Part 7 out of 7
The natural thing is to be always a little scared, like me, but by an
effort of the will and attention to work to contrive to forget it. But
Wake apparently never gave it a thought. He wasn't foolhardy, only
indifferent. He used to go about with a smile on his face, a smile of
contentment. Even the horrors--and we had plenty of them--didn't
affect him. His eyes, which used to be hot, had now a curious open
innocence like Peter's. I would have been happier if he had been a
One night, after we had had a bad day of anxiety, I talked to him as
we smoked in what had once been a French dug-out. He was an extra
right arm to me, and I told him so. 'This must be a queer experience
for you,' I said.
'Yes,' he replied, 'it is very wonderful. I did not think a man could
go through it and keep his reason. But I know many things I did not
know before. I know that the soul can be reborn without leaving the
I stared at him, and he went on without looking at me.
'You're not a classical scholar, Hannay? There was a strange cult in
the ancient world, the worship of Magna Mater--the Great Mother. To
enter into her mysteries the votary passed through a bath of
blood-----I think I am passing through that bath. I think that like
the initiate I shall be _renatus in aeternum_--reborn into the
I advised him to have a drink, for that talk frightened me. It looked
as if he were becoming what the Scots call 'fey'. Lefroy noticed the
same thing and was always speaking about it. He was as brave as a bull
himself, and with very much the same kind of courage; but Wake's
gallantry perturbed him. 'I can't make the chap out,' he told me. 'He
behaves as if his mind was too full of better things to give a damn
for Boche guns. He doesn't take foolish risks--I don't mean that, but
he behaves as if risks didn't signify. It's positively eerie to see
him making notes with a steady hand when shells are dropping like
hailstones and we're all thinking every minute's our last. You've got
to be careful with him, sir. He's a long sight too valuable for us to
Lefroy was right about that, for I don't know what I should have done
without him. The worst part of our job was to keep touch with our
flanks, and that was what I used Wake for. He covered country like a
moss-trooper, sometimes on a rusty bicycle, oftener on foot, and you
couldn't tire him. I wonder what other divisions thought of the grimy
private who was our chief means of communication. He knew nothing of
military affairs before, but he got the hang of this rough-and-tumble
fighting as if he had been born for it. He never fired a shot; he
carried no arms; the only weapons he used were his brains. And they
were the best conceivable. I never met a staff officer who was so
quick at getting a point or at sizing up a situation. He had put his
back into the business, and first-class talent is not common anywhere.
One day a G. S. O. from a neighbouring division came to see me.
'Where on earth did you pick up that man Wake?' he asked.
'He's a conscientious objector and a non-combatant,' I said.
'Then I wish to Heaven we had a few more conscientious objectors in
this show. He's the only fellow who seems to know anything about this
blessed battle. My general's sending you a chit about him.'
'No need,' I said, laughing. 'I know his value. He's an old friend of
I used Wake as my link with Corps Headquarters, and especially with
Blenkiron. For about the sixth day of the show I was beginning to get
rather desperate. This kind of thing couldn't go on for ever. We were
miles back now, behind the old line of '17, and, as we rested one
flank on the river, the immediate situation was a little easier. But I
had lost a lot of men, and those that were left were blind with
fatigue. The big bulges of the enemy to north and south had added to
the length of the total front, and I found I had to fan out my thin
ranks. The Boche was still pressing on, though his impetus was
slacker. If he knew how little there was to stop him in my section he
might make a push which would carry him to Amiens. Only the
magnificent work of our airmen had prevented him getting that
knowledge, but we couldn't keep the secrecy up for ever. Some day an
enemy plane would get over, and it only needed the drive of a fresh
storm-battalion or two to scatter us. I wanted a good prepared
position, with sound trenches and decent wiring. Above all I wanted
reserves--reserves. The word was on my lips all day and it haunted my
dreams. I was told that the French were to relieve us, but when--when?
My reports to Corps Headquarters were one long wail for more troops. I
knew there was a position prepared behind us, but I needed men to hold
Wake brought in a message from Blenkiron. 'We're waiting for you,
Dick,' he wrote, 'and we've gotten quite a nice little home ready for
you. This old man hasn't hustled so hard since he struck copper in
Montana in '92. We've dug three lines of trenches and made a heap of
pretty redoubts, and I guess they're well laid out, for the Army staff
has supervised them and they're no slouches at this brand of
engineering. You would have laughed to see the labour we employed. We
had all breeds of Dago and Chinaman, and some of your own South
African blacks, and they got so busy on the job they forgot about
bedtime. I used to be reckoned a bit of a slave driver, but my special
talents weren't needed with this push. I'm going to put a lot of money
into foreign missions henceforward.'
I wrote back: 'Your trenches are no good without men. For God's sake
get something that can hold a rifle. My lot are done to the world.'
Then I left Lefroy with the division and went down on the back of an
ambulance to see for myself. I found Blenkiron, some of the Army
engineers, and a staff officer from Corps Headquarters, and I found
They had dug a mighty good line and wired it nobly. It ran from the
river to the wood of La Bruyere on the little hill above the Ablain
stream. It was desperately long, but I saw at once it couldn't well be
shorter, for the division on the south of us had its hands full with
the fringe of the big thrust against the French.
'It's no good blinking the facts,' I told them. 'I haven't a thousand
men, and what I have are at the end of their tether. If you put 'em in
these trenches they'll go to sleep on their feet. When can the French
I was told that it had been arranged for next morning, but that it had
now been put off twenty-four hours. It was only a temporary measure,
pending the arrival of British divisions from the north.
Archie looked grave. 'The Boche is pushin' up new troops in this
sector. We got the news before I left squadron headquarters. It looks
as if it would be a near thing, sir.'
'It won't be a near thing. It's an absolute black certainty. My
fellows can't carry on as they are another day. Great God, they've had
a fortnight in hell! Find me more men or we buckle up at the next
push.' My temper was coming very near its limits.
'We've raked the country with a small-tooth comb, sir,' said one of
the staff officers. 'And we've raised a scratch pack. Best part of two
thousand. Good men, but most of them know nothing about infantry
fighting. We've put them into platoons, and done our best to give them
some kind of training. There's one thing may cheer you. We've plenty
of machine-guns. There's a machine-gun school near by and we got all
the men who were taking the course and all the plant.'
I don't suppose there was ever such a force put into the field before.
It was a wilder medley than Moussy's camp-followers at First Ypres.
There was every kind of detail in the shape of men returning from
leave, representing most of the regiments in the army. There were the
men from the machine-gun school. There were Corps troops--sappers and
A.S.C., and a handful of Corps cavalry. Above all, there was a batch
of American engineers, fathered by Blenkiron. I inspected them where
they were drilling and liked the look of them. 'Forty-eight hours,' I
said to myself. 'With luck we may just pull it off.'
Then I borrowed a bicycle and went back to the division. But before I
left I had a word with Archie. 'This is one big game of bluff, and
it's you fellows alone that enable us to play it. Tell your people
that everything depends on them. They mustn't stint the planes in this
sector, for if the Boche once suspicions how little he's got before
him the game's up. He's not a fool and he knows that this is the short
road to Amiens, but he imagines we're holding it in strength. If we
keep up the fiction for another two days the thing's done. You say
he's pushing up troops?'
'Yes, and he's sendin' forward his tanks.'
'Well, that'll take time. He's slower now than a week ago and he's got
a deuce of a country to march over. There's still an outside chance we
may win through. You go home and tell the R.F.C. what I've told you.'
He nodded. 'By the way, sir, Pienaar's with the squadron. He would
like to come up and see you.'
'Archie,' I said solemnly, 'be a good chap and do me a favour. If I
think Peter's anywhere near the line I'll go off my head with worry.
This is no place for a man with a bad leg. He should have been in
England days ago. Can't you get him off--to Amiens, anyhow?'
'We scarcely like to. You see, we're all desperately sorry for him,
his fun gone and his career over and all that. He likes bein' with us
and listenin' to our yarns. He has been up once or twice too. The
Shark-Gladas. He swears it's a great make, and certainly he knows how
to handle the little devil.'
'Then for Heaven's sake don't let him do it again. I look to you,
Archie, remember. Promise.'
'Funny thing, but he's always worryin' about you. He has a map on
which he marks every day the changes in the position, and he'd hobble
a mile to pump any of our fellows who have been up your way.'
That night under cover of darkness I drew back the division to the
newly prepared lines. We got away easily, for the enemy was busy with
his own affairs. I suspected a relief by fresh troops.
There was no time to lose, and I can tell you I toiled to get things
straight before dawn. I would have liked to send my own fellows back
to rest, but I couldn't spare them yet. I wanted them to stiffen the
fresh lot, for they were veterans. The new position was arranged on
the same principles as the old front which had been broken on March
21st. There was our forward zone, consisting of an outpost line and
redoubts, very cleverly sited, and a line of resistance. Well behind
it were the trenches which formed the battle-zone. Both zones were
heavily wired, and we had plenty of machine-guns; I wish I could say
we had plenty of men who knew how to use them. The outposts were
merely to give the alarm and fall back to the line of resistance which
was to hold out to the last. In the forward zone I put the freshest of
my own men, the units being brought up to something like strength by
the details returning from leave that the Corps had commandeered. With
them I put the American engineers, partly in the redoubts and partly
in companies for counter-attack. Blenkiron had reported that they
could shoot like Dan'l Boone, and were simply spoiling for a fight.
The rest of the force was in the battle-zone, which was our last hope.
If that went the Boche had a clear walk to Amiens. Some additional
field batteries had been brought up to support our very weak
divisional artillery. The front was so long that I had to put all
three of my emaciated brigades in the line, so I had nothing to speak
of in reserve. It was a most almighty gamble.
We had found shelter just in time. At 6.30 next day--for a change it
was a clear morning with clouds beginning to bank up from the
west--the Boche let us know he was alive. He gave us a good drenching
with gas shells which didn't do much harm, and then messed up our
forward zone with his trench mortars. At 7.20 his men began to come
on, first little bunches with machine-guns and then the infantry in
waves. It was clear they were fresh troops, and we learned afterwards
from prisoners that they were Bavarians--6th or 7th, I forget which,
but the division that hung us up at Monchy. At the same time there was
the sound of a tremendous bombardment across the river. It looked as
if the main battle had swung from Albert and Montdidier to a direct
push for Amiens. I have often tried to write down the events of that
day. I tried it in my report to the Corps; I tried it in my own diary;
I tried it because Mary wanted it; but I have never been able to make
any story that hung together. Perhaps I was too tired for my mind to
retain clear impressions, though at the time I was not conscious of
special fatigue. More likely it is because the fight itself was so
confused, for nothing happened according to the books and the orderly
soul of the Boche must have been scarified . . . At first it went as I
expected. The outpost line was pushed in, but the fire from the
redoubts broke up the advance, and enabled the line of resistance in
the forward zone to give a good account of itself. There was a check,
and then another big wave, assisted by a barrage from field-guns
brought far forward. This time the line of resistance gave at several
points, and Lefroy flung in the Americans in a counter-attack. That
was a mighty performance. The engineers, yelling like dervishes, went
at it with the bayonet, and those that preferred swung their rifles as
clubs. It was terribly costly fighting and all wrong, but it
succeeded. They cleared the Boche out of a ruined farm he had rushed,
and a little wood, and re-established our front. Blenkiron, who saw it
all, for he went with them and got the tip of an ear picked off by a
machine-gun bullet, hadn't any words wherewith to speak of it. 'And I
once said those boys looked puffy,' he moaned.
The next phase, which came about midday, was the tanks. I had never
seen the German variety, but had heard that it was speedier and
heavier than ours, but unwieldy. We did not see much of their speed,
but we found out all about their clumsiness. Had the things been
properly handled they should have gone through us like rotten wood.
But the whole outfit was bungled. It looked good enough country for
the use of them, but the men who made our position had had an eye to
this possibility. The great monsters, mounting a field-gun besides
other contrivances, wanted something like a highroad to be happy in.
They were useless over anything like difficult ground. The ones that
came down the main road got on well enough at the start, but Blenkiron
very sensibly had mined the highway, and we blew a hole like a diamond
pit. One lay helpless at the foot of it, and we took the crew
prisoner; another stuck its nose over and remained there till our
field-guns got the range and knocked it silly. As for the rest--there
is a marshy lagoon called the Patte d'Oie beside the farm of Gavrelle,
which runs all the way north to the river, though in most places it
only seems like a soft patch in the meadows. This the tanks had to
cross to reach our line, and they never made it. Most got bogged, and
made pretty targets for our gunners; one or two returned; and one the
Americans, creeping forward under cover of a little stream, blew up
with a time fuse.
By the middle of the afternoon I was feeling happier. I knew the big
attack was still to come, but I had my forward zone intact and I hoped
for the best. I remember I was talking to Wake, who had been going
between the two zones, when I got the first warning of a new and
unexpected peril. A dud shell plumped down a few yards from me.
'Those fools across the river are firing short and badly off the
straight,' I said.
Wake examined the shell. 'No, it's a German one,' he said.
Then came others, and there could be no mistake about the
direction--followed by a burst of machine-gun fire from the same
quarter. We ran in cover to a point from which we could see the north
bank of the river, and I got my glass on it. There was a lift of land
from behind which the fire was coming. We looked at each other, and
the same conviction stood in both faces. The Boche had pushed down the
northern bank, and we were no longer in line with our neighbours. The
enemy was in a situation to catch us with his fire on our flank and
left rear. We couldn't retire to conform, for to retire meant giving
up our prepared position.
It was the last straw to all our anxieties, and for a moment I was at
the end of my wits. I turned to Wake, and his calm eyes pulled me
'If they can't retake that ground, we're fairly carted,' I said.
'We are. Therefore they must retake it.'
'I must get on to Mitchinson.' But as I spoke I realized the futility
of a telephone message to a man who was pretty hard up against it
himself. Only an urgent appeal could effect anything . . . I must go
myself . . . No, that was impossible. I must send Lefroy . . . But he
couldn't be spared. And all my staff officers were up to their necks
in the battle. Besides, none of them knew the position as I knew it
. . . And how to get there? It was a long way round by the bridge at
Suddenly I was aware of Wake's voice. 'You had better send me,' he was
saying. 'There's only one way--to swim the river a little lower down.'
'That's too damnably dangerous. I won't send any man to certain
'But I volunteer,' he said. 'That, I believe, is always allowed in
'But you'll be killed before you can cross.'
'Send a man with me to watch. If I get over, you may be sure I'll get
to General Mitchinson. If not, send somebody else by Loisy. There's
desperate need for hurry, and you see yourself it's the only way.'
The time was past for argument. I scribbled a line to Mitchinson as
his credentials. No more was needed, for Wake knew the position as
well as I did. I sent an orderly to accompany him to his starting-
place on the bank.
'Goodbye,' he said, as we shook hands. 'You'll see, I'll come back all
right.' His face, I remember, looked singularly happy. Five minutes
later the Boche guns opened for the final attack.
I believe I kept a cool head; at least so Lefroy and the others
reported. They said I went about all afternoon grinning as if I liked
it, and that I never raised my voice once. (It's rather a fault of
mine that I bellow in a scrap.) But I know I was feeling anything but
calm, for the problem was ghastly. It all depended on Wake and
Mitchinson. The flanking fire was so bad that I had to give up the
left of the forward zone, which caught it fairly, and retire the men
there to the battle-zone. The latter was better protected, for between
it and the river was a small wood and the bank rose into a bluff which
sloped inwards towards us. This withdrawal meant a switch, and a
switch isn't a pretty thing when it has to be improvised in the middle
of a battle.
The Boche had counted on that flanking fire. His plan was to break our
two wings--the old Boche plan which crops up in every fight. He left
our centre at first pretty well alone, and thrust along the river bank
and to the wood of La Bruyere, where we linked up with the division on
our right. Lefroy was in the first area, and Masterton in the second,
and for three hours it was as desperate a business as I have ever
faced . . . The improvised switch went, and more and more of the forward
zone disappeared. It was a hot, clear spring afternoon, and in the
open fighting the enemy came on like troops at manoeuvres. On the left
they got into the battle-zone, and I can see yet Lefroy's great figure
leading a counter-attack in person, his face all puddled with blood
from a scalp wound . . .
I would have given my soul to be in two places at once, but I had to
risk our left and keep close to Masterton, who needed me most. The
wood of La Bruyere was the maddest sight. Again and again the Boche
was almost through it. You never knew where he was, and most of the
fighting there was duels between machine-gun parties. Some of the
enemy got round behind us, and only a fine performance of a company of
Cheshires saved a complete breakthrough.
As for Lefroy, I don't know how he stuck it out, and he doesn't know
himself, for he was galled all the time by that accursed flanking
fire. I got a note about half past four saying that Wake had crossed
the river, but it was some weary hours after that before the fire
slackened. I tore back and forward between my wings, and every time I
went north I expected to find that Lefroy had broken. But by some
miracle he held. The Boches were in his battle-zone time and again,
but he always flung them out. I have a recollection of Blenkiron,
stark mad, encouraging his Americans with strange tongues. Once as I
passed him I saw that he had his left arm tied up. His blackened face
grinned at me. 'This bit of landscape's mighty unsafe for democracy,'
he croaked. 'For the love of Mike get your guns on to those devils
across the river. They're plaguing my boys too bad.'
It was about seven o'clock, I think, when the flanking fire slacked
off, but it was not because of our divisional guns. There was a short
and very furious burst of artillery fire on the north bank, and I knew
it was British. Then things began to happen. One of our planes--they
had been marvels all day, swinging down like hawks for machine-gun
bouts with the Boche infantry--reported that Mitchinson was attacking
hard and getting on well. That eased my mind, and I started off for
Masterton, who was in greater straits than ever, for the enemy seemed
to be weakening on the river bank and putting his main strength in
against our right . . . But my G.S.O.2 stopped me on the road. 'Wake,'
he said. 'He wants to see you.'
'Not now,' I cried.
'He can't live many minutes.'
I turned and followed him to the ruinous cowshed which was my
divisional headquarters. Wake, as I heard later, had swum the river
opposite to Mitchinson's right, and reached the other shore safely,
though the current was whipped with bullets. But he had scarcely
landed before he was badly hit by shrapnel in the groin. Walking at
first with support and then carried on a stretcher, he managed to
struggle on to the divisional headquarters, where he gave my message
and explained the situation. He would not let his wound be looked to
till his job was done. Mitchinson told me afterwards that with a face
grey from pain he drew for him a sketch of our position and told him
exactly how near we were to our end . . . After that he asked to be sent
back to me, and they got him down to Loisy in a crowded ambulance, and
then up to us in a returning empty. The M.O. who looked at his wound
saw that the thing was hopeless, and did not expect him to live beyond
Loisy. He was bleeding internally and no surgeon on earth could have
When he reached us he was almost pulseless, but he recovered for a
moment and asked for me.
I found him, with blue lips and a face drained of blood, lying on my
camp bed. His voice was very small and far away.
'How goes it?' he asked.
'Please God, we'll pull through . . . thanks to you, old man.'
'Good,' he said and his eyes shut.
He opened them once again.
'Funny thing life. A year ago I was preaching peace . . . I'm still
preaching it . . . I'm not sorry.'
I held his hand till two minutes later he died.
* * * * *
In the press of a fight one scarcely realizes death, even the death of
a friend. It was up to me to make good my assurance to Wake, and
presently I was off to Masterton. There in that shambles of La
Bruyere, while the light faded, there was a desperate and most bloody
struggle. It was the last lap of the contest. Twelve hours now, I kept
telling myself, and the French will be here and we'll have done our
task. Alas! how many of us would go back to rest? . . . Hardly able to
totter, our counter-attacking companies went in again. They had gone
far beyond the limits of mortal endurance, but the human spirit can
defy all natural laws. The balance trembled, hung, and then dropped
the right way. The enemy impetus weakened, stopped, and the ebb began.
I wanted to complete the job. Our artillery put up a sharp barrage,
and the little I had left comparatively fresh I sent in for a counter-
stroke. Most of the men were untrained, but there was that in our
ranks which dispensed with training, and we had caught the enemy at
the moment of lowest vitality. We pushed him out of La Bruyere, we
pushed him back to our old forward zone, we pushed him out of that
zone to the position from which he had begun the day.
But there was no rest for the weary. We had lost at least a third of
our strength, and we had to man the same long line. We consolidated it
as best we could, started to replace the wiring that had been
destroyed, found touch with the division on our right, and established
outposts. Then, after a conference with my brigadiers, I went back to
my headquarters, too tired to feel either satisfaction or anxiety. In
eight hours the French would be here. The words made a kind of litany
in my ears.
In the cowshed where Wake had lain, two figures awaited me. The
talc-enclosed candle revealed Hamilton and Amos, dirty beyond words,
smoke-blackened, blood-stained, and intricately bandaged. They stood
stiffly to attention.
'Sirr, the prisoner,' said Hamilton. 'I have to report that the
prisoner is deid.'
I stared at them, for I had forgotten Ivery. He seemed a creature of a
world that had passed away.
'Sirr, it was like this. Ever sin' this mornin', the prisoner seemed
to wake up. Ye'll mind that he was in a kind of dream all week. But he
got some new notion in his heid, and when the battle began he
exheebited signs of restlessness. Whiles he wad lie doun in the
trench, and whiles he was wantin' back to the dug-out. Accordin' to
instructions I provided him wi' a rifle, but he didna seem to ken how
to handle it. It was your orders, sirr, that he was to have means to
defend hisself if the enemy cam on, so Amos gie'd him a trench knife.
But verra soon he looked as if he was ettlin' to cut his throat, so I
deprived him of it.'
Hamilton stopped for breath. He spoke as if he were reciting a lesson,
with no stops between the sentences.
'I jaloused, sirr, that he wadna last oot the day, and Amos here was
of the same opinion. The end came at twenty minutes past three--I ken
the time, for I had just compared my watch with Amos. Ye'll mind that
the Gairmans were beginning a big attack. We were in the front trench
of what they ca' the battle-zone, and Amos and me was keepin' oor eyes
on the enemy, who could be obsairved dribblin' ower the open. Just
then the prisoner catches sight of the enemy and jumps up on the top.
Amos tried to hold him, but he kicked him in the face. The next we
kenned he was runnin' verra fast towards the enemy, holdin' his hands
ower his heid and crying out loud in a foreign langwidge.'
'It was German,' said the scholarly Amos through his broken teeth.
'It was Gairman,' continued Hamilton. 'It seemed as if he was
appealin' to the enemy to help him. But they paid no attention, and he
cam under the fire of their machine-guns. We watched him spin round
like a teetotum and kenned that he was bye with it.'
'You are sure he was killed?' I asked.
'Yes, sirr. When we counter-attacked we fund his body.'
* * * * *
There is a grave close by the farm of Gavrelle, and a wooden cross at
its head bears the name of the Graf von Schwabing and the date of his
death. The Germans took Gavrelle a little later. I am glad to think
that they read that inscription.
The Summons Comes for Mr Standfast
I slept for one and three-quarter hours that night, and when I awoke I
seemed to emerge from deeps of slumber which had lasted for days. That
happens sometimes after heavy fatigue and great mental strain. Even a
short sleep sets up a barrier between past and present which has to be
elaborately broken down before you can link on with what has happened
before. As my wits groped at the job some drops of rain splashed on my
face through the broken roof. That hurried me out-of-doors. It was
just after dawn and the sky was piled with thick clouds, while a wet
wind blew up from the southwest. The long-prayed-for break in the
weather seemed to have come at last. A deluge of rain was what I
wanted, something to soak the earth and turn the roads into
water-courses and clog the enemy transport, something above all to
blind the enemy's eyes . . . For I remembered what a preposterous bluff
it all had been, and what a piteous broken handful stood between the
Germans and their goal. If they knew, if they only knew, they would
brush us aside like flies.
As I shaved I looked back on the events of yesterday as on something
that had happened long ago. I seemed to judge them impersonally, and I
concluded that it had been a pretty good fight. A scratch force, half
of it dog-tired and half of it untrained, had held up at least a
couple of fresh divisions . . . But we couldn't do it again, and there
were still some hours before us of desperate peril. When had the Corps
said that the French would arrive? . . . I was on the point of shouting
for Hamilton to get Wake to ring up Corps Headquarters, when I
remembered that Wake was dead. I had liked him and greatly admired
him, but the recollection gave me scarcely a pang. We were all dying,
and he had only gone on a stage ahead.
There was no morning strafe, such as had been our usual fortune in the
past week. I went out-of-doors and found a noiseless world under the
lowering sky. The rain had stopped falling, the wind of dawn had
lessened, and I feared that the storm would be delayed. I wanted it at
once to help us through the next hours of tension. Was it in six hours
that the French were coming? No, it must be four. It couldn't be more
than four, unless somebody had made an infernal muddle. I wondered why
everything was so quiet. It would be breakfast time on both sides, but
there seemed no stir of man's presence in that ugly strip half a mile
off. Only far back in the German hinterland I seemed to hear the
rumour of traffic.
An unslept and unshaven figure stood beside me which revealed itself
as Archie Roylance.
'Been up all night,' he said cheerfully, lighting a cigarette. 'No, I
haven't had breakfast. The skipper thought we'd better get another
anti-aircraft battery up this way, and I was superintendin' the job.
He's afraid of the Hun gettin' over your lines and spying out the
nakedness of the land. For, you know, we're uncommon naked, sir.
Also,' and Archie's face became grave, 'the Hun's pourin' divisions
down on this sector. As I judge, he's blowin' up for a thunderin' big
drive on both sides of the river. Our lads yesterday said all the
country back of Peronne was lousy with new troops. And he's gettin'
his big guns forward, too. You haven't been troubled with them yet,
but he has got the roads mended and the devil of a lot of new light
railways, and any moment we'll have the five-point-nines sayin'
Good-mornin' . . . Pray Heaven you get relieved in time, sir. I take it
there's not much risk of another push this mornin'?'
'I don't think so. The Boche took a nasty knock yesterday, and he must
fancy we're pretty strong after that counter-attack. I don't think
he'll strike till he can work both sides of the river, and that'll
take time to prepare. That's what his fresh divisions are for . . . But
remember, he can attack now, if he likes. If he knew how weak we were
he's strong enough to send us all to glory in the next three hours.
It's just that knowledge that you fellows have got to prevent his
getting. If a single Hun plane crosses our lines and returns, we're
wholly and utterly done. You've given us splendid help since the show
began, Archie. For God's sake keep it up to the finish and put every
machine you can spare in this sector.'
'We're doin' our best,' he said. 'We got some more fightin' scouts
down from the north, and we're keepin' our eyes skinned. But you know
as well as I do, sir, that it's never an ab-so-lute certainty. If the
Hun sent over a squadron we might beat 'em all down but one, and that
one might do the trick. It's a matter of luck. The Hun's got the wind
up all right in the air just now and I don't blame the poor devil. I'm
inclined to think we haven't had the pick of his push here. Jennings
says he's doin' good work in Flanders, and they reckon there's the
deuce of a thrust comin' there pretty soon. I think we can manage the
kind of footler he's been sendin' over here lately, but if Lensch or
some lad like that were to choose to turn up I wouldn't say what might
happen. The air's a big lottery,' and Archie turned a dirty face
skyward where two of our planes were moving very high towards the
The mention of Lensch brought Peter to mind, and I asked if he had
'He won't go,' said Archie, 'and we haven't the heart to make him.
He's very happy, and plays about with the Gladas single-seater. He's
always speakin' about you, sir, and it'd break his heart if we shifted
I asked about his health, and was told that he didn't seem to have
'But he's a bit queer,' and Archie shook a sage head. 'One of the
reasons why he won't budge is because he says God has some work for
him to do. He's quite serious about it, and ever since he got the
notion he has perked up amazin'. He's always askin' about Lensch,
too--not vindictive like, you understand, but quite friendly. Seems to
take a sort of proprietary interest in him. I told him Lensch had had
a far longer spell of first-class fightin' than anybody else and was
bound by the law of averages to be downed soon, and he was quite sad
I had no time to worry about Peter. Archie and I swallowed breakfast
and I had a pow-wow with my brigadiers. By this time I had got through
to Corps H.Q. and got news of the French. It was worse than I
expected. General Peguy would arrive about ten o'clock, but his men
couldn't take over till well after midday. The Corps gave me their
whereabouts and I found it on the map. They had a long way to cover
yet, and then there would be the slow business of relieving. I looked
at my watch. There were still six hours before us when the Boche might
knock us to blazes, six hours of maddening anxiety . . . Lefroy
announced that all was quiet on the front, and that the new wiring at
the Bois de la Bruyere had been completed. Patrols had reported that
during the night a fresh German division seemed to have relieved that
which we had punished so stoutly yesterday. I asked him if he could
stick it out against another attack. 'No,' he said without hesitation.
'We're too few and too shaky on our pins to stand any more. I've only
a man to every three yards.' That impressed me, for Lefroy was usually
the most devil-may-care optimist.
'Curse it, there's the sun,' I heard Archie cry. It was true, for the
clouds were rolling back and the centre of the heavens was a patch of
blue. The storm was coming--I could smell it in the air--but probably
it wouldn't break till the evening. Where, I wondered, would we be by
It was now nine o'clock, and I was keeping tight hold on myself, for I
saw that I was going to have hell for the next hours. I am a pretty
stolid fellow in some ways, but I have always found patience and
standing still the most difficult job to tackle, and my nerves were
all tattered from the long strain of the retreat. I went up to the
line and saw the battalion commanders. Everything was unwholesomely
quiet there. Then I came back to my headquarters to study the reports
that were coming in from the air patrols. They all said the same
thing--abnormal activity in the German back areas. Things seemed
shaping for a new 21st of March, and, if our luck were out, my poor
little remnant would have to take the shock. I telephoned to the Corps
and found them as nervous as me. I gave them the details of my
strength and heard an agonized whistle at the other end of the line. I
was rather glad I had companions in the same purgatory.
I found I couldn't sit still. If there had been any work to do I would
have buried myself in it, but there was none. Only this fearsome job
of waiting. I hardly ever feel cold, but now my blood seemed to be
getting thin, and I astonished my staff by putting on a British warm
and buttoning up the collar. Round that derelict farm I ranged like a
hungry wolf, cold at the feet, queasy in the stomach, and mortally
edgy in the mind.
Then suddenly the cloud lifted from me, and the blood seemed to run
naturally in my veins. I experienced the change of mood which a man
feels sometimes when his whole being is fined down and clarified by
long endurance. The fight of yesterday revealed itself as something
rather splendid. What risks we had run and how gallantly we had met
them! My heart warmed as I thought of that old division of mine, those
ragged veterans that were never beaten as long as breath was left
them. And the Americans and the boys from the machine-gun school and
all the oddments we had commandeered! And old Blenkiron raging like a
good-tempered lion! It was against reason that such fortitude
shouldn't win out. We had snarled round and bitten the Boche so badly
that he wanted no more for a little. He would come again, but
presently we should be relieved and the gallant blue-coats, fresh as
paint and burning for revenge, would be there to worry him.
I had no new facts on which to base my optimism, only a changed point
of view. And with it came a recollection of other things. Wake's death
had left me numb before, but now the thought of it gave me a sharp
pang. He was the first of our little confederacy to go. But what an
ending he had made, and how happy he had been in that mad time when he
had come down from his pedestal and become one of the crowd! He had
found himself at the last, and who could grudge him such happiness? If
the best were to be taken, he would be chosen first, for he was a big
man, before whom I uncovered my head. The thought of him made me very
humble. I had never had his troubles to face, but he had come clean
through them, and reached a courage which was for ever beyond me. He
was the Faithful among us pilgrims, who had finished his journey
before the rest. Mary had foreseen it. 'There is a price to be paid,'
she had said--'the best of us.'
And at the thought of Mary a flight of warm and happy hopes seemed to
settle on my mind. I was looking again beyond the war to that peace
which she and I would some day inherit. I had a vision of a green
English landscape, with its far-flung scents of wood and meadow and
garden . . . And that face of all my dreams, with the eyes so childlike
and brave and honest, as if they, too, saw beyond the dark to a
radiant country. A line of an old song, which had been a favourite of
my father's, sang itself in my ears:
_There's an eye that ever weeps and a fair face will be fain
When I ride through Annan Water wi' my bonny bands again!_
We were standing by the crumbling rails of what had once been the farm
sheepfold. I looked at Archie and he smiled back at me, for he saw
that my face had changed. Then he turned his eyes to the billowing
I felt my arm clutched.
'Look there!' said a fierce voice, and his glasses were turned upward.
I looked, and far up in the sky saw a thing like a wedge of wild geese
flying towards us from the enemy's country. I made out the small dots
which composed it, and my glass told me they were planes. But only
Archie's practised eye knew that they were enemy.
'Boche?' I asked.
'Boche,' he said. 'My God, we're for it now.'
My heart had sunk like a stone, but I was fairly cool. I looked at my
watch and saw that it was ten minutes to eleven.
'Five,' said Archie. 'Or there may be six--not more.'
'Listen!' I said. 'Get on to your headquarters. Tell them that it's
all up with us if a single plane gets back. Let them get well over the
line, the deeper in the better, and tell them to send up every machine
they possess and down them all. Tell them it's life or death. Not one
single plane goes back. Quick!'
Archie disappeared, and as he went our anti-aircraft guns broke out.
The formation above opened and zigzagged, but they were too high to be
in much danger. But they were not too high to see that which we must
keep hidden or perish.
The roar of our batteries died down as the invaders passed westward.
As I watched their progress they seemed to be dropping lower. Then
they rose again and a bank of cloud concealed them.
I had a horrid certainty that they must beat us, that some at any rate
would get back. They had seen thin lines and the roads behind us empty
of supports. They would see, as they advanced, the blue columns of the
French coming up from the south-west, and they would return and tell
the enemy that a blow now would open the road to Amiens and the sea.
He had plenty of strength for it, and presently he would have
overwhelming strength. It only needed a spear-point to burst the
jerry-built dam and let the flood through . . . They would return in
twenty minutes, and by noon we would be broken. Unless--unless the
miracle of miracles happened, and they never returned.
Archie reported that his skipper would do his damnedest and that our
machines were now going up. 'We've a chance, sir,' he said, 'a good
sportin' chance.' It was a new Archie, with a hard voice, a lean face,
and very old eyes.
Behind the jagged walls of the farm buildings was a knoll which had
once formed part of the high-road. I went up there alone, for I didn't
want anybody near me. I wanted a viewpoint, and I wanted quiet, for I
had a grim time before me. From that knoll I had a big prospect of
country. I looked east to our lines on which an occasional shell was
falling, and where I could hear the chatter of machine-guns. West
there was peace for the woods closed down on the landscape. Up to the
north, I remember, there was a big glare as from a burning dump, and
heavy guns seemed to be at work in the Ancre valley. Down in the south
there was the dull murmur of a great battle. But just around me, in
the gap, the deadliest place of all, there was an odd quiet. I could
pick out clearly the different sounds. Somebody down at the farm had
made a joke and there was a short burst of laughter. I envied the
humorist his composure. There was a clatter and jingle from a battery
changing position. On the road a tractor was jolting along--I could
hear its driver shout and the screech of its unoiled axle.
My eyes were glued to my glasses, but they shook in my hands so that I
could scarcely see. I bit my lip to steady myself, but they still
wavered. From time to time I glanced at my watch. Eight minutes
gone--ten--seventeen. If only the planes would come into sight! Even
the certainty of failure would be better than this harrowing doubt.
They should be back by now unless they had swung north across the
salient, or unless the miracle of miracles--
Then came the distant yapping of an anti-aircraft gun, caught up the
next second by others, while smoke patches studded the distant blue
sky. The clouds were banking in mid-heaven, but to the west there was
a big clear space now woolly with shrapnel bursts. I counted them
mechanically--one--three--five--nine--with despair beginning to take
the place of my anxiety. My hands were steady now, and through the
glasses I saw the enemy.
Five attenuated shapes rode high above the bombardment, now sharp
against the blue, now lost in a film of vapour. They were coming back,
serenely, contemptuously, having seen all they wanted.
The quiet was gone now and the din was monstrous. Anti-aircraft guns,
singly and in groups, were firing from every side. As I watched it
seemed a futile waste of ammunition. The enemy didn't give a tinker's
curse for it . . . But surely there was one down. I could only count
four now. No, there was the fifth coming out of a cloud. In ten
minutes they would be all over the line. I fairly stamped in my
vexation. Those guns were no more use than a sick headache. Oh, where
in God's name were our own planes?
At that moment they came, streaking down into sight, four
fighting-scouts with the sun glinting on their wings and burnishing
their metal cowls. I saw clearly the rings of red, white, and blue.
Before their downward drive the enemy instantly spread out.
I was watching with bare eyes now, and I wanted companionship, for the
time of waiting was over. Automatically I must have run down the
knoll, for the next I knew I was staring at the heavens with Archie by
my side. The combatants seemed to couple instinctively. Diving,
wheeling, climbing, a pair would drop out of the melee or disappear
behind a cloud. Even at that height I could hear the methodical
rat-tat-tat of the machine-guns. Then there was a sudden flare and
wisp of smoke. A plane sank, turning and twisting, to earth.
'Hun!' said Archie, who had his glasses on it.
Almost immediately another followed. This time the pilot recovered
himself, while still a thousand feet from the ground, and started
gliding for the enemy lines. Then he wavered, plunged sickeningly, and
fell headlong into the wood behind La Bruyere.
Farther east, almost over the front trenches, a two-seater Albatross
and a British pilot were having a desperate tussle. The bombardment
had stopped, and from where we stood every movement could be followed.
First one, then another, climbed uppermost and dived back, swooped out
and wheeled in again, so that the two planes seemed to clear each
other only by inches. Then it looked as if they closed and
interlocked. I expected to see both go crashing, when suddenly the
wings of one seemed to shrivel up, and the machine dropped like a
'Hun,' said Archie. 'That makes three. Oh, good lads! Good lads!'
Then I saw something which took away my breath. Sloping down in wide
circles came a German machine, and, following, a little behind and a
little above, a British. It was the first surrender in mid-air I had
seen. In my amazement I watched the couple right down to the ground,
till the enemy landed in a big meadow across the high-road and our own
man in a field nearer the river.
When I looked back into the sky, it was bare. North, south, east, and
west, there was not a sign of aircraft, British or German.
A violent trembling took me. Archie was sweeping the heavens with his
glasses and muttering to himself. Where was the fifth man? He must
have fought his way through, and it was too late.
But was it? From the toe of a great rolling cloud-bank a flame shot
earthwards, followed by a V-shaped trail of smoke. British or Boche?
British or Boche? I didn't wait long for an answer. For, riding over
the far end of the cloud, came two of our fighting scouts.
I tried to be cool, and snapped my glasses into their case, though the
reaction made me want to shout. Archie turned to me with a nervous
smile and a quivering mouth. 'I think we have won on the post,' he
He reached out a hand for mine, his eyes still on the sky, and I was
grasping it when it was torn away. He was staring upwards with a white
We were looking at the sixth enemy plane.
It had been behind the others and much lower, and was making straight
at a great speed for the east. The glasses showed me a different type
of machine--a big machine with short wings, which looked menacing as a
hawk in a covey of grouse. It was under the cloud-bank, and above,
satisfied, easing down after their fight, and unwitting of this enemy,
rode the two British craft.
A neighbouring anti-aircraft gun broke out into a sudden burst, and I
thanked Heaven for its inspiration. Curious as to this new
development, the two British turned, caught sight of the Boche, and
dived for him.
What happened in the next minutes I cannot tell. The three seemed to
be mixed up in a dog fight, so that I could not distinguish friend
from foe. My hands no longer trembled; I was too desperate. The patter
of machine-guns came down to us, and then one of the three broke clear
and began to climb. The others strained to follow, but in a second he
had risen beyond their fire, for he had easily the pace of them. Was
it the Hun?
Archie's dry lips were talking.
'It's Lensch,' he said.
'How d'you know?' I gasped angrily.
'Can't mistake him. Look at the way he slipped out as he banked.
That's his patent trick.'
In that agonizing moment hope died in me. I was perfectly calm now,
for the time for anxiety had gone. Farther and farther drifted the
British pilots behind, while Lensch in the completeness of his triumph
looped more than once as if to cry an insulting farewell. In less than
three minutes he would be safe inside his own lines, and he carried
the knowledge which for us was death.
* * * * *
Someone was bawling in my ear, and pointing upward. It was Archie and
his face was wild. I looked and gasped--seized my glasses and looked
A second before Lensch had been alone; now there were two machines.
I heard Archie's voice. 'My God, it's the Gladas--the little Gladas.'
His fingers were digging into my arm and his face was against my
shoulder. And then his excitement sobered into an awe which choked his
speech, as he stammered--'It's old--'
But I did not need him to tell me the name, for I had divined it when
I first saw the new plane drop from the clouds. I had that queer sense
that comes sometimes to a man that a friend is present when he cannot
see him. Somewhere up in the void two heroes were fighting their last
battle--and one of them had a crippled leg.
I had never any doubt about the result, though Archie told me later
that he went crazy with suspense. Lensch was not aware of his opponent
till he was almost upon him, and I wonder if by any freak of instinct
he recognized his greatest antagonist. He never fired a shot, nor did
Peter . . . I saw the German twist and side-slip as if to baffle the
fate descending upon him. I saw Peter veer over vertically and I knew
that the end had come. He was there to make certain of victory and he
took the only way. The machines closed, there was a crash which I felt
though I could not hear it, and next second both were hurtling down,
over and over, to the earth.
They fell in the river just short of the enemy lines, but I did not
see them, for my eyes were blinded and I was on my knees.
* * * * *
After that it was all a dream. I found myself being embraced by a
French General of Division, and saw the first companies of the
cheerful bluecoats whom I had longed for. With them came the rain, and
it was under a weeping April sky that early in the night I marched
what was left of my division away from the battle-field. The enemy
guns were starting to speak behind us, but I did not heed them. I knew
that now there were warders at the gate, and I believed that by the
grace of God that gate was barred for ever.
* * * * *
They took Peter from the wreckage with scarcely a scar except his
twisted leg. Death had smoothed out some of the age in him, and left
his face much as I remembered it long ago in the Mashonaland hills. In
his pocket was his old battered _Pilgrim's Progress_. It lies before
me as I write, and beside it--for I was his only legatee--the little
case which came to him weeks later, containing the highest honour that
can be bestowed upon a soldier of Britain.
It was from the _Pilgrim's Progress_ that I read next morning, when in
the lee of an apple-orchard Mary and Blenkiron and I stood in the soft
spring rain beside his grave. And what I read was the tale in the end
not of Mr Standfast, whom he had singled out for his counterpart, but
of Mr Valiant-for-Truth whom he had not hoped to emulate. I set down
the words as a salute and a farewell:
_Then said he, 'I am going to my Father's; and though with great
difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the
trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to
him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and
skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me,
to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who now will
be my rewarder._'
_So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on
the other side._