Part 5 out of 5
* * * * *
Meanwhile, a few doors away, a host of officers is sitting in the Cafe
de la Terre. Cafes are as plentiful as blackberries in this, as in
most other French provincial towns, and they are usually filled to
overflowing with privates of the British Army heroically drinking beer
upon which they know it is impossible to get intoxicated. But the
proprietor of the Cafe de la Terre is a long-headed citizen. By the
simple expedient of labelling his premises "Officers Only," and making
a minimum charge of one franc per drink, he has at a single stroke
ensured the presence of the _elite_ and increased his profits tenfold.
Many arms of the Service are grouped round the little marble-topped
tables, for the district is stiff with British troops, and promises
to grow stiffer. In fact, so persistently are the eagles gathering
together upon this, the edge of the fighting line, that rumour is
busier than ever. The Big Push holds redoubled sway in our thoughts.
The First Hundred Thousand are well represented, for the whole
Scottish Division is in the neighbourhood. Beside the glengarries
there are countless flat caps--line regiments, territorials, gunners,
and sappers. The Army Service Corps is there in force, recruiting
exhausted nature from the strain of dashing about the countryside in
motor-cars. The R.A.M.C. is strongly represented, doubtless to test
the purity of the refreshment provided. Even the Staff has torn itself
away from its arduous duties for the moment, as sundry red tabs
testify. In one corner sit four stout French civilians, playing a
At the very next table we find ourselves among friends. Here are Major
Kemp, also Captain Blaikie. They are accompanied by Ayling, Bobby
Little, and Mr. Waddell. The battalion came out of trenches yesterday,
and for the first time found itself in urban billets. For the moment
haylofts and wash-houses are things of the dim past. We are living in
real houses, sleeping in real beds, some with sheets.
To this group enters unexpectedly Captain Wagstaffe.
"Hallo, Wagger!" says Blaikie. "Back already?"
"Your surmise is correct," replies Wagstaffe, who has been home on
leave. "I got a wire yesterday at lunch-time--in the Savoy, of all
places! Every one on leave has been recalled. We were packed like
herrings on the boat. Garcon, biere--the brunette kind!"
"Tell us all about London," says Ayling hungrily. "What does it look
like? Tell us!"
We have been out here for the best part of five months now. Leave
opened a fortnight ago, amid acclamations--only to be closed again
within a few days. Wagstaffe was one of the lucky few who slipped
through the blessed portals. He now sips his beer and delivers his
"London is much as usual. A bit rattled over Zeppelins--they have
turned out even more street lamps--but nothing to signify. Country
districts crawling with troops. All the officers appear to be
colonels. Promotion at home is more rapid than out here. Chin, chin!"
Wagstaffe buries his face in his glass mug.
"What is the general attitude," asked Mr. Waddell, "towards the war?"
"Well, one's own friends are down in the dumps. Of course it's only
natural, because most of them are in mourning. Our losses are much
more noticeable at home than abroad, somehow. People seemed quite
surprised when I told them that things out here are as right as rain,
and that our troops are simply tumbling over one another, and that we
don't require any comic M.P.'s sent out to cheer us up. The fact is,
some people read the papers too much. At the present moment the London
press is, not to put too fine a point on it, making a holy show of
itself. I suppose there's some low-down political rig at the back of
it all, but the whole business must be perfect jam for the Bosches in
"What's the trouble?" inquired Major Kemp.
"Conscription, mostly. (Though why they should worry their little
heads about it, I don't know. If K. wants it we'll have it: if not,
we won't; so that's that!) Both sides are trying to drag the
great British Public into the scrap by the back of the neck. The
Conscription crowd, with whom one would naturally side if they
would play the game, seem to be out to unseat the Government as a
preliminary. They support their arguments by stating that the British
Army on the Western front is reduced to a few platoons, and that
they are allowed to fire one shell per day. At least, that's what I
"What do the other side say?" inquired Kemp.
"Oh, theirs is a very simple line of argument. They state, quite
simply, that if the personal liberty of Britain's workers--that
doesn't mean you and me, as you might think: we are the Overbearing
Militarist Oligarchy: a worker is a man who goes on strike,--they say
that if the personal liberty of these sacred perishers is interfered
with by the Overbearing Militarist Oligarchy aforesaid, there will
be a Revolution. That's all! Oh, they're a sweet lot, the British
"But what," inquired that earnest seeker after knowledge, Mr. Waddell,
"is the general attitude of the country at large upon this grave
Captain Wagstaffe chuckled.
"The dear old country at large," he replied, "is its dear old self,
as usual. It is not worrying one jot about Conscription, or us,
or anything like that. The one topic of conversation at present
"Who is Charlie Chaplin?" inquired several voices.
Wagstaffe shook his head.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he said. "All I know is that you can't
go anywhere in London without running up against him. He is It. The
mention of his name in a _revue_ is greeted with thunders of applause.
At one place I went to, twenty young men came upon the stage at once,
all got up as Charlie Chaplin."
"But who _is_ he?"
"That I can't tell you. I made several attempts to find out; but
whenever I asked the question people simply stared at me in amazement.
I felt quite ashamed: it was plain that I ought to have known. I have
a vague idea that he is some tremendous new boss whom the Government
have appointed to make shells, or something. Anyhow, the great British
Nation is far too much engrossed with Charles to worry about a little
thing like Conscription. Still, I should like to know. I feel I have
been rather unpatriotic about it all."
"I can tell you," said Bobby Little. "My servant is a great admirer of
his. He is the latest cinema star. Falls off roofs, and gets run over
"And keeps the police at bay with a firehose," added Wagstaffe.
"That's him! I know the type. Thank you, Bobby!"
Major Kemp put down his glass with a gentle sigh, and rose to go.
"We are a great nation," he remarked contentedly. "I was a bit anxious
about things at home, but I see now there was nothing to worry about.
We shall win all right. Well, I am off to the Mess. See you later,
"Meanwhile," inquired Wagstaffe, as the party settled down again,
"what is brewing here! I haven't seen the adjutant yet."
"You'll see him soon enough," replied Blaikie grimly. He glanced over
his shoulder towards the four civilian card-players. They looked
bourgeois enough and patriotic enough, but it is wise to take no
risks in a cafe, as a printed notice upon the war, signed by the
Provost-Marshal, was careful to point out. "Come for a stroll," he
Presently the two captains found themselves in a shady boulevard
leading to the outskirts of the town. Darkness was falling, and soon
would be intense; for lights are taboo in the neighbourhood of the
"Have we finished that new trench in front of our wire?" asked
"Yes. It is the best thing we have done yet. Divisional Headquarters
are rightly pleased about it."
Blaikie gave details. The order had gone forth that a new trench was
to be constructed in front of our present line--a hundred yards in
front. Accordingly, when night fell, two hundred unconcerned heroes
went forth, under their subalterns, and, squatting down in line
along a white tape (laid earlier in the evening by our imperturbable
friends, Lieutenants Box and Cox, of the Royal Engineers), proceeded
to dig the trench. Thirty yards ahead of them, facing the curious eyes
of countless Bosches, lay a covering party in extended order, ready to
repel a rush. Hour by hour the work went on--skilfully, silently. On
these occasions it is impossible to say what will happen. The enemy
knows we are there: he can see us quite plainly. But he has his own
night-work to do, and if he interferes with us he knows that our
machine-guns will interfere with him. So, provided that our labours
are conducted in a manner which is neither ostentatious nor
contemptuous--that is to say, provided we do not talk, whistle, or
smoke--he leaves us more or less alone.
But this particular task was not accomplished without loss: it was too
obviously important. Several times the German machine-guns sputtered
into flame, and each time the stretcher-bearers were called upon to
do their duty. Yet the work went on to its accomplishment, without
question, without slackening. The men were nearly all experts: they
had handled pick and shovel from boyhood. Soldiers of the line would
have worked quite as hard, maybe, but they would have taken twice as
long. But these dour sons of Scotland worked like giants--trained
giants. In four nights the trench, with traverses and approaches, was
complete. The men who had made it fell back to their dug-outs, and
shortly afterwards to their billets--there to spend the few odd francs
which their separation allotments had left them, upon extremely
hard-earned glasses of extremely small beer.
At home, several thousand patriotic Welshmen, fellows of the same
craft, were upholding the dignity of Labour, and the reputation of
the British Nation, by going out on strike for a further increase of
pay--an increase which they knew a helpless Government would grant
them. It was one of the strangest contrasts that the world has ever
seen. But the explanation thereof, as proffered by Private Mucklewame,
was quite simple and eminently sound.
"All the decent lads," he observed briefly, "are oot here."
"Good work!" said Wagstaffe, when Blaikie's tale was told. "What is
the new trench for, exactly?"
Blaikie told him.
"Tell me more!" urged Wagstaffe, deeply interested.
Blaikie's statement cannot be set down here, though the substance
of it may be common property to-day. When he had finished Wagstaffe
"And it's to be the day after to-morrow?" he said.
"Yes, if all goes well."
It was quite dark now. The horizon was brilliantly lit by the flashes
of big guns, and a continuous roar came throbbing through the soft
"If this thing goes with a click, as it ought to do," said Wagstaffe,
"it will be the biggest thing that ever happened--bigger even than
"Yes--_if_!" assented the cautious Blaikie.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for our section of 'K(1),'" continued
Wagstaffe. "We shall have a chance of making history over this, old
"Whatever we make--history or a bloomer--we'll do our level best,"
replied Blaikie. "At least, I hope 'A' Company will."
Then suddenly his reserved, undemonstrative Scottish tongue found
"Scotland for Ever!" he cried softly.
THE BATTLE OF THE SLAG-HEAPS
"Half-past two, and a cold morning, sir."
Thus Bobby Little's servant, rousing his employer from uneasy slumber
under the open sky, in a newly-constructed trench running parallel to
and in rear of the permanent trench line.
Bobby sat up, and peering at his luminous wrist-watch, morosely
acquiesced in his menial's gruesome statement. But he cheered up at
the next intimation.
"Breakfast is ready, sir."
Tea and bacon are always tea and bacon, even in the gross darkness and
mental tension which precede a Big Push. Presently various humped
figures in greatcoats, having gathered in the open ditch which did duty
for Officers' Mess, broke into spasmodic conversation--conversation
rendered even more spasmodic by the almost ceaseless roar of guns. There
were guns all round us--rank upon rank: to judge by the noise, you would
have said tier upon tier as well. Half a mile ahead, upon the face of a
gentle slope, a sequence of flames would spout from the ground, and a
storm of shells go whistling on their way. No sooner had this happened
than there would come a shattering roar from the ground beneath our
feet, and a heavy battery, concealed in a hedge fifty yards to our
front, would launch its contribution. Farther back lay heavier batteries
still, and beyond that batteries so powerful and so distant that one
heard the shell pass before the report arrived. One of these monsters,
coming apparently from infinity and bound for the back of beyond,
lumbered wearily over the heads of "A" Company, partaking of breakfast.
Private Mucklewame paused in the act of raising his canteen to his
"There's Wullie awa' for a walk!" he observed.
Considering that they were upon the eve of an epoch-making combat, the
regiment were disappointingly placid.
In the Officers' Mess the prevailing note was neither lust of battle
nor fear of death: it was merely that ordinary snappishness which is
induced by early rising and uncomfortable surroundings.
"It's going to rain, too," grumbled Major Kemp.
At this moment the Colonel arrived, with final instructions from the
"We move off at a quarter to four," he said, "up Fountain Alley and
Scottish Trench, into Central Boyau"--"boyau" is the name which is
given to a communication-trench in trenches which, like those in front
of us, are of French extraction--"and so over the parapet. There we
extend, as arranged, into lines of half-companies, and go at 'em,
making Douvrin our objective, and keeping the Hohenzollern and Fosse
Eight upon our left."
Fosse Eight is a mighty waste-heap, such as you may behold anywhere
along the railway in the colliery districts between Glasgow and
Edinburgh. The official map calls such an eminence a Fosse; the Royal
Engineers call it a Dump; Operation Orders call it a Slag-Heap;
experts like Ogg and Hogg (who ought to know if any one does) call it
a Bing. From this distance, two miles away, the Fosse looks as big
as North Berwick Law. It is one of the many scattered about this
district, all carefully numbered by the Ordnance. There are others,
again, towards Hulluch and Loos. Number Eight has been the object
of pressing attentions on the part of our big guns ever since the
bombardment began, three weeks ago; but it still stands up--gaunt,
grim, and defiant--against the eastern sky. Whether any one is left
alive upon it, or in it, is another question. We shall have cause to
remember Fosse Eight before this fight is over.
The Hohenzollern Redoubt, on the other hand, is a most inconspicuous
object, but a very important factor in the present situation. It has
been thrust forward from the Bosche lines to within a hundred yards
of our own--a great promontory, a maze of trenches, machine-gun
emplacements, and barbed wire, all flush with or under the ground, and
terribly difficult to cripple by shell fire. It has been a source
of great exasperation to us--a starting-point for saps, mines, and
bombing parties. As already stated, this mighty fortress has been
christened by its constructors, the Hohenzollern. It is attached
to its parent trench-line by two communicating trenches, which the
British Army, not to be outdone in reverence to the most august of
dynasties, have named Big and Little Willie respectively.
A struggling dawn breaks, bringing with it promise of rain, and the
regiment begins to marshal in the trench called Fountain Alley, along
which it is to wind, snake-like, in the wake of the preceding troops,
until it debouches over the parapet, a full mile away, and extends
Presently the order is given to move off, and the snake begins to
writhe. Progress is steady, but not exhilarating. We have several
battalions of the Division in front of us (which Bobby Little resents
as a personal affront), but have been assured that we shall see all
the fighting we want. The situation appears to be that owing to the
terrific artillery bombardment the attacking force will meet with
little or no opposition in the German front-line trenches; or second
line, for that matter.
"The whole Division," explains Captain Wagstaffe to Bobby Little,
"should be able to get up into some sort of formation about the Bosche
third line before any real fighting begins; so it does not very much
matter whether we start first or fiftieth in the procession."
Captain Wagstaffe showed himself an accurate prophet.
We move on. At one point we pass through a howitzer battery, where
dishevelled gentlemen give us a friendly wave of the hand. Others, not
professionally engaged for the moment, sit unconcernedly in the ditch
with their backs to the proceedings, frying bacon. This is their busy
Presently the pace grows even slower, and finally we stop altogether.
Another battalion has cut in ahead of us, and we must perforce
wait, snapping our fingers with impatience, like theatre-goers in
a Piccadilly block, whose taxis have been held up by the traffic
debouching from Berkeley Street.
"Luckily the curtain doesn't rise till five-fifty," observes Captain
We move on again at last, and find ourselves in Central Boyau, getting
near the heart of things. Suddenly we are conscious of an overpowering
sense of relief. Our guns have ceased firing. For the first time for
three days and nights there is peace.
Captain Wagstaffe looks at his watch.
"That means that our first line are going over the parapet," he says.
"Punctual, too! The gunners have stopped to put up their sights and
lengthen their fuses. We ought to be fairly in it in half an hour."
But this proves to be an under-estimate. There are mysterious and
maddening stoppages--maddening, because in communication-trench
stoppages it is quite impossible to find out what is the matter.
Furious messages begin to arrive from the rear. The original form of
inquiry was probably something like this: "Major Kemp would like to
know the cause of the delay." As transmitted sonorously from mouth to
mouth by the rank and file it finally arrives (if it ever arrives at
all) in some such words as: "Pass doon; what for is this (asterisk,
obelus) wait?" But as no answer is ever passed back it does not much
The righteous indignation of Major Kemp, who is situated somewhere
about the middle of the procession, reaches its culminating point
when, with much struggling and pushing and hopeless jamming, a
stretcher carrying a wounded man is borne down the crowded trench on
its way to the rear. The Major delivers himself.
"This is perfectly monstrous! You stretcher-bearers will kill that
poor chap if you try to drag him down here. There is a specially
constructed road to the dressing-station over there--Bart's Alley, it
is called. We cannot have up-and-down traffic jumbled together like
this. For heaven's sake, Waddell, pass up word to the C.O. that it is
mistaken kindness to allow these fellows down here. He _must_ send
Waddell volunteers to climb out of the trench and go forward with a
message. But this the Major will not allow. "Your platoon will require
a leader presently," he mentions. "We'll try the effect of a note."
The note is passed up, and anon an answer comes back to the effect
that no wounded have been allowed down from the head of the column.
They must be getting in by a sidetrack somewhere. The Major groans,
but can do nothing.
Presently there is a fresh block.
"What is it this time?" inquires the afflicted Kemp. "More wounded, or
are we being photographed?"
The answer races joyously down the line--"Gairman prisoners,
sirr--seeventy of them!"
This time the Major acts with promptness and decision.
"Prisoners? No, they _don't!_ Pass up word from me that the whole
boiling are to be hoisted on to the parapet, with their escort, and
made to walk above ground."
The order goes forward. Presently our hearts are rejoiced by an
exhilarating sight. Across the field through which our trench winds
comes a body of men, running rapidly, encouraged to further fleetness
of foot by desultory shrapnel and stray bullets. They wear grey-green
uniform, and flat, muffin-shaped caps. They have no arms or equipment:
some are slightly wounded. In front of this contingent, running even
more rapidly, are their escort--some dozen brawny Highlanders, armed
to the teeth. But the prisoners exhibit no desire to take advantage of
this unusual order of things. Their one ambition in life appears to be
to put as large a space as possible between themselves and their late
comrades-in-arms, and, if possible, overtake their captors.
Some of them find time to grin, and wave their hands to us. One
addresses the scandalised M'Slattery as "Kamarad!" "No more dis war
for me!" cries another, with unfeigned satisfaction.
After this our progress is more rapid. As we near the front line, the
enemy's shrapnel reaps its harvest even in our deep trench. More than
once we pass a wounded man, hoisted on to the parapet to wait for
first-aid. More than once we step over some poor fellow for whom no
first-aid will avail.
Five minutes later we reach the parapet--that immovable rampart
over which we have peeped so often and so cautiously with our
periscopes--and clamber up a sandbag staircase on to the summit. We
note that our barbed wire has all been cut away, and that another
battalion, already extended into line, is advancing fifty yards ahead
of us. Bullets are pinging through the air, but the guns are once more
silent. Possibly they are altering their position. Dotted about upon
the flat ground before us lie many kilted figures, strangely still, in
A mile or so upon our right we can see two towers--pit-head
towers--standing side by side. They mark the village of Loos, where
another Scottish Division is leading the attack. To the right of Loos
again, for miles and miles and miles, we know that wave upon wave of
impetuous French soldiers is breaking in a tempest over the shattered
German trenches. Indeed, we conjecture that down there, upon our
right, is where the Biggest Push of all is taking place. Our duty is
to get forward if we can, but before everything to engage as many
German troops and guns as possible. Even if we fight for a week or
more, and only hold our own, we shall have done the greater part of
what was required of us. But we hope to do more than that.
Upon our left lies the Hohenzollern. It is silent; so we know that
it has been captured. Beyond that, upon our left front, looms Fosse
Eight, still surmounted by its battered shaft-tower. Right ahead,
peeping over a low ridge, is a church steeple, with a clock-face in
it. That is our objective.
Next moment we have deployed into extended order, and step out, to
play our little part in the great Battle of the Slag-Heaps.
Twenty-four hours later, a little group of officers sat in a roomy
dug-out. Major Kemp was there, with his head upon the plank table,
fast asleep. Bobby Little, who had neither eaten nor slept since the
previous dawn, was nibbling chocolate, and shaking as if with ague. He
had gone through a good deal. Waddell sat opposite to him, stolidly
devouring bully-beef out of a tin with his fingers. Ayling reclined
upon the floor, mechanically adjusting a machine-gun lock, which he
had taken from his haversack. Captain Wagstaffe was making cocoa over
a Tommy's Cooker. He looked less the worse for wear than the others,
but could hardly have been described as spruce in appearance. The
whole party were splashed with mud and soaked to the skin, for it had
rained hard during the greater part of the night. They were all sick
for want of food and sleep. Moreover, all had seen unusual sights. It
was Sunday morning.
Presently Wagstaffe completed his culinary arrangements, and poured
out the cocoa into some aluminium cups. He touched Major Kemp on the
"Have some of this, Major," he said.
The burly Kemp roused himself and took the proffered cup gratefully.
Then, looking round, he said--
"Hallo, Ayling! You arrived? Whereabouts in the line were you?"
"I got cut off from the Battalion in the advance up Central Boyau,
sir," said Ayling. "Everybody had disappeared by the time I got the
machine-guns over the parapet. However, knowing the objective, I
pushed on towards the Church Tower."
"How did you enjoy yourself passing Fosse Eight?" inquired Captain
"Thank you, we got a dose of our own medicine--machine-gun fire, in
enfilade. It was beastly."
"We also noticed it," Wagstaffe intimated. "That was where poor
Sinclair got knocked out. What did you do?"
"I signalled to the men to lie flat for a bit, and I did the same. I
did not know that it was possible for a human being to lie as flat as
I lay during that quarter of an hour. But it was no good. The guns
must have been high up on the Fosse: they had excellent command. The
bullets simply greased all round us. I could feel them combing out my
hair, and digging into the ground underneath me."
"What were your sensations, _exactly_?" asked Kemp.
"I felt just as if an invisible person were tickling me," replied
Ayling, with feeling.
"So did I," said Kemp. "Go on."
"I heard one of my men cry out that he was hit," continued Ayling,
"and I came to the conclusion that we would have a better chance as
moving targets than as fixed; so I passed the word to get up and
move forward steadily, in single file. Ultimately we struck a stray
communication-trench, into which we descended with as much dignity as
possible. It led us into some quarries."
"Off our line altogether."
"So I learned from two Companies of an English regiment which were
there, acting as reserve to a Brigade which was scrapping somewhere in
the direction of Hulluch; so I realised that we had worked too far to
the right. We moved out of the quarries and struck over half-left, and
ultimately found the Battalion, a very long way ahead, in what I took
to be a Bosche third-line trench, facing east."
"Right! Fosse Alley," said Kemp. "You remember it on the map?"
"Yes, I do now," said Ayling. "Well, I planted myself on the right
flank of the Battalion with-two guns, and sent Sergeant Killick along
with the other two to the left. You know the rest."
"I'm not sure that I do," said the Major. "We were packed so tight in
that blooming trench that it was quite impossible to move about, and
I only saw what was going on close around me. Did you get much
"A fair amount, sir," replied Ayling, with professional satisfaction.
"There was a lot of firing from our right front, so I combed out all
the bushes and house-fronts I could see; and presently the firing died
down, but not before I had had one gun put out of action with a bullet
through the barrel-casing. After dark things were fairly quiet, except
for constant alarms, until the order came to move back to the next
Major Kemp's fist came down upon the plank table.
"Move back!" he exclaimed angrily. "Just so! To capture Fosse Alley,
hold it all day and half the night, and then be compelled to move
back, simply because we had pushed so far ahead of any other Division
that we had no support on either flank! It was tough--rotten--hellish!
Excuse my exuberance. 'You all right, Wagstaffe?"
"Wonderful, considering," replied Wagstaffe. "I was mildly gassed by
a lachrymous shell about two o'clock this morning, but nothing to
"Did your respirator work?"
"I found that in the heat of the moment I had mislaid it."
"What did you do?"
"I climbed on to the parapet and sat there. It seemed the healthiest
spot under the circumstance: anyhow, the air was pure. When I
recovered I got down. What happened to 'A,' Bobby? I heard rumours,
"Go on," he said abruptly; and Bobby, more composed now, told his
"A" Company, it appeared, had found themselves clinging grimly to the
section of Fosse Alley which they had captured, with their left flank
entirely in the air. Presently came an order. Further forward still,
half-right, another isolated trench was being held by a portion of
the Highland Brigade. These were suffering cruelly, for the German
artillery had the range to a nicety, and convenient sapheads gave the
German bombers easy access to their flanks. It is more than likely
that this very trench had been constructed expressly for the
inveiglement of a too successful attacking party. Certainly no troops
could live in it for long. "A" Company were to go forward and support.
Captain Blaikie, passing word to his men to be ready, turned to Bobby.
"I'm a morose, dour, monosyllabic Scot, Bobbie," he said; "but this
sort of thing bucks me up."
Next moment he was over the parapet and away, followed by his Company.
In that long, steadily-advancing line were many of our friends.
Mucklewame was there, panting heavily, and cannily commending his soul
to Providence. Messrs. Ogg and Hogg were there, shoulder to shoulder.
M'Ostrich, the Ulster visionary, was there, six paces ahead of any
other man, crooning some Ironside canticle to himself. Next behind him
came the reformed revolutionary, M'Slattery.
Straightway the enemy observed the oncoming reinforcements, and
shrapnel began to fly. The men pressed on, at a steady double now.
M'Ostrich was the first to go down. Game to the last, he waved
encouragement to his mates with a failing arm as they passed over his
"Come along, boys!" cried Captain Blaikie, suddenly eloquent. "There
is the trench! The other lads are waiting for you. Come along!
The men needed no further bidding. They came on--with a ragged
cheer--and assuredly would have arrived, but for one thing. Suddenly
they faltered, and stopped dead.
Captain Blaikie turned to his faithful subaltern panting behind him.
"We are done in, Bobby," he said. "Look! Wire!"
He was right. This particular trench, it was true, was occupied by our
friends; but it had been constructed in the first instance for the use
of our enemies. Consequently it was wired, and heavily wired, upon the
side facing the British advance.
Captain Blaikie, directing operations with a walking-stick as if the
whole affair were an Aldershot field-day, signalled to the Company to
lie down, and began to unbutton a leather pouch in his belt.
"You too, Bobby," he said; "and don't dare to move a muscle until you
get the order!"
He strolled forward, pliers in hand, and began methodically to cut a
passage, strand by strand, through the forest of wire.
Then it was that invisible machine-guns opened, and a very gallant
officer and Scotsman fell dead upon the field of honour.
Half an hour later, "A" Company, having expended all their ammunition
and gained never a yard, fell back upon the rest of the Battalion.
Including Bobby Little (who seemed to bear a charmed life), they did
not represent the strength of a platoon.
"I wonder what they will do with us next," remarked Mr. Waddell, who
had finished his bully.
"If they have any sense of decency," said Major Kemp, "they will send
us back to rest a bit, and put another Division in. We have opened the
ball and done a lot of dirty work for them, and have lost a lot of men
and officers. Bed for me, please!"
"I should be more inclined to agree with you, Major," said Wagstaffe,
"if only we had a bit more to show for our losses."
"We haven't done so badly," replied Kemp, who was growing more
cheerful under the influence of hot cocoa. "We have got the
Hohenzollern, and the Bosche first line at least, and probably Fosse
Eight. On the right I hear we have taken Loos. That's not so dusty for
a start. I have not the slightest doubt that there will be a heavy
counter-attack, which we shall repel. After that we shall attack
again, and gain more ground, or at least keep the Bosche exceedingly
busy holding on. That is our allotted task in this entertainment--to
go on hammering the Hun, occupying his attention and using up his
reserves, regardless of whether we gain ground or lose it, while our
French pals on the right are pushing him off the map. At least, that
is my theory: I don't pretend to be in touch with the official mind.
This battle will probably go on for a week or more, over practically
the same ground. It will be dreadful for the wounded, but even if
we only hold on to what we have gained already, we are the winners.
Still, I wish we could have consolidated Fosse Alley before going to
At this moment the Colonel, stooping low in the tiny doorway, entered
the dug-out, followed by the Adjutant. He bade his supporters
"I am glad to find that you fellows have been able to give your men a
meal," he said. "It was capital work getting the ration-carts up so
far last night."
"Any news, Colonel?" asked Major Kemp.
"Most decidedly. It seems that the enemy have evacuated Fosse Alley
again. Nobody quite knows why: a sudden attack of cold feet, probably.
Our people command their position from Fosse Eight, on their left
rear, so I don't altogether blame them. Whoever holds Fosse Eight
holds Fosse Alley. However, the long and short of it all is that the
Brigade are to go forward again this evening, and reoccupy Fosse
Alley. Meanwhile, we consolidate things here."
Major Kemp sighed.
"Bed indefinitely postponed!" he remarked resignedly.
By midnight on the same Sunday the Battalion, now far under its
original strength, had re-entered the scene of yesterday's long
struggle, filing thither under the stars, by a deserted and ghostly
German _boyau_ nearly ten feet deep. Fosse Alley erred in the opposite
direction. It was not much more than four feet in depth; the
chalky parapet could by no stretch of imagination be described as
bullet-proof; dug-outs and communication-trenches were non-existent.
On our left the trench-line was continued by the troops of another
Division: on our right lay another battalion of our own brigade.
"If the line has been made really continuous this time," observed the
Colonel, "we should be as safe as houses. Wonderful fellows, these
sappers! They have wired almost our whole front already. I wish they
had had time to do it on our left as well."
Within the next few hours all defensive preparations possible in the
time had been completed; and our attendant angels, most effectively
disguised as Royal Engineers, had flitted away, leaving us to wait for
Monday morning--and Brother Bosche.
With the dawn, our eyes, which had known no sleep since Friday night,
peered rheumily out over the whitening landscape.
To our front the ground stretched smooth and level for two hundred
yards, then fell gently away, leaving a clearly denned skyline. Beyond
the skyline rose houses, of which we could descry only the roofs and
"That must be either Haisnes or Douvrin," said Major Kemp. "We are
much farther to the left than we were yesterday. By the way, _was_ it
"The day before yesterday, sir," the ever-ready Waddell informed him.
"Never mind; to-day's the day, anyhow. And it's going to be a busy
day, too. The fact is, we are in a tight place, and all through doing
too well. We have again penetrated so much farther forward than any
one else in our neighbourhood that we _may_ have to fall back a bit.
But I hope not. We have a big stake, Waddell. If we can hold on to
this position until the others make good upon our right and left, we
shall have reclaimed a clear two miles of the soil of France, my son."
The Major swept the horizon with his glasses. "Let me see: that is
probably Hulluch away on our right front: the Loos towers must be in
line with us on our extreme right, but we can't see them for those
hillocks. There is our old friend Fosse Eight towering over us on our
left rear. I don't know anything about the ground on our absolute
left, but so long as that flathead regiment hold on to their trench,
we can't go far wrong. Waddell, I don't like those cottages on our
left front. They block the view, and also spell machine-guns. I see
one or two very suggestive loopholes in those red-tiled roofs. Go and
draw Ayling's attention to them. A little preliminary _strafing_ will
do them no harm."
Five minutes later one of Ayling's machine-guns spoke out, and
a cascade of tiles came sliding down the roofs of the offending
"That will tickle them up, if they have any guns set up on those
rafters," observed the Major, with ghoulish satisfaction. "I wonder
if Brer Bosche is going to attack. I hope he does. There is only one
thing I am afraid of, and that is that there may be some odd saps
running out towards us, especially on our flanks. If so, we shall have
some close work with bombs--a most ungentlemanly method of warfare.
Let us pray for a straightforward frontal attack."
But Brer Bosche had other cards to play first. Suddenly, out of
nowhere, the air was filled with "whizz-bang" shells, moving in a
lightning procession which lasted nearly half an hour. Most of these
plastered the already scarred countenance of Fosse Eight: others
fell shorter and demolished our parapet. When the tempest ceased, as
suddenly as it began, the number of casualties in the crowded trench
was considerable. But there was little time to attend to the wounded.
Already the word was running down, the line--
"Look out to your front!"
Sure enough, over the skyline, two hundred yards away, grey figures
were appearing--not in battalions, but tentatively, in twos and
threes. Next moment a storm of rapid rifle fire broke from the trench.
The grey figures turned and ran. Some disappeared over the horizon,
others dropped flat, others simply curled up and withered. In three
minutes solitude reigned again, and the firing ceased.
"Well, that's that!" observed Captain Wagstaffe to Bobby Little, upon
the right of the Battalion line. "The Bosche has 'bethought himself
and went,' as the poet says. Now he knows we are here, and have
brought our arquebuses with us. He will try something more ikey next
time. Talking of time, what about breakfast? When was our last meal,
"Haven't the vaguest notion," said Bobby sleepily.
"Well, it's about breakfast-time now. Have a bit of chocolate? It is
all I have."
It was eight o'clock, and perfect silence reigned. All down the line
men, infinitely grubby, were producing still grubbier fragments of
bully-beef and biscuits from their persons. For an hour, squatting
upon the sodden floor of the trench--it was raining yet again--the
unappetising, intermittent meal proceeded.
"Hallo!" exclaimed Bobby with a jerk (for he was beginning to nod),
"what was that on our right?"
"I'm afraid," replied Wagstaffe, "that it was bombs. It was right in
this trench, too, about a hundred yards long. There must be a sap
leading up there, for the bombers certainly have not advanced
overground. I've been looking out for them since stand-to. Who is this
A subaltern of the battalion on our right was forcing his way along
the trench. He addressed Wagstaffe.
"We are having a pretty bad time with Bosche bombers on our right,
sir," he said. "Will you send us down all the bombs you can spare?"
Wagstaffe hoisted himself upon the parapet.
"I will see our C.O. at once," he replied, and departed at the double.
It was a risky proceeding, for German bullets promptly appeared in
close attendance; but he saved a good five minutes on his journey to
Battalion Headquarters at the other end of the trench.
Presently the bombs began to arrive, passed from hand to hand.
Wagstaffe returned, this time along the trench.
"We shall have a tough fight for it," he said. "The Bosche bombers
know their business, and probably have more bombs than we have. But
those boys on our right seem to be keeping their end up."
"Can't _we_ do anything?" asked Bobby feverishly.
"Nothing--unless the enemy succeed in working right down here; in
which case we shall take our turn of getting it in the neck--or giving
it! I fancy old Ayling and his popgun will have a word to say, if he
can find a nice straight bit of trench. All we can do for the present
is to keep a sharp look-out in front. I have no doubt they will attack
in force when the right moment comes."
For close on three hours the bomb-fight went on. Little could be seen,
for the struggle was all taking place upon the extreme right; but the
sounds of conflict were plain enough. More bombs were passed up, and
yet more; men, some cruelly torn, were passed down.
Then a signal-sergeant doubled up across country from somewhere in
rear, paying out wire, and presently the word went forth that we were
in touch with the Artillery. Directly after, sure enough, came the
blessed sound and sight of British shrapnel bursting over our right
"That won't stop the present crowd," said Wagstaffe, "but it may
prevent their reinforcements from coming up. We are holding our own,
Bobby. What's that, Sergeant?"
"The Commanding Officer, sirr," announced Sergeant Carfrae, "has just
passed up that we are to keep a sharp look-out to our left. They've
commenced for to bomb the English regiment now."
"Golly, both flanks! This is getting a trifle steep," remarked
Detonations could now be distinctly heard upon the left.
"If they succeed in getting round behind us," said Wagstaffe in a low
voice to Bobby, "we shall have to fall back a bit, into line with the
rest of the advance. Only a few hundred yards, but it means a lot to
"It hasn't happened yet," said Bobby stoutly.
Captain Wagstaffe knew better. His more experienced eye and ear had
detected the fact that the position of the regiment upon the left was
already turned. But he said nothing.
Presently the tall figure of the Colonel was seen, advancing in
leisurely fashion along the trench, stopping here and there to
exchange a word with a private or a sergeant.
"The regiment on the left may have to fall back, men," he was saying.
"We, of course, will stand fast, and cover their retirement."
This most characteristic announcement was received with a
matter-of-fact "Varra good, sir," from its recipients, and the Colonel
passed on to where the two officers were standing.
"Hallo, Wagstaffe," he said; "good-morning! We shall get some very
pretty shooting presently. The enemy are massing on our left front,
down behind those cottages. How are things going on our right?"
"They are holding their own, sir."
"Good! Just tell Ayling to get his guns trained. But doubtless he has
done so already. I must get back to the other flank."
And back to the danger-spot our C.O. passed--an upright, gallant
figure, saying little, exhorting not at all, but instilling confidence
and cheerfulness by his very presence.
Half-way along the trench he encountered Major Kemp.
"How are things on the left, sir?" was the Major's _sotto voce_
"Not too good. Our position is turned. We have been promised
reinforcements, but I doubt if they can get up in time. Of course,
when it comes to falling back, this regiment goes last."
"Of course, sir."
_Highlanders! Four hundred yards! At the enemy advancing half-left,
Twenty minutes had passed. The regiment still stood immovable, though
its left flank was now utterly exposed. All eyes and rifles were fixed
upon the cluster of cottages. Through the gaps that lay between these
could be discerned the advance of the German infantry--line upon line,
moving towards the trench upon our left. The ground to our front was
clear. Each time one of these lines passed a gap the rifles rang out
and Ayling's remaining machine-gun uttered joyous barks. Still the
enemy advanced. His shrapnel was bursting overhead; bullets were
whistling from nowhere, for the attack in force was now being pressed
home in earnest.
The deserted trench upon our left ran right through the cottages, and
this restricted our view. No hostile bombers could be seen; it was
evident that they had done their bit and handed on the conduct of
affairs to others. Behind the shelter of the cottages the infantry
were making a safe detour, and were bound, unless something unexpected
happened, to get round behind us.
"They'll be firing from our rear in a minute," said Kemp between his
teeth. "Lochgair, order your platoon to face about and be ready to
fire over the parados."
Young Lochgair's method of executing this command was
characteristically thorough. He climbed in leisurely fashion upon the
parados; and standing there, with all his six-foot-three in full view,
issued his orders.
"Face this way, boys! Keep your eyes on that group of buildings just
behind the empty trench, in below the Fosse. You'll get some
target practice presently. Don't go and forget that you are the
straightest-shooting platoon in the Company. There they are"--he
pointed with his stick--"lots of them--coming through that gap in the
wall! Now then, rapid fire, and let them have it! Oh, well done, boys!
Good shooting! Very good! Very good ind--"
He stopped suddenly, swayed, and toppled back into the trench. Major
Kemp caught him in his arms, and laid him gently upon the chalky
floor. There was nothing more to be done. Young Lochgair had given his
platoon their target, and the platoon were now firing steadily upon
the same. He closed his eyes and sighed, like a tired child.
"Carry on, Major!" he murmured faintly. "I'm all right."
So died the simple-hearted, valiant enthusiast whom we had christened
The entire regiment--what was left of it--was now firing over the
back of the trench; for the wily Teuton had risked no frontal attack,
seeing that he could gain all his ends from the left flank.
Despite vigorous rifle fire and the continuous maledictions of the
machine-gun, the enemy were now pouring through the cottages behind
the trench. Many grey figures began to climb up the face of Fosse
Eight, where apparently there was none to say them nay.
"We shall have a cheery walk back, I _don't_ think!" murmured
He was right. Presently a withering fire was opened from the summit
of the Fosse, which soon began to take effect in the exiguous and
"The Colonel is wounded, sir," reported the Sergeant-Major to Major
Kemp looked round him. The regiment was now alone in the trench, for
the gallant company upon their right had been battered almost out of
"We can do no more good by staying here any longer," said the Major.
"We have done our little bit. I think it is a case of 'Home, John!'
Tell off a party to bring in the C.O., Sergeant-Major."
Then he passed the order.
"Highlanders, retire to the trenches behind, by Companies, beginning
from the right."
"Whatever we may think of the Bosche as a gentleman," mused that
indomitable philosopher, Captain Wagstaffe, as he doubled stolidly
rearward behind his Company, "there is no denying his bravery as a
soldier or his skill in co-ordinating an attack. It's positively
uncanny, the way his artillery supports his infantry. (Hallo, that was
a near one!) This enfilade fire from the Fosse is most unpleasant. (I
fancy that one went through my kilt.) Steady there, on the left:
don't bunch, whatever you do! Thank heaven, there's the next line of
trenches, fully manned. And thank God, there's that boy Bobby tumbling
So ended our share in the Big Push. It was a very small episode,
spread over quite a short period, in one of the biggest and longest
battles in the history of the world. It would have been easy to select
a more showy episode, but hard to find a better illustration of the
character of the men who took part in it. The battle which began upon
that grey September morning has been raging, as I write, for nearly
three weeks. It still surges backwards and forwards over the same
stricken mile of ground; and the end is not yet. But the Hun is being
steadily beaten to earth. (Only yesterday, in one brief furious
counter-attack, he lost eight thousand killed.) When the final advance
comes, as come it must, and our victorious line sweeps forward, it
will pass over two narrow, ill-constructed, shell-torn trenches.
In and around those trenches will be found the earthly remains of
men--Jocks and Jimmies, and Sandies and Andies--clad in the uniform
of almost every Scottish regiment. That assemblage of mute, glorious
witnesses marks the point reached, during the first few hours of the
first day's fighting, by the Scottish Division of "K(1)." _Molliter
There is little more to add to the record of those three days. For yet
another night we carried on--repelling counter-attacks, securing
the Hohenzollern, making sorties out of Big Willie, or manning the
original front line parapet against eventualities. As is inevitable in
a fight of these proportions, whole brigades were mingled together,
and unexpected leaders arose to take the place of those who had
fallen. Many a stout piece of work was done that night by mixed bands
of kilties, flat-heads, and even cyclists, marshalled in a captured
German trench and shepherded by a junior subaltern.
Finally, about midnight, came the blessed order that fresh troops were
coming up to continue the attack, and that we were to be extricated
from the _melee_ and sent back to rest. And so, after a participation
in the battle of some seventy-two hours, our battered Division came
out--to sleep the sleep of utter exhaustion in dug-outs behind the
railway line, and to receive, upon waking, the thanks of its Corps
And here I propose (for a time, at least) to take leave of The First
Hundred Thousand. Some day, if Providence wills, the tale shall be
resumed; and you shall hear how Major Kemp, Captain Wagstaffe, Ayling,
and Bobby Little, assisted by such veterans as Corporal Mucklewame,
built up the regiment, with copious drafts and a fresh batch of
subalterns, to its former strength.
But the title of the story will have to be changed. In the hearts of
those who drilled them, reasoned with them, sometimes almost wept
over them, and ultimately fought shoulder to shoulder with them, the
sturdy, valiant legions, whose humorously-pathetic career you have
followed so patiently for fifteen months, will always be First; but
alas! they are no longer The Hundred Thousand.
So we will leave them, as is most justly due, in sole possession of
their proud title.