Part 3 out of 10
school for young Christians!" and made a hideous face, very comical.
It was a bayonet-school of instruction, and "O. C. Bayonets"--Col.
Ronald Campbell--was giving a little demonstration. It was a curiously
interesting form of exercise. It was as though the primitive nature in
man, which had been sleeping through the centuries, was suddenly
awakened in the souls of these cockney soldier--boys. They made sudden
jabs at one another fiercely and with savage grimaces, leaped at men
standing with their backs turned, who wheeled round sharply, and
crossed bayonets, and taunted the attackers. Then they lunged at the
hanging sacks, stabbing them where the red circles were painted. These
inanimate things became revoltingly lifelike as they jerked to and
fro, and the bayonet men seemed enraged with them. One fell from the
rope, and a boy sprang at it, dug his bayonet in, put his foot on the
prostrate thing to get a purchase for the bayonet, which he lugged out
again, and then kicked the sack.
"That's what I like to see," said an officer. "There's a fine
fighting-spirit in that lad. He'll kill plenty of Germans before he's
Col. Ronald Campbell was a great lecturer on bayonet exercise. He
curdled the blood of boys with his eloquence on the method of attack
to pierce liver and lights and kidneys of the enemy. He made their
eyes bulge out of their heads, fired them with blood-lust, stoked up
hatred of Germans--all in a quiet, earnest, persuasive voice, and a
sense of latent power and passion in him. He told funny stories--one,
famous in the army, called "Where's 'Arry?"
It was the story of an attack on German trenches in which a crowd of
Germans were captured in a dugout. The sergeant had been told to blood
his men, and during the killing he turned round and asked, "Where's
'Arry? . . . 'Arry 'asn't 'ad a go yet."
'Arry was a timid boy, who shrank from butcher's work, but he was
called up and given his man to kill. And after that 'Arry was like a
man-eating tiger in his desire for German blood.
He used another illustration in his bayonet lectures. "You may meet a
German who says, 'Mercy! I have ten children.' . . . Kill him! He
might have ten more."
At those training-schools of British youth (when nature was averse to
human slaughter until very scientifically trained) one might see every
form of instruction in every kind of weapon and instrument of death--
machine-guns, trench-mortars, bombs, torpedoes, gas, and, later on,
tanks; and as the months passed, and the years, the youth of the
British Empire graduated in these schools of war, and those who lived
longest were experts in divers branches of technical education.
Col. Ronald Campbell retired from bayonet instruction and devoted his
genius and his heart (which was bigger than the point of a bayonet) to
the physical instruction of the army and the recuperation of battle-
worn men. I liked him better in that job, and saw the real imagination
of the man at work, and his amazing, self-taught knowledge of
psychology. When men came down from the trenches, dazed, sullen,
stupid, dismal, broken, he set to work to build up their vitality
again, to get them interested in life again, and to make them keen and
alert. As they had been dehumanized by war, so he rehumanized them by
natural means. He had a farm, with flowers and vegetables, pigs,
poultry, and queer beasts. A tame bear named Flanagan was the comic
character of the camp. Colonel Campbell found a thousand qualities of
character in this animal, and brought laughter back to gloomy boys by
his description of them. He had names for many of his pets--the game-
cocks and the mother-hens; and he taught the men to know each one, and
to rear chicks, and tend flowers, and grow vegetables. Love, and not
hate, was now his gospel. All his training was done by games, simple
games arousing intelligence, leading up to elaborate games demanding
skill of hand and eye. He challenged the whole army system of
discipline imposed by authority by a new system of self-discipline
based upon interest and instinct. His results were startling, and men
who had been dumb, blear-eyed, dejected, shell-shocked wrecks of life
were changed quite quickly into bright, cheery fellows, with laughter
in their eyes.
"It's a pity," he said, "they have to go off again and be shot to
pieces. I cure them only to be killed--but that's not my fault. It's
the fault of war."
It was Colonel Campbell who discovered "Willie Woodbine," the fighting
parson and soldier's poet, who was the leading member of a traveling
troupe of thick-eared thugs. They gave pugilistic entertainments to
tired men. Each of them had one thick ear. Willie Woodbine had two.
They fought one another with science (as old professionals) and
challenged any man in the crowd. Then one of them played the violin
and drew the soul out of soldiers who seemed mere animals, and after
another fight Willie Woodbine stepped up and talked of God, and war,
and the weakness of men, and the meaning of courage. He held all those
fellows in his hand, put a spell on them, kept them excited by a new
revelation, gave them, poor devils, an extra touch of courage to face
the menace that was ahead of them when they went to the trenches
Our men were not always in the trenches. As the New Army grew in
numbers reliefs were more frequent than in the old days, when
battalions held the line for long spells, until their souls as well as
their bodies were sunk in squalor. Now in the summer of 1915 it was
not usual for men to stay in the line for more than three weeks at a
stretch, and they came back to camps and billets, where there was more
sense of life, though still the chance of death from long-range guns.
Farther back still, as far back as the coast, and all the way between
the sea and the edge of war, there were new battalions quartered in
French and Flemish villages, so that every cottage and farmstead,
villa, and chateau was inhabited by men in khaki, who made themselves
at home and established friendly relations with civilians there unless
they were too flagrant in their robbery, or too sour in their temper,
or too filthy in their habits. Generally the British troops were
popular in Picardy and Artois, and when they left women kissed and
cried, in spite of laughter, and joked in a queer jargon of English-
French. In the estaminets of France and Flanders they danced with
frowzy peasant girls to the tune of a penny-in-the-slot piano, or,
failing the girls, danced with one another.
For many years to come, perhaps for centuries, those cottages and
barns into which our men crowded will retain signs and memories of
that British occupation in the great war. Boys who afterward went
forward to the fighting-fields and stepped across the line to the
world of ghosts carved their names on wooden beams, and on the
whitewashed walls scribbled legends proclaiming that Private John
Johnson was a bastard; or that a certain battalion was a rabble of
ruffians; or that Kaiser Bill would die on the gallows, illustrating
those remarks with portraits and allegorical devices, sketchily drawn,
but vivid and significant.
The soldier in the house learned quite a lot of French, with which he
made his needs understood by the elderly woman who cooked for his
officers' mess. He could say, with a fine fluency, "Ou est le blooming
couteau?" or "Donnez-moi le bally fourchette, s'il vous plait,
madame." It was not beyond his vocabulary to explain that "Les pommes
de terre frites are absolument all right if only madame will tenir ses
cheveux on." In the courtyards of ancient farmhouses, so old in their
timbers and gables that the Scottish bodyguard of Louis XI may have
passed them on their way to Paris, modern Scots with khaki-covered
kilts pumped up the water from old wells, and whistled "I Know a
Lassie" to the girl who brought the cattle home, and munched their
evening rations while Sandy played a "wee bit" on the pipes to the
peasant--folk who gathered at the gate. Such good relations existed
between the cottagers and their temporary guests that one day, for
instance, when a young friend of mine came back from a long spell in
the trenches (his conversation was of dead men, flies, bombs, lice,
and hell), the old lady who had given him her best bedroom at the
beginning of the war flung her arms about him and greeted him like a
long-lost son. To a young Guardsman, with his undeveloped mustache on
his upper lip, her demonstrations were embarrassing.
It was one of the paradoxes of the war that beauty lived but a mile or
two away from hideous squalor. While men in the lines lived in dugouts
and marched down communicating trenches thigh-high, after rainy
weather, in mud and water, and suffered the beastliness of the
primitive earth-men, those who were out of the trenches, turn and turn
about, came back to leafy villages and drilled in fields all golden
with buttercups, and were not too uncomfortable in spite of
overcrowding in dirty barns.
There was more than comfort in some of the headquarters where our
officers were billeted in French chateaux. There was a splendor of
surroundings which gave a graciousness and elegance to the daily life
of that extraordinary war in which men fought as brutally as in
prehistoric times. I knew scores of such places, and went through
gilded gates emblazoned with noble coats of arms belonging to the days
of the Sun King, or farther back to the Valois, and on my visits to
generals and their staffs stood on long flights of steps which led up
to old mansions, with many towers and turrets, surrounded by noble
parks and ornamental waters and deep barns in which five centuries of
harvests had been stored. From one of the archways here one might see
in the mind's eye Mme. de Pompadour come out with a hawk on her wrist,
or even Henri de Navarre with his gentlemen-at-arms, all their plumes
alight in the sun as they mounted their horses for a morning's boar-
It was surprising at first when a young British officer came out and
said, "Toppin' morning," or, "Any news from the Dardanelles?" There
was something incongruous about this habitation of French chiteaux by
British officers with their war-kit. The strangeness of it made me
laugh in early days of first impressions, when I went through the
rooms of one of those old historic houses, well within range of the
German guns with a brigade major. It was the Chateau de Henencourt,
"This is the general's bedroom," said the brigade major, opening a
door which led off a gallery, in which many beautiful women of France
and many great nobles of the old regime looked down from their gilt
The general had a nice bed to sleep in. In such a bed Mme. du Barry
might have stretched her arms and yawned, or the beautiful Duchesse de
Mazarin might have held her morning levee. A British general, with his
bronzed face and bristly mustache, would look a little strange under
that blue-silk canopy, with rosy cherubs dancing overhead on the
flowered ceiling. His top-boots and spurs stood next to a Louis Quinze
toilet-table. His leather belts and field-glasses lay on the polished
boards beneath the tapestry on which Venus wooed Adonis and Diana went
a-hunting. In other rooms no less elegantly rose-tinted or darkly
paneled other officers had made a litter of their bags, haversacks,
rubber baths, trench--boots, and puttees. At night the staff sat down
to dinner in a salon where the portraits of a great family of France,
in silks and satins and Pompadour wigs, looked down upon their khaki.
The owner of the chateau, in whose veins flowed the blood of those old
aristocrats, was away with his regiment, in which he held the rank of
corporal. His wife, the Comtesse de Henencourt, managed the estate,
from which all the men-servants except the veterans had been
mobilized. In her own chateau she kept one room for herself, and every
morning came in from the dairies, where she had been working with her
maids, to say, with her very gracious smile, to the invaders of her
house: "Bon jour, messieurs! Ca va bien?"
She hid any fear she had under the courage of her smile. Poor chateaux
of France! German shells came to knock down their painted turrets, to
smash through the ceilings where the rosy Cupids played, and in one
hour or two to ruin the beauty that had lived through centuries of
Scores of them along the line of battle were but heaps of brick-dust
and twisted iron.
I saw the ruins of the Chateau de Henencourt two years after my first
visit there. The enemy's line had come closer to it and it was a
target for their guns. Our guns--heavy and light--were firing from the
back yard and neighboring fields, with deafening tumult. Shells had
already broken the roofs and turrets of the chateau and torn away
great chunks of wall. A colonel of artillery had his headquarters in
the petit salon. His hand trembled as he greeted me.
"I'm not fond of this place," he said. "The whole damn thing will come
down on my head at any time. I think I shall take to the cellars."
We walked out to the courtyard and he showed me the way down to the
vault. A shell came over the chateau and burst in the outhouses.
"They knocked out a 9.2 a little while ago," said the colonel. "Made a
mess of some heavy gunners."
There was a sense of imminent death about us, but it was not so
sinister a place as farther on, where a brother of mine sat in a hole
directing his battery. . . The Countess of Henencourt had gone. She
went away with her dairymaids, driving her cattle down the roads.
One of the most curious little schools of courage inhabited by British
soldiers in early days was the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, which we
took over from the French, who were our next-door neighbors at the
village of Frise in the summer of '15. After the foul conditions of
the salient it seemed unreal and fantastic, with a touch of romance
not found in other places. Strange as it seemed, the village
garrisoned by our men was in advance of our trench lines, with nothing
dividing them from the enemy but a little undergrowth--and the
queerest part of it all was the sense of safety, the ridiculously
false security with which one could wander about the village and up
the footpath beyond, with the knowledge that one's movements were
being watched by German eyes and that the whole place could be blown
off the face of the earth . . . but for the convenient fact that the
Germans, who were living in the village of Curlu, beyond the footpath,
were under our own observation and at the mercy of our own guns.
That sounded like a fairy-tale to men who, in other places, could not
go over the parapet of the first-line trenches, or even put their
heads up for a single second, without risking instant death.
I stood on a hill here, with a French interpreter and one of his men.
A battalion of loyal North Lancashires was some distance away, but
after an exchange of compliments in an idyllic glade, where a party of
French soldiers lived in the friendliest juxtaposition with the
British infantry surrounding them--it was a cheery bivouac among the
trees, with the fragrance of a stew-pot mingling with the odor of
burning wood--the lieutenant insisted upon leading the way to the top
of the hill.
He made a slight detour to point out a German shell which had fallen
there without exploding, and made laughing comments upon the harmless,
futile character of those poor Germans in front of us. They did their
best to kill us, but oh, so feebly!
Yet when I took a pace toward the shell he called out, sharply, "Ne
touchez pas!" I would rather have touched a sleeping tiger than that
conical piece of metal with its unexploded possibilities, but bent low
to see the inscriptions on it, scratched by French gunners with wore
recklessness of death. Mort aux Boches was scrawled upon it between
the men's initials.
Then we came to the hill-crest and to the last of our trenches, and,
standing there, looked down upon the villages of Vaux and Curlu,
separated by a piece of marshy water. In the farthest village were the
Germans, and in the nearest, just below us down the steep cliff, our
own men. Between the two there was a narrow causeway across the marsh
and a strip of woods half a rifle-shot in length.
Behind, in a sweeping semicircle round their village and ours, were
the German trenches and the German guns. I looked into the streets of
both villages as clearly as one may see into Clovelly village from the
crest of the hill. In Vaux-sur-Somme a few British soldiers were
strolling about. One was sitting on the window-sill of a cottage,
kicking up his heels.
In the German village of Curlu the roadways were concealed by the
perspective of the houses, with their gables and chimney-stacks, so
that I could not see any passers--by. But at the top of the road,
going out of the village and standing outside the last house on the
road, was a solitary figure--a German sentry.
The French lieutenant pointed to a thin mast away from the village on
"Do you see that? That is their flagstaff. They hoist their flag for
victories. It wagged a good deal during the recent Russian fighting.
But lately they have not had the cheek to put it up."
This interpreter--the Baron de Rosen--laughed very heartily at that
naked pole on the hill.
Then I left him and joined our own men, and went down a steep hill
into Vaux, well outside our line of trenches, and thrust forward as an
outpost in the marsh. German eyes could see me as I walked. At any
moment those little houses about me might have been smashed into
rubbish heaps. But no shells came to disturb the waterfowl among the
And so it was that the life in this place was utterly abnormal, and
while the guns were silent except for long--range fire, an old-
fashioned mode of war--what the adjutant of this little outpost called
a "gentlemanly warfare," prevailed. Officers and men slept within a
few hundred yards of the enemy, and the officers wore their pajamas at
night. When a fight took place it was a chivalrous excursion, such as
Sir Walter Manny would have liked, between thirty or forty men on one
side against somewhat the same number on the other.
Our men used to steal out along the causeway which crossed the marsh--
a pathway about four feet wide, broadening out in the middle, so that
a little redoubt or blockhouse was established there, then across a
narrow drawbridge, then along the path again until they came to the
thicket which screened the German village of Curlu.
It sometimes happened that a party of Germans were creeping forward
from the other direction, in just the same way, disguised in party-
colored clothes splashed with greens and reds and browns to make them
invisible between the trees, with brown masks over their faces. Then
suddenly contact was made.
Into the silence of the wood came the sharp crack of rifles, the zip-
zip of bullets, the shouts of men who had given up the game of
invisibility. It was a sharp encounter one night when the Loyal North
Lancashires held the village of Vaux, and our men brought back many
German helmets and other trophies as proofs of victory. Then to bed in
the village, and a good night's rest, as when English knights fought
the French, not far from these fields, as chronicled in the pages of
that early war correspondent, Sir John Froissart.
All was quiet when I went along the causeway and out into the wood,
where the outposts stood listening for any crack of a twig which might
betray a German footstep. I was startled when I came suddenly upon two
men, almost invisible, against the tree-trunks. There they stood,
motionless, with their rifles ready, peering through the brushwood. If
I had followed the path on which they stood for just a little way I
should have walked into the German village. But, on the other hand, I
should not have walked back again. . . .
When I left the village, and climbed up the hill to our own trenches
again, I laughed aloud at the fantastic visit to that grim little
outpost in the marsh. If all the war had been like this it would have
been more endurable for men who had no need to hide in holes in the
earth, nor crouch for three months below ground, until an hour or two
of massacre below a storm of high explosives. In the village on the
marsh men fought at least against other men, and not against invisible
powers which belched forth death.
It was part of the French system of "keeping quiet" until the turn of
big offensives; a good system, to my mind, if not carried too far. At
Frise, next door to Vaux, in a loop of the Somme, it was carried a
little too far, with relaxed vigilance.
It was a joke of our soldiers to crawl on and through the reeds and
enter the French line and exchange souvenirs with the sentries.
"Souvenir!" said one of them one day. "Bullet--you know--cartouche.
A French poilu of Territorials, who had been dozing, sat up with a
grin and said, "Mais oui, mon vieux," and felt in his pouch for a
cartridge, and then in his pockets, and then in the magazine of the
rifle between his knees.
"Fini!" he said. "Tout fini, mon p'tit camarade."
The Germans one day made a pounce on Frise, that little village in the
loop of the Somme, and "pinched" every man of the French garrison.
There was the devil to pay, and I heard it being played to the tune of
the French soixante-quinzes, slashing over the trees.
Vaux and Curlu went the way of all French villages in the zone of war,
when the battles of the Somme began, and were blown off the map.
At a place called the Pont de Nieppe, beyond Armentieres--a most
"unhealthy" place in later years of war--a bathing establishment was
organized by officers who were as proud of their work as though they
had brought a piece of paradise to Flanders. To be fair to them, they
had done that. To any interested visitor, understanding the nobility
of their work, they exhibited a curious relic. It was the Holy Shirt
of Nieppe, which should be treasured as a memorial in our War Museum--
an object-lesson of what the great war meant to clean-living men. It
was not a saint's shirt, but had been worn by a British officer in the
trenches, and was like tens of thousands of other shirts worn by our
officers and men in the first winters of the war, neither better nor
worse, but a fair average specimen. It had been framed in a glass
case, and revealed, on its linen, the corpses of thousands of lice.
That vermin swarmed upon the bodies of all our boys who went into the
trenches and tortured them. After three days they were lousy from head
to foot. After three weeks they were walking menageries. To English
boys from clean homes, to young officers who had been brought up in
the religion of the morning tub, this was one of the worst horrors of
war. They were disgusted with themselves. Their own bodies were
revolting to them. Scores of times I have seen battalions of men just
out of battle stripping themselves and hunting in their shirts for the
foul beast. They had a technical name for this hunter's job. They
called it "chatting." They desired a bath as the hart panteth for the
water--brooks, and baths were but a mirage of the brain to men in
Flanders fields and beyond the Somme, until here and there, as at
Nieppe, officers with human sympathy organized a system by which
battalions of men could wash their bodies.
The place in Nieppe had been a jute-factory, and there were big tubs
in the sheds, and nearby was the water of the Lys. Boilers were set
going to heat the water. A battalion's shirts were put into an oven
and the lice were baked and killed. It was a splendid thing to see
scores of boys wallowing in those big tubs, six in a tub, with a bit
of soap for each. They gave little grunts and shouts of joyous
satisfaction. The cleansing water, the liquid heat, made their flesh
tingle with exquisite delight, sensuous and spiritual. They were like
children. They splashed one another, with gurgles of laughter. They
put their heads under water and came up puffing and blowing like
grampuses. Something broke in one's heart to see them, those splendid
boys whose bodies might soon be torn to tatters by chunks of steel.
One of them remembered a bit of Latin he had sung at Stonyhurst:
"Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et super nivem
dealbabor." ("Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall
be cleansed; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than
On the other side of the lines the Germans were suffering in the same
way, lousy also, and they, too, were organizing bath-houses. After
their first retreat I saw a queer name on a wooden shed:
Entlausunganstalt. I puzzled over it a moment, and then understood. It
was a new word created out of the dirt of modern war--"Delousing
It was harvest-time in the summer of '15, and Death was not the only
reaper who went about the fields, although he was busy and did not
rest even when the sun had flamed down below the belt of trees on the
far ridge, and left the world in darkness.
On a night in August two of us stood in a cornfield, silent, under the
great dome, staring up at the startling splendor of it. The red ball
just showed above the far line of single trees which were black as
charcoal on the edge of a long, straight road two miles away, and from
its furnace there were flung a million feathers of flame against the
silk-blue canopy of the evening sky. The burning colors died out in a
few minutes, and the fields darkened, and all the corn-shocks paled
until they became quite white, like rows of tents, under the harvest
moon. Another night had come in this year of war.
Up Ypres way the guns were busy, and at regular intervals the earth
trembled, and the air vibrated with dull, thunderous shocks.
"The moon's face looks full of irony to-night," said the man by my
side. "It seems to say, `What fools those creatures are down there,
spoiling their harvest-time with such a mess of blood!'"
The stars were very bright in some of those Flemish nights. I saw the
Milky Way clearly tracked across the dark desert. The Pleiades and
Orion's belt were like diamonds on black velvet. But among all these
worlds of light other stars, unknown to astronomers, appeared and
disappeared. On the road back from a French town one night I looked
Arras way, and saw what seemed a bursting planet. It fell with a
scatter of burning pieces. Then suddenly the thick cloth of the night
was rent with stabs of light, as though flashing swords were hacking
it, and a moment later a finger of white fire was traced along the
black edge of the far-off woods, so that the whole sky was brightened
for a moment and then was blotted out by a deeper darkness . . . Arras
was being shelled again, as I saw it many times in those long years of
The darkness of all the towns in the war zone was rather horrible.
Their strange, intense quietude, when the guns were not at work, made
them dead, as the very spirit of a town dies on the edge of war. One
night, as on many others, I walked through one of them with a friend.
Every house was shuttered, and hardly a gleam came through any crack.
No footstep, save our own, told of life. The darkness was almost
palpable. It seemed to press against one's eyeballs like a velvet
mask. My nerves were so on edge with a sense of the uncanny silence
and invisibility that I started violently at the sound of a quiet
voice speaking three inches from my ear.
"Halte! Qui va la?"
It was a French sentry, who stood with his back to the wall of a house
in such a gulf of blackness that not even his bayonet was revealed by
Another day of war came. The old beauty of the world was there, close
to the lines of the bronzed cornfields splashed with the scarlet of
poppies, and the pale yellow of the newly cut sheaves, stretching away
and away, without the break of a hedge, to the last slopes which met
I stood in some of those harvest-fields, staring across to a slope of
rising ground where there was no ripening wheat, and where the grass
itself came to a sudden halt, as though afraid of something. I knew
the reason of this, and of the long white lines of earth thrown up for
miles each way. Those were the parapets of German trenches, and in the
ditches below them were earth-men, armed with deadly weapons, staring
out across the beauty of France and wondering, perhaps, why they
should be there to mar it, and watching me, a little black dot in
their range of vision, with an idle thought as to whether it were
worth their while to let a bullet loose and end my walk. They could
have done so easily, but did not bother. No shot or shell came to
break through the hum of bees or to crash through the sigh of the
wind, which was bending all the ears of corn to listen to the
murmurous insect-life in these fields of France.
Close to me was a group of peasants--a study for a painter like
Millet. One of them shouted out to me, "Voilą les Boches!" waving his
arm to left and right, and then shaking a clenched fist at them.
A sturdy girl with a brown throat showing through an open bodice
munched an apple, like Audrey in "As You Like It," and between her
bites told me that she had had a brother killed in the war, and that
she had been nearly killed herself, a week ago, by shells that came
bursting all round her as she was tying up her sheaves (she pointed to
great holes in the field), and described the coming of the Germans
into her village over there, when she had lied to some Uhlans about
the whereabouts of French soldiers and had given one of those fat
Germans a blow on the face when he had tried to make love to her in
her father's barn. Her mother had been raped.
In further fields out of view of the German trenches, but well within
shell-range, the harvesting was being done by French soldiers. One of
them was driving the reaping--machine and looked like a gunner on his
limber, with his kepi thrust to the back of his head. The trousers of
his comrades were as red as the poppies that grew on the edge of the
wheat, and three of these poilus had ceased their work to drink out of
a leather wine-bottle which had been replenished from a hand-cart. It
was a pretty scene if one could forget the grim purpose which had put
those harvesters in uniform.
The same thought was in the mind of a British officer.
"A beautiful country, this," he said. "It's a pity to cut it up with
trenches and barbed wire."
Battalions of New Army men were being reviewed but a furlong or two
away from that Invisible Man who was wielding a scythe which had no
mercy for unripe wheat. Out of those lines of eyes stared the courage
of men's souls, not shirking the next ordeal.
It was through red ears of corn, in that summer of '15, that one found
one's way to many of the trenches that marked the boundary-lines of
the year's harvesting, and in Belgium (by Kemmel Hill) the shells of
our batteries, answered by German guns, came with their long-drawn
howls of murder across the heads of peasant women who were gleaning,
with bent backs.
In Plug Street Wood the trees had worn thin under showers of shrapnel,
but the long avenues between the trenches were cool and pleasant in
the heat of the day. It was one of the elementary schools where many
of our soldiers learned the A B C of actual warfare after their
training in camps behind the lines. Here one might sport with
Amaryllis in the shade, but for the fact that country wenches were not
allowed in the dugouts and trenches, where I found our soldiers
killing flies in the intervals between pot-shots at German periscopes.
The enemy was engaged, presumably, in the same pursuit of killing time
and life (with luck), and sniping was hot on both sides, so that the
wood resounded with sharp reports as though hard filbert nuts were
being cracked by giant teeth. Each time I went there one of our men
was hit by a sniper, and his body was carried off for burial as I went
toward the first line of trenches, hoping that my shadow would not
fall across a German periscope. The sight of that dead body passing
chilled one a little. There were many graves in the bosky arbors--
eighteen under one mound--but some of those who had fallen six months
before still lay where the gleaners could not reach them.
I used to peer through the leaves of Plug Street Wood at No Man's Land
between the lines, where every creature had been killed by the
sweeping flail of machine-guns and shrapnel. Along the harvest-fields
there were many barren territories like that, and up by Hooge, along
the edge of the fatal crater, and behind the stripped trees of Zouave
Wood there was no other gleaning to be had but that of broken shells
and shrapnel bullets and a litter of limbs.
For some time the War Office would not allow military bands at the
front, not understanding that music was like water to parched souls.
By degrees divisional generals realized the utter need of
entertainment among men dulled and dazed by the routine of war, and
encouraged "variety" shows, organized by young officers who had been
amateur actors before the war, who searched around for likely talent.
There was plenty of it in the New Army, including professional "funny
men," trick cyclists, conjurers, and singers of all kinds. So by the
summer of '15 most of the divisions had their dramatic entertainments:
"The Follies," "The Bow Bells," "The Jocks," "The Pip-Squeaks," "The
Whizz-Bangs," "The Diamonds," "The Brass Hats," "The Verey Lights,"
and many others with fancy names.
I remember going to one of the first of them in the village of Acheux,
a few miles from the German lines. It was held in an old sugar-
factory, and I shall long remember the impressions of the place, with
seven or eight hundred men sitting in the gloom of that big, broken,
barn-like building, where strange bits of machinery looked through the
darkness, and where through gashes in the walls stars twinkled.
There was a smell of clay and moist sugar and tarpaulins and damp
khaki, and chloride of lime, very pungent in one's nostrils, and when
the curtain went up on a well--fitted stage and "The Follies" began
their performance, the squalor of the place did not matter. What
mattered was the enormous whimsicality of the Bombardier at the piano,
and the outrageous comicality of a tousle-haired soldier with a red
nose, who described how he had run away from Mons "with the rest of
you," and the light--heartedness of a performance which could have
gone straight to a London music-hall and brought down the house with
jokes and songs made up in dugouts and front--line trenches.
At first the audience sat silent, with glazed eyes. It was difficult
to get a laugh out of them. The mud of the trenches was still on them.
They stank of the trenches, and the stench was in their souls.
Presently they began to brighten up. Life came back into their eyes.
They laughed! . . . Later, from this audience of soldiers there were
yells of laughter, though the effect of shells arriving at unexpected
moments, in untoward circumstances, was a favorite theme of the
jesters. Many of the men were going into the trenches that night
again, and there would be no fun in the noise of the shells, but they
went more gaily and with stronger hearts, I am sure, because of the
laughter which had roared through the old sugar--factory.
A night or two later I went to another concert and heard the same
gaiety of men who had been through a year of war. It was in an open
field, under a velvety sky studded with innumerable stars. Nearly a
thousand soldiers trooped through the gates and massed before the
little canvas theater. In front a small crowd of Flemish children
squatted on the grass, not understanding a word of the jokes, but
laughing in shrill delight at the antics of soldier-Pierrots. The
corner-man was a funny fellow, and his by-play with a stout Flemish
woman round the flap of the canvas screen, to whom he made amorous
advances while his comrades were singing sentimental ballads, was
truly comic. The hit of the evening was when an Australian behind the
stage gave an unexpected imitation of a laughing-jackass.
There was something indescribably weird and wild and grotesque in that
prolonged cry of cackling, unnatural mirth. An Australian by my side
said: "Well done! Exactly right!" and the Flemish children shrieked
with joy, without understanding the meaning of the noise. Old, old
songs belonging to the early Victorian age were given by the soldiers,
who had great emotion and broke down sometimes in the middle of a
verse. There were funny men dressed in the Widow Twankey style, or in
burlesque uniforms, who were greeted with yells of laughter by their
comrades. An Australian giant played some clever card tricks, and
another Australian recited Kipling's "Gunga Din" with splendid fire.
And between every "turn" the soldiers in the field roared out a
"Jolly good song, Jolly well sung. If you can think of a better you're
welcome to try. But don't forget the singer is dry; Give the poor
beggar some beer!"
A touring company of mouth-organ musicians was having a great success
in the war zone. But, apart from all those organized methods of mirth,
there was a funny man in every billet who played the part of court
jester, and clowned it whatever the state of the weather or the risks
of war. The British soldier would have his game of "house" or "crown
and anchor" even on the edge of the shell-storm, and his little bit of
sport wherever there was room to stretch his legs. It was a jesting
army (though some of its jokes were very grim), and those who saw, as
I did, the daily tragedy of war, never ceasing, always adding to the
sum of human suffering, were not likely to discourage that sense of
A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and
penny whistles was given by the Guards in the front-line trenches near
Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion
and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans
crowded into their front line--not far away--and applauded each
number. Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:
"Play 'Annie Laurie' and I will sing it."
The Guards played "Annie Laurie," and a German officer stood up on the
parapet--the evening sun was red behind him--and sang the old song
admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.
"Let's have another concert to-morrow!" shouted the Germans.
But there was a different kind of concert next day, and the music was
played by trench-mortars, Mills bombs, rifle-grenades, and other
instruments of death in possession of the Guards. There were cries of
agony and terror from the German trenches, and young officers of the
Guards told the story as an amusing anecdote, with loud laughter.
It was astonishing how loudly one laughed at tales of gruesome things,
of war's brutality-I with the rest of them. I think at the bottom of
it was a sense of the ironical contrast between the normal ways of
civilian life and this hark-back to the caveman code. It made all our
old philosophy of life monstrously ridiculous. It played the "hat
trick" with the gentility of modern manners. Men who had been brought
up to Christian virtues, who had prattled their little prayers at
mothers' knees, who had grown up to a love of poetry, painting, music,
the gentle arts, over-sensitized to the subtleties of half-tones,
delicate scales of emotion, fastidious in their choice of words, in
their sense of beauty, found themselves compelled to live and act like
ape-men; and it was abominably funny. They laughed at the most
frightful episodes, which revealed this contrast between civilized
ethics and the old beast law. The more revolting it was the more,
sometimes, they shouted with laughter, especially in reminiscence,
when the tale was told in the gilded salon of a French chateau, or at
It was, I think, the laughter of mortals at the trick which had been
played on them by an ironical fate. They had been taught to believe
that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and
that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast
instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive, savage law of survival
by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion
had preached this gospel and this promise.
Now that ideal had broken like a china vase dashed to hard ground. The
contrast between That and This was devastating. It was, in an enormous
world-shaking way, like a highly dignified man in a silk hat, morning
coat, creased trousers, spats, and patent boots suddenly slipping on a
piece of orange-peel and sitting, all of a heap, with silk hat flying,
in a filthy gutter. The war-time humor of the soul roared with mirth
at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.
So we laughed merrily, I remember, when a military chaplain (Eton,
Christ Church, and Christian service) described how an English
sergeant stood round the traverse of a German trench, in a night raid,
and as the Germans came his way, thinking to escape, he cleft one
skull after another with a steel-studded bludgeon--a weapon which he
had made with loving craftsmanship on the model of Blunderbore's club
in the pictures of a fairy-tale.
So we laughed at the adventures of a young barrister (a brilliant
fellow in the Oxford "Union") whose pleasure it was to creep out o'
nights into No Man's Land and lie doggo in a shell-hole close to the
enemy's barbed wire, until presently, after an hour's waiting or two,
a German soldier would crawl out to fetch in a corpse. The English
barrister lay with his rifle ready. Where there had been one corpse
there were two. Each night he made a notch on his rifle--three notches
one night--to check the number of his victims. Then he came back to
breakfast in his dugout with a hearty appetite.
In one section of trenches the men made a habit of betting upon those
who would be wounded first. It had all the uncertainty of the
roulette-table. . . One day, when the German gunners were putting over
a special dose of hate, a sergeant kept coming to one dugout to
inquire about a "new chum," who had come up with the drafts.
"Is Private Smith all right?" he asked.
"Yes, Sergeant, he's all right," answered the men crouching in the
"Private Smith isn't wounded yet?" asked the, sergeant again, five
Private Smith was touched by this interest in his well-being.
"That sergeant seems a very kind man," said the boy. "Seems to love me
like a father!"
A yell of laughter answered him.
"You poor, bleeding fool!" said one of his comrades. "He's drawn you
in a lottery! Stood to win if you'd been hit."
In digging new trenches and new dugouts, bodies and bits of bodies
were unearthed, and put into sand-bags with the soil that was sent
back down a line of men concealing their work from German eyes waiting
for any new activity in our ditches.
"Bit of Bill," said the leading man, putting in a leg.
"Another bit of Bill," he said, unearthing a hand.
"Bill's ugly mug," he said at a later stage in the operations, when a
head was found.
As told afterward, that little episode in the trenches seemed
immensely comic. Generals chuckled over it. Chaplains treasured it.
How we used to guffaw at the answer of the cockney soldier who met a
German soldier with his hands up, crying: "Kamerad! Kamerad! Mercy!"
"Not so much of your 'Mercy, Kamerad,'" said the cockney. "'And us
over your bloody ticker!"
It was the man's watch he wanted, without sentiment.
One tale was most popular, most mirth-arousing in the early days of
"Where's your prisoner?" asked an Intelligence officer waiting to
receive a German sent down from the trenches under escort of an honest
"I lost him on the way, sir," said the corporal.
The corporal was embarrassed.
"Very sorry, sir. My feelings overcame me, sir. It was like this, sir.
The man started talking on the way down. Said he was thinking of his
poor wife. I'd been thinking of mine, and I felt sorry for him. Then
he mentioned as how he had two kiddies at home. I 'ave two kiddies at
'ome, sir, and I couldn't 'elp feeling sorry for him. Then he said as
how his old mother had died awhile ago and he'd never see her again.
When he started cryin' I was so sorry for him I couldn't stand it any
longer, sir. So I killed the poor blighter."
Our men in the trenches, and out of them, up to the waist in water
sometimes, lying in slimy dugouts, lice--eaten, rat-haunted, on the
edge of mine-craters, under harassing fire, with just the fluke of
luck between life and death, seized upon any kind of joke as an excuse
for laughter, and many a time in ruins and in trenches and in dugouts
I have heard great laughter. It was the protective armor of men's
souls. They knew that if they did not laugh their courage would go and
nothing would stand between them and fear.
"You know, sir," said a sergeant-major, one day, when I walked with
him down a communication trench so waterlogged that my top-boots were
full of slime, "it doesn't do to take this war seriously."
And, as though in answer to him, a soldier without breeches and with
his shirt tied between his legs looked at me and remarked, in a
philosophical way, with just a glint of comedy in his eyes:
"That there Grand Fleet of ours don't seem to be very active, sir.
It's a pity it don't come down these blinkin' trenches and do a bit of
"Having a clean-up, my man?" said a brigadier to a soldier trying to
wash in a basin about the size of a kitchen mug.
"Yes, sir," said the man, "and I wish I was a blasted canary."
One of the most remarkable battles on the front was fought by a
battalion of Worcesters for the benefit of two English members of
Parliament. It was not a very big battle, but most dramatic while it
lasted. The colonel (who had a sense of humor) arranged it after a
telephone message to his dugout telling him that two politicians were
about to visit his battalion in the line, and asking him to show them
"Interesting?" said the colonel. "Do they think this war is a peep-
show for politicians? Do they want me to arrange a massacre to make a
London holiday?" Then his voice changed and he laughed. "Show them
something interesting? Oh, all right; I dare say I can do that."
He did. When the two M. P.'s arrived, apparently at the front-line
trenches, they were informed by the colonel that, much to his regret,
for their sake, the enemy was just attacking, and that his men were
defending their position desperately.
"We hope for the best," he said, "and I think there is just a chance
that you will escape with your lives if you stay here quite quietly."
"Great God!" said one of the M. P.'s, and the other was silent, but
Certainly there was all the noise of a big attack. The Worcesters were
standing-to on the fire-step, firing rifle--grenades and throwing
bombs with terrific energy. Every now and then a man fell, and the
stretcher-bearers pounced on him, tied him up in bandages, and carried
him away to the field dressing-station, whistling as they went, "We
won't go home till morning," in a most heroic way. . . The battle
lasted twenty minutes, at the end of which time the colonel announced
to his visitors:
"The attack is repulsed, and you, gentlemen, have nothing more to
One of the M. P.'s was thrilled with excitement. "The valor of your
men was marvelous," he said. "What impressed me most was the
cheerfulness of the wounded. They were actually grinning as they came
down on the stretchers."
The colonel grinned, too. In fact, he stifled a fit of coughing.
"Funny devils!" he said. "They are so glad to be going home."
The members of Parliament went away enormously impressed, but they had
not enjoyed themselves nearly as well as the Worcesters, who had
fought a sham battle--not in the front-line trenches, but in the
support trenches two miles back! They laughed for a week afterward.
On the hill at Wizerne, not far from the stately old town of St.-Omer
(visited from time to time by monstrous nightbirds who dropped high-
explosive eggs), was a large convent. There were no nuns there, but
generally some hundreds of young officers and men from many different
battalions, attending a machine-gun course under the direction of
General Baker-Carr, who was the master machine-gunner of the British
army (at a time when we were very weak in those weapons compared with
the enemy's strength) and a cheery, vital man.
"This war has produced two great dugouts," said Lord Kitchener on a
visit to the convent. "Me and Baker-Carr."
It was the boys who interested me more than the machines. (I was never
much interested in the machinery of war.) They came down from the
trenches to this school with a sense of escape from prison, and for
the ten days of their course they were like "freshers" at Oxford and
made the most of their minutes, organizing concerts and other
entertainments in the evenings after their initiation into the
mysteries of Vickers and Lewis. I was invited to dinner there one
night, and sat between two young cavalry officers on long benches
crowded with subalterns of many regiments. It was a merry meal and a
good one--to this day I remember a potato pie, gloriously baked, and
afterward, as it was the last night of the course, all the officers
went wild and indulged in a "rag" of the public-school kind. They
straddled across the benches and barged at each other in single
tourneys and jousts, riding their hobby-horses with violent rearings
and plungings and bruising one another without grievous hurt and with
yells of laughter. Glasses broke, crockery crashed upon the polished
boards. One boy danced the Highland fling on the tables, others were
waltzing down the corridors. There was a Rugby scrum in the refectory,
and hunting-men cried the "View halloo!" and shouted "Yoicks! yoicks!"
. . . General Baker-Carr was a human soul, and kept to his own room
that night and let discipline go hang. . . .
When the battles of the Somme began it was those young officers who
led their machine-gun sections into the woods of death--Belville Wood,
Mametz Wood, High Wood, and the others. It was they who afterward held
the outpost lines in Flanders. Some of them were still alive on March
21, 1918, when they were surrounded by a sea of Germans and fought
until the last, in isolated redoubts north and south of St.-Quentin.
Two of them are still alive, those between whom I sat at dinner that
night, and who escaped many close calls of death before the armistice.
Of the others who charged one another with wooden benches, their
laughter ringing out, some were blown to bits, and some were buried
alive, and some were blinded and gassed, and some went "missing" for
In those long days of trench warfare and stationary lines it was
boredom that was the worst malady of the mind; a large, overwhelming
boredom to thousands of men who were in exile from the normal
interests of life and from the activities of brain-work; an
intolerable, abominable boredom, sapping the will-power, the moral
code, the intellect; a boredom from which there seemed no escape
except by death, no relief except by vice, no probable or possible
change in its dreary routine. It was bad enough in the trenches, where
men looked across the parapet to the same corner of hell day by day,
to the same dead bodies rotting by the edge of the same mine-crater,
to the same old sand-bags in the enemy's line, to the blasted tree
sliced by shell-fire, the upturned railway--truck of which only the
metal remained, the distant fringe of trees like gallows on the sky-
line, the broken spire of a church which could be seen in the round O
of the telescope when the weather was not too misty. In "quiet"
sections of the line the only variation to the routine was the number
of casualties day by day, by casual shell-fire or snipers' bullets,
and that became part of the boredom. "What casualties?" asked the
adjutant in his dugout.
"Two killed, three wounded, sir."
"Very well. . . You can go."
A salute in the doorway of the dugout, a groan from the adjutant
lighting another cigarette, leaning with his elbow on the deal table,
staring at the guttering of the candle by his side, at the pile of
forms in front of him, at the glint of light on the steel helmet
hanging by its strap on a nail near the shelf where he kept his
safety-razor, flash--lamp, love-letters (in an old cigar-box), soap,
whisky--bottle (almost empty now), and an unread novel.
"Hell! . . . What a life!"
But there was always work to do, and odd incidents, and frights, and
It was worse--this boredom--for men behind the lines; in lorry columns
which went from rail-head to dump every damned morning, and back again
by the middle of the morning, and then nothing else to do for all the
day, in a cramped little billet with a sulky woman in the kitchen, and
squealing children in the yard, and a stench of manure through the
small window. A dull life for an actor who had toured in England and
America (like one I met dazed and stupefied by years of boredom--
paying too much for safety), or for a barrister who had many briefs
before the war and now found his memory going, though a young man,
because of the narrow limits of his life between one Flemish village
and another, which was the length of his lorry column and of his
adventure of war. Nothing ever happened to break the monotony--not
even shell-fire. So it was also in small towns like Hesdin, St.-Pol,
Bruay, Lillers--a hundred others where officers stayed for years in
charge of motor-repair shops, ordnance-stores, labor battalions,
administration offices, claim commissions, graves' registration,
agriculture for soldiers, all kinds of jobs connected with that life
of war, but not exciting.
Not exciting. So frightful in boredom that men were tempted to take to
drink, to look around for unattached women, to gamble at cards with
any poor devil like themselves. Those were most bored who were most
virtuous. For them, with an ideal in their souls, there was no
possibility of relief (for virtue is not its own reward), unless they
were mystics, as some became, who found God good company and needed no
other help. They had rare luck, those fellows with an astounding faith
which rose above the irony and the brutality of that business being
done in the trenches, but there were few of them.
Even with hours of leisure, men who had been "bookish" could not read.
That was a common phenomenon. I could read hardly at all, for years,
and thousands were like me. The most "exciting" novel was dull stuff
up against that world convulsion. What did the romance of love mean,
the little tortures of one man's heart, or one woman's, troubled in
their mating, when thousands of men were being killed and vast
populations were in agony? History--Greek or Roman or medieval--what
was the use of reading that old stuff, now that world history was
being made with a rush? Poetry--poor poets with their love of beauty!
What did beauty matter, now that it lay dead in the soul of the world,
under the filth of battlefields, and the dirt of hate and cruelty, and
the law of the apelike man? No--we could not read; but talked and
talked about the old philosophy of life, and the structure of society,
and Democracy and Liberty and Patriotism and Internationalism, and
Brotherhood of Men, and God, and Christian ethics; and then talked no
more, because all words were futile, and just brooded and brooded,
after searching the daily paper (two days old) for any kind of hope
and light, not finding either.
At first, in the beginning of the war, our officers and men believed
that it would have a quick ending. Our first Expeditionary Force came
out to France with the cheerful shout of "Now we sha'n't be long!"
before they fell back from an advancing tide of Germans from Mons to
the Marne, and fell in their youth like autumn leaves. The New Army
boys who followed them were desperate to get out to "the great
adventure." They cursed the length of their training in English camps.
"We sha'n't get out till it's too late!" they said. Too late, O God!
Even when they had had their first spell in the trenches and came up
against German strength they kept a queer faith, for a time, that
"something" would happen to bring peace as quickly as war had come.
Peace was always coming three months ahead. Generals and staff-
officers, as well as sergeants and privates, had that strong optimism,
not based on any kind of reason; but gradually it died out, and in its
place came the awful conviction which settled upon the hearts of the
fighting-men, that this war would go on forever, that it was their
doom always to live in ditches and dugouts, and that their only way of
escape was by a "Blighty" wound or by death.
A chaplain I knew used to try to cheer up despondent boys by
pretending to have special knowledge of inside politics.
"I have it on good authority," he said, "that peace is near at hand.
There have been negotiations in Paris--"
"I don't mind telling you lads that if you get through the next scrap
you will have peace before you know where you are."
They were not believing, now. He had played that game too often.
"Old stuff, padre!" they said.
That particular crowd did not get through the next scrap. But the
padre's authority was good. They had peace long before the armistice.
It was worst of all for boys of sensitive minds who were lucky enough
to get a "cushie" wound, and so went on and on, or who were patched up
again quickly after one, two, or three wounds, and came back again. It
was a boy like that who revealed his bitterness to me one day as we
stood together in the salient.
"It's the length of the war," he said, "which does one down. At first
it seemed like a big adventure, and the excitement of it, horrible
though it was, kept one going. Even the first time I went over the top
wasn't so bad as I thought it would be. I was dazed and drunk with all
sorts of emotions, including fear, that were worse before going over.
I had what we call `the needle.' They all have it. Afterward one
didn't know what one was doing--even the killing part of the business-
-until one reached the objective and lay down and had time to think
and to count the dead about. . . Now the excitement has gone out of
it, and the war looks as though it would go on forever. At first we
all searched the papers for some hope that the end was near. We don't
do that now. We know that whenever the war ends, this year or next,
this little crowd will be mostly wiped out. Bound to be. And why are
we going to die? That's what all of us want to know. What's it all
about? Oh yes, I know the usual answers: 'In defense of liberty,' 'To
save the Empire.' But we've all lost our liberty. We're slaves under
shell-fire. And as for the Empire--I don't give a curse for it. I'm
thinking only of my little home at Streatham Hill. The horrible Hun?
I've no quarrel with the poor blighters over there by Hooge. They are
in the same bloody mess as we are. They hate it just as much. We're
all under a spell together, which some devils have put on us. I wonder
if there's a God anywhere."
This sense of being under a black spell I found expressed by other
men, and by German prisoners who used the same phrase. I remember one
of them in the battles of the Somme, who said, in good English: "This
war was not made in any sense by mankind. We are under a spell." This
belief was due, I think, to the impersonal character of modern
warfare, in which gun-fire is at so long a range that shell-fire has
the quality of natural and elemental powers of death--like
thunderbolts--and men killed twenty miles behind the lines while
walking over sunny fields or in busy villages had no thought of a
human enemy desiring their individual death.
God and Christianity raised perplexities in the minds of simple lads
desiring life and not death. They could not reconcile the Christian
precepts of the chaplain with the bayoneting of Germans and the
shambles of the battlefields. All this blood and mangled flesh in the
fields of France and Flanders seemed to them--to many of them, I know-
-a certain proof that God did not exist, or if He did exist was not,
as they were told, a God of Love, but a monster glad of the agonies of
men. That at least was the thought expressed to me by some London lads
who argued the matter with me one day, and that was the thought which
our army chaplains had to meet from men who would not be put off by
conventional words. It was not good enough to tell them that the
Germans were guilty of all this crime and that unless the Germans were
beaten the world would lose its liberty and life. "Yes, we know all
that," they said, "but why did God allow the Germans, or the statesmen
who arranged the world by force, or the clergy who christened British
warships? And how is it that both sides pray to the same God for
victory? There must be something wrong somewhere."
It was not often men talked like that, except to some chaplain who was
a human, comradely soul, some Catholic "padre" who devoted himself
fearlessly to their bodily and spiritual needs, risking his life with
them, or to some Presbyterian minister who brought them hot cocoa
under shell-fire, with a cheery word or two, as I once heard, of "Keep
your hearts up, my lads, and your heads down."
Most of the men became fatalists, with odd superstitions in the place
of faith. "It's no good worrying," they said.
"If your name is written on a German shell you can't escape it, and if
it isn't written, nothing can touch you."
Officers as well as men had this fatalistic belief and superstitions
which amused them and helped them. "Have the Huns found you out yet?"
I asked some gunner officers in a ruined farmhouse near Kemmel Hill.
"Not yet," said one of them, and then they all left the table at which
we were at lunch and, making a rush for some oak beams, embraced them
ardently. They were touching wood.
"Take this with you," said an Irish officer on a night I went to
Ypres. "It will help you as it has helped me. It's my lucky charm." He
gave me a little bit of coal which he carried in his tunic, and he was
so earnest about it that I took it without a smile and felt the safer
Once in a while the men went home on seven days' leave, or four, and
then came back again, gloomily, with a curious kind of hatred of
England because the people there seemed so callous to their suffering,
so utterly without understanding, so "damned cheerful." They hated the
smiling women in the streets. They loathed the old men who said, "If I
had six sons I would sacrifice them all in the Sacred Cause." They
desired that profiteers should die by poison-gas. They prayed God to
get the Germans to send Zeppelins to England--to make the people know
what war meant. Their leave had done them no good at all.
From a week-end at home I stood among a number of soldiers who were
going back to the front, after one of those leaves. The boat warped
away from the pier, the M. T. O. and a small group of officers,
detectives, and Red Cross men disappeared behind an empty train, and
the "revenants" on deck stared back at the cliffs of England across a
widening strip of sea.
"Back to the bloody old trenches," said a voice, and the words ended
with a hard laugh. They were spoken by a young officer of the Guards,
whom I had seen on the platform of Victoria saying good-by to a pretty
woman, who had put her hand on his shoulder for a moment, and said,
"Do be careful, Desmond, for my sake!" Afterward he had sat in the
corner of his carriage, staring with a fixed gaze at the rushing
countryside, but seeing nothing of it, perhaps, as his thoughts
traveled backward. (A few days later he was blown to bits by a bomb--
an accident of war.)
A little man on deck came up to me and said, in a melancholy way, "You
know who I am, don't you, sir?"
I hadn't the least idea who he was--this little ginger--haired soldier
with a wizened and wistful face. But I saw that he wore the claret-
colored ribbon of the V. C. on his khaki tunic. He gave me his name,
and said the papers had "done him proud," and that they had made a lot
of him at home--presentations, receptions, speeches, Lord Mayor's
addresses, cheering crowds, and all that. He was one of our Heroes,
though one couldn't tell it by the look of him.
"Now I'm going back to the trenches," he said, gloomily. "Same old
business and one of the crowd again." He was suffering from the
reaction of popular idolatry. He felt hipped because no one made a
fuss of him now or bothered about his claret-colored ribbon. The
staff-officers, chaplains, brigade majors, regimental officers, and
army nurses were more interested in an airship, a silver fish with
shining gills and a humming song in its stomach.
France . . . and the beginning of what the little V. C. had called
"the same old business." There was the long fleet of motor-ambulances
as a reminder of the ultimate business of all those young men in khaki
whom I had seen drilling in the Embankment gardens and shouldering
their way down the Strand.
Some stretchers were being carried to the lift which goes down to the
deck of the hospital-ship, on which an officer was ticking off each
wounded body after a glance at the label tied to the man's tunic.
Several young officers lay under the blankets on those stretchers and
one of them caught my eye and smiled as I looked down upon him. The
same old business and the same old pluck.
I motored down the long, straight roads of France eastward, toward
that network of lines which are the end of all journeys after a few
days' leave, home and back again. The same old sights and sounds and
smells which, as long as memory lasts, to men who had the luck to live
through the war, will haunt them for the rest of life, and speak of
The harvest was nearly gathered in, and where, a week or two before,
there had been fields of high, bronzed corn there were now long
stretches of stubbled ground waiting for the plow. The wheat-sheaves
had been piled into stacks or, from many great fields, carted away to
the red-roofed barns below the black old windmills whose sails were
motionless because no breath of air stirred on this September
afternoon. The smell of Flemish villages--a mingled odor of sun-baked
thatch and bakeries and manure heaps and cows and ancient vapors
stored up through the centuries--was overborne by a new and more
pungent aroma which crept over the fields with the evening haze.
It was a sad, melancholy smell, telling of corruption and death. It
was the first breath of autumn, and I shivered a little. Must there be
another winter of war? The old misery of darkness and dampness was
creeping up through the splendor of September sunshine.
Those soldiers did not seem to smell it, or, if their nostrils were
keen, to mind its menace--those soldiers who came marching down the
road, with tanned faces. How fine they looked, and how hard, and how
cheerful, with their lot! Speak to them separately and every man would
"grouse" at the duration of the war and swear that he was "fed up"
with it. Homesickness assailed them at times with a deadly nostalgia.
The hammering of shell-fire, which takes its daily toll, spoiled their
temper and shook their nerves, as far as a British soldier had any
nerves, which I used to sometimes doubt, until I saw again the shell-
But again I heard their laughter and an old song whistled vilely out
of tune, but cheerful to the tramp of their feet. They were going back
to the trenches after a spell in a rest-camp, to the same old business
of whizz-bangs and pip-squeaks, and dugouts, and the smell of wet clay
and chloride of lime, and the life of earth-men who once belonged to a
civilization which had passed. And they went whistling on their way,
because it was the very best thing to do.
One picked up the old landmarks again, and got back into the "feel" of
the war zone. There were the five old windmills of Cassel that wave
their arms up the hill road, and the estaminets by which one found
one's way down country lanes--"The Veritable Cuckoo" and "The Lost
Corner" and "The Flower of the Fields"--and the first smashed roofs
and broken barns which led to the area of constant shell-fire. Ugh!
So it was still going on, this bloody murder! There were some more
cottages down in the village, where we had tea a month before. And in
the market-place of a sleepy old town the windows were mostly broken
and some shops had gone into dust and ashes. That was new since we
last passed this way.
London was only seven hours away, but the hours on leave there seemed
a year ago already. The men who had come back, after sleeping in
civilization with a blessed sense of safety, had a few minutes of
queer surprise that, after all, this business of war was something
more real than a fantastic nightmare, and then put on their moral
cloaks against the chill and grim reality, for another long spell of
it. Very quickly the familiarity of it all came back to them and
became the normal instead of the abnormal. They were back again to the
settled state of war, as boys go back to public schools after the
wrench from home, and find that the holiday is only the incident and
school the more enduring experience.
There were no new impressions, only the repetition of old impressions.
So I found when I heard the guns again and watched the shells bursting
about Ypres and over Kemmel Ridge and Messines church tower.
Two German airplanes passed overhead, and the hum of their engines was
loud in my ears as I lay in the grass. Our shrapnel burst about them,
but did not touch their wings. All around there was the slamming of
great guns, and I sat chewing a bit of straw by the side of a shell-
hole, thinking in the same old way of the utter senselessness of all
this noise and hate and sudden death which encircled me for miles. No
amount of meditation would screw a new meaning out of it all. It was
just the commonplace of life out here.
The routine of it went on. The officer who came back from home stepped
into his old place, and after the first greeting of, "Hullo, old man!
Had a good time?" found his old job waiting for him. So there was a
new brigadier-general? Quick promotion, by Jove!
Four men had got knocked out that morning at D4, and it was rotten bad
luck that the sergeant-major should have been among them. A real good
fellow. However, there's that court martial for this afternoon, and,
by the by, when is that timber coming up? Can't build the new dugout
if there's no decent wood to be got by stealing or otherwise. You
heard how the men got strafed in their billets the other day? Dirty
The man who had come back went into the trenches and had a word or two
with the N.C.O.'s. Then he went into his own dugout. The mice had been
getting at his papers. Oh yes, that's where he left his pipe! It was
lying under the trestle-table, just where he dropped it before going
on leave. The clay walls were a bit wet after the rains. He stood with
a chilled feeling in this little hole of his, staring at every
familiar thing in it.
Tacked to the wall was the portrait of a woman. He said good-by to her
at Victoria Station. How long ago? Surely more than seven hours, or
seven years. . . Outside there were the old noises. The guns were at
it again. That was a trench-mortar. The enemy's eight-inch howitzers
were plugging away. What a beastly row that machine-gun was making!
Playing on the same old spot. Why couldn't they leave it alone, the
asses? . . . Anyhow, there was no doubt about it--he had come back
again. Back to the trenches and the same old business.
There was a mine to be blown up that night and it would make a pretty
mess in the enemy's lines. The colonel was very cheerful about it, and
explained that a good deal of sapping had been done. "We've got the
bulge on 'em," he said, referring to the enemy's failures in this
class of work. In the mess all the officers were carrying on as usual,
making the same old jokes.
The man who had come back got back also the spirit of the thing with
astonishing rapidity. That other life of his, away there in old
London, was shut up in the cupboard of his heart.
So it went on and on until the torture of its boredom was broken by
the crash of big battles, and the New Armies, which had been learning
lessons in the School of Courage, went forward to the great test, and
passed, with honor.
THE NATURE OF A BATTLE
In September of 1915 the Commander-in-Chief and his staff were busy
with preparations for a battle, in conjunction with the French, which
had ambitious objects. These have never been stated because they were
not gained (and it was the habit of our High Command to conceal its
objectives and minimize their importance if their hopes were
unfulfilled), but beyond doubt the purpose of the battle was to gain
possession of Lens and its coal-fields, and by striking through
Hulluch and Haisnes to menace the German occupation of Lille. On the
British front the key of the enemy's position was Hill 70, to the
north of Lens, beyond the village of Loos, and the capture of that
village and that hill was the first essential of success.
The assault on these positions was to be made by two New Army
divisions of the 4th Corps: the 47th (London) Division, and the 15th
(Scottish) Division. They were to be supported by the 11th Corps,
consisting of the Guards and two new and untried divisions, the 21st
and the 24th. The Cavalry Corps (less the 3d Cavalry Division under
General Fanshawe) was in reserve far back at St.-Pol and Pernes; and
the Indian Cavalry Corps under General Remington was at Doullens; "to
be in readiness," wrote Sir John French, "to co-operate with the
French cavalry in exploiting any success which might be attained by
the French and British forces." . . . Oh, wonderful optimism! In that
Black Country of France, scattered with mining villages in which every
house was a machine-gun fort, with slag heaps and pit-heads which were
formidable redoubts, with trenches and barbed wire and brick-stacks,
and quarries, organized for defense in siege-warfare, cavalry might as
well have ridden through hell with hope of "exploiting" success. . .
"Plans for effective co-operation were fully arranged between the
cavalry commanders of both armies," wrote our Commander-in-Chief in
his despatch. I can imagine those gallant old gentlemen devising their
plans, with grave courtesy, over large maps, and A. D. C.'s clicking
heels in attendance, and an air of immense wisdom and most cheerful
assurance governing the proceedings in the salon of a French chateau.
. . The 3d Cavalry Division, less one brigade, was assigned to the
First Army as a reserve, and moved into the area of the 4th Corps on
the 2lst and 22d of September.
The movements of troops and the preparations for big events revealed
to every British soldier in France the "secret" of the coming battle.
Casualty clearing-stations were ordered to make ready for big numbers
of wounded. That was always one of the first signs of approaching
massacre. Vast quantities of shells were being brought up to the rail-
heads and stacked in the "dumps." They were the first-fruit of the
speeding up of munition-factories at home after the public outcry
against shell shortage and the lack of high explosives. Well, at last
the guns would not be starved. There was enough high-explosive force
available to blast the German trenches off the map. So it seemed to
our innocence--though years afterward we knew that no bombardment
would destroy all earthworks such as Germans made, and that always
machine-guns would slash our infantry advancing over the chaos of
Behind our lines in France, in scores of villages where our men were
quartered, there was a sense of impending fate. Soldiers of the New
Army knew that in a little while the lessons they had learned in the
School of Courage would be put to a more frightful test than that of
holding trenches in stationary warfare. Their boredom, the intolerable
monotony of that routine life, would be broken by more sensational
drama, and some of them were glad of that, and said: "Let's get on
with it. Anything rather than that deadly stagnation." And others, who
guessed they were chosen for the coming battle, and had a clear vision
of what kind of things would happen (they knew something about the
losses at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert), became more thoughtful than
usual, deeply introspective, wondering how many days of life they had
left to them.
Life was good out of the line in that September of '15. The land of
France was full of beauty, with bronzed corn-stooks in the fields, and
scarlet poppies in the grass, and a golden sunlight on old barns and
on little white churches and in orchards heavy with fruit. It was good
to go into the garden of a French chateau and pluck a rose and smell
its sweetness, and think back to England, where other roses were
blooming. England!. . . And in a few days--who could say?--perhaps
eternal sleep somewhere near Lens.
Some officers of the Guards came into the garden of the little house
where I lived at that time with other onlookers. It was an untidy
garden, with a stretch of grass-plot too rough to be called a lawn,
but with pleasant shade under the trees, and a potager with
raspberries and currants on the bushes, and flower-beds where red and
white roses dropped their petals.
Two officers of the Scots Guards, inseparable friends, came to gossip
with us, and read the papers, and drink a little whisky in the
evenings, and pick the raspberries. They were not professional
soldiers. One of them had been a stock-broker, the other "something in
the city." They disliked the army system with an undisguised hatred
and contempt. They hated war with a ferocity which was only a little
"camouflaged" by the irony and the brutality of their anecdotes of
war's little comedies. They took a grim delight in the humor of
corpses, lice, bayonet--work, and the sniping of fair-haired German
boys. They laughed, almost excessively, at these attributes of
warfare, and one of them used to remark, after some such anecdote,
"And once I was a little gentleman!"
He was a gentleman still, with a love of nature in his heart--I saw
him touch the petals of living roses with a caress in his finger-tips-
-and with a spiritual revolt against the beastliness of this new job
of his, although he was a strong, hard fellow, without weakness of
sentiment. His close comrade was of more delicate fiber, a gentle
soul, not made for soldiering at all, but rather for domestic life,
with children about him, and books. As the evenings passed in this
French village, drawing him closer to Loos by the flight of time, I
saw the trouble in his eyes which he tried to hide by smiling and by
courteous conversation. He was being drawn closer to Loos and farther
away from the wife who knew nothing of what that name meant to her and
Other officers of the Guards came into the garden--Grenadiers. There
were two young brothers of an old family who had always sent their
sons to war. They looked absurdly young when they took off their
tunics and played a game of cricket, with a club for a bat, and a
tennis-ball. They were just schoolboys, but with the gravity of men
who knew that life is short. I watched their young athletic figures,
so clean-limbed, so full of grace, as they threw the ball, and had a
vision of them lying mangled.
An Indian prince came into the garden. It was "Ranjitsinji," who had
carried his bat to many a pavilion where English men and women had
clapped their hands to him, on glorious days when there was sunlight
on English lawns. He took the club and stood at the wicket and was
bowled third ball by a man who had only played cricket after ye manner
of Stratford-atte-Bow. But then he found himself, handled the club
like a sword, watched the ball with a falcon's eye, played with it. He
was on the staff of the Indian Cavalry Corps, which was "to co-operate
in exploiting any success."
"To-morrow we move," said one of the Scots Guards officers. The
colonel of the battalion came to dinner at our mess, sitting down to a
white tablecloth for the last time in his life. They played a game of
cards, and went away earlier than usual.
Two of them lingered after the colonel had gone. They drank more
"We must be going," they said, but did not go.
The delicate-looking man could not hide the trouble in his eyes.
"I sha'n't be killed this time," he said to a friend of mine. "I shall
be badly wounded."
The hard man, who loved flowers, drank his fourth glass of whisky.
"It's going to be damned uncomfortable," he said. "I wish the filthy
thing were over. Our generals will probably arrange some glorious
little massacres. I know 'em! . . . Well, good night, all."
They went out into the darkness of the village lane. Battalions were
already on the move, in the night. Their steady tramp of feet beat on
the hard road. Their dark figures looked like an army of ghosts.
Sparks were spluttering out of the funnels of army cookers. A British
soldier in full field kit was kissing a woman in the shadow-world of
an estaminet. I passed close to them, almost touching them before I
was aware of their presence.
"Bonne chance!" said the woman. "Quand to reviens--"
"One more kiss, lassie," said the man.
"Mans comme to es gourmand, toi!"
He kissed her savagely, hungrily. Then he lurched off the sidewalk and
formed up with other men in the darkness.
The Scots Guards moved next morning. I stood by the side of the
colonel, who was in a gruff mood.
"It looks like rain," he said, sniffing the air. "It will probably
rain like hell when the battle begins."
I think he was killed somewhere by Fosse 8. The two comrades in the
Scots Guards were badly wounded. One of the young brothers was killed
and the other maimed. I found their names in the casualty lists which
filled columns of The Times for a long time after Loos.
The town of Bethune was the capital of our army in the Black Country
of the French coal-fields. It was not much shelled in those days,
though afterward--years afterward--it was badly damaged by long-range
guns, so that its people fled, at last, after living so long on the
edge of war.
Its people were friendly to our men, and did not raise their prices
exorbitantly. There were good shops in the town--"as good as Paris,"
said soldiers who had never been to Paris, but found these plate-glass
windows dazzling, after trench life, and loved to see the "mamzelles"
behind the counters and walking out smartly, with little high-heeled
shoes. There were tea-shops, crowded always with officers on their way
to the line or just out of it, and they liked to speak French with the
girls who served them. Those girls saw the hunger in those men's eyes,
who watched every movement they made, who tried to touch their hands
and their frocks in passing. They knew they were desired, as daughters
of Eve, by boys who were starved of love. They took that as part of
their business, distributing cakes and buns without favor, with
laughter in their eyes, and a merry word or two. Now and then, when
they had leisure, they retired to inner rooms, divided by curtains
from the shop, and sat on the knees of young British officers, while
others played ragtime or sentimental ballads on untuned pianos. There
was champagne as well as tea to be had in these bun--shops, but the A.
P. M. was down on disorder or riotous gaiety, and there were no
orgies. "Pas d'orgies," said the young ladies severely when things
were getting a little too lively. They had to think of their business.
Down side-streets here and there were houses where other women lived,
not so severe in their point of view. Their business, indeed, did not
permit of severity, and they catered for the hunger of men exiled year
after year from their own home-life and from decent womanhood. They
gave the base counterfeit of love in return for a few francs, and
there were long lines of men--English, Irish, and Scottish soldiers--
who waited their turn to get that vile imitation of life's romance
from women who were bought and paid for. Our men paid a higher price
than a few francs for the Circe's cup of pleasure, which changed them
into swine for a while, until the spell passed, and would have blasted
their souls if God were not understanding of human weakness and of
war. They paid in their bodies, if not in their souls, those boys of
ours who loved life and beauty and gentle things, and lived in filth
and shell-fire, and were trained to kill, and knew that death was
hunting for them and had all the odds of luck. Their children and
their children's children will pay also for the sins of their fathers,
by rickety limbs and water--on-the-brain, and madness, and
tuberculosis, and other evils which are the wages of sin, which
flourished most rankly behind the fields of war.
The inhabitants of Bethune--the shopkeepers, and brave little families
of France, and bright-eyed girls, and frowzy women, and heroines, and
harlots--came out into the streets before the battle of Loos, and
watched the British army pouring through--battalions of Londoners and
Scots, in full fighting-kit, with hot sweat on their faces, and grim
eyes, and endless columns of field-guns and limbers, drawn by hard-
mouthed mules cursed and thrashed by their drivers, and ambulances,
empty now, and wagons, and motor-lorries, hour after hour, day after
"Bonne chance!" cried the women, waving hands and handkerchiefs.
"Les pauvres enfants!" said the old women, wiping their eyes on dirty
aprons. "We know how it is. They will be shot to pieces. It is always
like that, in this sacred war. Oh, those sacred pigs of Germans! Those
dirty Boches! Those sacred bandits!"
"They are going to give the Boches a hard knock," said grizzled men,
who remembered in their boyhood another war. "The English army is
ready. How splendid they are, those boys! And ours are on the right of
them. This time--!"
"Mother of God, hark at the guns!"
At night, as dark fell, the people of Bethune gathered in the great
square by the Hotel de Ville, which afterward was smashed, and
listened to the laboring of the guns over there by Vermelles and
Noeux-les-Mines, and Grenay, and beyond Notre Dame de Lorette, where
the French guns were at work. There were loud, earth--shaking
rumblings, and now and then enormous concussions. In the night sky
lights rose in long, spreading bars of ruddy luminance, in single
flashes, in sudden torches of scarlet flame rising to the clouds and
touching them with rosy feathers.
"'Cre nom de Dieu!" said French peasants, on the edge of all that, in
villages like Gouy, Servins, Heuchin, Houdain, Grenay, Bruay, and
Pernes. "The caldron is boiling up. . . There will be a fine pot-au-
They wondered if their own sons would be in the broth. Some of them
knew, and crossed themselves by wayside shrines for the sake of their
sons' souls, or in their estaminets cursed the Germans with the same
old curses for having brought all this woe into the world.
In those villages--Heuchin, Houdain, Lillers, and others--on the edge
of the Black Country the Scottish troops of the 15th Division were in
training for the arena, practising attacks on trenches and villages,
getting a fine edge of efficiency on to bayonet-work and bombing, and
having their morale heightened by addresses from brigadiers and
divisional commanders on the glorious privilege which was about to be
theirs of leading the assault, and on the joys as well as the duty of
In one battalion of Scots--the 10th Gordons, who were afterward the
8/10th--there were conferences of company commanders and whispered
consultations of subalterns. They were "Kitchener" men, from Edinburgh
and Aberdeen and other towns in the North. I came to know them all
after this battle, and gave them fancy names in my despatches: the
Georgian gentleman, as handsome as Beau Brummell, and a gallant
soldier, who was several times wounded, but came back to command his
old battalion, and then was wounded again nigh unto death, but came
back again; and Honest John, slow of speech, with a twinkle in his
eyes, careless of shell splinters flying around his bullet head, hard
and tough and cunning in war; and little Ginger, with his whimsical
face and freckles, and love of pretty girls and all children, until he
was killed in Flanders; and the Permanent Temporary Lieutenant who
fell on the Somme; and the Giant who had a splinter through his brain
beyond Arras; and many other Highland gentlemen, and one English padre
who went with them always to the trenches, until a shell took his head
off at the crossroads.
It was the first big attack of the 15th Division. They were determined
to go fast and go far. Their pride of race was stronger than the
strain on their nerves. Many of them, I am certain, had no sense of
fear, no apprehension of death or wounds. Excitement, the comradeship
of courage, the rivalry of battalions, lifted them above anxiety
before the battle began, though here and there men like Ginger, of
more delicate fiber, of imagination as well as courage, must have
stared in great moments at the grisly specter toward whom they would
soon be walking.
In other villages were battalions of the 47th London Division. They,
too, were to be in the first line of attack, on the right of the
Scots. They, too, had to win honor for the New Army and old London.
They were a different crowd from the Scots, not so hard, not so steel-
-nerved, with more sensibility to suffering, more imagination, more
instinctive revolt against the butchery that was to come. But they,
too, had been "doped" for morale, their nervous tension had been
tightened up by speeches addressed to their spirit and tradition. It
was to be London's day out. They were to fight for the glory of the
old town . . . the old town where they had lived in little suburban
houses with flower-gardens, where they had gone up by the early
morning trains to city offices and government offices and warehouses
and shops, in days before they ever guessed they would go a-
soldiering, and crouch in shell-holes under high explosives, and
thrust sharp steel into German bowels. But they would do their best.
They would go through with it. They would keep their sense of humor
and make cockney jokes at death. They would show the stuff of London
"Domine, dirige nos!"
I knew many of those young Londoners. I had sat in tea-shops with them
when they were playing dominoes, before the war, as though that were
the most important game in life. I had met one of them at a fancy-
dress ball in the Albert Hall, when he was Sir Walter Raleigh and I
was Richard Sheridan. Then we were both onlookers of life--chroniclers
of passing history. I remained the onlooker, even in war, but my
friend went into the arena. He was a Royal Fusilier, and the old way
of life became a dream to him when he walked toward Loos, and
afterward sat in shell-craters in the Somme fields, and knew that
death would find him, as it did, in Flanders. I had played chess with
one man whom afterward I met as a gunner officer at Heninel, near
Arras, on an afternoon when a shell had killed three of his men
bathing in a tank, and other shells made a mess of blood and flesh in
his wagon-lines. We both wore steel hats, and he was the first to
recognize a face from the world of peace. After his greeting he swore
frightful oaths, cursing the war and the Staff. His nerves were all
jangled. There was another officer in the 47th London Division whom I
had known as a boy. He was only nineteen when he enlisted, not twenty
when he had fought through several battles. He and hundreds like him
had been playing at red Indians in Kensington Gardens a few years
before an August in 1914. . . The 47th London Division, going forward
to the battle of Loos, was made up of men whose souls had been shaped
by all the influences of environment, habit, and tradition in which I
had been born and bred. Their cradle had been rocked to the murmurous
roar of London traffic. Their first adventures had been on London
Commons. The lights along the Embankment, the excitement of the
streets, the faces of London crowds, royal pageantry--marriages,
crownings, burials--on the way to Westminster, the little dramas of
London life, had been woven into the fiber of their thoughts, and it
was the spirit of London which went with them wherever they walked in
France or Flanders, more sensitive than country men to the things they
saw. Some of them had to fight against their nerves on the way to
Loos. But their spirit was exalted by a nervous stimulus before that
battle, so that they did freakish and fantastic things of courage.
I watched the preliminary bombardment of the Loos battlefields from a
black slag heap beyond Noeux-les-Mines, and afterward went on the
battleground up to the Loos redoubt, when our guns and the enemy's
were hard at work; and later still, in years that followed, when there
was never a silence of guns in those fields, came to know the ground
from many points of view. It was a hideous territory, this Black
Country between Lens and Hulluch. From the flat country below the
distant ridges of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy there rose a number
of high black cones made by the refuse of the coal-mines, which were
called Fosses. Around those black mounds there was great slaughter, as
at Fosse 8 and Fosse 10 and Puits 14bis, and the Double Crassier near
Loos, because they gave observation and were important to capture or
hold. Near them were the pit-heads, with winding-gear in elevated
towers of steel which were smashed and twisted by gun-fire; and in
Loos itself were two of those towers joined by steel girders and
gantries, called the "Tower Bridge" by men of London. Rows of red
cottages where the French miners had lived were called corons, and
where they were grouped into large units they were called cites, like
the Cite St.-Auguste, the Cite St.-Pierre, and the Cite St.-Laurent,
beyond Hill 70, on the outskirts of Lens. All those places were
abandoned now by black-grimed men who had fled down mine-shafts and
galleries with their women and children, and had come up on our side
of the lines at Noeux-les-Mines or Bruay or Bully-Grenay, where they
still lived close to the war. Shells pierced the roof of the church in
that squalid village of Noeux--les-Mines and smashed some of the
cottages and killed some of the people now and then. Later in the war,
when aircraft dropped bombs at night, a new peril over--shadowed them
with terror, and they lived in their cellars after dusk, and sometimes
were buried there. But they would not retreat farther back--not many
of them--and on days of battle I saw groups of French miners and
dirty-bloused girls excited by the passage of our troops and by the
walking wounded who came stumbling back, and by stretcher cases
unloaded from ambulances to the floors of their dirty cottages. High
velocities fell in some of the streets, shrapnel-shells whined
overhead and burst like thunderclaps. Young hooligans of France
slouched around with their hands in their pockets, talking to our men
in a queer lingua franca, grimacing at those noises if they did not
come too near. I saw lightly wounded girls among them, with bandaged
heads and hands, but they did not think that a reason for escape. With
smoothly braided hair they gathered round British soldiers in steel
hats and clasped their arms or leaned against their shoulders. They
had known many of those men before. They were their sweethearts. In
those foul little mining towns the British troops had liked their
billets, because of the girls there. London boys and Scots "kept
company" with pretty slatterns, who stole their badges for keepsakes,
and taught them a base patois of French, and had a smudge of tears on
their cheeks when the boys went away for a spell in the ditches of
death. They were kind-hearted little sluts with astounding courage.
"Aren't you afraid of this place?" I asked one of them in Bully-Grenay
when it was "unhealthy" there. "You might be killed here any minute."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Je m'en fiche de la mort!" ("I don't care a damn about death.")
I had the same answer from other girls in other places.
That was the mise-en-scene of the battle of Loos--those mining towns
behind the lines, then a maze of communication trenches entered from a
place called Philosophe, leading up to the trench-lines beyond
Vermelles, and running northward to Cambrin and Givenchy, opposite
Hulluch, Haisnes, and La Bassee, where the enemy had his trenches and
earthworks among the slag heaps, the pit-heads, the corons and the
cites, all broken by gun-fire, and nowhere a sign of human life
aboveground, in which many men were hidden.
Storms of gun-fire broke loose from our batteries a week before the
battle. It was our first demonstration of those stores of high-
explosive shells which had been made by the speeding up of munition-
work in England, and of a gun-power which had been growing steadily
since the coming out of the New Army. The weather was heavy with mist
and a drizzle of rain. Banks of smoke made a pall over all the arena
of war, and it was stabbed and torn by the incessant flash of bursting
shells. I stood on the slag heap, staring at this curtain of smoke,
hour after hour, dazed by the tumult of noise and by that impenetrable
veil which hid all human drama. There was no movement of men to be
seen, no slaughter, no heroic episode--only through rifts in the smoke
the blurred edges of slag heaps and pit-heads, and smoking ruins.
German trenches were being battered in, German dugouts made into the
tombs of living men, German bodies tossed up with earth and stones--
all that was certain but invisible.
"Very boring," said an officer by my side. "Not a damn thing to be
"Our men ought to have a walk-over," said an optimist. "Any living
German must be a gibbering idiot with shell-shock."
"I expect they're playing cards in their dugouts," said the officer
who was bored. "Even high explosives don't go down very deep."
"It's stupendous, all the same. By God! hark at that! It seems more
than human. It's like some convulsion of nature."
"There's no adventure in modern war," said the bored man. "It's a
dirty scientific business. I'd kill all chemists and explosive
"Our men will have adventure enough when they go over the top at dawn.
Hell must be a game compared with that."
The guns went on pounding away, day after day, laboring, pummeling,
hammering, like Thor with his thunderbolts. It was the preparation for
battle. No men were out of the trenches yet, though some were being
killed there and elsewhere, at the crossroads by Philosophe, and
outside the village of Masingarbe, and in the ruins of Vermelles, and
away up at Cambrin and Givenchy. The German guns were answering back
intermittentlv, but holding most of their fire until human flesh came
out into the open. The battle began at dawn on Septembet 25th.
In order to distract the enemy's attention and hold his troops away
from the main battle-front, "subsidiary attacks" were made upon the
German lines as far north as Bellewarde Farm, to the east of Ypres,
and southward to La Bassee Canal at Givenchy, by the troops of the
Second and Third Armies. This object, wrote Sir John French, in his
despatch, "was most effectively achieved." It was achieved by the
bloody sacrifice of many brave battalions in the 3d and 14th Divisions
(Yorkshire, Royal Scots, King's Royal Rifles, and others), and by the
Meerut Division of the Indian Corps, who set out to attack terrible
lines without sufficient artillery support, and without reserves
behind them, and without any chance of holding the ground they might
capture. It was part of the system of war. They were the pawns of
"strategy," serving a high purpose in a way that seemed to them
without reason. Not for them was the glory of a victorious assault.
Their job was to "demonstrate" by exposing their bodies to devouring
fire, and by attacking earthworks which they were not expected to
hold. Here and there men of ours, after their rush over No Man's Land
under a deadly sweep of machine-gun fire, flung themselves into the
enemy's trenches, bayoneting the Germans and capturing the greater
part of their first line. There they lay panting among wounded and
dead, and after that shoveled up earth and burrowed to get cover from
the shelling which was soon to fall on them. Quickly the enemy
discovered their whereabouts and laid down a barrage fire which, with
deadly accuracy, plowed up their old front line and tossed it about on
the pitchforks of bursting shells. Our men's bodies were mangled in
that earth. High explosives plunged into the midst of little groups
crouching in holes and caverns of the ground, and scattered their
limbs. Living, unwounded men lay under those screaming shells with the
panting hearts of toads under the beat of flails. Wounded men crawled
back over No Man's Land, and some were blown to bits as they crawled,
and others got back. Before nightfall, in the dark, a general
retirement was ordered to our original line in that northern sector,
owing to the increasing casualties under the relentless work of the
German guns. Like ants on the move, thousands of men rose from the
upheaved earth, and with their stomachs close to it, crouching, came
back, dragging their wounded. The dead were left.
"On the front of the Third Army," wrote Sir John French, "subsidiary
operations of a similar nature were successfully carried out."
From the point of view of high generalship those holding attacks had
served their purpose pretty well. From the point of view of mothers'
sons they had been a bloody shambles without any gain. The point of
view depends on the angle of vision.
Let me now tell the story of the main battle of Loos as I was able to
piece it together from the accounts of men in different parts of the
field--no man could see more than his immediate neighborhood--and from
the officers who survived. It is a story full of the psychology of
battle, with many strange incidents which happened to men when their
spirit was uplifted by that mingling of exultation and fear which is
heroism, and with queer episodes almost verging on comedy in the midst
of death and agony, at the end of a day of victory, most ghastly
The three attacking divisions from left to right on the line opposite
the villages of Hulluch and Loos were the 1st, the 15th (Scottish),
and the 47th (London). Higher up, opposite Hulluch and Haisnes, the
9th (Scottish) Division and the 7th Division were in front of the
Hohenzollern redoubt (chalky earthworks thrust out beyond the German
front-line trenches, on rising ground) and some chalk-quarries.
The men of those divisions were lined up during the night in the
communication trenches, which had been dug by the sappers and laid
with miles of telephone wire. They were silent, except for the chink
of shovels and side arms, the shuffle of men's feet, their hard
breathing, and occasional words of command. At five-thirty, when the
guns in all our batteries were firing at full blast, with a constant
scream of shells over the heads of the waiting men, and when the first
faint light of day stole into the sky, there was a slight rain
falling, and the wind blew lightly from the southwest.
In the front-line trenches a number of men were busy with some long,
narrow cylinders, which had been carried up a day before. They were
arranging them in the mud of the parapets with their nozles facing the
"That's the stuff to give them!"
"What is it?"
"Poison-gas. Worse than they used at Ypres."
"Christ! . . . supposing we have to walk through it?"
"We shall walk behind it. The wind will carry it down the throat of
the Fritzes. We shall find 'em dead."
So men I met had talked of that new weapon which most of them hated.
It was at five-thirty when the men busy with the cylinders turned on
little taps. There was a faint hissing noise, the escape of gas from
many pipes. A heavy, whitish cloud came out of the cylinders and
traveled aboveground as it was lifted and carried forward by the
"How's the gas working?" asked a Scottish officer.