previous
next



  ― (258) ―

XII

Yes, in this present quality of war
Indeed the instant action, a cause on foot
Lives so in hope, as in an early spring
We see the appearing buds, which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.

Shakespeare

BOURNE roused himself, and, after a few minutes of dubious consciousness, sat up and looked round him, at his sleeping companions, and then at the rifles stacked round the tent-pole, and the ring of boots surrounding the rifle-butts. His right hand finding the opening in his shirt front, he scratched pleasurably at his chest. He was dirty, and he was lousy; but at least, and he thanked God for it, he was not scabby. Half a dozen men from Headquarter Company, including Shem as a matter of course, had been sent off yesterday to a casualty clearing station near Acheux, suffering or rejoicing, according to their diverse temperaments, with the itch. The day after their arrival at Mailly-Maillet, the medical officer had held what the men described irreverently as a prick-inspection. He was looking for definite symptoms of something he expected to find, and because his inquest had been narrowed down to a single question, it may


  ― (259) ―
have seemed a little cursory. The men stood in a line, their trousers and underpants having been dropped round their ankles, and as the doctor passed them, in the words of the regimental sergeant-major, they “lifted the curtain,” that is to say the flap of the shirt, so as to expose their bellies.

Scratching his chest, Bourne considered the boots: if a sword were the symbol of battle, boots were certainly symbols of war; and because by his bedside at home there had always been a copy of the Authorised Version, he remembered now the verse about the warrior's boots that stamped in the tumult, and the mantle drenched with blood being all but for burning, and fuel for the fire. He lit a cigarette. It was, anyway, the method by which he intended to dispose of his own damned kit, if he should survive his present obligations; but the chance of survival seeming to his cooler judgment somewhat thin, he ceased spontaneously to be interested in it. His mind did not dismiss, it ignored, the imminent possibility of its own destruction. He looked again with a little more sympathy on his prone companions, wondering that sleep should make their faces seem so enigmatic and remote; and still scratching and rubbing his chest, he returned to his contemplation of the boots. Then, when he had smoked his cigarette down to his fingers, he rubbed out the glowing


  ― (260) ―
end in the earth, slipped out of the blanket, and reached for his trousers. He moved as quickly as a cat in dressing, and now, taking his mess-tin, he opened the flap of the tent, and went out into the cool morning freshness. He could see between the sparse trees to the cookers, drawn up a little off the road. The wood in which they were encamped was just behind Mailly-Maillet, in an angle formed by two roads, one rising over the slope to Mailly-Maillet, and the other skirting the foot of the hill towards Hédauville. It was on a rather steep reverse slope, which gave some protection from shell-fire, and there were a few shelter-trenches, which had been hastily and rather inefficiently dug, as a further protection. It was well screened from observation. The trees were little more than saplings, young beech, birch, and larch, with a few firs, poorly grown, but so far unshattered. Bourne strolled carelessly down to the cookers.

“Good-morning, corporal; any tea going?”

Williams stretched out his hand for the messtin, filled it to the brim, and then, after handing it back to Bourne, went on with his work, without a word. Bourne stayed there, sipping the scalding brew.

“Go up the line, last night?” Williams inquired at last.

“Carrying-party,” answered Bourne, who found his dixie so hot he could scarcely hold it,


  ― (261) ―
so he was protecting his hands with a dirty handkerchief. “I was out of luck. I was at the end, and when they had loaded me up with the last box of ammunition, they found there was a buckshee box of Verey lights to go, too. The officer said he thought I might carry those as well; and being a young man of rather tedious wit, he added that they were very light. I suppose I am damned clumsy, but one of those bloody boxes is enough for me, and I decided to dump one at the first opportunity. Then Mr. Sothern came back along the top of the communication trench, and, finding me weary and heavily-laden, said all sorts of indiscreet things about everybody concerned. “Dump them, you bloody fool, dump them!” he shouted. I rather deprecated any extreme measures. ‘Give me that bloody box,’ he insisted. As he seemed really angry about it, I handed him up the box of ammunition, as it was the heavier of the two. He streaked off into the darkness to get back to the head of the party, with his stick in one hand, and a box of ammo. in the other. I like these conscientious young officers, corporal.”

“ 'e's a nice chap, Mr. Sothern,” observed Williams, with a face of immovable melancholy.

“Quite,” Bourne agreed. “However, there's a big dug-out in Legend Trench, and between that and the corner of Flag Alley I saw a box of ammunition that had been dumped. It was


  ― (262) ―
lying by the duck-boards. It may have been the one I gave Mr. Sothern: ‘lost owing to the exigencies of active service.’ That's what the court of inquiry said about Patsy Pope's false teeth.”

Williams went on with his work.

“It won't be long before you lads are for it again,” he said in his quiet way.

“No,” said Bourne, reluctantly, for there was a note of furtive sympathy in Williams' voice which embarrassed him.

“The whole place is simply lousy with guns,” continued the cook.

“Why the hell can't you talk of something else?” exclaimed Bourne, impatiently. “Jerry chased us all the way home last night. Mr. Sothern, who knows no more about the bloody map than I do, tried a short cut, and wandered off in the direction of Colincamps, until we fetched up in front of one of our field batteries, and were challenged. Then an officer came up and remonstrated with him. After that, when we got on the road again and Fritz started sending a few across, you should have seen us! Leaning over like a field of corn in the wind.”

“A lot o' them are new to it, yet,” said Williams, tolerantly. “You might take a drop o' tea up to the corporal, will you? 'e's a nice chap, Corporal 'amley. I gave 'im some o' your


  ― (263) ―
toffees last night, an' we was talkin' about you. I'll fill it, in case you feel like some more.”

Bourne took it, thanking him, and lounged off. There was now a little more movement in the camp, and when he got back to his own tent he found all the occupants awake, enjoying a moment of indecision before they elected to dress. He poured some tea into Corporal Hamley's tin, and then gave some to Martlow, and there was about a third left.

“Who wants tea?” he said.

“I do,” said Weeper Smart, and in his blue shirt with cuffs unbuttoned and white legs sprawled out behind him, he lunged awkwardly across the tent, holding out his dixie with one hand. Smart was an extraordinary individual, with the clumsy agility of one of the greater apes; though the carriage of his head rather suggested the vulture, for the neck projected from wide, sloping shoulders, rounded to a stoop; the narrow forehead, above arched eyebrows, and the chin, under loose pendulous lips, both receded abruptly, and the large, fleshy beak, jutting forward between protruding blue eyes, seemed to weigh down the whole face. His skin was an unhealthy white, except at the top of the nose and about the nostrils, where it had a shiny redness, as though he suffered from an incurable cold: it was rather pimply. An almost complete beardlessness made the lack of pigmentation


  ― (264) ―
more marked, and even the fine, sandy hair of his head grew thinly. It would have been the face of an imbecile, but for the expression of unmitigated misery in it, or it would have been a tragic face if it had possessed any element of nobility; but it was merely abject, a mask of passive suffering, at once pitiful and repulsive. It was inevitable that men, living day by day with such a spectacle of woe, should learn in self-defence to deride it; and it was this sheer necessity which had impelled some cruel wit of the camp to fling at him the name of Weeper, and make that forlorn and cadaverous figure the butt of an endless jest. He gulped his tea, and his watery eyes turned toward Bourne with a cunning malevolence.

“What I say is, that if any o' us'ns tried scrounging round the cookers, we'd be for it.”

Bourne looked at him with a slightly contemptuous tolerance, gathered his shaving-tackle together, flung his dirty towel over his shoulder, and set off again in the direction of the cookers to scrounge for some hot water. He could do without the necessaries of life more easily than without some small comforts.

Breakfast over, they cleaned up and aired the tent, and almost immediately were told to fall in on parade with Headquarter Company. Captain Thompson, watching them fall in from the officers' tents, knocked his pipe out against


  ― (265) ―
his stick, shoved it in his tunic pocket, and came up the hill, carrying his head at a rather throughtful angle. He had a rather short, stocky figure, and a round bullet head; his face was always imperturbable, and his eyes quiet but observant. Sergeant-major Corbett called the company to attention and Captain Thompson acknowledged the salute, and told the men to stand easy. Then he began to talk to them in a quiet unconventional way, as one whose authority was so unquestioned that the friendliness of his manner was not likely to be misunderstood. They had had a good rest, he said (as though he were talking to the same men who had fought their way, slowly and foot by foot, into Guillemont!), and now there was work in front of them: difficult and dangerous work: the business of killing as many superfluous Germans as possible. He would read out to them passages from the letter of instructions regarding the attack, which as fresh and reconditioned troops they would be called on soon to make. He read; and as he read his voice became rather monotonous, it lost the character of the man and seemed to come to them from a remote distance. The plan was handled in too abstract a way for the men to follow it; and their attention, in spite of the gravity with which they listened, was inclined to wander; or perhaps they refused to think of it except from the point of view of their own concrete


  ― (266) ―
and individual experience. Above his monotonous voice one could hear, now and again, a little wind stray through the drying leaves of the trees. A leaf or two might flutter down, and scratch against the bark of trunk or boughs with a crackling papery rustle. Here and there he would stress a sentence ever so slightly, as though its significance would not be wasted on their minds, and their eyes would quicken, and lift towards him with a curious, almost an animal expression of patient wonder. It was strange to notice how a slight movement, even a break in the rhythm of their breathing, showed their feelings at certain passages.

“…men are strictly forbidden to stop for the purpose of assisting wounded. …”

The slight stiffening of their muscles may have been imperceptible, for the monotonous inflexion did not vary as the reader delivered a passage, in which it was stated, that the Staff considered they had made all the arrangements necessary to effect this humanitarian, but somewhat irrelevant, object.

“… you may be interested to know,” and this was slightly stressed, as though to overbear a doubt, “that it is estimated we shall have one big gun—I suppose that means hows. and heavies—for every hundred square yards of ground we are attacking.”

An attack delivered on a front of twenty miles,


  ― (267) ―
if completely successful, would mean penetrating to a depth of from six to seven miles, and the men seemed to be impressed by the weight of metal with which it was intended to support them. Then the officer came to the concluding paragraph of the instructional letter.

“It is not expected that the enemy will offer any very serious resistance at this point. …”

There came a whisper scarcely louder than a sigh.

“What fuckin' 'opes we've got!”

The still small voice was that of Weeper Smart, clearly audible to the rest of the section, and its effect was immediate. The nervous tension, which had gripped every man, was suddenly snapped, and the swift relief brought with it an almost hysterical desire to laugh, which it was difficult to suppress. Whether Captain Thompson also heard the voice of the Weeper, and what construction he may have placed on the sudden access of emotion in the ranks, it was impossible to say. Abruptly, he called them to attention, and after a few seconds, during which he stared at them impersonally, but with great severity, the men were dismissed. As they moved off, Captain Thompson called Corporal Hamley to him.

“Where will some of us poor buggers be come next Thursday?” demanded Weeper of the crowded tent, as he collapsed into his place; and


  ― (268) ―
looking at that caricature of grief, their laughter, high-pitched and sardonic, which had been stifled on parade, found vent.

“Laugh, you silly fuckers!” he cried in vehement rage. “Yes, you laugh now! You'll be laughing the other side o' your bloody mouths when you 'ear all Krupp's fuckin' iron-foundry comin' over! Laugh! One big gun to every bloody 'undred yards, an' don't expect any serious resistance from the enemy! Take us for a lot o' bloody kids, they do! 'aven't we been up the line and …”

“You shut your blasted mouth, see!” said the exasperated Corporal Hamley, stooping as he entered the tent, the lift of his head, with chin thrust forward as he stooped, giving him a more desperately aggressive appearance. “An' you let me 'ear you talkin' on parade again with an officer present and you'll be on the bloody mat, quick. See? You miserable bugger, you! A bloody cunt like you's sufficient to demoralize a whole fuckin' Army Corps. Got it? Get those buzzers out, and do some bloody work, for a change.”

Exhausted by this unaccustomed eloquence, Corporal Hamley, white-lipped, glared round the tent, on innocent and guilty alike. Weeper gave him one glance of deprecatory grief, and relapsed into a prudent silence. The rest of the squad, all learners, settled themselves with a more


  ― (269) ―
deliberate obedience: there was no sense in encouraging Corporal Hamley to throw his weight about, just because he had wind up. They took up their pencils and paper, and looked at him a little coolly. Weeper was one of themselves. With the corporal sending on the buzzer, the class laboriously spelt out his messages. Then he tried two men with two instruments, one sending, and the other answering and repeating, while the rest of the squad recorded.

“You've been at this game before,” he said to Weeper.

“I, corporal?” said Weeper, with an innocence one could see was affected; “I've never touched one o' these things before.”

“No?” said the corporal. “Ever worked in a telegraph office? You needn't try to come that game on me. I can tell by your touch.”

He was not in a humour to be satisfied, and the men, thinking of the show they were in for, did not work well. A sullen humour spread among them. Bourne was the least satisfactory of all.

“You're just swingin' the lead,” said Corporal Hamley. “Those of you who can't use a buzzer will be sent out as linesmen, or to help carry the bloody flapper.”

Things went from bad to worse among them. There was a light drizzle of rain outside, and this gradually increased to a steady downpour.




  ― (270) ―

Their sullen humour deepened into resentment, fretting hopelessly in their minds; and the corporal's disapproval was expressed now and again with savage brevity. Then the stolid but perfectly cheerful face of Corporal Woods appeared between the flaps of the tent.

“Kin I 'ave six men off you for a fatigue, corporal?” he asked pleasantly.

“You can take the whole fuckin' issue,” said Corporal Hamley, with enthusiasm, throwing the buzzer down on his blankets with the air of a man who has renounced all hope.

Shem returned, wet and smelling of iodine, at dinner time. All that day it rained, and they kept to the tents, but their exasperation wore off, and the spirit of pessimism which had filled them became quiet, reflective, even serene, but without ceasing to be pessimism. Mr. Rhys paid them a visit, and said, that, taking into account the interruption of their training by other duties, their progress had been fairly satisfactory. He, too, picked out Weeper Smart as an expert telegraphist, and Martlow as the aptest pupil in the class; as for the other new men, it would be some time before they were fully qualified for their duties. At a quarter to three he told the corporal that they might pack up for the day. If the weather had cleared they would have gone out with flags; but they had been on the buzzer


  ― (271) ―
all the morning, and in the monotony of repeating the same practice, hour after hour, men lose interest and learn nothing. From outside came the dense unbroken murmur of the rain, which sometimes dwindled to a whispering rustle, through which one could hear heavy drops falling at curiously regular intervals from the trees on to the tent, or a bough laden with wet would sag slowly downward, to spill all it held in a sudden shower, and then lift up for more. These lulls were only momentary, and then the rain would increase in volume again until it became a low roar in which all lesser sounds were drowned. There was little wind.

Mr. Rhys told them they might smoke, and stayed to talk with them for a little while. They all liked him, in spite of the erratic and hasty temper which left them a little uncertain as to what to make of him. From time to time, without putting aside anything of his prestige and authority over them, he would try to get into touch with them, and learn what they were thinking. Only a very great man can talk on equal terms with those in the lower ranks of life. He was neither sufficiently imaginative, nor sufficiently flexible in character, to succeed. He would unpack a mind rich in a curious lumber of chivalrous commonplaces, and give an air of unreality to values which for him, and for them all in varying measure, had the strength, if not


  ― (272) ―
altogether the substance, of fact. They did not really pause to weigh the truth or falsity of his opinions, which were simply without meaning for them. They only reflected that gentlefolk lived in circumstances very different from their own, and could afford strange luxuries. Probably only one thing he said interested them; and that was a casual remark, to the effect that, if the bad weather continued, the attack might have to be abandoned. At that, the face of Weeper Smart became suddenly illumined by an ecstasy of hope.

When at last Mr. Rhys left them, they relaxed into ease with a sigh. Major Shadwell and Captain Malet they could understand, because each was what every private soldier is, a man in arms against a world, a man fighting desperately for himself, and conscious that, in the last resort, he stood alone; for such solf-reliance lies at the very heart of comradeship. In so far as Mr. Rhys had something of the same character, they respected him; but when he spoke to them of patriotism, sacrifice, and duty, he merely clouded and confused their vision.

“Chaps,” said Weeper, suddenly, “for Christ's sake let's pray for rain!”

“What good would that do?” said Pacey, reasonably. “If they don't send us over the top here, they'll send us over somewhere else. It 'as got to be, an' if it 'as got to be, the sooner it's


  ― (273) ―
over an' done wi' the better. If we die, we die, an' it won't trouble nobody, leastways not for long it won't; an' if we don't die now, we'd 'ave to die some other time.”

“What d'you want to talk about dyin' for?” said Martlow, resentfully. “I'd rather kill some other fucker first. I want to have my fling before I die, I do.”

“If you want to pray, you 'ad better pray for the war to stop,” continued Pacey, “so as we can all go back to our own 'omes in peace. I'm a married man wi' two children, an' I don't say I'm any better'n the next man, but I've a bit o' religion in me still, an' I don't hold wi' sayin' such things in jest.”

“Aye,” said Madeley, bitterly; “an' what good will all your prayin' do you? If there were any truth in religion, would there be a war, would God let it go on?”

“Some on us blame God for our own faults,” said Pacey, coolly, “an' it were men what made the war. It's no manner o' use us sittin' 'ere pityin' ourselves, an' blamin' God for our own fault. I've got nowt to say again Mr. Rhys. 'e talks about liberty, an' fightin' for your country, an' posterity, an' so on; but what I want to know is what all us 'ns are fightin' for. …”

“We're fightin' for all we've bloody got,” said Madeley, bluntly.




  ― (274) ―

“An' that's sweet fuck all,” said Weeper Smart. “A tell thee, that all a want to do is to save me own bloody skin. An' the first thing a do, when a go into t' line, is to find out where t' bloody dressing-stations are; an' if a can get a nice blighty, chaps, when once me face is turned towards home, I'm laughing. You won't see me bloody arse for dust. A'm not proud. A tell thee straight. Them as thinks different can 'ave all the bloody war they want, and me own share of it, too.”

“Well, what the 'ell did you come out for?” asked Madeley.

Weeper lifted up a large, spade-like hand with the solemnity of one making an affirmation.

“That's where th'ast got me beat, lad,” he admitted. “When a saw all them as didn' know any better'n we did joinin' up, an' a went walkin' out wi' me girl on Sundays, as usual, a just felt ashamed. An' a put it away, an' a put it away, until in th' end it got me down. A knew what it'd be, but it got the better o' me, an' then, like a bloody fool, a went an' joined up too. A were ashamed to be seen walkin' in the streets, a were. But a tell thee, now, that if a were once out o' these togs an' in civvies again, a wouldn't mind all the shame in the world; no, not if I'ad to slink through all the back streets, an' didn' dare put me nose in t'Old Vaults again. A've no pride left in me now, chaps, an' that's


  ― (275) ―
the plain truth a'm tellin'. Let them as made the war come an' fight it, that's what a say.”

“That's what I say, too,” said Glazier, a man of about Madeley's age, with an air of challenge. Short, stocky, and ruddy like Madeley, he was of coarser grain, with an air of brutality that the other lacked: the kind of man who, when he comes to grips, kills, and grunts with pleasure in killing. “Why should us'ns fight an' be killed for all them bloody slackers at 'ome? It ain't right. No matter what they say, it ain't right. We're doin' our duty, an' they ain't, an' they're coinin' money while we get ten bloody frong a week. They don't care a fuck about us. Once we're in the army, they've got us by the balls. Talk about discipline! They don't try disciplinin' any o' them fuckin' civvies, do they? We want to put some o' them bloody politicians in the front line, an' see 'em shelled to shit. That'd buck their ideas up.”

“I'm not fightin' for a lot o' bloody civvies,” said Madeley, reasonably. “I'm fightin' for myself an' me own folk. It's all bloody fine sayin' let them as made the war fight it. 'twere Germany made the war.”

“A tell thee,” said Weeper, positively, “there are thousands o' poor buggers, over there in the German lines, as don' know, no more'n we do ourselves, what it's all about.”

“Then what do the silly fuckers come an'


  ― (276) ―
fight for?” asked Madeley, indignantly. “Why didn' they stay 't 'ome? Tha'lt be sayin' next that the Frenchies sent 'em an invite.”

“What a say is, that it weren't none o' our business. We'd no call to mix ourselves up wi' other folks' quarrels,” replied Weeper.

“Well, I don't hold wi' that,” said Glazier, judicially. “I'm not fightin' for them bloody slackers an' conchies at 'ome; but what I say is that the Fritzes 'ad to be stopped. If we 'adn't come in, an' they'd got the Frenchies beat, 'twould 'a' been our turn next.”

“Too bloody true it would,” said Madeley. “An' I'd rather come an' fight Fritz in France than 'ave 'im come over to Blighty an' start bashin' our 'ouses about, same as 'e's done 'ere.”

“'e'd never 'ave come to England. The Navy 'd 'ave seen to that,” said Pacey.

“Don't you be too bloody sure about the Navy,” said Corporal Hamley, entering into the discussion at last. “The Navy 'as got all it can bloody well do, as things are.”

“Well, chaps,” said Glazier, “maybe I'm right an' maybe I'm wrong, but that's neither here nor there; only I've sometimes thought it would be a bloody good thing for us'ns, if the 'un did land a few troops in England. Show 'em what war's like. Madeley an' I struck it lucky an' went 'ome on leaf together, an' you never seed anything like it. Windy! Like a lot o'


  ― (277) ―
bloody kids they was, an' talkin' no more sense; 'pon me word, you'd be surprised at some o' the questions they'd ask, an' you couldn't answer sensible. They'd never believe it, if you did. We jes' kep' our mouths shut, and told 'em the war was all right, and we'd got it won, but not yet. 'twas the only way to keep 'em quiet.

“The boozers in Wes'church was shut most of the day; but Madeley and I would go down to the Greyhound, at seven o'clock, an' it was always chock-a-block wi' chaps lappin' it up as fast as they could, before closin' time. There'd be some old sweats, and some men back from 'ospital into barracks, but not fit, an' a few new recruits; but most o' them were miners, the sort o' buggers who took our job to dodge gettin' into khaki. Bloody fine miners they was. Well, one Saturday night we was in there 'avin' a bit of a booze-up, but peaceable like, when one of them bloody miners came in an' asked us to 'ave a drink in a loud voice. Well, we was peaceable enough, an' I dare say we might 'ave 'ad a drink with 'im, but the swine put 'is fist into 'is trousers' pocket, and pulls out a fistful of Bradburys an' 'arf-crowns, an' plunks 'em down on the bar counter. ‘There,’ he says, ‘there's me bloody wages for a week, an' I ain't done more'n eight hours’ work for it, either. I don't care if the bloody war lasts for ever,’ 'e says. I looks up an' sees


  ― (278) ―
Madeley lookin' white an' dangerous. ‘Was you talkin' to me?’ says Madeley. ‘Aye,’ 'e says. ‘Well, take that, you fuckin' bastard!’ says Madeley, an' sloshes 'im one in the clock. Some of 'is friends interfered first, and then some of our friends interfered, an' in five seconds there was 'ell's delight in the bloody bar, wi' the old bitch be'ind the counter goin' into 'ysterics, an' 'ollerin' for the police.

“Then Madeley got 'old of 'is man, who was blubberin' an' swearin' summat awful, an' near twisted 'is arm off. I were busy keepin' some o' the other buggers off 'im, but 'e didn't pay no attention to nobody else, 'e just lugged 'is man out the back door an' into the yard, wi' the old girl 'ollerin' blue murder; and Madeley lugs 'im into the urinal, an' gets 'im down an' rubs 'is face in it. I'd got out the back door too, be that time, as I seed some red-caps comin' into the bar; an' when 'e'd finished I saw Madeley stand up an' wipe 'is 'ands on the seat of 'is trousers. ‘There, you bugger,' 'e says; ‘now you go 'ome an' talk to yourself.'—‘ 'op it,’ I says to 'im, ‘there's the fuckin' picket outside’; an' we 'opped it over some palin's at the bottom o' the yard; one of 'em came away, an' I run a bloody great splinter into the palm o' me 'and. Then we just buggered off, by some back streets, to The Crown, an' 'ad a couple o' pints an' went 'ome peaceable.”




  ― (279) ―

“Look at ol' tear-gas!” Martlow cried.

“Thought you didn't like fightin', Weeper?”

Weeper's whole face was alight with excitement.

“A like a scrap as well as any man, so long as it don't go too far,” said Weeper. “a'd 'ave given a lot to see thee go for that miner, Madeley. It's them chaps what are always on the make, an' don't care 'ow they makes it, as causes 'arf the wars. Them's the bloody cowards.”

“Is it all true, Madeley?” asked Corporal Hamley.

“It were summat like, but I misremember,” said Madeley, modestly. “But it's all true what 'e says about folks at 'ome, most on 'em. They don't care a fuck what 'appens to 'us'ns, so long as they can keep a 'ole skin. Say they be ready to make any sacrifice; but we're the bloody sacrifice. You never seed such a windy lot; an' bloodthirsty ain't the word for it. They've all gone potty. You'd think your best friends wouldn't be satisfied till they'd seed your name on the roll of honour. I tol' one of 'em 'e knew a bloody sight more'n I did about the war. The only person as 'ad any sense was me mother. She on'y fussed about what I wanted to eat. She didn't want to know anything about the war, an' it were on'y me she were afraid for. She didn't min' about aught else. ‘Please God, you'll be home soon,’ she'd say. An' please God, I will.”




  ― (280) ―

“An' then they give you a bloody party,” said Glazier. “Madeley an' I went to one. You should a seed some o' the pushers. Girls o' seventeen painted worse nor any Gerties I'd ever knowed. One of 'em came on an' sang a lot o' songs wi' dirty meanings to 'em. I remember one she sang wi' another girl, ‘I want a Rag.’ She did an' all, too. When this bloody war's over, you'll go back to England an' fin' nought there but a lot o' conchies and bloody prostitutes.’

“There's good an' bad,” said Pacey, mildly, “an' if there's more bad than good, I don't know but the good don't wear better. But there's nought sure in this world, no more.”

“No, an' never 'as been,” said Madeley, pessimistically.

“There's nought sure for us'ns, anyway,” said Weeper, relapsing. “Didst 'ear what Cap'n Thompson read out this mornin', about stoppin' to 'elp any poor bugger what was wounded? The bloody brass-'at what wrote that letter 'as never been in any big show 'isself, that a dare swear. 'e's one o' them buggers as is never nearer to the real thing than G.H.Q.”

“You don't want to talk like that,” said Corporal Hamley. “You've 'ad your orders.”

“A don't mind tellin' thee, corporal,” said Weeper, again lifting a large flat hand, as though by that gesture he stopped the mouths of all the world. “A don't mind tellin' thee, that if a


  ― (281) ―
see a chum o' mine down, an' a can do aught to 'elp 'im, all the brass-'ats in the British Army, an' there's a bloody sight too many o' 'em, aren't goin' to stop me. A'll do what's right, an' if a know aught about thee, tha'lt do as I do.”

“You don't want to talk about it, anyway,” said Corporal Hamley, quietly. “I'm not sayin' you're not right: I'd do what any other man'd do; but there's no need to make a song about it.”

“What beats me,” said Shem, sniggering; “is that the bloody fool, who wrote that instructional letter, doesn't seem to know what any ordinary man would do in the circumstances. We all know that there must be losses, you can't expect to take a trench without some casualties; but they seem to go on from saying that losses are unavoidable, to thinking that they're necessary, and from that, to thinking that they don't matter.”

“They don't know what we've got to go through, that's the truth of it,” said Weeper. “They measure the distance, an' they count the men, an' the guns, an' think a battle's no' but a sum you can do wi' a pencil an' a bit o' paper.”

“I heard Mr. Pardew talking to Mr. Rhys about a course he'd been on, and he told him a brass-hat been lecturing them on the lessons of the Somme offensive, and gave them an estimate of the total German losses; and then an officer at the back of the room got up, and


  ― (282) ―
asked him, if he could give them any information about the British losses, and the brass-hat said: No, and looked at them as though they were a lot of criminals.”

“It's a fact,” said Glazier; “whether you're talkin' to a civvy or whether you're talkin' to a brass-'at, an' some o' the officers aren't no better, if you tell the truth, they think you're a bloody coward. They've not got our experience, an' they don't face it as us'ns do.”

“Give them a chance,” said Bourne, reasonably; he hadn't spoken before, he usually sat back and listened quietly to these debates.

“Let 'em take my fuckin' chance!” shouted Weeper, vindictively.

“There's a good deal in what you say,” said Bourne, who was a little embarrassed by the way they all looked at him suddenly. “I think there's a good deal of truth in it; but after all, what is a brass-hat's job? He's not thinking of you or of me or of any individual man, or of any particular battalion or division. Men, to him, are only part of the material he has got to work with; and if he felt as you or I feel, he couldn't carry on with his job. It's not fair to think he's inhuman. He's got to draw up a plan, from rather scrappy information, and it is issued in the form of an order; but he knows very well something may happen at any moment to throw everything out of gear. The original plan is no


  ― (283) ―
more than a kind of map; you can't see the country by looking at a map, and you can't see the fighting by looking at a plan of attack. Once we go over the top it's the colonel's and the company commander's job. Once we meet a Hun it's our job.…”

“Yes, an' our job's a bloody sight worse'n theirs,” said Weeper.

“It's not worse than the colonel's, or the company commander's,” said Bourne. “Anyway, they come over with us. They've got to lead us, or drive us. They may have to order us to do something, knowing damned well that they're spending us. I don't envy them. I think that bit in the letter, about not stopping to help the wounded, is silly. It's up to us, that is; but it's up to us not to make another man's agony our excuse. What's bloody silly in the letter is the last bit, where they say they don't anticipate any serious resistance from the enemy. That is the Staff's job, and they ought to know it better.”

“We started talking about what we were fighting for,” said Shem, laughing. “It was Mr. Rhys started it.”

“Yes, an' you've been talkin' all over the bloody shop ever since,” said Corporal Hamley. “You all ought to be on the bloody staff, you ought. 'oo are orderly-men? Shem and Mart-low; well, tea's up.”




  ― (284) ―

Shem and Martlow looked at the straight rain, and then struggled into their greatcoats.

“All that a says is, if a man's dead it don't matter no more to 'im 'oo wins the bloody war,” said Weeper. “We're 'ere, there's no gettin' away from that, corporal. 'ere we are, an' since we're 'ere, we're just fightin' for ourselves; we're just fightin' for ourselves, an' for each other.”

Bourne stared as though he were fascinated by this uncouth figure with huge, ape-like arms, and melancholy, half-imbecile face. Here was a man who, if he lost his temper with them, could have cleared the tent in ten seconds; and he sat with them, patient under daily mockery, suffering even the schoolboy cheek of little Martlow indifferently, and nursing always the bitterness and misery of his own heart. Already dripping, Shem and Martlow dumped the dixie of tea in the opening of the tent, almost spilling it, as they slipped on the greasy mud, where many feet had made a slide by the doorway.

“I never knowed such a miserable lot o' buggers as you all are,” said Corporal Hamley. “'and me over that pot o' pozzy.”

“I'm not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow. “We're not dead yet. On'y I'm not fightin' for any fuckin' Beljums, see. One o' them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o' bread.”




  ― (285) ―

“Well, put a sock in it. We've 'ad enough bloody talk now.”

They ate, more or less in silence, and then smoked, contentedly enough. The rain was slackening, and there was more light. After they had smoked for a while, Glazier took his tunic and shirt off, and began to hunt for lice. One after another they all followed his example, stripping themselves of trousers, under-pants and even socks, until the tent held nothing but naked men. They would take a candle, or a lighted match, and pass it along the seams of their trousers, hoping that the flame would destroy the eggs. A hurricane lamp hung by a nail on the tent-pole, and after it was lighted they still continued the scrupulous search, its light falling on white shoulders studiously rounded as they bent over the task. They were completely absorbed in it, when the air was ripped up with a wailing sigh, and there was a muffled explosion in the field behind them. They stopped, listening intently, and looking at each other. Another shell, whining precipitately, passed overhead to end with a louder explosion in some fields beyond the little wood, and well over the lower road. Then there was a silence. They sighed and moved.

“If Jerry starts shellin' proper,” said the corporal, as they dressed themselves again, “you want to take shelter in them trenches.”




  ― (286) ―

“They're no' but rabbit-scrapes,” said Weeper.

“Well, you get into 'em,” said the corporal, “an' if they're not good enough for you, we can dig 'em deeper to-morrow.”

Nothing more was said. They were bored a little, lounging there, and smoking again, but they took refuge with their own secret thoughts. Outside, the rain had stopped. They were all going up the line with a big carrying-party that night. At about six o'clock they heard from the road below a heavy lumbering and clanking, and they listened with ears cocked. Then they heard hurrying movements outside.

“What is it?”

“Tanks! Tanks!”

They rushed out of their tent, and joined, apparently with the whole camp, in a wild stampede through the trees to the road below. None of them as yet had seen a tank. It was only a caterpillar tractor, which had come up to move a big gun to or from its lair. Officers hurried out to see what was the matter, and then returned disgusted to their tents. Sergeants and corporals cursed the men back to their own lines. As Bourne turned back with the others, he looked up to a clear patch of sky, and saw the sharp crescent of the moon, floating there like a boat. A bough threw a mesh of fine twigs over its silver, and at that loveliness he caught up his breath, almost in a sob.




  ― (287) ―

THE CATERPILLAR continued its muffled clanking along the road, and the wood filled with low voices, as the men, laughing in the darkness, turned back up the slope to their dimly-lighted tents. Bourne, who had lost Shem and Martlow in the downward rush, found himself beside Sergeant Morgan, the bombing sergeant, who for some little time past had nodded to him in a friendly way when they met, and then by degrees had come to know him better. He was a very decent, cheerful man. As they walked up the hill together, they came up with the regimental, to whom Bourne had scarcely spoken since they were at Beaumetz.

“Hullo, Bourne; it's a bloody long time since I've seen anything of you. How do you like sigs.? Come along to my tent for a while, and have a yarn. I hear you are going in for a commission.”

Sergeant Morgan, saying good-night, disappeared into the darkness between the trees, and Bourne followed the regimental to his tent, which was at the top of the wood, a little apart from the others. A hurricane lamp burned low in it, and there was no one else there but Barton, the regimental's batman, whom Bourne liked, knowing as he did that, but for Barton's careful shepherding, the regimental might have been in serious trouble recently, on one or two occasions.


  ― (288) ―
They sat and talked of the prospects of the show for a few minutes; and the regimental told him that they were going out to practise it in the morning with the rest of the Brigade, over some ground which had been taped out. A field day with the Divisional General, and most of his gilded staff. There would be a good deal of wind up before it was over.

“I'm laughing,” said the regimental; “my job will be with the ammunition column.”

“You may get it in the neck there, as well as anywhere else,” said Bourne, in a matter-of-fact way.

Barton went off on his own private affairs, and the other two talked in a desultory way, like men who have nothing much to say, but talk for the sake of company.

“You don't seem to be in a very good skin to-night,” said Bourne at last. “What's the matter? Has the Colonel been getting wind up about the practice to-morrow?”

“The Colonel's a bloody soldier, an' don't you forget it,” said the regimental, with an honest appreciation. “I don't know what's the matter with me. I'm bloody well fed up with it.”

“You ought to take a pull on yourself,” said Bourne, as though he were talking of the weather. “You have been inclined to run off the rails ever since we were at Mazingarbe.”

“That's all a bloody tale.…”




  ― (289) ―

“I didn't suppose it was all true,” said Bourne, quietly; “but you were canned-up, and you never know what you're doing when you're canned. You've been right enough since we left Noeux-les-Mines, and you ought to keep right now. I should be sorry if you made a mess of things. There are some who would be pleased, and you give them an opening …”

“You're all right, Bourne, I don't mind what you say, but pack it up now. I've got to travel my own bloody road, and I'm not asking for anyone's help. It's my own funeral. I know what a man's bloody friends are like, when he makes a slip. Oh, I don't mean you. You're all right, but you can't be of any bloody use one way or the other.”

“I know that,” said Bourne, shortly. “The trouble with you is that you get things, get promotion for instance, too easily. You're too contemptuous. The only thing you do damned well you don't think worth doing.”

They dropped again into idle question and answer, and after a little while Bourne left him, as presently he had to fall in with the carrying party.

They fell in under cover of the trees, just off the road, and Mr. Marsden was in charge. The mere fact that they were moving about in the dark gave an air of stealth to the business. The words of command were given, and the men


  ― (290) ―
numbered off, with lowered voices; then they swung out of the wood, turning right, and right again as they struck the main road, which, in rising over the hill, curved round slightly towards the left. There was starlight and a young moon, sharp as a sickle; and into the clear night great concrete standards, which had carried electric power, rose at regular intervals. On the reverse slope they were intact, broad at the base, pierced, so as not to offer too much resistance to the wind, and tapering as they rose, almost as obelisks; but the first to lift its peak above the crest of the hill had been damaged, and beyond that they had been all shattered by shell-fire, only the truncated bases remaining.

Mailly-Maillet began at the top of the hill. There was a branch road to Auchonvillers; the main road, running straight through the town, was in the direction of Serre, which the Hun held; and a third road on the left went off to Colincamps. The town itself, though extensively damaged, had not been completely wrecked, but the few inhabitants who remained there were preparing reluctantly, under military compulsion, to leave.

Just after entering the town, Mr. Marsden halted his men for a moment, and spoke to the military policeman in control. Then they continued straight through, keeping to the Serre road. Once through Mailly-Maillet, the ground


  ― (291) ―
fell away gradually, so gradually that the slope seemed almost flat. Most of the detail of the country, except for the shining road in front of them, was lost in darkness, or showed only as deeper shadow. They continued along the road a little way, and then turned off it to the left, across country now rough and derelict. A road running from Colincamps converged towards the road they had just left, to meet it at a point known as the sugar-refinery; and, just before striking that road, they came to the large dump called Euston, and halted there, while Mr. Marsden went to find the dump officer.

They were to carry up more ammunition. When Mr. Marsden returned, with the other officer, the boxes were checked; and even in the short interval of time which that business occupied, a couple of big shells had come whimpering overhead, searching for a battery, perhaps; and they heard, at no great distance, the eruption from the shells' explosion in the wet earth. Lower down the road Bourne could see a couple of ambulances drawn up, and from one very faint, very momentary gleam of light, he divined, rather than saw, the entrance to a dug-out which would be the dressing-station. When the boxes were checked and each man loaded, they crossed the road, and Bourne, who had been over the same ground the night before, noticed a new feature a few yards away from the beginning of


  ― (292) ―
the communication-trench called Southern Avenue: a large shell-crater, the size of a good pond, but empty of water, except for a little seepage, which showed that it had only just been made.

The sound of the big shells, and the sight of the crater, quickened their apprehension of danger, without raising it to the point of fear. One's sensibility seemed to grow finer, more acute, while at the same time it became somewhat distorted. In the distance a star-shell would rise, and as its light dilated, wavered, and failed, one saw against it the shattered trunks and boughs of trees, lunatic arms uplifted in imprecation, and as though petrified in a moment of shrieking agony. The communication-trench was deep, and one looked up out of it to a now tranquil sky, against which the same stark boughs were partly visible. Then on the right appeared the ruins of a shattered farm, an empty corpse of a building. There was for Bourne an inexplicable fascination in that melancholy landscape: it was so still, so peaceful, and so extraordinarily tense. One heard a shell travel overhead, or the distant rattle of a machine-gun, but these were merely interruptions of a silence which seemed to touch the heart with a finger of ice. It was only really broken when a man, stumbling on a defective or slippery duck-board, uttered under his breath a monosyllabic curse.…




  ― (293) ―

“Fuck.…”

That reminder of man's proximity broke for a moment the dream; but, otherwise, one seemed to be travelling through some sterile landscape in the moon, or some soulless region on the shadowy confines of hell. Coming out of the communication-trench, they turned to the right up Sackville Street, a breast-work only, giving one a sudden feeling of space and insecurity; and, continuing, they came on a more intricate system: Flag Alley, Flag Switch, Legend, and Blenau. In Legend there was a company in support, and they passed a sentry over a dug-out and one or two men. Then again was a long lifeless stretch. Just before they reached the fire-trenches they stood aside to allow a stretcherparty carrying down a man to pass. As he passed them they whispered encouragement.

“Good-luck, chum. Don't you worry. You'll be back in Blighty soon.”

He may not have heard them, he lay very still; but Bourne, whose ironical spirit was sometimes sardonic, felt with an irresistible conviction that their words were a ritual formula, devised to avert, somehow, a like fate from themselves. Even so, it showed how closely men were bound together, by some impalpable tie. They passed men on the firestep, men as fixed as statues when that ghastly light fell tremblingly on them from the sky; and one or


  ― (294) ―
two sprawled on the step, their backs propped against the side of the bay, snatching a little fitful sleep, their tin-hats tilted over their faces, and boots, puttees, and trousers plastered thick with mud that caked like mortar. Sometimes their eyes met a face, blank from the weariness that is indifference; and perhaps, because at this point they only moved forward a few yards at a time, they would exchange a few whispers.

“What's it like?”

“Oh, 'e strafed a bit this afternoon, but it's cushy enough.”

Bourne had never heard any other reply to that question, in all the hundreds of times he had heard it asked. A face of expressionless immobility, with hard inscrutable eyes, and that even, monotonous whisper.

“Oh, it's cushy enough.”

Presently Corporal Hamley motioned him forward into the next fire-bay. Shem followed him, and the others, for the moment, were barred. He saw Mr. Marsden talking to an officer, and then he found, that each man had to get out of the trench, and dump his stuff, where a depression made an area of dead ground. He climbed out, and saw for a moment the rather loosely hung strands of wire, between the pickets, against the sky; there was a fairish depth of it. Almost as soon as he stood upright, a bullet sang by his head; it was as though something spat at him


  ― (295) ―
out of the darkness. In the deeper part of the hollow, an officer checked the boxes, as they were dumped. As he returned to the trench, Shem got out with his box. Mr. Marsden was still talking, in a low voice, to the other officer. There were only three or four more men behind, and then they would go back.

Bourne passed out of the fire-trench by a slit, running slantwise, to a trench in the rear, where the other men waited. Shem joined him, and another man. Then there was a loud elastic twang, as a shell exploded fairly close to them; and they heard stuff flying overhead; and another shell came; and another. One no sooner heard the hiss of the approaching shell than it exploded. The two last men, a little shaken, joined them. Shells continued to come over, bursting with that curious twang, and occasionally a blast of air fanned their faces. Weeper, who was standing by Shem and Martlow, leaned on the muzzle of his rifle. His face had an expression of enigmatic resignation. Mr. Marsden did not come. The shelling was not very severe, but it seemed to increase slightly, and they wondered whether Jerry was going to start a real strafe. The range improved, too, and presently the word was passed along for stretcher-bearers. Their own stretcher-bearers, with Corporal Mellin, moved along to go to the fire-trench, but they were not


  ― (296) ―
wanted. Mr. Marsden arrived and stopped them.

“It's all right. Their own bearers are there. We may want you ourselves later,” he said, encouragingly.

They moved off; but even before they moved the shelling slackened, and then ceased. Bourne had noticed that one or two of the new men had seemed a bit windy, that is, restless and impatient, not really in a funk. Weeper's passive acquiescence in whatever Fate might have in store impressed him more. He was a little surprised at himself. The zip of the bullet by his head had disconcerted him a little, and yet probably it was only a stray, and perhaps not so close as he imagined.

They had a rum issue with their tea when they got back, and then a final cigarette before turning to sleep.

previous
next