Part 2 out of 4
It was the Commander of "A" Company. Wagstaffe placed his head close
to Bobby's left ear, and shouted through the cloth--
"We shan't feel this gas much. They're letting it off higher up the
Bobby, laboriously inhaling the tainted air inside his helmet,--being
preserved from a gas attack is only one degree less unpleasant than
being gassed,--turned his goggles northward.
In the dim light of the breaking day he could discern a
greenish-yellow cloud rolling across from the Boche trenches on his
"Will they attack?" he bellowed.
Wagstaffe nodded his head, and then cautiously unbuttoned his collar
and rolled up the front of his helmet. Then, after delicately sampling
the atmosphere by a cautious sniff, he removed his helmet altogether.
Bobby followed his example. The air was not by any means so pure as
might have been desired, but it was infinitely preferable to that
inside a gas-helmet.
"Nothing to signify," pronounced Wagstaffe. "We're only getting the
edge of it. Sergeant, pass down that men may roll up their helmets,
but must keep them on their heads. Now, Bobby, things are getting
interesting. Will they attack, or will they not?"
"What do you think?" asked Bobby.
"They are certainly going to attack farther north. The Boche does not
waste gas as a rule--not this sort of gas! And I think he'll attack
here too. The only reason why he has not switched on our anaesthetic
is that the wind isn't quite right for this bit of the line. I think
it is going to be a general push. Bobby, have a look through this
sniper's loophole. Can you see any bayonets twinkling in the Boche
Bobby applied an eye to the loophole.
"Yes," he said, "I can see them. Those trenches must be packed with
"Absolutely stiff with them," agreed Wagstaffe, getting out his
revolver. "We shall be in for it presently. Are your fellows all
The youthful Captain ran his eye along the trench, where his Company,
with magazines loaded and bayonets fixed, were grimly awaiting the
onset. There had been an onset similar to this, with the same green,
nauseous accompaniment, in precisely the same spot eight months
before, which had broken the line and penetrated for four miles.
There it had been stayed by a forlorn hope of cooks, brakesmen, and
officers' servants, and disaster had been most gloriously retrieved.
What was going to happen this time? One thing was certain: the day of
stink-pots was over.
"When do you think they'll attack?" shouted Bobby to Wagstaffe,
battling against the noise of bursting shells.
"Quite soon--in a minute or two. Their guns will stop directly--to
lift their sights and set up a barrage behind us. Then, perhaps the
Boche will step over his parapet. Perhaps not!"
The last sentence rang out with uncanny distinctness, for the German
guns with one accord had ceased firing. For a full two minutes there
was absolute silence, while the bayonets in the opposite trenches
twinkled with tenfold intent.
Then, from every point in the great Salient of Ypres, the British guns
Possibly the Imperial General Staff at Berlin had been misinformed as
to the exact strength of the British Artillery. Possibly they had been
informed by their Intelligence Department that Trades Unionism, had
ensured that a thoroughly inadequate supply of shells was to hand in
the Salient. Or possibly they had merely decided, after the playful
habit of General Staffs, to let the infantry in the trenches take
their chance of any retaliation that might be forthcoming.
Whatever these great men were expecting, it is highly improbable that
they expected that which arrived. Suddenly the British batteries spoke
out, and they all spoke together. In the space of four minutes they
deposited _thirty thousand_ high-explosive shells in the Boche
front-line trenches--yea, distributed the same accurately and evenly
along all that crowded arc. Then they paused, as suddenly as they
began, while British riflemen and machine-gunners bent to their work.
But few received the order to fire. Here and there a wave of men broke
over the German parapet and rolled towards the British lines--only to
be rolled back crumpled up by machine-guns. Never once was the goal
reached. The great Christmas attack was over. After months of weary
waiting and foolish recrimination, that exasperating race of bad
starters but great stayers, the British people, had delivered "the
goods," and made it possible for their soldiers to speak with the
enemy in the gate upon equal--nay, superior, terms.
"Is that all?" asked Bobby Little, peering out over the parapet, a
little awe-struck, at the devastation over the way.
"That is all," said Wagstaffe, "or I'm a Boche! There will be much
noise and some irregular scrapping for days, but the tin lid has been
placed upon the grand attack. The great Christmas Victory is off!"
Then he added, thoughtfully, referring apparently to the star
"We _have_ been and spoiled his entrance for him, haven't we?"
UNBENDING THE BOW
There is a certain type of English country-house female who is said to
"live in her boxes." That is to say, she appears to possess no home of
her own, but flits from one indulgent roof-tree to another; and owing
to the fact that she is invariably put into a bedroom whose wardrobe
is full of her hostess's superannuated ball-frocks and winter furs,
never knows what it is to have all her "things" unpacked at once.
Well, we out here cannot be said to live in our boxes, for we do not
possess any; but we do most undoubtedly live in our haversacks and
packs. And this brings us to the matter in hand--namely, so-called
"Rest-Billets." The whole of the hinterland of this great trench-line
is full of tired men, seeking for a place to lie down in, and living
in their boxes when they find one.
At present we are indulging in such a period of repose; and we venture
to think that on the whole we have earned it. Our last rest was in
high summer, when we lay about under an August sun in the district
round Bethune, and called down curses upon all flying and creeping
insects. Since then we have undergone certain so-called "operations"
in the neighbourhood of Loos, and have put in three months in the
Salient of Ypres. As that devout adherent of the Roman faith, Private
Reilly, of "B" Company, put it to his spiritual adviser--
"I doot we'll get excused a good slice of Purgatory for this, father!"
We came out of the Salient just before Christmas, in the midst of the
mutual unpleasantness arising out of the grand attack upon the British
line which was to have done so much to restore the waning confidence
of the Hun. It was meant to be a big affair--a most majestic victory,
in fact; but our new gas-helmets nullified the gas, and our new shells
paralysed the attack; so the Third Battle of Ypres was not yet. Still,
as I say, there was considerable unpleasantness all round; and we were
escorted upon our homeward way, from Sanctuary Wood to Zillebeke, and
from Zillebeke to Dickebusche, by a swarm of angry and disappointed
Next day we found ourselves many miles behind the firing-line, once
more in France, with a whole month's holiday in prospect, comfortably
conscious that one could walk round a corner or look over a wall
without preliminary reconnaissance or subsequent extirpation.
As for the holiday itself, unreasonable persons are not lacking to
point out that it is of the busman's variety. It is true that we
are no longer face to face with the foe, but we--or rather, the
authorities--make believe that we are. We wage mimic warfare in full
marching order; we fire rifles and machine-guns upon improvised
ranges; we perform hazardous feats with bombs and a dummy trench. More
galling still, we are back in the region of squad-drill, physical
exercises, and handling of arms--horrors of our childhood which we
thought had been left safely interned at Aldershot.
But the authorities are wise. The regiment is stiff and out of
condition: it is suffering from moral and intellectual "trench-feet."
Heavy drafts have introduced a large and untempered element into our
composition. Many of the subalterns are obviously "new-jined"--as the
shrewd old lady of Ayr once observed of the rubicund gentleman at
the temperance meeting. Their men hardly know them or one another by
sight. The regiment must be moulded anew, and its lustre restored by
the beneficent process vulgarly known as "spit and polish." So every
morning we apply ourselves with thoroughness, if not enthusiasm, to
tasks which remind us of last winter's training upon the Hampshire
But the afternoon and evening are a different story altogether. If we
were busy in the morning, we are busier still for the rest of the day.
There is football galore, for we have to get through a complete
series of Divisional cup-ties in four weeks. There is also a Brigade
boxing-tournament. (No, that was not where Private Tosh got his black
eye: that is a souvenir of New Year's Eve.) There are entertainments
of various kinds in the recreation-tent. This whistling platoon, with
towels round their necks, are on their way to the nearest convent, or
asylum, or Ecole des Jeunes Filles--have no fear; these establishments
are untenanted!--for a bath. There, in addition to the pleasures of
ablution, they will receive a partial change of raiment.
Other signs of regeneration are visible. That mysterious-looking
vehicle, rather resembling one of the early locomotives exhibited
in the South Kensington Museum, standing in the mud outside a
farm-billet, its superheated interior stuffed with "C" Company's
blankets, is performing an unmentionable but beneficent work.
Buttons are resuming their polish; the pattern of our kilts is
emerging from its superficial crust; and Church Parade is once more
becoming quite a show affair.
Away to the east the guns still thunder, and at night the star-shells
float tremblingly up over the distant horizon. But not for us. Not
yet, that is. In a few weeks' time we shall be back in another part of
the line. Till then--Company drill and Cup-Ties! _Carpe diem!_
It all seemed very strange and unreal to Second-Lieutenant Angus
M'Lachlan, as he alighted from the train at railhead, and supervised
the efforts of his solitary N.C.O. to arrange the members of his draft
in a straight line. There were some thirty of them in all. Some were
old hands--men from the First and Second Battalions, who had been
home wounded, and had now been sent out to leaven "K(1)." Others were
Special Reservists from the Third Battalion. These had been at the
Depot for a long time, and some of them stood badly in need of a
little active service. Others, again, were new hands altogether--the
product of "K to the _nth_." Among these Angus M'Lachlan numbered
himself, and he made no attempt to conceal the fact. The novelty of
the sights around him was almost too much for his _insouciant_ dignity
as a commissioned officer.
Angus M'Lachlan was a son of the Manse, and incidentally a child of
Nature. The Manse was a Highland Manse; and until a few months
ago Angus had never, save for a rare visit to distant Edinburgh,
penetrated beyond the small town which lay four miles from his native
glen, and of whose local Academy he had been "dux." When the War broke
out he had been upon the point of proceeding to Edinburgh University,
where he had already laid siege to a bursary, and captured the same;
but all these plans, together with the plans of countless more
distinguished persons, had been swept to the winds by the invasion of
Belgium. On that date Angus summoned up his entire stock of physical
and moral courage and informed his reverend parent of his intention
to enlist for a soldier. Permission was granted with quite stunning
readiness. Neil M'Lachlan believed in straight hitting both in
theology and war, and was by no means displeased at the martial
aspirations of his only son. If he quitted himself like a man in the
forefront of battle, the boy could safely look forward to being
cock of his own Kirk-Session in the years that came afterwards. One
reservation the old man made. His son, as a Highland gentleman, would
lead men to battle, and not merely accompany them. So the impatient
Angus was bidden to apply for a Commission--his attention during the
period of waiting being directed by his parent to the study of the
campaigns of Joshua, and the methods employed by that singular but
successful strategist in dealing with the Philistine.
Angus had a long while to wait, for all the youth of England--and
Scotland too--was on fire, and others nearer the fountain of honour
had to be served first. But his turn came at last; and we now behold
him, as typical a product of "K to the _nth_" as Bobby Little had been
of "K(1)," standing at last upon the soil of France, and inquiring
in a soft Highland voice for the Headquarters of our own particular
He had half expected, half hoped, to alight from the train amidst a
shower of shells, as he knew the Old Regiment had done many months
before, just after the War broke out. But all he saw upon his arrival
was an untidy goods yard, littered with military stores, and peopled
by British privates in the _deshabille_ affected by the British Army
when engaged in menial tasks.
Being quite ignorant of the whereabouts of his regiment--when last
heard of they had been in trenches near Ypres--and failing to
recollect the existence of that autocratic but indispensable _genius
loci_, the R.T.O., Angus took uneasy stock of his surroundings and
wondered what to do next.
Suddenly a friendly voice at his elbow remarked--
"There's a queer lot o' bodies hereaboot, sirr."
Angus turned, to find that he was being addressed by a short, stout
private of the draft, in a kilt much too big for him.
"Indeed, that is so," he replied politely. "What is your name?"
"Peter Bogle, sirr. I am frae oot of Kirkintilloch." Evidently
gratified by the success of his conversational opening, the little man
"I would like fine for tae get a contrack oot here after the War.
This country is in a terrible state o' disrepair." Then he added
"I'm a hoose-painter tae a trade."
"I should not like to be that myself," replied Angus, whose early
training as a minister's son was always causing him to forget the
social gulf which is fixed between officers and the rank-and-file.
"Climbing ladders makes me dizzy."
"Och, it's naething! A body gets used tae it," Mr. Bogle assured him.
Angus was about to proceed further with the discussion, when the cold
and disapproving voice of the Draft-Sergeant announced in his ear--
"An officer wishes to speak to you, sir."
Second-Lieutenant M'Lachlan, suddenly awake to the enormity of his
conduct, turned guiltily to greet the officer, while the Sergeant
abruptly hunted the genial Private Bogle back into the ranks.
Angus found himself confronted by an immaculate young gentleman
wearing two stars. Angus, who only wore one, saluted hurriedly.
"Morning," observed the stranger. "You in charge of this draft?"
"Yes, sir," said Angus respectfully.
"Right-o! You are to march them to 'A' Company billets. I'll show you
the way. My name's Cockerell. Your train is late. What time did you
leave the Base?"
"Indeed," replied Angus meekly, "I am not quite sure. We had barely
landed when they told me the train would start at seventeen-forty.
What time would that be--sir?"
"About a quarter to ten: more likely about midnight! Well, get your
bunch on to the road, and--Hallo, what's the matter? Let go!"
The new officer was gripping him excitedly by the arm, and as the
new officer stood six-foot-four and was brawny in proportion, Master
Cockerell's appeal was uttered in a tone of unusual sincerity.
"Look!" cried Angus excitedly. "The dogs, the dogs!"
A small cart was passing swiftly by, towed by two sturdy hounds of
unknown degree. They were pulling with the feverish enthusiasm which
distinguishes the Dog in the service of Man, and were being urged to
further efforts by a small hatless girl carrying the inevitable large
"All right!" explained Cockerell curtly. "Custom of the country, and
The impulsive Angus apologised; and the draft, having been safely
manoeuvred on to the road, formed fours and set out upon its march.
"Are the Battalion in the trenches at present, sir?" inquired Angus.
"No. Rest-billets two miles from here. About time, too! You'll get
lots of work to do, though."
"I shall welcome that," said Angus simply. "In the depot at home we
were terribly idle. There is a windmill!"
"Yes; one sees them occasionally out here," replied Cockerell drily.
"Everything is so strange!" confessed the open-hearted Angus. "Those
dogs we saw just now--the people with their sabots--the country
carts, like wheelbarrows with three wheels--the little shrines at the
cross-roads--the very children talking French so glibly--"
"Wonderful how they pick it up!" agreed Cockerell. But the sarcasm
was lost on his companion, whose attention was now riveted upon an
approaching body of infantry, about fifty strong.
"What troops are those, please?"
Cockerell knitted his brows sardonically.
"It's rather hard to tell at this distance," he said; "but I rather
think they are the Grenadier Guards."
Two minutes later the procession had been met and passed. It consisted
entirely of elderly gentlemen in ill-fitting khaki, clumping along
upon their flat feet and smoking clay pipes. They carried shovels on
their shoulders, and made not the slightest response when called upon
by the soldierly old corporal who led them to give Mr. Cockerell "eyes
left!" On the contrary, engaged as they were in heated controversy or
amiable conversation with one another, they cut him dead.
Angus M'Lachlan said nothing for quite five minutes. Then--
"I suppose," he said almost timidly, "that those were members of a
_Reserve_ Regiment of the Guards?"
Cockerell, who had never outgrown certain characteristics which most
of us shed upon emerging from the Lower Fourth, laughed long and loud.
"That crowd? They belong to one of the Labour Battalions. They make
roads, and dig support trenches, and sling mud about generally.
Wonderful old sportsmen! Pleased as Punch when a shell falls within
half a mile of them. Something to write home about. What? I say, I
pulled your leg that time! Here we are at Headquarters. Come and
report to the C.O. Grenadier Guards! My aunt!"
* * * * *
Angus, although his Celtic enthusiasm sometimes led him into traps,
was no fool. He soon settled down in his new surroundings, and found
favour with Colonel Kemp, which was no light achievement.
"You won't find that the War, in its present stage, calls for any
display of genius," the Colonel explained to Angus at their first
interview. "I don't expect my officers to exhibit any quality but the
avoidance of _sloppiness_. If I detail you to be at a certain spot,
at a certain hour, with a certain number of men--a ration-party, or a
working-party, or a burial-party, or anything you like,--all I ask is
that you will be _there_, at the appointed hour, with the whole
of your following. That may not sound a very difficult feat, but
experience has taught me that if a man can achieve it, and can be
_relied_ upon to achieve it, say, nine times out of ten--well, he is
a pearl of price; and there is not a C.O. in the British Army who
wouldn't scramble to get him! That's all, M'Lachlan. Good morning!"
By punctilious attention to this sound advice Angus soon began to
build up a reputation. He treated war-worn veterans like Bobby
Little with immense respect, and this, too, was counted to him for
righteousness. He exercised his platoon with appalling vigour. Upon
Company route-marches he had to be embedded in some safe place in the
middle of the column; in fact, his enormous stride and pedestrian
enthusiasm would have reduced his followers to pulp. At Mess he was
mute: like a wise man, he was feeling for his feet.
But being, like Moses, slow of tongue, he provided himself with an
Aaron. Quite inadvertently, be it said. Bidden to obtain a servant for
his personal needs, he selected the only man in the Battalion whose
name he knew--Private Bogle, the _ci-devant_ painter of houses. That
friendly creature obeyed the call with alacrity. If his house-painting
was no better than his valeting, then his prospects of a "contrack"
after the War were poor indeed; but as a Mess waiter he was a joy for
ever. Despite the blood-curdling whispers of the Mess Corporal, his
natural urbanity of disposition could not be stemmed. Of the comfort
of others he was solicitous to the point of oppressiveness. A Mess
waiter's idea of efficiency as a rule is to stand woodenly at
attention in an obscure corner of the room. When called upon, he
starts forward with a jerk, and usually trips over something--probably
his own feet. Not so Private Bogle.
"Wull you try another cup o' tea, Major?" he would suggest at
breakfast to Major Wagstaffe, leaning affectionately over the back of
"No, thank you, Bogle," Major Wagstaffe would reply gravely.
"Weel, it's cauld onyway," Bogle would rejoin, anxious to endorse his
Or--in the same spirit--
"Wull I luft the soup now, sir?"
"Varra weel: I'll jist let it bide the way it is."
* * * * *
Lastly, Angus M'Lachlan proved himself a useful
acquisition--especially in rest-billets--as an athlete. He arrived
just in time to take part--no mean part, either--in a Rugby Football
match played between the officers of two Brigades. Thanks very largely
to his masterly leading of the forwards, our Brigade were preserved
from defeat at the hands of their opponents, who on paper had appeared
to be irresistible.
Rugby Football "oot here" is a rarity, though Association, being
essentially the game of the rank-and-file, flourishes in every green
field. But an Inverleith or Queen's Club crowd would have recognised
more than one old friend among the thirty who took the field that day.
There were those participating whose last game had been one of the
spring "Internationals" in 1914, and who had been engaged in a
prolonged and strenuous version of an even greater International ever
since August of that fateful year. Every public school in Scotland
was represented--sometimes three or four times over--and there were
numerous doughty contributions from establishments south of the Tweed.
The lookers-on were in different case. They were to a man
devoted--nay, frenzied--adherents of the rival code. In less spacious
days they had surged in their thousands every Saturday afternoon to
Ibrox, or Tynecastle, or Parkhead, there to yell themselves into
convulsions--now exhorting a friend to hit some one a kick on the
nose, now recommending the foe to play the game, now hoarsely
consigning the referee to perdition. To these, Rugby Football--the
greatest of all manly games--was a mere name. Their attitude when the
officers appeared upon the field was one of indulgent superiority--the
sort of superiority that a brawny pitman exhibits when his Platoon
Commander steps down into a trench to lend a hand with the digging.
But in five minutes their mouths were agape with scandalised
astonishment; in ten, the heavens were rent with their protesting
cries. Accustomed to see football played with the feet, and to demand
with one voice the instant execution of any player (on the other side)
who laid so much as a finger upon the ball or the man who was playing
it, the exhibition of savage and promiscuous brutality to which their
superior officers now treated them shocked the assembled spectators
to the roots of their sensitive souls. Howls of virtuous indignation
burst forth upon all sides.
When the three-quarter-backs brought off a brilliant passing run,
there were stern cries of "Haands, there, referee!" When Bobby Little
stopped an ugly rush by hurling himself on the ball, the supporters
of the other Brigade greeted his heroic devotion with yells of
execration. When Angus M'Lachlan saved a certain try by tackling a
speedy wing three-quarter low and bringing him down with a crash, a
hundred voices demanded his removal from the field. And, when Mr.
Waddell, playing a stuffy but useful game at half, gained fifty yards
for his side by a series of judicious little kicks into touch, the
spectators groaned aloud, and remarked caustically--
"This maun be a Cup-Tie, boys! They are playin' for a draw, for tae
get a second gate!"
Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, both for players and
spectators. And so home to tea, domesticity, and social intercourse.
In this connection it may be noted that our relations with the
inhabitants are of the friendliest. On the stroke of six--oh yes, we
have our licensing restrictions out here too!--half a dozen kilted
warriors stroll into the farm-kitchen, and mumble affably to Madame--
"Bone sworr! Beer?"
France boasts one enormous advantage over Scotland. At home, you have
at least to walk to the corner of the street to obtain a drink: "oot
here" you can purchase beer in practically every house in a village.
The French licensing laws are a thing of mystery, but the system
appears roughly to be this. Either you possess a license, or you do
not. If you do you may sell beer, and nothing else. If you do not, you
may--or at any rate do--sell anything you like, including beer.
However, we have left our friends thirsty.
Their wants are supplied with cheerful alacrity, and, having been
accommodated with seats round the stove, they converse with the
family. Heaven only knows what they talk about, but talk they do--in
the throaty unintelligible Doric of the Clydeside, with an occasional
Gallicism, like, "Allyman no bon!" or "Compree?" thrown in as a sop to
foreign idiosyncracies. Madame and family respond, chattering French
(or Flemish) at enormous speed. The amazing part of it all is that
neither side appears to experience the slightest difficulty in
understanding the other. One day Mr. Waddell, in the course of a
friendly chat with his hostess of the moment--she was unable to
speak a word of English--received her warm congratulations upon his
contemplated union with a certain fair one of St. Andrew (to whom
reference has previously been made in these pages). Mr. Waddell, a
very fair linguist, replied in suitable but embarrassed terms, and
asked for the source of the good lady's information.
"Mais votre ordonnance, m'sieur!" was the reply.
Tackled upon the subject, the "ordonnance" in question, Waddell's
servant--a shock-headed youth from Dundee--admitted having
communicated the information; and added--
"She's a decent body, sirr, the lady o' the hoose. She lost her
husband, she was tellin' me, three years ago. She has twa sons in the
Airmy. Her auld Auntie is up at the top o' the hoose--lyin' badly, and
no expectin' tae rise."
And yet some people study Esperanto!
We also make ourselves useful. "K(1)" contains members of every craft.
If the pig-sty door is broken, a carpenter is forthcoming to mend it.
Somebody's elbow goes through a pane of glass in the farm-kitchen:
straightway a glazier materialises from the nearest platoon, and puts
in another. The ancestral eight-day clock of the household develops
internal complications; and is forthwith dismembered and reassembled,
"with punctuality, civility, and despatch," by a gentleman who until a
few short months ago had done nothing else for fifteen years.
And it was in this connection that Corporal Mucklewame stumbled on to
a rare and congenial job, and incidentally made the one joke of his
One afternoon a cow, the property of Madame _la fermiere_, developed
symptoms of some serious disorder. A period of dolorous bellowing was
followed by an outburst of homicidal mania, during which "A" Company
prudently barricaded itself into the barn, the sufferer having taken
entire possession of the farmyard. Next, and finally--so rapidly did
the malady run its course--a state of coma intervened; and finally the
cow, collapsing upon the doorstep of the Officers' Mess, breathed her
last before any one could be found to point out to her the liberty she
It was decided to hold a _post-mortem_--firstly, to ascertain the
cause of death; secondly, because it is easier to remove a dead cow
after dissection than before. Madame therefore announced her intention
of sending for the butcher, and was upon the point of doing so when
Corporal Mucklewame, in whose heart, at the spectacle of the stark and
lifeless corpse, ancient and romantic memories were stirring--it may
be remembered that before answering to the call of "K(1)" Mucklewame
had followed the calling of butcher's assistant at Wishaw--volunteered
for the job. His services were cordially accepted by thrifty Madame;
and the Corporal, surrounded by a silent and admiring crowd, set to
The officers, leaving the Junior Subaltern in charge, went with one
accord for a long country walk.
Half an hour later Mucklewame arrived at the seat of the deceased
animal's trouble--the seat of most of the troubles of mankind--its
stomach. After a brief investigation, he produced therefrom a small
bag of nails, recently missed from the vicinity of a cook-house in
course of construction in the corner of the yard.
Abandoning the role of surgical expert for that of coroner, Mucklewame
held the trophy aloft, and delivered his verdict--
"There, boys! That's what comes of eating your iron ration without
Here is an average billet, and its personnel.
The central feature of our residence is the refuse-pit, which fills
practically the whole of the rectangular farmyard, and resembles
(in size and shape _only_) an open-air swimming bath. Its abundant
contents are apparently the sole asset of the household; for if you
proceed, in the interests of health, to spread a decent mantle of
honest earth thereover, you do so to the accompaniment of a harmonised
chorus of lamentation, very creditably rendered by the entire family,
who are grouped _en masse_ about the spot where the high diving-board
ought to be.
Round this perverted place of ablution runs a stone ledge, some four
feet wide, and round that again run the farm buildings--the house at
the top end, a great barn down one side, and the cowhouse, together
with certain darksome piggeries and fowl-houses, down the other. These
latter residences are occupied only at night, their tenants preferring
to spend the golden hours of day in profitable occupation upon the
happy hunting ground in the middle.
Within the precincts of this already overcrowded establishment are
lodged some two hundred British soldiers and their officers. The
men sleep in the barn, their meals being prepared for them upon the
Company cooker, which stands in the muddy road outside, and resembles
the humble vehicle employed by Urban District Councils for the
preparation of tar for road-mending purposes. The officers occupy any
room which may be available within the farmhouse itself. The Company
Commander has the best bedroom--a low-roofed, stone-floored apartment,
with a very small window and a very large bed. The subalterns sleep
where they can--usually in the _grenier_, a loft under the tiles,
devoted to the storage of onions and the drying, during the winter
months, of the family washing, which is suspended from innumerable
strings stretched from wall to wall.
For a Mess, there is usually a spare apartment of some kind. If not,
you put your pride in your pocket and take your meals at the kitchen
table, at such hours as the family are not sitting humped round the
same with their hats on, partaking of soup or coffee. (This appears
to be their sole sustenance.) A farm-kitchen in northern France is a
scrupulously clean place--the whole family gets up at half-past four
in the morning and sees to the matter--and despite the frugality of
her own home _menu_, the _fermiere_ can produce you a perfect omelette
at any hour of the day or night.
This brings us to the kitchen-stove, which is a marvel. No massive and
extravagant English ranges here! There is only one kind: we call
it the Coffin and Flower-pot. The coffin--small, black, and highly
polished--projects from the wall about four feet, the further end
being supported by what looks like an ornamental black flower-pot
standing on a pedestal. The coffin is the oven, and the flower-pot is
the stove. Given a handful of small coal or charcoal, Madame appears
capable of keeping it at work all day, and of boiling, baking, or
roasting you innumerable dishes.
Then there is the family. Who or what they all are, and where they all
sleep, is a profound mystery. The family tree is usually headed by a
decrepit and ruminant old gentleman in a species of yachting-cap. He
sits behind the stove--not exactly with one foot in the grave, but
with both knees well up against the coffin--and occasionally offers
a mumbled observation of which no one takes the slightest notice.
Sometimes, too, there is an old, a very old, lady. Probably she is
some one's grandmother, or great-grandmother, but she does not appear
to be related to the old gentleman. At least, they never recognise one
another's existence in any way.
There are also vague people who possess the power of becoming
invisible at will. They fade in and out of the house like wraiths:
their one object in life appears to be to efface themselves as much
as possible. Madame refers to them as "_refugies_"; this the
sophisticated Mr. Cockerell translates, "German spies."
Next in order come one or two farmhands--usually addressed as "'Nri!"
and "'Seph!" They are not as a rule either attractive in appearance or
desirable in character. Every man in this country, who _is_ a man, is
away, as a matter of course, doing a man's only possible duty under
the circumstances. This leaves 'Nri and 'Seph, who through physical or
mental shortcomings are denied the proud privilege, and shamble about
in the muck and mud of the farm, leering or grumbling, while Madame
exhorts them to further activity from the kitchen door. They take
their meals with the family: where they sleep no one knows. External
evidence suggests the cow-house.
Then, the family. First, Angele. She may be twenty-five, but is more
probably fifteen. She acts as Adjutant to Madame, and rivals her
mother as deliverer of sustained and rapid recitative. She milks the
cows, feeds the pigs, and dragoons her young brothers and sisters. But
though she works from morning till night, she has always time for
a smiling salutation to all ranks. She also speaks English quite
creditably--a fact of which Madame is justly proud. "College!"
explains the mother, full of appreciation for an education which she
herself has never known, and taps her learned daughter affectionately
upon the head.
Next in order comes Emile. He must be about fourteen, but War has
forced manhood on him. All day long he is at work, bullying very large
horses, digging, hoeing, even ploughing. He is very much a boy, for
all that. He whistles excruciatingly--usually English music-hall
melodies--grins sheepishly at the officers, and is prepared at any
moment to abandon the most important tasks, in order to watch a man
cleaning a rifle or oiling a machine-gun. We seem to have encountered
Emile in other countries than this.
After Emile, Gabrielle. Her age is probably seven. If you were to give
her a wash and brush-up, dress her in a gauzy frock, and exchange
her thick woollen stockings and wooden sabots for silk and dancing
slippers, she would make a very smart little fairy. Even in her native
state she is a most attractive young person, of an engaging coyness.
If you say: "Bonjour, Gabrielle!" she whispers: "B'jour M'sieur le
Capitaine"--or, "M'sieur le Caporal"; for she knows all badges of
rank--and hangs her head demurely. But presently, if you stand quite
still and look the other way, Gabrielle will sidle up to you and
squeeze your hand. This is gratifying, but a little subversive of
strict discipline if you happen to be inspecting your platoon at the
Gabrielle is a firm favourite with the rank and file. Her particular
crony is one Private Mackay, an amorphous youth with flaming red hair.
He and Gabrielle engage in lengthy conversations, which appear to be
perfectly intelligible to both, though Mackay speaks with the solemn
unction of the Aberdonian, and Gabrielle prattles at express speed
in a _patois_ of her own. Last week some unknown humorist, evidently
considering that Gabrielle was not making sufficient progress in her
knowledge of English, took upon himself to give her a private lesson.
Next morning Mackay, on sentry duty at the farm gate, espied his
little friend peeping round a corner.
"Hey, Garibell!" he observed cheerfully. (No Scottish private ever yet
mastered a French name quite completely.)
Gabrielle, anxious to exhibit her new accomplishment, drew nearer,
smiled seraphically, and replied--
Last of the bunch comes Petit Jean, a chubby and close-cropped
youth of about six. Petit Jean is not his real name, as he himself
indignantly explained when so addressed by Major Wagstaffe.
"Moi, z'ne suis pas Petit Jean; z'suis Maurrrice!"
Major Wagstaffe apologised most humbly, but the name stuck.
Petit Jean is an enthusiast upon matters military. He possesses a
little wooden rifle, the gift of a friendly "Ecossais," tipped with a
flashing bayonet cut from a biscuit-tin; and spends most of his time
out upon the road, waiting for some one to salute. At one time he used
to stand by the sentry, with an ancient glengarry crammed over his
bullet head, and conform meticulously to his comrade's slightest
movement. This procedure was soon banned, as being calculated to bring
contempt and ridicule upon the King's uniform, and Petit Jean was
assigned a beat of his own. Behold him upon sentry-go.
A figure upon horseback swings round the bend in the road.
"Here's an officer, Johnny!" cries a friendly voice from the farm
Petit Jean, as upright as a post, brings his rifle from stand-at-ease
to the order, and from the order to the slope, with the epileptic
jerkiness of a marionette, and scrutinises the approaching officer
for stars and crowns. If he can discern nothing but a star or two, he
slaps the small of his butt with ferocious solemnity; but if a crown,
or a red hatband, reveals itself, he blows out his small chest to its
fullest extent and presents arms. If the salute is acknowledged--as it
nearly always is--Petit Jean is crimson with gratification. Once, when
a friendly subaltern called his platoon to attention, and gave the
order, "Eyes right!" upon passing the motionless little figure at the
side of the road, Petit Jean was so uplifted that he committed the
military crime of deserting his post while on duty--in order to run
home and tell his mother about it.
* * * * *
Last of all we arrive at the keystone of the whole fabric--Madame
herself. She is one of the most wonderful women in the world.
Consider. Her husband and her eldest son are away--fighting, she knows
not where, amid dangers and privations which can only be imagined.
During their absence she has to manage a considerable farm, with the
help of her children and one or two hired labourers of more than
doubtful use or reliability. In addition to her ordinary duties as a
parent and _fermiere_, she finds herself called upon, for months
on end, to maintain her premises as a combination of barracks and
almshouse. Yet she is seldom cross--except possibly when the
_soldats_ steal her apples and pelt the pigs with the cores--and no
accumulations of labour can sap her energy. She is up by half-past
four every morning; yet she never appears anxious to go to bed at
night. The last sound which sleepy subalterns hear is Madame's voice,
uplifted in steady discourse to the circle round the stove, sustained
by an occasional guttural chord from 'Nri and 'Seph. She has been
doing this, day in, day out, since the combatants settled down to
trench-warfare. Every few weeks brings a fresh crop of tenants, with
fresh peculiarities and unknown proclivities; and she assimilates them
The only approach to a breakdown comes when, after paying her little
bill--you may be sure that not an omelette nor a broken window will
be missing from the account--and wishing her "Bonne chance!" ere
you depart, you venture on a reference, in a few awkward, stumbling
sentences, to the absent husband and son. Then she weeps, copiously,
and it seems to do her a world of good. All hail to you, Madame--the
finest exponent, in all this War, of the art of Carrying On! We know
now why France is such a great country.
YE MERRIE BUZZERS
Practically all the business of an Army in the field is transacted by
telephone. If the telephone breaks down, whether by the Act of God
or of the King's Enemies, that business is at a standstill until the
telephone is put right again.
The importance of the disaster varies with the nature of the business.
For instance, if the wire leading to the Round Game Department is
blown down by a March gale, and your weekly return of Men Recommended
for False Teeth is delayed in transit, nobody minds very much--except
possibly the Deputy Assistant Director of Auxiliary Dental Appliances.
But if you are engaged in battle, and the wires which link up the
driving force in front with the directing force behind are
devastated by a storm of shrapnel, the matter assumes a more--nay,
a most--serious aspect. Hence the superlative importance in modern
warfare of the Signal Sections of the Royal Engineers--tersely
described by the rank-and-file as the "Buzzers," or the
During peace-training, the Buzzer on the whole has a very pleasant
time of it. Once he has mastered the mysteries of the Semaphore
and Morse codes, the most laborious part of his education is over.
Henceforth he spends his days upon some sheltered hillside, in company
with one or two congenial spirits, flapping cryptic messages out of a
blue-and-white flag at a similar party across the valley.
A year ago, for instance, you might have encountered an old friend,
Private M'Micking,--one of the original "Buzzers" of "A" Company, and
ultimately Battalion Signal Sergeant--under the lee of a pine wood
near Hindhead, accompanied by Lance-Corporal Greig and Private
Wamphray, regarding with languid interest the frenzied efforts of
three of their colleagues to convey a message from a sunny hillside
three quarters of a mile away.
"Here a message comin' through, boys," announces the Lance-Corporal.
"They're in a sair hurry: I doot the officer will be there. Jeams,
tak' it doon while Sandy reads it."
Mr. James M'Micking seats himself upon a convenient log. In order
not to confuse his faculties by endeavouring to read and write
simultaneously, he turns his back upon the fluttering flag, and bends
low over his field message-pad. Private Wamphray stands facing him,
and solemnly spells out the message over his head.
"Tae g-o-c--I dinna ken what that means--r-e-d, _reid_--a-r-m-y,
"All richt; that'll be Haslemere," says Private M'Micking, scribbling
down the word. "Go on, Sandy!"
Private Wamphray, pausing to expectorate, continues--
"R-e-c-o-n-n-o-i-t-r--Cricky, what a worrd! Let's hae it repeatit."
Wamphray flaps his flag vigorously,--he knows this particular signal
only too well,--and the word comes through again. The distant
signaller, slowing down a little, continues,--
"'Reconnoitring patrol reports hostile cavalry scou--'"
"That'll be 'scouts,'" says the ever-ready M'Micking. "Carry on!"
Wamphray continues obediently,--"'Country'; stop; 'Have thrown out
flank guns'; stop; 'Shall I advance or re--'"
"--tire," gabbles M'Micking, writing it down.
"--'where I am'; stop; 'From O C Advance Guard'; stop; message ends."
"And aboot time, too!" observes the scribe severely. "Haw, Johnny!"
The Lance-Corporal, who has been indulging in a pleasant reverie upon
a bank of bracken, wakes up and reads the proffered message.
* * * * *
"Tae G O C, Reid Airmy, Hazlemere. Reconnoitring patrol reports
hostile cavalry scouts country. Have thrown oot flank guns. Shall I
advance or retire where I am? From O C Advance Guard."
"This message doesna sound altogether sense," he observes mildly.
"That 'shall' should be 'wull,' onyway. Would it no' be better to get
it repeatit? The officer--"
"I've given the 'message-read' signal now," objects the indolent
"How would it be," suggests the Lance-Corporal, whose besetting sin is
a _penchant_ for emendation, "if we were tae transfair yon stop, and
say: 'Reconnoitring patrol reports hostile cavalry scouts. Country has
thrown oot flank guns'?"
"What does that mean?" inquires M'Micking scornfully.
"I dinna ken; but these messages about Generals and sic'-like
At this moment, as ill-luck will have it, the Signal Sergeant appears
breasting the hillside. He arrives puffing--he has seen twenty years'
service--and scrutinises the message.
"You boys," he says reproachfully, "are an aggravate altogether. Here
you are, jumping at your conclusions again! After all I have been
telling you! See! That worrd in the address should no' be Haslemere at
all. It's just a catch! It's Hazebroucke--a Gairman city that we'll
be capturing this time next year. 'Scouts' is no 'scouts,' but
'scouring'--meaning 'sooping up.' 'Guns' should be 'guarrd,' and
'retire' should be 'remain.' Mind me, now; next time, you'll be up
before the Captain for neglect of duty. Wamphray, give the 'C.I.,' and
let's get hame to oor dinners!"
But "oot here" there is no flag-wagging. The Buzzer's first proceeding
upon entering the field of active hostilities is to get underground,
and stay there.
He is a seasoned vessel, the Buzzer of to-day, and a person of marked
individuality. He is above all things a man of the world. Sitting day
and night in a dug-out, or a cellar, with a telephone receiver clamped
to his ear, he sees little; but he hears much, and overhears more. He
also speaks a language of his own. His one task in life is to prevent
the letter B from sounding like C, or D, or P, or T, or V, over the
telephone; so he has perverted the English language to his own uses.
He calls B "Beer," and D "Don," and so on. He salutes the rosy dawn as
"Akk Emma," and eventide as "Pip Emma." He refers to the letter S as
"Esses," in order to distinguish it from F. He has no respect for the
most majestic military titles. To him the Deputy Assistant Director of
the Mobile Veterinary Section is merely a lifeless formula, entitled
Don Akk Don Emma Vic Esses.
He is also a man of detached mind. The tactical situation does not
interest him. His business is to disseminate news, not to write
leading articles about it. (_O si sic omnes!_) You may be engaged in a
life-and-death struggle for the possession of your own parapet with a
Boche bombing-party; but this does not render you immune from a pink
slip from the Signal Section, asking you to state your reasons in
writing for having mislaid fourteen pairs of "boots, gum, thigh,"
lately the property of Number Seven Platoon. A famous British soldier
tells a story somewhere in his reminiscences of an occasion upon
which, in some long-forgotten bush campaign, he had to defend a zareba
against a heavy attack. For a time the situation was critical. Help
was badly needed, but the telegraph wire had been cut. Ultimately
the attack withered away, and the situation was saved. Almost
simultaneously the victorious commander was informed that telegraphic
communication with the Base had been restored. A message was already
"News of reinforcements, I hope!" he remarked to his subordinate.
But his surmise was incorrect. The message said, quite simply:--
"Your monthly return of men wishing to change their religion is
twenty-four hours overdue. Please expedite."
There was a time when one laughed at that anecdote as a playful
invention. But we know now that it is true, and we feel a sort of
pride in the truly British imperturbability of our official machinery.
Thirdly, the Buzzer is a humourist, of the sardonic variety. The
constant clash of wits over the wires, and the necessity of framing
words quickly, sharpens his faculties and acidulates his tongue.
Incidentally, he is an awkward person to quarrel with. One black
night, Bobby Little, making his second round of the trenches about an
hour before "stand-to," felt constrained to send a telephone message
to Battalion Headquarters. Taking a good breath,--you always do this
before entering a trench dug-out,--he plunged into the noisome cavern
where his Company Signallers kept everlasting vigil. The place was in
total darkness, except for the illumination supplied by a strip of
rifle-rag burning in a tin of rifle-oil. The air, what there was of
it, was thick with large, fat, floating particles of free carbon.
The telephone was buzzing plaintively to itself, in unsuccessful
competition with a well-modulated quartette for four nasal organs,
contributed by Bobby's entire signalling staff, who, locked in the
inextricable embrace peculiar to Thomas Atkins in search of warmth,
were snoring harmoniously upon the earthen floor.
The signaller "on duty"--one M'Gurk--was extracted from the heap and
put under arrest for sleeping at his post. The enormity of his crime
was heightened by the fact that two undelivered messages were found
upon his person.
Divers pains and penalties followed. Bobby supplemented the sentence
with a homily on the importance of vigilance and despatch. M'Gurk,
deeply aggrieved at forfeiting seven days' pay, said nothing, but
bided his time. Two nights later the Battalion came out of trenches
for a week's rest, and Bobby, weary and thankful, retired to bed in
his hut at 9 P.M., in comfortable anticipation of a full night's
His anticipations were doomed to disappointment. He was roused from
slumber--not without difficulty--by Signaller M'Gurk, who appeared
standing by his bedside with a guttering candle-end in one hand and a
pink despatch-form in the other. The message said:--
"Prevailing wind for next twenty-four hours probably S.W., with some
Mindful of his own recent admonitions, Bobby thanked M'Gurk politely,
and went to sleep again.
M'Gurk called again at half-past two in the morning, with another
message, which announced:--
"Baths will be available for your Company from 2 to 3 P.M. to-morrow."
Bobby stuffed the missive under his air-pillow, and rolled over
without a word. M'Gurk withdrew, leaving the door of the hut open.
His next visit was about four o'clock. This time the message said:--
"A Zeppelin is reported to have passed over Dunkirk at 5 P.M.
yesterday afternoon, proceeding in a northerly direction."
Bobby informed M'Gurk that he was a fool and a dotard, and cast him
M'Gurk returned at five-thirty, bearing written evidence that the
Zeppelin had been traced as far as Ostend.
This time his Company Commander promised him that if he appeared again
that night he would be awarded fourteen days' Field Punishment Number
The result was that upon sitting down to breakfast at nine next
morning, Bobby found upon his plate yet another message--from his
Commanding Officer--summoning him to the Orderly-room on urgent
matters at eight-thirty.
But Bobby scored the final and winning trick. Sending for M'Gurk and
Sergeant M'Micking, he said:--
"This man, Sergeant, appears to be unable to decide when a message
is urgent and when it is not. In future, whenever M'Gurk is on night
duty, and is in doubt as to whether a message should be delivered at
once or put aside till morning, he will come to you and ask for your
guidance in the matter. Do you understand?"
"Perrfectly, sirr!" replied the Sergeant, outwardly calm.
"M'Gurk, do _you_ understand?"
M'Gurk looked at Bobby, and then round at Sergeant M'Micking. He
received a glance which shrivelled his marrow. The game was up. He
grinned sheepishly, and answered,--
Having briefly set forth the character and habits of the Buzzer, we
will next proceed to visit the creature in his lair. This is an easy
feat. We have only to walk up the communication-trench which leads
from the reserve line to the firing-line. Upon either side of the
trench, neatly tacked to the muddy wall by a device of the hairpin
variety, run countless insulated wires, clad in coats of various
colours and all duly ticketed. These radiate from various Headquarters
in the rear to numerous signal stations in the front, and were laid by
the Signallers themselves. (It is perhaps unnecessary to mention that
that single wire running, in defiance of all regulations, across the
top of the trench, which neatly tipped your cap off just now, was laid
by those playful humourists, the Royal Artillery.) It follows that if
we accompany these wires far enough we shall ultimately find ourselves
in a signalling station.
Our only difficulty lies in judicious choice, for the wires soon begin
to diverge up numerous byways. Some go to the fire-trench, others to
the machine-guns, others again to observation posts--or O.P.'s--whence
a hawk-eyed Forward Observing Officer, peering all day through a chink
in a tumble-down chimney or sandbagged loophole, is sometimes enabled
to flash back the intelligence that he can discern transport upon such
a road in rear of the Boche trenches, and will such a battery kindly
attend to the matter at once?
However, chance guides us to the Signal dug-out of "A" Company,
where, by the best fortune in the world, Private M'Gurk in person is
installed as officiating sprite. Let us render ourselves invisible,
sit down beside him, and "tap" his wire.
In the dim and distant days before such phrases as "Boche," and
"T.N.T.," and "munitions," and "economy" were invented; when we lived
in houses which possessed roofs, and never dreamed of lying down
motionless by the roadside when we heard a taxi-whistle blown thrice,
in order to escape the notice of approaching aeroplanes,--in short, in
the days immediately preceding the war,--some of us said in our haste
that the London Telephone Service was The Limit! Since then we have
made the acquaintance of the military field-telephone, and we feel
distinctly softened towards the young woman at home who, from her
dug-out in "Gerrard," or "Vic.," or "Hop.," used to goad us to
impotent frenzy. She was at least terse and decided. If you rang her
up and asked for a number, she merely replied,--
(a) "Number engaged";
(b) "No reply";
(c) "Out of order"--
as the case might be, and switched you off. After that you took a taxi
to the place with which you wished to communicate, and there was an
end of the matter. Above all, she never explained, she never wrangled,
she spoke tolerably good English, and there was only one of her--or at
least she was of a uniform type.
Now, if you put your ear to the receiver of a field-telephone, you
find yourself, as it were, suddenly thrust into a vast subterranean
cavern, filled with the wailings of the lost, the babblings of the
feeble-minded, and the profanity of the exasperated. If you ask a
high-caste Buzzer--say, an R.E. Signalling Officer--why this should be
so, he will look intensely wise and recite some solemn gibberish about
earthed wires and induced currents.
The noises are of two kinds, and one supplements the other. The human
voice supplies the libretto, while the accompaniment is provided by a
syncopated and tympanum-piercing _ping-ping_, suggestive of a giant
mosquito singing to its young.
The instrument with which we are contending is capable (in theory) of
transmitting a message either telephonically or telegraphically. In
practice, this means that the signaller, having wasted ten sulphurous
minutes in a useless attempt to convey information through the medium
of the human voice, next proceeds, upon the urgent advice of the
gentleman at the other end, and to the confusion of all other
inhabitants of the cavern, to "buzz" it, employing the dots and dashes
of the Morse code for the purpose.
It is believed that the wily Boche, by means of ingenious and delicate
instruments, is able to "tap" a certain number of our trench telephone
messages. If he does, his daily Intelligence Report must contain some
surprising items of information. At the moment when we attach our
invisible apparatus to Mr. M'Gurk's wire, the Divisional Telephone
system appears to be fairly evenly divided between--
(1) A Regimental Headquarters endeavouring to ring up its Brigade.
(2) A glee-party of Harmonious Blacksmiths, indulging in the Anvil
(3) A choleric Adjutant on the track of a peccant Company Commander.
(4) Two Company Signallers, engaged in a friendly chat from different
ends of the trench line.
(5) An Artillery F.O.O., endeavouring to convey pressing and momentous
information to his Battery, two miles in rear.
(6) The Giant Mosquito aforesaid.
The consolidated result is something like this:--
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_affably_). Hallo, Brigade! Hallo, Brigade!
THE MOSQUITO. Ping!
THE ADJUTANT (_from somewhere in the Support Line, fiercely_). Give me
THE FORWARD OBSERVING OFFICER (_from his eyrie_). Is that C Battery?
There's an enemy working-party--
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (_from B Company's Station_). Is that yoursel',
Jock? How's a' wi' you?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER (_from D Company's Station_). I'm daen fine!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. HALLO, BRIGADE!
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company?
A MYSTERIOUS AND DISTANT VOICE (_politely_.) No, sir; this is Akk and
THE ADJUTANT (_furiously_). Then for the Lord's sake get off the line!
THE MOSQUITO. Ping! Ping!
THE ADJUTANT. And stop that ---- ---- ---- buzzing!
THE MOSQUITO. Ping! _Ping_! PING!
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery? There's--
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (_peevishly_). What's that you're sayin'?
THE F.O.O. (_perseveringly_). Is that C Battery? There's an enemy
working-party in a coppice at--
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. This is Beer Company, sir. Weel, Jock, did ye
get a quiet nicht?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. Oh, aye. There was a wee--
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery? There's--
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. No, sir. This is Don Company. Weel, Jimmy,
there was a couple whish-bangs came intil--
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. HALLO, BRIGADE!
A CHEERFUL COCKNEY VOICE. Well, my lad, what abaht it?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_getting to work at once_). Hold the line,
Brigade. Message to Staff Captain. "Ref. your S.C. fourr stroke seeven
eight six, the worrking-parrty in question--"
THE F.O.O. (_seeing a gleam of hope_). Working-party? Is that C
Battery? I want to speak to--
THE ADJUTANT. }
BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS. } Get off the line!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. }
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Haw, Jock, was ye hearin' aboot Andra?
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. No. Whit was that?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Weel--
THE F.O.O. (_doggedly_). Is that C Battery?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_resolutely_). "The worrking-parrty in
question was duly detailed for tae proceed to the rendiss vowse at"--
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company, curse you?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_quite impervious to this sort of
thing_),--"the rendiss vowse, at seeven thirrty Akk Emma, at point
H two B eight nine, near the cross-roads by the Estamint Repose dee
Bicyclistees, for tae"--honk! honkle! honk!
BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS (_compassionately_). You're makin' a 'orrible
mess of this message, ain't you? Shake your transmitter, do!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_after dutifully performing this operation_).
Honkle, honkle, honk. Yang!
BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS. Buzz it, my lad, buzz it!
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS (_dutifully_). Ping, ping! Ping, ping! Ping,
ping, ping! Ping--
GENERAL CHORUS. Stop that ----, ----, ----, ---- buzzing!
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Weel, Andra says tae the Sergeant-Major of
Beer Company, says he--
THE ADJUTANT. Is that B Company?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. No, sir; this is Beer Company.
THE ADJUTANT (_fortissimo_). I _said_ Beer Company!
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Oh! I thocht ye meant Don Company, sir.
THE ADJUTANT. Why the blazes haven't you answered me sooner?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (_tactfully_). There was other messages comin'
THE ADJUTANT. Well, get me the Company Commander.
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Varra good, sirr.
_A pause. Regimental Headquarters being engaged in laboriously
"buzzing" its message through to the Brigade, all other conversation
is at a standstill. The Harmonious Blacksmiths seize the opportunity
to give a short selection. Presently, as the din dies down_--
THE F.O.O. (_faint, yet pursuing_). Is that C Battery?
A JOVIAL VOICE. Yes.
THE F.O.O. What a shock! I thought you were all dead. Is that you,
THE JOVIAL VOICE. It is. What can I do for you this morning?
THE F.O.O. You can boil your signal sentry's head!
THE JOVIAL VOICE. What for?
THE F.O.O. For keeping me waiting.
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Righto! And the next article?
THE F.O.O. There's a Boche working-party in a coppice two hundred
yards west of a point--
THE MOSQUITO (_with renewed vigour_). Ping, ping!
THE F.O.O. (_savagely_). Shut up!
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Working-party? I'll settle them. What's the map
THE F.O.O. They are in Square number--
THE HARMONIOUS BLACKSMITHS (_suddenly and stunningly_). Whang!
THE F.O.O. Shut up! They are in Square--
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER. Hallo, Headquarters! Is the Adjutant there?
Here's the Captain tae speak with him.
AN EAGER VOICE. Is that the Adjutant?
REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS. No, sirr. He's away tae his office. Hold the
line while I'll--
THE EAGER VOICE. No you don't! Put me straight through to C
Battery--quick! Then get off the line, and stay there! (_Much
buzzing_.) Is that C Battery?
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Yes, sir.
THE EAGER VOICE. I am O.C. Beer Company. They are shelling my front
parapet, at L8, with pretty heavy stuff. I want retaliation, please.
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Very good, sir. (_The voice dies away_.)
A SOUND OVER OUR HEADS (_thirty seconds later_). Whish! Whish! Whish!
SECOND CHATTY SIGNALLER. Did ye hear that, Jimmy?
FIRST CHATTY SIGNALLER (_with relish_). Mphm! That'll sorrt them!
THE F.O.O. Is that C Battery?
THE JOVIAL VOICE. Yes. What luck, old son?
THE F.O.O. You have obtained two direct hits on the Boche parapet.
Will you have a cocoanut or a ci--
THE JOVIAL VOICE. A little less lip, my lad! Now tell me all about
your industrious friends in the Coppice, and we will see what we can
do for _them!_
* * * * *
And so on. Apropos of Adjutants and Company Commanders, Private
Wamphray, whose acquaintance we made a few pages back, was ultimately
relieved of his position as a Company Signaller, and returned
ignominiously to duty, for tactless if justifiable interposition in
one of these very dialogues.
It was a dark and cheerless night in mid-winter. Ominous noises in
front of the Boche wire had raised apprehensive surmises in the breast
of Brigade Headquarters. A forward sap was suspected in the region
opposite the sector of trenches held by "A" Company. The trenches at
this point were barely forty yards apart, and there was a very real
danger that Brother Boche might creep under his own wire, and possibly
under ours too, and come tumbling over our parapet.
To Bobby Little came instructions to send a specially selected patrol
out to investigate the matter. Three months ago he would have led the
expedition himself. Now, as a full-blown Company Commander, he was
officially precluded from exposing his own most responsible person to
gratuitous risks. So he chose out that recently-joined enthusiast,
Angus M'Lachlan, and put him over the parapet on the dark night in
question, accompanied by Corporal M'Snape and two scouts, with orders
to probe the mystery to its depth and bring back a full report.
It was a ticklish enterprise. As is frequently the case upon these
occasions, nervous tension manifested itself much more seriously at
Headquarters than in the front-line trenches. The man on the spot is,
as a rule, much too busy with the actual execution of the enterprise
in hand to distress himself by speculation upon its ultimate outcome.
It may as well be stated at once that Angus duly returned from his
quest, with an admirable and reassuring report. But he was a long time
absent. Hence this anecdote.
Bobby had strict orders to report all "developments," as they
occurred, to Headquarters by telephone. At half-past eleven that
night, as Angus M'Lachlan's colossal form disappeared, crawling,
into the blackness of night, his superior officer dutifully rang up
Battalion Headquarters, and announced that the venture was launched.
It is possible that the Powers Behind were in possession of
information as to the enemy's intentions unrevealed to Bobby; for as
soon as his opening announcement was received, he was switched right
through to a very august Headquarters indeed, and commanded to report
Long-distance telephony in the field involves a considerable amount
of "linking-up." Among other slaves of the Buzzer who assisted in
establishing the necessary communications upon this occasion was
Private Wamphray. For the next hour and a half it was his privilege in
his subterranean exchange, to sit, with his receiver clamped to his
ear, an unappreciative auditor of dialogues like the following:--
"Is that 'A' Company?"
"Any news of your patrol?"
Again, five minutes later:--
"Is that 'A' Company?"
"Has your officer returned yet?"
"No, sir. I will notify you when he does."
This sort of thing went on until nearly one o'clock in the morning.
Towards that hour, Bobby, who was growing really concerned over
Angus's prolonged absence, cut short his august interlocutor's
fifteenth inquiry and joined his Sergeant-Major on the firing-step.
The two had hardly exchanged a few low-pitched sentences when Bobby
was summoned back to the telephone.
"Is that Captain Little?"
"Has your patrol come in?"
Captain's Little's last answer was delivered in a distinctly
insubordinate manner. Feeling slightly relieved, he returned to the
firing-step. Two minutes later Angus M'Lachlan and his posse rolled
over the parapet, safe and sound, and Bobby was able, to his own great
content and that of the weary operators along the line, to announce,--
"The patrol has returned, sir, and reports everything quite
satisfactory. I am forwarding a detailed statement."
Then he laid down the receiver with a happy sigh, and crawled out of
the dug-out on to the duck-board.
"Now we'll have a look round the sentries, Sergeant-Major," he said.
But the pair had hardly rounded three traverses when Bobby was haled
back to the Signal Station.
"Why did you leave the telephone just now?" inquired a cold voice.
"I was going to visit my sentries, sir."
"But _I_ was speaking to you."
"I thought you had finished, sir."
"I had _not_ finished. If I had finished, I should have informed you
of the fact, and would have said' Good-night!'"
"How _does_ one choke off a tripe-merchant of this type?" wondered the
From the bowels of the earth came the answer to his unspoken
question--delivered in a strong Paisley accent--
"For Goad's sake, kiss him, and say 'Good-Nicht,' and hae done with
As already stated, Private Wamphray was returned to his platoon next
But to regard the Buzzer simply and solely as a troglodyte, of
sedentary habits and caustic temperament, is not merely hopelessly
wrong: it is grossly unjust. Sometimes he goes for a walk--under some
such circumstances as the following.
The night is as black as Tartarus, and it is raining heavily. Brother
Boche, a prey to nervous qualms, is keeping his courage up by
distributing shrapnel along our communication-trenches. Signal-wires
are peculiarly vulnerable to shrapnel. Consequently no one in the
Battalion Signal Station is particularly surprised when the line to
"Akk" Company suddenly ceases to perform its functions.
Signal-Sergeant M'Micking tests the instrument, glances over his
shoulder, and observes,--
"Line BX is gone, some place or other. Away you, Duncan, and sorrt
Mr. Duncan, who has been sitting hunched over a telephone, temporarily
quiescent, smoking a woodbine, heaves a resigned sigh, extinguishes the
woodbine and places it behind his ear; hitches his repairing-wallet
nonchalantly over his shoulder, and departs into the night--there to
grope in several inches of mud for the two broken ends of the wire,
which may be lying fifty yards apart. Having found them, he proceeds to
effect a junction, his progress being impeded from time to time by
further bursts of shrapnel. This done, he tests the new connection,
relights his woodbine, and splashes his way back to Headquarters. That
is a Buzzer's normal method of obtaining fresh air and exercise.
More than that. He is the one man in the Army who can fairly describe
himself as indispensable.
In these days, when whole nations are deployed against one another,
no commander, however eminent, can ride the whirlwind single-handed.
There are limits to individual capacity. There are limits to direct
control. There are limits to personal magnetism. We fight upon a
collective plan nowadays. If we propose to engage in battle, we begin
by welding a hundred thousand men into one composite giant. We weld a
hundred thousand rifles, a million bombs, a thousand machine-guns, and
as many pieces of artillery, into one huge weapon of offence, with
which we arm our giant. Having done this, we provide him with a
brain--a blend of all the experience and wisdom and military genius at
our disposal. But still there is one thing lacking--a nervous system.
Unless our giant have that,--unless his brain be able to transmit its
desires to his mighty limbs,--he has nothing. He is of no account; the
enemy can make butcher's-meat of him. And that is why I say that
the purveyor of this nervous system--our friend the Buzzer--is
indispensable. You can always create a body of sorts and a brain of
sorts. But unless you can produce a nervous system of the highest
excellence, you are foredoomed to failure.
Take a small instance. Supposing a battalion advances to the attack,
and storms an isolated, exposed position. Can they hold on, or can
they not? That question can only be answered by the Artillery behind
them. If the curtain of shell-fire which has preceded the advancing
battalion to its objective can be "lifted" at the right moment and
put down again, with precision, upon a certain vital zone beyond the
captured line, counter-attacks can be broken up and the line held.
But the Artillery lives a long way--sometimes miles--in rear. Without
continuous and accurate information it will be more than useless; it
will be dangerous. (A successful attacking party has been shelled out
of its hardly won position by its own artillery before now--on both
sides!) Sometimes a little visual signalling is possible: sometimes a
despatch-runner may get back through the enemy's curtain of fire; but
in the main your one hope of salvation hangs upon a slender thread of
insulated wire. And round that wire are strung some of the purest gems
of heroism that the War has produced.
At the Battle of Loos, half a battalion of "K(1)" pushed forward into
a very advanced hostile position. There they hung, by their teeth.
Their achievement was great; but unless Headquarters could be informed
of their exact position and needs, they were all dead men. So Corporal
Greig set out to find them, unreeling wire as he went. He was blown to
pieces by an eight-inch shell, but another signaller was never
lacking to take his place. They pressed forward, these lackadaisical
non-combatants, until the position was reached and communication
established. Again and again the wire was cut by shrapnel, and again
and again a Buzzer crawled out to find the broken ends and piece them
together. And ultimately, the tiny, exposed limb in front having been
enabled to explain its exact requirements to the brain behind, the
necessary help was forthcoming and the Fort was held.
Next time you pass a Signaller's Dug-out peep inside. You will find
it occupied by a coke brazier, emitting large quantities of carbon
monoxide, and an untidy gentleman in khaki, with a blue-and-white
device upon his shoulder-straps, who is humped over a small black
instrument, luxuriating in a "frowst" most indescribable. He is
reading a back number of a rural Scottish newspaper which you never
heard of. Occasionally, in response to a faint buzz, he takes up his
transmitter and indulges in an unintelligible altercation with a
person unseen. You need feel no surprise if he is wearing the ribbon
of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The outstanding feature of to-day's intelligence is that spring is
coming--has come, in fact.
It arrived with a bump. March entered upon its second week with seven
degrees of frost and four inches of snow. We said what was natural and
inevitable to the occasion, wrapped our coats of skins more firmly
round us, and made a point of attending punctually when the rum ration
Forty-eight hours later winter had disappeared. The sun was blazing
in a cloudless sky. Aeroplanes were battling for photographic rights
overhead; the brown earth beneath our feet was putting forth its
first blades of tender green. The muck-heap outside our rest-billet
displayed unmistakable signs of upheaval from its winter sleep.
Primroses appeared in Bunghole Wood; larks soared up into the sky
above No Man's Land, making music for the just and the unjust.
Snipers, smiling cheerfully over the improved atmospheric conditions,
polished up their telescopic sights. The artillery on each side hailed
the birth of yet another season of fruitfulness and natural
increase with some more than usually enthusiastic essays in mutual
extermination. Half the Mess caught colds in their heads.
Frankly, we are not sorry to see the end of winter. Caesar, when he
had concluded his summer campaign, went into winter quarters. Caesar,
as Colonel Kemp once huskily remarked, knew something!
Still, each man to his taste. Corporal Mucklewame, for one, greatly
prefers winter to summer.
"In the winter," he points out to Sergeant M'Snape, "a body can
breathe withoot swallowing a wheen bluebottles and bum-bees. A body
can aye streitch himself doon under a tree for a bit sleep withoot
getting wasps and wee beasties crawling up inside his kilt, and
puddocks craw-crawing in his ear! A body can keep himself frae
"He can that!" assents M'Snape, whose spare frame is more vulnerable
to the icy breeze than that of the stout corporal.
However, the balance of public opinion is against Mucklewame. Most
of us are unfeignedly glad to feel the warmth of the sun again.
That working-party, filling sandbags just behind the machine-gun
emplacement, are actually singing. Spring gets into the blood, even
in this stricken land. The Boche over the way resents our efforts at
Sing us a song, a song of Bonnie Scotland!
Any old song will do.
By the old camp-fire, the rough-and-ready choir
Join in the chorus too.
"You'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road"--
'Tis a song that we all know,
To bring back the days in Bonnie Scotland,
Where the heather and the bluebells--
The Boche, a Wagnerian by birth and upbringing, cannot stand any more
of this, so he has fired a rifle-grenade at the glee-party--on the
whole a much more honest and direct method of condemnation than that
practiced by musical critics in time of peace. But he only elicits an
encore. Private Nigg perches a steel helmet on the point of a bayonet,
and patronisingly bobs the same up and down above the parapet.
These steel helmets have not previously been introduced to the
reader's notice. They are modelled upon those worn in the French
Army--and bear about as much resemblance to the original pattern as a
Thames barge to a racing yacht. When first issued, they were greeted
with profound suspicion. Though undoubtedly serviceable,--they saved
many a crown from cracking round The Bluff the other day,--they were
undeniably heavy, and they were certainly not becoming to the peculiar
type of beauty rampant in "K(1)." On issue, then, their recipients
elected to regard the wearing of them as a peculiarly noxious form
of "fatigue." Private M'A. deposited his upon the parapet, like a
foundling on a doorstep, and departed stealthily round the nearest
traverse, to report his new headpiece "lost through the exigencies of
military service." Private M'B. wore his insecurely perched upon the
top of his tam-o'-shanter bonnet, where it looked like a very large
ostrich egg in a very small khaki nest. Private M'C. set his up on
a convenient post, and opened rapid fire upon it at a range of six
yards, surveying the resulting holes with the gloomy satisfaction of
the vindicated pessimist. Private M'D. removed the lining from his,
and performed his ablutions in the inverted crown.
"This," said Colonel Kemp, "will never do. We must start wearing the
dashed things ourselves."
And it was so. Next day, to the joy of the Battalion, their officers
appeared in the trenches selfconsciously wearing what looked like
small sky-blue wash-hand basins balanced upon their heads. But
discipline was excellent. No one even smiled. In fact, there was a
slight reaction in favour of the helmets. Conversations like the
following were overheard:--
"I'm tellin' you, Jimmy, the C.O. is no the man for tae mak' a show of
himself like that for naething. These tin bunnets must be some use.
Wull we pit oors on?"
"Awa' hame, and bile your held!" replied the unresponsive James.
"They'll no stop a whish-bang," conceded the apostle of progress, "but
they would keep off splunters, and a wheen bullets, and--and--"
"And the rain!" supplied Jimmy sarcastically.
This gibe suddenly roused the temper of the other participant in the
"I tell you," he exclaimed, in a voice shrill with indignation, "that
these ---- helmets are some ---- use!"
"And I tell _you_," retorted James earnestly, "that these ---- helmets
are no ---- ---- use!"
When two reasonable persons arrive at a controversial _impasse_, they
usually agree to differ and go their several ways. But in "K(1)" we
prefer practical solutions. The upholder of helmets hastily thrust his
upon his head.
"I'll show you, Jimmy!" he announced, and clambered up on the
"And I'll ---- well show _you_, Wullie!" screamed James, doing
Simultaneously the two zealots thrust their heads over the parapet,
and awaited results. These came. The rifles of two Boche snipers rang
out, and both demonstrators fell heavily backwards into the arms of
By all rights they ought to have been killed. But they were both very
much alive. Each turned to the other triumphantly, and exclaimed,--
"I tellt ye so!"
There was a hole right through the helmet of Jimmy, the unbeliever.
The fact that there was not also a hole through his head was due to
his forethought in having put on a tam-o'-shanter underneath. The net
result was a truncated "toorie." Wullie's bullet had struck his helmet
at a more obtuse angle, and had glanced off, as the designer of the
smooth exterior had intended it to do.
At first glance, the contest was a draw. But subsequent investigation
elicited the fact that Jimmy in his backward fall had bitten his
tongue to the effusion of blood. The verdict was therefore awarded, on
points, to Wullie, and the spectators dispersed in an orderly manner
just as the platoon sergeant came round the traverse to change the
We have occupied our own present trenches since January. There was
a time when this sector of the line was regarded as a Vale of Rest.
Bishops were conducted round with impunity. Members of Parliament
came out for the week-end, and returned to their constituents with
first-hand information about the horrors of war. Foreign journalists,
and sight-seeing parties of munition-workers, picnicked in Bunghole
Wood. In the village behind the line, if a chance shell removed tiles
from the roof of a house, the owner, greatly incensed, mounted a
ladder and put in some fresh ones.
But that is all over now. "K(1)"--hard-headed men of business,
bountifully endowed with munitions--have arrived upon the scene, and
the sylvan peace of the surrounding district is gone. Pan has dug
The trouble began two months ago, when our Divisional Artillery
arrived. Unversed in local etiquette, they commenced operations by
"sending up"--to employ a vulgar but convenient catch-phrase--a
strongly fortified farmhouse in the enemy's support line. The Boche,
by way of gentle reproof, deposited four or five small "whizz-bangs"
in our front-line trenches. The tenants thereof promptly telephoned to
"Mother," and Mother came to the assistance of her offspring with a
salvo of twelve-inch shells. After that. Brother Boche, realising that
the golden age was past, sent north to the Salient for a couple of
heavy batteries, and settled down to shell Bunghole village to pieces.
Within a week he had brought down the church tower: within a fortnight
the population had migrated farther back, leaving behind a few
patriots, too deeply interested in the sale of small beer and picture
postcards to uproot themselves. Company Headquarters in Bunghole Wood
ceased to grow primroses and began to fill sandbags.
A month ago the village was practically intact. The face of the church
tower was badly scarred, but the houses were undamaged. The little
shops were open; children played in the streets. Now, if you stand at
the cross-roads where the church rears its roofless walls, you will
understand what the Abomination of Desolation means. Occasionally a
body of troops, moving in small detachments at generous intervals,
trudges by, on its way to or from the trenches. Occasionally a big
howitzer shell swings lazily out of the blue and drops with a crash or
a dull thud--according to the degree of resistance encountered--among
the crumbling cottages. All is solitude.
But stay! Right on the cross-roads, in the centre of the village, just
below the fingers of a sign-post which indicates the distance to four
French townships, whose names you never heard of until a year ago,
and now will never forget, there hangs a large, white, newly painted
board, bearing a notice in black letters six inches high. Exactly
underneath the board, rubbing their noses appreciatively against
the sign-post, stand two mules, attached to a limbered waggon, the
property of the A.S.C. Their charioteers are sitting adjacent, in a
convenient shell-hole, partaking of luncheon.
"That was a rotten place we' ad to wait in yesterday, Sammy," observes
Number One. "The draught was somethink cruel."
The recumbent Samuel agrees. "This little 'oiler is a bit of all
right," he remarks. "When you've done strarfin' that bully-beef, 'and
it over, ole man!"
He leans his head back upon the lip of the shell-hole, and gazes
pensively at the notice-board six feet away. It says:--
Here is another cross-roads, a good mile farther forward--and less
than a hundred yards behind the fire-trench. It is dawn.
The roads themselves are not so distinct as they were. They are
becoming grass-grown: for more than a year--in daylight at least--no
human foot has trodden them. The place is like hundreds of others that
you may see scattered up and down this countryside--two straight,
flat, metalled country roads, running north and south and east and
west, crossing one another at a faultless right angle.
Of the four corners thus created, one is--or was--occupied by an
estaminet: you can still see the sign, _Estaminet au Commerce_, over
the door. Two others contain cottages,--the remains of cottages. At
the fourth, facing south and east, stands what is locally known as a
"Calvaire,"--bank of stone, a lofty cross, and a life-size figure of
Christ, facing east, towards the German lines.
This spot is shelled every day--has been shelled every day for months.
Possibly the enemy suspects a machine-gun or an observation post amid
the tumble-down buildings. Hardly one brick remains upon another.
And yet--the sorrowful Figure is unbroken. The Body is riddled
with bullets--in the glowing dawn you may Count not five but fifty
wounds--but the Face is untouched. It is the standing miracle of this
most materialistic war. Throughout the length of France you will see
the same thing.
Agnostics ought to come out here, for a "cure."
With spring comes also the thought of the Next Push.
But we do not talk quite so glibly of pushes as we did. Neither, for
that matter, does Brother Boche. He has just completed six weeks'
pushing at Verdun, and is beginning to be a little uncertain as to
which direction the pushing is coming from.
No; once more the military textbooks are being rewritten. We started
this war under one or two rather fallacious premises. One was that
Artillery was more noisy than dangerous. When Antwerp fell, we
rescinded that theory. Then the Boche set out to demonstrate that an
Attack, provided your Artillery preparation is sufficiently thorough,
and you are prepared to set _no_ limit to your expenditure of
Infantry, must ultimately succeed. To do him justice, the Boche
supported his assertions very plausibly. His phalanx bundled the
Russians all the way from Tannenburg to Riga. The Austrians adopted
similar tactics, with similar results.
We were duly impressed. The world last summer did not quite realize
how far the results of the campaign were due to German efficiency and
how far to Russian unpreparedness. (Russia, we realise now, found
herself in the position of the historic Mrs. Partington, who
endeavoured to repel the Atlantic with a mop. This year, we
understand, she is in a position to discard the mop in favour of
something far, far better.)
Then came--Verdun. Military science turned over yet another page, and
noted that against consummate generalship, unlimited munitions, and
selfless devotion on the part of the defence, the most spectacular and
highly-doped phalanx can spend itself in vain. Military science also
noted that, under modern conditions, the capture of this position or
that signifies nothing: the only method of computing victory is to
count the dead on either side. On that reckoning, the French at Verdun
have already gained one of the great victories of all time.
"In fact," said Colonel Kemp, "this war will end when the Boche has
lost so many men as to be unable to man his present trench-line, and
"You don't think, sir, that we shall make another Push?" suggested
Angus M'Lachlan eagerly. The others were silent: they had experienced
a Push already.
"Not so long as the Boche continues to play our game for us, by
attacking. If he tumbles to the error he is making, and digs himself
in again--well, it may become necessary to draw him. In that case,
M'Lachlan, you shall have first chop at the Victoria Crosses. Afraid I
can't recommend you for your last exploit, though I admit it must have
required some nerve!"
There was unseemly laughter at this allusion. Four nights previously
Angus had been sent out in charge of a wiring-party. He had duly
crawled forth with his satellites, under cover of darkness, on to No
Man's Land; and, there selecting a row of "knife-rests" which struck
him as being badly in need of repair, had well and truly reinforced
the same with many strands of the most barbarous brand of barbed wire.
This, despite more than usually fractious behaviour upon the part of
Next morning, through a sniper's loophole, he exhibited the result of
his labours to Major Wagstaffe. The Major gazed long and silently upon
his subordinate's handiwork. There was no mistaking it. It stood out
bright and gleaming in the rays of the rising sun, amid its dingy
surroundings of rusty ironmongery. Angus M'Lachlan waited anxiously
for a little praise.
"Jolly good piece of work," said Major Wagstaffe at last. "But tell
me, why have you repaired the Boche wire instead of your own?"
"The only enemy we have to fear," continued Colonel Kemp, rubbing his
spectacles savagely, "is the free and independent British voter--I
mean, the variety of the species that we have left at home. Like the
gentleman in Jack Point's song, 'He likes to get value for money'; and
he is quite capable of asking us, about June or July, 'if we know that
we are paid to be funny?'--before we are ready. What's your view of
the situation at home, Wagstaffe? You're the last off leave."
Wagstaffe shook his head.
"The British Nation," he said, "is quite mad. That fact, of course,
has been common property on the Continent of Europe ever since Cook's
Tours were invented. But what irritates the orderly Boche is that
there is no method in its madness. Nothing you can go upon, or take
hold of, or wring any advantage from."
"Well, take compulsory service. For generations the electorate of
our country has been trained by a certain breed of politician--the
_Bandar-log_ of the British Constitution--to howl down such a low and
degrading business as National Defence. A nasty Continental custom,
they called it. Then came the War, and the glorious Voluntary System
got to work."
"Aided," the Colonel interpolated, "by a campaign of mural
advertisement which a cinema star's press agent would have boggled
"Quite so," agreed Wagstaffe. "Next, when the Voluntary System had
done its damnedest--in other words, when the willing horse had been
worked to his last ounce--we tried the Derby Scheme. The manhood of
the nation was divided into groups, and a fresh method of touting for
troops was adopted. Married shysters, knowing that at least twenty
groups stood between them and a job of work, attested in comparatively
large numbers. The single shysters were less reckless--so much less
reckless, in fact, that compulsion began to materialise at last."
"But only for single shysters," said Bobby Little regretfully.
"Yes; and the married shyster rejoiced accordingly. But the single
shyster is a most subtle reptile. On examination, it was found that
the single members of this noble army of martyrs were all 'starred,'
or 'reserved', or 'ear-marked'--or whatever it is that they do to
these careful fellows. So the poor old married shyster, who had only
attested to show his blooming patriotism and encourage the others,
suddenly found himself confronted with the awful prospect of having to
defend his country personally, instead of by letter to the halfpenny
press. Then the fat was fairly in the fire! The married martyr--"
"Come, come, old man! Not all of them!" said Colonel Kemp. "I have a
married brother of my own, a solicitor of thirty-eight, who is simply
clamouring for active service!"
"I know that, sir," admitted Wagstaffe quickly. "Thank God, these
fellows are only a minority, and a freak minority at that; but freak
minorities seem to get the monopoly of the limelight in our unhappy
"The whole affair," mused the Colonel, "can hardly be described as a
frenzied rally round the Old Flag. By God," he broke out suddenly,
"it fairly makes one's blood boil! When I think of the countless good
fellows, married and single, but mainly married, who left _all_ and
followed the call of common decency and duty the moment the War broke
out--most of them now dead or crippled; and when I see this miserable
handful of shirkers, holding up vital public business while the pros
and cons of their wretched claims to exemption are considered--well, I
almost wish I had been born a Boche!"
"I don't think you need apply for naturalisation papers yet, Colonel,"
said Wagstaffe. "The country is perfectly sound at heart over this
question, and always was. The present agitation, as I say, is being
engineered by the more verminous section of our incomparable daily
Press, for its own ends. It makes our Allies lift their eyebrows a
bit; but they are sensible people, and they realise that although we
are a nation of lunatics, we usually deliver the goods in the end. As
for the Boche, poor fellow, the whole business makes him perfectly
rabid. Here he is, with all his splendid organisation and brutal
efficiency, and he can't even knock a dent into our undisciplined,
back-chatting, fool-ridden, self-depreciating old country! I, for one,
sympathise with the Boche profoundly. On paper, we don't _deserve_ to
"But we shall!" remarked that single-minded paladin, Bobby Little.