Part 3 out of 4
"Of course we shall! And what's more, we are going to derive a
national benefit out of this war which will in itself be worth the
price of admission!"
"How?" asked several voices.
Wagstaffe looked round the table. The Battalion were for the moment in
Divisional Reserve, and consequently out of the trenches. Some one
had received a box of Coronas from home, and the mess president had
achieved a bottle of port. Hence the present symposium at Headquarters
Mess. Wagstaffe's eyes twinkled.
"Will each officer present," he said, "kindly name his pet aversion
among his fellow-creatures?"
"A person or a type?" asked Mr. Waddell cautiously.
Colonel Kemp led off.
"Male ballet-dancers," he said.
"Fat, shiny men," said Bobby Little, "with walrus mustaches!"
"All conscientious objectors, passive resisters, pacifists, and other
cranks!" continued the orthodox Waddell.
"All people who go on strike during war-time," said the Adjutant.
There was an approving murmur--then silence.
"Your contribution, M'Lachlan?" said Wagstaffe.
Angus, who had kept silence from shyness, suddenly blazed out:--
"I think," he said, "that the most contemptible people in the world
to-day are those politicians and others who, in years gone by,
systematically cried down anything in the shape of national defence or
national inclination to personal service, because they saw there were
no _votes_ in such a programme; and who _now_"--Angus's passion rose
to fever-heat,--"stand up and endeavour to cultivate popular favour
by reviling the Ministry and the Army for want of preparedness and
initiative. Such men do not deserve to live! Oh, sirs--"
But Angus's peroration was lost in a storm of applause.
"You are adjudged to have hit the bull's-eye, M'Lachlan," said Colonel
Kemp. "But tell us, Wagstaffe, your exact object in compiling this
"Certainly. It is this. Universal Service is a _fait accompli_ at
last, or is shortly going to be--and without anything very much in the
way of exemption either. When it comes, just think of it! All these
delightful people whom we have been enumerating will have to toe the
line at last. For the first time in their little lives they will learn
the meaning of discipline, and fresh air, and _esprit de corps_. Isn't
that worth a war? If the present scrap can only be prolonged for
another year, our country will receive a tonic which will carry it on
for another century. Think of it! Great Britain, populated by men who
have actually been outside their own parish; men who know that the
whole is greater than the part; men who are too wide awake to go on
doing just what the _Bandar-log_ tell them, and allow themselves to be
used as stalking-horses for low-down political ramps! When _we_, going
round in bath-chairs and on crutches, see that sight--well, I don't
think we shall regret our missing arms and legs quite so much,
Colonel. War is Hell, and all that; but there is one worse thing than
a long war, and that is a long peace!"
"I wonder!" said Colonel Kemp reflectively. He was thinking of his
wife and four children in distant Argyllshire.
But the rapt attitude and quickened breath of Temporary Captain Bobby
Little endorsed every word that Major Wagstaffe had spoken. As he
rolled into his "flea-bag" that night, Bobby requoted to himself, for
the hundredth time, a passage from Shakespeare which had recently
come to his notice. He was not a Shakespearian scholar, nor indeed a
student of literature at all; but these lines had been sent to him,
cut out of a daily almanac, by an equally unlettered and very adorable
confidante at home:--
"And gentlemen in England now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day!"
Bobby was the sort of person who would thoroughly have enjoyed the
Battle of Agincourt.
We will call the village St. Gregoire. That is not its real name;
because the one thing you must not do in war-time is to call a thing
by its real name. To take a hackneyed example, you do not call a spade
a spade: you refer to it, officially, as _Shovels, General Service,
One_. This helps to deceive, and ultimately to surprise, the enemy;
and as we all know by this time, surprise is the essence of successful
warfare. On the same principle, if your troops are forced back from
their front-line trenches, you call this "successfully straightening
out an awkward salient."
But this by the way. Let us get back to St. Gregoire. Hither,
mud-splashed, ragged, hollow-cheeked, came our battalion--they call
us the Seventh Hairy Jocks nowadays--after four months' continuous
employment in the firing-line. Ypres was a household word to them;
Plugstreet was familiar ground; Givenchy they knew intimately; Loos
was their wash-pot--or rather, a collection of wash-pots, for in
winter all the shell-craters are full to overflowing. In addition to
their prolonged and strenuous labours in the trenches, the Hairy Jocks
had taken part in a Push--a part not altogether unattended with glory,
but prolific in casualties. They had not been "pulled out" to rest and
refit for over six months, for Divisions on the Western Front were not
at that period too numerous, the voluntary system being at its last
gasp, while the legions of Lord Derby had not yet crystallised out of
the ocean of public talk which held them in solution. So the Seventh
Hairy Jocks were bone tired. But they were as hard as a rigorous
winter in the open could make them, and--they were going back to rest
at last. Had not their beloved C.O. told them so? And he had added, in
a voice not altogether free from emotion, that if ever men deserved a
solid rest and a good time, "you boys do!"
So the Hairy Jocks trudged along the long, straight, nubbly French
road, well content, speculating with comfortable pessimism as to the
character of the billets in which they would find themselves.
Meanwhile, ten miles ahead, the advance party were going round the
town in quest of the billets.
Billet-hunting on the Western Front is not quite so desperate an
affair as hunting for lodgings at Margate, because in the last
extremity you can always compel the inhabitants to take you in--or at
least, exert pressure to that end through the _Mairie_. But at the
best one's course is strewn with obstacles, and fortunate is the
Adjutant who has to his hand a subaltern capable of finding lodgings
for a thousand men without making a mess of it.
The billeting officer on this, as on most occasions, was our
friend Cockerell,--affectionately known to the entire Battalion as
"Sparrow,"--and his qualifications for the post were derived from
three well-marked and invaluable characteristics, namely, an imperious
disposition, a thick skin, and an attractive _bonhomie_ of manner.
Behold him this morning dismounting from his horse in the _place_
of St. Gregoire. Around him are grouped his satellites--the
Quartermaster-Sergeant, four Company Sergeants, some odd orderlies,
and a forlorn little man in a neat drab uniform with light blue
facings,--the regimental interpreter. The party have descended, with
the delicate care of those who essay to perform acrobatic feats in
kilts, from bicycles--serviceable but appallingly heavy machines
of Government manufacture, the property of the "Buzzers," but
commandeered for the occasion. The Quartermaster-Sergeant, who is
not accustomed to strenuous exercise, mops his brow and glances
expectantly round the _place_. His eye comes gently to rest upon a
small but hospitable-looking _estaminet_.
Lieutenant Cockerell examines his wrist-watch.
"Half-past ten!" he announces. "Quartermaster-Sergeant!"
"Sirr!" The Quartermaster-Sergeant unglues his longing gaze from the
_estaminet_ and comes woodenly to attention.
"I am going to see the Town Major about a billeting area. I will meet
you and the party here in twenty minutes."
Master Cockerell trots off on his mud-splashed steed, followed by the
respectful and appreciative salutes of his followers--appreciative,
because a less considerate officer would have taken the whole party
direct to the Town Major's office and kept them standing in the
street, wasting moments which might have been better employed
elsewhere, until it was time to proceed with the morning's work.
* * * * *
"How strong are you?" inquired the Town Major.
Cockerell told him. The Town Major whistled.
"That all? Been doing some job of work, haven't you?"
Cockerell nodded, and the Town Major proceeded to examine a
large-scale plan of St. Gregoire, divided up into different-coloured
"We are rather full up at present," he said; "but the Cemetery Area
is vacant. The Seventeenth Geordies moved out yesterday. You can have
that." He indicated a triangular section with his pencil.
Master Cockerell gave a deprecatory cough.
"We have come here, sir," he intimated dryly, "for a change of scene."
The stout Town Major--all Town Majors are stout--chuckled.
"Not bad for a Scot!" he conceded. "But it's quite a cheery district,
really. You won't have to doss down in the cemetery itself, you know.
These two streets here--" he flicked a pencil--"will hold practically
all your battalion, at its present strength. There's a capital
house in the Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau which will do for Battalion
Headquarters. The corporal over there will give you your _billets de
"Are there any other troops in the area, sir?" asked Cockerell, who,
as already indicated, was no child in these matters.
"There ought not to be, of course. But you know what the Heavy Gunners
and the A.S.C. are! If you come across any of them, fire them out. If
they wear too many stars and crowns for you, let me know, and I will
perform the feat myself. You fellows need a good rest and no worries,
I know. Good-morning."
At ten minutes to eleven Cockerell found the Quartermaster-Sergeant
and party, wiping their mustaches and visibly refreshed, at the exact
spot where he had left them; and the hunt for billets began.
"A" Company were easily provided for, a derelict tobacco factory being
encountered at the head of the first street. Lieutenant Cockerell
accordingly detached a sergeant and a corporal from his train, and
passed on. The wants of "B" Company were supplied by commandeering
a block of four dilapidated houses farther down the street--all in
comparatively good repair except the end house, whose roof had been
disarranged by a shell during the open fighting in the early days of
This exhausted the possibilities of the first street, and the party
debouched into the second, which was long and straggling, and composed
entirely of small houses.
"Now for a bit of the retail business!" said Master Cockerell
resignedly. "Sergeant M'Nab, what is the strength of 'C' Company?"
"One hunner and thairty-fower other ranks, sirr," announced Sergeant
M'Nab, consulting a much-thumbed roll-book.
"We shall have to put them in twos and threes all down the street,"
said Cockerell. "Come on; the longer we look at it the less we shall
like it. Interpreter!"
The forlorn little man, already described, trotted up, and saluted
with open hand, French fashion. His name was Baptiste Bombominet ("or
words to that effect," as the Adjutant put it), and may have been so
inscribed upon the regimental roll; but throughout the rank and file
Baptiste was affectionately known by the generic title of "Alphonso."
The previous seven years had been spent by him in the congenial and
blameless atmosphere of a Ladies' Tailor's in the west end of London,
where he enjoyed the status and emoluments of chief cutter. Now,
called back to his native land by the voice of patriotic obligation,
he found himself selected, by virtue of a residence of seven years in
England, to act as official interpreter between a Scottish Regiment
which could not speak English, and Flemish peasants who could not
speak French. No wonder that his pathetic brown eyes always appeared
full of tears. However, he followed Cockerell down the street, and
meekly embarked upon a contest with the lady Inhabitants thereof, in
which he was hopelessly outmatched from the start.
At the first door a dame of massive proportions, but keen business
instincts, announced her total inability to accommodate _soldats_, but
explained that she would be pleased to entertain _officiers_ to any
number. This is a common gambit. Twenty British privates in your
_grenier_, though extraordinarily well-behaved as a class, make a good
deal of noise, buy little, and leave mud everywhere. On the other
hand, two or three officers give no trouble, and can be relied upon to
consume and pay for unlimited omelettes and bowls of coffee.
That seasoned vessel, Lieutenant Cockerell, turned promptly to the
Sergeant and Corporal of "C" Company.
"Sergeant M'Nab," he said, "you and Corporal Downie will billet here."
He introduced hostess and guests by an expressive wave of the hand.
But shrewd Madame was not to be bluffed.
"_Pas de sergents, Monsieur le Capitaine!_" she exclaimed.
"_Ils sont officiers--sous-officiers_," explained Cockerell, rather
ingeniously, and moved off down the street.
At the next house the owner--a small, wizened lady of negligible
physique but great staying power--entered upon a duet with Alphonso,
which soon reduced that very moderate performer to breathlessness. He
shrugged his shoulders feebly, and cast an appealing glance towards
"What does she say?" inquired Cockerell.
"She say dis' ouse no good, sair! She 'ave seven children, and one
"Let me see," commanded the practical officer.
He insinuated himself as politely as possible past his reluctant
opponent, and walked down the narrow passage into the kitchen. Here he
turned, and inquired--
"Er--_ou est la pauvre petite chose?_"
Madame promptly opened a door, and displayed a little girl in bed--a
very flushed and feverish little girl.
Cockerell grinned sympathetically at the patient, to that young lady's
obvious gratification; and turned to the mother.
"_Je suis tres--triste_," he said; "_j'ai grand misericorde. Je ne
placerai pas de soldats ici. Bon jour!_"
By this time he was in the street again. He saluted politely and
departed, followed by the grateful regards of Madame.
No special difficulties were encountered at the next few houses. The
ladies at the house-door were all polite; many of them were most
friendly; but naturally each was anxious to get as few men and as many
officers as possible--except the proprietess of an _estaminel_, who
offered to accommodate the entire regiment. However, with a little
tact here and a little firmness there, Master Cockerell succeeded in
distributing "C" Company among some dozen houses. One old gentleman,
with a black alpaca cap and a six-days beard, proprietor of a
lofty establishment at the corner of the street, proved not only
recalcitrant, but abusive. With him Cockerell dealt promptly.
"_Ca suffit_!" he announced. "_Montres-moi votre grenier!_"
The old man, grumbling, led the way up numerous rickety staircases
to the inevitable loft under the tiles. This proved to be a noble
apartment thirty feet long. From wall to wall stretched innumerable
"We can get a whole platoon in here," said Cockerell contentedly.
"Tell him, Alphonso. These people," he explained to Sergeant M'Nab,
"always dislike giving up their lofts, because they hang their laundry
there in winter. However, the old boy must lump it. After all, we are
in this country for his health, not ours; and he gets paid for every
man who sleeps here. That fixes 'C' Company. Now for 'D'! The other
side of the street this time."
Quarters were found in due course for "D" Company; after which
Cockerell discovered a vacant building-site which would serve
for transport lines. An empty garage was marked down for the
Quartermaster's ration store, and the Quartermaster-Sergeant promptly
faded into its recesses with a grateful sigh. An empty shop in the
Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, conveniently adjacent to Battalion
Headquarters, was appropriated for that gregarious band, the
regimental signallers and telephone section; while a suitable home for
the Anarchists, or Bombers, together with their stock-in-trade, was
found in the basement of a remote dwelling on the outskirts of the
After this, Lieutenant Cockerell, left alone with Alphonso and the
orderly in charge of his horse, heaved a sigh of exhaustion and
transferred his attention from his notebook to his watch.
"That finishes the rank and file," he said. "I breakfasted at four
this morning, and the battalion won't arrive for a couple of hours
yet. Alphonso, I am going to have an omelette somewhere. I shall want
you in half an hour exactly. Don't go wandering off for the rest of
the day, pinching soft billets for yourself and the Sergeant-Major and
your other pals, as you usually do!"
Alphonso saluted guiltily--evidently the astute Cockerell had "touched
the spot"--and was turning away, when suddenly the billeting officer's
eye encountered an illegible scrawl at the very foot of his list.
"Stop a moment, Alphonso! I have forgotten those condemned
machine-gunners, as usual. _Strafe_ them! Come on! Once more into the
breach, Alphonso! There is a little side-alley down here that we have
The indefatigable Cockerell turned down the Rue Gambetta, followed by
Alphonso, faint but resigned.
"Here is the very place!" announced Cockerell almost at once. "This
house, Number Five. We can put the gunners and their little guns into
that stable at the back, and the officer can have a room in the house
itself. _Sonnez_, for the last time before lunch!"
The door was opened by a pleasant-faced young woman of about
thirty, who greeted Cockerell--tartan is always popular with French
ladies--with a beaming smile, but shook her head regretfully upon
seeing the _billet de logement_ in his hand. The inevitable duet with
Alphonso followed. Presently Alphonso turned to his superior.
"Madame is ver' sorry, sair, but an _officier_ is here already."
"Show me the _officier_!" replied the prosaic Cockerell.
The duet was resumed.
"Madame say," announced Alphonso presently, "that the _officier_ is
not here now; but he will return."
"So will Christmas! Meanwhile I am going to put an _Emma Gee_ officer
Alphonso's desperate attempt to translate the foregoing idiom into
French was interrupted by Madame's retirement into the house, whither
she beckoned Cockerell to follow her. In the front room she produced a
frayed sheet of paper, which she proffered with an apologetic smile.
The paper said:--
_This billet is entirely reserved for the Supply Officer of this
District. It is not to be occupied by troops passing through the town.
Lieutenant Cockerell whistled softly and vindictively through his
"Well," he said, "for consummate and concentrated nerve, give me the
underlings of the A.S.C.! This pot-bellied blighter not only butts
into an area which doesn't belong to him, but actually leaves a chit
to warn people off the grass even when he isn't here! He hasn't
signed the document, I observe. That means that he is a newly joined
subaltern, trying to get mistaken for a Brass Hat! I'll fix _him_!"
With great stateliness Lieutenant Cockerell tore the offending
screed into four portions, to the audible concern of Madame. But the
Lieutenant smiled reassuringly upon her.
"_Je vous donnerai un autre, vous savez_," he assured her.
He sat down at the table, tore a leaf from his Field Service Pocket
Book, and wrote:--
_The Supply Officer of the District is at liberty to occupy this
billet only at such times as it is not required by the troops of the
Signed, F.J. Cockerell,
Lieut. & Asst. Adj.,
7th B. & W. Highes_.
"That's a pretty nasty one!" he observed with relish. Then, having
pinned the insulting document conspicuously to the mantelpiece, he
observed to the mystified lady of the house:--
"_Voila, Madame. Si l'officier reviendra, je le verrai moi-meme, avec
grand plaisir. Bon jour_!"
And with this dark saying Sparrow Cockerell took his departure.
The Battalion, headed by their tatterdemalion pipers, stumped into the
town in due course, and were met on the outskirts by the billeting
party, who led the various companies to their appointed place. After
inspecting their new quarters, and announcing with gloomy satisfaction
that they were the worst, dirtiest, and most uncomfortable yet
encountered, everybody settled down in the best place he could find,
and proceeded to make himself remarkably snug.
Battalion Headquarters and the officers of "A" Company were billeted
in an imposing mansion which actually boasted a bathroom. It is true
that there was no water, but this deficiency was soon made good by a
string of officers' servants bearing buckets. Beginning with Colonel
Kemp, who was preceded by an orderly bearing a small towel and a large
loofah, each officer performed a ceremonial ablution; and it was a
collection of what Major Wagstaffe termed "bright and bonny young
faces" which collected round the Mess table at seven o'clock.
It was in every sense a gala meal. Firstly, it was weeks since any one
(except Second Lieutenant M'Corquodale, newly joined, and addressed,
for painfully obvious reasons, as "Tich") had found himself at table
in an apartment where it was possible to stand upright. Secondly,
the Mess President had coaxed glass tumblers out of the ancient
_concierge_; and only those who have drunk from enamelled ironware
for weeks on end can appreciate the pure joy of escape from the
indeterminate metallic flavour which such vessels impart to all
beverages. Thirdly, these same tumblers were filled to the brim
with inferior but exhilarating champagne--purchased, as they
euphemistically put it in the Supply Column, "locally." Lastly, the
battalion had several months of hard fighting behind it, probably
a full month's rest before it, and the conscience of duty done and
recognition earned floating like a halo above it. For the moment
memories of Nightmare Wood and the Kidney Bean Redoubt--more
especially the latter--were effaced. Even the sorrowful gaps in the
ring round the table seemed less noticeable.
The menu, too, was almost pretentious. First came the _hors
d'oeuvres_--a tin of sardines. This was followed by what the
Mess Corporal described as a savoury omelette, but which the
Second-in-Command condemned as "a regrettable incident."
"It is false economy," he observed dryly to the Mess President, "to
employ Mark One  eggs as anything but hand-grenades."
[Footnote 1: In the British army each issue of arms or equipment
receives a distinctive "Mark." Mark I denotes the earliest issue.]
However, the tide of popular favour turned with the haggis,
contributed by Lieutenant Angus M'Lachlan, from a parcel from home.
Even the fact that the Mess cook, an inexperienced aesthete from
Islington, had endeavoured to tone down the naked repulsiveness of the
dainty with discreet festoons of tinned macaroni, failed to arouse
the resentment of a purely Scottish Mess. The next course--the beef
ration, hacked into the inevitable gobbets and thinly disguised by a
sprinkling of curry powder--aroused no enthusiasm; but the unexpected
production of a large tin of Devonshire cream, contributed by Captain
Bobby Little, relieved the canned peaches of their customary
monotony. Last of all came a savoury--usually described as _the_
savoury--consisting of a raft of toast per person, each raft carrying
an abundant cargo of fried potted meat, and provided with a passenger
in the shape of a recumbent sausage.
A compound of grounds and dish-water, described by the optimistic Mess
Corporal as coffee, next made its appearance, mitigated by a bottle of
Cointreau and a box of Panatellas; and the Mess turned itself to more
intellectual refreshment. A heavy and long-overdue mail had been found
waiting at St. Gregoire. Letters had been devoured long ago. Now, each
member of the Mess leaned back in his chair, straightened his weary
legs under the table, and settled down, cigar in mouth, to the perusal
of the _Spectator_ or the _Tatler_, according to rank and literary
Colonel Kemp, unfolding a week-old _Times_, looked over his glasses at
his torpid disciples.
"Where is young Sandeman?" he inquired.
Young Sandeman was the Adjutant.
"He went out to the Orderly Room, sir, five minutes ago," replied
"I only want to give him to-morrow's Orders. No doubt he'll be back
presently. I may as well mention to you fellows that I propose
to allow the men three clear days' rest, except for bathing and
re-clothing. After that we must do Company Drill, good and hard, so as
to polish up the new draft, who are due to-morrow. I am going to
start a bombing-school, too: at least seventy-five per cent. of the
Battalion ought to pass the test before we go back to the line.
However, we need not rush things. We should be here in peace for at
least a month. We must get up some sports, and I think it would be a
sound scheme to have a singsong one Saturday night. I was just saying,
Sandeman,"--this to the Adjutant, who reentered the room at that
moment,--"that it would be a sound--"
The Adjutant laid a pink field-telegraph slip before his superior.
"This has just come in from Brigade Headquarters, sir," he said. "I
have sent for the Sergeant-Major."
The Colonel adjusted his glasses and read the despatch. A deathly,
sickening silence reigned in the room. Then he looked up.
"I am afraid I was a bit previous," he said quietly. "The Royal
Stickybacks have lost the Kidney Bean, and we are detailed to go
up and retake it. Great compliment to the regiment, but a trifle
mistimed! You young fellows had better go to bed. Parade at 4 A.M.,
sharp! Good-night! Come along to the Orderly Room, Sandeman."
The door closed, and the Mess, grinding the ends of their cigars into
their coffee-cups, heaved themselves resignedly to their aching feet.
"There ain't," quoted Major Wagstaffe, "no word in the blooming
language for it!"
The Kidney Bean Redoubt is the key to a very considerable sector of
It lies just behind a low ridge. The two horns of the bean are drawn
back out of sight of the enemy, but the middle swells forward over the
skyline and commands an extensive view of the country beyond. Direct
observation of artillery fire is possible: consequently an armoured
observation post has been constructed here, from which gunner officers
can direct the fire of their batteries with accuracy and elegance.
Lose the Kidney Bean, and the boot is on the other leg. The enemy has
the upper ground now: he can bring observed artillery fire to bear
upon all our tenderest spots behind the line. He can also enfilade our
Well, as already stated, the Twenty-Second Royal Stickybacks had
lost the Kidney Bean. They were a battalion of recent formation,
stout-hearted fellows all, but new to the refinements of intensive
trench warfare. When they took over the sector, they proceeded to
leave undone various vital things which the Hairy Jocks had always
made a point of doing, and to do various unnecessary things which the
Hairy Jocks had never done. The observant Hun promptly recognised that
he was faced by a fresh batch of opponents, and, having carefully
studied the characteristics of the newcomers, prescribed and
administered an exemplary dose of frightfulness. He began by tickling
up the Stickybacks with an unpleasant engine called the _Minenwerfer_,
which despatches a large sausage-shaped projectile in a series of
ridiculous somersaults, high over No Man's Land into the enemy's
front-line trench, where it explodes and annihilates everything
in that particular bay. Upon these occasions one's only chance of
salvation is to make a rapid calculation as to the bay into which
the sausage is going to fall, and then double speedily round a
traverse--or, if possible, two traverses--into another. It is an
exhilarating pastime, but presents complications when played by a
large number of persons in a restricted space, especially when the
persons aforesaid are not unanimous as to the ultimate landing-place
of the projectile.
After a day and a night of these aerial torpedoes the Hun proceeded
to an intensive artillery bombardment. He had long coveted the
Kidney Bean, and instinct told him that he would never have a better
opportunity of capturing it than now. Accordingly, two hours before
dawn, the Redoubt was subjected to a sudden, simultaneous, and
converging fire from all the German artillery for many miles round,
the whole being topped up with a rain of those crowning instruments of
demoralisation, gas-shells. At the same time an elaborate curtain of
shrapnel and high explosive was let down behind the Redoubt, to
serve the double purpose of preventing either the sending up of
reinforcements or the temporary withdrawal of the garrison.
At the first streak of dawn the bombardment was switched off, as if by
a tap; the curtain fire was redoubled in volume; and a massed attack
swept across the disintegrated wire into the shattered and pulverised
Redoubt. Other attacks were launched on either flank; but these were
obvious blinds, intended to prevent a too concentrated defence of the
Kidney Bean. The Royal Stickybacks--what was left of them--put up a
tough fight; but half of them were lying dead or buried, or both,
before the assault was launched, and the rest were too dazed and
stupefied by noise and chlorine gas to withstand--much less to
repel--the overwhelming phalanx that was hurled against them. One
by one they went down, until the enemy troops, having swamped the
Redoubt, gathered themselves up in a fresh wave and surged towards
the reserve-line trenches, four hundred yards distant. At this point,
however, they met a strong counter-attack, launched from the Brigade
Reserve, and after heavy fighting were bundled back into the Redoubt
itself. Here the German machine-guns had staked out a defensive line,
and the German retirement came to a standstill.
Meanwhile a German digging party, many hundred strong, had been
working madly in No Man's Land, striving to link up the newly acquired
ground with the German lines. By the afternoon the Kidney Bean was not
only "reversed and consolidated," but was actually included in the
enemy's front trench system. Altogether a well-planned and admirably
executed little operation.
Forty-eight hours later the Kidney Bean Redoubt was recaptured, and
remains in British hands to this day. Many arms of the Service
took honourable part in the enterprise--heavy guns, field guns,
trench-mortars, machine-guns; Sappers and Pioneers; Infantry in
various capacities. But this narrative is concerned only with the part
played by the Seventh Hairy Jocks.
"Sorry to pull you back from rest, Colonel," said the Brigadier, when
the commander of the Hairy Jocks reported; "but the Divisional General
considers that the only feasible way to hunt the Boche from the Kidney
Bean is to bomb him out of it. That means trench-fighting, pure and
simple. I have called you up because you fellows know the ins and outs
of the Kidney Bean as no one else does. The Brigade who are in the
line just now are quite new to the place. Here is an aeroplane
photograph of the Redoubt, as at present constituted. Tell off your
own bombing parties; make your own dispositions; send me a copy of
your provisional orders; and I will fit my plan in with yours.
The Corps Commander has promised to back you with every gun,
trench-mortar, culverin, and arquebus in his possession."
In due course Battalion Orders were issued and approved. They dealt
with operations most barbarous amid localities of the most homelike
sound. Number Nine Platoon, for instance (Commander Lieutenant
Cockerell), were to proceed in single file, carrying so many grenades
per man, up Charing Cross Road, until stopped by the barrier which the
enemy were understood to have erected in Trafalgar Square, where
a bombing-post and at least one machine-gun would probably be
encountered. At this point they were to wait until Trafalgar Square
had been suitably dealt with by a trench-mortar. (Here followed a
paragraph addressed exclusively to the Trench-Mortar Officer.) After
this the bombers of Number Three Platoon would bomb their way across
the Square and up the Strand. Another party would clear Northumberland
Avenue, while a Lewis gun raked Whitehall. And so on. Every detail
was thought out, down to the composition of the parties which were
to "clean up" afterwards--that is, extract the reluctant Boche from
various underground fastnesses well known to the extractors. The whole
enterprise was then thoroughly rehearsed in some dummy trenches behind
the line, until every one knew his exact part. Such is modern warfare.
Next day the Kidney Bean Redoubt was in British hands again.
The Hun--what was left of him after an intensive bombardment of
twenty-four hours--had betaken himself back over the ridge, _via_ the
remnants of his two new communication trenches, to his original front
line. The two communication trenches themselves were blocked and
sandbagged, and were being heavily supervised by a pair of British
machine-guns. Fighting in the Redoubt itself had almost ceased, though
a humorous sergeant, followed by acolytes bearing bombs, was still
"combing out" certain residential districts in the centre of the
maze. Ever and anon he would stoop down at the entrance of some deep
dug-out, and bawl--
"Ony mair doon there? Come away, Fritz! I'll gie ye five seconds. Yin,
Then, with a rush like a bolt of rabbits, two or three close-cropped,
grimy Huns would scuttle up from below and project themselves from one
of the exits; to be taken in charge by grinning Caledonians wearing
"tin hats" very much awry, and escorted back through the barrage to
the "prisoners' base" in rear.
All through the day, amidst unremitting shell fire and local
counter-attack, the Hairy Jocks reconsolidated the Kidney Bean; and
they were so far successful that when they handed over the work to
another battalion at dusk, the parapet was restored, the machine-guns
were in position, and a number of "knife-rest" barbed-wire
entanglements were lying just behind the trench, ready to be hoisted
over the parapet and joined together in a continuous defensive line as
soon as the night was sufficiently dark.
One by one the members of Number Nine Platoon squelched--for it had
rained hard all day--back to the reserve line. They were utterly
exhausted, and still inclined to feel a little aggrieved at having
been pulled out from rest; but they were well content. They had done
the State some service, and they knew it; and they knew that the
higher powers knew it too. There would be some very flattering reading
in Divisional Orders in a few days' time.
Meanwhile, their most pressing need was for something to eat. To be
sure, every man had gone into action that morning carrying his day's
rations. But the British soldier, improvident as the grasshopper,
carries his day's rations in one place, and one place only--his
stomach. The Hairy Jocks had eaten what they required at their
extremely early breakfast: the residue thereof they had abandoned.
About midnight Master Cockerell, in obedience to a most welcome order,
led the remnants of his command, faint but triumphant, back from the
reserve line to a road junction two miles in rear, known as Dead Dog
Corner. Here the Battalion was to _rendezvous_, and march back by easy
stages to St. Gregoire. Their task was done.
But at the cross-roads Number Nine Platoon found no Battalion: only a
solitary subaltern, with his orderly. This young Casabianca informed
Cockerell that he, Second Lieutenant Candlish, had been left behind to
"bring in stragglers."
"Stragglers?" exclaimed the infuriated Cockerell. "Do we look like
"No," replied the youthful Candlish frankly; "you look more like
sweeps. However, you had better push on. The Battalion isn't far
ahead. The order is to march straight back to St. Gregoire and
re-occupy former billets."
"What about rations?"
"Rations? The Quartermaster was waiting here for us when we
_rendezvoused_, and every man had a full ration and a tot of rum."
(Number Nine Platoon cleared their parched throats expectantly.) "But
I fancy he has gone on with the column. However, if you leg it you
should catch them up. They can't be more than two miles ahead. So
But the task was hopeless. Number Nine Platoon had been bombing,
hacking, and digging all day. Several of them were slightly
wounded--the serious cases had been taken off long ago by the
stretcher-bearers--and Cockerell's own head was still dizzy from the
fumes of a German gas-shell.
He lined up his disreputable paladins in the darkness, and spoke--
"Sergeant M'Nab, how many men are present?"
"Eighteen, sirr." The platoon had gone into action thirty-four strong.
"How many men are deficient of an emergency ration? I can make a good
guess, but you had better find out."
Five minutes later the Sergeant reported. Cockerell's guess was
correct. The British private has only one point of view about the
portable property of the State. To him, as an individual, the sacred
emergency ration is an unnecessary encumbrance, and the carrying
thereof a "fatigue." Consequently, when engaged in battle, one of the
first (of many) things which he jettisons is this very ration. When
all is over, he reports with unctuous solemnity that the provender
in question has been blown out of his haversack by a shell. The
Quartermaster-Sergeant writes it off as "lost owing to the exigencies
of military service," and indents for another.
Lieutenant Cockerell's haversack contained a packet of meat-lozenges
and about half a pound of chocolate. These were presented to the
"Hand these round as far as they will go, Sergeant," said Cockerell.
"They'll make a mouthful a man, anyhow. Tell the platoon to lie down
for ten minutes; then we'll push off. It's only fifteen miles. We
ought to make it by breakfast-time ..."
Slowly, mechanically, all through the winter night the victors hobbled
along. Cockerell led the way, carrying the rifle of a man with a
wounded arm. Occasionally he checked his bearings with map and
electric torch. Sergeant M'Nab, who, under a hirsute and attenuated
exterior, concealed a constitution of ferro-concrete and the heart of
a lion, brought up the rear, uttering fallacious assurances to the
faint-hearted as to the shortness of the distance now to be covered,
and carrying two rifles.
The customary halts were observed. At ten minutes to four the men
flung themselves down for the third time. They had covered about seven
miles, and were still eight or nine from St. Gregoire. The everlasting
constellation of Verey lights still rose and fell upon the eastern
horizon behind them, but the guns were silent.
"There might be a Heavy Battery dug in somewhere about here," mused
Cockerell. "I wonder if we could touch them for a few tins of bully.
Hallo, what's that?"
A distant rumble came from the north, and out of the darkness loomed a
British motor-lorry, lurching and swaying along the rough cobbles of
the _pave_. Some of Cockerell's men were lying dead asleep in the
middle of the road, right at the junction. The lorry was going twenty
miles an hour.
"Get into the side of the road, you men!" shouted Cockerell, "or
they'll run over you. You know what these M.T. drivers are!"
With indignant haste, and at the last possible moment, the kilted
figures scattered to either side of the narrow causeway. The usual
stereotyped and vitriolic remonstrances were hurled after the great
hooded vehicle as it lurched past.
And then a most unusual thing happened. The lorry slowed down, and
finally stopped, a hundred yards away. An officer descended, and began
to walk back. Cockerell rose to his weary feet and walked to meet him.
The officer wore a major's crown upon the shoulder-straps of his
sheepskin-lined "British Warm" and the badge of the Army Service Corps
upon his cap. Cockerell, indignant at the manner in which his platoon
had been hustled off the road, saluted stiffly, and muttered:
"Good-morning!" said the Major. He was a stout man of nearly fifty,
with twinkling blue eyes and a short-clipped mustache. Cockerell
judged him to be one of the few remnants of the original British Army.
"I stopped," explained the older man, "to apologise for the scandalous
way that fellow drove over you. It was perfectly damnable; but you
know what these converted taxi-drivers are! This swine forgot for the
moment that he had an officer on board, and hogged it as usual. He
goes under arrest as soon as we get back to billets."
"Thank you very much, sir," said Master Cockerell, entirely thawed.
"I'm afraid my chaps were lying all over the road; but they are pretty
well down and out at present."
"Where have you come from?" inquired the Major, turning a curious eye
upon Cockerell's prostrate followers.
Cockerell explained When he had finished, he added wistfully--
"I suppose you have not got an odd tin or two of bully to give away,
sir? My fellows are about--"
For answer, the Major took the Lieutenant by the arm and led him
towards the lorry.
"You have come," he announced, "to the very man you want. I am
practically Mr. Harrod. In fact, I am a Corps Supply Officer. How
would a Maconochie apiece suit your boys?"
Cockerell, repressing the ecstatic phrases which crowded to his
tongue, replied that that was just what the doctor had ordered.
"Where are you bound for?" continued the Major.
"Of course. You were pulled out from there, weren't you? I am going to
St. Gregoire myself as soon as I have finished my round. Home to bed,
in fact. I haven't had any sleep worth writing home about for four
nights. It is no joke tearing about a country full of shell-holes,
hunting for people who have shifted their ration-dump seven times in
four days. However, I suppose things will settle down again, now that
you fellows have fired Brother Boche out of the Kidney Bean. Pretty
fine work, too! Tell me, what is your strength, here and now?"
"One officer," said Cockerell soberly, "and eighteen other ranks."
"All that's left of your platoon?"
Cockerell nodded. The stout Major began to beat upon the tailboard of
the lorry with his stick.
"Sergeant Smurthwaite!" he shouted.
There came a muffled grunt from the recesses of the lorry. Then a
round and ruddy face rose like a harvest moon above the tailboard, and
a stertorous voice replied respectfully--
"Let down this tailboard; load this officer's platoon into the lorry;
issue them with a Maconochie and a tot of rum apiece; and don't forget
to put Smee under arrest for dangerous driving when we get back to
"Very good, sir."
Ten minutes later the survivors of Number Nine Platoon, soaked to the
skin, dazed, slightly incredulous, but at peace with all the world,
reclined close-packed upon the floor of the swaying lorry. Each man
held an open tin of Mr. Maconochie's admirable ration between his
knees. Perfect silence reigned: a pleasant aroma of rum mellowed the
already vitiated atmosphere.
In front, beside the chastened Mr. Smee, sat the Major and Master
Cockerell. The latter had just partaken of his share of refreshment,
and was now endeavouring, with lifeless fingers, to light a cigarette.
The Major scrutinised his guest intently. Then he stripped off his
British Warm coat--incidentally revealing the fact that he wore
upon his tunic the ribbons of both South African Medals and the
Distinguished Service Order--and threw it round Cockerell's shoulders.
"I'm sorry, boy!" he said. "I never noticed. You are chilled to the
bone. Button this round you."
Cockerell made a feeble protest, but was cut short.
"Nonsense! There's no sense in taking risks after you've done your
Cockerell assented, a little sleepily. His allowance of rum was
bringing its usual vulgar but comforting influence to bear upon an
"I see you have been wounded, sir," he observed, noting with a little
surprise two gold stripes upon his host's left sleeve--the sleeve of a
"Yes," said the Major. "I got the first one at Le Gateau. He was only
a little fellow; but the second, which arrived at the Second Show at
Ypres, gave me such a stiff leg that I am only an old crock now. I was
second-in-command of an Infantry Battalion in those days. In these, I
am only a peripatetic Lipton. However, I am lucky to be here at all:
I've had twenty-seven years' service. How old are you?"
"Twenty," replied Cockerell. He was too tired to feel as ashamed as he
usually did at having to confess to the tenderness of his years.
The Major nodded thoughtfully.
"Yes," he said; "I judged that would be about the figure. My son would
have been twenty this month, only--he was at Neuve Chapelle. He
was very like you in appearance--very. His mother would have been
interested to meet you. You might as well take a nap for half an hour.
I have two more calls to make, and we shan't get home till nearly
seven. Lean on me, old man. I'll see you don't tumble overboard ..."
So Lieutenant Cockerell, conqueror of the Kidney Bean, fell asleep,
his head resting, with scandalous disregard for military etiquette,
upon the shoulder of the stout Major.
An hour or two later, Number Nine Platoon, distended with concentrated
nourishment and painfully straightening its cramped limbs, decanted
itself from the lorry into a little _cul-de-sac_ opening off the Rue
Jean Jacques Rousseau in St. Gregoire. The name of the _cul-de-sac_
was the Rue Gambetta.
Their commander, awake and greatly refreshed, looked round him and
realised, with a sudden sense of uneasiness, that he was in familiar
surroundings. The lorry had stopped at the door of Number Five.
"I don't suppose your Battalion will get back for some time," said the
Major. "Tell your Sergeant to put your men into the stable behind this
house--there's plenty of straw there--and--"
"Their own billet is just round the corner, sir," replied Cockerell.
"They might as well go there, thank you."
"Very good. But come in with me yourself, and doss here for a few
hours. You can report to your C.O. later in the day, when he arrives.
This is my _pied-a-terre_,"--rapping on the door. "You won't find many
billets like it. As you see, it stands in this little backwater, and
is not included in any of the regular billeting areas of the town. The
Town Major has allotted it to me permanently. Pretty decent of him,
wasn't it? And Madame Vinot is a dear. Here she is! _Bonjour, Madame
Vinot! Avez-vous un feu_--er--_inflamme pour moi dans la chambre_?"
Evidently the Major's French was on a par with Cockerell's.
But Madame understood him, bless her!
"_Mais oui, M'sieur le Colonel_!" she exclaimed cheerfully--the rank
of Major is not recognised by the French civilian population--and
threw open the door of the sitting-room, with a glance of compassion
upon the Major's mud-splashed companion, whom she failed to recognise.
A bright fire was burning in the open stove.
Immediately above, pinned to the mantelpiece and fluttering in
the draught, hung Cockerell's manifesto upon the subject of
non-combatants. He could recognise his own handwriting across the
room. The Major saw it too.
"Hallo, what's that hanging up, I wonder?" he exclaimed. "A memorandum
for me, I expect; probably from my old friend 'Dados.' Let us get a
little more light."
[Footnote 1: D.A.D.O.S. Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Stores.]
He crossed to the window and drew up the blind. Cockerell moved too.
When the Major turned round, his guest was standing by the stove, his
face scarlet through its grime.
"I'm awfully sorry, sir," said Cockerell, "but that
notice--memorandum--of yours has dropped into the fire."
"If it came from Dados," replied the Major, "thank you very much!"
"I can't tell you, sir," added Cockerell humbly, "what a fool I feel."
But the apology referred to an entirely different matter.
It is just one year to-day since we "came oot." A year plays havoc
with the "establishment" of a battalion in these days of civilised
warfare. Of the original band of stout-hearted but inexperienced
Crusaders who crossed the Channel in the van of The First Hundred
Thousand, in May, 1915,--a regiment close on a thousand strong, with
twenty-eight officers,--barely two hundred remain, and most of these
are Headquarters or Transport men. Of officers there are five--Colonel
Kemp, Major Wagstaffe, Master Cockerell, Bobby Little, and Mr.
Waddell, who, by the way, is now Captain Waddell, having succeeded to
the command of his old Company.
Of the rest, our old Colonel is in Scotland, essaying ambitious
pedestrian and equestrian feats upon his new leg. Others have been
drafted to the command of newer units, for every member of "K(1)" is
a Nestor now. Others are home, in various stages of convalescence.
Others, alas! will never go home again. But the gaps have all been
filled up, and once more we are at full strength, comfortably
conscious that whereas a year ago we were fighting to hold a line, and
play for time, and find our feet, while the people at home behind us
were making good, now we are fighting for one thing and one thing
only; and that is, to administer the knock-out blow to Brother Boche.
Our last casualty was Ayling, who left us under somewhat unusual
Towards the end of our last occupancy of trenches the local Olympus
decided that what both sides required, in order to awaken them from
their winter lethargy, or spring lassitude (or whatever it is that
Olympus considers that we in the firing-line are suffering from for
the moment), was a tonic. Accordingly orders were issued for a Flying
Matinee, or trench raid. Each battalion in the Division was to submit
a scheme, and the battalion whose scheme was adjudged the best was
to be accorded the honour--so said the Practical Joke Department--of
carrying out the scheme in person. To the modified rapture of the
Seventh Hairy Jocks their plan was awarded first prize. Headquarters,
after a little excusable recrimination on the subject of unnecessary
zeal and misguided ambition, set to work to arrange rehearsals of our
highly unpopular production.
Brother Boche has grown "wise" to Flying Matinees nowadays, and
to score a real success you have to present him with something
comparatively novel and unexpected. However, our scheme had been
carefully thought out; and, given sufficient preparation, and an
adequate cast, there seemed no reason to doubt that the piece would
have a highly successful run of one night.
At one point in the enemy's trenches opposite to us his barbed-wire
defences had worn very thin, and steps were taken by means of
systematic machine-gun fire to prevent him repairing them. This spot
was selected for the raid. A party of twenty-five was detailed. It was
to be led by Angus M'Lachlan, and was to slip over the parapet on a
given moonless night, crawl across No Man's Land to within striking
distance of the German trench, and wait. At a given moment the signal
for attack would be given, and the wire demolished by a means which
need not be specified here. Thereupon the raiding party were to dash
forward and--to quote the Sergeant-Major--"mix themselves up in it."
Two elements are indispensable in a successful trench-raid--surprise
and despatch. That is to say, you must deliver your raid when and
where it is least expected, and then get home to bed before your
victims have had time to set the machinery of retaliation in motion.
Steps were therefore taken, firstly, to divert the enemy's attention
as far as possible from the true objective of the raid, by a sudden
and furious bombardment of a sector of trenches three hundred yards
away; and secondly, to ensure as far as possible, that the raid,
having commenced at 2 A.M., should conclude at 2.12, sharp.
In order to cover the retirement of the excursionists, Ayling was
ordered to arrange for machine-gun fire, which should sweep the
enemy's parapet for some hundreds of yards upon either flank, and so
encourage the enemy to keep his head down and mind his own business.
The raid itself was a brilliant success. Dug-outs were bombed,
emplacements destroyed, and a respectable bag of captives brought
over. But the element of surprise, upon which so much insistence was
laid above, was visited upon both attackers and attacked. To the
former the contribution came from that well-meaning but somewhat
addlepated warrior, Private Nigg, who formed one of the raiding party.
Nigg's allotted task upon this occasion was to "comb out" certain
German dug-outs. (It may be mentioned that each man had a specific
duty to perform, and a specific portion of the trench opposite to
perform it in; for the raid had been rehearsed several times in a
dummy trench behind the lines constructed exactly to scale from an
aeroplane photograph.) For this purpose he was provided with bombs.
Shortly before two o'clock in the morning the party, headed by Angus
M'Lachlan, crawled over the parapet during a brief lull in the
activities of the Verey lights, and crept steadily, on hands and
knees, across No Man's Land. Fifty yards from the enemy's wire was a
collection of shell-holes, relics of a burst of misdirected energy on
the part of a six-inch battery. Here the raiders disposed themselves,
and waited for the signal.
Now, it is an undoubted fact, that if you curl yourself up, with two
or three preliminary twirls, after the fashion of a dog going to bed,
in a perfectly circular shell-hole, on a night as black as the inside
of the dog in question, you are extremely likely to lose your sense of
direction. This is what happened to Private Nigg. He and his infernal
machines lay uneasily in their appointed shell-hole for some ten
minutes, surrounded by Verey lights which shot suddenly into the sky
with a disconcerting _plop_, described a graceful parabola, burst into
dazzling flame, and fluttered sizzling down. One or two of these fell
quite near Nigg's party, and continued to burn upon the ground, but
the raiders sank closer into their shell-holes, and no alarm resulted.
Once or twice a machine-gun had a scolding fit, and bullets whispered
overhead. But, on the whole, the night was quiet.
Then suddenly, with a shattering roar, the feint-artillery bombardment
broke forth. Simultaneously word was passed along the raiding line to
stand by. Next moment Angus M'Lachlan and his followers rose to their
feet in the black darkness, scrambled out of their nests, and dashed
forward to the accomplishment of their mission.
When Nigg, who had paused a moment to collect his bombs, sprang out of
his shell-hole, not a colleague was in sight. At least, Nigg could
see no one. However, want of courage was not one of his failings. He
bounded blindly forward by himself.
Try as he would he could not overtake the raiding party. However, this
mattered little, for suddenly a parapet loomed before him. In
this same parapet, low down, Nigg beheld a black and gaping
aperture--plainly a loophole of some kind.
Without a moment's hesitation, Nigg hurled a Mills grenade straight
through the loophole, and then with one wild screech of "Come away,
boys!" took a flying leap over the parapet--and landed in his own
trench, in the arms of Corporal Mucklewame.
As already noted, it is difficult, when lying curled up in a circular
shell-hole in the dark, to maintain a true sense of direction.
So the first-fruits of the raid was Captain Ayling, of the _Emma
Gees_. He had stationed himself in a concrete emplacement in the front
line, the better to "observe" the fire of his guns when it should
be required. Unfortunately this was the destination selected by the
misguided Niggs for his first (and as it proved, last) bomb. The
raiders came safely back in due course, but by that time Ayling,
liberally (but by a miracle not dangerously) ballasted with assorted
scrap-iron, was on his way to the First Aid Post.
At the present moment we are right back at rest once more, and are
being treated with a consideration, amounting almost to indulgence,
which convinces us that we are being "fattened up"--to employ
the gruesome but expressive phraseology of the moment--for some
particularly strenuous enterprise in the near future.
Well, we are ready. It is nine months since Loos, and nearly six since
we scraped the nightmare mud of Ypres from our boots, _gum, thigh_,
for the last time. Our recent casualties have been light--our only
serious effort of late has been the recapture of the Kidney Bean--the
new drafts have settled down, and the young officers have been
blooded. And above all, victory is in the air. We are going into our
next fight with new-born confidence in the powers behind us. Loos was
an experimental affair; and though to the humble instruments with
which the experiment was made the proceedings were less hilarious than
we had anticipated, the results were enormously valuable to a greatly
expanded and entirely untried Staff.
"We shall do better this time," said Major Wagstaffe to Bobby Little,
as they stood watching the battalion assemble, in workmanlike fashion,
for a route-march. "There are just one or two little points which had
not occurred to us then. We have grasped them now, I think."
"Well, you remember we all went into the Loos show without any very
lucid idea as to how far we were to go, and where to knock off for the
day, so to speak. The result was that the advance of each Division was
regulated by the extent to which the German wire in front of it
had been cut by our artillery. Ours was well and truly cut, so we
penetrated two or three miles. The people on our left never started at
all. Lord knows, they tried hard enough. But how could any troops get
through thirty feet of uncut wire, enfiladed by machine-guns? The
result was that after forty-eight hours' fighting, our whole attacking
front, instead of forming a nice straight line, had bagged out into a
series of bays and peninsulas."
"Our crowd wasn't even a peninsula," remarked Bobby with feeling. "For
an hour or so it was an island!"
"I think you will find that in the next show we shall go forward,
after intensive bombardment, quite a short distance; then consolidate;
then wait till the _whole_ line has come up to its appointed
objective; then bombard again; then go forward another piece; and so
on. That will make it impossible for gaps to be created. It will also
give our gunners a chance to cover our advance continuously. You
remember at Loos they lost us for hours, and dare not fire for fear
of hitting us. In fact, I expect that in battle plans of the future,
instead of the artillery trying to conform to the movements of the
infantry, matters will be reversed. The guns, after preliminary
bombardment, will create a continuous Niagara of exploding shells
upon a given line, marked in everybody's map, and timed for an exact
period, just beyond the objective; and the infantry will stroll up
into position a comfortable distance behind, reading the time-table,
and dig themselves in. Then the barrage will lift on to the next line,
and we shall toddle forward again. That's the new plan, Bobby! Close
artillery cooeperation, and a series of limited objectives!"
"It sounds all right," agreed Bobby. "We shall want a good many guns,
though, shan't we?"
"We shall. But don't let that worry you. It is simply raining guns
at the Base now. In fact, my grandmother in the War Office"--this
mythical relative was frequently quoted by Major Wagstaffe, and
certainly her information had several times proved surprisingly
correct--"tells me that by the beginning of next year we shall have
enough guns, of various calibres, to make a continuous line, hub to
hub, from one end of our front to the other."
"Golly!" observed Captain Little, with respectful relish.
"That means," continued Wagstaffe, "that we shall be able to blow
Brother Boche's immediate place of business to bits, and at the same
time take on his artillery with counter-battery work. Our shell-supply
is practically unlimited now; so when the next push comes, we
foot-sloggers ought to have a more gentlemanly time of it than we had
at Loos and Wipers. And I'll tell you another thing, Bobby. We shall
have command of the air too."
"That will be a pleasant change," remarked Bobby. "I'm getting tired
of putting my fellows under arrest for rushing out of carefully
concealed positions in order to gape up at Boche planes going over.
Angus M'Lachlan is as bad as any of them. The fellow--"
"But you have not seen many Boche planes lately?"
"No. Certainly not so many."
"And the number will grow beautifully less. Our little friends in the
R.F.C. are getting fairly numerous now, and their machines have been
improved out of all knowledge. They are rapidly assuming the position
of top dog. Moreover, the average Boche does not take kindly to
flying. It is too--too individualistic a job for him. He likes to work
in a bunch with other Boches, where he can keep step, and maintain
dressing, and mark time if he gets confused. In the air one cannot
mark time, and it worries Fritz to death. I think you will see, in the
next unpleasantness, that we shall be able to maintain our aeroplane
frontier somewhere over the enemy third line. That means that we shall
make our own dispositions with a certain degree of privacy, and the
Boche will not. Also, when our big guns get to work, they will not
need to fire blindly, as in the days of our youth, but will be
directed by one of our R.F.C. lads, humming about in his little bus
above the target, perhaps fifteen miles from the gun. Hallo, there go
the pipes! Tell your men to fall in."
"The whole business," observed Bobby, as he struggled into his
equipment, "sounds so attractive that I am beginning quite to look
forward to the next show!"
"Don't forget the Boche machine-guns, my lad," replied Wagstaffe.
"One seldom gets the chance," grumbled Bobby. "Is there no way of
knocking them out?"
"Well--" Wagstaffe looked intensely mysterious--"of course one never
knows, but--have you heard any rumours on the subject?"
"I have. About--"
"About the Hush! Hush! Brigade?"
"Yes," he said. "Young Osborne, my best subaltern after Angus,
disappeared last month to join it. Tell me, what _is_ the--"
"Hush! Hush!" said Major Wagstaffe. "_Mefiez vous! Taisez vous_! and
The battalion moved off.
So much for the war-talk of veterans. Now let us listen to the
"Bogle," said Angus M'Lachlan to his henchman, "I think we shall have
to lighten this Wolseley valise of mine. With one thing and another it
weighs far more than thirty-five pounds."
"That's a fact, sirr," agreed Mr. Bogle. "It carries ower mony books
in the heid of it."
They shook out the contents of the valise upon the floor of Angus's
bedroom--a loft over the kitchen in "A" Company's farm billet--and
proceeded to prune Angus's personal effects. There were boots, socks,
shaving-tackle, maps, packets of chocolate, and books of every size,
but chiefly of the ever-blessed sevenpenny type.
"A lot of these things will have to go, Bogle," said Angus
regretfully. "The colonel has warned officers about their kits, and it
would never do to have mine turned back from the waggon at the last
Mr. Bogle pricked up his ears. "The waggon? Are we for off again,
sirr?" he inquired.
"Indeed I could not say," replied the cautious Angus; "but it is well
to be ready."
"The boys was saying, sirr," observed Bogle tentatively, "that there
was to be another grand battle soon."
"It is more than likely," said Angus, with an air of profound wisdom.
"Here we are in June, and we must take the offensive, sooner or later,
or summer will be over."
"What kind o' a battle will it be this time, sirr?" inquired Bogle
"Oh, our artillery will pound the German trenches for a week or two,
and then we shall go over the parapet and drive them back for miles,"
said Angus simply.
"And what then, sirr?"
"What then? We shall go on pushing them until another Division
Bogle nodded comprehendingly. He now had firmly fixed in his mind the
essential details of the projected great offensive of 1916. He was
not interested to go further in the matter. And it is this
very faculty--philosophic trust, coupled with absolute lack of
imagination--which makes the British soldier the most invincible
person in the world. The Frenchman is inspired to glorious deeds by
his great spirit and passionate love of his own sacred soil; the
German fights as he thinks, like a machine. But the British Tommy wins
through owing to his entire indifference to the pros and cons of the
tactical situation. He settles down to war like any other trade, and,
as in time of peace, he is chiefly concerned with his holidays and
his creature comforts. A battle is a mere incident between one set of
billets and another. Consequently he does not allow the grim realities
of war to obsess his mind when off duty. One might almost ascribe
his success as a soldier to the fact that his domestic instincts are
stronger than his military instincts.
Put the average Tommy into a trench under fire how does he comport
himself? Does he begin by striking an attitude and hurling defiance
at the foe? No, he begins by inquiring, in no uncertain voice, where
his ---- dinner is? He then examines his new quarters. Before him
stands a parapet, buttressed mayhap with hurdles or balks of
timber, the whole being designed to preserve his life from hostile
projectiles. How does he treat this bulwark? Unless closely watched,
he will begin to chop it up for firewood. His next proceeding is to
construct for himself a place of shelter. This sounds a sensible
proceeding, but here again it is a case of "safety second." A British
Tommy regards himself as completely protected from the assaults of his
enemies if he can lay a sheet of corrugated-iron roofing across his
bit of trench and sit underneath it. At any rate it keeps the rain
off, and that is all that his instincts demand of him. An ounce of
comfort is worth a pound of security.
He looks about him. The parapet here requires fresh sandbags; there
the trench needs pumping out. Does he fill sandbags, or pump, of his
own volition? Not at all. Unless remorselessly supervised, he will
devote the rest of the morning to inventing and chalking up a
title for his new dug-out--"Jock's Lodge," or "Burns' Cottage," or
"Cyclists' Rest"--supplemented by a cautionary notice, such as--_No
Admittance. This Means You_. Thereafter, with shells whistling over
his head, he will decorate the parapet in his immediate vicinity with
picture postcards and cigarette photographs. Then he leans back with a
happy sigh. His work is done. His home from home is furnished. He is
now at leisure to think about "they Gairmans" again. That may sound
like an exaggeration; but "Comfort First" is the motto of that lovable
but imprudent grasshopper, Thomas Atkins, all the time.
A sudden and pertinent thought occurred to Mr. Bogle, who possessed a
"What way, sir, will a body get his dinner, if we are to be fighting
for twa-three days on end?"
"Every man," replied Angus, "will be issued, I expect, with two days'
rations. But the Colonel tells me that during hard fighting a man
does not feel the desire for food--or sleep either for that matter.
Perhaps, during a lull, it may occur to him that he has not eaten
since yesterday, and he may pull out a bit of biscuit or chocolate
from his pocket, just to nibble. Or he may remember that he has had no
sleep for twenty-four hours--so he just drops down and sleeps for
ten minutes while there is time. But generally, matters of ordinary
routine drop out of a man's thoughts altogether."
"That's a queer-like thing, a body forgetting his dinner!" murmured
"Of course," continued Angus, warming to his theme like his own father
in his pulpit, "if Nature is expelled with a pitchfork in this manner,
for too long, _tamen usque recurret_."
"Is that a fact?" replied Bogle politely. He always adopted the line
of least resistance when his master took to audible rumination. "Weel,
I'll hae to be steppin', sir. I'll pit these twa blankets oot in the
sun, in some place where the dooks frae the pond will no get dandering
ower them. And if you'll sorrt your books, I'll hand ower the yins ye
dinna require to the Y.M.C.A. hut ayont the village."
Bogle cherished a profound admiration for Lieutenant M'Lachlan both as
a scholar and a strategist, and absorbed his deliverances with a care
and attention which enabled him to misquote the same quite fluently to
his own associates. That very evening he set forth the coming plan of
campaign, as elucidated to him by his master, to a mixed assemblage
at the _Estaminet au Clef des Champs_. Some of the party were duly
impressed; but Mr. Spike Johnson, a resident in peaceful times of
Stratford-atte-Bow, the recognised humourist of the Sappers' Field
Company attached to the Brigade, was pleased to be facetious.
"It won't be no good you Jocks goin' over no parapet to attack no
'Uns," he said, "after what 'appened last week!"
This dark saying had the effect of rousing every Scottish soldier in
the _estaminet_ to a state of bristling attention.
"And what was it," inquired Private Cosh with heat, "that happened
"Why," replied Mr. Johnson, who had been compounding this jest for
some days, and now saw his opportunity to deliver it with effect at
short range, "your trenches got raided last Wednesday, when you was
in' em. By the Brandyburgers, I think it was."
The entire symposium stared at the jester with undisguised amazement.
"Our--trenches," proclaimed Private Tosh with forced calm, "were never
raided by no--Brandyburrrgerrs! Was they, Jimmie?"
Mr. Cosh corroborated, with three adjectives which Mr. Tosh had not
Spike Johnson merely smiled, with the easy assurance of a man who has
the ace up his sleeve.
"Oh yes, they was!" he reiterated.
"They werre _not_!" shouted half a dozen voices.
The next stage of the discussion requires no description. It
terminated, at the urgent request of Madame from behind the bar, and
with the assistance of the Military Police, in the street outside.
"And now, Spike Johnson," inquired Private Cosh, breathing heavily but
much refreshed, "can you tell me what way Gairmans could get intil the
trenches of a guid Scots regiment withoot bein' _seen_?"
"I can," replied Mr. Johnson with relish, "and I will. They got in all
right, but you didn't see them, because they was disguised."
Cosh and Tosh snorted disdainfully, and Private Nigg, who was present
with his friend Buncle, inquired--
"What way was they disguised?"
Like lightning came the answer--
"_As a joke_! Oh, you Jocks."
Cosh and Tosh (who had already been warned by the Police sergeant)
merely glared and gurgled impotently. Private Nigg, who, as already
mentioned, was slightly wanting in quickness of perception, was led
away by the faithful Buncle, to have the outrage explained to him
at leisure. It was Private Bogle who intervened, and brought the
intellectual Goliath crashing to the ground.
"Man, Johnson," he remarked, and shook his head mournfully, "youse
ought to be varra careful aboot sayin' things like that to the likes
of us. 'Deed aye!"
"What for, ole son?" inquired the jester indulgently.
"Naithing," replied Bogle with artistic reticence.
"Come along--aht with it!" insisted Johnson. "Cough it up, duckie!"
"Man, man," cried Bogle with passionate earnestness, "dinna gang ower
"What the 'ell _for_?" inquired Johnson, impressed despite himself.
"What for?" Bogle's voice dropped to a ghostly whisper. "Has it ever
occurred to you, my mannie, what would happen tae the English--if
Scotland was tae make a separate peace?"
And Mr. Bogle retired, not before it was time, within the sheltering
portals of the _estaminet_, where not less than seven inarticulate but
appreciative fellow-countrymen offered him refreshment.
An Observation Post--or "O Pip," in the mysterious _patois_ of the
Buzzers--is not exactly the spot that one would select either for
spaciousness or accessibility. It may be situated up a chimney or up a
tree, or down a tunnel bored through a hill. But it certainly enables
you to see something of your enemy; and that, in modern warfare, is a
very rare and valuable privilege.
Of late the scene-painter's art--technically known as
_camouflage_--has raised the concealment of batteries and their
observation posts to the realm of the uncanny. According to Major
Wagstaffe, you can now disguise anybody as anything. For instance, you
can make up a battery of six-inch guns to look like a flock of sheep,
and herd them into action browsing. Or you can despatch a scouting
party across No Man's Land dressed up as pillar-boxes, so that the
deluded Hun, instead of opening fire with a machine-gun, will merely
post letters in them--valuable letters, containing military secrets.
Lastly, and more important still, you can disguise yourself to look
like nothing at all, and in these days of intensified artillery fire
it is very seldom that nothing at all is hit.
The particular O Pip with which we are concerned at present, however,
is a German post--or was a fortnight ago, before the opening of the
Battle of the Somme.
For nearly two years the British Armies on the Western Front have been
playing for time. They have been sticking their toes in and holding
their ground, with numerically inferior forces and inadequate
artillery support, against a nation in arms which has set out, with
forty years of preparation at its back, to sweep the earth. We have
held them, and now _der Tag_ has come for us. The deal has passed
into our hand at last. A fortnight ago, ready for the first time to
undertake the offensive on a grand and prolonged scale,--Loos was a
mere reconnaissance compared with this,--the New British Army went
over the parapet shoulder to shoulder with the most heroic Army in the
world--the Army of France--and attacked over a sixteen-mile front in
the Valley of the Somme.
It was a critical day for the Allies: certainly it was a most critical
day in the history of the British Army. For on that day an answer
had to be given to a very big question indeed. Hitherto we had been
fighting on the defensive--unready, uphill, against odds. It would
have been no particular discredit to us had we failed to hold our
line. But we had held it, and more. Now, at last, we were ready--as
ready as we were ever likely to be. We had the men, the guns, and the
munitions. We were in a position to engage the enemy on equal, and
more than equal, terms. And the question that the British Empire had
to answer in that day, the First of July 1916, was this: "Are these
new amateur armies of ours, raised, trained, and equipped in less than
two years, with nothing in the way of military tradition to uphold
them--nothing but the steady courage of their race: are they a match
for, and more than a match for, that grim machine-made, iron-bound
host that lies waiting for them along that line of Picardy hills?
Because if they are _not_, we cannot win this war. We can only make a
stalemate of it."
We, looking back now over a space of twelve months, know how our boys
answered that question. In the greatest and longest battle that the
world had yet seen, that Army of city clerks, Midland farm-lads,
Lancashire mill-hands, Scottish miners, and Irish corner-boys, side
by side with their great-hearted brethren from Overseas, stormed
positions which had been held impregnable for two years, captured
seventy thousand prisoners, reclaimed several hundred square miles
of the sacred soil of France, and smashed once and for all the
German-fostered fable of the invincibility of the German Army. It was
good to have lived and suffered during those early and lean years, if
only to be present at their fulfilment.
But at this moment the battle was only beginning, and the bulk of
their astounding achievement was still to come. Nevertheless, in the
cautious and modest estimate of their Commander-in-Chief, they had
already done something.
_After ten days and nights of continuous fighting_, said the first
official report, _our troops have completed the methodical capture
of the whole of the enemy's first system of defence on a front of
fourteen thousand yards. This system of defence consisted of numerous
and continuous lines of fire trenches, extending to depths of from two
thousand to four thousand yards, and included five strongly fortified
villages, numerous heavily entrenched woods, and a large number of
immensely strong redoubts. The capture of each of these trenches
represented an operation of some importance, and the whole of them are
now in our hands_.
Quite so. One feels, somehow, that Berlin would have got more out of
such a theme.
* * * * *
Now let us get back to our O Pip. If you peep over the shoulder of
Captain Leslie, the gunner observing officer, as he directs the fire
of his battery, situated some thousands of yards in rear, through
the medium of map, field-glass, and telephone, you will obtain an
excellent view of to-morrow's field of battle. Present in the O Pip
are Colonel Kemp, Wagstaffe, Bobby Little, and Angus M'Lachlan. The
latter had been included in the party because, to quote his Commanding
Officer, "he would have burst into tears if he had been left out."
Overhead roared British shells of every kind and degree of
unpleasantness, for the ground in front was being "prepared" for the
coming assault. The undulating landscape, running up to a low ridge
on the skyline four miles away, was spouting smoke in all
directions--sometimes black, sometimes green, and sometimes, where
bursting shell and brick-dust intermingled, blood-red. Beyond the
ridge all-conquering British aeroplanes occupied the firmament,
observing for "mother" and "granny" and signalling encouragement or
reproof to these ponderous but sprightly relatives as their shells hit
or missed the target.
"Yes, sir," replied Leslie to Colonel Kemp's question, "that is
Longueval, on the slope opposite, with the road running through on the
way to Flers, over the skyline. That is Delville Wood on its right. As
you see, the guns are concentrating on both places. That is Waterlot
Farm, on this side of the wood--a sugar refinery. Regular nest of
machine-guns there, I'm told."
"No doubt we shall be able to confirm the rumour to-morrow," said
Colonel Kemp drily. "That is Bernafay Wood on our right, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir. We hold the whole of that. The pear-shaped wood out beyond
it--it looks as if it were joined on, but the two are quite separate
really--is Trones Wood. It has changed hands several times. Just at
present I don't think we hold more than the near end. Further away,
half-right, you can see Guillemont."
"In that case," remarked Wagstaffe, "our right flank would appear to
be strongly supported by the enemy."
"Yes. We are in a sort of right-angled salient here. We have the enemy
on our front and our right. In fact, we form the extreme right of the
attacking front. Our left is perfectly secure, as we now hold Mametz
Wood and Contalmaison. There they are." He waved his glass to the
northwest. "When the attack takes place, I understand that our Division
will go straight ahead, for Longueval and Delville Wood, while the next
Division makes a lateral thrust out to the right, to push the Boche out
of Trones Wood and cover our flank."
"I believe that is so," said the Colonel. "Bobby, take a good look
at the approaches to Longueval. That is the scene of to-morrow's
Bobby and Angus obediently scanned the village through their glasses.
Probably they did not learn much. One bombarded French village is
very like another bombarded French village. A cowering assemblage
of battered little houses; a pitiful little main street, with its
eviscerated shops and _estaminets_; a shattered church-spire. Beyond
that, an enclosure of splintered stumps that was once an orchard.
Below all, cellars, reinforced with props and sandbags, and filled
with machine-guns. _Voila tout_!
Presently the Gunner Captain passed word down to the telephone
operator to order the battery to cease fire.
"Knocking off?" inquired Wagstaffe.
"For the present, yes. We are only registering this morning. Not all
our batteries are going at once, either. We don't want Brother Boche
to know our strength until we tune up for the final chorus. We
"There is a comfortable sense of decency and order about the way we
fight nowadays," said Colonel Kemp. "It is like working out a problem
in electrical resistance by a nice convenient algebraical formula.
Very different from the state of things last year, when we stuck it
out by employing rule of thumb and hanging on by our eyebrows."
"The only problem we can't quite formulate is the machine-gun," said
Leslie. The Boche's dug-outs here are thirty feet deep. When
crumped by our artillery he withdraws his infantry and leaves his
machine-gunners behind, safe underground. Then, when our guns lift
and the attack comes over, his machine-gunners appear on the surface,
hoist their guns after them with a sort of tackle arrangement, and get
to work on a prearranged band of fire. The infantry can't do them in
until No Man's Land is crossed, and--well, they don't all get across,
that's all! However, _I have_ heard rumours--"
"So have we all," said Colonel Kemp.
"I forgot to tell you, Colonel," interposed Wagstaffe, "that I met
young Osborne at Divisional Headquarters last night. You remember, he
left us some time ago to join the Hush! Hush! Brigade."
"I remember," said the Colonel.
By this time the party, including the Gunner Captain, were filing
along a communication trench, lately the property of some German
gentlemen, on their way back to headquarters.
"Did he tell you anything, Wagstaffe?" continued Colonel Kemp.
"Not much. Apparently the time of the H.H.B. is not yet. But he made
an appointment with me for this evening--in the gloaming, so to speak.
He is sending a car. If all he says is true, the Boche _Emma Gee_ is
booked for an eye-opener in a few weeks' time."
That evening a select party of sight-seers were driven to a secluded
spot behind the battle line. Here they were met by Master Osborne,
obviously inflated with some important matter.
"I've got leave from my C.O. to show you the sights, sir," he
announced to Colonel Kemp. "If you will all stand here and watch that
wood on the opposite side of this clearing, you may see something.
We don't show ourselves much except in late evening, so this is our
The little group took up its appointed stand and waited in the
gathering dusk. In the east the sky was already twinkling with
intermittent Verey lights. All around the British guns were thundering
forth their hymns of hate--full-throated now, for the hour for the
next great assault was approaching.
Wagstaffe's thoughts went back to a certain soft September night
last year, when he and Blaikie had stood on the eastern outskirts of
Bethune listening to a similar overture--the prelude to the Battle of
Loos. But this overture was ten times more awful, and, from a material
British point of view, ten times more inspiring. It would have
thrilled old Blaikie's fighting spirit, thought Wagstaffe. But Loos
had taken his friend from him, and he, Wagstaffe, only was left. What
did fate hold in store for him to-morrow? he wondered. And Bobby? They
had both escaped marvellously so far. Well, better men had gone before
Fingers of steel bit into his biceps muscle, and the excited whinny of
Angus M'Lachlan besought him to look!
_Down in the forest something stirred_. But it was not the note of a
bird, as the song would have us believe. From the depths of the wood
opposite came a crackling, crunching sound, as of some prehistoric
beast forcing its way through tropical undergrowth. And then,
suddenly, out from the thinning edge there loomed a monster--a
monstrosity. It did not glide, it did not walk. It wallowed. It
lurched, with now and then a laborious heave of its shoulders. It
fumbled its way over a low bank matted with scrub. It crossed a ditch,
by the simple expedient of rolling the ditch out flat, and waddled
forward. In its path stood a young tree. The monster arrived at the
tree and laid its chin lovingly against the stem. The tree leaned
back, crackled, and assumed a horizontal position. In the middle of
the clearing, twenty yards farther on, gaped an enormous shell-crater,
a present from the Kaiser. Into this the creature plunged blindly, to
emerge, panting and puffing, on the farther side. Then it stopped. A
magic opening appeared in its stomach, from which emerged, grinning, a
British subaltern and his grimy associates.
And that was our friends' first encounter with a "Tank." The
secret--unlike most secrets in this publicity-ridden war--had been
faithfully kept; so far the Hush! Hush! Brigade had been little more
than a legend even to the men high up. Certainly the omniscient
Hun received the surprise of his life when, in the early mist of a
September morning some weeks later, a line of these selfsame tanks
burst for the first time upon his incredulous vision, waddling
grotesquely up the hill to the ridge which had defied the British
infantry so long and so bloodily--there to squat complacently down on
the top of the enemy's machine-guns, or spout destruction from her
own up and down beautiful trenches which had never been intended for
capture. In fact, Brother Boche was quite plaintive about the matter.
He described the employment of such engines as wicked and brutal,
and opposed to the recognised usages of warfare. When one of these
low-comedy vehicles (named the _Creme-de-Menthe_) ambled down the main
street of the hitherto impregnable village of Flers, with hysterical
British Tommies slapping her on the back, he appealed to the civilised
world to step in and forbid the combination of vulgarism and
"Let us at least fight like gentlemen," said the Hun, with simple
dignity. "Let us stick to legitimate military devices--the murder of
women and children, and the emission of chlorine gas. But Tanks--no!
One must draw the line somewhere!"
But the ill-bred _Creme-de-Menthe_ took no notice. None whatever. She
simply went waddling on--towards Berlin.
"An experiment, of course," commented Colonel Kemp, as they returned
to headquarters--"a fantastic experiment. But I wish they were ready
now. I would give something to see one of them leading the way into
action to-morrow. It might mean saving the lives of a good many of my
THE LAST SOLO
It was dawn on Saturday morning, and the second phase of the Battle
of the Somme was more than twenty-four hours old. The programme had
opened with a night attack, always the most difficult and uncertain of
enterprises, especially for soldiers who were civilians less than two
years ago. But no undertaking is too audacious for men in whose veins
the wine of success is beginning to throb. And this undertaking, this
hazardous gamble, had succeeded all along the line. During the past
day and night, more than three miles of the German second system of
defences, from Bazentin le Petit to the edge of Delville Wood, had
received their new tenants; and already long streams of not altogether
reluctant Hun prisoners were being escorted to the rear by perspiring
but cheerful gentlemen with fixed bayonets.
Meanwhile--in case such of the late occupants of the line as were
still at large should take a fancy to revisit their previous haunts,
working-parties of infantry, pioneers, and sappers were toiling at
full pressure to reverse the parapets, run out barbed wire, and bestow
machine-guns in such a manner as to produce a continuous lattice-work
of fire along the front of the captured position.
All through the night the work had continued. As a result, positions
were now tolerably secure, the intrepid "Buzzers" had included
the newly grafted territory in the nervous system of the British
Expeditionary Force, and Battalion Headquarters and Supply Depots had
moved up to their new positions.
To Colonel Kemp and his Adjutant Cockerell, ensconced in a dug-out
thirty feet deep, furnished with a real bed, electric-light fittings,
and ornaments obviously made in Germany, entered Major Wagstaffe,
encrusted with mud, but as imperturbable as ever. He saluted.
"Good-morning, sir. You seem to have struck a cushie little home
"Yes. The Boche officer harbours no false modesty about acknowledging
his desire for creature comforts. That is where he scores off people
like you and me, who pretend we like sleeping in mud. Have you been
round the advanced positions?"
"Yes. There is some pretty hard fighting going on in the village
itself--the Boche still holds the north-west corner--and in the wood
on the right. 'A' Company are holding a line of broken-down cottages
on our right front, but they can't make any further move until they
get more bombs. The Boche is occupying various buildings opposite, but
in no great strength at present. However, he seems to have plenty of
"I have sent up more bombs," said the Colonel. "What about 'B'
"'B' have reached their objective, and consolidated. 'C' and 'D' are
lying close up, ready to go forward in support when required. I think
'A' could do with a little assistance."
"I don't want to send up 'C' and 'D'," replied the Colonel, "until the
Divisional Reserve arrives. The Brigade has just telephoned through
that reinforcements are on the way. When they get here, we can afford
to stuff in the whole battalion. Are 'A' Company capable of handling
the situation at present?"
"Yes, I think so. Little is directing his platoons from a convenient
cellar. He was in touch with them all when I left. But it is possible
that the Boche may make a rush when it grows a bit lighter. At
present he is too demoralised to attempt anything beyond intermittent
Colonel Kemp turned to Cockerell.
"Get Captain Little on the telephone," he said, "and tell him, if the
enemy displays any disposition to counter-attack, to let me know at
once." Then he turned to Wagstaffe, and asked the question which
always lurks furtively on the tongue of a commanding officer.
"'A' Company have caught it rather badly crossing the open. 'B' got
off lightly. Glen is commanding them now: Waddell was killed leading
his men in the rush to the final objective."
Colonel Kemp sighed.
"Another good boy gone--veteran, rather. I must write to his wife.
Fairly newly married, I fancy?"
"Four months," said Wagstaffe briefly.
"What was his Christian name, do you know?"
"Walter, I think, sir," said Cockerell.
Colonel Kemp, amid the stress of battle, found time to enter a note in
his pocket-diary to that effect.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, up in the line, 'A' Company were holding on grimly to what
are usually described as "certain advanced elements" of the village.
Village fighting is a confused and untidy business, but it possesses
certain redeeming features. The combatants are usually so inextricably
mixed up that the artillery are compelled to refrain from
participation. That comes later, when you have cleared the village of
the enemy, and his guns are preparing the ground for the inevitable
So far 'A' Company had done nobly. From the moment when they had lined
up before Montauban in the gross darkness preceding yesterday's dawn
until the moment when Bobby Little led them in one victorious rush
into the outskirts of the village, they had never encountered a
setback. By sunset they had penetrated some way farther; now creeping
stealthily forward under the shelter of a broken wall to hurl bombs
into the windows of an occupied cottage; now climbing precariously to
some commanding position in order to open fire with a Lewis gun; now
making a sudden dash across an open space. Such work offered peculiar
opportunities to small and well-handled parties--opportunities of
which Bobby Little's veterans availed themselves right readily.
Angus M'Lachlan, for instance, accompanied by a small following
of seasoned experts, had twice rounded up parties of the enemy in
cellars, and had despatched the same back to Headquarters with his
compliments and a promise of more. Mucklewame and four men had bombed
their way along a communication trench leading to one of the side
streets of the village--a likely avenue for a counter-attack--and
having reached the end of the trench, had built up a sandbag
barricade, and had held the same against the assaults of hostile
bombers until a Vickers machine-gun had arrived in charge of an
energetic subaltern of that youthful but thriving organisation, the
Suicide Club, or Machine-Gun Corps, and closed the street to further
During the night there had been periods of quiescence, devoted to
consolidation, and here and there to snatches of uneasy slumber. Angus
M'Lachlan, fairly in his element, had trailed his enormous length in
and out of the back-yards and brick-heaps of the village, visiting
every point in his irregular line, testing defences; bestowing
praise; and ensuring that every man had his share of food and rest.
Unutterably grimy but inexpressibly cheerful, he reported progress to
Major Wagstaffe when that nocturnal rambler visited him in the small
"Well, Angus, how goes it?" inquired Wagstaffe.
"We have won the match, sir," replied Angus with simple seriousness.
"We are just playing the bye now!"
And with that he crawled away, with the unnecessary stealth of a
small boy playing robbers, to encourage his dour paladins to further
"We shall probably be relieved this evening," he explained to them,
"and we must make everything secure. It would never do to leave
our new positions untenable by other troops. They might not be so
reliable"--with a paternal smile--"as you! Now, our right flank is not
safe yet. We can improve the position very much if we can secure that
_estaminet_, standing up like an island among those ruined houses on
our right front. You see the sign, _Aux Bons Fermiers_, over the door.
The trouble is that a German machine-gun is sweeping the intervening
space--and we cannot see the gun! There it goes again. See the
brick-dust fly! Keep down! They are firing mainly across our front,
but a stray bullet may come this way."
The platoon crouched low behind their improvised rampart of brick
rubble, while machine-gun bullets swept low, with misleading
_claquement_, along the space in front of them, from some hidden
position on their right. Presently the firing stopped. Brother Boche
was merely "loosing off a belt," as a precautionary measure, at
commendably regular intervals.
"I cannot locate that gun," said Angus impatiently. "Can you, Corporal
"It is not in the estamint itself, sirr," replied M'Snape. ("Estamint"
is as near as our rank and file ever get to _estaminet_.) "It seems to
be mounted some place higher up the street. I doubt they cannot see us
themselves--only the ground in front of us."
"If we could reach the _estaminet_ itself," said Angus thoughtfully,
"we could get a more extended view. Sergeant Mucklewame, select ten
men, including three bombers, and follow me. I am going to find a
jumping-off place. The Lewis gun too."
Presently the little party were crouching round their officer in a
sheltered position on the right of the line--which for the moment
appeared to be "in the air." Except for the intermittent streams of
machine-gun fire, and an occasional shrapnel-burst overhead, all was
quiet. The enemy's counter-attack was not yet ready.
"Now listen carefully," said Angus, who had just finished scribbling