I do not propound their perspicacity or postulate an instinct they did not claim themselves. I merely state a fact from observation of these handfuls of men in the first days of the great crisis. That was the way they reacted against the greatest enemy success since the first month of the war. It is the English way, and always has been. And they happen to be busy finishing the old sequel as I write.
Yet if you had seen their eyes! I remember as a little boy seeing Lady Butler's 'Charge of the Light Brigade' at my first Academy. I am not sure that I have looked upon the canvas since, but the wild-eyed central figure, 'back from the mouth of Hell,' rises up before me after forty years. There is, to be sure, only the most odious of comparisons between his heroic stand and the posture of my friends, who were not posing for a Victorian battle-piece, but bolting biscuits and spilling tea on a Y.M.C.A. table in modern France. Nevertheless, some of them had those eyes.
It was pleasant one morning to hear a sudden voice at my elbow: 'How's the Rest Hut?' and to find at least one of its regular frequenters still whole and hearty, in the press outside this teeming Y.M.C.A. But a more embarrassing encounter occurred the same day and on the same too public spot.
It began in the hut, with a couple of sad young Jocks, who were like to be sad, as they might have said; but they only smiled in wry yet not unhumorous resignation. Their story was that of thousands upon the imperative stoppage of all leave. These two had started off on theirs, and were going aboard at Boulogne when headed back to their Battalion, which they had now to find. It chanced to be one of those to which I had helped to minister in the sunken road at Christmas. They remembered the Cocoa Man, as I had been called there, but in the morning they were not demonstrative.
About mid-day we met again, and as I say, in the surging crowd outside the Y.M.C.A. This time the case was sadly altered; the hapless pair had been consoling themselves at another spring, and were at the warm-hearted stage. Nothing was now too good for the poor Cocoa Man, no compliment too wildly hyperbolical. Falling with their unabated forces upon both his hands, only stopping short of the actual neck, they greeted him as 'a brave mon' in that concourse of braves, and proceeded to embroider the charge with unconscionable detail.
'Thairty-five yarrds from the Gairmans,' declared one, 'this ol' feller was teemin' cocoa in the trenches. I'm tellin' ye! Lash C'rishmash – mind ye – shnow an' ische! Thairty-five yarrds from the Gairmans – strike me dead!'
A vindictive Deity might well have taken him at his word, for dividing the real distance by more than ten. But nothing came of it except a murmur of general incredulity, obsequiously confirmed by the Cocoa Man, and from the other Jock's wagging head a sentimental echo: 'Thish ol' feller! Thish ol' feller!' he could only say for the pavement's benefit.
'Why was I there?' demanded the spokesman, with a rhetorical thump upon his chest.
'Thish ol' feller!' screamed the other, in a paroxysm of affection; and when I had eventually retrieved both hands I left them singing my longevity in those terms, like a catch, and took my blushes to a safer part of the town.
'I've given them a bitty,' whispered one of our ministers, who had assisted my escape, 'and told them to go away and get something to eat.'
And the sly carnal wisdom of the advice, no less than the charity which made it practicable, left a good taste in the mouth. It was the kind of thing I ventured to think we wanted in our workers. In any community of sinners there is room for the saint who will help a man to get sober sooner than scold him for getting drunk.
Not that I saw above half-a-dozen tipsy men in all the huts that I was ever in. They were to be seen, no doubt, but they did not come our way. The soldier who seeks the Y.M. in his cups is not a hardened case. He is the last person to be discouraged, as he will be the first to deplore his imprudence in the morning. I have heard a splendid young New Zealander speak of the lapse that had cost him his stripes as though nobody had ever made so dire a fool of himself. That is the kind of notion to scout even at the cost of a high line in these matters. It is possible to make too much of the virtues that come easily to ourselves; and to the average Y.M.C.A. man the cardinal virtues seemed very like second nature. This is not covert irony, but a simple fact which, for that matter, ought hardly to have been otherwise, since most of us were ministers of one denomination or another. The minority were apt to feel, but were not necessarily justified in feeling, that a more liberal admixture of 'sinful laymen' might have put us, as a body, even more intimately in touch with the men than we undoubtedly were.
Chief, however, among the virtues of my comrades, I think any unprejudiced observer would have placed that of Courage. There were now no fewer than eighty of us, all leaves before the wind of war, blown helter-skelter into this little town that must be nameless. We had come off all sorts and sizes of trees, down to the most sensitive and frailest; but from the first squall to the last we were permitted to face, and throughout these days of precarious shelter, in many ways a higher test, I never saw a man among us outwardly the worse for nerves. And be it known that the small personal escapes and excitements recorded in these notes, were as nothing to the full-size adventures of a great many of our refugees. In outlying huts, cheek by jowl with the camps they served, the shelling had been far heavier and more direct than the officers of the Rest Hut had been privileged to undergo; the responsibility had been much greater, and the means of escape not to be compared with ours. Little home-made dug-outs, under the hut itself, had been their nearest approach to our vaulted dungeon, a tattoo of shrapnel their variety of shell-music. Whole walls had been blown in on them, men killed and wounded under the riddled roof. Some had suffered even more from a bodyguard of our own guns than from the enemy; one reverend gentleman declared in writing that his 'hut reeled like a ship in a great sea.'
Another wrote: 'A wave of gas entered our domain and we had a season of intense coughing and sneezing, also watering of eyes. Thinking it was but a passing wave of gas from our own guns, we did not use our respirators, but reaching up to a box of sweets I distributed them to my comrades, and we lay sucking sweets to take away the taste.' (This was a Baptist minister with a South African ribbon, and not the man to lie long doing anything.) 'After breakfast I called upon the Artillery Officers to offer my staff to make hot cocoa and supply biscuits during the morning for the hard-worked gun-teams, an offer which he gratefully accepted. I then made my way up to the dressing-station to see if the Medical Officer required our services for the walking wounded. His reply being in the affirmative, I took stock of the equipment we had on the spot, then went back to bring up all necessary articles, also my comrades. The small hut we have near the dressing-station for this work was being so hotly shelled that the M.O. would not allow us to remain there, so we worked outside the dressing-station door, a little more sheltered, but still exposed to shell-fire. We comforted the wounded, gave them hot tea and free cigarettes. A lull occurred during the morning in our work, so Mr. – returned to make the cocoa for the gun-teams, Mr. – remained to carry on at the dressing-station, and I returned to clear the cash-boxes, fill my pockets with rescued paper-money, prepared again for emergency… We continued our work with the wounded, and as the same increased in number, I then assisted in bandaging the smaller wounds, having knowledge of that kind of work. Later, the A.P.M. gave me his field-glasses and asked me to act as observer and report to him every change in the progress of the battle of the ridges. This was most interesting work, but meant constant exposure. One of our aeroplanes sounded its hooter and dropped a message about 600 yards away. On reporting it I was asked to cross over and see that the message was delivered to the correct battery.'
This was a man! But do not forget he was also a Baptist minister on a four-months furlough at the front. 'Once a soldier!' he too may have said after his first campaign, and clinched it by entering his ministry; but here he was in his pious prime, excelling his lay youth in deeds of gallantry, and covering our civilian heads with his reflected glory. No wonder he 'heard from two sources that my work on that day received mention in military dispatches.' Let us hope it did. 'If true,' he makes haste to add, 'the work of my two colleagues is as much deserving.' But who inspired them? Before they turned their backs, 'the advancing Germans were only about 700 yards away. Securing some of our goods, we decided to retire upon – for the night and return if possible the next day.' The last six words italicise themselves.
The party went out of the frying-pan into heavier fire further back: 'Soon after we had retired to rest the Germans commenced to bombard the place with high velocity shells from long range… A Lieutenant in our hut went to the door, but reeled back immediately with a shattered arm. A Corporal outside received a nasty wound in the shoulder. We set to work bandaging the wounds of these men and making them comfortable while others went to obtain a conveyance. There was no shelter, so after the wounded were safely on their way to a C.C.S. we lay down in our blankets, considering it as easy to be shelled in the warm as standing in the cold' – more wine that needs no printer's bush. Later, he relieved the leader of a very hot hut indeed, where he had for colleague 'one who was calm in the hour of danger.' Here the congenial pair 'were able to carry on for four days, when the order came for us to evacuate. We distributed our stock of goods to the soldiers, then closed up. That night we lay in our blankets counting the bursting shells around us at three shells per minute.' On their arrival in our common port, naturally not before, 'the effects of the gas at – began to make themselves felt, and I was ordered by the Medical Officer to take a week's complete rest.' One wonders if a rest was better earned in all those terrific days.
The document from which I have been quoting is only one of many placed at my disposal. It is typical of them all, exceptional solely in the telling simplicity of the narrator. The writer was not our only minister who came through the fire pure gold; he was not even the only Baptist minister. One there was, the gentlest of souls, whose heroic story I may yet make shift to tell, though it deserves the hand of Mr. Service or of 'Woodbine Willie.' Such were the men I had the honour of working with last winter, and of such their adventures as against the personal experiences it was necessary to recount first or else not at all. I confess they make my Rest Hut look a little too restful as I set them down; for there we were wonderfully spared the tangible horrors of the situation; but many of these others, as little used to bloodshed as ourselves, had left a shambles behind them, and looked upon the things that haunt a mind.
And yet, as I began by saying, not a man of them showed shaken nerves, or what mattered more to those of us who had seen less, a shaken faith. Therein they were not only worthy of the men they had served so devotedly to the end, but of the sublime tradition it was theirs to uphold. It was a great matter that there should not have been one heart among us so faint as to affect another, that we should have carried ourselves at least outwardly as I think we did. But to some of us it seemed a yet greater matter, in the days of anti-climax and reaction now in store, that those to whom we were entitled to look for spiritual support did not fail us in a single instance.
Y.M.C.A. work was over for the time being in the fighting areas. Hundreds of huts and mountains of stores had been abandoned or destroyed. What was to be done with the six or seven dozen of us, now thoroughly superfluous men (and as many more in other centres), was the immediate problem. It was solved by the High Command putting at our disposal an Army rest-camp on the coast.
Thither we all started by rail on the evening of Tuesday, March 26th. Ten minutes after our train left, the station was heavily bombed; half-an-hour later we were lying low in a cutting, under a mercilessly full moon, but perhaps in deeper shadow than we supposed, while a German aeroplane scoured the sky for mischief. There was an Anti-Aircraft Battery also concealed about the district; thanks to its activities, we were at length able to proceed with less fear of molestation. But only fitfully; the full moon saw to that. It was as light as noonday through smoked glasses, and very soon our train was hiding in the next wood that happened to intersect the line.
Did we waste time talking about it, discussing our chances, or mildly anathematising our last-straw luck? Not for many minutes; at least, not in the bare truck round which some fifty of us squatted on our baggage. We had begun the last stage of our exodus in a certain fashion; and in that fashion we went on – and on. Before we were five minutes out, one of them had struck up a hymn, and we had sung it with all our lungs and hearts. Another and another followed; and in the stoppages, after a human peep at the sky, and a silence broken by the beat of the destroyer's engine, there was always some exalted voice to lead us yet again, and a stentorian following every time. Though the tunes were often strange to me, and to my mind no improvement on the ones I wanted, the hymns themselves were the old hymns that take a man back to his old home and his old school. Each was like a bottle charged with the essence of some ancient scene. One savoured the scents of vanished rooms, heard the sound of voices long past singing or long ago stilled; forgotten influences, childish promptings, looks and thoughts and sayings, came leaping out of the dead past into that dark truck hiding for dear life in a wood. And of all the unreal situations I was ever in – or invented, for that matter – this at last struck me as about the most unconvincing and far-fetched. Yet at the same time, like all else that really matters, it seemed the most natural thing in the world: as though the whole history of mankind had not led up to the horrors and splendours of this stupendous war more inevitably than our fifty life-lines converged in that truck-load of brave, faithful, hymn-singing men.
Then a hymn would end, and there would be sometimes as much as a minute of natural talk and normal thinking. But it was like the lorries full of fighting-men in the moonlit dust; always a new leader filled the breach; and the officers of the Rest Hut had long been stolid listeners when we stopped once more, not to hide, but at some station, and that weary pair sneaked out into another truck. Here there were but other two before them: a sardonic Anglican, and a young man enviably asleep under less covering than would have soothed our thinner blood. Side by side we cowered upon a packing-case, a Rest Hut blanket about our legs, and discussed the secular situation over a pipe. Almost the last thing we two had heard in the town was a whisper about the German cavalry; a rumour so sensational that we were keeping it to ourselves; but it only confirmed the mate in his prophetic conviction that the fools were just cutting their own throats deeper with every mile they advanced. That was his hymn; not a stage of our flight had he failed to beguile with the grim refrain; but in the truck I seem to recall a wilder dream of getting into some dead man's uniform, if the other folly went much further, and risking a firing-party for one blow at a Boche by fair or foul. It was perhaps as well that we were going beyond the reach of any such desperate temptations.
The Rest Camp was on a chilly plateau at the mouth of the Somme: it might have been the Murrambidgee for all the warfare within reach. A few faint flashes claimed our wistful attention on a clear night, but I have heard the guns better here in Sussex. On the other hand, it was a military camp, laid out on scientific principles that appealed to the camp-following spirit, and military discipline kept us on our acquired mettle. I had not slept under canvas for thirty years, and rather dreaded it, especially as the weather had turned cold and unsettled. A tent in the rain had perhaps more terrors for many of us than a snug hut under occasional shell-fire; but few if any were the worse for the experience. Indeed, the chief drawback was an appetite out of all proportion to available rations; but, though tempers were at times on edge, and fists clenched in the bacon queue, on one of our few bacon mornings, no grumbling disgraced the board. We reminded ourselves and each other of the lads we had left to bear the brunt, and we started our humdrum days with vociferous jocosity in the wash-house.
Easter was upon us before we were fairly settled, or a tent pitched large enough to hold us all; and it was 'in sundry places,' indeed, that we mobilised as a congregation. One was the open shed in which we shivered over meals, and one the camp shower-baths. But on Easter Day, which was fine and bright, all adjourned to a neighbouring wood, then breaking into bud and song; and sitting or leaning in a circle against the trees, at the intersection of two green rides, we held our service in Nature's sanctuary. In that ring of unmilitary men in khaki there were few who had not been nearer violent death than ever in their lives before, very few but were prepared to face it afresh at the first chance, one at least who was soon to be killed behind his counter; and presently a young man standing in our midst, an Anglican with a Nonconformist gift of speech, brought the spring morning home to our hearts, filled them with thankfulness for our lot and trust in the issue, and pride of sacrifice, and love of Him Who showed the way, in a sermon one would not have missed for the best they were getting in London at that hour. It was not the only fine sermon we had in the Rest Camp; and wonderful it was to hear the same simple note struck so often, albeit from different angles of the Christian faith, and so seldom forced. We must have had representatives of all the English-spoken Churches, save and except the parent of them all; constantly an Anglican and a Dissenter would officiate together, with many a piquant compromise between their respective usages; but when it came to preaching, they were like searchlights trained from divers quarters upon the same central fact of Christianity. The separate beams might taper off into the night, but high overhead they met and mingled in a single splendour.
But there was one minister who took no part; he lay too sick in our tent; and yet his mere record is the sermon I remember best. He was that other Baptist already mentioned, a shy bachelor of fifty, the most diffident and (one might have thought) least resolute of men. A lad he loved had come out and been killed; the impulse took him to follow and throw himself into the war in the only capacity open to his years. The Y.M.C.A. is the refuge of those consciously or unconsciously in quest of this anodyne. We had met at my first hut, where he had slaved many days as an extra hand. Never was one of us so deferential towards the men; never were they served with a more intense solicitude, or addressed across the counter with so many marks of respect. 'Sir,' he never failed to call them to their faces, or 'this gentleman' when invoking expert intervention. That gentleman, being one, never smiled; but we did, sometimes, in our room. Then one Sunday I persuaded him to preach. It was a revelation. The hut had heard nothing simpler, manlier, straighter from the shoulder; and the war, not just then the safest subject, was finely and bravely treated, both in the sermon and the final prayer. A fighting sermon and a fighting prayer, for all the gentle piety that formed the greater part, and all the sensitive mannerism which would never make us smile again.
At that time our outpost in the support line, scene of my Christmas outing, had been running a good many weeks; and its popularity as a holiday resort was not imperceptibly upon the wane. Most of us had tasted its fearful joys, and there were no offers for a second helping; it was emphatically a thing to have done rather than the thing to do again. It came to the Baptist's turn, and when his week was up there was a genuine difficulty in relieving him, one or two on the rota having fallen sick. Our young commandant went up to ask if he would mind doing an extra day or two. Mind! It was his one desire; he was as happy as a king – and he had quite transformed the place. The tiny hut was no longer the pig-sty described in an earlier note; it was as neat and spotless as an old maid's sanctum. The urns were like burnished silver. The fire never smoked. The bed had been brought in from the unspeakable tunnel under the sand-bags; it was as dry as a bone, and curtained off at its own end of the cabin. All these improvements the Baptist had wrought single-handed, besides fending and cooking for himself: no Battalion Headquarters for him! An extra week was just what he had been longing for; in point of fact, he stayed four weeks on end, as against my four paltry days!