Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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At first I had wondered, the hobby seemed so unnatural: at first I even kept an eye on him and on the till. Our leader had gone on leave before the New Year; nobody seemed to know how far he had encouraged the boy, or the origin of his anomalous footing in the hut; and we were taking a cool thousand francs a day. But our young volunteer bore microscopic scrutiny, but repaid it all. His was not only a labour of love unashamed, but the joyous exercise of a gift, the triumphant display of an inherent power. He beat the best of us behind a counter. It was his element, not ours for all the will and skill in the world; he was a fish among swimmers, a professional among amateurs, and the greatest disciplinarian of us all. The home till may have been behind a bar in the worst part of Hull, long practice in prompt refusal have given him his short way with old soldiers opening negotiations out of their turn. It was a good way, however, as cheery as it was firm. I can hear it now:
'Naw, yer dawn't, Jock! Get away back an' coom oop in't queue like oother people!'
It was never resented. Though not even one of us, but the youngest and lowliest of themselves, that urchin by his own virtue exercised the authority of a truculent N.C.O. with the whole military machine behind him. I never heard a murmur against him, or witnessed the least reluctance to obey his ruling. And with equal impunity he addressed all alike as 'Jock.'
But that, though one of his many and quaint idiosyncrasies, was perhaps the covert compliment that took the edge off all the rest.
And it brings me to the Jocks themselves, who deserve a place apart from Y.M.C.A. orderlies and the best of boys in a Labour Battalion.
First a word about this generic term of 'Jock.' I use it advisedly, yet not without a qualm. It is not for a civilian to drop into military familiarities on the strength of a winter with the Expeditionary Force; but this sobriquet has spread beyond all Army areas; like 'Tommy,' but with a difference worth considering, it has passed into the language of the man still left in the street. If not, it will; for you have only to see him at his job in the war, doing it in a way and a spirit all his own, and a Jock is a Jock to you ever after. As the cricketer said about the yorker, what else can you call him?
The first time the word slipped off my tongue, except behind their backs, and I found I had called a superb young Seaforth Highlander 'Jock' to his noble face, I stood abashed before him. It sounded an unpardonable liberty; apologise I must, and did.
'It's a name I am proud to be called by,' said he quite simply. I never committed the apology again.
It was not as though one had called an English soldier 'Tommy' to his face; the Jock's answer brought that home to me, and with something like a shock – not because 'Jock' was evidently rather more than a term of endearment, but because 'Tommy' suddenly seemed rather less.Each carried its own nuance, its quite separate implication, and somehow the later term took higher ground. I wondered how much later it was. Did it begin in South Africa? There were no Jocks in Barrack-Room Ballads; but there was 'Tommy,' the poem; and between those immortal lines I read my explanation. It was from them I had learnt, long years before either war, that it was actually possible for purblind peace-lovers to look down upon the British soldier, under the name those lines dinned in. The Jocks had not been christened in those dead days; that was their luck; that was the difference. Their name belonged to the spacious times which have given the fighting-man the place of honour in all true hearts.
Hard on Tommy! As for the Jocks, they have earned their good name if men ever did; but I am to speak of them only as I saw them across a Y.M.C.A. counter, demanding 'twust' without waste of syllables, or 'wrichting-pads,' or 'caun'les'; huge men with little voices, little men with enormous muscles; men of whalebone with the quaint, stiff gait engendered by the kilt, looking as though their upper halves were in strait waistcoats, simply because the rest of them goes so free; figures of droll imperturbability, of bold and handsome sang-froid, hunting in couples among the ruins for any fun or trouble that might be going. 'As if the town belonged to them!' said one who loved the sight of them; but I always thought the distinctive thing about the Jock was his air of belonging to the town, ruined or otherwise, or to the bleak stretch of war-eaten countryside where one had the good fortune to encounter him. His matter-of-fact stolidity, his dry scorn of discomfort, the soul above hardship looking out of his keen yet dreamy eyes, the tight smile on his proud, uncomplaining lips – to meet all these in a trench was to feel the trench transformed to some indestructible stone alley of the Old Town. These men might have been born and bred in dug-outs, and played all their lives in No-Man's Land, as town children play about a street and revel in its dangers.
I am proud to remember that they held the part of the line I was in at Christmas. I saw them do everything but fight, and that I had no wish to see as a spectator; but everybody knows how they set about it, the enemy best of all. I have seen them, however, pretty soon after a raid: it was like talking to a man who had just made a hundred at Lord's: our hut was the Pavilion. I never saw them with their blood up, and to see them merely under fire is to see them just themselves – not even abnormally normal like less steady souls.
Said a Black Watchman in the hearing of a friend of mine, as he mended a parapet under heavy fire, in the worst days of '15: 'I wish they'd stop their bloody sniping —and let me get on with my work!'
The Jock all over! So a busy man swears at a wasp; the Jock at war is just a busy man until something happens to put a stop to his business. In the meantime he is not complaining; he is not asking you when this dreadful war will finish; he is not telling you it can never be finished by fighting. He went to the war as a bridegroom to his bride, and he has the sense and virtue to make the best of his bargain till death or peace doth them part. He may sigh for his release like other poor devils; his pride will not let him sigh audibly; and as for 'getting out of it,' divorce itself is not more alien to his stern spirit. It is true that he has the business in his blood: not the Covenanters only but the followers of Montrose and Claverhouse were Jocks before him. It is also true that even he is not always at concert pitch; but his nerves do not relax or snap in damp or cold, as may the nerves of a race less inured through the centuries to hardship and the incidence of war. In bitter fighting there is nothing to choose between the various branches of the parent oak. The same sound sap runs through them all. But in bitter weather on the Western Front give me a hutful of Jocks! If only Dr. Johnson could have been with us in the Y.M.C.A. from last December to the day of big things! It would have spoilt the standing joke of his life.
In the jaunty bonnet that cast no shadow on the bronzed face underneath, with the warm tints of their tartans between neat tunic and weather-beaten knees, their mere presence lit up the scene; and to scrape acquaintance with one at random was nearly always to tap a character worthy of the outer man. There are those who insist that the discipline of the Army destroys individuality; it may seem so in the transition stage of training, but the nearer the firing-line the less I found it to be the case. I knew a Canadian missioner, turned Coldstream Guardsman, who was very strong and picturesque upon the point.
'Out here,' said he, 'a man goes naked; he can't hide what he really is; he can't camouflage himself.'
The Jock does not try. In the life school of the war he stands stripped, but never poses; sometimes rugged and unrefined; often massive and majestic in body and mind; always statuesque in his simplicity, always the least self-conscious of Britons. Two of his strongest point are his education and his religion, but he makes no parade of either, because both are in his blood. His education is as old as the least humorous of the Johnsonian jibes, as old as the Dominie and the taws: a union that bred no 'brittle intellectuals,' but hard-headed men who have helped the war as much by their steadfast outlook as by their zest and prowess in the field. As for their religion, it is the still deeper strain, mingled as of old with the fighting spirit of this noble race. It is most obvious in the theological students, even the full-fledged ministers, to be found in the ranks of the Jocks to-day; but I have seen it in rougher types who know nothing of their own sleeping fires, who are puzzled themselves by the blaze of joy they feel in battle and will speak of it with characteristic frankness and simplicity.
'The pleasure it gives ye! The pleasure it gives ye!' said one who had been breathing wonders about their ding-dong, hand-to-hand bomb-and-bayonet work. 'This warr,' he went on to declare, 'will do more for Christianity than ever was done in the wurruld before.'
This also he reiterated, and then added surprisingly:
'Mine ye, I'm no' a Christian mysel'; but this warr will do more for Christianity than ever was done in the wurruld before.'
The personal disclaimer was repeated in its turn, in order to remove any possible impression that the speaker was any better than he ought to be. At least I thought that was the explanation; none was offered or indeed invited, for there were other men waiting at the counter; and we never met again, though he promised to come back next night. That boy meant something, though he did not mean me to know how much. He came from Glasgow, talked and laughed like Harry Lauder, and did both together all the time. His conversation made one think. It would be worth recording for its cheery, confidential plunge into deep waters; nobody but a Jock would have taken the first header.
Yet, out of France, the Scottish have a reputation for reserve! Is it that in their thoroughgoing way they strip starker than any, where all go as naked as my Canadian friend declared?
They are said to be (God bless them!) our most ferocious fighters. I should be sorry to argue the point with a patriotic Australian; but my money is on the Jock as the most affectionate comrade. It is a touching thing to hear any soldier on a friend who has fought and fallen at his side; but the poetry that is in him makes it wonderful to hear a Jock; you get the swirl of the pipes in his voice, the bubble of a Highland burn in his brown eyes. So tender and yet so terrible! So human and so justly humorous in their grief!
'He was the best wee Sergeant ever a mon had,' one of them said to me, the night after a costly raid. We have no English word to compare with that loving diminutive; 'little' comes no nearer it than 'Tommy' comes near 'Jock.' One even doubts whether there are any 'wee' Sergeants who do not themselves make use of the word.
I could tell many a moving tale as it was told to me, in an accent that I never adored before. On second thoughts it is the very thing I cannot do and will not attempt. But here is a letter that has long been in my possession; a part of it has been in print before, in a Harrow publication, for it is all about a Harrow boy of great distinction; but this is the whole letter. It makes without effort a number of the points I have been labouring; it throws a golden light on the relations between officers and men in a famous Highland Regiment; but its unique merit lies in the fact that it was not written for the boy's people to read. It is a Jock's letter to a Jock, about their officer: —
Thomas himself is not quite so simple. He is not writing as man to man, but to an intermediary who will show every word to 'little – 's' family. He is not speaking just for himself, but for his old platoon, and added to this responsibility is the manly duty of keeping up his own repute, both as one who 'should have been Prime Minister' and as one who 'can do it better than any of us.' Thomas is somewhere or other in hospital, but for all his hurts there are passages of his that come from squared elbows and a very sturdy pen:
I love Thomas for the two italicised asides. It was not he who underlined them; but they declare his politics as unmistakably as Sandy's bit about those arguments with their officer. For 'little – ' was the son of one of Scotland's noblest and most ancient houses; but Thomas is careful to explain that they never knew that until the papers told them, and we have internal evidence that Sandy never gave it a thought. He lays no stress on the fact that 'none of the rest of them ever mixed themselves with us the same as he done': the gem of both tributes, when you come to think of it.
I think of it the more because I knew this young Harrovian a little in his brilliant boyhood (Head of the School and Captain of the Football Eleven), but chiefly because I happen to have seen his grave. It is on the outskirts of a village that was still pretty and wooded in early '17, though the church was in a bad way even then. Now there can be little left; but I hope against hope that some of the wooden crosses which so impressed me are still intact. For there as ever among his men, I think even alongside 'wee Mac' and the others named in that pathetic postscript, lies 'little – ', truly 'mixing himself with them' to the last.
In the same row, under mound and cross as neat as any, lay 'an unknown German soldier'; and for his sake, perhaps, if all have not been blown to the four winds, the present occupiers11
Next to the Jocks, I used to find the Gunners the cheeriest souls about a hut. Nor do I believe that mine was a chance experience; for the constant privilege of inflicting damage on the Hun must be, despite a very full share of his counter-attentions, a perpetual source of satisfaction. A Gunner is oftener up and doing, far seldomer merely suffering, than any other being under arms. The Infantry have so much to grin and bear, so very much that would be unbearable without a grin, that it is no wonder if the heroic symbol of their agony be less in evidence upon ordinary occasions. Cheeriness with them has its own awful connotation: they are almost automatically at their best when things are at their worst; but the gunner is always enjoying the joke of making things unpleasant for the other side. He is the bowler who is nearly certain of a good match.
He used to turn up at our hut at all hours, sometimes in a Balaclava helmet that reminded one of other winter sports, often with his extremities frozen by long hours in the saddle or on his limber, but never wearied by much marching and never in any but the best of spirits. He was always an interesting man, who knew the Line as a strolling player knows the Road, but neither knew nor cared where he was to give the next performance. I associate him with a ruddy visage and a hearty manner that brought a breeze in from the outer world, as a good stage sailor brings one from the wings.
One great point about the Gunners is that you can see them at their job. I had seen them at it on a former brief visit to the front, and even had a foretaste of their quality of humour, which is by no means so heavy as a civilian wag might apprehend. The scene was the tight-rope road between Albert and Bapaume, then stretched across a chasm of inconceivable devastation, and only three-parts in our hands; in fact we were industriously shelling Bapaume and its environs when a car from the Visitors' Ch?teau dumped two of us, attended by a red-tabbed chaperon, in the very middle of our guns.
Not even in later days do I remember such a row as they were making. Shells are as bad, but I imagine one does not hear a great many quite so loud and live to write about it. Drum-fire must be worse at both ends; but I have heard only distant drum-fire, and on the spot it must have this advantage, that its continuity precludes surprise. But a series of shattering surprises was the essence of our experience before Bapaume. The guns were all over the place, and fiendishly camouflaged. I was prepared for all sorts of cunning and picturesque screens and emplacements, and indeed had looked for them. I was not prepared for absolutely invisible cannon of enormous calibre that seemed to loose off over our shoulders or through our legs the moment our backs were turned.
If you happened to be looking round you were all right. You saw the flash, and your eye forewarned your ear in the fraction of a second before the bang, besides reassuring you as to the actual distance between you and the blazing gun; but whenever possible it took a mean advantage, and had me ducking as though somebody had shouted 'Heads!' I say 'me,' not before it was time; for I can only speak with honesty for myself. By flattering chance I was pretending to enjoy this experience in good company indeed; but the great man might have been tramping his own moor, and doing the shooting himself, for all the times I saw his eyelids flicker or his massive shoulders wince. He made no more of a howitzer that jovially thundered and lightened in our path, over our very heads, than of the brace of sixty-pounders whose peculiarly ear-destroying duet 'scratched the brain's coat of curd' as we stood only too close behind them. They might have been a brace of Irish Members for all their intimidatory effect on my illustrious companion.
But the fun came when we adjourned to the Battery Commander's dug-out, and somebody suggested that the Forward Observing Officer would feel deeply honoured by a word on the telephone from so high an Officer of State. All urbanity, the O.S. took down the receiver, and was heard introducing himself to the F.O.O. by his official designation, as though high office alone could excuse such a liberty. The receiver cackled like a young machine-gun, and the O.S. beamed dryly on the O.C.
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