Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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But, in spite of all interior preparation, it is not to be. He has given me a glimpse of No-Man's Land, not through a periscope but in a piece of ordinary looking-glass; we are nearing the damaged place where his presence is required and mine emphatically is not. Not that he says anything of the sort, but I see it in his kindly smile as he hands me over to his runner for safe-conduct to the place from whence I came. Still as much disappointed as relieved, as though a definite excitement had been denied to me, I turned and went with equal reluctance and alacrity.
'The bravest officer in the British Army!' was the runner's testimony to our friend. I have heard the honest words before, but this hero-worshipper had chapter and verse for his creed: 'Six times he has been wounded in this war, and never yet gone back to Blighty for a wound!'
I had not noticed the six gold stripes – if any – but it is not everybody who wears his full allowance. And if ever I met a man who cared less than most brave men about all such things, I believe I said good-bye to him last Christmas Day.
We were to meet again in the evening; in the meantime I was to have my Christmas dinner with the other Colonel and his merry men, now in reserve. I found them in an ex-Hun dug-out, more like a forecastle than the other headquarters; everything underground, and the bunks ranged round the board; but there was the same sheen on the table-cloth, the same glitter of glass and plate, the same good cheer and a turkey worthy of the day, and a ham worthy of the turkey, and a plum-pudding worthy of them both. It is not for the guest of a mess to say grace in public; but Christmas dinner in the trenches is a case apart. As the school tag might have had it, non cuivis civi talia contingunt.
There were crackers, too, I suddenly remember, and the old idiotic paper caps and mottoes, and Christmas cards wherever one went. In the new legions there is nearly always some cunning hand to supply the unit with a topical Christmas card: one of our two Battalions had a beauty, and even the Y.M.C.A. made bold to circulate an artistic apotheosis of our quarters on the sunken road. But those are not the Christmas cards I still preserve; my ill-gotten souvenirs are typewritten scraps on typewriting-paper, unillustrated, but all the more to the point: 'Best wishes for Xmas and Good Luck in 1918, from the Brigadier and Staff, – th Infantry Brigade.' – 'Christmas Greetings and All Good Luck from – th Infantry Brigade Headquarters.' – 'Christmas Greetings and Good Luck from – th Divisional Artillery.' I must say this kind appealed to me, though I sent away a good many of the more ambitious variety. In neither was there any conventional nonsense about a 'happy' or even a 'merry' Christmas; and that, in view of the well-known perversity of the Comic Spirit, may have been one reason why so much merriment accrued. Nor did the contrast between unswerving ceremonial and a sardonic simplicity, as shown in this matter of the Christmas cards, begin or end there; for while I had followed crystal and fine table-linen into reserve for my Christmas dinner, the hospitable board behind the front line was now spread with newspapers, and we drank both our whisky-and-soda and our coffee out of the same enamelled cup.
The Colonel who had taken me into the front line after breakfast was not at dinner that night; for all his wounds he had gone down with common influenza, and I was desolated.It was my last chance of thanking him, as the other man and I were leaving in the early morning. All day I had been thinking of all that I had seen, and of all I had but foreseen, though so vividly that I felt more and more as though I had actually had some definite escape; besides, the things I had heard about him after we parted made me covet the honour of shaking hands once more with so very brave a man. I had my wish. In the middle of dinner a servant emerged from below to say: 'The Colonel would like to see the Y.M.C.A. officer before he went.'
I can see him still, as I found him, hot and coughing on the bunk in the corner by itself. 'I thought you would be interested to hear,' said he, 'that the very minute you left me this morning a rum-jar burst on the parados just behind me. You know how I wear my helmet, with the strap behind? It blew it off.'
So my escape had been fairly definite after all, and the thing I was so ready for had really happened 'the very minute' my back was turned! But that, unhappily, is not the whole coincidence. Five months later it was written of 'this good and gallant leader' that 'while inspecting his battalion in the trenches he was struck by a fragment of shell from a trench mortar (i.e. a rum-jar) and killed instantaneously.' My parenthesis; the rest from The Times notice, which also bears out the story of the six wounds, except that they were seven, and four of them earned ('with an immediate award of the D.S.O.') on a single occasion. There is more in the notice that I should like to quote, more still that I could say even on the strength of that one morning's work; but who am I to praise so grand a man? I only know that I shall never see another Christmas without seeing that front-line trench, and a quiet, dark man in the pride and prime of perfect soldierhood, self-saddled with an old camp-follower who felt as a child beside him.
THE BABES IN THE TRENCHES
In the morning we made our tracks in virgin snow. It had fallen heavily in the night, and was still falling as we turned into the trench. So was a light shower of shell; but it blew over; and now our good luck seemed almost certain to attend us to our journey's end.
The snow thinned off as we plodded on our way. But it had altered and improved the trenches out of knowledge, lying thick along the top on either hand and often half-way down the side, so that we seemed like Gullivers striding between two chains of Lilliputian Alps. It was nevertheless hard going in our valley, where the duck-boards were snowed under for long stretches without a break, and warmer work in my fleece lining than I had known it yet. My gas-mask was like a real mill-stone round the neck; and though the other man had possessed himself of part of my impedimenta, that only made me feel my age the more acutely. Almost a great age I felt that morning; for nights on packing-cases in a low temperature, and an early start on biscuits and condensed-milk prepared with cold water, after short commons of sleep, are the kind of combination that will find a man out. I was not indeed complaining, but neither was I as observant as I might have been. I had been over this part of the ground by myself the day before, on the way to my Christmas dinner. It did look rather different in the snow, but that was to be expected, and the other man knew the way well. So I understood, and he emphatically affirmed the supposition on such provocation as I from time to time felt justified in giving the voluntary bearer of my pack. It was only when we came to some suspiciously unfamiliar landmark, something important (but I honestly forget what) in a bay by itself, that I asserted myself sufficiently to call a halt.
'We never passed that before!'
'Oh, yes, we did. I'm sure we did. I think I remember it.'
That ought not to have satisfied me; but you cannot openly discredit a man who insists on carrying your pack. I was too fatigued to take it from him, and not competent to take the lead. On he led me, perspiring my misgivings at every pore; but under a tangled bridge of barbed wire I made a firmer stand.
'Anyhow, you don't remember this!' I asserted point-blank.
'No. I can't say I do.'
'Then how do you account for it?'
'It must have been put up in the night.'
I cannot remember by what further resource of casuistry that young man induced me to follow him another yard; yet so it was, and all the shame be mine. He himself was the next to falter and stand still in his tracks, and finally to face me with a question whose effrontery I can still admire:
'What would you do if we met a Hun? Put your hands up?'
We were, in fact, once more impinging upon the firing line, and by a trench at the time, apparently, not much in use. I know it seemed long hours since we had encountered a soul; but then it might have been for the best part of another hour that my guilty guide now left me in order to ascertain the worst, and I do not seriously suppose it was very many minutes. I remember cooling off against the side of the trench, and hearing absolutely nothing all the time. That I still think remarkable. It was not snowing; the sun shone; visibility must have been better than for two whole days; and yet nothing was happening. I might have been waiting in some Highland glen, or in a quarry in the wilds of Dartmoor. I think that particular silence was as impressive, as intimidating, as the very heaviest firing that I heard in all my four months at the front.
No harm came of our misadventure; it was possibly less egregious than it sounds. A wrong turning in the snow had taken us perhaps a mile out of our way; but a trench mile is a terribly long one, and I know how much I should like to add for the state of the duck-boards on this occasion, and how much more for that of a lame old duck who thought they were never, never coming to an end! The valley of the guns was nothing after them, though the guns were active at the time, an anti-aircraft battery taking an academic interest in a humming speck on high. Beyond the valley ran the road, and beyond the road the river, where we were to have caught a boat. Of course we had just succeeded in missing it. A homeward-bound lorry picked us up at last. And we were in plenty of time for the plain mid-day meal at our humble headquarters in the town. But by then I was done to the world and dead to shame. I suppose I have led too soft a life, taking very little exercise for its own sake, though occasionally going to the other extreme from an ulterior motive. So I have been deservedly tired once or twice in my time; but I didn't know what it was to be done up before last Boxing Day.
The short mile down to the hut that afternoon was the longest and worst of all. Stiffness was setting in, and the snow so deep in the ruinous streets; but every yard of the way I looked forward to my sheetless bed; and few things in life have disappointed me so little. The fire was out, it seemed, and was worth lighting first. There was a sensuous joy about that last purely voluntary effort and delay. I even think I waited to let my old hot-water bottle share in the triumphal entry between blankets that were at least dry, plentiful, and soft as a feather-bed after the lids of those packing-cases up the Line!
And it was our Christmas concert in the hut that evening: the copious entertainment disturbed without spoiling my rest, rather bringing it home to every aching inch of me as the heavenly thing it was. Song and laughter travelled up the hut, and filtered through to me refined and rarefied by far more than the little distance. Somebody came in and made tea. It was better than being ill. I lay there till nine next morning; then went down to the Officers' Baths, and came out feeling younger than at any period of actual but insensate youth.
He who loves a good novel will find himself in clover in a Y.M.C.A. hut at the front. Not that he will have much time to read one there, except as I read my night-cap The Romance of War; but a better book of the same name will never stop writing itself out before his eyes, a book all dialogue and illustrations, yet chock-full of marvellous characters, drawn to a man without a word of commentary or analysis. To a man, advisedly, since it will be a novel without a heroine; on the other hand, all the men and boys will be heroes, at any rate to the kind of reader I have in mind. Something will depend on him; he will have to apply himself, as much as to any other kind of reading. He must have eyes to see, brains to translate, a heart to love or pity or admire. He must have the power to penetrate under other skins, to tremble for them more than for his own, to glow and sweat with them, to shiver in shoes he is not fit to wear. Many can go as far for people who never existed outside some author's brain; these are they on whom the most stupendous of unwritten romances is least likely to be lost. It lies open to all who care to take their stand behind a hut counter in a forward area in France.
The character to be seen there, and to be loved at sight! The adventures to be heard at first-hand, and sometimes even shared! The fun, the pathos, the underlying horror, but the grandeur lying deeper yet, all to be encountered together at any minute of any working hour! The Romance of War it is, but not only the romance; and talking of my sedative, with all affection for an author who once kept me only too wide awake, it was not of him that I thought by day behind my counter. It was of Dickens. It was of Hugo. It was of Reade, who might have done the best battle in British fiction (and did one of the very best sea-fights), of Scott and Stevenson and the one or two living fathers of families who will die as hard as theirs. Their children were always coming to life before our eyes, especially the Dickens progeny. Sapper Pinch was a friend of mine, with one or two near relations in the R.A.M.C. There were several Private Tapleys, and not one of them a bore; on the contrary, they were worth their weight in gold. And there was an older man whose real name was obviously Sikes, though the worst thing we knew about him was that he smoked an ounce of Nosegay every day he was down, and never said please or thank-you. Once, when we had not seen him for sixteen days, he knew there was something else he wanted but could not remember what. 'Nosegays!' I could tell him, and planked a packet on the counter. It was the one time I saw him smile.
But it was not only business hours that brought forth these immortals; two of the best were always with us in the superbly contrasted persons of our two orderlies. The slower and clumsier of the pair was by rights an Oxfordshire shepherd; in the Army, even under necessity's sternest law, he was matter in the wrong place altogether. Oxfordshire may not be actually a part of Wessex, but there is one part of Oxfordshire as remote as the scene of any of the Wessex Novels, and that was our Strephon's native place. He might have been the real and original Gabriel Oak – as Mr. Hardy found him, not as we fortunately know the bucolic hero of Far from the Madding Crowd.
Our Gabriel was the simplest bumpkin ever seen or heard off the London stage. He it was who, in his early days in France, had heavily inquired: 'Who be this 'ere Fritz they be arl tarkin' about?' Thus did he habitually conjugate the verb to be; but all his locutions and most of his manners and customs, his puzzled head-scratchings, his audible self-communings, his crass sagacity and his simple cunning, were pastoral conventions of quite time-honoured theatricality. His very walk, for all his drills, was the ponderous waddle of the stage rustic. But on his own showing he had (like another Tommy) 'proved one too many for his teachers' at an early stage of his military education. Not all their precept and profanity, not all his pristine ardour as a volunteer, had sufficed to put poor Gabriel on terms of adequate familiarity with his rifle.
'I couldn' make nothin' of it, sir,' he would say with rueful candour. 'So they couldn' make nothin' o' me.'
His simplicity was a joy, though he was sometimes simple to a fault. One morning I caught him draining our tea-pot as a loving-cup: matted head thrown back, brawny elbows lifted, and the spout engulfed in his honest maw: a perfect silhouette, not to be destroyed by a sound, much less a word of protest, even had we not been devoted to our gentle savage. But one of us did surreptitiously attend to the spout before tea-time. And once before my eyes his ready lips sucked the condensed-milk off our tin-opener before plunging it into a tin of potted meat. He had a moustache of obsolete luxuriance, I remember with a shudder in this connection; but the last time I saw him the moustache was not.
'You see, sir,' explained Gabriel, regretfully, 'I had a cold, an' it arl …'
I hope my muscles were still under due control. To know our Gabriel was to perish rather than hurt his feelings; for he had the softest heart of his own, and in Oxfordshire a wife and children to share its affections with his ewes and lambs. 'An' I think a lot on 'em, too, sir,' said Gabriel, when he showed me the full family group (self in uniform) done on his last 'leaf.' Really a sweet simpleton, even when (as I was nearly forgetting) he announced a brand-new Brigadier-General, who had honoured me with a visit, as 'A gen'leman to see you, sir!'
The only man of us who had the heart to tell the angelic Gabriel off was his brother orderly, a respectable and patriotic Huish, if such a combination can be conceived. Our Mr. Huish was the gentleman who always said it wanted five minutes to the 'alf-hour when it wanted at least ten, and too often sped the last of our lingering guests with insult into outer darkness. Like his prototype he was a fiery little Londoner, with a hacking cough and a husky voice ever rising to a shout in his dealings with bovine Gabriel. There was nothing of the beasts of the field about our Huish; he was the terrier type, and more than true to it in his fidelity to his temporary masters. At us he never snarled. His special province was the boiler stove; he was generally blacked up to the red rims of his eyes, like a seaside minstrel, and might have been collecting money in his banjo as we saw him first of a dim morning. But the instrument was only our frying-pan carried at arm's length, and our approval of an unconscionable lot of rashers all the recognition he required. 'W'en I 'as plenty I likes to give plenty,' was his disreputable watchword in these matters. I am afraid he was not supposed to cook for us at all.
Huish was always bustling, or at least shambling with alacrity; whereas Gabriel went about his lightest business with ponderous deliberation and puzzled frown. Both were men of forty who had done the right thing early in the war; they had nothing else in common except the inglorious job which they owed to their respective infirmities. Huish, after many rejections on the score of his, had yet contrived to land in khaki at Le Havre on the last day of the first battle of Ypres; and though he had never been nearer the fighting than he was with us, no one who knew his story or himself could have grudged him his 1914 ribbon. His canine delight, on learning that he was just entitled to it, was a thing to see and to enter into.
Let us hope Gabriel did; he was not very charitable about Huish behind his back. It was Gabriel's boast that he had 'never been in the 'ands of the police,' and his shame to inform us that Huish had. But the sun has its spots, and the overwhelming superiority of Huish in munitions of altercation was perhaps some excuse. Daily we caught his rising voice and Gabriel's rumbling monotone; what it was about we never knew; but Huish had all the nerves in the kitchen, and the shepherd must have been a heavyweight on them at times. Their language, however, as we heard it under mutual provocation, was either a considerable compliment to the Y.M.C.A. or an exclusive credit to themselves. Gabriel was duly archangelic in this regard; the other's only freedom a habit of calling a thing an 'ell of a thing, and on occasion an Elizabethan expressiveness, entirely inoffensive in his mouth.
I wanted their photographs to take with me when I left, and had prevailed upon them to get taken together at my expense. The result lies before me as I write. Both are washed, brushed up, shaven and uniformed out of daily knowledge. Huish stands keenly at attention, as smart as he could make himself; it is not his fault that the sleeves of his new tunic come down nearly to his finger-tips. On his right shoulder rests the forgiving paw of Gabriel; a perceptibly sardonic accentuation of the crow's-feet round his eyes may perhaps be attributed to this prompting of the shepherd's heart or the photographer's finesse. But the pose was a consummation; it was in the course of a preliminary transaction that their excessive gratification obliged me to disclaim benevolence.
'I shall want some of the copies for myself, you know,' I had warned them both.
'Quite right, sir!' cried Huish, heartily. 'It's like a man with a dog an' a bitch – 'e must 'ave 'is pick o' the pups!'
Huish could take the counter at a pinch, but it was neither his business nor his pleasure; and our gentle shepherd found French coinage as dark a mystery as the British rifle. But we were very often assisted by an unpaid volunteer, another great character in his way. We never knew his name, and to me at least he was a new type. A Hull lad, eighteen years old, private in a Labour Battalion employed near the town, he must have had work enough by day and night to satisfy even one of his strength and build, which were those of a little gorilla. And yet never a free evening had this boy but he must spend it behind our counter, slaving like the best of us for sheer love. But it was the work he loved; he was a little shop-keeper born and bred; his heart was in the till at home; that was what brought him hot-foot to ours; and his passionate delight in the mere routine of retail trade was the new thing to me in human boyhood.
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