Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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A regular patron of our Quiet Room Evenings, an oldish man with a fine scorn stamped upon his hard-bitten face, said one or two things I valued the more as coming from him, though I doubt if we had exchanged a dozen words before. I shook his hand, and all their hands, as they went out. They were pleased with us for having kept open a day longer than any of the other huts. I hope I said the other huts had been closed by order; but I only remember wanting to say a great deal more, and thinking better of it. After all, we had understood each other in that hut to a degree beyond the need of heavy speeches.
THE ROAD BACK
There was a strange lull in the firing, and no meal-time to account for it, as I carried the baggage over piecemeal to our headquarters off the opposite end of the little square. The mate was doubtless busy relieving me of my final responsibilities in the matter of stores or accounts; at any rate I remember those two or three halting journeys with his light and my heavy kit. The sun was setting in a slight haze, as though the air were full of gold-dust. The shadows of the crippled houses lay at full length in the square. The big guns were strangely still; their field-guns were taking them a good long time to mount upon the captured ridge. I made my final trip, turned in under the arch at headquarters, where the little Ford 'bus was waiting for the last of us, and incidentally for my last and lightest load. I had not put it in when those infernal field-guns got going.
I do not know what happened in other parts of the town. It seems unlikely that they opened fire on our part in particular, but as I stood talking in a glass passage there came a whirlwind whizz over the low roofs, a crack and a cloud in the adjoining courtyard, and, as I turned back under the arch, another whizz and another bang in the street I had just quitted. So I would have sworn in perfect faith; and for several minutes the street was full of acrid smoke, to bear me out. But it seems the second burst was in the next house, or in the next but one. All I can say is that both occurred within about fifteen paces of the spot where I stood as safe as the house that covered me. And yet the soldiers tell you they prefer shell-fire in the open! With great respect, I shall stick up for the devil I know.
But what has interested me ever since is the hopelessness of expecting two persons to give anything like the same account of a violent experience which has taken them both equally by surprise. Nor is it necessary to go gadding about the front in order to test this particular proposition; try any couple who have been in the same motor accident. It must be done at once, before they have time to compare notes; indeed, they should be kept apart like suspect witnesses in a court. Suspicion will be amply vindicated in nine cases out of ten; for the impression of any accident upon any mind depends on the state of that mind at the time, on the impressions already there, and on its imaginative quality at any time.Hence the totally different versions of the same event from three or four equally truthful persons. A boy I had known all his life was killed just before I went out: three honest witnesses gave three contradictory descriptions of the tragedy. Two of the three were all but eye-witnesses, and C. of E. chaplains at that! No wonder we argued about our beggarly brace of shells. The chief mate (last to leave the ship, by the way) heard three, and a fourth as we drove away in the Ford. My powers of registration were only equal to the two described.
It was good to be high and dry in the little 'bus, though it would have been better with as much as the horn to blow to keep one's mind out of mischief. Our driver was a fine man wearing the South African and 1914 ribbons. Invalided out, he had wormed his way back to France in the Y.M.C.A.; but it was a soldier's job he did again that night, and for days and nights to follow. Once a shell burst in his path and smashed the radiator; he plugged it up with wood and kept her going. It is provoking to be obliged to add that I was not in the car at the time.
Nor did I thoroughly enjoy every minute of the hours I spent in it that Saturday night; there was far too much occasion both for pangs and fears. Though we had kept open longer than any other hut, and everybody else (who was going) had left the town before us, yet the rest had gone on foot and it seemed a villainy to pass them plodding in the stream of refugees outside the town. It is true they all boarded lorries at the earliest opportunity, and actually reached our common haven before us; but that did not make our performance less inglorious at the time. Nor had we any extenuating adventures on the way. The road, we understood, was being heavily shelled; unless the enemy slumbered and slept, it was bound to be; but I for one saw nothing of it. The Ford hood reduced the landscape to a few yards of moonlit track, and the Ford engine drowned all other noises of the night. But there was the perpetual apprehension of that which never once occurred. Wherever we stopped, it had been occurring freely. One of our huts, some kilometres out, was ringed with huge shell-holes; but none were added during the interminable time we waited in the road, while business was being transacted with which three of the four of us had nothing to do. I do not know which was greater, the relief of getting under way again, or the shame of leaving the crew of that hut to their fate.
Yet we had but to forget our own miserable skins and sensibilities, to remember we were only on-lookers, and be thankful to be there that night in any capacity whatsoever. For the straight French road whereon we travelled – the wrong way, for our sins! – was choked with strings of lorries and motor-'buses full of reinforcements for the battle-line; silent men, miles and miles of them, mostly invisible, load after load; all embussed, not a single company to be seen upon the march. It was weird, but it was gorgeous: the tranquil moon above, the tossing dust below, and these tall landships, packed with fighting-men, looming through by the hundred. This one, we kept saying, must be the last; but scarcely were we abreast, grazing her side, craning to make out the men behind her darkened ports, than another ship-load broke dimly through the dust, to tower above us in its turn.
Thousands and thousands of gallant hearts! Sometimes the men themselves fretted the top of a familiar 'bus – of course in khaki like its load – but for the most part they were out of sight inside. And – it may have been the drowning thud of their great engines, the noisier racket of our own – but not a human sound can I remember first or last. So they passed, speeding to the rescue; so they passed, how many to their reward! Louder than our throbbing engines, and louder than the guns they deadened, the fighting blood of England sang that night through all these arteries of France; and our own few drops danced with our tears, hurt as it might to rush by upon the other side.
What with one stoppage and another, and always going against the stream of heavy traffic, the thirty or forty kilometres must have taken us three or four hours; and there, as I was saying, were our poor pedestrians in port before us. It dispelled anxiety, if it did no more. But there was no end to our mean advantages; for the good easy men were making their beds upon the bare boards of the local Y.M.C.A., where we found them with the refugees from yet another group of forsaken huts, some eighty souls in all. They assured us there were no beds to be had in the place, that the Town Major had commandeered every mattress. But a cunning and influential veteran whispered another story in my private ear; and on the understanding that his surreptitious arrangements should include the mate of the Rest Hut, we adjourned with our friend in need to the best hotel in the town, whence after supper we were conducted to a still better billet. Here were not only separate beds, with sheets on them, but separate rooms with muslin curtains, marbled wash-stands, clocks and mirrors. It was true we had been forced to leave our heavy baggage at headquarters in our own poor town; and there had not been room in my despatch-case for any raiment for the night. But that was because I had refused to escape without my library records, whatever else was left behind. And the extensive contact with cool linen could not lessen the glow of virtue, on that solitary head, with which I stretched myself out in comfort inconceivable fifteen hours before.
The day, beginning with the shock received from the Scottish Padre at the head of the dungeon stairs, had been packed with surprise, disappointment, irritation, mortal apprehension and emotion more varied than any day of mine had ever yet brought forth. But I was physically tired out, and a great deal more stolid about it all that night than I feel now, six months after the event. The silence, I remember, was the only thing that troubled me, after those three days and nights of almost incessant shell-fire. But it was a joyous trouble – while it lasted. Hardly had I closed my eyes upon the moonlit muslin curtains, when I woke with a start to that unaltered scene. The only difference was the slightly irregular hum of an enemy aeroplane, and the noise of bombs bursting all too near our perfect billet.
IN THE DAY OF BATTLE
It was not my first acquaintance with the town, nor yet with the hotel to which our billet was affiliated. I had been there on a book-raid in better days. It was in that hotel I found the hero of the apopthegm: 'Once a soldier – always a civilian!' And now its dismal saloons were overflowing with essential civilians who might have been soldiers all their lives; only here and there could one detect a difference; all seemed equally imbued with the traditional nonchalance of the British officer in a tight place. But for their uniform, and their martial carriage, they might have been a festive gathering of the Old Boys of any Public School.
After breakfast we others sallied forth. The sun was still prematurely hot. The uninjured street was full not only of khaki, but of the townsfolk of both sexes, a new element to us in any but rare glimpses. Their Sunday faces betrayed no sign of special anxiety. The bells were tinkling peacefully for mass as we crossed the little river flowing close behind the backs of the houses, and climbed the grassy height on which the citadel stands bastioned. A party of British soldiers was camped in its chill shadow; many were washing at the stream below, their bodies white as milk between their trousers and their sunburnt necks. Some, I think, were actually bathing. They did not look like the battered remnant of a grand Battalion. Yet that was what they were.
We foregathered with one chip from the modern battle-axe: a Sergeant and old soldier who had been through all the war and through South Africa. The last three days beat all. There had never been anything to touch them. Masses had melted before his eyes. There they were, as thick as corn, one minute, and the next they lay in swathes, and the next again the swathes were one continuous stack of dead. The illustration was the Sergeant's, and I know the fine rolling countryside he got it from; but it was not the burden of his yarn. This came in so often, with an effect so variable, that I was puzzled, knowing the perverse levity of the type.
'No nation can stand it,' were the exact words more than once. 'No nation that ever was, can go on standing it.'
'Do you mean – ?'
But I saw he didn't! The whites of his eyes were like an inner ring of brick-red skin, but it was their blue that flamed with sardonic humour.
'I mean the Germans!' cried he. 'No nation on earth can go on standing what they had to stand yesterday and the day before. It's not in human nature to go on standing it. I don't say as we didn't get it too…'
Nor could he, while telling us what the remnant in the tents and on the river-bank represented; but all such information was imparted in the tone of a man making an admission for the sake of argument or fair play. If I remember, the Sergeant had two wound-stripes under his pile of service chevrons. But he had borne more lives than a squad of cats. 'Each time I find I'm all right, I just shake 'ands with myself and carry on.' We got him to shake hands with us, and so parted with a diamond in human form.
Along the road below came the rag-time of a mediocre band; we hurried down and stood in a gateway to review a company of Australians marching into the town. This string of jewels was still unscattered by the fight, of the same high water as our south-country Sergeant, only different in cut and polish, if not of set sarcastic purpose. They were marching in their own way; no stride or swing about it; but a more subtle jauntiness, a kind of mincing strut, perhaps not unconsciously sinister and unconventional, an aggressive part of themselves. But what men! What beetling chests, what muscle-swollen sleeves, what dark, pugnacious, shaven faces! Here and there a pendulous moustache mourned the beard of some bushman of the old school; but no such adventitious aids could have improved upon the naked truculence of most of those mouths and chins. In their supercilious confidence they reminded me of the early Australian cricketers, of beardless Blackham, Boyles and Bonnors taking the field to mow down the flower of English cricket, in the days when those were our serious wars. How I had hated the type as a schoolboy sitting open-mouthed and heart-broken at the Oval! How I had feared it as a hobble-de-hoy in the bush itself! But, in the day of battle, could there have been a better sight than this potential band of bush-rangers and demon bowlers? Not to my glasses; nor one more bitter for the mate of the Rest Hut, thrice rejected from those very ranks.
We wandered idly in their wake; and the next sight that I remember, though it may not have been that morning, was almost as cheering in its very different way. It was the spectacle of a single German prisoner, being marched through the streets by a single British soldier with fixed bayonet. The prisoner was an N.C.O., and a fine defiant brute, marching magnificently just to show us. But his was not the hate that conceals hate; he was the incarnation of the ineffable hymn, with his quick-firing eyes and the high angle of his powerful chin. Physically our man could not compare with him. And that seemed symbolical, at a moment when signs and symbols were in some request.
Then there were the men one had met before. Congested as it was with traffic to and from the fighting, this little town was even more a rendezvous for old acquaintance than the one from which we had beaten our compulsory retreat. I was always running into somebody I had known of old or through his people. One glorious young man, who had been much upon my mind, came into the restaurant where we were having lunch on the Tuesday. His eyes were clear but strained, his ears loaded with yellow dust that toned artistically with his skin and hair. He said he had had his first sleep for five nights – under a railway arch. Before the war he had been up at Cambridge, and a very eminent Blue; if I said what he had it for, and what ribbon he was wearing now, I might as well break my rule and name him outright. But there had been three big brothers, then; now there was only this one left – and at one time not much of him. It did my heart good to see him here – looking as if he had never known a day's illness, or the pain of wounds or grief – looking a young god if there was one in France that day.
But it was not only for his own or for his family's sake that the mere sight of this splendid fellow was such a joy. The things he stood for were more precious than any life or group of lives. He stood for the generation which has been wiped out almost to a boy, as I knew it; he stood for his brothers, and for all our sons who made their sacrifice at once; he stood for the English games, and for those who had seemed to live for games, but who jumped into the King's uniform quicker than they ever changed into flannels in their lives. 'It is the one good thing the war has done – to give public-school fellows a chance – they are the one class who are enjoying themselves in this war.' So wrote one whose early innings was of the shortest; and though it was a boyish boast, and they were not the only class by any means, I should like to know which other was quite as valuable when the war, too, was in its infancy? In each and every country, by one means or the other, the men were to be had: only our Public Schools could have furnished off-hand an army of natural officers, trained to lead, old in responsibility, and afraid of nothing in the world but fear itself. There were very few of the first lot left last March, and now there are many fewer. Of one particular Eton and Harrow match, I believe it can be said that not half-a-dozen of the twenty-two players are now alive. It was something to meet so noble a survivor, still leading in battle as he had learnt to lead at school and college, both on and off the field.
Nor had one to hang about hotels and restaurants, or camps or the street corners, to see men straight from the fight or just going in, and to take fresh heart from theirs. The chief local Y.M.C.A. was full of both kinds, one more appealing than the other. It was perhaps the least conscious appeal ever made to human heart; for men are proud in the day of battle, and they are also mighty busy with their own affairs. What pocket stores they were laying in! What sanguine reserves of tobacco and cigarettes! That was a heartening sign. But there were no foreboding faces that I could see. It is one of the strong points of the inner soldier that he never thinks it is his turn; but if shell or bullet 'has his name on it,' it will 'see him off,' as he also puts it. Some call this fatalism. I call it Faith. It is their plain way of bowing to the Will of God. But the only bow I saw was over the long last letters many were writing, as though the bugle was already blowing for them, as though they well knew what it meant. There was no looking unmoved upon those bent backs and hurrying hands.
Nor were they the most poignant figures; it was the men who had been in it that one could not keep one's eyes off. Those we had seen bathing in the morning were nothing to them. They had a night's rest behind them; these were brands still smoking from the fire. Dirty as dustmen, red-eyed, and with the growth of all these days upon their haggard faces, some sat at the tables, eating and drinking like men who had just discovered their own emptiness; and many lay huddled on the floor, as on the battle-field itself, filling the hut with its very atmosphere. To step over them, and to sit with the men who had a mind to talk, was to get into the red heart of the thing that was going on.
Not that they had very much to tell; all were hazy as to what had happened; but all agreed it was the worst thing they had been through yet, and all bore out our Sunday morning friend, that it was worse for the enemy than for anybody else. This unanimity was remarkable; especially if you consider, first the military history of that last ten days in March, and secondly the fact that none of these unwounded stalwarts was there for a normal reason. Each stood for scores or hundreds who had gone under in the fight, or been taken prisoner. Yet it was worse for the enemy! Yet we were going to win! I cannot swear to the statement in those words, but it was implicit in their every utterance, and emphatic in the things they never said. For though I brought biscuits to many, and sat while they steeped them in their mugs and gulped them down, not a first syllable of complaint reached my ears. On that I would take my stand in any witness-box. And a Y.M.C.A. man knows; they trust us, and speak their minds.
Often in the winter 'peace-time,' as hinted early in these notes, I have seen men shudder at the prospect of the trenches, heard bitter murmurs at the mud and misery, and have done my best to answer the natural cry: 'When is this dreadful war going to finish? It will never be finished by fighting!' There was nothing of that sort to cope with now. In the winter I have heard lamentations for the stray man killed by a sniper or a stray shell. There was the case of the Lewis gunner who had earned his special leave; there was 'the best wee sergeant,' and there were others. But there was none of that now that men were falling by the thousand; not from a single one of these ravenous, red-eyed survivors. You may say it was their hunger, weariness, and consequent insensibility, the acquiescence of the sleeper in the snow. But they were full of confidence phlegmatic yet serene. They were on the winning side; there was never a doubt of it on their lips or in their eyes; and with us they had no reason to keep their doubts to themselves. They had voiced them freely in the winter. But now they had no doubts to voice.
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