes
were dead asleep.
It was nothing to them that every now and again the house above them
shook and quivered to the shock of a heavy shell exploding somewhere on
the ground round the house, that the rattle of rifle fire dwindled away
at times to separate and scattered shots, brisked up again and rose to
a long roll, the devil's tattoo of the machine guns rattling through it
with exactly the sound a boy makes running a stick rapidly along a
railing. The bursting shells and scourging rifle fire, sweeping machine
guns, banging grenades and bombs were all affairs with which the
Signaling Company in the cellar had no connection. For the time being
the men in a row along the wall were as unconcerned in the progress of
the battle as if they were safely and comfortably asleep in London.
Presently any or all of them might be waked and sent out into the
flying death and dangers of the battlefield, but in the meantime their
immediate and only interest was in getting what sleep they could. Every
once in a while the signalers' sergeant would shout for a man, go
across to the line and rouse one of the sleepers; then the awakened man
would sit up and blink, rise and listen to his instructions, nod and
say, "Yes, Sergeant! All right, Sergeant!" when these were completed,
pouch his message, hitch his damp mackintosh about him and button it
close, drag heavily across the stone floor and vanish into the darkness
of the stone-staired passage.
His journey might be a long or a short one, he might only have to find
a company commander in the trenches one or two hundred yards away, he
might on the other hand have a several hours' long trudge ahead of him,
a bewildering way to pick through the darkness across a maze of fields
and a net-work of trenches, over and between the rubble heaps that
represented the remains of a village, along roads pitted with all sorts
of blind traps in the way of shell holes, strings of barbed wire,
overturned carts, broken branches of trees, flung stones and beams; and
always, whether his journey was a short one or a long, he would move in
an atmosphere of risk, with sudden death or searing pain passing him by
at every step, and waiting for him, as he well knew, at the next step
and the next and every other one to his journey's end.
Each man who took his instructions and pocketed his message and walked
up the cellar steps knew that he might never walk down them again, that
he might not take a dozen paces from them before the bullet found him.
He knew that its finding might come in black dark and in the middle of
an open field, that it might drop him there and leave him for the
stretcher-bearers to find some time, or for the burying party to lift
any time. Each man who carried out a message was aware that he might
never deliver it, that when some other hand did so, and the message was
being read, he might be past all messages, lying stark and cold in the
mud and filth with the rain beating on his gray unheeding face; or, on
the other hand, that he might be lying warm and comfortable in the
soothing ease of a bed in the hospital train, swaying gently and lulled
by the song of the flying wheels, the rock and roll of the long
compartment, swinging at top speed down the line to the base and the
hospital ship and home. An infinity of possibilities lay between the
two extremes. They were undoubtedly the two extremes: the death that
each man hoped to evade, the wound whose painful prospect held no
slightest terror but only rather the deep satisfaction of a task
performed, of an escape from death at the cheap price of a few days' or
weeks' pain, or even a crippled limb or a broken body.
A man forgot all these things when he came down the cellar steps and
crept to a corner to snatch what sleep he could, but remembered them
again only when he was wakened and sent out into their midst, and into
all the toils and terrors the others had passed, or were to go into or
even then were meeting.
The signalers at the instruments, the sergeants who gathered them in
and sent them forth, gave little or no thought to the orderlies. These
men were hardly more than shadows, things which brought them long
screeds to be translated to the tapping keys, hands which would stretch
into the candle-light and lift the messages that had just "buzzed" in
over their wires. The sergeant thought of them mostly as a list of
names to be ticked off one by one in a careful roster as each man did
his turn of duty, went out, or came back and reported in. And the man
who sent messages these men bore may never have given a thought to the
hands that would carry them, unless perhaps to wonder vaguely whether
the message could get through from so and so to such and such, from
this map square to that, and if the chance of the messages getting
through--the message you will note, not the messenger--seemed extra
doubtful, orders might be given to send it in duplicate or triplicate,
to double or treble the chances of its arriving.
The night wore on, the orderlies slept and woke, stumbled in and out;
the telephonists droned out in monotonous voices to the telephone, or
"buzzed" even more monotonous strings of longs and shorts on the
"buzzer." And in the open about them, and all unheeded by them, men
fought, and suffered wounds and died, or fought on in the scarce lesser
suffering of cold and wet and hunger.
In the signalers' room all the fluctuations of the fight were
translated from the pulsing fever, the human living tragedies and
heroisms, the violent hopes and fears and anxieties of the battle line,
to curt cold words, to scribbled letters on a message form. At times
these messages were almost meaningless to them, or at least their red
tragedy was unheeded. Their first thought when a message was handed in
for transmission, usually their first question when the signaler at the
other end called to take a message, was whether the message was a long
one or a short one. One telephonist was handed an urgent message to
send off, saying that bombs were running short in the forward line and
that further supplies were required at the earliest possible moment,
that the line was being severely bombed and unless they had the means
to reply must be driven out or destroyed. The signaler took that
message and sent it through; but his instrument was not working very
clearly, and he was a good deal more concerned and his mind was much
more fully taken up with the exasperating difficulty of making the
signaler at the other end catch word or letter correctly, than it was
with all the close packed volume of meaning it contained. It was not
that he did not understand the meaning; he himself had known a line
bombed out before now, the trenches rent and torn apart, the shattered
limbs and broken bodies of the defenders, the horrible ripping crash of
the bombs, the blinding flame, the numbing shock, the smoke and reek
and noise of the explosions; but though all these things were known to
him, the words "bombed out" meant no more now than nine letters of the
alphabet and the maddening stupidity of the man at the other end, who
would misunderstand the sound and meaning of "bombed" and had to have
it in time-consuming letter-by-letter spelling.
When he had sent that message, he took off and wrote down one or two
others from the signaling station he was in touch with. His own
station, it will be remembered, was close up to the forward firing
line, a new firing line which marked the limits of the advance made
that morning. The station he was connected with was back in rear of
what, previous to the attack, had been the British forward line.
Between the two the thin insignificant thread of the telephone wire ran
twisting across the jumble of the trenches of our old firing line, the
neutral ground that had lain between the trenches, and the other maze
of trench, dug-out, and bomb-proof shelter pits that had been captured
from the enemy. Then in the middle of sending a message, the wire went
dead, gave no answer to repeated calls on the "buzzer." The sergeant,
called to consultation, helped to overlook and examine the instrument.
Nothing could be found wrong with it, but to make quite sure the fault
was not there, a spare instrument was coupled on to a short length of
wire between it and the old one. They carried the message perfectly, so
with curses of angry disgust the wire was pronounced disconnected, or
"disc," as the signaler called it.
This meant that a man or men had to be sent out along the line to find
and repair the break, and that until this was done, no telephone
message could pass between that portion of the forward line and the
headquarters in the rear. The situation was the more serious, inasmuch
as this was the only connecting line for a considerable distance along
the new front. A corporal and two men took a spare instrument and a
coil of wire, and set out on their dangerous journey.
The break of course had been reported to the O.C., and after that there
was nothing more for the signaler at the dead instrument to do, except
to listen for the buzz that would come back from the repair party as
they progressed along the line, tapping in occasionally to make sure
that they still had connection with the forward station, their getting
no reply at the same time from the rear station being of course
sufficient proof that they had not passed the break.
Twice the signaler got a message, the second one being from the forward
side of the old neutral ground in what had been the German front line
trench; the report said also that fairly heavy fire was being
maintained on the open ground. After that there was silence.
When the signaler had time to look about him, to light a cigarette and
to listen to the uproar of battle that filtered down the cellar steps
and through the closed door, he spoke to the sergeant about the noise,
and the sergeant agreed with him that it was getting louder, which
meant either that the fight was getting hotter or coming closer. The
answer to their doubts came swiftly to their hands in the shape of a
note from the O.C., with a message borne by the orderly that it was to
be sent through anyhow or somehow, but at once.
Now the O.C., be it noted, had already had a report that the telephone
wire was cut; but he still scribbled his note, sent his message, and
thereafter put the matter out of his mind. He did not know how or in
what fashion the message would be sent; but he did know the Signaling
Company, and that was sufficient for him.
In this he was doing nothing out of the usual. There are many
commanders who do the same thing, and this, if you read it aright, is a
compliment to the signaling companies beyond all the praise of General
Orders or the sweet flattery of the G.O.C. despatch--the men who sent
the messages put them out of their mind as soon as they were written
and handed to an orderly with a curt order, "Signaling company to send
You at home who slip a letter into the pillar box, consider it,
allowing due time for its journey, as good as delivered at the other
end; by so doing you pay an unconscious compliment to all manners and
grades of men, from high salaried managers down to humble porters and
postmen. But the somewhat similar compliment that is paid by the men
who send messages across the battlefield is paid in the bulk to one
little select circle; to the animal brawn and blood, the spiritual
courage and devotion, the bodies and brains, the pluck and
perseverance, the endurance, the grit and the determination of the
When the sergeant took his message and glanced through it, he pursed
his lips in a low whistle and asked the signaler to copy while he went
and roused three messengers. His quick glance through the note had told
him, even without the O.C.'s message, that it was to the last degree
urgent that the message should go back and be delivered at once and
without fail; therefore he sent three messengers, simply because three
men trebled the chances of the message getting through without delay.
If one man dropped, there were two to go on; if two fell, the third
would still carry on; if he fell--well, after that the matter was
beyond the sergeant's handling; he must leave it to the messenger to
find another man or means to carry on the message.
The telephonist had scribbled a copy of the note to keep by him in case
the wire was mended and the message could be sent through after the
messengers started and before they reached the other end. The three
received their instructions, drew their wet coats about their shivering
shoulders, relieved their feelings in a few growled sentences about the
dog's life a man led in that company, and departed into the wet night.
The sergeant came back, re-read the message and discussed it with the
signaler. It said: "Heavy attack is developing and being pressed
strongly on our center a-a-a.[Footnote: Three a's indicate a full
stop.] Our losses have been heavy and line is considerably weakened
a-a-a. Will hold on here to the last but urgently request that strong
reinforcements be sent up if the line is to be maintained a-a-a.
Additional artillery support would be useful a-a-a."
"Sounds healthy, don't it?" said the sergeant reflectively. The
signaler nodded gloomily and listened apprehensively to the growing
sounds of battle. Now that his mind was free from first thoughts of
telephonic worries, he had time to consider outside matters. For nearly
ten minutes the two men listened, and talked in short sentences, and
listened again. The rattle of rifle fire was sustained and unbroken,
and punctuated liberally at short intervals by the boom of exploding
grenades and bombs. Decidedly the whole action was heavier--or coming
back closer to them.
The sergeant was moving across the door to open it and listen when a
shell struck the house above them. The building shook violently, down
to the very flags of the stone floor; from overhead, after the first
crash, there came a rumble of falling masonry, the splintering cracks
of breaking wood-work, the clatter and rattle of cascading bricks and
tiles. A shower of plaster grit fell from the cellar roof and settled
thick upon the papers littered over the table. The sergeant halted
abruptly with his hand on the cellar door, three or four of the
sleepers stirred restlessly, one woke for a minute sufficiently to
grumble curses and ask "what the blank was that"; the rest slept on
serene and undisturbed. The sergeant stood there until the last sounds
of falling rubbish had ceased. "A shell," he said, and drew a deep
breath. "Plunk into upstairs somewhere."
The signaler made no answer. He was quite busy at the moment
rearranging his disturbed papers and blowing the dust and grit off
A telephonist at another table commenced to take and write down a
message. It came from the forward trench on the left, and merely said
briefly that the attack on the center was spreading to them and that
they were holding it with some difficulty. The message was sent up to
the O.C. "Whoever the O.C. may be," as the sergeant said softly. "If
the Colonel was upstairs when that shell hit, there's another O.C. now,
most like." But the Colonel had escaped that shell and sent a message
back to the left trench to hang on, and that he had asked for
"He did ask," said the sergeant grimly, "but when he's going to get 'em
is a different pair o' shoes. It'll take those messengers most of an
hour to get there, even if they dodge all the lead on the way."
As the minutes passed, it became more and more plain that the need for
reenforcements was growing more and more urgent. The sergeant was
standing now at the open door of the cellar, and the noise of the
conflict swept down and clamored and beat about them.
"Think I'll just slip up and have a look round," said the sergeant. "I
shan't be long."
When he had gone, the signaler rose and closed the door; it was cold
enough, as he very sensibly argued, and his being able to hear the
fighting better would do nothing to affect its issue. Just after came
another call on his instrument, and the repair party told him they had
crossed the neutral ground, had one man wounded in the arm, that he was
going on with them, and they were still following up the wire. The
message ceased, and the telephonist, leaning his elbows on the table
and his chin on his hands, was almost asleep before he realized it. He
wakened with a jerk, lit another cigarette, and stamped up and down the
room trying to warm his numbed feet.
First one orderly and then another brought in messages to be sent to
the other trenches, and the signaler held them a minute and gathered
some more particulars as to how the fight was progressing up there. The
particulars were not encouraging. We must have lost a lot of men, since
the whole place was clotted up with casualties that kept coming in
quicker than the stretcher-bearers could move them. The rifle-fire was
hot, the bombing was still hotter, and the shelling was perhaps the
hottest and most horrible of all. Of the last the signaler hardly
required an account; the growling thumps of heavy shells exploding,
kept sending little shivers down the cellar walls, the shiver being,
oddly enough, more emphatic when the wail of the falling shell ended in
a muffled thump that proclaimed the missile "blind" or "a dud." Another
hurried messenger plunged down the steps with a note written by the
adjutant to say the colonel was severely wounded and had sent for the
second in command to take over. Ten more dragging minutes passed, and
now the separate little shivers and thrills that shook the cellar walls
had merged and run together. The rolling crash of the falling shells
and the bursting of bombs came close and fast one upon another, and at
intervals the terrific detonation of an aerial torpedo dwarfed for the
moment all the other sounds.
By now the noise was so great that even the sleepers began to stir, and
one or two of them to wake. One sat up and asked the telephonist,
sitting idle over his instrument, what was happening. He was told
briefly, and told also that the line was "disc." He expressed
considerable annoyance at this, grumbling that he knew what it
meant--more trips in the mud and under fire to take the messages the
wire should have carried.
"Do you think there's any chance of them pushing in the line and
rushing this house?" he asked. The telephonist didn't know. "Well,"
said the man and lay down again. "It's none o' my dashed business if
they do anyway. I only hope we're tipped the wink in time to shunt out
o' here; I've no particular fancy for sitting in a cellar with the
Boche cock-shying their bombs down the steps at me." Then he shut his
eyes and went to sleep again.
The morsed key signal for his own company buzzed rapidly on the
signaler's telephone and he caught the voice of the corporal who had
taken out the repair party. They had found the break, the corporal
said, and were mending it. He should be through--he was through--could
he hear the other end? The signaler could hear the other end calling
him and he promptly tapped off the answering signal and spoke into his
instrument. He could hear the morse signals on the buzzer plain enough,
but the voice was faint and indistinct. The signaler caught the
corporal before he withdrew his tap-in and implored him to search along
and find the leakage.
"It's bad enough," he said, "to get all these messages through by
voice. I haven't a dog's chance of doing it if I have to buzz each
The rear station spoke again and informed him that he had several
urgent messages waiting. The forward signaler replied that he also had
several messages, and one in particular was urgent above all others.
"The blanky line is being pushed in," he said. "No, it isn't pushed in
yet--I didn't say it--I said being pushed in--being--being, looks like
it will be pushed in--got that? The O.C. has' stopped one' and the
second has taken command. This message I want you to take is shrieking
for reenforcements--what? I can't hear--no I didn't say anything about
horses--I did _not_. Reenforcements I said; anyhow, take this message
and get it through quick."
He was interrupted by another terrific crash, a fresh and louder
outburst of the din outside; running footsteps clattered and leaped
down the stairs, the door flung open and the sergeant rushed in
slamming the door violently behind him. He ran straight across to the
recumbent figures and began violently to shake and kick them into
"Up with ye!" he said, "every man. If you don't wake quick now, you'll
maybe not have the chance to wake at all."
The men rolled over and sat and stood up blinking stupidly at him and
listening in amazement to the noise outside.
"Rouse yourselves," he cried. "Get a move on. The Germans are almost on
top of us. The front line's falling back. They'll stand here." He
seized one or two of them and pushed them towards the door. "You," he
said, "and you and you, get outside and round the back there. See if
you can get a pickaxe, a trenching tool, anything, and break down that
grating and knock a bigger hole in the window. We may have to crawl out
there presently. The rest o' ye come with me an' help block up the
Through the din that followed, the telephonist fought to get his
message through; he had to give up an attempt to speak it while a
hatchet, a crowbar, and a pickaxe were noisily at work breaking out a
fresh exit from the back of the cellar, and even after that work had
been completed, it was difficult to make himself heard. He completed
the urgent message for reenforcements at last, listened to some
confused and confusing comments upon it, and then made ready to take
some messages from the other end.
"You'll have to shout," he said, "no, shout--speak loud, because I
can't 'ardly 'ear myself think--no, 'ear myself think. Oh, all sorts,
but the shelling is the worst, and one o' them beastly airyale
torpedoes. All right, go ahead."
The earpiece receiver strapped tightly over one ear, left his right
hand free to use a pencil, and as he took the spoken message word by
word, he wrote it on the pad of message forms under his hand. Under the
circumstances it is hardly surprising that the message took a good deal
longer than a normal time to send through, and while he was taking it,
the signaler's mind was altogether too occupied to pay any attention to
the progress of events above and around him. But now the sergeant came
back and warned him that he had better get his things ready and put
together as far as he could, in case they had to make a quick and
"The game's up, I'm afraid," he said gloomily, and took a note that was
brought down by another orderly. "I thought so," he commented, as he
read it hastily and passed it to the other signaler. "It's a message
warning the right and left flanks that we can't hold the center any
longer, and that they are to commence falling back to conform to our
retirement at 3.20 _ac emma_, which is ten minutes from now."
Over their heads the signalers could hear tramping scurrying feet, the
hammering out of loopholes, the dragging thump and flinging down of
obstacles piled up as an additional defense to the rickety walls. Then
there were more hurrying footsteps, and presently the jarring
_rap-rap-rap_ of a machine gun immediately over their heads.
"That's done it!" said the sergeant. "We've got no orders to move, but
I'm going to chance it and establish an alternative signaling station
in one of the trenches somewhere behind here. This cellar roof is too
thin to stop an ordinary Fizzbang, much less a good solid Crump, and
that machine gun upstairs is a certain invitation to sudden death and
the German gunners to down and out us."
He moved towards the new opening that had been made in the wall of the
cellar, scrambled up it and disappeared. All the signalers lifted their
attention from their instruments at the same moment and sat listening
to the fresh note that ran through the renewed and louder clamor and
racket. The signaler who was in touch with the rear station called them
and began to tell them what was happening.
"We're about all in, I b'lieve," he said. "Five minutes ago we passed
word to the flanks to fall back in ten minutes. What? Yes, it's thick.
I don't know how many men we've lost hanging on, and I suppose we'll
lose as many again taking back the trench we're to give up. What's
that? No. I don't see how reenforcements could be here yet. How long
ago you say you passed orders for them to move up? An hour ago! That's
wrong, because the messengers can't have been back--telephone message?
That's a lot less than an hour ago. I sent it myself no more than half
an hour since. Oo-oo! did you get that bump? Dunno, couple o' big
shells or something dropped just outside. I can 'ardly 'ear you.
There's a most almighty row going on all round. They must be charging,
I think, or our front line's fallen back, because the rifles is going
nineteen to the dozen, a-a-ah! They're getting stronger too, and it
sounds like a lot more bombs going; hold on, there's that blighting
He stopped speaking while upstairs the maxim clattered off belt after
belt of cartridges. The other signalers were shuffling their feet
anxiously and looking about them.
"Are we going to stick it here?" said one. "Didn't the sergeant say
something about 'opping it?"
"If he did," said the other, "he hasn't given any orders that I've
heard. I suppose he'll come back and do that, and we've just got to
carry on till then."
The men had to shout now to make themselves heard to each other above
the constant clatter of the maxim and the roar of rifle fire. By now
they could hear, too, shouts and cries and the trampling rush of many
footsteps. The signaler spoke into his instrument again.
"I think the line's fallen back," he said. "I can hear a heap o' men
running about there outside, and now I suppose us here is about due to
get it in the neck."
There was a scuffle, a rush, and a plunge, and the sergeant shot down
through the rear opening and out into the cellar.
"The flank trenches!" he shouted. "Quick! Get on to them--right and
left flank--tell them they're to stand fast. Quick, now, give them that
first. Stand fast; do not retire."
The signalers leaped to their instruments, buzzed off the call, and
getting through, rattled their messages off.
"Ask them," said the sergeant anxiously. "Had they commenced to
retire." He breathed a sigh of relief when the answers came. "No," that
the message had just stopped them in time.
"Then," he said, "you can go ahead now and tell them the order to
retire is cancelled, that the reenforcements have arrived, that they're
up in our forward line, and we can hold it good--oh!"
He paused and wiped his wet forehead; "you," he said, turning to the
other signaler, "tell them behind there the same thing."
"How in thunder did they manage it, sergeant?" said the perplexed
signaler. "They haven't had time since they got my message through."
"No," said the sergeant, "but they've just had time since they got
"Got yours?" said the bewildered signaler.
"Yes, didn't I tell you?" said the sergeant. "When I went out for a
look round that time, I found an artillery signaler laying out a new
line, and I got him to let me tap in and send a message through his
battery to headquarters."
"You might have told me," said the aggrieved signaler. "It would have
saved me a heap of sweat getting that message through." After he had
finished his message to the rear station he spoke reflectively: "Lucky
thing you did get through," he said. "'Twas a pretty close shave. The
O.C. should have a 'thank you' for you over it."
"I don't suppose," answered the sergeant, "the O.C. will ever know or
ever trouble about it; he sent a message to the signaling company to
send through--and it was sent through. There's the beginning and the
end of it."
And as he said, so it was; or rather the end of it was in those three
words that appeared later in the despatch: "It is reported."
You must know plenty of people--if you yourself are not one of
them--who hold out stoutly against any military compulsion or
conscription in the belief that the "fetched" man can never be the
equal in valor and fighting instinct of the volunteer, can only be a
source of weakness in any platoon, company and regiment. This tale may
throw a new light on that argument.
Gerald Bunthrop was not a conscript in the strict sense of the word,
because when he enlisted no legal form of conscription existed in the
United Kingdom; but he was, as many more have been, a moral conscript,
a man utterly averse to any form of soldiering, much less fighting,
very reluctantly driven into the Army by force of circumstance and
pressure from without himself. Before the War the Army and its ways
were to him a sealed book. Of war he had the haziest ideas compounded
of novels he had read and dimly remembered and mental pictures in a
confused jumble of Charles O'Malley dragoons on spirited charges,
half-forgotten illustrations in the papers of pith-helmeted infantry in
the Boer War, faint boyhood recollections of Magersfontein and the
glumness of the "Black Week"--a much more realistic and vivid
impression of Waterloo as described by Brigadier Gerard--and odd
figures of black Soudanese, of Light Brigade troopers, of Peninsula
red-coats, of Sepoys and bonneted Highlanders in the Mutiny period, and
of Life Guard sentries at Whitehall, lines of fixed bayonets on City
procession routes, and khaki-clad Terriers seen about railway stations
and on bus-tops with incongruous rifles on Saturday afternoons.
Actually, it is not correct to include these living figures in his
vague idea of war. They had to him no connection with anything outside
normal peaceful life, stirred his thoughts to war no more than seeing a
gasbracket would wake him to imaginings of a coalmine or a pit
explosion. His slight conceptions of war, then, were a mere matter of
print and books and pictures, and the first months of this present war
were exactly the same, no more and no less--newspaper paragraphs and
photos and drawings in the weeklies hanging on the bookstalls. He read
about the Retreat and the Advance, skimmed the prophets' forecasts,
gulped the communiques with interest a good deal fainter than he read
the accounts of the football matches or a boxing bout. He expected "our
side" to win of course, and was quite patriotic; was in fact a
"supporter" of the British Army in exactly the sense of being a
"supporter" or "follower" of Tottenham Hotspurs or Kent County. Any
thoughts that he might shoulder a rifle and fight Germans would at that
time, if it had entered his head, have seemed just as ridiculous as a
thought that he should play in the Final at the Crystal Palace or step
into the ring to fight Carpentier. It took a long time to move him from
this attitude of aloofness. Recruiting posters failed utterly to touch
him. He looked at them, criticized them, even discussed their
"goodness" or drawing power on recruits with complete detachment and
without the vaguest idea that they were addressed to him. He bought
Allies' flag-buttons, and subscribed with his fellow-employees to a Red
Cross Fund, and joined them again in sending some sixpences to a
newspaper Smokes Gift Fund; he always most scrupulously stood up and
uncovered to "God Save the King," and clapped and encored vociferously
any patriotic songs or sentiments from the stage. He thought he was
doing his full duty as a loyal Briton, and even--this was when he
promised a regular sixpence a week to the Smokes Fund--going perhaps a
little beyond it. First hints and suggestions that he should enlist he
treated as an excellent jest, and when at last they became too frequent
and pointed for that, and began to come from complete strangers, he
became justly indignant at such "impudence" and "interference," and
began long explainings to people he knew, that he wasn't the one to be
bullied into anything, that fighting wasn't "his line," that he "had no
liking for soldiering," that he would have gone like a shot, but had
his own good and adequate reasons for not doing so.
There is no need to tell of the stages by which he arrived at the
conclusion that he must enlist: from the first dawning wonder at such a
possibility, through qualms of doubt and fear and spasms of hope
and--almost--courage, to a dull apathy of resignation. No need to tell
either the particular circumstances that "conscripted" him at last,
because although his name is not real the man himself is, and one has
no wish to bring shame on him or his people. I have only described him
so closely to make it very clear that he was driven to enlistment, that
a less promising recruit never joined up, that he was a conscript in
every real sense of the word. We can pass over all his training, his
introduction to the life of the trenches, his feelings of terror under
conditions as little dangerous as the trenches could be. He managed,
more or less, to hide this terror, as many a worse and many a better
man has done before him, until one day----
The Germans had made a fierce attack, had overborne a section of the
defense and taken a good deal of trenched ground, had been
counter-attacked and partly driven back, had scourged the lost parts
with a fresh tempest of artillery fire and driven in again to close
quarters, to hot bomb and bayonet work; were again checked and for the
Private Gerald Bunthrop's battalion had been hurried up to support the
broken and breaking line, was thrust into a badly wrecked trench with
crumbling sides and broken traverses, with many dead and wounded
cumbering the feet of the few defenders, with a reek of high-explosive
fumes catching their throats and nostrils. The open ground beyond the
trench was scattered thick with great heaps of German dead, a few more
sprawled on the broken parapet, another and lesser few were huddled in
the trench itself amongst the many khaki forms. The battalion holding
the trench had been almost annihilated in the task, had in fact at
first been driven out from part of the line and had only reoccupied it
with heavy losses. Bunthrop had with his battalion passed along some
smashed communication trenches and over the open ground this fighting
had covered, and the sights they saw in passing might easily have
shaken the stoutest hearts and nerves. They made the approach, too,
under a destructive fire with high-explosive shells screaming and
crashing over, around, and amongst them, with bullets whistling and
hissing about them and striking the ground with the sound of constantly
exploding Chinese crackers.
Bunthrop himself, to state the fact baldly, was in an agony of fear. He
might have been tempted to bolt, but was restrained by a complete lack
of any idea where to bolt to, by a lingering remnant of self-respect,
and by a firm conviction that he would be dealt with mercilessly if he
openly ran. But when he reached the comparative shelter of the broken
trench all these safeguards of his decent behavior vanished. He flung
himself into the trench, cowered in its deepest part, made not the
slightest attempt to look over the parapet, much less to use his rifle.
There is this much of excuse for him, that on the very instant that
they reached the cover of the trench a bursting high-explosive had
caught the four men next in line to him. The excuse may be insufficient
for those who have never witnessed at very close hand the instant and
terrible destruction of four companions with whom they have eaten and
slept and talked and moved and had their intimate being for many
months; but those who have known such happenings will understand.
Bunthrop's sergeant understood, and because he was a good sergeant and
had the instinct for the right handling of men--it must have been an
instinct, because, up to a year before, he had been ledger clerk in a
City office and had handled nothing more alive than columns of figures
in a book--he issued exactly the order that appealed exactly to
Bunthrop's terror and roused him from a shivering embodiment of fear to
a live thinking and order-obeying private. "Get up and sling some of
those sandbags back on the parapet, Bunthrop!" he said, "and see if you
can't make some decent cover for yourself. You've nothing there that
would stop a half-crippled Hun jumping in on top of you." When he came
back along the trench five minutes later he found Bunthrop feverishly
busy re-piling sandbags and strengthening the parapet, ducking hastily
and crouching low when a shell roared past overhead, but hurriedly
resuming work the instant it had passed. Then came the fresh German
attack, preceded by five minutes' intense artillery fire, concentrated
on the half-wrecked trench. The inferno of noise, the rush and roar of
the approaching shells, the crash and earth-shaking thunder of their
explosions, the ear-splitting cracks overhead of high-explosive
shrapnel, the drone and whirr and thump of their flying fragments--the
whole racking, roaring, deafening, sense-destroying tempest of noise
was too much for Bunthrop's nerve. He flung down and flattened himself
to the trench bottom again, squeezing himself close to the earth,
submerged and drowned in a sweeping wave of panic fear. He gave no heed
to the orders of his platoon commander, the shouting of his sergeant,
the stir that ran along the trench, the flat spitting reports of the
rifles that began to crack rapidly in a swiftly increasing volume of
fire. A huge fragment of shell came down and struck the trench bottom
with a suggestively violent thud a foot from his head. Half sick with
the instant thought, "If it had been a foot this way!..." half crazed
with the sense of openness to such a missile, Bunthrop rose to his
knees, pressing close to the forward parapet, and looking wildly about
him. His sergeant saw him. "You, Bunthrop," he shouted, "are you hit?
Get up, you fool, and shoot! If we can't stop 'em before they reach
here we're done in." Bunthrop hardly heeded him. Along the trench the
men were shooting at top speed over the parapet; a dozen paces away two
of the battalion machine-guns were clattering and racketing in rapid
gusts of fire; a little farther along a third one had jambed and was
being jerked and hammered at by a couple of sweating men and a wildly
cursing boy officer. So much Bunthrop saw, and then with a hideous
screeching roar a high explosive fell and burst in a shattering crash,
a spouting hurricane of noise and smoke and flung earth and fragments.
Bunthrop found himself half buried in a landslide of crumbling trench,
struggled desperately clear, gasping and choking in the black cloud of
smoke and fumes, saw presently, as the smoke thinned and dissolved, a
chaos of broken earth and sandbags where the machine-guns had stood;
saw one man and an officer dragging their gun from the debris, setting
it up again on the broken edge of the trench. Another man staggered up
the crumbling earth bank to help, and presently amongst them they got
the gun into action again. The officer left it and ran to where he saw
the other gun half buried in loose earth. He dragged it clear, found it
undamaged, looked round, shouted at Bunthrop crouching flat against the
trench wall; shouted again, came down the earth bank to him with a
rush. "Come and help!" he yelled, grabbing at Bunthrop's arm. Bunthrop
mumbled stupidly in reply. "What?" shouted the officer. "Come and help,
will you? Never mind if you are hurt," as he noticed a smear of blood
on the private's face. "You'll be hurt worse if they get into this
trench with the bayonet. Come on and help!" Bunthrop, hardly
understanding, obeyed the stronger will and followed him back to the
gun. "Can you load?" demanded the officer. "Can you fill the cartridges
into these drums while I shoot?" Bunthrop had had in a remote period of
his training some machine-gun instruction. He nodded and mumbled again.
"God!" said the officer. "Look at 'em! There's enough to eat us if they
get to bayonet distance! We _must_ stop 'em with the bullet. Hurry up,
man; hurry, if you don't want to be skewered like a stuck pig!" He
rattled off burst after burst of fire, clamoring at Bunthrop to hurry,
hurry, hurry. A wounded machine-gunner joined them, and then some
others, and the gun began to spit a steady string of bullets again. By
this time the full meaning of the officer's words--the meaning, too, of
remarks between the wounded helpers--had soaked into Bunthrop's brain.
Their only hope, his only hope of life, lay in stopping the attack
before it reached the trench; and the machine-guns were a main factor
in the stopping. He lost interest in everything except cramming the
cartridges into their place. When the officer was hit and rolled
backwards and lay groaning and swearing, Bunthrop's chief and agonizing
thought was that they--he--had lost the assistance and protection of
the gun. When one of the wounded gunners took the officer's place and
reopened fire, Bunthrop's only concern again was to keep pace with the
loading. The thoughts were repeated exactly when that gunner was hit
and collapsed and his place was taken by another man. And by now the
urgent need of keeping the gun going was so impressed on Bunthrop that
when the next gunner was struck down and the gun stood idle and
deserted it was Bunthrop who turned wildly urging the other loaders to
get up and keep the gun going; babbled excitedly about the only hope
being to stop the Germans before they "got in" with the bayonet,
repeated again and again at them the officer's phrase about "skewered
like stuck pigs." The others hung back. They had seen man after man
struck down at the gun, they could hear the _hiss_ and _whitt_ of the
bullets over their heads, the constant cracker-like smacks of others
that hit the parapet, and--they hung back. "Why th' 'ell don't you do
it yerself?" demanded one of them, angered by Bunthrop's goading and in
some degree, no doubt, by the disagreeable knowledge that they were
flinching from a duty.
And then Bunthrop, the "conscript," the man who had held back from war
to the last possible minute, who hated soldiering and shrank from
violence and all fighting, who was known to his fellows as "a funk,"
the source of much uneasiness to company and platoon commanders and
sergeants as "a weak spot," Bunthrop did what these others, these
average good men who had "joined up" freely, who had longed for the end
of home training and the transfer "out Front," dared not do. Bunthrop
scrambled up the broken bank, seized the gun, swung the sights full to
the broad gray target, and opened fire. He kept it going steadily, too,
with a sleet of bullets whistling and whipping past him, kept on after
a bullet snatched the cap from his head, and others in quick succession
cut away a shoulder strap, scored a red weal across his neck, stabbed
through the point of his shoulder. And when a shell-fragment smashed
the gun under his hands, he left it only to plunge hastily to the other
gun abandoned by all but dead and dying; pulled off a dead man who
sprawled across it and recommenced shooting. He stopped firing only
when his last cartridge was gone; squatted a moment longer staring over
the sights, and then raised his head and peered out into the trailing
film of smoke clouds from the bursting shells. Although it took him a
minute to be sure of it he saw plainly at last that the attack was
broken. Dimly he could see the heaped clusters of dead that lay out in
the open, the crawling and limping figures of the wounded who sought
safety back in the cover of their own trench, and more than that he
could see men running with their heads stooped and their gray coats
flapping about their ankles. It was this last that roused him again to
action. He scrambled hurriedly back down the broken parapet into the
trench. "Come on, you fellows," he shouted to two or three nearby men
who continued to fire their rifles over the parapet. "It's no use
waitin' here any longer." A heavy shell whooped roaring over them and
crashed thunderously close behind the parapet. Bunthrop paid no
slightest heed to it. His wide, staring eyes and white face, and blood
smeared from the trickling wound in his neck, his capless head and
tumbled hair, his clay and mud-caked and blood-stained uniform all gave
him a look of wildness, of desperation, of abandonment. His sergeant,
the man who had seen his fear and set him to pile the sandbags, caught
sight of him again now, heard some word of his shoutings, and pushed
hastily along the trench to where he fidgeted and called angrily to the
others to "chuck that silly shooting--I'm goin' anyhow ... what's the
The sergeant interrupted sharply.
"Here, you shut up, Bunthrop," he shouted. "Keep down in the trench.
You're wounded, aren't you? Well, you'll get back presently."
"That be damn," said Bunthrop. "You don't understand. They're runnin'
away, but we can't go out after 'em if these silly blighters here keep
shootin'. Come on now, or they'll all be gone." And Private Bunthrop,
the despised "conscript," slung his bayoneted rifle over his wounded
shoulder and commenced to scramble up out over the front of the broken
parapet. And what is more he was really and genuinely annoyed when the
sergeant catching him by the heel dragged him down again and ordered
him to stay there.
"Don't you understand?" he stuttered excitedly, and gesticulating
fiercely towards the front. "They're runnin', I tell you; the blighters
are runnin' away. Why can't we get out after 'em?"
SMASHING THE COUNTER-ATTACK
" ... _a violent counter-attack was delivered but was successfully
repulsed at every point with heavy losses to the enemy_."--EXTRACT FROM
There appears to be some doubt as to who rightly claims to have been
the first to notice and report signs of the massing of heavy forces of
Germans for the counter-attack on our positions. The infantry say that
a scouting patrol fumbling about in the darkness in front of the
forward fire trench heard suspicious sounds--little clickings of
equipment and accouterments, stealthy rustlings, distant tramping--and
reported on their return to the trench. An artillery observing officer
is said to have seen flitting shadows of figures in the gray light of
the dawn mists, and, later, an odd glimpse of cautious movement amongst
the trees of a wood some little distance behind the German lines, and
an unbroken passing of gray-covered heads behind a portion of a
communication trench parapet. He also reported, and he may have been
responsible for the dozen or so of shrapnel that were flung tentatively
into and over the wood. An airman droning high over the lines, with
fleecy white puffs of shrapnel smoke breaking about him, also saw and
reported clearly "large force of Germans massing Map Square So-and-so."
But whoever was responsible for the first report matters little. The
great point is that the movement was detected in good time, apparently
before the preparations for attack were complete, so that the final
arraying and disposal of the force for the launching of the attack was
hampered and checked, and made perforce under a demoralizing artillery
What the results might have been if the full weight of the massed
attack could have been prepared without detection and flung on our
lines without warning is hard to say; but there is every chance that
our first line at least might have been broken into and swamped by the
sheer weight of numbers. That, clearly, is what the Germans had
intended, and from the number of men employed it is evident that they
meant to push to the full any chance our breaking line gave them to
reoccupy and hold fast a considerable portion of the ground they had
lost. It is said that three to four full divisions were used. If that
is correct, it is certain that the German army was minus three to four
effective divisions when the attack withdrew, that a good half of the
men in them would never fight again. The attack lost its first great
advantage in losing the element of surprise. The bulk of the troops
would have been moved into position in the hours of darkness. That
wood, in all probability, was filled with men by night. The only
daylight movement attempted would have been the cautious filling of the
trenches, the pouring in of the long gray-coated lines along the
communication trenches, all keeping well down and under cover. Under
the elaborate system of deep trenches, fire-, and support-,
communication- and approach-trenches running back for miles to emerge
only behind houses or hill or wood, it is surprising how large a mass
of men can be pushed into the forward trenches without any disclosure
of movement to the enemy. Scores of thousands of men may be packed away
waiting motionless for the word, more thousands may be pouring slowly
up the communication ways, and still more thousands standing ready a
mile or two behind the lines; and yet to any eye looking from the
enemy's side the country is empty and still, and bare of life as a
swept barn. Even the all-seeing airmen can be cheated, and see nothing
but the usual quiet countryside, the tangled crisscross of trenches,
looking from above like so many wriggling lines of thin white braid
with a black cord-center, the neat dolls' toy-houses and streets of the
villages, the straight, broad ribbon of the Route Nationale, all still
and lifeless, except for an odd cart or two on the high road, a few
dotted figures in the village streets. Below the flying-men the packed
thousands are crouched still to earth. At the sound of the engine's
drone, at sight of the wheeling shape, square miles of country stiffen
to immobility, men scurry under cover of wall or bush, the long, moving
lines in the trenches halt and sink down and hang their heads (next to
movement the light dots of upturned, staring faces are the quickest and
surest betrayal of the earth-men to the air-men), the open roads are
emptied of men into the ditches and under the trees. For civilized man,
in his latest art of war, has gone back to be taught one more simple
lesson by the beasts of the field and birds of the air; the armed hosts
are hushed and stilled by the passing air-machine, exactly as the
finches and field-mice of hedgerow and ditch and field are frozen to
stillness by the shadow of a hovering hawk, the beat of its passing
But this time some movement in the trenches, some delay in halting a
regiment, some neglect to keep men under cover, some transport too
suspiciously close-spaced on the roads, betrayed the movement. His
suspicions aroused, the airman would have risked the anti-aircraft guns
and dropped a few hundred feet and narrowly searched each hillside and
wood for the telltale gray against the green. Then the wireless would
commence to talk, or the 'plane swoop round and drive headlong for home
And then, picture the bustle at the different headquarters, the stir
amongst the signalers, the frantic pipings of the telephone "buzzers,"
the sharp calls. "Take a message. Ready? Brigade H.Q. to O.C.
Such-and-such Battery," or "to O.C. So-and-So Regiment"; imagine the
furtive scurry in the trenches to man the parapets, and prepare bombs,
and lay out more ammunition; the rush at the batteries, the quick
consulting of squared maps, the bellowed string of orders in a jargon
of angles of sight, correctors, ranges, figures and measures of degrees
and yards, the first scramble about the guns dropping to the smooth
work of ordered movement, the peering gun muzzles jerking and twitching
to their ordained angles, the click and slam of the closing
breech-blocks, the tense stillness as each gun reports "Ready!" and
waits the word to fire.
And all the while imagine the Germans out there, creeping through the
trees, crowding along the trenches, sifting out and settling down into
the old favorite formation, making all ready for one more desperate
trial of it, stacking the cards for yet another deep gambling plunge on
the great German game--the massed attack in solid lines at close
interval. The plan no doubt was the same old plan--a quick and
overwhelming torrent of shell fire, a sudden hurricane of high
explosive on the forward trench, and then, before the supports could be
hurried up and brought in any weight through the reeking, shaking
inferno of the shell-smitten communication trenches, the surge forward
of line upon line, wave upon wave, of close-locked infantry.
But the density of mass, the solid breadth, the depth, bulk, and weight
of men so irresistible at close-quarter work, is an invitation to utter
destruction if it is caught by the guns before it can move. And so this
time it was caught. Given their target, given the word "Go," the guns
wasted no moment. The first battery ready burst a quick couple of
ranging shots over the wood. A spray of torn leaves whirling from the
tree tops, the toss of a broken branch, showed the range correct; and
before the first rounds' solid white cotton-wooly balls of smoke had
thinned and disappeared, puff-puff-puff the shrapnel commenced to burst
in clouds over the wood. That was the beginning. Gun after gun, battery
after battery, picked up the range and poured shells over and into the
wood, went searching every hollow and hole, rending and destroying
trench and dug-out, parapet and parados. The trenches, clean white
streaks and zig-zags of chalk on a green slope, made perfect targets on
which the guns made perfect shooting; the wood was a mark that no gun
could miss, and surely no gun missed. What the scene in that wood must
have been is beyond imagining and beyond telling. It was quickly
shrouded in a pall of drifting smoke, and dimly through this the
observing officers directing the fire of their guns could see clouds of
leaves and twigs whirling and leaping under the lashing shrapnel, could
see branches and smashed tree-trunks and great clods of earth and stone
flying upward and outward from the blast of the lyddite shells. The
wood was slashed to ribbons, rent and riddled to tatters, deluged from
above with tearing blizzards of shrapnel bullets, scorched and riven
with high-explosive shells. In the trenches our men cowered at first,
listening in awe to the rushing whirlwinds of the shells' passage over
their heads, the roar of the cannonade behind them, the crash and boom
of the bursting shells in front, the shriek and whirr of flying
splinters, the splintering crash of the shattering trees.
The German artillery strove to pick up the plan of the attack, to beat
down the torrent of our batteries' fire, to smash in the forward
trenches, shake the defense, open the way for the massed attack. But
the contest was too unequal, the devastation amongst the crowded mass
of German infantry too awful to be allowed to continue. Plainly the
attack, ready or not ready, had to be launched at speed, or perish
where it stood.
And so it was that our New Armies had a glimpse of what the old
"Contemptible Little Army" has seen and faced so often, the huge gray
bulk looming through the drifting smoke, the packed mass of the old
German infantry attack. There were some of these "Old Contemptibles,"
as they proudly style themselves now, who said when it was all over,
and they had time to think of anything but loading and firing a red-hot
rifle, that this attack did not compare favorably with the German
attacks of the Mons-Marne days, that it lacked something of the
steadiness, the rolling majesty of power, the swinging stride of the
old attacks; that it did not come so far or so fast, that beaten back
it took longer to rally and come again, that coming again it was easier
than ever to bring to a stand. But against that these "Old
Contemptibles" admit that they never in the old days fought under such
favorable conditions, that here in this fight they were in better
constructed and deeper trenches, that they were far better provided
with machine-guns, and, above all, that they had never, never, never
had such a magnificent backing from our guns, such a tremendous stream
of shells helping to smash the attack.
And smashed, hopelessly and horribly smashed, the attack assuredly was.
The woods in and behind which the German hordes were massed lay from
three to four hundred yards from the muzzles of our rifles. Imagine it,
you men who were not there, you men of the New Armies still training at
home, you riflemen practicing and striving to work up the number of
aimed rounds fired in "the mad minute," you machine-gunners riddling
holes in a target or a row of posts. Imagine it, oh you Artillery,
imagine the target lavishly displayed in solid blocks in the open, with
a good four hundred yards of ground to go under your streaming
gun-muzzles. The gunners who were there that day will tell you how they
used that target, will tell you how they stretched themselves to the
call for "gun-fire" (which is an order for each gun to act
independently, to fire and keep on firing as fast as it can be served),
how the guns grew hotter and hotter, till the paint bubbled and
blistered and flaked off them in patches, till the breech burned the
incautious hand laid on it, till spurts of oil had to be sluiced into
the breech from a can between rounds and sizzled and boiled like fat in
a frying-pan as it fell on the hot steel, how the whole gun smoked and
reeked with heated oil, and how the gun-detachments were half-deaf for
It was such a target as gunners in their fondest dreams dare hardly
hope for; and such a target as war may never see again, for surely the
fate of such massed attacks will be a warning to all infantry
commanders for all time.
The guns took their toll, and where death from above missed, death from
the level came in an unbroken torrent of bullets sleeting across the
open from rifles and machine-guns. On our trenches shells were still
bursting, maxim and rifle bullets were still pelting from somewhere in
half enfilade at long range. But our men had no time to pay heed to
these. They hitched themselves well up on the parapet to get the fuller
view of their mark; their officers for the most part had no need to
bother about directing or controlling the fire--what need, indeed, to
direct with such a target bulking big before the sights? What need to
control when the only speed limit was a man's capacity to aim and fire?
So the officers, for the most part, took rifle themselves and helped
pelt lead into the slaughter-pit.
There are few, if any, who can give details of how or when the attack
perished. A thick haze of smoke from the bursting shells blurred the
picture. To the eyes of the defenders there was only a picture of that
smoke-fog, with a gray wall of men looming through it, moving, walking,
running towards them, falling and rolling, and looming up again and
coming on, melting away into tangled heaps that disappeared again
behind advancing men, who in turn became more falling and fallen piles.
It was like watching those chariot races in a theater where the horses
gallop on a stage revolving under their feet, and for all their fury of