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  ― (387) ―

XVI

We see yonder the beginning of day, but I think we shall never see the end of it.… I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.

Shakespeare

THE drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They cowered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shell-holes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.

“For Christ's sake walk on your own fuckin' feet an' not on mine!” came from some angry man, and a ripple of idiot mirth spread outwards from the centre of the disturbance. Bourne got


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a drink of tea, and though it was no more than warm, it did him good; at least, it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. He was shivering, and told himself it was the cold. Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eye-lashes, the down on their cheek-bones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining, and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Frits was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped toward them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harpstrings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.

Bourne's fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear


  ― (389) ―
poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression. His eyes met Shem's, and they both turned away at once from the dread and question which confronted them. More furtively he glanced in Martlow's direction; and saw him standing with bent head. Some instinctive wave of pity and affection swelled in him, until it broke into another shuddering sigh, and the boy looked up, showing the whites of his eyes under the brim of his helmet. They were perplexed, and his under-lip shook a little. Behind him Bourne heard a voice almost pleading: “Stick it out, chum.”

“A don't care a fuck,” came the reply, with a bitter harshness rejecting sympathy.

“Are you all right, kid?” Bourne managed to ask in a fairly steady voice; and Martlow only gave a brief affirmative nod. Bourne shifted his weight on to his other foot, and felt the relaxed knee trembling. It was the cold. If only they


  ― (390) ―
had something to do, it might be better. It had been a help simply to place a ladder in position. Suspense seemed to turn one's mind to ice, and bind even time in its frozen stillness; but at an order it broke. It broke, and one became alert, relieved. They breathed heavily in one another's faces. They looked at each other more quietly, forcing themselves to face the question.

“We've stuck it before,” said Shem.

They could help each other, at least up to that point where the irresistible thing swept aside their feeble efforts, and smashed them beyond recovery. The noise of the shells increased to a hurricane fury. There was at last a sudden movement with some purpose behind it. The men began to fix bayonets. Someone thrust a mug into Shem's hands.

“Three men. Don't spill the bloody stuff, you won't get no more.”

Shem drank some of the rum and passed it to Bourne.

“Take all you want, kid,” said Bourne to Martlow; “I don't care whether I have any or not.”

“Don't want much,” said Martlow, after drinking a good swig. “It makes you thirsty, but it warms you up a bit.”

Bourne emptied the mug, and handed it back to Jakes to fill again and pass to another man. It had roused him a little.




  ― (391) ―

“It'll soon be over, now,” whispered Martlow.

Perhaps it was lighter, but the stagnant fog veiled everything. Only there was a sound of movement, a sudden alertness thrilled through them all with an anguish inextricably mingled with relief. They shook hands, the three among themselves and then with others near them.

Good luck, chum. Good luck. Good luck.

He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which if needed, he moved towards the ladder.

Martlow, because he was nearest, went first Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one's boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one's feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself.

They were drawn up in two lines, in artillery formation: C and D Companies in front, and A and B Companies in the rear. Another shell


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hurtled shrieking over them, to explode behind Dunmow with a roar of triumphant fury. The last effects of its blast reached them, whirling the mist into oddying spirals swaying fantastically: then he heard a low cry for stretcher-bearers. Some lucky bugger was out of it, either for good and all, or for the time being. He felt a kind of envy; and dread grew in proportion to the desire, but he could not turn away his thought: it clung desperately to the only possible solution. In this emotional crisis, where the limit of endurance was reached, all the degrees which separate opposed states of feeling vanished, and their extremities were indistinguishable from each other. One could not separate the desire from the dread which restrained it; the strength of one's hope strove to equal the despair which oppressed it; one's determination could only be measured by the terrors and difficulties which it overcame. All the mean, peddling standards of ordinary life vanished in the collision of these warring opposites. Between them one could only attempt to maintain an equilibrium which every instant disturbed and made unstable.

If it had been clear, there would have been some light by now, but darkness was prolonged by fog. He put up a hand, as though to wipe the filthy air from before his eyes, and he saw the stupid face of Jakes, by no means a stupid man,


  ― (393) ―
warped into a lop-sided grin. Bloody fool, he thought, with unreasoning anger. It was as though Jakes walked on tip-toe, stealing away from the effects of some ghastly joke he had perpetrated.

“We're on the move,” he said softly, and grinned with such a humour as skulls might have.

Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn't know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr. Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hum barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Frits had been ready for them all


  ― (394) ―
right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralization: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shall exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air. Bourne thought that every bloody gun in the German army was pointed at him. He avoided some shattered bodies of men too obviously dead for help. A man stumbled past him with an agonized and bleeding face. Then more men broke back in disorder, throwing them into some confusion, and they seemed to waver for a moment. One of the fugitives charged down on Jakes, and that short but stocky fighter smashed the butt of his rifle to the man's jaw,


  ― (395) ―
and sent him sprawling. Bourne had a vision of Sergeant-Major Glasspool.

“You take your fuckin' orders from Fritz!” he shouted as a triumphant frenzy thrust him forward.

For a moment they might have broken and run themselves, and for a moment they might have fought men of their own blood, but they struggled on as Sergeant Tozer yelled at them to leave that bloody tripe alone and get on with it. Bourne, floundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God's creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again all his mind seemed focussed into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.

He knew, they all did, that the barrage had moved too quickly for them, but they knew nothing of what was happening about them. In any attack, even under favourable conditions, the attackers are soon blinded; but here they had lost touch almost from the start. They paused for a brief moment, and Bourne saw that Mr. Finch was with them, and Shem was not. Minton told him Shem had been hit in the foot. Bourne moved closer to Martlow. Their casualties, as far as he could judge, had not been heavy.


  ― (396) ―
They got going again, and, almost before they saw it, were on the wire. The stakes had been uprooted, and it was smashed and tangled, but had not been well cut. Jakes ran along it a little way, there was some firing, and bombs were hurled at them from the almost obliterated trench, and they answered by lobbing a few bombs over, and then plunging desperately among the steel briars, which tore at their puttees and trousers. The last strand of it was cut or beaten down, some more bombs came at them, and in the last infuriated rush Bourne was knocked off his feet and went practically headlong into the trench; getting up, another man jumped on his shoulders, and they both fell together, yelling with rage at each other. They heard a few squeals of agony, and he saw a dead German, still kicking his heels on the broken boards of the trench at his feet. He yelled for the man who had knocked him down to come on, and followed the others. The trench was almost obliterated: it was nothing but a wreckage of boards and posts, piled confusedly in what had become a broad channel for the oozing mud. They heard some more bombing a few bays further on, and then were turned back. They met two prisoners, their hands up, and almost unable to stand from fear, while two of the men threatened them with a deliberate, slow cruelty.

“Give 'em a chance! Send 'em through


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their own bloody barrage!” Bourne shouted, and they were practically driven out of the trench and sent across no-man's land.

On the other flank they found nothing; except for the handful of men they had encountered at first, the trench was empty. Where they had entered the trench, the three first lines converged rather closely, and they thought they were too far right. In spite of the party of Germans they had met, they assumed that the other waves of the assaulting troops were ahead of them, and decided to push on immediately, but with some misgivings. They were now about twenty-four men. In the light, the fog was coppery and charged with fumes. They heard in front of them the terrific battering of their own barrage and the drumming of the German guns. They had only moved a couple of yards from the trench, when there was a crackle of musketry. Martlow was perhaps a couple of yards in front of Bourne, when he swayed a little, his knees collapsed under him, and he pitched forward on to his face, his feet kicking and his whole body convulsive for a moment. Bourne flung himself down beside him, and, putting his arms round his body, lifted him, calling him.

“Kid! You're all right, kid?” he cried eagerly.

He was all right. As Bourne lifted the limp body, the boy's hat came off, showing half the


  ― (398) ―
back of his skull shattered where the bullet had come through it; and a little blood welled out on to Bourne's sleeve and the knee of his trousers. He was all right; and Bourne let him settle to earth again, lifting himself up almost indifferently, unable to realise what had happened, filled with a kind of tenderness that ached in him, and yet extraordinarily still, extraordinarily cold. He had to hurry, or he would be alone in the fog. Again he heard some rifle-fire, some bombing, and, stooping, he ran towards the sound, and was by Minton's side again, when three men ran towards them, holding their hands up and screaming; and he lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired; and the ache in him became a consuming hate that filled him with exultant cruelty, and he fired again, and again. The last man was closest to him, but as drunk and staggering with terror. He had scarcely fallen, when Bourne came up to him and saw that his head was shattered, as he turned it over with his boot. Minton looking at him with a curious anxiety, saw Bourne's teeth clenched and bared, the lips snarling back from them in exultation.

“Come on. Get into it,” Minton cried in his anxiety.

And Bourne struggled forward again, panting, and muttering in a suffocated voice.

“Kill the buggers! Kill the bloody fucking swine! Kill them!”




  ― (399) ―

All the filth and ordure he had ever heard came from between his clenched teeth; but his speech was thick and difficult. In a scuffle immediately afterwards a Hun went for Minton, and Bourne got him with the bayonet, under the ribs near the liver, and then, unable to wrench the bayonet out again, pulled the trigger, and it came away easily enough.

“Kill the buggers!” he muttered thickly.

He ran against Sergeant Tozer in the trench.

“Steady, ol' son! Steady. 'ave you been 'it? You're all over blood.”

“They killed the kid,” said Bourne, speaking with sudden clearness, though his chest heaved enormously. “They killed him. I'll kill every bugger I see.”

“Steady. You stay by me. I want you. Mr. Finch 'as been 'it, see? You two come as well. Where's that bloody bomber?”

They searched about a hundred yards to the right, bombing a dug-out from which no answer came, and again they collided with some small party of Huns, and, after some ineffective bombing, both sides drew away from each other. Jakes, with about ten men, had apparently got into the third line, and after similar bombing fights with small parties of Germans had come back again.

“Let's 'ave a dekko, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, taking Mr. Finch's arm.




  ― (400) ―

“It's all right,” said the young man, infuriated; but the sergeant got his arm out of the sleeve, and bandaged a bullet-wound near the shoulder. They were now convinced they could not go on by themselves. They decided to try and get into touch with any parties on the left. It was useless to go on, as apparently none of the other companies were ahead of them, and heavy machine-gun fire was coming from Serre. They worked up the trench to the left, and after some time, heard footsteps. The leading man held up a hand, and they were ready to bomb or bayonet, when a brave voice challenged them.

“Who are ye?”

“Westshires!” they shouted, and moved on, to meet a corporal and three men of the Gordons. They knew nothing of the rest of their battalion. They were lost, but they thought one of their companies had reached the front line. These four Gordons were four of the quickest and coolest men you could meet. There was some anxiety in the expression of their eyes, but it was only anxiety as to what they should do. Mr. Finch ordered them to stay with him; and almost immediately they heard some egg-bombs. Some Huns were searching the trench. Sergeant Tozer, with the same party, went forward immediately. As soon as some egg-bombs had burst in the next bay, they rushed it, and flung into the next. They found and bayoneted a


  ― (401) ―
Hun, and pursued the others some little distance, before they doubled back on their tracks again. Then Mr. Finch took them back to the German front line, intending to stay there until he could link up with other parties. The fog was only a little less thick than the mud; but if it had been one of the principal causes of their failure, it helped them now. The Hun could not guess at their numbers; and there must have been several isolated parties playing the same game of hide-and-seek. The question for Mr. Finch to decide was whether they should remain there. They searched the front line to the left, and found nothing but some dead, Huns and Gordons.

Bourne was with the Gordons who had joined them, and one of them, looking at the blood on his sleeve and hands, touched him on the shoulder.

“Mon, are ye hurt?” he whispered gently.

“No. I'm not hurt, chum,” said Bourne, shaking his head slowly, and then he shuddered and was silent. His face became empty and expressionless.

Their own barrage had moved forward again; but they could not get into touch with any of their own parties. Then, to show how little he knew about what was happening, Frits began to shell his own front line. They had some casualties immediately; a man called Adams was killed, and Minton was slightly wounded in the shoulder by a splinter. It was quite clear by this


  ― (402) ―
time, that the other units had failed to penetrate even the first line. To remain where they were was useless, and to go forward was to invite either destruction or capture.

“Sergeant,” said Mr. Finch, with a bitter resolution, “we shall go back.”

Sergeant Tozer looked at him quietly.

“You're wounded, sir,” he said, kindly. “If you go back with Minton, I could hang on a bit longer, and then take the men back on my own responsibility.

“I'll be buggered if I go back with only a scratch, and leave you to stick it. You're a bloody sportsman, sergeant. You're the best bloody lot o' men …”

His words trailed off shakily into nothing for a moment.

“That's all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, quietly; and then he added with an angry laugh: “We've done all we could: I don't care a fuck what the other bugger says.”

“Get the men together, sergeant,” said Mr. Finch, huskily.

The sergeant went off and spoke to Jakes, and to the corporal of the Gordons. As he passed Bourne, who had just put a dressing on Minton's wound, he paused.

“What 'appened to Shem?” he asked.

“Went back. Wounded in the foot.”

“ 'e were wounded early on, when Jerry


  ― (403) ―
dropped the barrage on us,” explained Minton, stolidly precise as to facts.

“That bugger gets off everything with 'is feet,” said Sergeant Tozer.

“ 'e were gettin' off with 'is 'ands an' knees when I seed 'im,” said Minton, phlegmatically.

There was some delay as they prepared for their withdrawal. Bourne thought of poor old Shem, always plucky, and friendly, without sentiment, and quiet. Quite suddenly, as it were spontaneously, they climbed out of the trench and over the wire. The clangour of the shelling increased behind them. Frits was completing the destruction of his own front line before launching a counter-attack against empty air. They moved back very slowly and painfully, suffering a few casualties on the way, and they were already encumbered with wounded. One of the Gordons was hit, and his thigh broken. They carried him tenderly, soothing him with the gentleness of women. All the fire died out of them as they dragged themselves laboriously through the clinging mud. Presently they came to where the dead lay more thickly; they found some helplessly wounded, and helped them. As they were approaching their own front line, a big shell, burying itself in the mud, exploded so close to Bourne that it blew him completely off his feet, and yet he was unhurt. He picked himself up, raving a little. The whole of their front and


  ― (404) ―
support trenches were being heavily shelled. Mr. Finch was hit again in his already wounded arm. They broke up a bit, and those who were free ran for it to the trench. Men carrying or helping the wounded continued steadily enough. Bourne walked by Corporal Jakes, who had taken his place in carrying the wounded Gordon: he could not have hurried anyway; and once, unconsciously, he turned and looked back over his shoulder. Then they all slid into the wrecked trench.

Hearing that all their men had been ordered back to Dunmow, Mr. Finch led the way down Blenau. His wounds had left him pallid and suffering, but he looked as though he would fight anything he met. He made a report to the adjutant, and went off with some other wounded to the dressing-station. The rest of them went on, crowded into a dug-out, and huddled together without speaking, listening to the shells bumping above them. They got some tea, and wondered what the next move would be. Bourne was sitting next to the doorway, when Jakes drew him out into a kind of recess, and handed him a mess-tin with some tea and rum in it.

“Robinson's gone down the line wounded, an' Sergeant Tozer's takin' over,” he whispered.

Presently Sergeant Tozer joined them, and looked at Bourne, who sat there, drinking slowly


  ― (405) ―
and looking in front of him with fixed eyes. He spoke to Jakes about various matters of routine, and of further possibilities.

“There's some talk o' renewing the attack,” he said shortly.

Jakes laughed with what seemed to be a cynical enjoyment.

“O' course it's all our fuckin' fault, eh?” he asked grimly.

Sergeant Tozer didn't answer, but turned to Bourne.

“You don't want to think o' things,” he said, with brutal kindness. “It's all past an' done wi', now.”

Bourne looked at him in a dull acquiescence. Then he emptied the tin, replaced it on the bench, and, getting up, went to sit by the door again. He sat with his head flung back against the earth, his eyes closed, his arms relaxed, and hands idle in his lap, and he felt as though he were lifting a body in his arms, and looking at a small impish face, the brows puckered with a shadow of perplexity, bloody from a wound in the temple, the back of the head almost blown away; and yet the face was quiet, and unmoved by any trouble. He sat there for hours, immobile and indifferent, unaware that Sergeant Tozer glanced at him occasionally. The shelling gradually died away, and he did not know it. Then Sergeant Tozer got up angrily.




  ― (406) ―

“ 'ere, Bourne. Want you for sentry. Time that other man were relieved.”

He took up his rifle, and climbed up, following the sergeant into the frosty night. Then he was alone, and the fog frothed and curdled about him. He became alert, intent, again; his consciousness hardening in him. After about half an hour, he heard men coming along the trench; they came closer; they were by the corner.

“Stand!” he cried in a long, low note of warning.

“Westshire. Officer and rations.”

He saw Mr. White, to whom Captain Marsden came up and spoke. Some men passed him, details and oddments, carrying bags of rations. Suddenly he found in front of him the face of Snobby Hines, grinning excitedly.

“What was it like, Bourne?” he asked, in passing.

“Hell,” said Bourne briefly.

Snobby moved on, and Bourne ignored the others completely. Bloody silly question, to ask a man what it was like. He looked up to the sky, and through the travelling mist saw the halfmoon with a great halo round it. An extraordinary peace brooded over everything. It seemed only the more intense because an occasional shell sang through it.

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