The First Hundred Thousand
Part 3 out of 5
each glengarry flanked on the left-hand side by the muzzle of a rifle
at the slope. (That detached patch over there on the left front,
surrounded by air-bubbles, is the band. That cavity like the crater
of an extinct volcano, in Number one Platoon of A Company, was once
And yet people talk about the sinking of the _Birkenhead!_
* * * * *
This morning some one in the Department has scored another ten points.
Word has just been received that we are to move again to-morrow--to a
precisely similar set of huts about a hundred yards away!
They are mad wags on Olympus.
AND SOME FELL BY THE WAYSIDE
"_Firing parrty, revairse arrms_!"
Thus the platoon sergeant--a little anxiously; for we are new to this
feat, and only rehearsed it for a few minutes this morning.
It is a sunny afternoon in late February. The winter of our discontent
is past. (At least, we hope so.) Comfortless months of training are
safely behind us, and lo! we have grown from a fortuitous concourse of
atoms to a cohesive unit of fighting men. Spring is coming; spring is
coming; our blood runs quicker; active service is within measurable
distance; and the future beckons to us with both hands to step down
at last into the arena, and try our fortune amid the uncertain but
illimitable chances of the greatest game in the World.
To all of us, that is, save one.
The road running up the hill from the little mortuary is lined on
either side by members of our company, specklessly turned out and
standing to attention. At the foot of the slope a gun-carriage is
waiting, drawn by two great dray horses and controlled by a private of
the Royal Artillery, who looks incongruously perky and cockney amid
that silent, kilted assemblage. The firing party form a short lane
from the gun-carriage to the door of the mortuary. In response to the
sergeant's command, each man turns over his rifle, and setting the
muzzle carefully upon his right boot--after all, it argues no extra
respect to the dead to get your barrel filled with mud--rests his
hands upon the butt-plate and bows his head, as laid down in the
The bearers move slowly down the path from the mortuary, and place the
coffin upon the gun-carriage. Upon the lid lie a very dingy glengarry,
a stained leather belt, and a bayonet. They are humble trophies, but
we pay them as much reverence as we would to the _baton_ and cocked
hat of a field-marshal, for they are the insignia of a man who has
given his life for his country.
On the hill-top above us, where the great military hospital rears its
clock-tower foursquare to the sky, a line of convalescents, in natty
blue uniforms with white facings and red ties, lean over the railings
deeply interested. Some of them are bandaged, others are in slings,
and all are more or less maimed. They follow the obsequies below
with critical approval. They have been present at enough hurried and
promiscuous interments of late--more than one of them has only just
escaped being the central figure at one of these functions--that they
are capable of appreciating a properly conducted funeral at its true
"They're putting away a bloomin' Jock," remarks a gentleman with an
"And very nice, too!" responds another on crutches, as the firing
party present arms with creditable precision. "Not 'arf a bad bit of
eye-wash at all for a bandy-legged lot of coal-shovellers."
"That lot's out of K(1)," explains a well-informed invalid with his
head in bandages. "Pretty 'ot stuff they're gettin'. _Tres moutarde!_
Now we're off."
The signal is passed up the road to the band, who are waiting at the
head of the procession, and the pipes break into a lament. Corporals
step forward and lay four wreaths upon the coffin--one from each
company. Not a man in the battalion has failed to contribute his penny
to those wreaths; and pennies are not too common with us, especially
on a Thursday, which comes just before payday. The British private is
commonly reputed to spend all, or most of, his pocket-money upon beer.
But I can tell you this, that if you give him his choice between
buying himself a pint of beer and subscribing to a wreath, he will
most decidedly go thirsty.
The serio-comic charioteer gives his reins a twitch, the horses wake
up, and the gun-carriage begins to move slowly along the lane of
mourners. As the dead private passes on his way the walls of the
lane melt, and his comrades fall into their usual fours behind the
So we pass up the hill towards the military cemetery, with the pipes
wailing their hearts out, and the muffled drums marking the time of
our regulation slow step. Each foot seems to hang in the air before
the drums bid us put it down.
In the very rear of the procession you may see the company commander
and three subalterns. They give no orders, and exact no attention. To
employ a colloquialism, this is not their funeral.
Just behind the gun-carriage stalks a solitary figure in civilian
clothes--the unmistakable "blacks" of an Elder of the Kirk. At
first sight, you have a feeling that some one has strayed into the
procession who has no right there. But no one has a better. The sturdy
old man behind the coffin is named Adam Carmichael, and he is here,
having travelled south from Dumbarton by the night train, to attend
the funeral of his only son.
Peter Carmichael was one of the first to enlist in the regiment. There
was another Carmichael in the same company, so Peter at roll-call
was usually addressed by the sergeant as "Twenty-seven fufty-fower
Carmichael," 2754 being his regimental number. The army does not
encourage Christian names. When his attestation paper was filled up,
he gave his age as nineteen; his address, vaguely, as Renfrewshire;
and his trade, not without an air, as a "holder-on." To the mystified
Bobby Little he entered upon a lengthy explanation of the term in a
language composed almost entirely of vowels, from which that
officer gathered, dimly, that holding-on had something to do with
Upon the barrack square his platoon commander's attention was again
drawn to Peter, owing to the passionate enthusiasm with which he
performed the simplest evolutions, such as forming fours and sloping
arms--military exercises which do not intrigue the average private to
any great extent. Unfortunately, desire frequently outran performance.
Peter was undersized, unmuscular, and extraordinarily clumsy. For a
long time Bobby Little thought that Peter, like one or two of
his comrades, was left-handed, so made allowances. Ultimately he
discovered that his indulgence was misplaced: Peter was equally
incompetent with either hand. He took longer in learning to fix
bayonets or present arms than any other man in the platoon. To be
fair, Nature had done little to help him. He was thirty-three inches
round the chest, five feet four in height, and weighed possibly nine
stone. His complexion was pasty, and, as Captain Wagstaffe remarked,
you could hang your hat on any bone in his body. His eyesight was not
all that the Regulations require, and on the musketry-range he
was "put back," to his deep distress, "for further instruction."
Altogether, if you had not known the doctor who passed him, you would
have said it was a mystery how he passed the doctor.
But he possessed the one essential attribute of the soldier. He had a
big heart. He was keen. He allowed nothing to come between him and
his beloved duties. ("He was aye daft for to go sogerin'," his father
explained to Captain Blaikie; "but his mother would never let him
away. He was ower wee, and ower young.") His rifle, buttons, and boots
were always without blemish. Further, he was of the opinion that a
merry heart goes all the way. He never sulked when the platoon were
kept on parade five minutes after the breakfast bugle had sounded.
He made no bones about obeying orders and saluting officers--acts
of abasement which grated sorely at times upon his colleagues, who
reverenced no one except themselves and their Union. He appeared to
revel in muddy route-marches, and invariably provoked and led the
choruses. The men called him "Wee Pe'er," and ultimately adopted him
as a sort of company mascot. Whereat Pe'er's heart glowed; for when
your associates attach a diminutive to your Christian name, you
possess something which millionaires would gladly give half their
fortune to purchase.
And certainly he required all the social success he could win, for
professionally Peter found life a rigorous affair. Sometimes, as he
staggered into barracks after a long day, carrying a rifle made of
lead and wearing a pair of boots weighing a hundredweight apiece, he
dropped dead asleep on his bedding before he could eat his dinner. But
he always hotly denied the imputation that he was "sick."
Time passed. The regiment was shaking down. Seven of Peter's
particular cronies were raised to the rank of lance-corporal--but not
Peter. He was "off the square" now--that is to say, he was done
with recruit drill for ever. He possessed a sound knowledge of
advance-guard and outpost work; his conduct-sheet was a blank page.
But he was not promoted. He was "ower wee for a stripe," he told
himself. For the present he must expect to be passed over. His chance
would come later, when he had filled out a little and got rid of his
The winter dragged on: the weather was appalling: the grousers gave
tongue with no uncertain voice, each streaming field-day. But Wee
Pe'er enjoyed it all. He did not care if it snowed ink. He was a
One day, to his great delight, he was "warned for guard"--a
particularly unpopular branch of a soldier's duties, for it means
sitting in the guard-room for twenty-four hours at a stretch, fully
dressed and accoutred, with intervals of sentry-go, usually in heavy
rain, by way of exercise. When Peter's turn for sentry-go came on he
splashed up and down his muddy beat--the battalion was in billets now,
and the usual sentry's verandah was lacking--as proud as a peacock,
saluting officers according to their rank, challenging stray civilians
with great severity, and turning out the guard on the slightest
provocation. He was at his post, soaked right through his greatcoat,
when the orderly officer made his night round. Peter summoned his
colleagues; the usual inspection of the guard took place; and the
sleepy men were then dismissed to their fireside. Peter remained;
the officer hesitated. He was supposed to examine the sentry in his
knowledge of his duties. It was a profitless task as a rule. The
tongue-tied youth merely gaped like a stranded fish, until the
sergeant mercifully intervened, in some such words as these--
"This man, sirr, is liable to get over-excited when addressed by an
"Now, Jimmy, tell the officer what would ye dae in case of fire?"
"Present airrms!" announces the desperate James. Or else, almost
tearfully, "I canna mind. I had it all fine just noo, but it's awa'
oot o' ma heid!"
Therefore it was with no great sense of anticipation that the orderly
officer said to Private Carmichael,--
"Now, sentry, can you repeat any of your duties?"
Peter saluted, took a full breath, closed both eyes, and replied
"For tae tak' chairge of all Government property within sicht of
this guairdhoose tae turrn out the guaird for all arrmed pairties
approaching also the commanding officer once a day tae salute all
officers tae challenge all pairsons approaching this post tae--"
His recital was interrupted by a fit of coughing.
"Thank you," said the officer hastily; "that will do. Good night!"
Peter, not sure whether it would be correct to say "good night" too,
saluted again, and returned to his cough.
"I say," said the officer, turning back, "you have a shocking cold."
"Och, never heed it, sirr," gasped Peter politely.
"Call the sergeant," said the officer.
The fat sergeant came out of the guardhouse again, buttoning his
"Take this man off sentry-duty and roast him at the guard-room fire."
"I will, sirr," replied the sergeant; and added paternally, "this man
has no right for to be here at all. He should have reported sick
when warned for guard; but he would not. He is very attentive to his
"Good boy!" said the officer to Peter. "I wish we had more like you."
Wee Pe'er blushed, his teeth momentarily ceased chattering, his heart
swelled. Appearances to the contrary, he felt warm all through. The
sergeant laid a fatherly hand upon his shoulder.
"Go you your ways intil the guard-room, boy," he commanded, "and send
oot Dunshie. He'll no hurt. Get close in ahint the stove, or you'll be
(The last phrase carries no academic significance. It simply means
that you are likely to become an inmate of the great Cambridge
Hospital at Aldershot.)
Peter, feeling thoroughly disgraced, cast an appealing look at the
"In you go!" said that martinet.
Peter silently obeyed. It was the only time in his life that he ever
A month later Brigade Training set in with customary severity. The
life of company officers became a burden. They spent hours in thick
woods with their followers, taking cover, ostensibly from the enemy,
in reality from brigade-majors and staff officers. A subaltern never
tied his platoon in a knot but a general came trotting round the
corner. The wet weather had ceased, and a biting east wind reigned in
On one occasion an elaborate night operation was arranged. Four
battalions were to assemble at a given point five miles from camp, and
then advance in column across country by the light of the stars to
a position indicated on the map, where they were to deploy and dig
themselves in! It sounded simple enough in operation orders; but when
you try to move four thousand troops--even well-trained troops--across
three miles of broken country on a pitch-dark night, there is always
a possibility that some one will get mislaid. On this particular
occasion a whole battalion lost itself without any delay or difficulty
whatsoever. The other three were compelled to wait for two hours and
a half, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers, while
overheated staff officers scoured the country for the truants. They
were discovered at last waiting virtuously at the wrong rendezvous,
three-quarters of a mile away. The brazen-hatted strategist who drew
up the operation orders had given the point of assembly for the
brigade as: ... _the field_ S.W. _of_ WELLINGTON WOOD _and due_ E.
_of_ HANGMAN'S COPSE, _immediately below the first_ O _in_ GHOSTLY
BOTTOM,--but omitted to underline the O indicated. The result was that
three battalion commanders assembled at the O in "ghostly," while the
fourth, ignoring the adjective in favour of the noun, took up his
station at the first O in "bottom."
The operations had been somewhat optimistically timed to end at 11
P.M., but by the time that the four battalions had effected a most
unloverly tryst, it was close on ten, and beginning to rain. The
consequence was that the men got home to bed, soaked to the skin, and
asking the Powers Above rhetorical questions, at three o'clock in the
Next day Brigade Orders announced that the movement would be continued
at nightfall, by the occupation of the hastily-dug trenches, followed
by a night attack upon the hill in front. The captured position would
then be retrenched.
When the tidings went round, fourteen of the more quick-witted spirits
of "A" Company hurriedly paraded before the Medical Officer and
announced that they were "sick in the stomach." Seven more discovered
abrasions upon their feet, and proffered their sores for inspection,
after the manner of Oriental mendicants. One skrimshanker, despairing
of producing any bodily ailment, rather ingeniously assaulted a
comrade-in-arms, and was led away, deeply grateful, to the guard-room.
Wee Peter, who in the course of last night's operations had stumbled
into an old trench half-filled with ice-cold water, and whose
temperature to-day, had he known it, was a hundred and two, paraded
with his company at the appointed time. The company, he reflected,
would get a bad name if too many men reported sick at once.
Next day he was absent from parade. He was "for Cambridge" at last.
Before he died, he sent for the officer who had befriended him, and
supplemented, or rather corrected, some of the information contained
in his attestation paper.
He lived in Dumbarton, not Renfrewshire. He was just sixteen. He was
not--this confession cost him a great effort--a full-blown "holder-on"
at all; only an apprentice. His father was "weel kent" in the town
of Dumbarton, being a chief engineer, employed by a great firm of
shipbuilders to extend new machinery on trial trips.
Needless to say, he made a great fight. But though his heart was
big enough, his body was too frail. As they say on the sea, he was
over-engined for his beam.
And so, three days later, the simple soul of Twenty-seven fifty-four
Carmichael, "A" Company, was transferred, on promotion, to another
company--the great Company of Happy Warriors who walk the Elysian
"_Firing parrty, one round blank_--_load_!"
There is a rattle of bolts, and a dozen barrels are pointed
heavenwards. The company stands rigid, except the buglers, who are
beginning to finger their instruments.
There is a crackling volley, and the pipes break into a brief, sobbing
wail. Wayfarers upon the road below look up curiously. One or two
young females with perambulators come hurrying across the grass,
exhorting apathetic babies to sit up and admire the pretty funeral.
Twice more the rifles ring out. The pipes cease their wailing, and
there is an expectant silence.
The drum-major crooks his little finger, and eight bugles come to the
"ready." Then "Last Post," the requiem of every soldier of the King,
swells out, sweet and true.
The echoes lose themselves among the dripping pines. The chaplain
closes his book, takes off his spectacles, and departs.
Old Carmichael permits himself one brief look into his son's grave,
resumes his crape-bound tall hat, and turns heavily away. He finds
Captain Blaikie's hand waiting for him. He grips it, and says--
"Weel, the laddie has had a grand sojer's funeral. His mother will be
pleased to hear that."
He passes on, and shakes hands with the platoon sergeant and one or
two of Peter's cronies. He declines an invitation to the Sergeants'
"I hae a trial-trup the morn," he explains. "I must be steppin'. God
keep ye all, brave lads!"
The old gentleman sets off down the station road. The company falls
in, and we march back to barracks, leaving Wee Pe'er--the first name
on our Roll of Honour--alone in his glory beneath, the Hampshire
We have only two topics of conversation now--the date of our
departure, and our destination. Both are wrapped in mystery so
profound that our range of speculation is practically unlimited.
Conjecture rages most fiercely in the Officers' Mess, which is in
touch with sources of unreliable information not accessible to the
rank and file. The humblest subaltern appears to be possessed of a
friend at court, or a cousin in the Foreign Office, or an aunt in the
Intelligence Department, from whom he can derive fresh and entirely
different information each week-end leave.
Master Cockerell, for instance, has it straight from the Horse Guards
that we are going out next week--as a single unit, to be brigaded with
two seasoned regiments in Flanders. He has a considerable following.
Then comes Waddell, who has been informed by the Assistant sub-Editor
of an evening journal widely read in his native Dundee, that The First
Hundred Thousand are to sit here, eating the bread of impatience,
until The First Half Million are ready. Thereupon we shall break
through our foeman's line at a point hitherto unassailed and known
only to the scribe of Dundee, and proceed to roll up the German Empire
as if it were a carpet, into some obscure corner of the continent of
Bobby Little, not the least of whose gifts is a soaring imagination,
has mapped out a sort of strategical Cook's Tour for us, beginning
with the sack of Constantinople, and ending, after a glorified
route-march up the Danube and down the Rhine, which shall include a
pitched battle once a week and a successful siege once a month, with a
"circus" entry into Potsdam.
Captain Wagstaffe offers no opinion, but darkly recommends us to order
pith helmets. However, we are rather suspicious of Captain Wagstaffe
these days. He suffers from an over-developed sense of humour.
The rank and file keep closer to earth in their prognostications. In
fact, some of them cleave to the dust. With them it is a case of hope
deferred. Quite half of them enlisted under the firm belief that
they would forthwith be furnished with a rifle and ammunition and
despatched to a vague place called "the front," there to take
pot-shots at the Kaiser. That was in early August. It is now early
April, and they are still here, performing monotonous evolutions and
chafing under the bonds of discipline. Small wonder that they have
begun to doubt, these simple souls, if they are ever going out at all.
Private M'Slattery put the general opinion in a nutshell.
"This regiment," he announced, "is no' for the front at all. We're
jist tae bide here, for tae be inspeckit by Chinese Ministers and
other heathen bodies!"
This withering summary of the situation was evoked by the fact that
we had once been called out, and kept on parade for two hours in
a north-east wind, for the edification of a bevy of spectacled
dignitaries from the Far East. For the Scottish, artisan the word
"minister," however, has only one significance; so it is probable that
M'Slattery's strictures were occasioned by sectarian, rather than
Still, whatever our ultimate destination and fate may be, the fact
remains that we are now as fit for active service as seven months'
relentless schooling, under make-believe conditions, can render us. We
shall have to begin all over again, we know, when we find ourselves up
against the real thing, but we have at least been thoroughly grounded
in the rudiments of our profession. We can endure hail, rain, snow,
and vapour; we can march and dig with the best; we have mastered the
first principles of musketry; we can advance in an extended line
without losing touch or bunching; and we have ceased to regard an
order as an insult, or obedience as a degradation. We eat when we can
and what we get, and we sleep wherever we happen to find ourselves
lying. That is something. But there are certain military
accomplishments which can only be taught us by the enemy. Taking
cover, for instance. When the thin, intermittent crackle of blank
ammunition shall have been replaced by the whistle of real bullets, we
shall get over our predilection for sitting up and taking notice. The
conversation of our neighbour, or the deplorable antics of B Company
on the neighbouring skyline, will interest us not at all. We shall get
down, and stay down.
We shall also be relieved of the necessity of respecting the property
of those exalted persons who surround their estates with barbed wire,
and put up notices, even now, warning off troops. At present we either
crawl painfully through that wire, tearing our kilts and lacerating
our legs, or go round another way. "Oot there," such unwholesome
deference will be a thing of the past. Would that the wire-setters
were going out with us. We would give them the place of honour in the
forefront of battle!
We have fired a second musketry course, and are now undergoing
Divisional Training, with the result that we take our walks abroad
several thousand strong, greatly to the derangement of local traffic.
Considered all round, Divisional Training is the pleasantest form of
soldiering that we have yet encountered. We parade bright and early,
at full battalion strength, accompanied by our scouts, signallers,
machine-guns, and transport, and march off at the appointed minute to
the starting-point. Here we slip into our place in an already moving
column, with three thousand troops in front of us and another two
thousand behind, and tramp to our point of deployment. We feel
pleasantly thrilled. We are no longer a battalion out on a
route-march: we are members of a White Army, or a Brown Army,
hastening to frustrate the designs of a Blue Army, or a Pink
Army, which has landed (according to the General Idea issued from
Headquarters) at Portsmouth, and is reported to have slept at Great
Snoreham, only ten miles away, last night.
Meanwhile our Headquarters Staff is engaged in the not always easy
task of "getting into touch" with the enemy--_anglice_, finding him.
It is extraordinary how elusive a force of several thousand troops
can be, especially when you are picking your way across a defective
half-inch map, and the commanders of the opposing forces cherish
dissimilar views as to where the point of encounter is supposed to be.
However, contact is at length established; and if it is not time to go
home, we have a battle.
Various things may now happen to you. You may find yourself detailed
for the Firing-line. In that case your battalion will take open order;
and you will advance, principally upon your stomach, over hill and
dale until you encounter the enemy, doing likewise. Both sides then
proceed to discharge blank ammunition into one another's faces at
a range, if possible, of about five yards, until the "cease fire"
Or you may find yourself in Support. In that case you are held back
until the battle has progressed a stage or two, when you advance with
fixed bayonets to prod your own firing line into a further display of
valour and agility.
Or you may be detailed as Reserve. Membership of Brigade Reserve
should be avoided. You are liable to be called upon at any moment
to forsake the sheltered wood or lee of a barn under which you are
huddling, and double madly up a hill or along a side road, tripping
heavily over ingenious entanglements composed of the telephone wires
of your own signallers, to enfilade some unwary detachment of the
enemy or repel a flank attack. On the other hand, if you are ordered
to act as Divisional Reserve, you may select the softest spot on the
hillside behind which you are sheltering, get out your haversack
ration, and prepare to spend an extremely peaceful (or extremely dull)
day. Mimic warfare enjoys one enormous advantage over the genuine
article: battles--provided you are not out for the night--_must
always_ end in time for the men to get back to their dinners at five
o'clock. Under this inexorable law it follows that, by the time the
General has got into touch with the enemy and brought his firing line,
supports, and local reserves into action, it is time to go home. So
about three o'clock the bugles sound, and the combatants, hot and
grimy, fall back into close order at the point of deployment, where
they are presently joined by the Divisional Reserve, blue-faced and
watery-eyed with cold. This done, principals and understudies, casting
envious glances at one another, form one long column of route and set
out for home, in charge of the subalterns. The senior officers trot
off to the "pow-wow," there, with the utmost humility and deference,
to extol their own tactical dispositions, belittle the achievements of
the enemy, and impugn the veracity of one another.
Thus the day's work ends. Our divisional column, with its trim,
sturdy, infantry battalions, its jingling cavalry and artillery, its
real live staff, and its imposing transport train, sets us thinking,
by sheer force of contrast, of that dim and distant time seven months
ago, when we wrestled perspiringly all through long and hot September
days, on a dusty barrack square, with squad upon squad of dazed and
refractory barbarians, who only ceased shuffling their feet in order
to expectorate. And these are the self-same men! Never was there a
more complete vindication of the policy of pegging away.
So much for the effect of its training upon the regiment as a whole.
But when you come to individuals, certain of whom we have encountered
and studied in this rambling narrative, you find it impossible to
generalise. Your one unshakable conclusion is that it takes all sorts
to make a type.
There are happy, careless souls like McLeary and Hogg. There are
conscientious but slow-moving worthies like Mucklewame and Budge.
There are drunken wasters like--well, we need name no names. We have
got rid of most of these, thank heaven! There are simple-minded
enthusiasts of the breed of Wee Pe'er, for whom the sheer joy of
"sojering" still invests dull routine and hard work with a glamour of
their own. There are the old hands, versed in every labour-saving
(and duty-shirking) device. There are the feckless and muddle-headed,
making heavy weather of the simplest tasks. There is another class,
which divides its time between rising to the position of sergeant and
being reduced to the ranks, for causes which need not be specified.
There is yet another, which knows its drill-book backwards, and can
grasp the details of a tactical scheme as quickly as a seasoned
officer, but remains in the ruck because it has not sufficient force
of character to handle so much as a sentry-group. There are men,
again, with initiative but no endurance, and others with endurance but
no initiative. Lastly, there are men, and a great many of them, who
appear to be quite incapable of coherent thought, yet can handle
machinery or any mechanical device to a marvel. Yes, we are a motley
But the great sifting and sorting machine into which we have been cast
is shaking us all out into our appointed places. The efficient and
authoritative rise to non-commissioned rank. The quick-witted and
well-educated find employment on the Orderly Room staff, or among the
scouts and signallers. The handy are absorbed into the transport, or
become machine-gunners. The sedentary take post as cooks, or tailors,
or officers' servants. The waster hews wood and draws water and
empties swill-tubs. The great, mediocre, undistinguished majority
merely go to stiffen the rank and file, and right nobly they do it.
Each has his niche.
To take a few examples, we may begin with a typical member of the
undistinguished majority. Such an one is that esteemed citizen of
Wishaw, John Mucklewame. He is a rank-and-file man by training and
instinct, but he forms a rare backbone for K(1). There are others, of
more parts--Killick, for instance. Not long ago he was living softly,
and driving a Rolls-Royce for a Duke. He is now a machine-gun
sergeant, and a very good one. There is Dobie. He is a good mechanic,
but short-legged and shorter-winded. He makes an excellent armourer.
Then there is Private Mellish. In his company roll he is described
as "an actor." But his orbit in the theatrical firmament has never
carried him outside his native Dunoon, where he follows the blameless
but monotonous calling of a cinematograph operator. On enlistment he
invited the attention of his platoon, from the start by referring
to his rear-rank man as "this young gentleman"; and despite all the
dissuading influences of barrack-room society, his manners never fell
below this standard. In a company where practically every man is
addressed either as "Jock" or "Jimmy," he created a profound and
lasting sensation one day, by saying in a winning voice to Private
"Do not stand on ceremony with me, Mr. Ogg. Call me Cyril!"
For such an exotic there could only be one destination, and in due
course Cyril became an officer's servant. He now polishes the buttons
and washes the hose-tops of Captain Wagstaffe; and his elegant
extracts amuse that student of human nature exceedingly.
Then comes a dour, silent, earnest specimen, whose name, incredible
as it may appear, is M'Ostrich. He keeps himself to himself. He never
smiles. He is not an old soldier, yet he performed like a veteran the
very first day he appeared on parade. He carries out all orders with
solemn thoroughness. He does not drink; he does not swear. His
nearest approach to animation comes at church, where he sings the
hymns--especially _O God, our help in ages past!_--as if he were
author and composer combined. His harsh, rasping accent is certainly
not that of a Highlander, nor does it smack altogether of the
Clydeside. As a matter of fact he is not a Scotsman at all, though
five out of six of us would put him down as such. Altogether he is a
man of mystery; but the regiment could do with many more such.
Once, and only once, did he give us a peep behind the scenes. Private
Burke, of D Company, a cheery soul, who possesses the entirely
Hibernian faculty of being able to combine a most fanatical and
seditious brand of Nationalism with a genuine and ardent enthusiasm
for the British Empire, one day made a contemptuous and ribald
reference to the Ulster Volunteers and their leader. M'Ostrich, who
was sitting on his bedding at the other side of the hut, promptly rose
to his feet, crossed the floor in three strides, and silently felled
the humorist to the earth. Plainly, if M'Ostrich comes safe through
the war, he is prepared for another and grimmer campaign.
Lastly, that jack-of-all trades and master of none, Private Dunshie.
As already recorded, Dunshie's original calling had been that of a
street news-vendor. Like all literary men, he was a Bohemian at heart.
Routine wearied him; discipline galled him; the sight of work made
him feel faint. After a month or two in the ranks he seized the first
opportunity of escaping from the toils of his company, by volunteering
for service as a Scout. A single experience of night operations in
a dark wood, previously described, decided him to seek some milder
employment. Observing that the regimental cooks appeared to be
absolved, by virtue of their office, not only from all regimental
parades, but from all obligations on the subject of correct attire and
personal cleanliness, he volunteered for service in the kitchen. Here
for a space--clad in shirt, trousers, and canvas shoes, unutterably
greasy and waxing fat--he prospered exceedingly. But one sad day he
was detected by the cook-sergeant, having just finished cleaning a
flue, in the act of washing his hands in ten gallons of B Company's
soup. Once more our versatile hero found himself turned adrift with
brutal and agonising suddenness, and bidden to exercise his talents
After a fortnight's uneventful dreariness with his platoon, Dunshie
joined the machine-gunners, because he had heard rumours that these
were conveyed to and from their labours in limbered waggons. But he
had been misinformed. It was the guns that were carried; the gunners
invariably walked, sometimes carrying the guns and the appurtenances
thereof. His very first day Dunshie was compelled to double across
half a mile of boggy heathland carrying two large stones, meant to
represent ammunition-boxes, from an imaginary waggon to a dummy gun.
It is true that as soon as he was out of sight of the corporal he
deposited the stones upon the ground, and ultimately proffered two
others, picked up on nearing his destination, to the sergeant in
charge of the proceedings; but even thus the work struck him as
unreasonably exacting, and he resigned, by the simple process of
cutting his next parade and being ignominiously returned to his
After an unsuccessful application for employment as a "buzzer," or
signaller, Dunshie made trial of the regimental transport, where there
was a shortage of drivers. He had strong hopes that in this way he
would attain to permanent carriage exercise. But he was quickly
undeceived. Instead of being offered a seat upon the box of a G.S.
waggon, he was bidden to walk behind the same, applying the brake when
necessary, for fourteen miles. The next day he spent cleaning stables,
under a particularly officious corporal. On the third, he was
instructed in the art of grooming a mule. On the fourth, he was left
to perform this feat unaided, and the mule, acting under extreme
provocation, kicked him in the stomach. On the fifth day he was
returned to his company.
But Mecca was at hand. That very morning Dunshie's company commander
received the following ukase from headquarters:--
_Officers commanding Companies will render to the Orderly Room without
fail, by 9 A.M. to-morrow, the name of one man qualified to act as
chiropodist to the Company_.
Major Kemp scratched his nose in a dazed fashion, and looked over his
spectacles at his Quartermaster-Sergeant.
"What in thunder will they ask for next?" he growled. "Have we got any
tame chiropodists in the company, Rae?"
Quartermaster-Sergeant Rae turned over the Company roll.
"There is no--no--no man of that profession here, sirr," he reported,
after scanning the document. "But," he added optimistically, "there is
a machine-fitter and a glass-blower. Will I warn one of them?"
"I think we had better call for a volunteer first," said Major Kemp
Accordingly, that afternoon upon parade, Platoon commanders were
bidden to hold a witch hunt, and smell out a chiropodist. But the
enterprise terminated almost immediately; for Private Dunshie,
caressing his injured abdomen in Number Three Platoon, heard the
invitation, and quickly stepped forward.
"So you are a chiropodist as well as everything else, Dunshie!" said
"That's right, sirr," assented Dunshie politely.
"Are you a professional?"
"No exactly that, sirr," was the modest reply.
"You just make a hobby of it?"
"Just that, sirr."
"Have you had much experience?"
"No that much."
"But you feel capable of taking on the job?"
"I do, sirr."
"You seem quite eager about it."
"Yes, sirr," said Dunshie, with gusto.
A sudden thought occurred to Ayling.
"Do you know what a chiropodist is?" he asked.
"No, sirr," replied Dunshie, with unabated aplomb.
* * * * *
To do him justice, the revelation of the nature of his prospective
labours made no difference whatever to Dunshie's willingness to
undertake them. Now, upon Saturday mornings, when men stand stiffly
at attention beside their beds to have their feet inspected, you may
behold, sweeping majestically in the wake of the Medical Officer as he
makes his rounds, the swelling figure of Private Dunshie, carrying the
implements of his gruesome trade. He has found his vocation at last,
and his bearing in consequence is something between that of a Court
Physician and a Staff Officer.
So much for the rank and file. Of the officers we need only say that
the old hands have been a godsend to our young regiment; while the
juniors, to quote their own Colonel, have learned as much in six
months as the average subaltern learns in three years; and whereas
in the old days a young officer could always depend on his platoon
sergeant to give him the right word of command or instruct him in
company routine, the positions are now in many cases reversed. But
that by the way. The outstanding feature of the relationship
between officers and men during all this long, laborious, sometimes
heart-breaking winter has been this--that, despite the rawness of
our material and the novelty of our surroundings, in the face of
difficulties which are now happily growing dim in our memory, the
various ranks have never quite given up trying, never altogether
lost faith, never entirely forgotten the Cause which has brought us
together. And the result--the joint result--of it all is a real live
regiment, with a _morale_ and soul of its own.
But so far everything has been purely suppositious. We have no
knowledge as to what our real strength or weakness may be. We have run
our trial trips over a landlocked stretch of smooth water. To-morrow,
when we steam out to face the tempest which is shaking the foundations
of the world, we shall see what we shall see. Some of us, who at
present are exalted for our smartness and efficiency, will indubitably
be found wanting--wanting in stamina of body or soul--while others,
hitherto undistinguished, will come to their own. Only War itself can
discover the qualities which count in War. But we silently pray, in
our dour and inarticulate hearts, that the supreme British virtue--the
virtue of holding on, and holding on, and holding on, until our end is
accomplished--may not be found wanting in a single one of us.
To take a last survey of the regiment which we have created--one
little drop in the incredible wave which has rolled with gathering
strength from, end to end of this island of ours during the past
six months, and now hangs ready to crash upon the gates of our
enemies--what manner of man has it produced? What is he like, this
impromptu Thomas Atkins?
Well, when he joined, his outstanding feature was a sort of surly
independence, the surliness being largely based upon the fear of losing
the independence. He has got over that now. He is no longer morbidly
sensitive about his rights as a free and independent citizen and the
backbone of the British electorate. He has bigger things to think of. He
no longer regards sergeants as upstart slave-drivers--frequently he is a
sergeant himself--nor officers as grinding capitalists. He is undergoing
the experience of the rivets in Mr. Kipling's story of "The Ship that
Found Herself." He is adjusting his perspectives. He is beginning to
merge himself in the Regiment.
He no longer gets drunk from habit. When he does so now, it is because
there were no potatoes at dinner, or because there has been a leak
in the roof of his hut for a week and no one is attending to it, or
because his wife is not receiving her separation allowance. Being an
inarticulate person, he finds getting drunk the simplest and most
effective expedient for acquainting the powers that be with the fact
that he has a grievance. Formerly, the morning list of "drunks" merely
reflected the nearness or remoteness of payday. Now, it is a most
reliable and invaluable barometer of the regimental atmosphere.
He has developed--quite spontaneously, for he has had few
opportunities for imitation--many of the characteristics of the
regular soldier. He is quick to discover himself aggrieved, but is
readily appeased if he feels that his officer is really doing his best
for him, and that both of them are the victims of a higher power. On
the other hand, he is often amazingly cheerful under uncomfortable and
depressing surroundings. He is growing quite fastidious, too, about
his personal appearance when off duty. (You should see our quiffs
on Saturdays!) He is quite incapable of keeping possession of his
clothing, his boots, his rifle, his health, or anything that is
his, without constant supervision and nurse-maiding. And that he is
developing a strong bent towards the sentimental is evinced by the
choruses that he sings in the gloaming and his taste in picture
So far he may follow the professional model, but in other respects he
is quite _sui generis_. No sergeant in a Highland regiment of the line
would ever refer to a Cockney private, with all humility, as "a young
English gentleman"; neither would an ordinary soldier salute an
officer quite correctly with one hand while employing the other to
light his pipe. In "K(1)" we do these things and many others, which,
give us a _cachet_ of our own of which we are very rightly and
So we pin our faith to the man who has been at once our despair and
our joy since the month of August. He has character; he has grit;
and now that he is getting discipline as well, he is going to be an
everlasting credit to the cause which roused his manhood and the land
which gave him birth.
* * * * *
That is the tale of The First Hundred Thousand--Part One. Whether Part
Two will be forthcoming, and how much of it there will be, depends
upon two things--the course of history, and the present historian's
eye for cover.
THE BACK OF THE FRONT
The last few days have afforded us an excellent opportunity of
studying the habits of that ubiquitous attendant of our movements, the
He is not always a real Staff Officer--the kind that wears a red
hatband. Sometimes he is an obvious "dug-out," with a pronounced
_embonpoint_ or a game leg. Sometimes he is a mere stripling, with a
rapidly increasing size in hats. Sometimes he is an ordinary human
being. But whoever he is, and whatever his age or rank, one thing is
certain. He has no mean: he is either very good or very bad. When he
is good he is very good indeed, and when he is bad he is horrid. He is
either Jekyll or Hyde.
Thrice blessed, then, is that unit which, upon its journey to the
seat of war, encounters only the good of the species. To transfer a
thousand men, with secrecy and despatch, from camp to train, from
train to ship, from ship to train, and from train to a spot near the
battle line, is a task which calls for the finest organisation and the
most skilful administration. Let it be said at once that our path to
our present address has been almost universally lined with Jekylls.
The few Hydes whom we have encountered are by this time merely a
subject for amusing anecdote.
As for the organisation of our journey--well, it was formulated upon
Olympus, and was marked by those Olympian touches of which mention has
been previously made. For instance, immense pains were taken, by means
of printed rules and official memoranda, to acquaint us with the
procedure to be followed at each point of entrainment or embarkation.
Consequently we set out upon our complicated pilgrimage primed with
explicit instructions and ready for any emergency. We filled up forms
with countless details of our equipment and personnel, which we knew
would delight the heart of the Round Game Department. We divided our
followers, as directed, into Loading Parties, and Ration Parties, and
Hold Parties, and many other interesting subdivisions, as required by
the rules of the game. But we had reckoned without the Practical Joke
Department. The Round Game Department having furnished us with one set
of rules, the Practical Joke Department prepared another, entirely
different, and issued them to the officers who superintended such
things as entrainment and embarkation. At least, that is the most
charitable explanation of the course of action adopted by the few Mr.
Hydes whom we encountered.
Two of these humorists linger in the memory. The first was of the type
which is admiringly referred to in commercial circles as a hustler.
His hustling took the form of beginning to shout incomprehensible
orders almost before the train had drawn up at the platform. After
that he passed from party to party, each of which was working
strenuously under its own sergeant, and commanded them (not the
sergeant) to do something else, somewhere else--a course of action
naturally calculated to promote unity and celerity of action all
round. A perspiring sergeant who ventured to point out that his party
were working under the direct orders of their Company Commander, was
promptly placed under arrest, and his flock enjoyed a welcome and
protracted breathing-space until an officer of sufficient standing
to cope with Mr. Hyde--unfortunately he was Major Hyde--could be
discovered and informed.
The second required more tactful handling. As our train-load drew
up at the platform, the officer in charge--it was Captain Blaikie,
supported by Bobby Little--stepped out, saluted the somewhat rotund
Colonel Hyde whom he saw before him, and proffered a sheaf of papers.
"Good-morning, sir," he said. "Here is my train statement. Shall I
carry on with the unloading? I have all my parties detailed."
The great man waved away the papers magnificently. (To be just, even
the Jekylls used to wave away our papers.)
"Take those things away," he commanded, in a voice which made it plain
that we had encountered another hustler. "Burn them, if you like! Now
listen to me. Tell off an officer and seventy men at once."
"I have all the necessary parties detailed already, sir."
"Will you listen to me?" roared the Colonel. He turned to where
Captain Blaikie's detachment were drawn up on the platform, "Take the
first seventy men of that lot, and tell them to stand over there,
under an officer."
Captain Blaikie gave the necessary order.
"Now," continued Colonel Hyde, "tell them to get the horses out and
on board that steamer at once. The rest of your party are to go by
another steamer. See?"
"Yes, sir, perfectly. But--"
"Do you understand my order?" thundered the Colonel, with increasing
"I do, sir," replied Blaikie politely, "but--"
"Then, for heaven's sake, carry on!"
"Very good, sir," he answered. "Mr. Little, come with me."
He turned upon his heel and disappeared rapidly round a corner,
followed by the mystified Bobby.
Once out of the sight of the Colonel, Captain Blaikie halted, leaned
against a convenient pillar, and lit a cigarette.
"And what do you think of that?" he inquired.
Bobby told him.
"Quite so," agreed Blaikie. "But what you say helps nobody, though
doubtless soothing to the feelings. Now listen, Bobby, and I will
give you your first lesson in the Tactical Handling of Brass Hats.
Of course we might do as that dear old gentleman suggests, and send
seventy horses and mules on a sea voyage in charge of a party of
cooks, signallers, and machine-gunners, and let the grooms and drivers
go with the bicycles and machine-guns and field kitchens. But I don't
think we will. Nobody would enjoy the experiment much--except perhaps
the mules. No: we will follow the golden rule, which is: When given an
impossible job by a Brass Hat, salute smartly, turn about, and go and
wait round a corner for five minutes. Then come back and do the job in
a proper manner. Our five minutes are up: the coast should be clear.
Come along, Bobby, and help me to exchange those two parties."
But we encountered surprisingly few Hydes. Nearly all were
Jekylls--Jekylls of the most competent and courteous type. True,
they were inclined to treat our laboriously completed returns with
"Never mind those things, old man," they would say. "Just tell me who
you are, and how many. That's right: now I know all about you. Got
your working parties fixed up? Good! They ought to have everything
cleared in a couple of hours. I'll see that a ration of hot tea is
served out for them. Your train starts at a quarter past seven this
evening--remember to call it nineteen-fifteen, by the way, in this
country--and you ought to be at the station an hour before the time.
I'll send you a guide. What a fine-looking lot these chaps of yours
are! Best lot I've seen here for a very long time. Working like
niggers, too! Now come along with me for ten minutes and I'll show you
where to get a bite of breakfast. Expect you can do with a bit!"
That is Brass-Hat Jekyll--officer and gentleman; and, to the eternal
credit of the British Army, be it said that he abounds in this
well-conducted campaign. As an instance of his efficiency, let the
case of our own regiment be quoted. The main body travelled here by
one route, the transport, horses, and other details by another. The
main body duly landed, and were conveyed to the rendezvous--a distant
railway junction in Northern France. There they sat down to await
the arrival of the train containing the other party; which had left
England many hours before them, had landed at a different port, and
had not been seen or heard of since.
They had to wait exactly ten minutes!
"Some Staff--what?" as the Adjutant observed, as the train lumbered
Most of us, in our travels abroad, have observed the closed trucks
which are employed upon French railways, and which bear the legend--
Doubtless we have wondered, idly enough, what it must feel like to be
one of the forty hommes. Well, now we know.
When we landed, we were packed into a train composed of fifty such
trucks, and were drawn by a mighty engine for a day and a night across
the pleasant land of France. Every six hours or so we were indulged
with a _Halte Repas_. That is to say, the train drew up in a siding,
where an officer with R.T.O. upon his arm made us welcome, and
informed us that hot water was available for taking tea. Everybody had
two days' rations in his haversack, so a large-scale picnic followed.
From the horse-trucks emerged stolid individuals with canvas
buckets--you require to be fairly stolid to pass the night in a closed
box, moving at twenty miles an hour, in company with eight riotous
and insecurely tethered mules--to draw water from the hydrant which
supplied the locomotives. The infant population gathered round, and
besought us for "souvenirs," the most popular taking the form of
"biskeet" or "bully-boeuf." Both were given freely: with but little
persuasion our open-handed warriors would have fain squandered their
sacred "emergency ration" upon these rapacious infants.
After refreshment we proceeded to inspect the station. The centre of
attraction was the French soldier on guard over the water-tank. Behold
this same sentry confronted by Private Mucklewame, anxious to comply
with Divisional Orders and "lose no opportunity of cultivating the
friendliest relations with those of our Allies whom you may chance to
encounter." So Mucklewame and the sentry (who is evidently burdened
with similar instructions) regard one another with shy smiles, after
the fashion of two children who have been introduced by their nurses
at a party.
Presently the sentry, by a happy inspiration, proffers his bayonet
for inspection, as it were a new doll. Mucklewame bows solemnly, and
fingers the blade. Then he produces his own bayonet, and the two
weapons are compared--still in constrained silence. Then Mucklewame
"Verra goody!" he remarks, profoundly convinced that he is speaking
the French language.
"Olrigh! Tipperaree!" replies the sentry, not to be outdone in
Unfortunately, the further cementing of the Entente Cordiale is
frustrated by the blast of a whistle. We hurl ourselves into our
trucks; the R.T.O. waves his hand in benediction; and the regiment
proceeds upon its way, packed like herrings, but "all jubilant with
We have been "oot here" for a week now, and although we have had no
personal encounter with the foe, our time has not been wasted. We are
filling up gaps in our education, and we are tolerably busy. Some
things, of course, we have not had to learn. We are fairly well
inured, for instance, to hard work and irregular meals. What we have
chiefly to acquire at present is the art of adaptability. When we are
able to settle down into strange billets in half an hour, and pack
up, ready for departure, within the same period, we shall have made a
great stride in efficiency, and added enormously to our own personal
Even now we are making progress. Observe the platoon who are marching
into this farmyard. They are dead tired, and the sight of the
straw-filled barn is too much for some of them. They throw themselves
down anywhere, and are asleep in a moment. When they wake up--or more
likely, are wakened up--in an hour or two, they will be sorry. They
will be stiff and sore, and their feet will be a torment. Others, more
sensible, crowd round the pump, or dabble their abraded extremities in
one of the countless ditches with which this country is intersected.
Others again, of the more enterprising kind, repair to the house-door,
and inquire politely for "the wife." (They have long given up
inquiring for "the master." There is no master on this farm, or indeed
on any farm throughout the length and breadth of this great-hearted
land. Father and sons are all away, restoring the Bosche to his proper
place in the animal kingdom. We have seen no young or middle-aged man
out of uniform since we entered this district, save an occasional
imbecile or cripple.)
Presently "the wife" comes to the door, with a smile. She can afford
to smile now, for not so long ago her guests were Uhlans. Then begins
an elaborate pantomime. Private Tosh says "Bonjourr!" in husky
tones--last week he would have said "Hey, Bella!"--and proceeds to
wash his hands in invisible soap and water. As a reward for his
ingenuity he receives a basin of water: sometimes the water is even
warm. Meanwhile Private Cosh, the linguist of the platoon, proffers
twopence, and says: "Doolay--ye unnerstand?" He gets a drink of milk,
which is a far, far better thing than the appalling green scum-covered
water with which his less adaptable brethren are wont to refresh
themselves from wayside ditches. Thomas Atkins, however mature, is
quite incorrigible in this respect.
Yes, we are getting on. And when every man in the platoon, instead
of merely some, can find a place to sleep, draw his blanket from the
waggon, clean his rifle and himself, and get to his dinner within the
half-hour already specified, we shall be able justly to call ourselves
We have covered some distance this week, and we have learned one thing
at least, and that is, not to be uppish about our sleeping quarters.
We have slept in chateaux, convents, farm-houses, and under the open
sky. The chateaux are usually empty. An aged retainer, the sole
inhabitant, explains that M. le Comte is at Paris; M. Armand at Arras;
and M. Guy in Alsace,--all doing their bit. M. Victor is in hospital,
with Madame and Mademoiselle in constant attendance.
So we settle down in the chateaux, and unroll our sleeping-bags upon
its dusty parquet. Occasionally we find a bed available. Then two
officers take the mattress, upon the floor, and two more take what is
left of the bed. French chateaux do not appear to differ much as a
class. They are distinguished by great elegance of design, infinite
variety in furniture, and entire absence of drains. The same rule
applies to convents, except that there is no furniture.
Given fine weather, by far the most luxurious form of lodging is in
the open air. Here one may slumber at ease, fanned by the wings
of cockchafers and soothed by an unseen choir of frogs. There are
drawbacks, of course. Mr. Waddell one evening spread his ground-sheet
and bedding in the grassy meadow, beside a murmuring stream. It was
an idyllic resting-place for a person of romantic or contemplative
disposition. Unfortunately it is almost impossible nowadays to keep
one's favourite haunts select. This was evidently the opinion of the
large water-rat which Waddell found sitting upon his air-pillow when
he returned from supper. Although French, the animal exhibited no
disposition to fraternise, but withdrew in the most pointed fashion,
taking an Abernethy biscuit with him.
Accommodation in farms is best described by the word "promiscuous."
There are twelve officers and two hundred men billeted here. The farm
is exactly the same as any other French farm. It consists of a
hollow square of buildings--dwelling-house, barns, pigstyes, and
stables--with a commodious manure-heap, occupying the whole yard
except a narrow strip round the edge, in the middle, the happy
hunting-ground of innumerable cocks and hens and an occasional
pig. The men sleep in the barns. The senior officers sleep in a
stone-floored boudoir of their own. The juniors sleep where they can,
and experience little difficulty in accomplishing the feat. A hard
day's marching and a truss of straw--these two combined form an
irresistible inducement to slumber.
Only a few miles away big guns thunder until the building shakes.
To-morrow a select party of officers is to pay a visit to the
trenches. Thereafter our whole flock is to go, in its official
capacity. The War is with us at last. Early this morning a Zeppelin
rose into view on the skyline. Shell fire pursued it, and it sank
again--rumour says in the British lines. Rumour is our only war
correspondent at present. It is far easier to follow the course of
events from home, where newspapers are more plentiful than here.
But the grim realities of war are coming home to us. Outside this farm
stands a tall tree. Not many months ago a party of Uhlans arrived
here, bringing with them a wounded British prisoner. They crucified
him to that self-same tree, and stood round him till he died. He was a
long time dying.
Some of us had not heard of Uhlans before. These have now noted the
name, for future reference--and action.
IN THE TRENCHES--AN OFF-DAY
This town is under constant shell fire. It goes on day after day:
it has been going on for months. Sometimes a single shell comes:
sometimes half a dozen. Sometimes whole batteries get to work. The
effect is terrible. You who live at home in ease have no conception of
what it is like to live in a town which is under intermittent shell
I say this advisedly. You have no conception whatsoever.
We get no rest. There is a distant boom, followed by a crash overhead.
Cries are heard--the cries of women and children. They are running
frantically--running to observe the explosion, and if possible pick
up a piece of the shell as a souvenir. Sometimes there are not enough
souvenirs to go round, and then the clamour increases.
We get no rest, I say--only frightfulness. British officers, walking
peaceably along the pavement, are frequently hustled and knocked aside
by these persons. Only the other day, a full colonel was compelled to
turn up a side-street, to avoid disturbing a ring of excited children
who were dancing round a beautiful new hole in the ground in the
middle of a narrow lane.
If you enter into a cafe or estaminet, a total stranger sidles to your
table, and, having sat down beside you, produces from the recesses
of his person a fragment of shrapnel. This he lays before you, and
explains that if he had been standing at the spot where the shell
burst, it would have killed him. You express polite regret, and pass
on elsewhere, seeking peace and finding none. The whole thing is a
Seriously, though, it is astonishing what contempt familiarity can
breed, even in the case of high-explosive shells. This little town
lies close behind the trenches. All day long the big guns boom. By
night the rifles and machine-guns take up the tale. One is frequently
aroused from slumber, especially towards dawn, by a perfect tornado
of firing. The machine-guns make a noise like a giant tearing calico.
Periodically, too, as already stated, we are subjected to an hour's
intimidation in the shape of bombardment. Shrapnel bursts over our
heads; shells explode in the streets, especially in open spaces, or
where two important streets cross. (With modern artillery you can
shell a town quite methodically by map and compass.)
Brother Bosche's motto appears to be: "It is a fine morning. There is
nothing in the trenches doing. We abundant ammunition have. Let us a
little frightfulness into the town pump!" So he pumps.
But nobody seems to mind. Of course there is a casualty now and then.
Occasionally a hole is blown in a road, or the side of a house is
knocked in. Yet the general attitude of the population is one of
rather interested expectancy. There is always the cellar to retire to
if things get really serious. The gratings are sandbagged to that end.
At other times--well, there is always the pleasing possibility of
witnessing the sudden removal of your neighbour's landmark.
Officers breakfasting in their billets look up from their porridge,
"That's a dud! _That's_ a better one! Stick to it, Bill!"
It really is most discouraging, to a sensitive and conscientious Hun.
The same unconcern reigns in the trenches. Let us imagine that we are
members of a distinguished party from Headquarters, about to make a
tour of inspection.
We leave the town, and after a short walk along the inevitable
poplar-lined road turn into a field. The country all round us is
flat--flat as Cheshire; and, like Cheshire, has a pond in every field.
But in the hazy distance stands a low ridge.
"Better keep close to the hedge," suggests the officer in charge.
"There are eighty guns on that ridge. It's a misty morning; but
they've got all the ranges about here to a yard; so they _might_--"
We keep close to the hedge.
Presently we find ourselves entering upon a wide but sticky path
cut in the clay. At the entrance stands a neat notice-board, which
announces, somewhat unexpectedly:--
OLD KENT ROAD
The field is flat, but the path runs downhill. Consequently we soon
find ourselves tramping along below the ground-level, with a
stout parapet of clay on either side of us. Overhead there is
nothing--nothing but the blue sky, with the larks singing, quite
regardless of the War.
"Communication trench," explains the guide.
We tramp along this sunken lane for the best part of a mile. It winds
a good deal. Every hundred yards or so comes a great promontory of
sandbags, necessitating four right-angle turns. Once we pass under the
shadow of trees, and apple-blossom flutters down upon our upturned
faces. We are walking through an orchard. Despite the efforts of ten
million armed men, brown old Mother Earth has made it plain that
seedtime and harvest shall still prevail.
Now we are crossing a stream, which cuts the trench at right angles.
The stream is spanned by a structure of planks--labelled, it is hardly
necessary to say, LONDON BRIDGE. The side-street, so to speak, by
which the stream runs away, is called JOCK'S JOY. We ask why?
"It's the place where the Highlanders wash their knees," is the
Presently we arrive at PICCADILLY CIRCUS, a muddy excavation in the
earth, from which several passages branch. These thoroughfares are
not all labelled with strict regard for London geography. We note THE
HAYMARKET, also PICCADILLY; but ARTILLERY LANE seems out of place,
somehow. On the site, too, of the Criterion, we observe a subterranean
cavern containing three recumbent figures, snoring lustily. This bears
the sign CYCLISTS' REST.
We, however, take the turning marked SHAFTESBURY AVENUE, and
after passing (quite wrongly, don't you think?) through TRAFALGAR
SQUARE--six feet by eight--find ourselves in the actual firing trench.
It is an unexpectedly spacious place. We, who have spent the winter
constructing slits in the ground two feet wide, feel quite lost in
this roomy thoroughfare. For a thoroughfare it is, with little toy
houses on either side. They are hewn out of the solid earth, lined
with planks, painted, furnished, and decorated. These are, so to
speak, permanent trenches, which have been occupied for more than six
Observe this eligible residence on your left. It has a little door,
nearly six feet high, and a real glass window, with a little curtain.
Inside, there is a bunk, six feet long, together with an ingenious
folding washhand-stand, of the nautical variety, and a flap-table.
The walls, which are painted pale green, are decorated with elegant
extracts from the "Sketch" and "La Vie Parisienne." Outside, the name
of the villa is painted up. It is in Welsh--that notorious railway
station in Anglesey which runs to thirty-three syllables or so--and
extends from one end of the facade to the other. A small placard
announces that Hawkers, Organs, and Street-cries are prohibited.
"This is my shanty," explains a machine-gun officer standing by. "It
was built by a Welsh Fusilier, who has since moved on. He was here all
winter, and made everything himself, including the washhand-stand.
Some carpenter--what? of course I am not here continuously. We have
six days in the trenches and six out; so I take turns with a man in
the Midland Mudcrushers, who take turns with us. Come in and have some
It is only ten o'clock in the morning, but tea--strong and sweet, with
condensed milk--is instantly forthcoming. Refreshed by this, and a
slice of cake, we proceed upon our excursion.
The trench is full of men, mostly asleep; for the night cometh, when
no man may sleep. They lie in low-roofed rectangular caves, like the
interior of great cucumber-frames, lined with planks and supported by
props. The cave is really a homogeneous affair, for it is constructed
in the R.E. workshops and then brought bodily to the trenches and
fitted into its appointed excavation. Each cave holds three men. They
lie side by side, like three dogs in a triple kennel, with their heads
outward and easily accessible to the individual who performs the
functions of "knocker-up."
Others are cooking, others are cleaning their rifles. The proceedings
are superintended by a contemplative tabby cat, coiled up in a niche,
like a feline flower in a crannied wall.
"She used ter sit on top of the parapet," explains a friendly
lance-corporal; "but became a casualty, owin' to a sniper mistakin'
'er for a Guardsman's bearskin. Show the officer your back,
We inspect the healed scar, and pass on. Next moment we round a
traverse--and walk straight into the arms of Privates Ogg and Hogg!
No need now to remain with the distinguished party from Headquarters.
For the next half-mile of trench you will find yourselves among
friends. "K(1)" and Brother Bosche are face to face at last, and here
you behold our own particular band of warriors taking their first
spell in the trenches.
Let us open the door of this spacious dug-out--the image of an
up-river bungalow, decorated with window-boxes and labelled Potsdam
View--and join the party of four which sits round the table.
"How did your fellows get on last night, Wagstaffe?" inquires Major
"Very well, on the whole. It was a really happy thought on the part of
the authorities--almost human, in fact--to put us in alongside the old
"Or what's left of them."
Wagstaffe nods gravely.
"Yes. There are some changes in the Mess since I last dined there," he
says. "Anyhow, the old hands took our boys to their bosoms at once,
and showed them the ropes."
"The men did not altogether fancy look-out work in the dark, sir,"
says Bobby Little to Major Kemp.
"Neither should I, very much," said Kemp. "To take one's stand on a
ledge fixed at a height which brings one's head and shoulders well
above the parapet, and stand there for an hour on end, knowing that
a machine-gun may start a spell of rapid traversing fire at any
moment--well, it takes a bit of doing, you know, until you are used to
it. How did you persuade 'em, Bobby?"
"Oh, I just climbed up on the top of the parapet and sat there for a
bit," says Bobby Little modestly. "They were all right after that."
"Had you any excitement, Ayling?" asks Kemp. "I hear rumours that you
had two casualties."
"Yes," says Ayling. "Four of us went out patrolling in front of the
"Myself, two men, and old Sergeant Carfrae."
"Carfrae?" Wagstaffe laughs. "That old fire-eater? I remember him at
Paardeberg. You were lucky to get back alive. Proceed, my son!"
"We went out," continues Ayling, "and patrolled."
"Well, there you rather have me. I have always been a bit foggy as to
what a patrol really does--what risks it takes, and so on. However,
Carfrae had no doubts on the subject whatever. His idea was to trot
over to the German trenches and look inside."
"Quite so!" agreed Wagstaffe, and Kemp chuckled.
"Well, we were standing by the barbed wire entanglement, arguing the
point, when suddenly some infernal imbecile in our own trenches--"
"Cockerell, for a dollar!" murmurs Wagstaffe. "Don't say he fired at
"No, he did worse. He let off a fireball."
"Whew! And there you stood in the limelight!"
"What did you do?"
"I had sufficient presence of mind to do what Carfrae did. I threw
myself on my face, and shouted to the two men to do the same."
"No. They started to run back towards the trenches. Half a dozen
German rifles opened on them at once."
"Were they badly hit?"
"Nothing to speak of, considering. The shots mostly went high. Preston
got his elbow smashed, and Burke had a bullet through his cap and
another in the region of the waistband. Then they tumbled into the
trench like rabbits. Carfrae and I crawled after them."
At this moment the doorway of the dugout is darkened by a massive
figure, and Major Kemp's colour-sergeant announces--
"There's a parrty of Gairmans gotten oot o' their trenches, sirr. Will
we open fire?"
"Go and have a look at 'em, like a good chap, Wagger," says the Major.
"I want to finish this letter."
Wagstaffe and Bobby Little make their way along the trench until they
come to a low opening marked MAXIM VILLA. They crawl inside, and find
themselves in a semicircular recess, chiefly occupied by an earthen
platform, upon which a machine-gun is mounted. The recess is roofed
over, heavily protected with sandbags, and lined with iron plates;
for a machine-gun emplacement is the object of frequent and pressing
attention from high-explosive shells. There are loopholes to right
and left, but not in front. These deadly weapons prefer diagonal or
enfilade fire. It is not worth while to fire them frontally.
Wagstaffe draws back a strip of sacking which covers one loophole,
and peers out. There, a hundred and fifty yards away, across a sunlit
field, he beholds some twenty grey figures, engaged in the most
pastoral of pursuits, in front of the German trenches.
"They are cutting the grass," he says. "Let 'em, by all means! If they
don't, we must. We don't want their bomb-throwers crawling over here
through a hay-field. Let us encourage them by every means in our
power. It might almost be worth our while to send them a message. Walk
along the trench, Bobby, and see that no excitable person looses off
Bobby obeys; and peace still broods over the sleepy trench. The only
sound which breaks the summer stillness is the everlasting crack,
crack! of the snipers' rifles. On an off-day like this the sniper is
a very necessary person. He serves to remind us that we are at war.
Concealed in his own particular eyrie, with his eyes for ever laid
along his telescopic sight, he keeps ceaseless vigil over the ragged
outline of the enemy's trenches. Wherever a head, or anything
resembling a head, shows itself, he fires. Were it not for his
enthusiasm, both sides would be sitting in their shirt-sleeves upon
their respective parapets, regarding one another with frank curiosity;
and that would never do. So the day wears on.
Suddenly, from far in our rear, comes a boom, then another. Wagstaffe
"Why can't they let well alone?" he complains. "What's the trouble
"I expect it's our Divisional Artillery having a little target
practice," says Captain Blaikie. He peers into a neighbouring
trench-periscope. "Yes, they are shelling that farm behind the German
second-line trench. Making good shooting too, for beginners," as a
column of dust and smoke rises from behind the enemy's lines. "But
brother Bosche will be very peevish about it. We don't usually fire at
this time of the afternoon. Yes, there is the haymaking party going
home. There will be a beastly noise for the next half-hour. Pass the
word along for every man to get into his dug-out."
The warning comes none too soon. In five minutes the incensed Hun is
retaliating for the disturbance of his afternoon siesta. A hail
of bullets passes over our trench. Shrapnel bursts overhead.
High-explosive shells rain upon and around the parapet. One drops into
the trench, and explodes, with surprisingly little effect. (Bobby
Little found the head afterwards, and sent it home as a memento of his
first encounter with reality.)
Our trench makes no reply. There is no need. This outburst heralds no
grand assault. It is a mere display of "frightfulness," calculated to
cow the impressionable Briton. We sit close, and make tea. Only the
look-out men, crouching behind their periscopes and loopholes, keep
their posts. The wind is the wrong way for gas, and in any case we all
have respirators. Private M'Leary, the humorist of "A" Company, puts
his on, and pretends to drink his tea through it.
Altogether, the British soldier appears sadly unappreciative either of
"frightfulness" or practical chemistry. He is a hopeless case.
The firing ceases as suddenly as it began. Silence reigns again,
broken only by a solitary shot from a trench-mortar--a sort of
explosive postscript to a half hour's Hymn of Hate.
"And that's that!" observes Captain Blaikie cheerfully, emerging from
Potsdam View. "The Hun is a harmless little creature, but noisy when
roused. Now, what about getting home? It will be dark in half an hour
or so. Platoon commanders, warn your men!"
It should be noted that upon this occasion we are not doing our full
spell of duty--that is, six days. We have merely come in for a spell
of instruction, of twenty-four hours' duration, under the chaperonage
of our elder and more seasoned brethren.
Bobby Little, having given the necessary orders to his sergeant,
proceeded to Trafalgar Square, there to await the mustering of his
But the first arrival took the form of a slow-moving procession--a
corporal, followed by two men carrying a stretcher. On the stretcher
lay something covered with a ground-sheet. At one end projected a pair
of regulation boots, very still and rigid.
Bobby caught his breath. He was just nineteen, and this was his first
encounter with sudden death.
"Who is it?" he asked unsteadily.
The corporal saluted.
"Private M'Leary, sirr. That last shot from the trench-mortar got him.
It came in kin' o' sideways. He was sittin' at the end of his dug-oot,
gettin' his tea. Stretcher party, advance!"
The procession moved off again, and disappeared round the curve of
Shaftesbury Avenue. The off-day was over.
"DIRTY WORK AT THE CROSS-ROADS TO-NIGHT"
Last week we abandoned the rural billets in which we had been
remodelling some of our methods (on the experiences gained by our
first visit to the trenches), and paraded at full strength for a march
which we knew would bring us right into the heart of things. No more
trial trips; no more chaperoning! This time, we decided, we were "for
During our three weeks of active service we have learned two
things--the art of shaking down quickly into our habitation of the
moment, as already noted; and the art of reducing our personal effects
to a portable minimum.
To the private soldier the latter problem presents no difficulties.
Everything is arranged for him. His outfit is provided by the
Government, and he carries it himself. It consists of a rifle,
bayonet, and a hundred and twenty rounds of ammunition. On one side of
him hangs his water-bottle, containing a quart of water, on the other,
a haversack, occupied by his "iron ration"--an emergency meal of the
tinned variety, which must never on any account be opened except by
order of the C.O.--and such private effects as his smoking outfit and
an entirely mythical item of refreshment officially known as "the
unexpended portion of the day's ration." On his back he carries a
"pack," containing his greatcoat, waterproof sheet, and such changes
of raiment as a paternal Government allows him. He also has to find
room therein for a towel, housewife, and a modest allowance of
cutlery. (He frequently wears the spoon in his stocking, as a
skean-dhu.) Round his neck he wears his identity disc. In his
breast-pocket he carries a respirator, to be donned in the event of
his encountering the twin misfortunes of an east wind and a gaseous
Hun. He also carries a bottle of liquid for damping the respirator. In
the flap of his jacket is sewn a field dressing.
Slung behind him is an entrenching tool.
Any other space upon his person is at his own disposal, and he may
carry what he likes, except "unsoldierly trinkets"--whatever these may
be. However, if the passion for self-adornment proves too strong, he
may wear "the French National Colours"--a compliment to our gallant
ally which is slightly discounted by the fact that her national
colours are the same as our own.
However, once he has attached this outfit to his suffering person,
and has said what he thinks about its weight, the private has no more
baggage worries. Except for his blanket, which is carried on a waggon,
he is his own arsenal, wardrobe, and pantry.
Not so the officer. He suffers from _embarras de choix_. He is the
victim of his female relatives, who are themselves the victims of
those enterprising tradesmen who have adopted the most obvious method
of getting rid of otherwise unsaleable goods by labelling everything
_For Active Service_--a really happy thought when you are trying
to sell a pipe of port or a manicure set. Have you seen Our Active
By the end of April Bobby Little had accumulated, with a view to
facilitating the destruction of the foe--
An automatic Mauser pistol, with two thousand rounds of
A regulation Service revolver.
A camp bed.
A camp table.
A camp chair.
A pneumatic mattress.
[This ingenious contrivance was meant to be blown up, like an
air-cushion, and Bobby's servant expended most of the day and much
valuable breath in performing the feat. Ultimately, in a misguided
attempt to save his lungs from rupture, he employed a bicycle
pump, and burst the bed.]
A sleeping (or "flea") bag.
A portable bath.
A portable washhand-stand.
A dressing-case, heavily ballasted with cut-glass bottles.
A primus stove.
A despatch case.
The "Service" Kipling (about forty volumes.)
Innumerable socks and shirts.
A box of soap.
Fifty boxes of matches.
A small medicine chest.
About a dozen first-aid outfits.
A case of pipes, and cigarettes innumerable.
[Bobby's aunts regarded cigars as not quite ascetic enough for
active service. Besides, they might make him sick.]
About a cubic foot of chocolate (various).
Numerous compressed foods and concentrated drinks.
An "active service" cooking outfit.
An electric lamp, with several refills.
A pair of binoculars.
A prismatic compass.
A sparklet siphon.
A luminous watch.
A pair of insulated wire-cutters.
"There's only one thing you've forgotten," remarked Captain Wagstaffe,
when introduced to this unique collection of curios.
"What is that?" inquired Bobby, always eager to learn.
"A pantechnicon! Do you known how much personal baggage an officer is
allowed, in addition to what he carries himself?"
"It sounds a lot," said Bobby.
"It looks precious little!" was Wagstaffe's reply.
"I suppose they won't be particular to a pound or so," said Bobby
"Listen," commanded Wagstaffe. "When we go abroad, your Wolseley
valise, containing this"--he swept his hand round the crowded
hut--"this military museum, will be handed to the Quartermaster. He
is a man of singularly rigid mind, with an exasperating habit of
interpreting rules and regulations quite literally. If you persist in
this scheme of asking him to pass half a ton of assorted lumber as a
package weighing thirty-five pounds, he will cast you forth and remain
your enemy for life. And personally," concluded Wagstaffe, "I would
rather keep on the right side of my Regimental Quartermaster than of
the Commander-in-Chief himself. Now, send all this stuff home--you can
use it on manoeuvres in peace-time--and I will give you a little list
which will not break the baggage-waggon's back."
The methodical Bobby produced a notebook.
"You will require to wash occasionally. Take a canvas bucket, some
carbolic soap, and a good big towel. Also your toothbrush, and--excuse
the question, but do you shave?"
"Twice a week," admitted the blushing Bobby.
"Happy man! Well, take a safety-razor. That will do for cleanliness.
Now for clothing. Lots of socks, but only one change of other things,
unless you care to take a third shirt in your greatcoat pocket. Two
good pairs of boots, and a pair of slacks. Then, as regards sleeping.
Your flea-bag and your three Government blankets, with your valise
underneath, will keep you (and your little bedfellows) as warm as
toast. You may get separated from your valise, though, so take a
ground-sheet in your pack. Then you will be ready to dine and sleep
simply anywhere, at a moment's notice. As regards comforts generally,
take a 'Tommy's cooker,' if you can find room for it, and scrap all
the rest of your cuisine except your canteen. Take a few meat lozenges
and some chocolate in one of your ammunition-pouches, in case you ever
have to go without your breakfast. Rotten work, marching or fighting
on a hollow tummy!"
"What about revolvers?" inquired Bobby, displaying his arsenal, a
"If the Germans catch you with that Mauser, they will hang you. Take
the Webley. Then you can always draw Service ammunition." Wagstaffe
ran his eye over the rest of Bobby's outfit. "Smokes? Take your pipe
and a tinder-box: you will get baccy and cigarettes to burn out there.
Keep that electric torch; and your binoculars, of course. Also that
small map-case: it's a good one. Also wire-cutters. You can write
letters in your field-message-book. Your compass is all right. Add
a pair of canvas shoes--they're a godsend after a long day,--an
air-pillow, some candle-ends, a tin of vaseline, and a ball of string,
and I think you will do. If you find you still have a pound or so in
hand, add a few books--something to fall back on, in case supplies
fail. Personally, I'm taking 'Vanity Fair' and 'Pickwick.' But then,
* * * * *
Bobby took Wagstaffe's advice, with the result that that genial
obstructionist, the Quartermaster, smiled quite benignly upon him when
he presented his valise; while his brother officers, sternly bidden
to revise their equipment, were compelled at the last moment to
discriminate frantically between the claims of necessity and
However, we had all found our feet, and developed into seasoned
vagabonds when we set out for the trenches last week. A few days
previously we had been inspected by Sir John French himself.
"And that," explained Major Kemp to his subalterns, "usually means
dirty work at the cross-roads at no very distant period!"
* * * * *
Major Kemp was right--quite literally right.
Our march took us back to Armentieres, whose sufferings under
intermittent shell fire have already been described. We marched by
night, and arrived at breakfast-time. The same evening two companies
and a section of machine-gunners were bidden to equip themselves with
picks and shovels and parade at dusk. An hour later we found ourselves
proceeding cautiously along a murky road close behind the trenches.
The big guns were silent, but the snipers were busy on both sides.
A German searchlight was combing out the heavens above: a constant
succession of star-shells illumined the earth beneath.
"What are we going to do to-night, sir?" inquired Bobby Little,
heroically resisting an inclination to duck, as a Mauser bullet spat
viciously over his head.
"I believe we are going to dig a redoubt behind the trenches," replied
Captain Blaikie. "I expect to meet an R.E. officer somewhere about
here, and he will tell us the worst. That was a fairly close one,
Bobby! Pass the word down quietly that the men are to keep in to
each side of the road, and walk as low as they can. Ah, there is our
sportsman, I fancy. Good evening!"
A subaltern of that wonderful corps, the Royal Engineers, loomed out
of the darkness, removed a cigarette from his mouth, and saluted
"Good evening, sir," he said to Blaikie. "Will you follow me, please?
I have marked out each man's digging position with white tape, so
they ought to find no difficulty in getting to work. Brought your
The machine-gun officer, Ayling, was called up.
"We are digging a sort of square fort," explained the Engineer, "to
hold a battalion. That will mean four guns to mount. I don't know much
about machine-guns myself; so perhaps you"--to Ayling--"will walk
round with me outside the position, and you can select your own
"I shall be charmed," replied Ayling, and Blaikie chuckled.
"I'll just get your infantry to work first," continued the phlegmatic
youth. "This way, sir!"
The road at this point ran through a hollow square of trees, and it
was explained to the working-party that the trees, roughly, followed
the outlines of the redoubt.
"The trenches are about half-finished," added the Engineer. "We had a
party from the Seaforths working here last night. Your men have only
to carry on where they left off. It's chiefly a matter of filling
sandbags and placing them on the parapet." He pointed to a blurred
heap in a corner of the wood. "There are fifty thousand there. Leave
what you don't want!"
"Where do we get the earth to fill the sandbags?" asked Blaikie. "The
trenches, or the middle of the redoubt?"
"Oh, pretty well anywhere," replied the Engineer. "Only, warn your men
to be careful not to dig too deep!"
And with this dark saying he lounged off to take Ayling for his
"I'll take you along the road a bit, first," he said, "and then we
will turn off into the field where the corner of the redoubt is, and
you can look at things from the outside."
Ayling thanked him, and stepped somewhat higher than usual, as a
bullet struck the ground at his feet.
"Extraordinary how few casualties one gets," continued the Sapper
chattily. "Their snipers go potting away all night, but they don't
often get anybody. By the way, they have a machine-gun trained on
this road, but they only loose it off every second night. Methodical
"Did they loose it off last night?"
"No. To-night's the night. Have you finished here!"
"Right-o! We'll go to the next corner. You'll get a first-class field
of fire there, I should say."
The second position was duly inspected, the only incident of interest
being the bursting of a star-shell directly overhead.
"Better lie down for a minute," suggested the Engineer.
Ayling, who had been struggling with a strong inclination to do so for
some time, promptly complied.
"Just like the Crystal Palace on a benefit night!" observed his guide
admiringly, as the landscape was lit up with a white glare. "Now you
can see your position beautifully. You can fire obliquely in this
direction, and then do a first-class enfilade if the trenches get
"I see," said Ayling, surveying the position with real interest.
He was beginning to enjoy selecting gun-emplacements which really
mattered. It was a change from nine months of "eye-wash."
When the German star-shell had spent itself they crossed the road, to
the rear of the redoubt, and marked the other two emplacements--in
comparative safety now.
"The only trouble about this place," said Ayling, as he surveyed the
last position, "is that my fire will be masked by that house with the
clump of trees beside it."
The Engineer produced a small note-book, and wrote in it by the light
of a convenient star-shell.
"Right-o!" he said. "I'll have the whole caboodle pushed over for you
by to-morrow night. Anything else?"
Ayling began to enjoy himself. After you have spent nine months in an
unprofitable attempt to combine practical machine-gun tactics with a
scrupulous respect for private property, the realisation that you may
now gratify your destructive instincts to the full comes as a welcome
and luxurious shock.
"Thanks," he said. "You might flatten out that haystack, too."
* * * * *
They found the others hard at work when they returned. Captain Blaikie
was directing operations from the centre of the redoubt.
"I say," he said, as the Engineer sat down beside him, "I'm afraid
we're doing a good deal of body-snatching. This place is absolutely
full of little wooden crosses."
"Germans," replied the Engineer laconically.
"How long have they been--here?"
"So I should imagine," said Blaikie, with feeling.
"The crosses aren't much guide, either," continued the Engineer. "The
deceased are simply all over the place. The best plan is to dig until
you come to a blanket. (There are usually two or three to a blanket.)
Then tell off a man to flatten down clay over the place at once, and
try somewhere else. It is a rotten job, though, however you look at
"Have you been here long?" inquired Bobby Little, who had come across
the road for a change of air.
"Long enough! But I'm not on duty continuously. I am Box. Cox takes
over to-morrow." He rose to his feet and looked at his watch.
"You ought to move off by half-past one, sir," he said to Blaikie. "It
begins to get light after that, and the Bosches have three shells for
that cross-road over there down in their time-table at two-fifteen.
They're a hide-bound lot, but punctual!"
"Thanks," said Blaikie. "I shall not neglect your advice. It is
half-past eleven now. Come along, Bobby, and we'll see how old Ayling
is getting on."
* * * * *
Steadily, hour by hour, in absolute silence, the work went on. There
Back to Full Books