Now It Can Be Told
Part 2 out of 10
General Hull was a handsome, straight-speaking, straight-thinking man,
and I should say an able general. "Ruthless," his men said, but this
was a war of ruthlessness, because life was cheap. Bitter he was at
times, because he had to order his men to do things which he knew were
folly. I remember sitting on the window-sill of his bedroom, in an old
house of Arras, while he gave me an account of "the battle in the
dark," in which the Londoners and other English troops lost their
direction and found themselves at dawn with the enemy behind them.
General Hull made no secret of the tragedy or the stupidity. . . On
another day I met him somewhere on the other side of Peronne, before
March 21st, when he was commanding the 16th (Irish) Division in the
absence of General Hickey, who was ill. He talked a good deal about
the belief in a great German offensive, and gave many reasons for
thinking it was all "bluff." A few days later the enemy had rolled
over his lines. . . Out of thirteen generals I met at that time, there
were only three who believed that the enemy would make his great
assault in a final effort to gain decisive victory, though our
Intelligence had amassed innumerable proofs and were utterly convinced
of the approaching menace.
"They will never risk it!" said General Gorringe of the 47th (London)
Division. "Our lines are too strong. We should mow them down."
I was standing with him on a wagon, watching the sports of the London
men. We could see the German lines, south of St.-Quentin, very quiet
over there, without any sign of coming trouble. A few days later the
place where we were standing was under waves of German storm-troops.
I liked the love of General Hickey for his Irish division. An Irishman
himself, with a touch of the old Irish soldier as drawn by Charles
Lever, gay-hearted, proud of his boys, he was always pleased to see me
because he knew I had a warm spot in my heart for the Irish troops. He
had a good story to tell every time, and passed me on to "the boys" to
get at the heart of them. It was long before he lost hope of keeping
the division together, though it was hard to get recruits and losses
were high at Guillemont and Ginchy. For the first time he lost heart
and was very sad when the division was cut to pieces in a Flanders
battle. It lost 2,000 men and 162 officers before the battle began--
they were shelled to death in the trenches--and 2,000 men and 170
officers more during the progress of the battle. It was murderous and
General Harper of the 51st (Highland) Division, afterward commanding
the 4th Corps, had the respect of his troops, though they called him
"Uncle" because of his shock of white hair. The Highland division,
under his command, fought many battles and gained great honor, even
from the enemy, who feared them and called the kilted men "the ladies
from hell." It was to them the Germans sent their message in a small
balloon during the retreat from the Somme: "Poor old 51st. Still
sticking it! Cheery-oh!"
"Uncle" Harper invited me to lunch in his mess, and was ironical with
war correspondents, and censors, and the British public, and new
theories of training, and many things in which he saw no sense. There
was a smoldering passion in him which glowed in his dark eyes.
He was against bayonet-training, which took the field against rifle-
fire for a time.
"No man in this war," he said, with a sweeping assertion, "has ever
been killed by the bayonet unless he had his hands up first." And,
broadly speaking, I think he was right, in spite of the Director of
Training, who was extremely annoyed with me when I quoted this
I met many other generals who were men of ability, energy, high sense
of duty, and strong personality. I found them intellectually, with few
exceptions, narrowly molded to the same type, strangely limited in
their range of ideas and qualities of character.
"One has to leave many gaps in one's conversation with generals," said
a friend of mine, after lunching with an army commander.
That was true. One had to talk to them on the lines of leading
articles in The Morning Post. Their patriotism, their knowledge of
human nature, their idealism, and their imagination were restricted to
the traditional views of English country gentlemen of the Tory school.
Anything outside that range of thought was to them heresy, treason, or
What mainly was wrong with our generalship was the system which put
the High Command into the hands of a group of men belonging to the old
school of war, unable, by reason of their age and traditions, to get
away from rigid methods and to become elastic in face of new
Our Staff College had been hopelessly inefficient in its system of
training, if I am justified in forming such an opinion from specimens
produced by it, who had the brains of canaries and the manners of
Potsdam. There was also a close corporation among the officers of the
Regular Army, so that they took the lion's share of staff
appointments, thus keeping out brilliant young men of the new armies,
whose brain-power, to say the least of it, was on a higher level than
that of the Sandhurst standard. Here and there, where the
unprofessional soldier obtained a chance of high command or staff
authority, he proved the value of the business mind applied to war,
and this was seen very clearly--blindingly--in the able generalship of
the Australian Corps, in which most of the commanders, like Generals
Hobbs, Monash, and others, were men in civil life before the war. The
same thing was observed in the Canadian Corps, General Currie, the
corps commander, having been an estate agent, and many of his high
officers having had no military training of any scientific importance
before they handled their own men in France and Flanders.
As there are exceptions to every rule, so harsh criticism must be
modified in favor of the generalship and organization of the Second
Army-of rare efficiency under the restrictions and authority of the
General Staff. I often used to wonder what qualities belonged to Sir
Herbert Plumer, the army commander. In appearance he was almost a
caricature of an old-time British general, with his ruddy, pippin-
cheeked face, with white hair, and a fierce little white mustache, and
blue, watery eyes, and a little pot-belly and short legs. He puffed
and panted when he walked, and after two minutes in his company Cyril
Maude would have played him to perfection. The staff-work of his army
was as good in detail as any machinery of war may be, and the tactical
direction of the Second Army battles was not slipshod nor haphazard,
as so many others, but prepared with minute attention to detail and
after thoughtful planning of the general scheme. The battle of
Wytschaete and Messines was a model in organization and method, and
worked in its frightful destructiveness like the clockwork of a death
machine. Even the battles of Flanders in the autumn of '17, ghastly as
they were in the losses of our men in the state of the ground through
which they had to fight, and in futile results, were well organized by
the Second Army headquarters, compared with the abominable
mismanagement of other troops, the contrast being visible to every
battalion officer and even to the private soldier. How much share of
this was due to Sir Herbert Plumer it is impossible for me to tell,
though it is fair to give him credit for soundness of judgment in
general ideas and in the choice of men.
He had for his chief of staff Sir John Harington, and beyond all doubt
this general was the organizing brain of to Second Army, though with
punctilious chivalry he gave, always, the credit of all his work to
the army commander. A thin, nervous, highly strung man, with extreme
simplicity of manner and clarity of intelligence, he impressed me as a
brain of the highest temper and quality in staff-work. His memory for
detail was like a card-index system, yet his mind was not clogged with
detail, but saw the wood as well as the trees, and the whole broad
sweep of the problem which confronted him. There was something
fascinating as well as terrible in his exposition of a battle that he
was planning. For the first time in his presence and over his maps, I
saw that after all there was such a thing as the science of war, and
that it was not always a fetish of elementary ideas raised to the nth
degree of pomposity, as I had been led to believe by contact with
other generals and staff-officers. Here at least was a man who dealt
with it as a scientific business, according to the methods of science-
-calculating the weight and effect of gun-fire, the strength of the
enemy's defenses and man-power, the psychology of German generalship
and of German units, the pressure which could be put on British troops
before the breaking-point of courage, the relative or cumulative
effects of poison-gas, mines, heavy and light artillery, tanks, the
disposition of German guns and the probability of their movement in
this direction or that, the amount of their wastage under our counter-
battery work, the advantages of attacks in depth--one body of troops
"leap-frogging," another in an advance to further objectives--the
time-table of transport, the supply of food and water and ammunition,
the comfort of troops before action, and a thousand other factors of
Before every battle fought by the Second Army, and of the eve of it,
Sir John Harington sent for the war correspondents and devoted an hour
or more to a detailed explanation of his plans. He put down all his
cards on the table with perfect candor, hiding nothing, neither
minimizing nor exaggerating the difficulties and dangers of the
attack, pointing out the tactical obstacles which must be overcome
before any chance of success, and exposing the general strategy in the
simplest and clearest speech.
I used to study him at those times, and marveled at him. After intense
and prolonged work at all this detail involving the lives of thousands
of men, he was highly wrought, with every nerve in his body and brain
at full tension, but he was never flurried, never irritable, never
depressed or elated by false pessimism or false optimism. He was a
chemist explaining the factors of a great experiment of which the
result was still uncertain. He could only hope for certain results
after careful analysis and synthesis. Yet he was not dehumanized. He
laughed sometimes at surprises he had caused the enemy, or was likely
to cause them--surprises which would lead to a massacre of their men.
He warmed to the glory of the courage of the troops who were carrying
out his plans.
"It depends on these fellows," he would say. "I am setting them a
difficult job. If they can do it, as I hope and believe, it will be a
fine achievement. They have been very much tried, poor fellows, but
their spirit is still high, as I know from their commanding officers."
One of his ambitions was to break down the prejudice between the
fighting units and the Staff. "We want them to know that we are all
working together, for the same purpose and with the same zeal. They
cannot do without us, as we cannot do without them, and I want them to
feel that the work done here is to help them to do theirs more easily,
with lighter losses, in better physical conditions, with organization
behind them at every stage."
Many times the Second Army would not order an attack or decide the
time of it before consulting the divisional generals and brigadiers,
and obtaining their consensus of opinion. The officers and men in the
Second Army did actually come to acknowledge the value of the staff-
work behind them, and felt a confidence in its devotion to their
interests which was rare on the western front.
At the end of one of his expositions Sir John Harington would rise and
gather up his maps and papers, and say:
"Well, there you are, gentlemen. You know as much as I do about the
plans for to-morrow's battle. At the end of the day you will be able
to see the result of all our work and tell me things I do not know."
Those conferences took place in the Second Army headquarters on Cassel
Hill, in a big building which was a casino before the war, with a far-
reaching view across Flanders, so that one could see in the distance
the whole sweep of the Ypres salient, and southward the country below
Notre Dame de Lorette, with Merville and Hazebrouck in the foreground.
Often we assembled in a glass house, furnished with trestle tables on
which maps were spread, and, thinking back to these scenes, I remember
now, as I write, the noise of rain beating on that glass roof, and the
clammy touch of fog on the window-panes stealing through the cracks
and creeping into the room. The meteorologist of the Second Army was
often a gloomy prophet, and his prophecies were right. How it rained
on nights when hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were waiting
in their trenches to attack in a murky dawn!. . . We said good night
to General Harington, each one of us, I think, excited by the thought
of the drama of human life and death which we had heard in advance in
that glass house on the hill; to be played out by flesh and blood
before many hours had passed. A kind of sickness took possession of my
soul when I stumbled down the rock path from those headquarters in
pitch darkness, over slabs of stones designed by a casino architect to
break one's neck, with the rain dribbling down one's collar, and, far
away, watery lights in the sky, of gun-flashes and ammunition-dumps
afire, and the noise of artillery thudding in dull, crumbling shocks.
We were starting early to see the opening of the battle and its
backwash. There would be more streams of bloody, muddy men, more
crowds of miserable prisoners, more dead bodies lying in the muck of
captured ground, more shells plunging into the wet earth and throwing
up columns of smoke and mud, more dead horses, disemboweled, and
another victory at fearful cost, over one of the Flanders ridges.
Curses and prayers surged up in my heart. How long was this to go on--
this massacre of youth, this agony of men? Was there no sanity left in
the world that could settle the argument by other means than this?
When we had taken that ridge to-morrow there would be another to take,
and another. And what then? Had we such endless reserves of men that
we could go on gaining ground at such a price? Was it to be
extermination on both sides? The end of civilization itself? General
Harington had said: "The enemy is still very strong. He has plenty of
reserves on hand and he is fighting hard. It won't be a walk-over to-
As an onlooker I was overwhelmed by the full measure of all this
tragic drama. The vastness and the duration of its horror appalled me.
I went to my billet in an old monastery, and sat there in the
darkness, my window glimmering with the faint glow of distant shell-
flashes, and said, "O God, give us victory to-morrow, if that may help
us to the end." Then to bed, without undressing. There was an early
start before the dawn. Major Lytton would be with me. He had a gallant
look along the duckboards. . . Or Montague--white-haired Montague, who
liked to gain a far objective, whatever the risk, and gave one a
little courage by his apparent fearlessness. I had no courage on those
early mornings of battle. All that I had, which was little, oozed out
of me when we came to the first dead horses and the first dead men,
and passed the tumult of our guns firing out of the mud, and heard the
scream of shells. I hated it all with a cold hatred; and I went on
hating it for years that seem a lifetime. I was not alone in that
hatred, and other men had greater cause, though it was for their sake
that I suffered most, as an observer of their drama of death. . . As
observers we saw most of the grisly game.
THE SCHOOL OF COURAGE
EARLY DAYS WITH THE NEW ARMY
By the time stationary warfare had been established on the western
front in trench lines from the sea to Switzerland, the British Regular
Army had withered away. That was after the retreat from Mons, the
victory of the Marne, the early battles round Ypres, and the slaughter
at Neuve Chapelle. The "Old Contemptibles" were an army of ghosts
whose dead clay was under earth in many fields of France, but whose
spirit still "carried on" as an heroic tradition to those who came
after them into those same fields, to the same fate. The only
survivors were Regular officers taken out of the fighting-lines to
form the staffs of new divisions and to train the army of volunteers
now being raised at home, and men who were recovering from wounds or
serving behind the lines: those, and non-commissioned officers who
were the best schoolmasters of the new boys, the best friends and
guides of the new officers, stubborn in their courage, hard and
ruthless in their discipline, foul-mouthed according to their own
traditions, until they, too, fell in the shambles. It was in March of
1915 that a lieutenant-colonel in the trenches said to me: "I am one
out of 150 Regular officers still serving with their battalions. That
is to say, there are 150 of us left in the fighting-lines out of
That little Regular Army of ours had justified its pride in a long
history of fighting courage. It had helped to save England and France
by its own death. Those boys of ours whom I had seen in the first
August of the war, landing at Boulogne and marching, as though to a
festival, toward the enemy, with French girls kissing them and loading
them with fruit and flowers, had proved the quality of their spirit
and training. As riflemen they had stupefied the enemy, brought to a
sudden check by forces they had despised. They held their fire until
the German ranks were within eight hundred yards of them, and then
mowed them down as though by machine-gun fire--before we had machine-
guns, except as rare specimens, here and there. Our horse artillery
was beyond any doubt the best in the world at that time. Even before
peace came German generals paid ungrudging tributes to the efficiency
of our Regular Army, writing down in their histories of war that this
was the model of all armies, the most perfectly trained. . . It was
spent by the spring of '15. Its memory remains as the last epic of
those professional soldiers who, through centuries of English history,
took "the King's shilling" and fought when they were told to fight,
and left their bones in far places of the world and in many fields in
Europe, and won for the British soldier universal fame as a terrible
warrior. There will never be a Regular Army like that. Modern warfare
has opened the arena to the multitude. They may no longer sit in the
Coliseum watching the paid gladiators. If there be war they must take
their share of its sacrifice. They must be victims as well as victors.
They must pay for the luxury of conquest, hatred, and revenge by their
own bodies, and for their safety against aggression by national
After the first quick phases of the war this need of national soldiers
to replace the professional forces became clear to the military
leaders. The Territorials who had been raised for home defense were
sent out to fill up the gaps, and their elementary training was shown
to be good enough, as a beginning, in the fighting-lines. The courage
of those Territorial divisions who came out first to France was
quickly proved, and soon put to the supreme test, in which they did
not fail. From the beginning to the end these men, who had made a game
of soldiering in days of peace, yet a serious game to which they had
devoted much of their spare time after working-hours, were splendid
beyond all words of praise, and from the beginning to the end the
Territorial officers--men of good standing in their counties, men of
brain and business training--were handicapped by lack of promotion and
treated with contempt by the High Command, who gave preference always
to the Regular officers in every staff appointment.
This was natural and inevitable in armies controlled by the old
Regular school of service and tradition. As a close corporation in
command of the machine, it was not within their nature or philosophy
to make way for the new type. The Staff College was jealous of its
own. Sandhurst and Woolwich were still the only schools of soldiering
recognized as giving the right "tone" to officers and gentlemen fit
for high appointment. The cavalry, above all, held the power of
supreme command in a war of machines and chemistry and national
psychology. . . .
I should hate to attack the Regular officer. His caste belonged to the
best of our blood. He was the heir to fine old traditions of courage
and leadership in battle. He was a gentleman whose touch of arrogance
was subject to a rigid code of honor which made him look to the
comfort of his men first, to the health of his horse second, to his
own physical needs last. He had the stern sense of justice of a Roman
Centurian, and his men knew that though he would not spare them
punishment if guilty, he would give them always a fair hearing, with a
point in their favor, if possible. It was in their code to take the
greatest risk in time of danger, to be scornful of death in the face
of their men whatever secret fear they had, and to be proud and
jealous of the honor of the regiment. In action men found them good to
follow--better than some of the young officers of the New Army, who
had not the same traditional pride nor the same instinct for command
nor the same consideration for their men, though more easy-going and
human in sympathy.
So I salute in spirit those battalion officers of the Old Army who
fulfilled their heritage until it was overwhelmed by new forces, and I
find extenuating circumstances even in remembrance of the high
stupidities, the narrow imagination, the deep, impregnable, intolerant
ignorance of Staff College men who with their red tape and their
general orders were the inquisitors and torturers of the new armies.
Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner. They were molded in an old
system, and could not change their cliche.
The New Army was called into being by Lord Kitchener and his advisers,
who adopted modern advertising methods to stir the sluggish
imagination of the masses, so that every wall in London and great
cities, every fence in rural places, was placarded with picture-
. . . "What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?". . . "What will your
best girl say if you're not in khaki?"
Those were vulgar appeals which, no doubt, stirred many simple souls,
and so were good enough. It would have been better to let the people
know more of the truth of what was happening in France and Flanders--
the truth of tragedy, instead of carefully camouflaged communiques,
hiding the losses, ignoring the deeds of famous regiments, veiling all
the drama of that early fighting by a deliberate screen of mystery,
though all was known to the enemy. It was fear of their own people,
not of the enemy, which guided the rules of censorship then and later.
For some little time the British people did not understand what was
happening. How could they know? It appeared that all was going well.
Then why worry? Soon there would be the joy-bells of peace, and the
boys would come marching home again, as in earlier wars. It was only
very slowly--because of the conspiracy of silence--that there crept
into the consciousness of our people the dim realization of a
desperate struggle ahead, in which all their young manhood would be
needed to save France and Belgium, and--dear God!--England herself. It
was as that thought touched one mind and another that the recruiting
offices were crowded with young men. Some of them offered their bodies
because of the promise of a great adventure--and life had been rather
dull in office and factory and on the farm. Something stirred in their
blood--an old call to youth. Some instinct of a primitive, savage
kind, for open-air life, fighting, killing, the comradeship of
hunters, violent emotions, the chance of death, surged up into the
brains of quiet boys, clerks, mechanics, miners, factory hands. It was
the call of the wild--the hark-back of the mind to the old barbarities
of the world's dawn, which is in the embryo of modern man. The shock
of anger at frightful tales from Belgium--little children with their
hands cut off (no evidence for that one); women foully outraged;
civilians shot in cold blood--sent many men at a quick pace to the
recruiting agents. Others were sent there by the taunt of a girl, or
the sneer of a comrade in khaki, or the straight, steady look in the
eyes of a father who said, "What about it, Dick? . . . The old
country is up against it." It was that last thought which worked in
the brain of England's manhood. That was his real call, which
whispered to men at the plow--quiet, ruminating lads, the peasant
type, the yeoman--and excited undergraduates in their rooms at Oxford
and Cambridge, and the masters of public schools, and all manner of
young men, and some, as I know, old in years but young in heart. "The
old country is in danger!" The shadow of a menace was creeping over
some little patch of England--or of Scotland.
"I's best be going," said the village boy.
"'Dulce et decorum est -'" said the undergraduate.
"I hate the idea, but it's got to be done," said the city--bred man.
So they disappeared from their familiar haunts--more and more of them
as the months passed. They were put into training-camps, "pigged" it
on dirty straw in dirty barns, were ill-fed and ill-equipped, and
trained by hard--mouthed sergeants--tyrants and bullies in a good
cause--until they became automata at the word of command, lost their
souls, as it seemed, in that grinding-machine of military training,
and cursed their fate. Only comradeship helped them--not always jolly,
if they happened to be a class above their fellows, a moral peg above
foul-mouthed slum-dwellers and men of filthy habits, but splendid if
they were in their own crowd of decent, laughter-loving, companionable
lads. Eleven months' training! Were they ever going to the front? The
war would be over before they landed in France. . . Then, at last,
It was not until July of 1915 that the Commander-in-Chief announced
that a part of the New Army was in France, and lifted the veil from
the secret which had mystified people at home whose boys had gone from
them, but who could not get a word of their doings in France.
I saw the first of the "Kitchener men," as we called them then. The
tramp of their feet in a steady scrunch, scrunch, along a gritty road
of France, passed the window of my billet very early in the mornings,
and I poked my head out to get another glimpse of those lads marching
forward to the firing-line. For as long as history lasts the
imagination of our people will strive to conjure up the vision of
those boys who, in the year of 1915, went out to Flanders, not as
conscript soldiers, but as volunteers, for the old country's sake, to
take their risks and "do their bit" in the world's bloodiest war. I
saw those fellows day by day, touched hands with them, went into the
trenches with them, heard their first tales, and strolled into their
billets when they had shaken down for a night or two within sound of
the guns. History will envy me that, this living touch with the men
who, beyond any doubt, did in their simple way act and suffer things
before the war ended which revealed new wonders of human courage and
endurance. Some people envied me then--those people at home to whom
those boys belonged, and who in country towns and villages and
suburban houses would have given their hearts to get one look at them
there in Flanders and to see the way of their life. . . How were they
living? How did they like it? How were they sleeping? What did the
Regulars think of the New Army?
"Oh, a very cheerful lot," said a sergeant-major of the old Regular
type, who was having a quiet pipe over a half-penny paper in a shed at
the back of some farm buildings in the neighborhood of Armentieres,
which had been plugged by two hundred German shells that time the day
before. (One never knew when the fellows on the other side would take
it into their heads to empty their guns that way. They had already
killed a lot of civilians thereabouts, but the others stayed on.)
"Not a bit of trouble with them," said the sergeant-major, "and all as
keen as when they grinned into a recruiting office and said, `I'm
going.' They're glad to be out. Over-trained, some of 'em. For ten
months we've been working 'em pretty hard. Had to, but they were
willing enough. Now you couldn't find a better battalion, though some
more famous. . . Till we get our chance, you know."
He pointed with the stem of his pipe to the open door of an old barn,
where a party of his men were resting.
"You'll find plenty of hot heads among them, but no cold feet. I'll
bet on that."
The men were lying on a stone floor with haversacks for pillows, or
squatting tailor-wise, writing letters home. From a far corner came a
whistling trio, harmonized in a tune which for some reason made me
think of hayfields in southern England.
They belonged to a Sussex battalion, and I said, "Any one here from
One of the boys sat up, stared, flushed to the roots of his yellow
hair, and said, "Yes."
I spoke to him of people I knew there, and he was astonished that I
should know them. Distressed also in a queer way. Those memories of a
Sussex village seemed to break down some of the hardness in which he
had cased himself. I could see a frightful homesickness in his blue
"P'raps I've seed the last o' Burpham," he said in a kind of whisper,
so that the other men should not hear.
The other men were from Arundel, Littlehampton, and Sussex villages.
They were of Saxon breed. There was hardly a difference between them
and some German prisoners I saw, yellow-haired as they were, with
fair, freckled, sun-baked skins. They told me they were glad to be out
in France. Anything was better than training at home.
"I like Germans more'n sergeant-majors," said one young yokel, and the
others shouted with laughter at his jest.
"Perhaps you haven't met the German sergeants," I said.
"I've met our'n," said the Sussex boy. "A man's a fool to be a
soldier. Eh, lads?"
They agreed heartily, though they were all volunteers.
"Not that we're skeered," said one of them. "We'll be glad when the
"Speak for yourself, Dick Meekcombe, and don't forget the shells last
There was another roar of laughter. Those boys of the South Saxons
were full of spirit. In their yokel way they were disguising their
real thoughts--their fear of being afraid, their hatred of the thought
of death--very close to them now--and their sense of strangeness in
this scene on the edge of Armentieres, a world away from their old
The colonel sat in a little room at headquarters, a bronzed man with a
grizzled mustache and light-blue eyes, with a fine tenderness in his
"These boys of mine are all right," he said. "They're dear fellows,
and ready for anything. Of course, it was anxious work at first, but
my N. C. O.'s are a first-class lot, and we're ready for business."
He spoke of the recruiting task which had begun the business eleven
months ago. It had not been easy, among all those scattered villages
of the southern county. He had gone hunting among the farms and
cottages for likely young fellows. They were of good class, and he had
picked the lads of intelligence, and weeded out the others. They came
from a good stock--the yeoman breed. One could not ask for better
stuff. The officers were men of old county families, and they knew
their men. That was a great thing. So far they had been very lucky
with regard to casualties, though it was unfortunate that a company
commander, a fine fellow who had been a schoolmaster and a parson,
should have been picked off by a sniper on his first day out.
The New Army had received its baptism of fire, though nothing very
fierce as yet. They were led on in easy stages to the danger-zone. It
was not fair to plunge them straight away into the bad places. But the
test of steadiness was good enough on a dark night behind the reserve
trenches, when the reliefs had gone up, and there was a bit of digging
to do in the open.
"Quiet there, boys," said the sergeant-major. "And no larks."
It was not a larky kind of place or time. There was no moon, and a
light drizzle of rain fell. The enemy's trenches were about a thousand
yards away, and their guns were busy in the night, so that the shells
came overhead, and lads who had heard the owls hoot in English woods
now heard stranger night-birds crying through the air, with the noise
of rushing wings, ending in a thunderclap.
"And my old mother thinks I'm enjoying myself!" said the heir to a
"Thirsty work, this grave-digging job," said a lad who used to skate
on rollers between the bath-chairs of Brighton promenade.
"Can't see much in those shells," said a young man who once sold
ladies' blouses in an emporium of a south coast village. "How those
newspaper chaps do try to frighten us!"
He put his head on one side with a sudden jerk.
"What's that? Wasps?"
A number of insects were flying overhead with a queer, sibilant noise.
Somewhere in the darkness there was a steady rattle in the throat of a
"What's that, Sergeant?"
"Machine-gums, my child. Keep your head down, or you'll lose hold of
it. . . Steady, there. Don't get jumpy, now!"
The machine-gun was firing too high to do any serious damage. It was
probably a ricochet from a broken tree which made one of the boys
suddenly drop his spade and fall over it in a crumpled way.
"Get up, Charlie," said the comrade next to him; and then, in a scared
voice, "Oh, Sergeant!"
"That's all right," said the sergeant-major. "We're getting off very
lightly. New remember what I've been telling you. . . Stretcher this
They were very steady through the night, this first company of the New
"Like old soldiers, sir," said the sergeant-major, when he stood
chatting with the colonel after breakfast.
It was a bit of bad luck, though not very bad, after all--which made
the Germans shell a hamlet into which I went just as some of the New
Army were marching through to their quarters. These men had already
seen what shellfire could do to knock the beauty out of old houses and
quiet streets. They had gone tramping through one or two villages to
which the enemy's guns had turned their attention, and had received
that unforgetable sensation of one's first sight of roofless cottages,
and great gaps in garden walls, and tall houses which have tumbled
inside themselves. But now they saw this destruction in the process,
and stood very still, listening to the infernal clatter as shells
burst at the other end of the street, tumbling down huge masses of
masonry and plugging holes into neat cottages, and tearing great
gashes out of red-brick walls.
"Funny business!" said one of the boys.
"Regular Drury Lane melodrama," said another.
"Looks as if some of us wouldn't be home in time for lunch," was
another comment, greeted by a guffaw along the line.
They tried to see the humor of it, though there was a false note in
some of the jokes. But it was the heroic falsity of boys whose pride
is stronger than their fear, that inevitable fear which chills one
when this beastliness is being done.
"Not a single casualty," said one of the officers when the storm of
shells ended with a few last concussions and a rumble of falling
bricks. "Anything wrong with our luck?"
Everything was all right with the luck of this battalion of the New
Army in its first experience of war on the first night in the danger-
zone. No damage was done even when two shells came into one of their
billets, where a number of men were sleeping after a hard day and a
"I woke up pretty quick," said one of them, "and thought the house had
fallen in. I was out of it before the second came. Then I laughed. I'm
a heavy sleeper, you know. [He spoke as if I knew his weakness.] My
mother bought me an alarm-clock last birthday. 'Perhaps you'll be down
for breakfast now,' she said. But a shell is better--as a knocker-up.
I didn't stop to dress."
Death had missed him by a foot or two, but he laughed at the fluke of
"K.'s men" had not forgotten how to laugh after those eleven months of
hard training, and they found a joke in grisly things which do not
appeal humorously to sensitive men.
"Any room for us there?" asked one of these bronzed fellows as he
marched with his battalion past a cemetery where the fantastic devices
of French graves rose above the churchyard wall.
"Oh, we'll do all right in the open air, all along of the German
trenches," was the answer he had from the lad at his side. They
grinned at their own wit.
I did not find any self-conscious patriotism among the rank and file
of the New Army. The word itself meant nothing to them. Unlike the
French soldier, to whom patriotism is a religion and who has the name
of France on his lips at the moment of peril, our men were silent
about the reasons for their coming out and the cause for which they
risked their lives. It was not for imperial power. Any illusion to
"The Empire" left them stone--cold unless they confused it with the
Empire Music Hall, when their hearts warmed to the name. It was not
because they hated Germans, because after a few turns in the trenches
many of them had a fellow-feeling for the poor devils over the way,
and to the end of the war treated any prisoners they took (after the
killing in hot blood) like pet monkeys or tame bears. But for
stringent regulations they would have fraternized with the enemy at
the slightest excuse, and did so in the winter of 1914, to the great
scandal of G. H. Q. "What's patriotism?" asked a boy of me, in Ypres,
and there was hard scorn in his voice. Yet the love of the old country
was deep down in the roots of their hearts, and, as with a boy who
came from the village where I lived for a time, the name of some such
place held all the meaning of life to many of them. The simple minds
of country boys clung fast to that, went back in waking dreams to
dwell in a cottage parlor where their parents sat, and an old clock
ticked, and a dog slept with its head on its paws. The smell of the
fields and the barns, the friendship of familiar trees, the heritage
that was in their blood from old yeoman ancestry, touched them with
the spirit of England, and it was because of that they fought.
The London lad was more self-conscious, had a more glib way of
expressing his convictions, but even he hid his purpose in the war
under a covering of irony and cynical jests. It was the spirit of the
old city and the pride of it which helped him to suffer, and in his
daydreams was the clanging of 'buses from Charing Cross to the Bank,
the lights of the embankment reflected in the dark river, the back
yard where he had kept his bicycle, or the suburban garden where he
had watered his mother's plants . . . London! Good old London! . . .
His heart ached for it sometimes when, as sentry, he stared across the
parapet to the barbed wire in No Man's Land.
One night, strolling outside my own billet and wandering down the lane
a way, I heard the sound of singing coming from a big brick barn on
the roadside. I stood close under the blank wall at the back of the
building, and listened. The men were singing "Auld Lang Syne" to the
accompaniment of a concertina and a mouth-organ. They were taking
parts, and the old tune--so strange to hear out in a village of
France, in the war zone--sounded very well, with deep-throated
harmonies. Presently the concertina changed its tune, and the men of
the New Army sang "God Save the King." I heard it sung a thousand
times or more on royal festivals and tours, but listening to it then
from that dark old barn in Flanders, where a number of "K.'s men" lay
on the straw a night or two away from the ordeal of advanced trenches,
in which they had to take their turn, I heard it with more emotion
than ever before. In that anthem, chanted by these boys in the
darkness, was the spirit of England. If I had been king, like that
Harry who wandered round the camp of Agincourt, where his men lay
sleeping, I should have been glad to stand and listen outside that
barn and hear those words:
Send him victorious, Happy and glorious.
As the chief of the British tribes, the fifth George received his
tribute from those warrior boys who had come out to fight for the flag
that meant to them some old village on the Sussex Downs, where a
mother and a sweetheart waited, or some town in the Midlands where the
walls were placarded with posters which made the Germans gibe, or old
London, where the 'buses went clanging down the Strand.
As I went back up the lane a dark figure loomed out, and I heard the
click of a rifle-bolt. It was one of K.'s men, standing sentry outside
"Who goes there?"
It was a cockney voice.
"Pass, friends. All's well."
Yes, all was well then, as far as human courage and the spirit of a
splendid youthfulness counted in that war of high explosives and
destructive chemistry. The fighting in front of these lads of the New
Army decided the fate of the world, and it was the valor of those
young soldiers who, in a little while, were flung into hell-fires and
killed in great numbers, which made all things different in the
philosophy of modern life. That concertina in the barn was playing the
music of an epic which will make those who sang it seem like heroes of
mythology to the future race which will read of this death-struggle in
Europe. Yet it was a cockney, perhaps from Clapham junction or Peckham
Rye, who said, like a voice of Fate, "All's well."
When the New Army first came out to learn their lessons in the
trenches in the long days before open warfare, the enemy had the best
of it in every way. In gunpowder and in supplies of ammunition he was
our master all along the line, and made use of his mastery by flinging
over large numbers of shells, of all sizes and types, which caused a
heavy toll in casualties to us; while our gunners were strictly
limited to a few rounds a day, and cursed bitterly because they could
not "answer back." In March of 1915 I saw the first fifteen-inch
howitzer open fire. We called this monster "grandma," and there was a
little group of generals on the Scherpenberg, near Kemmel, to see the
effect of the first shell. Its target was on the lower slope of the
Wytschaete Ridge, where some trenches were to be attacked for reasons
only known by our generals and by God. Preliminary to the attack our
field-guns opened fire with shrapnel, which scattered over the German
trenches--their formidable earthworks with deep, shell-proof dugouts--
like the glitter of confetti, and had no more effect than that before
the infantry made a rush for the enemy's line and were mown down by
machine-gun fire--the Germans were very strong in machine-guns, and we
were very weak--in the usual way of those early days. The first shell
fired by our monster howitzer was heralded by a low reverberation, as
of thunder, from the field below us. Then, several seconds later,
there rose from the Wytschaete Ridge a tall, black column of smoke
which stood steady until the breeze clawed at it and tore it to
"Some shell!" said an officer. "Now we ought to win the war--I don't
Later there arrived the first 9.2 (nine-point-two)--"aunty," as we
Well, that was something in the way of heavy artillery, and gradually
our gun-power grew and grew, until we could "answer back," and give
more than came to us; but meanwhile the New Army had to stand the
racket, as the Old Army had done, being strafed by harassing fire,
having their trenches blown in, and their billets smashed, and their
bodies broken, at all times and in all places within range of German
Everywhere the enemy was on high ground and had observation of our
position. From the Westhook Ridge and the Pilkem Ridge his observers
watched every movement of our men round Ypres, and along the main road
to Hooge, signaling back to their guns if anybody of them were
visible. From the Wytschaete Ridge (White-sheet, as we called it) and
Messines they could see for miles across our territory, not only the
trenches, but the ways up to the trenches, and the villages behind
them and the roads through the villages. They looked straight into
Kemmel village and turned their guns on to it when our men crouched
among its ruins and opened the graves in the cemetery and lay old
bones bare. Clear and vivid to them were the red roofs of Dickebusch
village and the gaunt ribs of its broken houses. (I knew a boy from
Fleet Street who was cobbler there in a room between the ruins.) Those
Germans gazed down the roads to Vierstraat and Vormizeele, and watched
for the rising of white dust which would tell them when men were
marching by--more cannon fodder. Southward they saw Neuve Eglise, with
its rag of a tower, and Plug Street wood. In cheerful mood, on sunny
days, German gunners with shells to spare ranged upon separate farm-
houses and isolated barns until they became bits of oddly standing
brick about great holes. They shelled the roads down which our
transport wagons went at night, and the communication trenches to
which our men moved up to the front lines, and gun-positions revealed
by every flash, and dugouts foolishly frail against their 5.9's, which
in those early days we could only answer by a few pip-squeaks. They
made fixed targets of crossroads and points our men were bound to
pass, so that to our men those places became sinister with remembered
horror and present fear: Dead Horse Corner and Dead Cow Farm, and the
farm beyond Plug Street; Dead Dog Farm and the Moated Grange on the
way to St.-Eloi; Stinking Farm and Suicide Corner and Shell-trap Barn,
out by Ypres.
All the fighting youth of our race took their turn in those places,
searched along those roads, lived in ditches and dugouts there, under
constant fire. In wet holes along the Yser Canal by Ypres, young
officers who had known the decencies of home life tried to camouflage
their beastliness by giving a touch of decoration to the clammy walls.
They bought Kirchner prints of little ladies too lightly clad for the
climate of Flanders, and pinned them up as a reminder of the dainty
feminine side of life which here was banished. They brought broken
chairs and mirrors from the ruins of Ypres, and said, "It's quite
cozy, after all!"
And they sat there chatting, as in St. James's Street clubs, in the
same tone of voice, with the same courtesy and sense of humor--while
they listened to noises without, and wondered whether it would be to-
day or to-morrow, or in the middle of the sentence they were speaking,
that bits of steel would smash through that mud above their heads and
tear them to bits and make a mess of things.
There was an officer of the Coldstream Guards who sat in one of these
holes, like many others. A nice, gentle fellow, fond of music, a fine
judge of wine, a connoisseur of old furniture and good food. It was
cruelty to put such a man into a hole in the earth, like the ape-
houses of Hagenbeck's Zoo. He had been used to comfort, the little
luxuries of court life. There, on the canal-bank, he refused to sink
into the squalor. He put on pajamas at night before sleeping in his
bunk--silk pajamas--and while waiting for his breakfast smoked his own
brand of gold-tipped cigarettes, until one morning a big shell blew
out the back of his dugout and hurled him under a heap of earth and
timber. He crawled out, cursing loudly with a nice choice of language,
and then lit another gold--tipped cigarette, and called to his servant
for breakfast. His batman was a fine lad, brought up in the old
traditions of service to an officer of the Guards, and he provided
excellent little meals, done to a turn, until something else happened,
and he was buried alive within a few yards of his master. . . Whenever
I went to the canal-bank, and I went there many times (when still and
always hungry high velocities came searching for a chance meal), I
thought of my friend in the Guards, and of other men I knew who had
lived there in the worst days, and some of whom had died there. They
hated that canal-bank and dreaded it, but they jested in their
dugouts, and there was the laughter of men who hid the fear in their
hearts and were "game" until some bit of steel plugged them with a
gaping wound or tore their flesh to tatters.
Because the enemy was on the high ground and our men were in the low
ground, many of our trenches were wet and waterlogged, even in summer,
after heavy rain. In winter they were in bogs and swamps, up by St.-
Eloi and southward this side of Gommecourt, and in many other evil
places. The enemy drained his water into our ditches when he could,
with the cunning and the science of his way of war, and that made our
I remember going to the line this side of Fricourt on an August day in
'15. It was the seventeenth of August, as I have it in my diary, and
the episode is vivid in my mind because I saw then the New Army lads
learning one of the lessons of war in one of the foulest places. I
also learned the sense of humor of a British general, and afterward,
not enjoying the joke, the fatalistic valor of officers and men (in
civil life a year before) who lived with the knowledge that the ground
beneath them was mined and charged with high explosives, and might
hurl them to eternity between the whiffs of a cigarette.
We were sitting in the garden of the general's headquarters, having a
picnic meal before going into the trenches. In spite of the wasps,
which attacked the sandwiches, it was a nice, quiet place in time of
war. No shell same crashing in our neighborhood (though we were well
within range of the enemy's guns), and the loudest noise was the drop
of an over-ripe apple in the orchard. Later on a shrill whistle
signaled a hostile airplane overhead, but it passed without throwing a
"You will have a moist time in some of the trenches," said the general
(whose boots were finely polished). "The rain has made them rather
damp. . . But you must get down as far as the mine craters. We're
expecting the Germans to fire one at any moment, and some of our
trenches are only six yards away from the enemy. It's an interesting
The interest of it seemed to me too much of a good thing, and I
uttered a pious prayer that the enemy would not explode his beastly
mine under me. It makes such a mess of a man.
A staff captain came out with a report, which he read: "The sound of
picks has been heard close to our sap-head. The enemy will probably
explode their mine in a few hours."
"That's the place I was telling you about," said the general. "It's
well worth a visit. . . But you must make up your mind to get your
As long as I could keep my head dry and firmly fixed to my shoulders,
I was ready to brave the perils of wet feet with any man.
It had been raining heavily for a day or two. I remember thinking that
in London--which seemed a long way off--people were going about under
umbrellas and looking glum when their clothes were splashed by passing
omnibuses. The women had their skirts tucked up and showed their
pretty ankles. (Those things used to happen in the far-off days of
peace.) But in the trenches, those that lay low, rain meant something
different, and hideously uncomfortable for men who lived in holes. Our
soldiers, who cursed the rain--as in the old days, "they swore
terribly in Flanders"--did not tuck their clothes up above their
ankles. They took off their trousers.
There was something ludicrous, yet pitiable, in the sight of those
hefty men coming back through the communication trenches with the
tails of their shirts flapping above their bare legs, which were
plastered with a yellowish mud. Shouldering their rifles or their
spades, they trudged on grimly through two feet of water, and the
boots which they wore without socks squelched at every step with a
loud, sucking noise--"like a German drinking soup," said an officer
who preceded me.
"Why grouse?" he said, presently. "It's better than Brighton!"
It was a queer experience, this paddling through the long
communication trenches, which wound in and out like the Hampton Court
maze toward the front line, and the mine craters which made a salient
to our right, by a place called the "Tambour." Shells came whining
overhead and somewhere behind us iron doors were slamming in the sky,
with metallic bangs, as though opening and shutting in a tempest. The
sharp crack of rifle-shots showed that the snipers were busy on both
sides, and once I stood in a deep pool, with the water up to my knees,
listening to what sounded like the tap-tap-tap of invisible
blacksmiths playing a tattoo on an anvil.
It was one of our machine-guns at work a few yards away from my head,
which I ducked below the trench parapet. Splodge! went the officer in
front of me, with a yell of dismay. The water was well above his top-
boots. Splosh! went another man ahead, recovering from a side-slip in
the oozy mud and clinging desperately to some bunches of yarrow
growing up the side of the trench. Squelch! went a young gentleman
whose puttees and breeches had lost their glory and were but swabs
about his elegant legs.
"Clever fellows!" said the officer, as two of us climbed on to the
fire-stand of the trench in order to avoid a specially deep water-
hole, and with ducked heads and bodies bent double (the Germans were
only two hundred yards on the other side of the parapet) walked on dry
earth for at least ten paces. The officer's laughter was loud at the
corner of the next traverse, when there was an abrupt descent into a
slough of despond.
"And I hope they can swim!" said an ironical voice from a dugout, as
the officers passed. They were lying in wet mud in those square
burrows, the men who had been working all night under their platoon
commanders, and were now sleeping and resting in their trench
dwellings. As I paddled on I glanced at those men lying on straw which
gave out a moist smell, mixed with the pungent vapors of chloride of
lime. They were not interested in the German guns, which were giving
their daily dose of "hate" to the village of Becourt-Becordel. The
noise did not interrupt their heavy, slumbrous breathing. Some of
those who were awake were reading novelettes, forgetting war in the
eternal plot of cheap romance. Others sat at the entrance of their
burrows with their knees tucked up, staring gloomily to the opposite
wall of the trench in day-dreams of some places betwixt Aberdeen and
Hackney Downs. I spoke to one of them, and said, "How are you getting
on?" He answered, "I'm not getting on. . . I don't see the fun of
"Can you keep dry?"
"Dry? . . . I'm soaked to the skin."
"What's it like here?"
"It's hell. . . The devils blow up mines to make things worse."
Another boy spoke.
"Don't you mind what he says, sir. He's always a gloomy bastard.
Doesn't believe in his luck."
There were mascots for luck, at the doorways of their dugouts--a
woman's face carved in chalk, the name of a girl written in pebbles, a
portrait of the King in a frame of withered wild flowers.
A company of our New Army boys had respected a memento of French
troops who were once in this section of trenches. It was an altar
built into the side of the trench, where mass was said each morning by
a soldier--priest. It was decorated with vases and candlesticks, and
above the altar-table was a statue, crudely modeled, upon the base of
which I read the words Notre Dame des Tranchees ("Our Lady of the
Trenches"). A tablet fastened in the earth-wall recorded in French the
desire of those who worshiped here:
"This altar, dedicated to Our Lady of the Trenches, was blessed by the
chaplain of the French regiment. The 9th Squadron of the 6th Company
recommends its care and preservation to their successors. Please do
not touch the fragile statue in trench-clay."
"Our Lady of the Trenches!" It was the first time I had heard of this
new title of the Madonna, whose spirit, if she visited those ditches
of death, must have wept with pity for all those poor children of
mankind whose faith was so unlike the work they had to do.
From a dugout near the altar there came tinkling music. A young
soldier was playing the mandolin to two comrades. "All the latest
ragtime," said one of them with a grin.
So we paddled on our way, glimpsing every now and then over the
parapets at the German lines a few hundred yards away, and at a
village in which the enemy was intrenched, quiet and sinister there.
The water through which we waded was alive with a multitude of
swimming frogs. Red slugs crawled up the sides of the trenches, and
queer beetles with dangerous-looking horns wriggled along dry ledges
and invaded the dugouts in search of the vermin which infested them.
"Rats are the worst plague," said a colonel, coming out of the
battalion headquarters, where he had a hole large enough for a bed and
table. "There are thousands of rats in this part of the line, and
they're audacious devils. In the dugout next door the straw at night
writhes with them. . . I don't mind the mice so much. One of them
comes to dinner on my table every evening, a friendly little beggar
who is very pally with me."
We looked out above the mine-craters, a chaos of tumbled earth, where
our trenches ran so close to the enemy's that it was forbidden to
smoke or talk, and where our sappers listened with all their souls in
their ears to any little tapping or picking which might signal
approaching upheaval. The coats of some French soldiers, blown up long
ago by some of these mines, looked like the blue of the chicory flower
growing in the churned-up soil. . . The new mine was not fired that
afternoon, up to the time of my going away. But it was fired next day,
and I wondered whether the gloomy boy had gone up with it. There was a
foreknowledge of death in his eyes.
One of the officers had spoken to me privately.
"I'm afraid of losing my nerve before the men. It haunts me, that
thought. The shelling is bad enough, but it's the mining business that
wears one's nerve to shreds. One never knows."
I hated to leave him there to his agony. . . The colonel himself was
all nerves, and he loathed the rats as much as the shell-fire and the
mining, those big, lean, hungry rats of the trenches, who invaded the
dugouts and frisked over the bodies of sleeping men. One young
subaltern was in terror of them. He told me how he shot at one, seeing
the glint of its eyes in the darkness. The bullet from his revolver
ricocheted from wall to wall, and he was nearly court-martialed for
The rats, the lice that lived on the bodies of our men, the water-
logged trenches, the shell-fire which broke down the parapets and
buried men in wet mud, wetter for their blood, the German snipers
waiting for English heads, and then the mines--oh, a cheery little
school of courage for the sons of gentlemen! A gentle academy of war
for the devil and General Squeers!
The city of Ypres was the capital of our battlefields in Flanders from
the beginning to the end of the war, and the ground on which it
stands, whether a new city rises there or its remnants of ruin stay as
a memorial of dreadful things, will be forever haunted by the spirit
of those men of ours who passed through its gates to fight in the
fields beyond or to fall within its ramparts.
I went through Ypres so many times in early days and late days of the
war that I think I could find my way about it blindfold, even now. I
saw it first in March of 1915, before the battle when the Germans
first used poison-gas and bombarded its choking people, and French and
British soldiers, until the city fell into a chaos of masonry. On that
first visit I found it scarred by shell--fire, and its great Cloth
Hall was roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but
most of the buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with
customers in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths
served by the women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish
lace and fancy cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about
without a thought of what might happen here in this city, so close to
the enemy's lines, so close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop,
crowded with young officers, who were served by two Flemish girls,
buxom, smiling, glad of all the English money they were making.
A few weeks later the devil came to Ypres. The first sign of his work
was when a mass of French soldiers and colored troops, and English,
Irish, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers came staggering through the
Lille and Menin gates with panic in their look, and some foul spell
upon them. They were gasping for breath, vomiting, falling into
unconsciousness, and, as they lay, their lungs were struggling
desperately against some stifling thing. A whitish cloud crept up to
the gates of Ypres, with a sweet smell of violets, and women and girls
smelled it and then gasped and lurched as they ran and fell. It was
after that when shells came in hurricane flights over Ypres, smashing
the houses and setting them on fire, until they toppled and fell
inside themselves. Hundreds of civilians hid in their cellars, and
many were buried there. Others crawled into a big drain-pipe--there
were wounded women and children among them, and a young French
interpreter, the Baron de Rosen, who tried to help them--and they
stayed there three days and nights, in their vomit and excrement and
blood, until the bombardment ceased. Ypres was a city of ruin, with a
red fire in its heart where the Cloth Hall and cathedral smoldered
below their broken arches and high ribs of masonry that had been their
buttresses and towers.
When I went there two months later I saw Ypres as it stood through the
years of the war that followed, changing only in the disintegration of
its ruin as broken walls became more broken and fallen houses were
raked into smaller fragments by new bombardments, for there was never
a day for years in which Ypres was not shelled.
The approach to it was sinister after one had left Poperinghe and
passed through the skeleton of Vlamertinghe church, beyond Goldfish
Chateau. . . For a long time Poperinghe was the last link with a life
in which men and women could move freely without hiding from the
pursuit of death; and even there, from time to time, there were shells
from long-range guns and, later, night-birds dropping high-explosive
eggs. Round about Poperinghe, by Reninghelst and Locre, long convoys
of motor-wagons, taking up a new day's rations from the rail-heads,
raised clouds of dust which powdered the hedges white. Flemish cart-
horses with huge fringes of knotted string wended their way between
motor-lorries and gun-limbers. Often the sky was blue above the hop-
gardens, with fleecy clouds over distant woodlands and the gray old
towers of Flemish churches and the windmills on Mont Rouge and Mont
Neir, whose sails have turned through centuries of peace and strife.
It all comes back to me as I write--that way to Ypres, and the sounds
and the smells of the roads and fields where the traffic of war went
up, month after month, year after year.
That day when I saw it first, after the gas-attack, was strangely
quiet, I remember. There was "nothing doing," as our men used to say.
The German gunners seemed asleep in the noonday sun, and it was a
charming day for a stroll and a talk about the raving madness of war
under every old hedge.
"What about lunch in Dickebusch on the way up?" asked one of my
companions. There were three of us.
It seemed a good idea, and we walked toward the village which then--
they were early days!--looked a peaceful spot, with a shimmer of
sunshine above its gray thatch and red-tiled roofs.
Suddenly one of us said, "Good God!"
An iron door had slammed down the corridors of the sky and the hamlet
into which we were just going was blotted out by black smoke, which
came up from its center as though its market-place had opened up and
vomited out infernal vapors.
"A big shell that!" said one man, a tall, lean-limbed officer, who
later in the war was sniper-in-chief of the British army. Something
enraged him at the sight of that shelled village.
"Damn them!" he said. "Damn the war! Damn all dirty dogs who smash up
Four times the thing happened, and we were glad there had been a
minute or so between us and Dickebusch. (In Dickebusch my young
cobbler friend from Fleet Street was crouching low, expecting death.)
The peace of the day was spoiled. There was seldom a real peace on the
way to Ypres. The German gunners had wakened up again. They always
did. They were getting busy, those house-wreckers. The long rush of
shells tore great holes through the air. Under a hedge, with our feet
in the ditch, we ate the luncheon we had carried in our pockets.
"A silly idea!" said the lanky man, with a fierce, sad look in his
eyes. He was Norman-Irish, and a man of letters, and a crack shot, and
all the boys he knew were being killed.
"What's silly?" I asked, wondering what particular foolishness he was
thinking of, in a world of folly.
"Silly to die with a broken bit of sandwich in one's mouth, just
because some German fellow, some fat, stupid man a few miles away,
looses off a bit of steel in search of the bodies of men with whom he
has no personal acquaintance."
"Damn silly," I said.
"That's all there is to it in modern warfare," said the lanky man."
It's not like the old way of fighting, body to body. Your strength
against your enemy's, your cunning against his. Now it is mechanics
and chemistry. What is the splendor of courage, the glory of youth,
when guns kill at fifteen miles?"
Afterward this man went close to the enemy, devised tricks to make him
show his head, and shot each head that showed.
The guns ceased fire. Their tumult died down, and all was quiet again.
It was horribly quiet on our way into Ypres, across the railway, past
the red-brick asylum, where a calvary hung unscathed on broken walls,
past the gas-tank at the crossroads. This silence was not reassuring,
as our heels clicked over bits of broken brick on our way into Ypres.
The enemy had been shelling heavily for three-quarters of an hour in
the morning. There was no reason why he should not begin again. . . I
remember now the intense silence of the Grande Place that day after
the gas-attack, when we three men stood there looking up at the
charred ruins of the Cloth Hall. It was a great solitude of ruin. No
living figure stirred among the piles of masonry which were tombstones
above many dead. We three were like travelers who had come to some
capital of an old and buried civilization, staring with awe and
uncanny fear at this burial-place of ancient splendor, with broken
traces of peoples who once had lived here in security. I looked up at
the blue sky above those white ruins, and had an idea that death
hovered there like a hawk ready to pounce. Even as one of us (not I)
spoke the thought, the signal came. It was a humming drone high up in
"Look out!" said the lanky man. "Germans!"
It was certain that two birds hovering over the Grande Place were
hostile things, because suddenly white puffballs burst all round them,
as the shrapnel of our own guns scattered about them. But they flew
round steadily in a half-circle until they were poised above our
It was time to seek cover, which was not easy to find just there,
where masses of stonework were piled high. At any moment things might
drop. I ducked my head behind a curtain of bricks as I heard a shrill
"coo-ee!" from a shell. It burst close with a scatter, and a tin cup
was flung against a bit of wall close to where the lanky man sat in a
shell-hole. He picked it up and said, "Queer!" and then smelled it,
and said "Queer!" again. It was not an ordinary bomb. It had held some
poisonous liquid from a German chemist's shop. Other bombs were
dropping round as the two hostile airmen circled overhead, untouched
still by the following shell-bursts. Then they passed toward their own
lines, and my friend in the shell-hole called to me and said, "Let's
It was time to go.
When we reached the edge of the town our guns away back started
shelling, and we knew the Germans would answer. So we sat in a field
nearby to watch the bombardment. The air moved with the rushing waves
which tracked the carry of each shell from our batteries, and over
Ypres came the high singsong of the enemies' answering voice.
As the dusk fell there was a movement out from Vlamertinghe, a
movement of transport wagons and marching men. They were going up in
the darkness through Ypres--rations and reliefs. They were the New
Army men of the West Riding.
"Carry on there," said a young officer at the head of his company.
Something in his eyes startled me. Was it fear, or an act of
sacrifice? I wondered if he would be killed that night. Men were
killed most nights on the way through Ypres, sometimes a few and
sometimes many. One shell killed thirty one night, and their bodies
lay strewn, headless and limbless, at the corner of the Grande Place.
Transport wagons galloped their way through, between bursts of shell-
fire, hoping to dodge them, and sometimes not dodging them. I saw the
litter of their wheels and shafts, and the bodies of the drivers, and
the raw flesh of the dead horses that had not dodged them. Many men
were buried alive in Ypres, under masses of masonry when they had been
sleeping in cellars, and were wakened by the avalanche above them.
Comrades tried to dig them out, to pull away great stones, to get down
to those vaults below from which voices were calling; and while they
worked other shells came and laid dead bodies above the stones which
had entombed their living comrades. That happened, not once or twice,
but many times in Ypres.
There was a Town Major of Ypres. Men said it was a sentence of death
to any officer appointed to that job. I think one of them I met had
had eleven predecessors. He sat in a cellar of the old prison, with
walls of sandbags on each side of him, but he could not sit there very
long at a stretch, because it was his duty to regulate the traffic
according to the shell-fire. He kept a visitors' book as a hobby,
until it was buried under piles of prison, and was a hearty, cheerful
soul, in spite of the menace of death always about him.
My memory goes back to a strange night in Ypres in those early days.
It was Gullett, the Australian eyewitness, afterward in Palestine, who
had the idea.
"It would be a great adventure," he said, as we stood listening to the
gun-fire over there.
"It would be damn silly," said a staff officer. "Only a stern sense of
duty would make me do it."
It was Gullett who was the brave man.
We took a bottle of Cointreau and a sweet cake as a gift to any
battalion mess we might find in the ramparts, and were sorry for
ourselves when we failed to find it, nor, for a long time, any living
Our own footsteps were the noisiest sounds as we stumbled over the
broken stones. No other footstep paced down any of those streets of
shattered houses through which we wandered with tightened nerves.
There was no movement among all those rubbish heaps of fallen masonry
and twisted iron. We were in the loneliness of a sepulcher which had
been once a fair city.
For a little while my friend and I stood in the Grande Place, not
speaking. In the deepening twilight, beneath the last flame-feathers
of the sinking sun and the first stars that glimmered in a pale sky,
the frightful beauty of the ruins put a spell upon us.
The tower of the cathedral rose high above the framework of broken
arches and single pillars, like a white rock which had been split from
end to end by a thunderbolt. A recent shell had torn out a slice so
that the top of the tower was supported only upon broken buttresses,
and the great pile was hollowed out like a decayed tooth. The Cloth
Hall was but a skeleton in stone, with immense gaunt ribs about the
dead carcass of its former majesty. Beyond, the tower of St. Mark's
was a stark ruin, which gleamed white through the darkening twilight.
We felt as men who should stand gazing upon the ruins of Westminster
Abbey, while the shadows of night crept into their dark caverns and
into their yawning chasms of chaotic masonry, with a gleam of moon
upon their riven towers and fingers of pale light touching the ribs of
isolated arches. In the spaciousness of the Grande Place at Ypres my
friend and I stood like the last men on earth in a city of buried
It was almost dark now as we made our way through other streets of
rubbish heaps. Strangely enough, as I remember, many of the iron lamp-
posts had been left standing, though bent and twisted in a drunken
way, and here and there we caught the sweet whiff of flowers and
plants still growing in gardens which had not been utterly destroyed
by the daily tempest of shells, though the houses about them had been
The woods below the ramparts were slashed and torn by these storms,
and in the darkness, lightened faintly by the crescent moon, we
stumbled over broken branches and innumerable shell-holes. The silence
was broken now by the roar of a gun, which sounded so loud that I
jumped sideways with the sudden shock of it. It seemed to be the
signal for our batteries, and shell after shell went rushing through
the night, with that long, menacing hiss which ends in a dull blast.
The reports of the guns and the explosions of the shells followed each
other, and mingled in an enormous tumult, echoed back by the ruins of
Ypres in hollow, reverberating thunder-strokes. The enemy was
answering back, not very fiercely yet, and from the center of the
town, in or about the Grande Place, came the noise of falling houses
or of huge blocks of stone splitting into fragments.
We groped along, scared with the sense of death around us. The first
flares of the night were being lighted by both sides above their
trenches on each side of the salient. The balls of light rose into the
velvety darkness and a moment later suffused the sky with a white
glare which faded away tremulously after half a minute.
Against the first vivid brightness of it the lines of trees along the
roads to Hooge were silhouetted as black as ink, and the fields
between Ypres and the trenches were flooded with a milky luminance.
The whole shape of the salient was revealed to us in those flashes. We
could see all those places for which our soldiers fought and died. We
stared across the fields beyond the Menin road toward the Hooge
crater, and those trenches which were battered to pieces but not
abandoned in the first battle of Ypres and the second battle.
That salient was, even then, in 1915, a graveyard of British soldiers-
-there were years to follow when many more would lie there--and as
between flash and flash the scene was revealed, I seemed to see a
great army of ghosts, the spirits of all those boys who had died on
this ground. It was the darkness, and the tumult of guns, and our
loneliness here on the ramparts, which put an edge to my nerves and
made me see unnatural things.
No wonder a sentry was startled when he saw our two figures
approaching him through a clump of trees. His words rang out like
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Friends!" we shouted, seeing the gleam of light on a shaking bayonet.
"Come close to be recognized!" he said, and his voice was harsh.
We went close, and I for one was afraid. Young sentries sometimes shot
"Who are you?" he asked, in a more natural voice, and when we
explained he laughed gruffly. "I never saw two strangers pass this way
He was an old soldier, "back to the army again," with Kitchener's men.
He had been in the Chitral campaign and South Africa--"Little wars
compared to this," as he said. A fine, simple man, and although a
bricklayer's laborer in private life, with a knowledge of the right
word. I was struck when he said that the German flares were more
"luminous" than ours. I could hardly see his face in the darkness,
except when he struck a match once, but his figure was black against
the illumined sky, and I watched the motion of his arm as he pointed
to the roads up which his comrades had gone to the support of another
battalion at Hooge, who were hard pressed. "They went along under a
lot of shrapnel and had many casualties."
He told the story of that night in a quiet, thoughtful way, with
phrases of almost biblical beauty in their simple truth, and the soul
of the man, the spirit of the whole army in which he was a private
soldier, was revealed when he flashed out a sentence with his one note
of fire, "But the enemy lost more than we did, sir, that night!"
We wandered away again into the darkness, with the din of the
bombardment all about us. There was not a square yard of ground
unplowed by shells and we did not nourish any false illusions as to
finding a safe spot for a bivouac.
There was no spot within the ramparts of Ypres where a man might say
"No shells will fall here." But one place we found where there seemed
some reasonable odds of safety. There also, if sleep assailed us, we
might curl up in an abandoned dugout and hope that it would not be
"crumped" before the dawn. There were several of these shelters there,
but, peering into them by the light of a match, I shuddered at the
idea of lying in one of them. They had been long out of use and there
was a foul look about the damp bedding and rugs which had been left to
rot there. They were inhabited already by half-wild cats--the
abandoned cats of Ypres, which hunted mice through the ruins of their
old houses--and they spat at me and glared with green-eyed fear as I
thrust a match into their lairs.
There were two kitchen chairs, with a deal table on which we put our
cake and Cointreau, and here, through half a night, my friend and I
sat watching and listening to that weird scene upon which the old moon
looked down; and, as two men will at such a time, we talked over all
the problems of life and death and the meaning of man's heritage.
Another sentry challenged us--all his nerves jangled at our
apparition. He was a young fellow, one of "Kitchener's crowd," and
told us frankly that he had the "jimjams" in this solitude of Ypres
and "saw Germans" every time a rat jumped. He lingered near us--"for
It was becoming chilly. The dew made our clothes damp. Cake and sweet
liquor were poor provisions for the night, and the thought of hot tea
was infinitely seductive. Perhaps somewhere one might find a few
soldiers round a kettle in some friendly dugout. We groped our way
along, holding our breath at times as a shell came sweeping overhead
or burst with a sputter of steel against the ramparts. It was
profoundly dark, so that only the glowworms glittered like jewels on
black velvet. The moon had gone down, and inside Ypres the light of
the distant flares only glimmered faintly above the broken walls. In a
tunnel of darkness voices were speaking and some one was whistling
softly, and a gleam of red light made a bar across the grass. We
walked toward a group of black figures, suddenly silent at our
"Who's there?" said a voice.
We were just in time for tea--a stroke of luck--with a company of boys
(all Kitchener lads from the Civil Service) who were spending the
night here. They had made a fire behind a screen to give them a little
comfort and frighten off the ghosts, and gossiped with a queer sense
of humor, cynical and blasphemous, but even through their jokes there
was a yearning for the end of a business which was too close to death.
I remember the gist of their conversation, which was partly devised
for my benefit. One boy declared that he was sick of the whole
"I should like to cancel my contract," he remarked.
"Yes, send in your resignation, old lad," said another, with ironical
"They'd consider it, wouldn't they? P'raps offer a rise in wages--I
Another boy said, "I am a citizen of no mean Empire, but what the hell
is the Empire going to do for me when the next shell blows off both my
This remark was also received by a gust of subdued laughter, silenced
for a moment by a roar and upheaval of masonry somewhere by the ruins
of the Cloth Hall.
"Soldiers are prisoners," said a boy without any trace of humor.
"You're lagged, and you can't escape. A 'blighty' is the best luck you
can hope for."
"I don't want to kill Germans," said a fellow with a superior accent.
"I've no personal quarrel against them; and, anyhow, I don't like
"Christian service, that's what the padre calls it. I wonder if Christ
would have stuck a bayonet into a German stomach--a German with his
hands up. That's what we're asked to do."
"Oh, Christianity is out of business, my child. Why mention it? This
is war, and we're back to the primitive state--B.C. All the same, I
say my little prayers when I'm in a blue funk.
"Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child."
This last remark was the prize joke of the evening, received with much
hilarity, not too loud, for fear of drawing fire--though really no
Germans could have heard any laughter in Ypres.
Nearby, their officer was spending the night. We called on him, and
found him sitting alone in a dugout furnished by odd bits from the
wrecked houses, with waxen flowers in a glass case on the shelf, and
an old cottage clock which ticked out the night, and a velvet armchair
which had been the pride of a Flemish home. He was a Devonshire lad,
with a pale, thoughtful face, and I was sorry for him in his
loneliness, with a roof over his head which would be no proof against
a fair-sized shell.
He expressed no surprise at seeing us. I think he would not have been
surprised if the ghost of Edward the Black Prince had called on him.
He would have greeted him with the same politeness and offered him his
The night passed. The guns slackened down before the dawn. For a
little while there was almost silence, even over the trenches. But as
the first faint glow of dawn crept through the darkness the rifle-fire
burst out again feverishly, and the machine-guns clucked with new
spasms of ferocity. The boys of the New Army, and the Germans facing
them, had an attack of the nerves, as always at that hour.
The flares were still rising, but had the debauched look of belated
fireworks after a night of orgy.
In a distant field a cock crew.
The dawn lightened all the sky, and the shadows crept away from the
ruins of Ypres, and all the ghastly wreckage of the city was revealed
again nakedly. Then the guns ceased for a while, and there was
quietude in the trenches, and out of Ypres, sneaking by side ways,
went two tired figures, padding the hoof with a slouching swiftness to
escape the early morning "hate" which was sure to come as soon as a
clock in Vlamertinghe still working in a ruined tower chimed the hour
I went through Ypres scores of times afterward, and during the battles
of Flanders saw it day by day as columns of men and guns and pack-
mules and transports went up toward the ridge which led at last to
Passchendaele. We had big guns in the ruins of Ypres, and round about,
and they fired with violent concussions which shook loose stones, and
their flashes were red through the Flanders mist. Always this capital
of the battlefields was sinister, with the sense of menace about.
"Steel helmets to be worn. Gas-masks at the alert."
So said the traffic man at the crossroads.
As one strapped on one's steel helmet and shortened the strap of one's
gas-mask, the spirit of Ypres touched one's soul icily.
The worst school of war for the sons of gentlemen was, in those early
days, and for long afterward, Hooge. That was the devil's playground
and his chamber of horrors, wherein he devised merry tortures for
young Christian men. It was not far out of Ypres, to the left of the
Menin road, and to the north of Zouave Wood and Sanctuary Wood. For a
time there was a chateau there called the White Chateau, with
excellent stables and good accommodation for one of our brigade
staffs, until one of our generals was killed and others wounded by a
shell, which broke up their conference. Afterward there was no
chateau, but only a rubble of bricks banked up with sandbags and deep
mine-craters filled with stinking water slopping over from the
Bellewarde Lake and low-lying pools. Bodies, and bits of bodies, and
clots of blood, and green metallic-looking slime, made by explosive
gases, were floating on the surface of that water below the crater
banks when I first passed that way, and so it was always. Our men
lived there and died there within a few yards of the enemy, crouched
below the sand-bags and burrowed in the sides of the crater. Lice
crawled over them in legions. Human flesh, rotting and stinking, mere
pulp, was pasted into the mud-banks. If they dug to get deeper cover
their shovels went into the softness of dead bodies who had been their
comrades. Scraps of flesh, booted legs, blackened hands, eyeless
heads, came falling over them when the enemy trench-mortared their
position or blew up a new mine-shaft.
I remember one young Irish officer who came down to bur quarters on a
brief respite from commanding the garrison at Hooge. He was a handsome
fellow, like young Philip of Spain by Velasquez, and he had a profound
melancholy in his eyes in spite of a charming smile.
"Do you mind if I have a bath before I join you?" he asked.
He walked about in the open air until the bath was ready. Even there a
strong, fetid smell came from him.
"Hooge," he said, in a thoughtful way, "is not a health resort."
He was more cheerful after his bath and did not feel quite such a
leper. He told one or two stories about the things that happened at
Hooge, and I wondered if hell could be so bad. After a short stay he
went back again, and I could see that he expected to be killed. Before
saying good-by he touched some flowers on the mess-table, and for a
moment or two listened to birds twittering in the trees.
"Thanks very much," he said. "I've enjoyed this visit a good deal . .
He went back through Ypres on the way to Hooge, and the mine-crater
where his Irish soldiers were lying in slime, in which vermin crawled.
Sometimes it was the enemy who mined under our position, blowing a few
men to bits and scattering the sand-bags. Sometimes it was our men who
upheaved the earth beyond them by mine charges and rushed the new
It was in July of '15 that the devils of Hooge became merry and bright
with increased activity. The Germans had taken possession of one of
the mine-craters which formed the apex of a triangle across the Menin
road, with trenches running down to it on either side, so that it was
like the spear-head of their position. They had fortified it with
sand-bags and crammed it with machine--guns which could sweep the
ground on three sides, so making a direct attack by infantry a
suicidal enterprise. Our trenches immediately faced this stronghold
from the other side of a road at right angles with the Menin road, and
our men--the New Army boys--were shelled day and night, so that many
of them were torn to pieces, and others buried alive, and others sent
mad by shell-shock. (They were learning their lessons in the school of
courage.) It was decided by a conference of generals, not at Hooge, to
clear out this hornets' nest, and the job was given to the sappers,
who mined under the roadway toward the redoubt, while our heavy
artillery shelled the enemy's position all around the neighborhood.
On July 22d the mine was exploded, while our men crouched low,
horribly afraid after hours of suspense. The earth was rent asunder by
a gust of flame, and vomited up a tumult of soil and stones and human
limbs and bodies. Our men still crouched while these things fell upon
"I thought I had been blown to bits," one of them told me. "I was a
quaking fear, with my head in the earth. I kept saying, 'Christ! . . .
When the earth and smoke had settled again it was seen that the
enemy's redoubt had ceased to exist. In its place, where there had
been a crisscross of trenches and sand-bag shelters for their machine-
guns and a network of barbed wire, there was now an enormous crater,
hollowed deep with shelving sides surrounded by tumbled earth heaps
which had blocked up the enemy's trenches on either side of the
position, so that they could not rush into the cavern and take
possession. It was our men who "rushed" the crater and lay there
panting in its smoking soil.
Our generals had asked for trouble when they destroyed that redoubt,
and our men had it. Infuriated by a massacre of their garrison in the
mine-explosion and by the loss of their spear-head, the Germans kept
up a furious bombardment on our trenches in that neighborhood in
bursts of gun-fire which tossed our earthworks about and killed and
wounded many men. Our line at Hooge at that time was held by the
King's Royal Rifles of the 14th Division, young fellows, not far
advanced in the training-school of war. They held on under the gunning
of their positions, and each man among them wondered whether it was
the shell screeching overhead or the next which would smash him into
pulp like those bodies lying nearby in dugouts and upheaved
On the morning of July 30th there was a strange lull of silence after
a heavy bout of shells and mortars. Men of the K. R. R. raised their
heads above broken parapets and crawled out of shell-holes and looked
about. There were many dead bodies lying around, and wounded men were
wailing. The unwounded, startled by the silence, became aware of some
moisture falling on them; thick, oily drops of liquid.
"What in hell's name--?" said a subaltern.
One man smelled his clothes, which reeked of something like paraffin.
Coming across from the German trenches were men hunched up under some
heavy weights. They were carrying cylinders with nozles like hose-
pipes. Suddenly there was a rushing noise like an escape of air from
some blast-furnace. Long tongues of flame licked across to the broken
ground where the King's Royal Rifles lay.
Some of them were set on fire, their clothes burning on them, making
them living torches, and in a second or two cinders.
It was a new horror of war--the Flammenwerfer.
Some of the men leaped to their feet, cursing, and fired repeatedly at
the Germans carrying the flaming jets. Here and there the shots were
true. A man hunched under a cylinder exploded like a fat moth caught
in a candle-flame. But that advancing line of fire after the long
bombardment was too much for the rank and file, whose clothes were
smoking and whose bodies were scorched. In something like a panic they
fell back, abandoning the cratered ground in which their dead lay.
The news of this disaster and of the new horror reached the troops in
reserve, who had been resting in the rear after a long spell. They
moved up at once to support their comrades and make a counter-attack.
The ground they had to cover was swept by machine-guns, and many fell,
but the others attacked again and again, regardless of their losses,
and won back part of the lost ground, leaving only a depth of five
hundred yards in the enemy's hands.
So the position remained until the morning of August 9th, when a new
attack was begun by the Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Midland
troops of the 6th Division, who had been long in the salient and had
proved the quality of northern "grit" in the foul places and the foul
weather of that region.
It was late on the night of August 8th that these battalions took up
their position, ready for the assault. These men, who came mostly from
mines and workshops, were hard and steady and did not show any outward
sign of nervousness, though they knew well enough that before the
light of another day came their numbers would have passed through the
lottery of this game of death. Each man's life depended on no more
than a fluke of luck by the throw of those dice which explode as they
fall. They knew what their job was. It was to cross five hundred yards
of open ground to capture and to hold a certain part of the German
position near the Chateau of Hooge.
They were at the apex of the triangle which made a German salient
after the ground was lost, on July 30th. On the left side of the
triangle was Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood ran up the right side to
a strong fort held by the enemy and crammed with machine-guns and
every kind of bomb. The base of the upturned triangle was made by the
Menin road, to the north, beyond which lay the crater, the chateau,
and the stables.
The way that lay between the regiment and their goal was not an easy
one to pass. It was cut and crosscut by our old trenches, now held by
the enemy, who had made tangles of barbed wire in front of their
parapets, and had placed machine-guns at various points. The ground
was littered with dead bodies belonging to the battle of July 30th,
and pock-marked by deep shell-holes. To cross five hundred yards of
such ground in the storm of the enemy's fire would be an ordeal
greater than that of rushing from one trench to another. It would have
to be done in regular attack formation, and with the best of luck
would be a grim and costly progress.
The night was pitch dark. The men drawn up could only see one another
as shadows blacker than the night. They were very quiet; each man was
fighting down his fear in his soul, trying to get a grip on nerves
hideously strained by the rack of this suspense. The words, "Steady,
lads." were spoken down the ranks by young lieutenants and sergeants.
The sounds of men whispering, a cough here and there, a word of
command, the clink of bayonets, the cracking of twigs under heavy
boots, the shuffle of troops getting into line, would not carry with
any loudness to German ears.
The men deployed before dawn broke, waiting for the preliminary
bombardment which would smash a way for them. The officers struck
matches now and then to glance at their wrist-watches, set very
carefully to those of the gunners. Then our artillery burst forth with
an enormous violence of shell-fire, so that the night was shattered
with the tumult of it. Guns of every caliber mingled their explosions,
and the long screech of the shells rushed through the air as though
thousands of engines were chasing one another madly through a vast
junction in that black vault.
The men listened and waited. As soon as the guns lengthened their
fuses the infantry advance would begin. Their nerves were getting
jangled. It was just the torture of human animals. There was an
indrawing of breath when suddenly the enemy began to fire rockets,
sending up flares which made white waves of light. If they were seen!
There would be a shambles.
But the smoke of all the bursting shells rolled up in a thick veil,
hiding those mining lads who stared toward the illuminations above the
black vapors and at the flashes which seemed to stab great rents in
the pall of smoke. "It was a jumpy moment," said the colonel of the
Durhams, and the moment lengthened into minutes.
Then the time came. The watch hands pointed to the second which had
been given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the
guns lifted and made a curtain of fire round the Chateau of Hooge,
beyond the Menin road, six hundred yards away.
The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden
clatter from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men
girdled with hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and
made their first rush forward. The ground had been churned up by our
shells, and the trenches had been battered into shapelessness, strewn
with broken wire and heaps of loose stones and fragments of steel.
It seemed impossible that any German should be left alive in this
quagmire, but there was still a rattle of machine-guns from holes and
hillocks. Not for long. The bombing-parties searched and found them,
and silenced them. From the heaps of earth which had once been
trenches German soldiers rose and staggered in a dazed, drunken way,
stupefied by the bombardment beneath which they had crouched.
Our men spitted them on their bayonets or hurled hand-grenades, and
swept the ground before them. Some Germans screeched like pigs in a
The men went on in short rushes. They were across the Menin road now,
and were first to the crater, though other troops were advancing
quickly from the left. They went down into the crater, shouting
hoarsely, and hurling bombs at Germans, who were caught like rats in a
trap, and scurried up the steep sides beyond, firing before rolling
down again, until at least two hundred bodies lay dead at the bottom
of this pit of hell.
While some of the men dug themselves into the crater or held the
dugouts already made by the enemy, others climbed up to the ridge
beyond and with a final rush, almost winded and spent, reached the
extreme limit of their line of assault and achieved the task which had
been set them. They were mad now, not human in their senses. They saw
red through bloodshot eyes. They were beasts of prey--these decent
Round the stables themselves three hundred Germans were bayoneted,
until not a single enemy lived on this ground, and the light of day on
that 9th of August revealed a bloody and terrible scene, not decent
for words to tell. Not decent, but a shambles of human flesh which had
been a panic-stricken crowd of living men crying for mercy, with that
dreadful screech of terror from German boys who saw the white gleam of
steel at their stomachs before they were spitted. Not many of those
Durham and Yorkshire lads remain alive now with that memory. The few
who do must have thrust it out of their vision, unless at night it
The assaulting battalion had lost many men during the assault, but
their main ordeal came after the first advance, when the German guns
belched out a large quantity of heavy shells from the direction of
Hill 60. They raked the ground, and tried to make our men yield the
position they had gained. But they would not go back or crawl away
from their dead.
All through the day the bombardment continued, answered from our side
by fourteen hours of concentrated fire, which I watched from our
battery positions. In spite of the difficulties of getting up supplies
through the "crumped" trenches, the men held on and consolidated their
positions. One of the most astounding feats was done by the sappers,
who put up barbed wire beyond the line under a devilish cannonade.
A telephone operator had had his apparatus smashed by a shell early in
the action, and worked his way back to get another. He succeeded in
reaching the advanced line again, but another shell knocked out his
second instrument. It was then only possible to keep in touch with the
battalion headquarters by means of messengers, and again and again
officers and men made their way across the zone of fire or died in the
attempt. Messages reached the colonel of the regiment that part of his
front trenches had been blown away.
From other parts of the line reports came in that the enemy was
preparing a counter-attack. For several hours now the colonel of the
Durhams could not get into touch with his companies, isolated and
hidden beneath the smoke of the shell-bursts. Flag-wagging and
heliographing were out of the question. He could not tell even if a
single man remained alive out there beneath all those shells. No word
came from them now to let him know if the enemy were counter-
Early in the afternoon he decided to go out and make his own
reconnaissance. The bombardment was still relentless, and it was only
possible to go part of the way in an old communication trench. The
ground about was littered with the dead, still being blown about by
The soul of the colonel was heavy then with doubt and with the
knowledge that most of the dead here were his own. When he told me
this adventure his only comment was the soldier's phrase, "It was not
what might be called a 'healthy' place." He could see no sign of a
counter-attack, but, straining through the smoke-clouds, his eyes
could detect no sign of life where his men had been holding the
captured lines. Were they all dead out there?
On Monday night the colonel was told that his battalion would be
relieved, and managed to send this order to a part of it. It was sent
through by various routes, but some men who carried it came back with
the news that it was still impossible to get into touch with the
companies holding the advanced positions above the Menin road.
In trying to do so they had had astounding escapes. Several of them
had been blown as far as ten yards by the air-pressure of exploding
shells and had been buried in the scatter of earth.
"When at last my men came back--those of them who had received the
order," said the colonel, "I knew the price of their achievement--its
cost in officers and men." He spoke as a man resentful of that bloody
There were other men still alive and still holding on. With some of
them were four young officers, who clung to their ground all through
the next night, before being relieved. They were without a drop of
water and suffered the extreme miseries of the battlefield.
There was no distinction in courage between those four men, but the
greater share of suffering was borne by one. Early in the day he had
had his jaw broken by a piece of shell, but still led his men. Later
in the day he was wounded in the shoulder and leg, but kept his
command, and he was still leading the survivors of his company when he
came back on the morning of Tuesday, August 10th.
Another party of men had even a longer time of trial. They were under
the command of a lance-corporal, who had gained possession of the
stables above the Menin road and now defended their ruins. During the
previous twenty-four hours he had managed to send through several
messages, but they were not to report his exposed position nor to ask
for supports nor to request relief. What he said each time was, "Send
us more bombs." It was only at seven-thirty in the morning of Tuesday,
after thirty hours under shell-fire, that the survivors came away from
their rubbish heap in the lines of death.
So it was at Hooge on that day of August. I talked with these men,
touched hands with them while the mud and blood of the business still
fouled them. Even now, in remembrance, I wonder how men could go
through such hours without having on their faces more traces of their
hell, though some of them were still shaking with a kind of ague.
Here and there on the roadsides behind the lines queer sacks hung from
wooden poles. They had round, red disks painted on them, and looked
like the trunks of human bodies after Red Indians had been doing
decorative work with their enemy's slain. At Flixecourt, near Amiens,
I passed one on a Sunday when bells were ringing for high mass and a
crowd of young soldiers were trooping into the field with fixed
A friend of mine--an ironical fellow--nudged me, and said, "Sunday-
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