Part 5 out of 7
"It's about time we gave that tree a spray good for that kind of fungus,
from a machine-gun!"
A bullet coming from our side swept overhead. One of our own
sharpshooters had seen something to shoot at.
"Not giving you much excitement!" said Tommy.
"I suppose I'd get a little if I stood up on the parapet?" I asked.
"You wouldn't get a ticket for England; you'd get a box!"
"There's a cemetery just behind the lines if you'd prefer to stay in
I had passed that cemetery with its fresh wooden crosses on my way
to the trench. These tenderhearted soldiers who joked with death had
placed flowers on the graves of fallen comrades and bought
elaborate French funeral wreaths with their meagre pay--which is
another side of Mr. Thomas Atkins. There is sentiment in him. Yes,
he's loaded with sentiment, but not for the "movies."
"Keep your head down there, Eames!" called a corporal. "I don't want
to be taking an inventory of your kit."
Eames did not even realize that his head was above the parapet. The
hardest thing to teach a soldier is not to expose himself. Officers keep
iterating warnings and then forget to practise what they preach. That
morning a soldier had been shot through the heart and arm sideways
behind the trench. He had lain down unnoticed for a nap in the sun, it
was supposed. When he awoke, presumably he sat up and yawned
and Herr Schmidt, from some platform in a tree, had a bloody reward
for his patience.
The next morning I saw the British take their revenge. Some German
who thought that he could not be seen in the mist of dawn was
walking along the German parapet. What hopes! Four or five men
took careful aim and fired. That dim figure collapsed in a way that was
As I swept the line of German trenches with the glasses I saw a wisp
of flag clinging to its pole in the still air far down to the left. Flags
are as unusual above trenches as men standing up in full view of
the enemy. Then a breeze caught the folds, and I saw that it was
the tricolour of France.
"A Boche joke!" Tommy explained.
"Probably they are hating the French to-day?"
"No, it's been there for some days. They want us to shoot at the flag
of our ally. They'd get a laugh out of that--a regular Boche notion of
"If it were a German flag?" I suggested.
"What hopes! We'd make it into a lace curtain!"
Even the guns had ceased firing. The birds in their evensong had all
the war to themselves. It was difficult to believe that if you stood on
top of the parapet anybody would shoot at you; no, not even if you
walked down the road that ran through the wheatfield, everything was
so peaceful. One grew sceptical of there being any Germans in the
"There are three or four sharpshooters and a fat old Boche professor
in spectacles, who moves a machine-gun up and down for a bluff,"
said a soldier, and another corrected him:
"No, the old professor's the one that walks along at night sending up
"Munching K.K. bread with his false teeth!"
"And singing the hymn of hate!"
Thus the talk ran on in the quiet of evening, till we heard a concussion
and a quarter of a mile away, behind a screen of trees, a pillar of
smoke rose to the height of two or three hundred feet.
"A mine!" In front of the -th brigade!"
"Ours or the Boches'?"
"Ours, from the way the smoke went--our fuse!"
Our colonel telephoned down to know if we knew whose mine it was,
which was the question we wanted to ask him. The guns from both
sides became busy under the column of smoke. Oh, yes, there were
Germans in the trenches which had appeared vacant. Their shots
and ours merged in the hissing medley of a tempest.
"Not enough guns--not enough noise for an attack!" said experienced
Tommy, who knew what an attack was like.
The commander of the adjoining brigade telephoned to the division
commander, who passed the word through to our colonel, who
passed it to us that the mine was German and had burst thirty yards
short of the British trench.
"After all that digging, wasting Boche powder in that fashion! The
Kaiser won't like it!" said Mr. Atkins. "We exploded one under them
yesterday and it made them hate so hard they couldn't wait. They've
awful tempers, the Boches!" And he finished the job on which he was
engaged when interrupted, eating a large piece of ration bread
surmounted by all the ration jam it could hold; while one of the
company officers reminded me that it was about dinner time.
"What do you think I am? A blooming traffic policeman?" growled the
cook to two soldiers who had found themselves in a blind alley in the
maze of streets back of the firing-trench. "My word! Is His Majesty's
army becoming illiterate? Strafe that sign at the corner! What do you
think we put it up for? To show what a beautiful hand we had at
The sign on a board fastened against the earth wall read, "No
thoroughfare!" The soldier-cook, with a fork in his hand, his sleeves
rolled up, his shirt open at his tanned throat, looked formidable. He
was preoccupied; he was at close quarters roasting a chicken over a
small stove. Yes, they have cook-stoves in the trenches. Why not?
The line had been in the same position for six months.
"Little by little we improve our happy home," said the cook.
The latest acquisition was a lace curtain for the officers' mess hall,
bought at a shop in the nearest town.
When the cook was inside his kitchen there was no room to spill
anything on the floor. The kitchen was about three feet square, with
boarded walls, and a roof covered with tar paper and a layer of earth
set level with the trench parapet. The chicken roasted and the frying
potatoes sizzled as an occasional bullet passed overhead, even as
flies buzz about the screen door when Mary is making cakes for tea.
The officers' mess hall, next to the kitchen and built in the same
fashion, had some boards nailed on posts sunk in the ground for a
table, which was proof against tipping when you climbed over it or
squeezed around it to your place. The chairs were rifle-ammunition
boxes, whose contents had been emptied with individual care, bullet
by bullet, at the Germans in the trench on the other side of the
wheatfield. Dinner was at nine in the evening, when it was still twilight
in the longest days of the year in this region. The hour fits in with
trench routine, when night is the time to be on guard and you sleep
by day. Breakfast comes at nine in the morning. I was invited to help
eat the chicken and to spend the night.
Now, the general commanding the brigade who accompanied me to
the trenches had been hit twice. So had the colonel, a man about
forty. From forty, ages among the regimental officers dropped into the
Many of the older men who started in the war had been killed, or were
back in England wounded, or had been promoted to other commands
where their experience was more useful. To youth, life is sweet and
danger is life. The oldest of the officers of the proud old K.O.P.F. who
gathered for dinner was about twenty-five, though when he assumed
an air of authority he seemed to be forty. It was not right to ask the
youngest his age. Parenthetically, let it be said that he is trying to
start a moustache. They had come fresh from Sandhurst to swift
tuition in gruelling, incessant warfare.
"Has anyone asked him it yet?" one inquired, referring to some
question to the guest.
"Not yet? Then all together: When do you think that the war will be
It was the eternal question of the trenches, the army, and the world.
We had it over with before the soldier-cook brought on the roast
chicken, which was received with a befitting chorus of approbation.
Who would carve? Who knew how to carve? Modesty passed the
honour to her neighbour, till a brave man said:
"I will! I will strafe the chicken!" 'Gott strafe England!' Strafe has
become a noun, a verb, an adjective, a cussword, and a term of
greeting. Soldier asks soldier how he is strafing to-day. When the
Germans are not called Boches they are called Strafers. "Won't you
strafe a little for us?" Tommy sings out to the German trenches when
they are close. What hopes? That gallant youngster of the K.O.P.F. in
the midst of bantering advice succeeded in separating the meat from
the bones without landing a leg in anybody's lap or a wing in
anybody's eye. Timid spectators who had hung back where he had
dared might criticize his form, but they could not deny the efficiency of
his execution. He was appointed permanent strafer of all the fowls
that came to table.
Everybody talked and joked about everything, from plays in London
to the Germans. There were arguments about favourite actors and
military methods. The sense of danger was as absent as if we had
been dining in a summer garden. It was the parents and relatives in
pleasant English homes in fear of a dread telegram who were
worrying, not the sons and brothers in danger. Isn't it better that way?
Would not the parents prefer it that way? Wasn't it the way of the
ancestors in the scarlet coats and the Merrie England of their day?
With the elasticity of youth my hosts adapted themselves to
circumstances. In their lightheartedness they made war seem a keen
sport. They lived war for all it was worth. If it gets on their nerves
their efficiency is spoiled. There is no room for a jumpy, excitable
man in the trenches. Youth's resources defy monotony and death
at the same time.
An expedition had been planned for that night. A patrol the previous
night had brought in word that the Germans had been sneaking up
and piling sandbags in the wheatfield. The plan was to slip out as
soon as it was really dark with a machine-gun and a dozen men, get
behind the Germans' own sandbags, and give them a perfectly
informal reception when they returned to go on with their work.
Before dinner, however, J------, who was to be the general of the
expedition, and his subordinates made a reconnaissance. Two or
more officers or men always go out together on any trip of this kind in
that ticklish space between the trenches, where it is almost certain
death to be seen by the enemy. If one is hit the other can help him
back. If one survives he will bring back the result of his investigations.
J----had his own ideas about comfort in trousers in the trench in
summer. He wore shorts with his knees bare. When he had to do a
"crawl" he unwound his puttees and wound them over his knees. He
and the others slipped over the parapet without attracting the
attention of the enemy's sharpshooters. On hands and knees, like
boy scouts playing Indians, they passed through a narrow avenue in
the ugly barbed wire, and still not a shot at them. A matter of the
commonplace to the men in the trench held the spectator in
suspense. There was a fascination about the thing, too; that of the
sporting chance, without a full realization that failure in this hide-and-
seek game might mean a spray of bullets and death for these young
They entered the wheat, moving slowly like two land turtles. The grain
parted in swaths over them. Surely the Germans might see the
turtles' heads as they were raised to look around. No officer can be
too young and supple for this kind of work. Here the company officer
just out of school is in his element, with an advantage over older
officers. That pair were used to crawling. They did not keep their
heads up long. They knew just how far they might expose
themselves. They passed out of sight, and reappeared and slipped
back over the parapet again without the Germans being any the
wiser. Hard luck! It is an unaccommodating world! They found that
the patrol which had examined the bags at night had failed to discern
that they were old and must have been there for some time.
"I'll take the machine-gun out, anyhow, if the colonel will permit it,"
said J------. For the colonel puts on the brakes. Otherwise, there is no
telling what risks youth might take with machine-guns.
We were half through dinner when a corporal came to report that a
soldier on watch thought that he had seen some Germans moving in
the wheat very near our barbed wire. Probably a false alarm; but no
one in a trench ever acts on the theory that any alarm is false. Eternal
vigilance is the price of holding a trench. Either side is cudgelling its
brains day and night to spring some new trick on the other. If one side
succeeds with a trick, the other immediately adopts it. No international
copyright in strategy is recognized. We rushed out of the mess hall
into the firing-trench, where we found the men on the alert, rifles laid
on the spot where the Germans were supposed to have been seen.
"Who are you? Answer, or we fire!" called the ranking young
If any persons present out in front in the face of thirty rifles knew the
English language and had not lost the instinct of self-preservation,
they would certainly have become articulate in response to such an
unveiled hint. Not a sound came. Probably a rabbit running through
the wheat had been the cause of the alarm. But you take no risks.
The order was given, and the men combed the wheat with a fusillade.
"Enough! Cease fire!" said the officer. "Nobody there. If there had
been we should have heard the groan of a wounded man or seen the
wheat stir as the Germans hugged closer to the earth for cover."
This he knew by experience. It was not the first time he had used a
fusillade in this kind of a test.
After dinner J------rolled his puttees up around his bare knees again,
for the colonel had not withdrawn permission for the machine-gun
expedition. J------'s knees were black and blue in spots; they were
also--well, there is not much water for washing purposes in the
trenches. Great sport that, crawling through the dew-moist wheat in
the faint moonlight, looking for a bunch of Germans in the hope of
turning a machine-gun on them before they turn one on you!
"One man hit by a stray bullet," said J------on his return.
"I heard the bullet go th-ip into the earth after it went through his leg,"
said the other officer.
"Blythe was a recruit and he had asked me to take him out the first
time there was anything doing. I promised that I would, and he got
about the only shot fired at us."
"Need a stretcher?"
Blythe came hobbling through the traverse to the communication
trench, seeming well pleased with himself. The soft part of the leg is
not a bad place to receive a bullet if one is due to hit you.
Night is always the time in the trenches when life grows more
interesting and death more likely.
"It's dark enough, now," said one of the youngsters who was out on
another scout. "We'll go out with the patrol."
By day, the slightest movement of the enemy is easily and instantly
detected. Light keeps the combatants to the warrens which protect
them from shell and bullet-fire. At night there is no telling what
mischief the enemy may be up to; you must depend upon the ear
rather than the eye for watching. Then the human soldier-fox comes
out of his burrow and sneaks forth on the lookout for prey; both sides
are on the prowl.
"Trained owls would be the most valuable scouts we could have,"
said the young officer. "They would be more useful than aeroplanes
in locating the enemy's gun-positions. A properly reliable owl would
come back and say that a German patrol was out in the wheatfield at
such a point and a machine-gun would wipe out that patrol."
We turned into a side trench, an alley off the main street, leading out
of the front trench toward the Germans.
"Anybody out?" he asked a soldier who was on guard at the end of it.
Climbing out of the ditch, we were in the midst of a tangle of barbed
wire protecting the trench front, which was faintly visible in the
starlight. There was a break in the tangle, a narrow cut in the hedge,
as it were, kept open for just such purposes as this. When the patrol
returned it closed the gate again.
"Look out for that wire--just there! Do you see it? We've everything to
keep the Boches off our front lawn except 'Keep off the grass!' signs."
It was perfectly still, a warm summer night without a cat's-paw of
breeze. Through the dark curtain of the sky in a parabola rising from
the German trenches swept the brilliant sputter of red light of a
German flare. It was coming as straight toward us as if it had been
aimed at us. It cast a searching, uncanny glare over the tall wheat in
head between the trenches.
"Down flat!" whispered the officer.
It seemed foolish to grovel before a piece of fireworks. There was no
firing in our neighbourhood; nothing to indicate a state of war between
the British Empire and Germany; no visual evidence of any German
army in France except that flare. However, if a guide who knows as
much about war as this one says you are to prostrate yourself when
you are out between two lines of machine-guns and rifles--between
the fighting powers of England and Germany--you take the hint. The
flare sank into earth a few yards away, after a last insulting, ugly fling
of sparks in our faces.
"What if we had been seen?"
"They'd have combed the wheat in this part thoroughly, and they
might have got us."
"It's hard to believe," I said.
So it was, he agreed. That was the exasperating thing. Always hard
to believe, perhaps, until after all the cries of wolf the wolf came; until
after nineteen harmless flares the twentieth revealed to the watching
enemy the figure of a man above the wheat, when a crackling chorus
of bullets would suddenly break the silence of night by concentrating
on a target. Keeping cover from German flares is a part of the minute,
painstaking economy of war.
We crawled on slowly, taking care to make no noise, till we brought
up behind two soldiers hugging the earth, rifles in hand ready to fire
instantly. It was their business not only to see the enemy first, but to
shoot first, and to capture or kill any German patrol. The officer spoke
to them and they answered. It was unnecessary for them to say that
they had seen nothing. If they had we should have known it. He was
out there less to scout himself than to make sure that they were on
the job; that they knew how to watch. The visit was part of his routine.
We did not even whisper. Preferably, all whispering would be done by
any German patrol out to have a look at our barbed wire and
overheard by us.
Silence and the starlight and the damp wheat; but, yes, there was
war. You heard gun-fire half a mile, perhaps a mile, away; and raising
your head you saw auroras from bursting shells. We heard at our
backs faintly snatches of talk from our trenches and faintly in front the
talk from theirs. It sounded rather inviting and friendly from both sides,
like that around some camp-fire on the plains.
It seemed quite within the bounds of possibility that you might have
crawled on up to the Germans and said, "Howdy!" But by the time
you reached the edge of their barbed wire and before you could
present your visiting-card, if not sooner, you would have been full of
holes. That was just the kind of diversion from trench monotony for
which the Germans were looking. "Well, shall we go back?" asked the
officer. There seemed no particular purpose in spending the night
prone in the wheat with your ears cocked like a pointer-dog's.
Besides, he had other duties, exacting duties laid down by the colonel
as the result of trench experience in his responsibility for the
command of a company of men.
It happened as we crawled back into the trench, that a fury of shots
broke out from a point along the line two or three hundred yards
away; sharp, vicious shots on the still night air, stabbing, merciless
death in their sound. Oh, yes, there was war in France; unrelenting,
shrewd, tireless war. A touch of suspicion anywhere and the hornets
It was two a.m. From the dug-outs came unmistakable sounds of
slumber. Men off duty were not kept awake by cold and moisture in
summer. They had fashioned for themselves comfortable dormitories
in the hard earth walls. A cot in an officer's bedchamber was
indicated as mine. The walls had been hung with cuts from illustrated
papers and bagging spread on the floor to make it "home-like." He lay
down on the floor because he was nearer the door in case he had to
respond to an alarm; besides, he said I would soon appreciate that I
was not the object of favouritism. So I did. It was a trench-made cot,
fashioned by some private of engineers, I fancy, who had Germans
rather than the American cousin in mind.
"The wall side of the rib that runs down the middle is the comfortable
side, I have found," said my host. "It may not appear so at first, but
you will find it works out that way."
Nevertheless, I slept, my last recollection that of sniping shots, to be
awakened with the first streaks of day by the sound of a fusillade--the
"morning hate" or the "morning strafe" as it is called. After the vigil of
darkness it breaks the monotony to salute the dawn with a burst of
rifle-shots. Eyes strained through the mist over the wheatfield
watching for some one of the enemy who may be exposing himself,
unconscious that it is light enough for him to be visible. Objects which
are not men but look as if they might be in the hazy distance, called
for attention on the chance. For ten minutes, perhaps, the serenade
lasted, and then things settled down to the normal. The men were
yawning and stirring from their dug-outs. After the muster they would
take the places of those who had been "on the bridge" through the
"It's a case of how little water you can wash with, isn't it?" I said to
the cook, who appreciated my thoughtfulness when I made shift
with a dipperful, as I had done on desert journeys. We were in a trench
that was inundated with water in winter, and not more than two miles
from a town which had water laid on. But bringing a water supply in
pails along narrow trenches is a poor pastime, though better than
bringing it up under the rifle-sights of snipers across the fields back
of the trenches.
"Don't expect much for breakfast," said the strafer of the chicken. But
it was eggs and bacon, the British stand-by in all weathers, at home
J------was going to turn in and sleep. These youngsters could sleep at
any time; for one hour, or two hours, or five, or ten, if they had a
chance. A sudden burst of rifle-fire was the alarm clock which always
promptly awakened them. The recollection of cheery hospitality and
their fine, buoyant spirit is even clearer now than when I left the
A School In Bombing
It was at a bombing school on a French farm, where chosen soldiers
brought back from the trenches were being trained in the use of the
anarchists' weapon, which has now become as respectable as the
rifle. The war has steadily developed specialism. M.B. degrees for
Master Bombers are not beyond the range of possibilities.
Present was the chief instructor, a Scottish subaltern with blue eyes,
a pleasant smile, and a Cock-o'-the-North spirit. He might have been
twenty years old, though he did not look it. On his breast was the
purple and white ribbon of the new order of the Military Cross, which
you get for doing something in this war which would have won you a
Victoria Cross in one of the other wars.
Also present was the assistant instructor, a sergeant of regulars--and
very much of a regular--who had three ribbons which he had won in
previous campaigns. He, too, had blue eyes, bland blue eyes. These
two understood each other.
"If you don't drop it, why, it's all right!" said the sergeant. "Of course,
if you do------"
I did not drop it.
"And when you throw it, sir, you must look out and not hit the man
behind you and knock the bomb out of your hand. That has
happened before to an absent-minded fellow who was about to toss
one at the Boches, and it doesn't do to be absent-minded when you
"They say that you sometimes pick up the German bombs and chuck
them back before they explode," I suggested.
"Yes, sir, I've read things like that in some of the accounts of the
reporters who write from Somewhere in France. You don't happen to
know where that is, sir? All I can say is that if you are going to do it
you must be quick about it. I shouldn't advise delaying decision, sir, or
perhaps when you reached down to pick it up, neither your hand nor
the bomb would be there. They'd have gone off together, sir."
"Have you ever been hurt in your handling of bombs?" I asked.
Surprise in the bland blue eyes. "Oh, no, sir! Bombs are well behaved
if you treat them right. It's all in being thoughtful and considerate of
them!" Meanwhile, he was jerking at some kind of a patent fuse set in
a shell of high explosive. "This is a poor kind, sir. It's been discarded,
but I thought that you might like to see it. Never did like it. Always
More distance between the audience and the performer. "Now I've
got it, sir--get down, sir!" The audience carried out instructions to the
letter, as army regulations require. It got behind the protection of one
of the practice-trench traverses. He threw the discard behind another
wall of earth. There was a sharp report, a burst of smoke, and some
fragments of earth were tossed into the air.
In a small affair of two hundred yards of trench a week before, it was
estimated that the British and the Germans together threw about five
thousand bombs in this fashion. It was enough to sadden any
Minister of Munitions. However, the British kept the trench.
"Do the men like to become bombers?" I asked the subaltern.
"I should say so! It puts them up in front. It gives them a chance to
throw something, and they don't get much cricket in France, you see.
We had a pupil here last week who broke the throwing record for
distance. He was as pleased as Punch with himself. A first-class
bombing detachment has a lot of pride of corps."
To bomb soon became as common a verb with the army as to
bayonet. "We bombed them out" meant a section of trench taken by
throwing bombs. As you know, a trench is dug and built with
sandbags in zigzag traverses. In following the course of a trench it is
as if you followed the sides of the squares of a checker board up and
down and across on the same tier of squares. The square itself is a
bank of earth, with the cut on either side and in front of it. When a
bombing-party bombs its way into possession of a section of German
trench, there are Germans under cover of the traverses on either
side. They are waiting around the corner to shoot the first British head
that shows itself.
"It is important that you and not the Boches chuck the bombs over
first," explained the subaltern. "Also, that you get them into the right
traverse, or they may be as troublesome to you as to the enemy."
With bombs bursting in their faces, the Germans who are not put out
of action are blinded and stunned. In that moment when they are off
guard, the aggressors leap around the corner.
"Stick 'em, sir!" said the matter-of-fact sergeant. "Yes, the cold steel is
best. And do it first! As Mr. MacPherson said, it's very important to do
It has been found that something short is handy for this kind of work.
In such cramped quarters--a ditch six feet deep and from two to three
feet broad--the rifle is an awkward length to permit of prompt and
skilful use of the bayonet.
"Yes, sir, you can mix it up better with something handy--to think that
British soldiers would come to fighting like assassins!" said the
sergeant. "You must be spry on such occasions. It's no time for wool-
Not a smile from him or the subaltern all the time. They were the kind
you would like to have along in a tight corner, whether you had to fight
with knives, fists, or seventeen-inch howitzers.
The sergeant took us into the storehouse where he kept his supply of
"What if a German shell should strike your storehouse?" I asked.
"Then, sir, I expect that most of the bombs would be exploded.
Bombs are very peculiar in their habits. What do you think, sir?"
It was no trouble to show stock, as clerks at the stores say. He
brought forth all the different kinds of bombs that British ingenuity had
invented--but no, not all invented. These would mount into the
thousands. Every British inventor who knows anything about
explosives has tried his hand at a new kind of bomb. One means all
the kinds which the British War Office has considered worth a
practice test. The spectator was allowed to handle each one as much
as he pleased. There had been occasions, that boyish Scottish
subaltern told me, when the men who were examining the products of
British ingenuity--well, the subaltern had sandy hair, too, which
heightened the effect of his blue eyes.
There were yellow and green and blue and black and striped bombs;
egg-shaped, barrel-shaped, conical, and concave bombs; bombs that
were exploded by pulling a string and by pressing a button--all these
to be thrown by hand, without mentioning grenades and other larger
varieties to be thrown by mechanical means, which would have made
a Chinese warrior of Confucius' time or a Roman legionary feel at
"This was the first-born," the subaltern explained, "the first thing we
could lay our hands on when the close quarters' trench warfare
It was as out of date as grandfather's smooth-bore, the tin-pot bomb
that both sides used early in the winter. A wick was attached to the
high explosive, wrapped in cloth and stuck in an ordinary army jam
"Quite home-made, as you see, sir," remarked the sergeant. "Used to
fix them up ourselves in the trenches in odd hours--saved burying the
refuse jam tins according to medical corps directions--and you threw
them at the Boches. Had to use a match to light it. Very old-
fashioned, sir. I wonder if that old fuse has got damp. No, it's going all
right"--and he threw the jam pot, which made a good explosion. Later,
when he began hammering the end of another he looked up in mild
surprise at the dignified back-stepping of the spectators.
"Is that fuse out?" someone asked.
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir," he replied. "It's safer. But here is the best;
we're discarding the others," he went on, as he picked up a bomb.
It was a pleasure to throw this crowning achievement of experiments.
It fitted your hand nicely; it threw easily; it did the business; it was
fool-proof against a man in love or a war-poet.
"We saw as soon as this style came out," said the sergeant, "that it
was bound to be popular. Everybody asks for it--except the Boches,
My Best Day At The Front
It was the best day because one ran the gamut of the mechanics and
emotions of modern war within a single experience--and oh, the
twinkle in that staff officer's eye!
It was on a Monday that I first met him in the ballroom of a large
chateau. Here another officer was talking over a telephone in an
explicit, businesslike fashion about "sending up more bombs," while
we looked at maps spread out on narrow, improvised tables, such as
are used for a buffet at a reception. Those maps showed all the
British trenches and all the German trenches--spider-weblike lines
that cunning human spiders had spun with spades--in that region;
and where our batteries were and where some of the German
batteries were, if our aeroplane observations were correct.
To the layman they were simply blue prints, such as he sees in the
office of an engineer or an architect, or elaborate printed maps with
many blue and red pencil-lings. To the general in command they
were alive with rifle-power and gun-power and other powers
mysterious to us; the sword with which he thrust and feinted and
guarded in the ceaseless fencing of trench warfare, while higher
authorities than he kept their secrets as he kept his and bided their
That morning one of the battalions which had its pencilled place on
the map had taken a section of trench from the Germans about the
length of two city blocks. It got into the official bulletins of both sides
several times, this two hundred yards at Pilken in the everlastingly
"hot corner" north of Ypres. So it was of some importance, though not
on account of its length. To take two hundred yards of trench
because it is two hundred yards of trench is not good war, tacticians
agree. Good war is to have millions of shells and vast reserves ready
and to go in over a broad area and keep on going night and day, with
a Niagara of artillery, as fresh battalions are fed into the conflict.
But the Germans had command of some rising ground in front of the
British line at this point. They could fire down and crosswise into our
trench. It was as if we were in the alley and they were in a first-floor
window. This meant many casualties. It was man-economy and fire-
economy to take that two hundred yards. A section of trench may
always be taken if worth while. Reduce it to dust with shells and then
dash into the breach and drive the enemy back from zigzag traverse
to traverse with bombs. But such a small action requires as careful
planning as a big operation of other days. We had taken the two
hundred yards. The thing was to hold them. That is always the
difficulty; for the enemy will concentrate his guns to give you the
same dose that you gave him. In an hour after they were in, the
British soldiers, who knew exactly what they had to do and how to do
it, after months of experience, had turned the wreck of the German
trench into a British trench which faced toward Berlin, rather than
In their official bulletin the Germans said that they had recovered the
trench. They did recover part of it for a few hours. It was then that the
commander on the German side must have sent in his report to catch
the late evening editions. Commanders do not like to confess the loss
of trenches. It is the sort of thing that makes headquarters ask: "What
is the matter with you over there, anyway?" There was a time when
the German bulletins about the Western front seemed rather truthful;
but of late they have been getting into bad habits.
The British general knew what was coming; he knew that he would
start the German hornets out of their nest when he took the trench;
he knew, too, that he could rely upon his men to hold till they were
told to retire or there were none left to retire. The British are a home-
loving people, who do not like to be changing their habitations. In
succeeding days the question up and down the lines was, "Have we
still got that trench?" Only two hundred yards of ditch on the continent
of Europe! But was it still ours? Had the Germans succeeded in
"strafing" us out of it yet? They had shelled all the trenches in the
region of the lost trench and had made three determined and
unsuccessful counter-attacks when, on the fifth day, we returned to
the chateau to ask if it were practicable to visit the new trench.
"At your own risk!" said the staff officer. If we preferred we could sit on
the veranda where there were easy chairs, on a pleasant summer
day. Very peaceful the sweep of the well-kept grounds and the shade
of the stately trees of that sequestered world of landscape. Who was
at war? Why was anyone at war? Two staff motor-cars awaiting
orders on the drive and a dust-laden dispatch rider with messages,
who went past toward the rear of the house, were the only visual
evidence of war. The staff officer served us with helmets for
protection in case we got into a gas attack. He said that we might
enter our front trenches at a certain point and then work our way as
near the new part as we could; division headquarters, four or five
miles distant, would show us the way. It was then that the twinkle in
the staff officer's eye as it looked straight into yours became manifest.
You can never tell, I have learned, just what a twinkle in a British staff
officer's eye may portend. These fellows who are promoted up from
the trenches to join the "brain-trust" in the chateau, know a great deal
more about what is going on than you can learn by standing in the
road far from the front and listening to the sound of the guns. We
encountered a twinkle in another eye at division headquarters, which
may have been telephoned ahead along with the instructions, "At
their own risk."
There are British staff officers who would not mind pulling a
correspondent's leg on a summer day; though, perhaps, it was really
the Germans who pulled ours, in this instance. Somebody did remark
at some headquarters, I recall, that "You never know!" which shows
that staff officers do not know everything. The Germans possess half
the knowledge--and they are at great pains not to part with their half.
We proceeded in our car along country roads, quiet, normal country
roads off the main highway. It has been written again and again, and
it cannot be written too many times, that life is going on as usual in
the rear of the army. Nothing could be more wonderful and yet
nothing more natural. All the men of fighting age were absent. White-
capped grandmothers, too old to join the rest of the family in the
fields, sat in doorways sewing. Everybody was at work and the crops
were growing. You never tire of remarking the fact. It brings you back
from the destructive orgy of war to the simple, constructive things of
life. An industrious people go on cultivating the land and the land
keeps on producing. It is pleasant to think that the crops of Northern
France were good in 1915. That is cheering news from home for the
soldiers of France at the front.
At an indicated point we left the car to go forward on foot, and the
chauffeur was told to wait for us at another point. If the car went any
farther it might draw shell-fire. Army authorities know how far they
may take cars with reasonable safety as well as a pilot knows the
rocks and shoals at a harbour entrance.
There was an end of white-capped grandmothers in doorways; an
end of people working in the fields. Rents in the roofless walls of
unoccupied houses stared at the passer-by. We were in a dead land.
One of two soldiers whom we met coming from the opposite direction
pointed at what looked like a small miner's cabin half covered with
earth, screened by a tree, as the next headquarters which we were
seeking in our progress.
It was not for sightseers to take the time of the general who received
us at the door of his dug-out. German guns had concentrated on a
section of his trenches in a way that indicated that another attack was
coming. One company already had suffered heavy losses. It was an
hour of responsibility for the general, isolated in the midst of silent
fields and houses, waiting for news from a region hidden from his
view by trees and hedges in that flat country. He might not move from
headquarters, for then he would be out of communication with his
command. His men were being pounded by shells and the inexorable
law of organization kept him at the rear. Up in the trench he might
have been one helpless human being in a havoc of shells which had
cut the wires. His place was where he could be in touch with his
subordinates and his superiors.
True, we wanted to go to the trench that the Germans had lost and
his section was the short cut. Modesty was not the only reason for not
taking it. As we started along a road parallel to the front, the head of a
soldier popped out of the earth and told us that orders were to walk in
the ditch. I judged that he was less concerned with our fate than with
the likelihood of our drawing fire, which he and the others in a
concealed trench would suffer after we had passed on.
There were three of us, two correspondents, L------ and myself, and
R------, an officer, which is quite enough for an expedition of this kind.
Now we were finding our own way, with the help of the large scale
army map which had every house, every farm, and every group of
trees marked. The farms had been given such names as Joffre,
Kitchener, French, Botha, and others which the Germans would not
like. We cut across fields with the same confidence that, following a
diagram of city streets in a guidebook, a man turns to the left for the
public library and to the right for the museum.
Our own guns were speaking here and there from their hiding-places;
and overhead an occasional German shrapnel burst. This seemed a
waste of the Kaiser's munitions as there was no one in sight. Yet
there was purpose in the desultory scattering of bullets from on high.
They were policing the district; they were warning the hated British in
reserve not to play cricket in those fields or march along those
The more bother in taking cover that the Germans can make the
British, the better they like it; and the British return the compliment in
kind. Anything that harasses your enemy is counted to the good. If
every shell fired had killed a man in this war, there would be no
soldiers left to fight on either side; yet never have shells been so
important in war as now. They can reach the burrowing human
beings in shelters which are bulletproof; they are the omnipresent
threat of death. The firing of shells from batteries securely hidden and
em-placed represents no cost of life to your side; only cost of
material, which ridicules the foolish conclusion that machinery and not
men count. It is because man is still the most precious machine--a
machine that money cannot reproduce--that gun-machinery is so
much in favour, and every commander wants to use shells as freely
as you use city water when you do not pay for it by meter.
Now another headquarters and another general, also isolated in a
dug-out, holding the reins of his wires over a section of line adjoining
the section we had just left. Before we proceeded we must look over
his shelter from shell-storms. The only time that British generals
become boastful is over their dug-outs. They take all the pride in
them of the man who has bought a plot of land and built himself a
home; and, like him, they keep on making improvements and calling
attention to them. I must say that this was one of the best shelters I
have seen anywhere in the tornado belt; and whatever I am not, I am
certainly an expert in dug-outs. Of course, this general, too, said, "At
your own risk!" He was good enough to send a young officer with us
up to the trenches; then we should not make any mistakes about
direction if we wanted to reach the neighbourhood of the two hundred
yards which we had taken from the Germans. When we thanked him
and said "Good-bye!" he remarked:
"We never say good-bye up here. It does not sound pleasant. Make it
au revoir." He, too, had a twinkle in his eye.
By this time, one leg ought to have been so much longer than the
other that one would have walked in a circle if he had not had a
That battery which had been near the dug-out kept on with its regular
firing, its shells sweeping overhead. We had not gone far before we
came to a board nailed to a tree, with the caution, "Keep to the right!"
If you went to the left you might be seen by the enemy, though we
were seeing nothing of him, nor of our own trenches yet. Every
square yard of this ground had been tested by actual experience, at
the cost of dead and wounded men, till safe lanes of approach had
Next was a clearing station, where the wounded are brought in from
the trenches for transfer to ambulances. A glance at the burden on a
stretcher just arrived automatically framed the word, "Shell-fire!" The
stains over-running on tanned skin beyond the edge of the white
bandage were bright in the sunlight. A khaki blouse torn open, or a
trousers leg or a sleeve cut down the seam, revealing the white of the
first aid and a splash of red, means one man wounded; and by the
ones the thousands come.
Fifty wounded men on the floor of a clearing station and the individual
is lost in the crowd. When you see the one borne past, if there is
nothing else to distract attention you always ask two questions: Will
he die? Has he been maimed for life? If the answers to both are no,
you feel a sense of triumph, as if you had seen a human play, built
skilfully around a life to arouse your emotions, turn out happily.
The man has fought in an honourable cause; he has felt the touch of
death's fingers. How happy he is when he knows that he will get well!
In prospect, as his wound heals into the scar which will be the lasting
decoration of his courage, his home and all that it means to him.
What kind of a home has he, this private soldier? In the slums, with a
slattern wife, or in a cottage with a flower garden in front, only a few
minutes' walk from the green fields of the English countryside? But
we set out to tell you about the kind of inferno in which this man got
his splash of red.
We come to the banks of a canal which has carried the traffic of the
Low Countries for many centuries; the canal where British and
French had fought many a Thermopylae in the last eight months.
Along its banks run rows of fine trees, narrowing in perspective before
the eye. Some have been cut in two by the direct hit of a heavy shell
and others splintered down, bit by bit. Others still standing have been
hit many times. There are cuts as fresh as if the chips had just flown
from the axeman's blow, and there are scars from cuts made last
autumn which nature's sap, rising as it does in the veins of wounded
men, has healed, while from the remaining branches it sent forth
leaves in answer to the call of spring.
In this section the earth is many-mouthed with caves and cut with
passages running from cave to cave, so that the inhabitants may go
and come hidden from sight. Jawbone and Hairyman and Lowbrow,
of the Stone Age, would be at home there, squatting on their hunkers
and tearing at their raw kill with their long incisors. It does not seem a
place for men who walk erect, wear woven fabrics, enjoy a written
language, and use soap and safety razors. One would not be
surprised to see some figure swing down by a long, hairy arm from a
branch of a tree and leap on all fours into one of the caves, where he
would receive a gibbering welcome to the bosom of his family.
Not so! Huddled in these holes in the earth are free-born men of an
old civilization, who read the daily papers and eat jam on their bread.
They do not want to be there, but they would not consider themselves
worthy of the inheritance of free-born men if they were not. Only
civilized man is capable of such stoicism as theirs. They have
reverted to the cave-dweller's protection because their civilization is
so highly developed that they can throw a piece of steel weighing
from eighteen to two thousand pounds anywhere from five to twenty
miles with merciless accuracy, and because the flesh of man is even
more tender than in the cave-dweller's time, not to mention that his
brain-case is a larger target.
An officer calls attention to a shell-proof shelter with the civic pride of
a member of a chamber of commerce pointing out the new Union
"Not even a high explosive"--the kind that bursts on impact after
penetration--"could get into that!" he says. "We make them for
generals and colonels and others who have precious heads on their
With material and labour, the same might have been constructed for
the soldiers, which brings us back to the question of munitions in the
economic balance against a human life. It was the first shelter of this
kind which I had seen. You never go up to the trenches without
seeing something new. The defensive is tireless in its ingenuity in
saving lives and the offensive in taking them. Safeguards and
salvage compete with destruction. And what labour all that excavation
and construction represented--the cumulative labour of months and
day-by-day repairs of the damage done by shells! After a
bombardment, dig out the filled trenches and renew the smashed
dug-outs to be ready for another go!
The walls of that communication trench were two feet above our
heads. We noticed that all the men were in their dug-outs; none were
walking about in the open. One knew the meaning of this barometer--
stormy. The German gunners were "strafing" in a very lively way this
Already we had noticed many shells bursting five or six hundred
yards away, in the direction of the new British trench; but at that
distance they do not count. Then a railroad train seemed to have
jumped the track and started to fly. Fortunately and unfortunately,
sound travels faster than big shells of low velocity; fortunately,
because it gives you time to be undignified in taking cover;
unfortunately, because it gives you a fraction of a second to reflect
whether or not that shell has your name and your number on Dug-out
I was certain that it was a big shell, of the kind that will blow a dug-out
to pieces. Anyone who had never heard a shell before would have
"scrooched," as the small boys say, as instinctively as you draw back
when the through express tears past the station. It is the kind of
scream that makes you want to roll yourself into a package about the
size of a pea, while you feel as tall and large as a cathedral, judging
by the sensation that travels down your backbone.
Once I was being hoisted up a cliff in a basket, when the rope on the
creaking windlass above slipped a few inches. Well, it is like that, or
like taking a false step on the edge of a precipice. Is the clock about
to strike twelve or not? Not this time! The burst was thirty yards away,
along the path we had just traversed, and the sound was like the
burst of a shell and like nothing else in the world, just as the swirling,
boring, growing scream of a shell is like no other scream in the world.
A gigantic hammer-head sweeps through the air and breaks a steel
If we had come along half a minute later we should have had a better
view, and perhaps now we should have been on a bed in a hospital
worrying how we were going to pay the rent, or in the place where,
hopefully, we shall have no worries at all. Between walls of earth the
report was deadened to our ears in the same way as a revolver
report in an adjoining room; and not much earth had gone down the
backs of our necks from the concussion.
Looking over the parapet, we saw a cloud of thick, black smoke; and
we heard the outcry of a man who had been hit. That was all. The
shell might have struck nearer without our having seen or heard any
more. Shut in by the gallery walls, one knows as little of what
happens in an adjoining cave as a clam buried in the sand knows of
what is happening to a neighbour clam. A young soldier came half-
stumbling into the nearest dug-out. He was shaking his head and
batting his ears as if he had sand in them. Evidently he was returning
to his home cave from a call on a neighbour which had brought him
close to the burst.
"That must have been about six or seven-inch," I said to the officer,
trying to be moderate and casual in my estimate, which is the correct
form on such occasions. My actual impression was forty-inch.
"Nine-inch, h.e.," replied the expert.
This was gratifying. It was the first time that I had been so near to a
nine-inch-shell explosion. Its "eat 'em-alive" frightfulness was
depressing. But the experience was worth having. You want all the
experiences there are--but only "close." A delightful word that word
close, at the front!
The Germans were generous that afternoon. Another scream
seemed aimed at my head. L------ disagreed with me; he said that it
was aimed at his. We did not argue the matter to the point of a
personal quarrel, for it might have got both our heads. It burst back of
the trench about as far away as the other shell. After all, a trench is a
pretty narrow ribbon, even on a gunner's large scale map, to hit. It is
wonderful how, firing at such long range, he is able to hit a trench at
This was all of the nine-inch variety for the time being. We got some
fours and fives as we walked along. Three bursting as near together
as the ticks of a clock made almost no smoke, as they brought some
tree limbs down and tore away a section of a trunk. Then the
thunderstorm moved on to another part of the line. Only, unlike the
thunderstorms of nature, this, which is man-made and controlled as a
fireman controls the nozzle of his hose, may sweep back again and
yet again over its path. All depends upon the decision of a German
artillery officer, just as whether or not a flower-bed shall get another
sprinkle depends upon the will of the gardener.
We were glad to turn out of the support trench into a communication
trench leading toward the front trench; into another gallery cut deep in
the fields, with scattered shell-pits on either side. Still more soldiers,
leaning against the walls or seated with their legs stretched out
across the bottom of the ditch; more waiting soldiers, only strung out
in a line and as used to the passing of shells as people living along
the elevated railroad line to the passing of trains. They did not look up
at the screams boring the air any more than one who lives under the
trains looks up every time that one passes. Theirs was the passivity
of a queue waiting in line before the entrance to a theatre or a ball-
A senator or a lawyer, used to coolness in debate, or to presiding
over great meetings, or to facing crowds, who happened to visit the
trenches could have got reassurance from the faces of any one of
these private soldiers, who had been trained not to worry about death
till death came. Harrowing every one of these screams, taken by
itself. Instinctively, unnecessarily, you dodged at those which were
low--unnecessarily, because they were from British guns. No danger
from them unless there was a short fuse. To the soldiers, the low
screams brought the delight of having blows struck from their side at
the enemy, whom they themselves could not strike from their reserve
For we were under the curving sweep of both the British and the
German shells, as they passed in the air on the way to their targets. It
was like standing between two railway tracks with trains going in
opposite directions. You came to differentiate between the
multitudinous screams. "Ours!" you exclaimed, with the same delight
as when you see that your side has the ball. The spirit of battle
contest rose in you. There was an end of philosophy. These soldiers
in the trenches were your partisans. Every British shell was working
for them and for you, giving blow for blow.
The score of the contest of battle is in men down; in killed and
wounded. For every man down on your side you want two men down
on the enemy's. Sport ceases. It is the fight against a burglar with a
revolver in his hand and a knife between his teeth; and a wounded
man brought along the trench, a visible, intimate proof of a hit by the
enemy, calls for more and harder blows.
Looking over the parapet of the communication trench you saw fields,
lifeless except for the singing birds in the wheat, who had also the
spirit of battle. The more shells, the more they warble. It was always
so on summer days. Between the screams you hear their full-pitched
chorus, striving to make itself heard in competition with the song of
German invasion and British resistance. Mostly, the birds seemed to
take cover like mankind; but I saw one sweep up from the golden sea
of ripening grain toward the men-brothers with their wings of cloth.
Was this real, or was it extravaganza? Painted airships and a painted
summer sky? The audacity of those British airmen! Two of them were
spotting the work of British guns by their shell-bursts and watching for
gun-flashes which would reveal concealed German battery-positions,
and whispering results by wireless to their own batteries.
It is a great game. Seven or eight thousand feet high, directly over the
British planes, is a single Taube cruising for the same purpose. It
looks like a beetle with gossamer wings suspended from a light cloud.
The British aviators are so low that the bull's-eye identification marks
are distinctly visible to the naked eye. They are playing in and out, like
the short stop and second baseman around second, there in the very
arc of the passing shells from both sides fired at other targets. But
scores of other shells are most decidedly meant for them. In the
midst of a lacework of puffs of shrapnel-bursts, which slowly spread in
the still air, from the German anti-aircraft guns, they dip and rise and
turn in skilful dodging. At length, one retires for good; probably his
plane-cloth has become too much like a sieve from shrapnel-
fragments to remain aloft longer.
Come down, Herr Taube, come down where we can have a shot at
you I Get in the game! You can see better at the altitude of the British
airmen! But Herr Taube always stays high--the Br'er Fox of the air. Of
course, it was not so exciting as the pictures that artists draw, but it
Every kind of shell was being fired, low and high velocity, small and
large calibre. One-two-three-four in as quick succession as the roll of
a drum, four German shells burst in line up in the region where we
have made ourselves masters of the German trench. British shells
But I had already ducked before I spoke, as you might if a pellet of
steel weighing a couple of hundred pounds, going at the rate of a
thousand yards a second or more, passed within a few yards of your
head--ducked to find myself looking into the face of a soldier who was
smiling. The smile was not scornful, but it was at least amused at the
expense of the sightseer who had dodged one of our own shells. In
addition to the respirators in case of a possible gas attack, supplied
by that staff officer with a twinkle in his eye, we needed a steel rod
fastened to the back of our necks and running down our spinal
columns in order to preserve our dignity.
We were witnessing what is called the "artillery preparation for an
infantry attack," which was to try to recover that two hundred yards of
trench from the British. Only the Germans did not limit their attention
to the lost trench. It was hottest there around the bend of our line,
from our view-point; for there they must maul the trench into formless
debris and cut the barbed wire in front of it before the charge was
"They touch up all the trenches in the neighbourhood to keep us
guessing," said the officer, "before they make their final
concentration. So it's pretty thick around this part."
"Which might include the communication trench?"
"Certainly. This makes a good line shot. No doubt they will spare us a
few when they think it is our turn. We do the same thing. So it goes."
From the variety of screams of big shells and little shells and screams
harrowingly close and reassuringly high, which were indicated as
ours, one was warranted in suggesting that the British were doing
considerable artillery preparation themselves.
"We must give them as good as they send--and better."
Better seemed correct.
"Those close ones you hear are doubtless meant for the front
German trench, which accounts for their low trajectory; the others for
their support trenches or any battery-positions that our planes have
located." We could not see where the British shells were striking. We
could judge only of the accuracy of some of the German fire.
Considering the storm being visited on the support trench which we
had just left, we were more than ever glad to be out of it. Artillery is
the war burglar's jemmy; but it has to batter the house into ruins and
blow up the safe and kill most of the family before the burglar can
enter. Clouds of dust rose from the explosions; limbs of trees were
lopped off by tornadoes of steel hail.
"There! Look at that tree!"
In front of a portion of the British support trench a few of a line of
stately shade trees were still standing. A German shell, about an
eight-inch, one judged, struck fairly in the trunk of one about the
same height from the ground as the lumberman sinks his axe in the
bark. The shimmer of hot gas spread out from the point of explosion.
Through it as through an aureole one saw that twelve inches of green
wood had been cut in two as neatly as a thistle-stem is severed by a
sharp blow from a walking-stick. The body of the tree was carried
across the splintered stump with crushing impact from the power of
its flight, plus the power of the burst of the explosive charge which
broke the shell-jacket into slashing fragments; and the towering
column of limbs, branches, and foliage laid its length on the ground
with a majestic dignity. Which shows what one shell can do, one of
three which burst not far away at the same time. In time, the shells
would get all the trees; make them into chips and splinters and
"I'd rather that it would hit a tree-trunk than my trunk," said L------.
"But you would not have got it as badly as the tree," said the officer
reassuringly. "The substance would have been too soft for sufficient
impact for a burst. It would have gone right through!"
More Best Day
At battalion headquarters in the front trenches the battalion surgeon
had just amputated an arm which had been mauled by a shell.
"Without any anaesthetic," he explained. "No chance if we sent him
back to the hospital. He would die on the way. Stood it very well.
Already chirking up."
A family practitioner at home, the doctor, when the war began, had
left his practice to go with his Territorial battalion. He retains the
family practitioner's cheery, assuring manner. He is the kind of man
who makes you feel better immediately he comes into the sick-room;
who has already made you forget yourself when he puts his finger
on your pulse.
"The same thing that we might have done in the Crimea," he
continued, "only we have antiseptics now. It's wonderful how little you
can work with and how excellent the results. Strong, healthy men,
these, with great recuperative power and discipline and resolution--
very different patients from those we usually operate on."
Tea was served inside the battalion commander's dugout. Tea is as
essential every afternoon to the British as ice to the average
American in summer. They do not think of getting on without it if they
can possibly have it, and it is part of the rations. As well take
cigarettes away from those who smoke as tea from the British soldier.
It was very much like tea outside the trenches, so far as any signs of
perturbation about shells and casualties were concerned. In that the
battalion commander had to answer telegrams, it had the aspect of a
busy man's sandwich at his desk for luncheon. Good news to cheer
the function had just come over the network of wires which connects
up the whole army, from trenches to headquarters--good news in the
midst of the shells.
German West Africa had fallen. Botha, who was fighting against the
British fifteen years ago, had taken it fighting for the British. A
suggestive thought that. It is British character that brings enemies like
Botha into the fold; the old, good-natured, sportsmanlike live-and-let-
live idea, which has something to do with keeping the United States
intact. A board with the news on it in German was put up over the
British trenches. Naturally, the board was shot full of holes; for it is
clear that the Germans are not yet ready to come into the British
"Hans and Jacob we have named them," said the colonel, referring to
two Germans who were buried back of his dug-out. "It's dull up here
when the Boches are not shelling, so we let our imaginations play.
We hold conversations with Hans and Jacob in our long watches.
Hans is fat and cheerful and trusting. He believes every thing that the
Kaiser tells him and has a cheerful disposition. But Jacob is a
professor and a fearful 'strafer.' It seems a little gruesome, doesn't it,
but not after you have been in the trenches for a while."
A little gruesome--true! Not in the trenches--true, too! Where all is
satire, no incongruity seems out of place. Life plays in and out with
death; they intermingle; they look each other in the face and say: "I
know you. We dwell together. Let us smile when we may, at what we
may, to hide the character of our comradeship; for to-morrow------"
Only half an hour before one of the officers had been shot through
the head by a sniper. He was a popular officer. The others had
messed with him and marched with him and known him in the
fullness of affection of comradeship in arms and dangers shared. A
heartbreak for some home in England. No one dwelt on the incident.
What was there to say? The trembling lip, trembling in spite of itself,
was the only outward sign of the depth of feeling that words could not
reflect, at tea in the dug-out. The subject was changed to something
about the living. One must carry on cheerfully; one must be on the
alert; one must play his part serenely, unflinchingly, for the sake of the
nerves around him and for his own sake. Such fortitude becomes
automatic, it would seem. Please, I must not hesitate about having a
slice of cake. They managed cake without any difficulty up there in
the trenches. And who if not men in the trenches was entitled to cake,
I should like to know? "It was here that he was hit," another officer
said, as we moved on in the trench. "He was saying that the
sandbags were a little weak and a bullet might go through and catch
a man who thought himself safely under cover as he walked along.
He had started to fix the sandbags himself when he got it. The bullet
came right through the top of one of the bags in front of him."
A bullet makes the merciful wound; and a bullet through the head is a
simple way of going. The bad wounds come mostly from shells; but
there is something about seeing anyone hit by a sniper which is more
horrible. It is a cold-blooded kind of killing, more suggestive of
murder, this single shot from a sharpshooter waiting as patiently as a
cat for a mouse, aimed definitely to take the life of a man.
Again we move on in that narrow cut of earth with its waiting soldiers,
which the world knows so well from reading tours of the trenches. No
one not on watch might show his head on an afternoon like this. The
men were prisoners between those walls of earth; not even
spectators of what the guns were doing; simply moles. They took it all
as a part of the day's work, with that singular, redoubtable
combination of British phlegm and cheerfulness.
Of course, some of them were eating bread and marmalade and
making tea. Where all the marmalade goes which Mr. Atkins uses for
his personal munition in fighting the Germans puzzles the Army
Service Corps, whose business it is to see that he is never without it.
How could he sit so calmly under shell-fire without marmalade?
Never! He would get fidgety and forget his lesson, I am sure, like the
boy who had the button which he was used to fingering removed
before he went to recite.
Any minute a shell may come. Mr. Atkins does not think of that. Time
enough to think after it has arrived. Then perhaps the burial party will
be doing your thinking for you; or if not, the doctors and the nurses
who look after you will.
I noted certain acts of fellowship of comrades who are all in the same
boat and have learned unselfishness. When they got up to let you
pass and you smiled your thanks, you received a much pleasanter
smile in return than you will from many a well-fed gentleman who has
to stand aside to let you enter a restaurant. The manners of the
trenches are good, better than in some places where good manners
are a cult.
There is no better place to send a spoiled, undisciplined, bumptious
youth than to a British trench. He will learn that there are other men in
the world besides himself and that a shell can kill a rich brute or a
selfish brute as readily as a poor man. Democracy there is in the
trenches; the democracy where all men are in the presence of death
and "hazing" parties need not be organized among the students.
But there is another and a greater element in the practical psychology
of the trenches. These good-natured men, fighting the bitterest kind
of warfare without the signs of brutality which we associate with the
prize-fighter and the bully in their faces, know why they are fighting.
They consider that their duty is in that trench, and that they could not
have a title to manhood if they were not there. After the war the men
who have been in the trenches will rule England. Their spirit and their
thinking will fashion the new trend of civilization, and the men who
have not fought will bear the worst scars from the war.
Ridiculous it is that men should be moles, perhaps; but at the same
time there is something sublime in the fellowship of their courage and
purpose, as they "sit and take it," or guard against attacks, without
the passion of battle of the old days of excited charges and quick
results, and watch the toll pass by from hour to hour. Borne by
comrades pick-a-back we saw the wounded carried along that
passage too narrow for a litter. A splash of blood, a white bandage, a
For the second permissible--periscopes are tempting targets--I
looked through one over the top of the parapet. Another film! A big
British lyddite shell went crashing into the German parapet. The dust
from sandbags and dug-outs merged into an immense cloud of ugly,
black smoke. As the cloud rose, one saw the figure of a German dart
out of sight; then nothing was visible but the gap which the explosion
had made. No wise German would show himself. British snipers were
watching for him. At least half a dozen, perhaps a score, of men had
been put out by this single "direct hit" of an h.e. (high explosive). Yes,
the British gunners were shooting well, too. Other periscopic glimpses
Through the periscope we learned also that the two lines of sandbags
of German and British trenches were drawing nearer together.
Another wounded man was brought by.
"They're bombing up ahead. He has just been hit." As we drew aside
to make room for him to pass, once more the civilian realized his
helplessness and unimportance. One soldier was worth ten Prime
Ministers in that place. We were as conspicuously mal a propos as an
outsider at a bank directors' meeting or in a football scrimmage. The
officer politely reminded us of the necessity of elbow room in the
narrow quarters for the bombers, who were hidden from view by the
zigzag traverses, and I was not sorry, though perhaps my
companions were. If so, they did not say so, not being talkative men.
We were not going to see the two hundred yards of captured trench
that were beyond the bombing action, after all. Oh, the twinkle in that
staff officer's eye!
"A Boche gas shell!" we were told, as we passed an informal
excavation in the communication trench on our way back.
"Asphyxiating effect. No time to put on respirators when one
explodes. Laid out half a dozen men like fish, gasping for air, but they
"The Boches want us to hurry!" exclaimed L------.
They were giving the communication trench a turn at "strafing," now,
and shells were urgently dropping behind us. There was no use trying
to respond to one's natural inclination to run away from the pursuing
shower when you had to squeeze past soldiers as you went.
"But look at what we are going into! This is like beating up grouse to
the guns, and we are the birds! I am wondering if I like it."
We could tell what had happened in our absence in the support
trench by the litter of branches and leaves and by the excavations
made by shells. It was still happening, too. Another nine-inch, with
your only view of surroundings the wall of earth which you hugged.
Crash--and safe again!
"Pretty!" L------ said, smiling. He was referring to the cloud of black
smoke from the burst. Pretty is a favourite word of his. I find that men
use habitual exclamations on such occasions. R------, also smiling,
had said, "A black business, this!" a favourite expression with him.
"Yes--pretty!" R------and I exclaimed together.
L------took a sliver off his coat and offered it to us as a souvenir. He
did not know that he had said "Pretty!" or R------ that he had said "A
black business!" several times that afternoon; nor did I know that I
had exclaimed, "For the love of Mike!" Psychologists take notice; and
golfers are reminded that their favourite expletives when they foozle
will come perfectly natural to them when the Germans are "strafing."
Then another nine-inch, when we were out of the gallery in front of
the warrens. My companions happened to be near a dug-out. They
did not go in tandem, but abreast. It was a "dead heat." All that I could
see in the way of cover was a wall of sandbags, which looked about
as comforting as tissue paper in such a crisis.
At least, one faintly realized what it meant to be in the support
trenches, where the men were still huddled in their caves. They never
get a shot at the enemy or a chance to throw a bomb, unless they are
sent forward to assist the front trenches in resisting an attack. It is for
this purpose that they are kept within easy reach of the front
trenches. They are like the prisoner tied to a chair-back, facing a gun.
"Yes, this was pretty heavy shell-fire," said an officer who ought to
know. "Not so bad as on the trenches which the infantry are to attack
--that is the first degree. You might call this the second."
It was heavy enough to keep any writer from being bored. The
second degree will do. We will leave the first until another time.
Later, when we were walking along a paved road, I heard again what
seemed the siren call of a nine-inch.
Once, in another war, I had been on a paved road when--well, I did
not care to be on this one if a nine-inch hit it and turned fragments of
paving-stones into projectiles. An effort to "run out the bunt"--Caesar's
ghost! It was one of our own shells! Nerves! Shame! Two stretcher-
bearers with a wounded man looked up in surprise, wondering what
kind of a hide-and-seek game we were playing. They made a picture
of imperturbability of the kind that is a cure for nerves under fire.
If the other fellow is not scared it does not do for you to be scared.
"Did you get any shells in your neighbourhood?" we asked the
chauffeur--also British and imperturbable--whom we found waiting at
a clearing station for wounded.
"Yes, sir, I saw several, but none hit the car."
As we came to the first cross-roads in that dead land back of the
trenches which was still being shelled by shrapnel, though not
another car was in sight, and ours had no business there (as we were
told afterwards), that chauffeur, as he slowed up before turning, held
out his hand from habit as he would have done in Piccadilly.
Two or three days later things were normal along the front again, with
Mr. Atkins still stuffing himself with marmalade in that two hundred
yards of trench.
Winning And Losing
Seeming an immovable black line set as a frontier in peace, that
Western front on your map which you bought early in the war in
anticipation of rearranging the flags in keeping with each day's news
was, in reality, a pulsating, changing line.
At times you thought of it as an enormous rope under the constant
pressure of soldiers on either side, who now and then, with an "all
together" of a tug-of-war at a given point, straightened or made a
bend, with the result imperceptible except as you measured it by a
tree or a house. Battles as severe as the most important in South
Africa, battles severe enough to have decided famous campaigns in
Europe in former days, when one king rode forth against another,
became landmark incidents of the give and take, the wrangling and
the wrestling of siege operations.
The sensation of victory or defeat for those engaged was none the
less vivid because victory meant the gain of so little ground and
defeat the loss of so little; perhaps the more vivid in want of the
movement of pursuing or of being pursued in the shock of arms as in
past times, when an army front hardly covered that of one brigade in
the trenches. For winners and losers, returning to their billets in
French villages as other battalions took their places, had time to think
over the action.
The offensive was mostly with the British through the summer of
1915; any thrust by the Germans was usually to retake a section of
trenches which they had lost. But our attacks did not all succeed, of
Battalions knew success and failure; and their narratives were mine
to share, just as one would share the good luck or the bad luck of his
You may have a story of heartbreak or triumph an hour after you
have been chatting with playing children in a village street, as the car
speeds toward the zone where reserves are billeted and the
occasional shell is a warning that peace lies behind you. First, we
alighted near the headquarters of two battalions which have been in
an attack that failed. The colonel of the one to the left of the road was
killed. We went across the fields to the right. Among the surviving
officers resting in their shelter tents, where there is plenty of room
now, is the adjutant, tall, boyish, looking tired, but still with no
outward display of what he has gone through and what it has meant
to him. I have seen him by the hundreds, this buoyant type of English
In army language, theirs had not been a "good show." We had heard
the account of it with that matter-of-fact prefix from G.H.Q., where
they took results with the necessarily cold eye of logic. The two
battalions were set to take a trench; that was all. In the midst of
merciless shell-fire they had waited for their own guns to draw all the
teeth out of the trench. When the given moment came they swept
forward. But our artillery had not "connected up" properly.
The German machine-guns were not out of commission, and for
them it was like working a loom playing bullets back and forth across
the zone of a hundred yards which the British had to traverse. The
British had been told to charge and they charged. Theirs not to
reason why; that was the glory of the thing. Nothing more gallant in
warfare than their persistence, till they found that it was like trying to
swim in a cataract of lead. One officer got within fifty yards of the
German parapet before he fell. At last they realized that it could not
be done--later than they should, but they were a proud regiment, and
though they had been too brave, there was something splendid about
With a soldier's winning frankness and simplicity they told what had
happened. Even before they charged they knew the machine-guns
were in place; they knew what they had to face. One man spoke of
seeing, as they lay waiting, a German officer standing up in the midst
of the British shell-fire.
"A stout-hearted fighter I We had to admire him!" said the adjutant.
It was a chivalrous thought with a deep appeal, considering what he
had been through. Oh, these English! They will not hate; they cannot
be separated from their sense of sportsmanship.
It was not the first time the guns had not "connected up" for either
side, and German charges on many occasions had met a like fate.
Calm enough, these officers, true to their birthright of phlegm. They
did not make excuses. Success is the criterion of battle. They had
failed. Their unblinking recognition of the fact was a sort of self-
punishment which cut deep into your own sensitiveness. One young
lieutenant could not keep his lip from trembling over that naked, grim
thought. Pride of regiment had been struck a whip-blow, which meant
more to the soldier than any injury to his personal pride.
But next time! They wanted another try for that trench, these
survivors. No matter about anything else--the battalion must have
another chance. You appreciated this from a few words and more
from the stubborn resolution in the bearing of all. There was no "let-
us-at-'em-again" frightfulness. In order to end this war you must "lick"
one side or the other, and these men were not "licked." You were
sorry that you had gone to see them. It was like lacerating a wound.
One could only assure them, in his faith in their gallantry, that they
would win next time. And oh, how you wanted them to win! They
deserved to win because they were such manly losers.
At home in their rough wooden houses in camp we found a battalion
which had won--the same undemonstrative type as the one that had
lost; the same simplicity and kindly hospitality, which gives life at the
front a charm in the midst of its tragedy, from these men of one of the
dependable line regiments. This colonel knew the other colonel, and
he said about the other what his fellow-officers had said: it was not his
fault; he was a good man. If the guns were not "on," what happened
to him was bound to happen to anybody. They had been "on" for the
winning battalion; perfectly "on." They had buried the machine-guns
and the Germans with them.
When a man goes into the kind of charge that either battalion made
he gives himself up for lost. The psychology is simple. You are going
to keep on until------!
Well, as Mr. Atkins has remarked in his own terse way, a battle was a
lot of noise all around you and suddenly a big bang in your ear; and
then somebody said, "please open your mouth and take this!" and
you found yourself in a white, quiet place full of cots.
The winning battalion was amazed how easily the thing was done.
They had "walked in." They were a little surprised to be alive--thanks
to the guns. "Here we are! Here we are again!" as the song at the
front goes. It is all a lottery. Make up your mind to draw the death
number; and if you don't, that is "velvet." Army courage these days is
highly sensitized steel in response to will.
They had won; there was a credit mark in the regimental record. All
had won; nobody in particular, but the battalion, the lot of them. They
did not boast about it. The thing just happened. They were alive and
enjoying the sheer fact of life, writing letters home, rereading letters
from home, looking at the pictures in illustrated papers, as they
leaned back and smoked their brier-wood pipes and discussed
politics with that freedom and directness of opinion which is an
Englishman's pastime and his birthright.
The captain who was describing the fight had retired from the army,
gone into business, and returned as a reserve officer. The guns were
to stop firing at a given moment. As the minute-hand lay over the
figure on his wrist-watch he dashed for the broken parapet, still in the
haze of dust from shell-bursts, to find not a German in sight. All were
under cover. He enacted the ridiculous scene with humorous
appreciation of how he came face to face with a German as he
turned a traverse. He was ready with his revolver and the other was
not, and the other was his prisoner.
There was nothing gruesome about listening to a diffident soldier
explaining how he "bombed them out," and you shared his
amusement over the surprise of a German who stuck up his head
from a dug-out within a foot of the face of a British soldier who was
peeping inside to see if any more Germans were at home. You
rejoiced with this battalion. Victory is sweet.
When on the way back to quarters you passed some of the new army
men, "the Keetcheenaires," as the French call them, you were
reminded that although the war was old the British army was young.
There was a "Watch our city grow!" atmosphere about it. Little by
little, some great force seemed steadily pushing up from the rear. It
made that business institution at G.H.Q. feel like bankers with an
enormous, increasing surplus. In this the British is like no other army.
One has watched it in the making.
The Maple Leaf Folk
These were "home folks" to the American. You might know all by their
maple-leaf symbol; but even before you saw that, with its bronze
none too prominent against the khaki, you knew those who were not
recent emigrants from England to Canada by their accent and by
certain slang phrases which pay no customs duty at the border.
When, on a dark February night cruising in a slough of a road, I heard
out of a wall of blackness back of the trenches, "Gee! Get on to the
bus!" which referred to our car, and also, "Cut out the noise!" I was
certain that I might dispense with an interpreter. After I had remarked
that I came from New York, which is only across the street from
Montreal as distances go in our countries, the American batting about
the front at midnight was welcomed with a "glad hand" across that
imaginary line which has and ever shall have no fortresses.
What a strange place to find Canadians--at the front in Europe! I
could never quite accommodate myself to the wonder of a man from
Winnipeg, and perhaps a "neutral" from Wyoming in his company,
fighting Germans in Flanders. A man used to a downy couch and an
easy chair by the fire and steam-heated rooms, who had ten
thousand a year in Toronto, when you found him in a chill, damp
cellar of a peasant's cottage in range of the enemy's shells was
getting something more than novel, if not more picturesque, than
dog-mushing and prospecting on the Yukon; for we are quite used to
All I asked of the Canadians was to allow a little of the glory they had
won--they had such a lot--to rub off on their neighbours. If there must
be war, and no Canadian believed in it as an institution, why, to my
mind, the Canadians did a fine thing for civilization's sake. It hurt
sometimes to think that we also could not be in the fight for the good
cause, particularly after the Lusitania was sunk, when my own
feelings had lost all semblance of neutrality.
The Canadians enlivened life at the front; for they have a little more
zip to them than the thorough-going British. Their climate spells
"hustle," and we are all the product of climate to a large degree,
whether in England, on the Mississippi flatlands, or in Manitoba.
Eager and high-strung the Canadian born, quick to see and to act.
Very restless they were when held up on Salisbury Plain, after they
had come three-four-five-six thousand miles to fight and there was
nothing to fight but mud in an English winter.
One from the American contingent knew what ailed them; they
wanted action. They may have seemed undisciplined to a drill
sergeant; but the kind of discipline they needed was a sight of the real
thing. They wanted to know, What for? And Lord Kitchener was
kinder to them, though many were beginners, than to his own new
army; he could be, as they were ready with guns and equipment. So
he sent them over to France before it was too late in the spring to get
frozen feet from standing in icy water looking over a parapet at a
German parapet. They liked Flanders mud better than Salisbury Plain
mud, because it meant that there was "something doing."
It was in their first trenches that I saw them, and they were "on the
job, all right," in face of scattered shell-fire and the sweep of
searchlights and flares. They had become the most ardent of pupils,
for here was that real thing which steadied them and proved their
They refashioned their trenches and drained them with the
fastidiousness of good housekeepers who had a frontiersman's
experience for an inheritance. In a week they appeared to be old
hands at the business.
"Their discipline is different from ours," said a British general, "but it
works out. They are splendid. I ask for no better troops."
They may have lacked the etiquette of discipline of British regulars,
but they had the natural discipline of self-reliance and of "go to it"
when a crisis came. This trench was only an introduction, a
preparation for a thing which was about as real as ever fell to the lot
of any soldiers. It is not for me to tell here the story of their part in
the second battle of Ypres, when the gas fumes rolled in upon them.
I should like to tell it and also the story of the deeds of many British
regiments, from the time of Mons to Festubert. All Canada knows it in
detail from their own correspondents and their record officer. England
will one day know about her regiments; her stubborn regiments of the
line, her county regiments, who have won the admiration of all the
crack regiments, whether English or Scots.
"When that gas came along," said one Canadian, who expressed the
Canadian spirit, "we knew the Boches were springing a new one on
us. You know how it is if a man is hit in the face by a cloud of smoke
when he is going into a burning building to get somebody out. He
draws back--and then he goes in. We went in. We charged--well, it
was the way we felt about it. We wanted to get at them and we were
boiling mad over such a dastardly kind of attack."
Higher authorities than any civilian have testified to how that charge
helped, if it did not save, the situation. And then at Givenchy--straight
work into the enemy's trenches under the guns. Canada is part of the
British Empire and a precious part; but the Canadians, all imperial
politics aside, fought their way into the affection of the British army, if
they did not already possess it. They made the Rocky Mountains
seem more majestic and the Thousand Islands more lovely.
If there are some people in the United States busy with their own
affairs who look on the Canadians as living up north somewhere
toward the Arctic Circle and not very numerous, that old criterion of
worth which discovers in the glare of battle's publicity merit which
already existed has given to the name Canadian a glory which can be
appreciated only with the perspective of time. The Civil War left us a
martial tradition; they have won theirs. Some day a few of their neutral
neighbours who fought by their side will be joining in their army
reunions and remarking, "Wasn't that mud in Flanders------" etc.
My thanks to the Canadians for being at the front. They brought me
back to the plains and the North-West, and they showed the
Germans on some occasions what a blizzard is like when expressed
in bullets instead of in snowflakes, by men who know how to shoot. I
had continental pride in them. They had the dry, pungent philosophy
and the indomitable optimism which the air of the plains and the St.
Lawrence valley seems to develop. They were not afraid to be a little
emotional and sentimental. There is room for that sort of thing
between Vancouver and Halifax. They had been in some "tough
scraps" which they saw clear-eyed, as they would see a boxing-
match or a spill from a canoe into a Canadian rapids.
As for the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, old soldiers of
the South African campaign almost without exception, knowing and
hardened, their veteran experience gave them an earlier opportunity
in the trenches than the first Canadian division. Brigaded with British
regulars, the Princess Pat's were a sort of corps d'elite. Colonel
Francis Farquhar, known as "Fanny," was their colonel, and he knew
his men. After he was killed his spirit remained with them. Asked if
they could stick they said, "Yes, sir!" cheerily, as he would have
wanted them to say it.
I am going to tell the story of their fight of May 8th, not to single them
out from any other Canadian battalion, or any British battalions, but
because the story came to me and it seemed illuminative of what
other battalions had endured, this one picturesquely because of its
membership and its distance from home.
Losses in that Ypres salient at St. Eloi the P.P.s had suffered in the
winter, dribbling, day-by-day losses, and heavier ones when they had
made attacks and repulsed attacks. They had been holding down the
lid of hell heretofore, as one said graphically, and on May 8th, to use
his simile again, they held on to the edge of the opening by the skin of
their teeth and looked down into the bowels of hell after the Germans
had blown the lid off with high explosives.
It was in a big chateau that I heard the story--a story characteristic of
modern warfare at its highest pitch--and felt its thrill when told by the
tongues of its participants. There were twenty bedrooms in that
chateau. If I wished to stay all night I might occupy three or four. As
for the bathroom, paradise to men who have been buried in filthy mud
by high explosives, the Frenchman who planned it had the most
spacious ideas of immersion. A tub, or a shower, or a hose, as you
pleased. Some bathroom, that!
For nothing in the British army was too good for the Princess Pat's
before May 8th; and since May 8th nothing is quite good enough. Ask
the generals in whose command they have served if you have any
doubts. There is one way to win praise at the front: by fighting. The
P.P.s knew the way.
"Too bad Gault is not here. He's in England recovering from his
wound. Gault is six feet tall and five feet of him legs. All day in that
trench with a shell-wound in his thigh and arm. God! How he was
suffering! But not a moan, his face twitching and trying to make the
twitch into a smile, and telling us to stick.
"Buller away, too. He was the second in command. Gault succeeded
him. Buller was hit on May 5th and missed the big show--piece of
shell in the eye."
"And Charlie Stewart, who was shot through the stomach. How we
miss him! If ever there were a 'live-wire' it's Charlie. Up or down, he's
smiling and ready for the next adventure. Once he made thirty
thousand dollars in the Yukon and spent it on the way to Vancouver.
The first job he could get was washing dishes; but he wasn't washing
them long. Again, he started out in the North-West on an expedition
with four hundred traps, to cut into the fur business of the Hudson
Bay Company. His Indians got sick. He wouldn't desert them, and
before he was through he had a time which beat anything yet opened
up for us by the Germans in Flanders. But you have heard such
stories from the North-West before. Being shot through the stomach
the way he was, all the doctors agreed that Charlie would die. It was
like Charlie to disagree with them. He always had his own point of
view. So he is getting well. Charlie came out to the war with the
packing-case which had been used by his grandfather, who was an
officer in the Crimean War. He said that it would bring him luck."
The 4th of May was bad enough, a ghastly forerunner for the 8th. On
the 4th the P.P.s, after having been under shell-fire throughout the
second battle of Ypres, the "gas battle," were ordered forward to a
new line to the south-east of Ypres. To the north of Ypres the British
line had been driven back by the concentration of shell-fire and the
rolling, deadly march of the clouds of asphyxiating gas.
The Germans were still determined to take the town, which they had
showered with four million dollars' worth of shells. It would be big
news: the fall of Ypres as a prelude to the fall of Przemysl and of
Lemberg in their summer campaign of 1915. A wicked salient was
produced in the British line to the south-east by the cave-in to the
north. It seems to be the lot of the P.P.s to get into salients. On the
4th they lost twenty-eight men killed and ninety-eight wounded from a
gruelling all-day shell-fire and stone-walling. That night they got relief
and were out for two days, when they were back in the front trenches
again. The 5th and the 6th were fairly quiet; that is, what the P.P.s or
Mr. Thomas Atkins would call quiet. Average mortals wouldn't. They
would try to appear unconcerned and say they had been under pretty
heavy fire, which means shells all over the place and machine-guns
combing the parapet. Very dull, indeed. Only three men killed and
On the night of May 7th the P.P.s had a muster of six hundred and
thirty-five men. This was a good deal less than half of the original total
in the battalion, including recruits who had come out to fill the gaps
caused by death, wounds, and sickness. Bear in mind that before this
war a force was supposed to prepare for retreat with a loss of ten per
cent, and get under way to the rear with the loss of fifteen per cent,
and that with the loss of thirty per cent, it was supposed to have
borne all that can be expected of the best trained soldiers.
The Germans were quiet that night, suggestively quiet. At 4.30 a.m.
the prelude began; by 5.30 the German gunners had fairly warmed to
their work. They were using every kind of shell they had in the locker.
Every signal wire the P.P.s possessed had been cut. The brigade
commander could not know what was happening to them and they
could not know his wishes; except that it may be taken for granted
that the orders of any British brigade commander are always to "stick
it." The shell-fire was as thick at the P.P.s' backs as in front of them;
they were fenced in by it. And they were infantry taking what the guns
gave in order to put them out of business so that the way would be
clear for the German infantry to charge. In theory they ought to have
been buried and mangled beyond the power of resistance by what is
called "the artillery preparation for the infantry in attack."
Every man of the P.P.s knew what was coming. There was relief in
their hearts when they saw the Germans break from their trenches
and start down the slope of the hill in front. Now they could take it out
of the German infantry in payment for what the German guns were
doing to them. This was their only thought. Being good shots, with the
instinct of the man who is used to shooting at game, the P.P.s "shoot
to kill" and at individual targets. The light green of the German
uniform is more visible on the deep green background of spring grass
and foliage than against the tints of autumn. At two or three or four
hundred yards neither Corporal Christy, the old bear-hunter, lying on
the parapet nor other marksmen of the P.P.s could miss their marks.
They kept on knocking down Germans; they didn't know that men
around them were being hit; they did not know they were being
shelled except when a burst shook their aim or filled their eyes with
dust. In that case they wiped the dust out of their eyes and went on.
The first that many of them realized that the German attack was
broken was when they saw green blots in front of the standing
figures, which were now going in the other direction. Then the thing
was to keep as many of these as possible from returning over the hill.
After that they could dress the wounded and make the dying a little
more comfortable. For there was no taking the wounded to the rear.
They had to remain there in the trench perhaps to be wounded again,
spectators of their comrades' valour without the preoccupation of
In the official war journal where a battalion keeps its records--that
precious historical document which will be safeguarded in fireproof
vaults one of these days--you may read in cold, official language what
happened in one section of the British line on the 8th of May. Thus:
"7 a.m. Fire trench on right blown in at several points ... 9 a.m.
Lieutenants Martin and Triggs were hit and came out of left
communicating trench with number of wounded . . . Captain Still and
Lieutenant de Bay hit also . . . 9.30 a.m. All machine-guns were
buried (by high explosive shells) but two were dug out and mounted
again. A shell killed every man in one section . . . 10.30 a.m.
Lieutenant Edwards was killed . . . Lieutenant Crawford, who was
most gallant, was severely wounded . . . Captain Adamson, who had
been handing out ammunition, was hit in the shoulder, but continued
to work with only one arm useful . . . Sergeant-Major Frazer, who was
also handing out ammunition to support trenches, was killed instantly
by a bullet in the head."
At 10.30 only four officers remained fit for action. All were lieutenants.
The ranking one of these was Niven, in command after Gault was
wounded at 7 a.m. We have all met the Niven type anywhere from
the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle, the high-strung, wiry type who
moves about too fast to carry any loose flesh and accumulates none
because he does move about so fast. A little man Niven, rancher and
horseman, with a good education and a knowledge of men. He rather
fits the old saying about licking his weight in wild cats--wild cats being
nearer his size than lions or tigers.
Eight months before he had not known any more about war than
thousands of other Canadians of his type, except that soldiers carried
rifles over their shoulders and kept step. But he had "Fanny"
Farquhar, of the British army, for his teacher; and he studied the book
of war in the midst of shells and bullets, which means that the lessons
stick in the same way as the lesson the small boy receives when he
touches the red-hot end of a poker to ascertain how it feels.
Writing in the midst of ruined trenches rocked by the concussion of
shells, every message he sent that day, every report he made by
orderly after the wires were down was written out very explicitly; which
Farquhar had taught him was the army way. The record is there of his
coolness when the lid was blown off of hell. For all you can tell by the
firm chirography, he might have been sending a note to a ranch
When his communications were cut, he was not certain how much
support he had on his flanks. It looked for a time as if he had none.
After the first charge was repulsed, he made contact with the King's
Royal Rifle Corps on his right. He knew from the nature of the first
German charge that the second would be worse than the first. The
Germans had advanced some machine-guns; they would be able to
place their increased artillery fire more accurately.
Again green figures started down that hill and again they were put
back. Then Niven was able to establish contact with the Shropshire
Light Infantry, another regiment on his left. So he knew that right and
left he was supported, and by seasoned British regulars. This was
very, very comforting, especially when German machine-gun fire was
not only coming from the front but in enfilade, which is most trying to a
soldier's steadiness. In other words, the P.P.s were shooting at
Germans in front, while bullets were whipping crosswise of their
trenches and of the regulars on their flanks, too. Some of the German
infantrymen who had not been hit or had not fallen back had dug
themselves cover and were firing at a closer range.
The Germans had located the points in the P.P.s' trench occupied by
machine-guns. At least, they could put these hornets' nests out of
business if not all the individual riflemen. So they concentrated high
explosive shells on the guns. This did the trick; it buried them. But a
buried machine-gun may be dug out and fired again. It may be dug
out two or three times and keep on firing as long as it will work and
there is anyone to man it.
While the machine-guns were being exhumed every man in one
sector of the trench was killed. Then the left half of the right fire
trench had three or four shells, one after another, bang into it. There
was no trench left; only macerated earth and mangled men. Those
emerging alive were told to retreat to the communication trench.
Next, the right end of the left fire trench was blown in. When the
survivors fell back to the communication trench that also was
blown in their face.
"Oh, but we were having a merry party!" as Lieutenant Vandenberg
Niven and his lieutenants were moving here and there to the point of
each new explosion to ascertain the amount of damage and to
decide what was to be done as the result. One soldier described
Niven's eyes as sparks emitted from two holes in his dust-caked face.
Pappineau tells how a tree outside the trench was cut in two by a
shell and its trunk laid across the breach of the trench caused by
another shell; and lying over the trunk, limp and lifeless where he had
fallen, was a man killed by still another shell.
"I remember how he looked because I had to step around him and
over the trunk," said Pappineau.
Unless you did have to step around a dead or a wounded man there
was no time to observe his appearance; for by noon there were as
many dead and wounded in the P.P.s' trench as there were men fit
Those unhurt did not have to be steadied by their superiors. Knocked
down by a concussion they sprang up with the promptness of disgust
of one thrown off a horse or tripped by a wire. When told to move
from one part of the trench to another where there was desperate
need, a word was sufficient. They understood what was wanted of
them, these veterans. They went. They seized every lull to drop the
rifle for the spade and repair the breaches. When they were not