Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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It is easy to make too much of a trifle that was not one to me, but in a sense my first casualty, almost a poignant experience. But there are no trifles in the trenches in the dead of winter; there is not enough happening; everything that does happen is magnified accordingly; and the one man hit on a quiet day is a greater celebrity than the last survivor of his platoon in the day of big things. The one man gets an audience, and the audience has time to think twice about him.
In the same way nothing casts a heavier gloom than an isolated death in action, such as the one which had occurred here only the previous day. All ranks were still talking about the man who had lain unburied where his comrades were now laughing in the moonlight; detail upon detail I heard before the night was out, and all had the pathos of the isolated case, the vividness of a portrait as against a group. The man had been a Lewis gunner, and he had died flushed with the crowning success of his career. That was the consoling detail: in his last week on earth, in full view of friend and foe, he had brought off the kind of shot a whole battalion boasts about. His bird still lay on No-Man's Land, a jumble of wire and mangled planes; not the sight to sober a successful sportsman, and him further elated by the promise of special and immediate leave. No time for a lad of his mettle to weary of well-doing; and he knew of a sniper worth adding to his bag. The sniper, however, would seem to have known of him, and in the ensuing duel took special care of himself. Not so the swollen-hearted sportsman who was going on leave and meant earning it. Many shots had been exchanged without result; at last, unable to bear it any longer, our poor man had leapt upon the parapet, only to drop back like a stone, shot dead not by the other duellist but by a second sniper posted elsewhere for the purpose. And this tragically ordinary tragedy was all the talk that night over the mugs. Grim snatches linger. One quite sorrowful chum regretted the other's braces, buried with him and of all things the most useless in a grave, and he himself in need of a new pair. It did seem as though he might have taken them off the body, and with the flown spirit's hearty sanction.
They did not say where they had buried him, but our sunken roadside was not without its own wooden cross of older standing. It was the tiniest and flimsiest I ever saw, and yet it had stood through other days, when the road was in other hands; those other hands must have put it up. 'An Unknown British Hero of the R.F.A.' was all the legend they had left to endure with this ironical tenacity.
About midnight we came to an end of our water, supplied each morning by a working-party detailed for the job: with more water we might have done worse than keep open all night and kill the bitter day with sleep. As it was, we were soon creeping through a man-hole curtained by a frozen blanket into the corrugated core of the sand-bagged gunyah.It was as much as elbow-high down the middle of the span; the beds were side by side, so close together that we had to get in by the foot; and only for a wager would I have attempted to undress in the space remaining.
But not for any money on such a night! A particularly feeble oil-stove, but all we had to warm the hut by day, had been doing what it could for us here at the eleventh hour; but all it had done was to stud the roof with beads of moisture and draw the damp out of the blankets. We got between them in everything except our boots; even trench-coats were not discarded, nor fleece linings any longer to be despised. The other man was soon asleep. But I had provided myself with appropriate reading, and for some time burnt a candle to old James Grant and The Romance of War.
There are those who delight in declaring there is no romance in this war; there was enough for me that night. Not many inches from my side the nearest shell had burst, not many days ago by some miracle without blowing in a sand-bag; not many inches from my head, and perhaps no deeper in the earth, lay the skull of our 'unknown hero of the R.F.A.' I for one did not sleep the worse for his honoured company, or for our common lullaby the guns.
AN INTERRUPTED LUNCH
But there was another side to our life up the line, thanks to the regal hospitality of Battalion Headquarters. Thither we were bidden to all meals, and there we presented ourselves with feverish punctuality at least three times a day.
It was only about a minute's walk along the trench, past more dug-outs lit by cigarette-ends, past a trench store-cupboard quietly labelled BOMBS, and a sentry in a sand-bagged cul-de-sac. The door at which we knocked was no more imposing than our own, the sanctuary within no roomier, but like the deck-house of a well-appointed yacht after a tramp's forecastle. Art-green walls and fixed settees, a narrow table all spotless napery and sparkling glass, forks and spoons as brilliant as a wedding-present, all these were there or I have dreamt them. I would even swear to flowers on the table, if it were a case of swearing one way or other. But what they gave us to eat, with two exceptions, I cannot in the least remember; it was immaterial in that atmosphere and company, though I recall the other man's bated breathings on the point. My two exceptions were porridge at breakfast and scones at tea; both were as authentic as the mess-waiter's speech; and it would not have surprised me if the porridge had been followed by trout from the burn, so much was that part of the Line just then a part of Scotland.
It was a genial atmosphere in more ways than one. Always on coming in one's spectacles turned to ground-glass and one's out-door harness to melting lead. The heat came up an open stairway from the bowels of the earth, as did the chimney which I painfully mistook for a hand-rail the first night, when the Colonel was kind enough to take me down below. It was the first deep dug-out I had seen in working order, and it seemed to me deliciously safe and snug; the officers' berths in fascinating tiers, again as on shipboard, all but the Colonel's own, by itself at one end. It made me very jealous, yet rather proud, when I thought of our freezing lair upon the sunken road.
Then, before we went, he took me up to an O.P. on top of all. I think we climbed up to it out of the cul-de-sac, and I know I cowered behind a chunk of parapet; but what I remember best is the zig-zag labyrinth in the foreground, that unending open grave with upturned earth complete, yet quiet as any that ever was filled in; and then the wide sweep of moonlit snow, enemy country nearly all, but at the moment still and peaceful as an arctic floe. Our own trenches the only solid signs of war, like the properties in front of a panorama; not a shot or a sound to give the rest more substance than a painted back-cloth. It was one of those dead pauses that occur on all but the noisiest nights, and make the whole war nowhere more unreal than on the battle-field.
But when the very next day was at its quietest we had just the opposite experience. We were sitting at luncheon in this friendly mess, and the guns might have been a thousand miles away until they struck up all at once, like a musical-box in the middle of a tune. Their guns, this time; but you would not have thought it from the faces round the table. One or two exchanged glances; a lifted eyebrow was answered by a smile; but the conversation went on just the same until the officer nearest the door withdrew detachedly. New subject no longer avoidable, but treated with becoming levity. Not a bombardment, just a Strafe, we gathered; it might have been with blank shell, had we not heard them bursting. Exit another officer; enter man from below. Something like telegram in his hand: retaliation requested by front line. 'Put it through to Brigade.' Further retirements from board; less noise for moment. New sound: enemy 'plane over us, seeing what they've done. New row next door: our machine-guns on enemy 'plane! New note in distance: retaliation to esteemed order… Other man and I alone at table, dying to go out and see fun, but obviously not our place. And then in a minute it is all over, not quite as quickly as it began, but getting on that way. Strafe stopped: 'plane buzzing away again: machine-guns giving it up as a bad job: cheery return of Belisarii, in the order of their going, Colonel last and cheeriest of all.
'Had my hair parted by a whizz-bang,' says he, 'up in that O.P. we were in last night.'
And, as he replenished a modest cup, the curtain might have fallen on the only line I remember in the whole impromptu piece, which could not have played quicker as a music-hall sketch, or held a packed audience more entranced than the two civilian supers who had the luck to be on the stage.
But we had to pay for our entertainment; for although it turned out to have been an absolutely bloodless Strafe, yet a portion of our parapet had been blown in, which made it inexpedient for us to go round the front line that afternoon, as previously arranged by our indulgent hosts. In the evening they were going into reserve, and another famous Regiment coming to 'take over.' The new-comers, however, were just as good to us in their turn; and the new Colonel so kind as to take me round himself on Christmas morning.
The tiny hut is an abode of darkness made visible by a single candle, mounted in its own grease in the worst available position for giving light, lest the opening of the door cast the faintest beam into the sunken road outside. On the shelf flush with the door glimmer parental urns with a large family of condensed-milk tins, opened and unopened, full and empty; packing-cases in similar stages litter the duck-board flooring, or pile it wall-high in the background; trench-coats, gas-masks, haversacks and helmets hang from nails or repose on a ledge of the inner wall, which is sunken roadside naked and unashamed. Two weary figures cower over the boiler fire; they are the other man and yet another who has come up for the night. A third person, who may look more like me than I feel like him, hovers behind them, smoking and peering at his watch. It is the last few minutes of Christmas Eve, and for a long hour there has been little or nothing doing. Earlier in the evening, from seven or so onwards, there seemed no end to the queue of armed men, calling for their mug of cocoa and their packet of biscuits, either singly, each for himself, or with dixies and sand-bags to be filled for comrades on duty in the trenches.
The quiet has been broken only by the sibilant song of the boiler, by desultory conversation and bursts of gunfire as spasmodic and inconsequent. Often a machine-gun has beaten a brief but furious tattoo on the doors of darkness; but now come clogged and ponderous footfalls – mud to mud on the duck-boards leading from the communication trench – and a chit is handed in from the outer moonlight.
Torpid trio are busy men once more. Not enough cocoa ready-made for ninety; fresh brew under way in fewer seconds than it takes to state the fact. Third person already anchored beside open packing-case, enormous sand-bag gaping between his knees, little sealed packets flying through his hands from box to bag in twins and triplets. By now it is Christmas morning; cakes and cigarettes are forthwith added to statutory biscuits, and a sack is what is wanted. Third person makes shift with second sand-bag, which having filled, he leaves his colleagues working like benevolent fiends in the steam of fragrant cauldrons, and joins the group outside among the shell-holes.
They are consuming interim dividends of the nightly fare, as they stand about in steely silhouette against the shrouded moonlight. The scene is not quite so picturesque as it was last night, when no star of heaven could live in the light of the frosty moon and every helmet was a shining halo; to-night the only twinkle to be seen is under a helmet's rim.
'Merry Christmas, sir, an' many of 'em,' says a Tyneside voice, getting in the first shot of a severe bombardment. The third person retaliates with appropriate spirit; the interchange could not have been franker or heartier in the days of actual peace on earth and apparent good-will among men. But here they both are for a little space this Christmas morning. Cannon may drum it in with thunderous irony, and some corner-man behind a machine-gun oblige with what sounds exactly like a solo on the bones, but here in the midst of those familiar alarms the Spirit of Christmas is abroad on the battle-field. He may be frightened away – or become a casualty – at any moment. One lucky flourish with the bones, one more addition to these sharp-edged shell-holes, and how many of the party would have a groan left in him? One of them groans in spirit as he thinks, never so vividly, of countless groups as full of gay vitality as this one, blown out of existence in a blinding flash. But his hardy friends are above such morbid imaginings; the cold appears to be their only trouble, and of it they make light enough as they stamp their feet. Some are sea-booted in sand-bags, and what with their jerkins and low, round helmets, look more like a watch in oilskins and sou'-westers than a party of Infantry.
'We nevaw died o' wintaw yet,' says the Tynesider. 'It takes a lot to kill an old soljaw.' But he owns he was a shipyard hand before the war; and not one of them was in the Army.
All hope it is the last Christmas of the war, but the Tyneside prognostication of 'anothaw ten yeaws' is received with perfect equanimity. There is general agreement, too, when the same oracle dismisses the latest peace offer as 'blooff.' But it must be confessed that articulate ardour is slightly damped until somebody starts a subject a great deal nearer home.
'Who'd have thought that we should live to see a Y.M. in the support line!'
Flattering echoes from entire group.
'Do you remember that chap who kept us all awake in barracks, talking of it?'
'I nevaw believed him. I thought it was a myth, sir. And nothing to pay an' all! It must be costing the Y.M. a canny bit o' money, sir?'
The third person – who has been hovering on the verge of the inveterate first – only commits himself to the statement that he helped to give away 785 cups of cocoa and packets of biscuits the night before. Rapid calculations ensue. 'Why, that must be nearly ten pounds a night, sir?'
'Something like that.'
'Heaw that, Corporal! An' now it's cigarettes an' cakes an' all!'
But the containers are ready, lids screwed down upon their steaming contents. Strong arms hoist them upon stronger backs; the plethoric sand-bags are shouldered with still less ado, and off go the party into the slate-coloured night, off through the communication trenches into the firing-line they are to hold for England until the twelve hundred and thirty-ninth daybreak of the war.
Peering after them with wistful glasses, the third person relapses altogether into the first. Take away the odd two hundred, and for a thousand days and nights my heart has been where their muffled feet will be treading in another minute. Yes; a round thousand must be almost the exact length of days since I first came out here in the spirit, and to stay. But never till this year did I seriously dream of following in the flesh, or till this moment feel the front line like a ball at my feet. Even the day before yesterday the arrangement was not so definite as it is to-day; it was not the Colonel himself who was to have taken us round by special favour and appointment. Yet how easily, had the Strafe happened half-an-hour later than it did, might we not have come in for it, perhaps at the very place where the parapet was blown down! It would have been a wonderful experience, especially as there were no casualties. Will anything of the kind happen to-day? I have a feeling that something may; but then I have had that feeling every sentient moment up the Line. And nothing that can come can come amiss; that is another of my feelings here, if not the strongest of them all. This Christmas morning it rings almost like a carol in the heart, almost like a peal of Christmas bells – jangled indeed by the heart's own bitter flaws, and yet piercing sweet as Life itself.
But for all my elderly civilian excitement, before a risk too tiny to enter a young fighting head at all, sleep does not fail me on a new couch of my own construction. The sand-bagged lair was none too dry in the late hard frost; in the unseasonable thaw that seems to be setting in, it is no place for crabbed age. Youth is welcome to the two beds with the water now standing on their indiarubber sheets, and youth seems quite honestly to prefer them; so I make mine on the biscuit-boxes in the shed, turn my toes to the still glowing coke in the boiler fire, press my soles to the hot-water bottle which has distinguished itself by freezing during the day, and huddle down as usual in all the indoor and outdoor garments I have with me, under my share of the blankets, which I have been drying assiduously every evening. The Romance of War performs its nightly unromantic office … and I have had many a worse night upon a spring-mattress.
Colonel finished breakfast when I reach the mess; ready for me by the time I have had mine. We glove and muffle ourselves, adjust gas-masks 'at the ready,' and sally forth on his common round and my high adventure, tapping the still slippery duck-boards with our sticks.
A colourless morning, neither freezing nor thawing; visibility probably low, luminosity certainly mediocre; in fact, typical Christmas weather of the modern realistic school, as against the Christmas Number weather of the last ten days. Yet it is the Christmas Number atmosphere that haunts me as an aura the more tenacious for its utter absence on all sides: the sprig of holly in the cake, the presents on the table, the joys of parent and child – never more at one – and blinding visions in both capacities, down to that last war-time Christmas dinner at the Carlton … such are the sights that await me after all in the front-line trench! I have dreamt of it for years, yet now that I am here it is of the dead years I dream, or of this Christmas morning anywhere but where it is one's beatitude to be spending it.
Not that I fail to see a good deal of what is before my eyes at last; but never for many yards is the trench that we are in the only one I seem to see, and a comparison between the two is irresistible. Perhaps the width and solidity of this trench would impress me less if it were not all so different from Belgium as I all but knew it in 1915; the machine-gunners at their posts in the deep bays, like shepherds sheltering behind a wall, yet somehow able to see through the wall, would stand out less if the fire-step also were manned in the old way. But now trenches are held more by machinery and by fewer men, at any rate, in daytime; and at night men evidently do not sleep so near their work as then they did; at least, I look in vain for dug-outs in this sector of the front line. And I still look in vain for trouble, though all the time I feel all sorts of possibilities impending: a strange mixture of curiosity and dread it is – ardent curiosity, and quite pleasurable dread – that weaves itself into the warp of all inward and outward impressions whatsoever: can it be peculiar to self-ridden civilians, or are there really brave men like the Colonel in front of me (with a bar to his D.S.O.) who have undergone similar sensations at their baptism of fire?
It is not exactly mine; nothing comes anything like so near me as that sniper's bullet on the way up the other day; but little black bursts do keep occurring high overhead, where one of our airmen is playing peep among the clouds. The fragments must be falling somewhere in the neighbourhood; and a more alarming kind of shell has just burst on the high ground between our parados and the support line. Not very close – I must have been listening to something else – but the Colonel points out the smoking place with his stick and his quiet smile. His smile is part of him, very quiet and contained, full of easy-going power, and a kindness incapable of condescension. He might be my country-house host pointing out the excellence of his crop, but his touch is lighter and I am not expected to admire. He is, of all soldiers I ever met, just the one I would choose to be alongside if I had to be hit. I don't believe his face would alter very much, and I should be dying not to alter it more than I could help.
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