― (22) ―


“But I had not so much of man in me
And all my mother came into mine eyes
And gave me up to tears.”


IT was late when they woke, but they were reluctant to move. Their tent gave them the only privacy they knew, and they wanted to lie hidden until they had recovered their nerve. Among themselves they were unselfish, even gentle; instinctively helping each other, for, having shared the same experience, there was a tacit understanding between them. They knew each other, and their rival egoisms had already established among them a balance and discipline of their own. They kept their feelings very much to themselves. No one troubled them, and they might have lain there for hours, preoccupied with their own formless and intangible reveries, or merely brooding vacantly; but whatever remote and inaccessible world the mind may elect to inhabit, the body has its own inexorable routine. It drove them out in the end to the open, unscreened trench which served as a latrine. This was furnished with a pole, closer to one side than to the other, and resting at either end on piled-up sods, and on this insecure perch they sat, and

  ― (23) ―
while they sat there they hunted and killed the lice on their bodies. There was something insolent even in the way they tightened their belts, hawked, and spat in the dust. They had been through it, and having been through it, they had lapsed a little lower than savages, into the mere brute. Life for them held nothing new in the matter of humiliation. Men of the new drafts wondered foolishly at their haggard and filthy appearance. Even the details kept a little aloof from them, as from men with whom it might be dangerous to meddle, and perhaps there was something in their sad, pitiless faces to evoke in others a kind of primitive awe. They for their part went silently about the camp, carrying themselves, in their stained and tattered uniforms, with scornful indifference. They may have glanced casually at the new-comers, still trim and neat from the bull-ring at Rouen, who were to fill the place of the dead now lying out in all weathers on the down-land between Delville Wood, Trones, and Guillemont; but if one of the new men spoke to them he was met with unrecognising eyes and curt monosyllables.

Outside the tents two or three men would come together and ask after their friends.

“Where's Dixon?”

“Gone west. Blown to fuckin' bits as soon as we got out of the trench, poor bugger. Young

  ― (24) ―
Williams was 'it same time, 'ad most of an arm blown off, but 'e got back into the trench. Same shell, I think. Anyway, it were the first thing I see.”

They spoke with anxious, low voices, still unsteady and inclined to break; but control was gradually returning; and all that pity carried with it a sense of relief that the speaker, somehow, but quite incredibly, had himself managed to survive.

When breakfast came they seemed at first to have no appetite, but once they had started, they ate like famishing wolves, mopping up the last smear of bacon fat and charred fragments from the bottom of the pan with their bread. When they returned to camp on the previous night, there had been tea waiting for them, a rum issue left very largely to the indiscretion of the storekeeper, and sandwiches of cold boiled bacon. Bourne had drunk all he could get; but on biting into a sandwich it had seemed to chew up into so much dry putty in his mouth, and he had stuffed the rest of his ration away in his haversack. The other men had been much the same, none of them had had any stomach for food then, though the sandwiches were freshly cut with liberal mustard on them; now, though they had turned dry and hard, and the bread had soured, they were disinterred from dirty haversacks and eaten ravenously. Gradually their apathy

  ― (25) ―
cleared and lifted, as first their bodily functions, and then their habits of life asserted themselves. One after another they started shaving. Bourne and Shem had an arrangement by which they fetched and carried for each other alternately, and it was Bourne's job to-day. There was a shortage of water, and rather stringent regulations concerning its use. Bourne had long ago come to the conclusion that there was too much bloody discipline in the British Army, and he managed to procure, on loan, a large tin, which had been converted into a bucket by the addition of a wire handle. He got this more than half full of water, as well as a mess-tin full of hot water from one of the cooks, and going and coming he worked round behind the officers' tents, so as to avoid other companies' lines, and sergeants or sergeant-majors, who, zealous in the matter of discipline, might have hypothecated both the bucket and water for their own personal use. Then, out of sight behind their own tent, he and Shem washed and shaved. They had not had a bath for five weeks, but curiously enough, their skins, under their shirts, were like satin, supple and lustrous; the sweat washed out the dirt, and was absorbed with it into their clothing which had a sour, stale, and rather saline smell. They were not very lousy.

They had achieved more of the semblance than the reality of cleanliness, and were drying themselves

  ― (26) ―
when Corporal Tozer, who knew their value, came round to the back of the tent and looked at the water, already grey and curdled with dirt and soap.

“You two are the champion bloody scroungers in the battalion,” he said; and it was impossible to know whether he were more moved by admiration or by disgust. Shem, whose eyes were like the fish-pools of Heshbon, turned on him an expression of mingled innocence and apprehension; but Bourne only looked on indifferently as the Corporal, making a cup of his hand, skimmed off the curdled scum before dashing the dirty water over his own head and neck. Bourne had no modesty in the demands he made on his friends, and he had got the water from Abbot, the company cook, by asking for it casually, while discussing the possibility of procuring, illegally, a grilled steak for his dinner, preferably with fried onions, which for the time being proved unobtainable.

“Tell me when you've finished with the bucket, will you, Corporal?” he said quietly, as he turned to go back to the tent with Shem. Before putting on his tunic, after taking it outside to brush rather perfunctorily, he looked at the pockets which the machine-gun bullet had torn. The pull of his belt had caused them to project a little, and the bullet had entered one pocket and passed out through the other, after

  ― (27) ―
denting the metal case of his shaving-stick, which he had forgotten to put into his pack, but had pocketed at the last moment. His haversack had been hit too, probably by a spent fragment of a shell; but the most impressive damage was the dent, with a ragged fissure in it, in his tin-hat. His pulse quickened slightly as he considered it, for it had been a pretty near thing for him. Then he heard Pritchard talking to little Martlow on the other side of the tent.

“… both 'is legs 'ad bin blown off, pore bugger; an’ 'e were dyin’ so quick you could see it. But 'e tried to stand up on 'is feet. ‘ 'elp me up,’ 'e sez, ‘ 'elp me up.’—‘You lie still, chum,’ I sez to 'im, ‘you'll be all right presently.’ An’ 'e jes give me one look, like 'e were puzzled, an’ 'e died.”

Bourne felt all his muscles tighten. Tears were running down Pritchard's inflexible face, like rain-drops down a window-pane; but there was not a quaver in his voice, only that high unnatural note which a boy's has when it is breaking; and then for the first time Bourne noticed that Swale, Pritchard's bed-chum, was not there; he had not missed him before. He could only stare at Pritchard, while his own sight blurred in sympathy.

“Well, anyway,” said Martlow, desperately comforting; “ 'e couldn't 'ave felt much, could 'e, if 'e said that?”

  ― (28) ―

“I don't know what 'e felt,” said Pritchard, with slowly-filling bitterness, “I know what I felt.”

“Bourne, you can take that bloody bucket back to where you pinched it from,” said Corporal Tozer, as he came into the tent, wiping the soap out of his ears with a wet and dirty towel, and Bourne slipped out as inconspicuously as a cat. Still rubbing his neck and ears Corporal Tozer caught sight of Pritchard's face, and noticed the constraint of the others. Then he remembered Swale.

“Get those blankets folded and put the tent to rights,” he said quietly. “You'd better open it up all round and let some air in; it stinks a bit in here.”

He picked up his tunic, put it on, and buttoned it slowly.

“Swale was a townie of yours, wasn't he, Pritchard?” he said suddenly. “A bloody plucky chap, an' only a kid, too. I'm damned sorry about him.”

“That's all right, corporal,” answered Pritchard evenly. “Bein' sorry ain't goin' to do us 'ns no manner o' good. We've all the sorrow we can bear of our own, wi'out troublin' ourselves wi' that o' other folk. We 'elp each other all we can, an' when we can't 'elp the other man no more, we must jes 'elp ourselves. But I tell thee, corporal, if I thought life was never goin'

  ― (29) ―
to be no different, I'd as lief be bloody well dead myself.”

He folded up his blanket neatly, as though he were folding up something he had finished with and would never use again. Then he looked up.

“I took 'is pay-book an' some letters out o' 'is tunic pocket, but I left 'is identity-disc for them as finds 'im. If our chaps hang on to what we got, there'll be some buryin' parties out. There's 'is pack, next mine. I suppose I'd better 'and them letters in at th' orderly-room. There were a couple o' smutty French photographs, which I tore up. 'e were a decent enough lad, but boys are curious about such things; don't mean no 'arm, but think 'em funny. 'Tis all in human nature. An' I'll write a letter to 'is mother. Swales is decent folk, farmin' a bit o' land, an' I'm only a labourin' man, but they always treated me fair when I worked for 'em.”

“I suppose Captain Malet will write to her,” said Corporal Tozer.

“Cap'n 'll write, surely,” said Pritchard. “ 'e's a gentleman is Cap'n Malet an' not one to neglect any little duties. We all knew Cap'n Malet before the war started, an' before 'e were a cap'n. But I'll write Mrs. Swale a letter myself. Cap'n Malet, 'e mus' write 'undreds o' them letters, all the same way; 'cause there ain't no difference really, 'cept tha know'st the mother, same as I do.”

  ― (30) ―

“Have you a wife and children of your own?” Corporal Tozer inquired, breaking away a little.

“'ad a little girl. She died when she were four, th' year before th' war. The wife can look after 'erself,” he added vindictively. “I'm not worryin' about 'er. Th' bugger were never any bloody good to me.”

He lapsed into a resentful silence, and the corporal was satisfied that his emotion had been diverted into other channels. The other men grinned a little as they shook the dried grass-stems and dust off the ground-sheets. When they had finished tidying the tent, they sat about smoking, without their tunics, for the day was hot and airless. The corporal stood outside, with his eye on the officers' tents watching for the appearance of Captain Malet. Then by chance he saw Bourne talking to Evans, who had been the Colonel's servant, and had been taken over in that capacity by the officer commanding them temporarily, who was a major from another regiment. Evans, who never in private referred to his new master otherwise than as “that Scotch bastard,” though he had nothing Scots about him but a kilt, was now idly swinging the bucket, into which Bourne, Shem and the Corporal himself, had washed more than the dust of battle.

“'e 'as some bloody 'ide, pinchin' the commandin' officer's bucket,” was the corporal's only comment, turning his gaze towards the

  ― (31) ―
officers' tents again. Presently Bourne stood beside him.

“We're on the move, Corporal,” he announced.

“Who says we're on the move? Evans?” he added the name as an after-thought so that 'Bourne might guess he knew where the bucket came from, and not underrate either his powers of observation and inference, or his more valuable quality of discretion.

“Evans!” exclaimed Bourne indifferently; “oh, no! I was only giving him back his bucket. Evans never hears anything except the dirty stories the Doctor tells the Major in the mess. Abbot told me. He said the cookers were to be ready to move off to Sand-pits at two o'clock. We're on the move all right.”

“Them bloody cooks know what we're doing before the orderly-room does,” said Corporal Tozer drily. “Well, if it's good-bye to the fuckin' Somme, I won't 'arf 'ave a time puttin' the wind up some o' these bloody conscripts. Seen 'em yet? Buggered-up by a joy-ride in the train from Rouen to Méricourt, so they kept 'em fuckin' about the camp, while they sent us over the bloody top; you an' I, old son; in it up to the fuckin' neck, we was! When they've 'ad me at 'em for a fortnight, they'll be anxious to meet Fritz, they will. They'll be just about ready to kiss 'im.”

Suddenly he shed his easy confidence, as Captain

  ― (32) ―
Malet emerged from one of the tents, on the other side of the extemporised road, looking up at the sky, as though he were chiefly concerned in estimating the weather prospects for the day. Then, rapidly surveying his company-lines, he saw Sergeant Robinson and Corporal Tozer; and waved them to him with a lift of his stick. Bourne turned, and going into the tent sat down beside Shem. When he told them what he had heard from Abbot there was a flicker of interest, though they were not surprised, for the fighting-strength of the whole battalion was by now little more than that of a single company. They were to be taken out of the line, fed with new drafts, and then thrown in again, that was all, except that whenever the new drafts were mentioned, a certain amount of feeling was shown against them. Bourne began to be a little sorry for the new men, though some malicious imp in his mind was amused by the resentment they aroused. A draft had arrived the night before the attack, consisting of men enlisted under the Derby scheme, the first of that class to join the battalion; and there was some uncertainty concerning their temper and quality. The question had been, whether it were better to distribute the men among the different companies immediately on the eve of the attack; or to leave them out, and absorb them more slowly afterwards. Probably the commanding-officer had preferred to

  ― (33) ―
rely entirely on men already experienced in battle, even though their numbers were rather depleted, and it might be argued very reasonably that his decision was right. At the same time, the new men suffered by it. They were friendless among strangers, without having been long enough together to form a coherent unit to themselves; being rather soft, thirty hours in a troop train, tightly packed in sweltering heat, and then a longish march from Méricourt, the rail-head, had left them dead-beat; not being borne on the ration-strength, they had at first to make shift for their provisions as best they could; and because there was nothing for them to do, all sorts of futile and unnecessary fatigues were invented by those in authority for their especial benefit. They were bullied even by the details, and stood at the beck of any store-keeper. All this, of course, was in the best tradition of the British Army; but after swanking in a service company at some training-camp in Blighty, cheek by jowl with some of the slightly obsolete heroes from Mons, it was a little disheartening to find themselves suddenly precipitated again to the level of a recruit. After all, Bourne reflected, when he had come as one of a draft, he had been made to suffer similarly: but he had gone immediately into a show and that had made some difference. Presently these men would be indistinguishable from the others, and share their common experience.

  ― (34) ―

Corporal Tozer reappeared in the tent.

“Parade for roll-call at eleven o'clock: fatigue order.”

There was just a trace more importance than usual in his manner, and though it was barely discernible Bourne noticed it, and looked up with his incorrigible smile.

“Got an extra stripe, Corporal?” he inquired.

“Don't you worry about what I've got,” said the corporal. “You be bloody careful what you get.”