'He wants to know who the devil I really am!' he reported with due zest.
Hastily the spectacled young Major vouched for the other speaker. The receiver changed hands once more. The Forward Observing Officer was evidently as good as his style and title.
'He says – "in that case" – I'd better look him up!' twinkled the O.S. 'Is there time? He says he's quite close to the sugar factory.'
The sugar factory was unmistakable, not as a flagrant sugar factory but as the only fragment of a building left standing within the sky-line. It proved a snare. Our F.O.O. was unknown there; if he had ever been at the ex-factory, he had kept himself to himself and gone without leaving an address; and though we sought him high and low among the shell-holes, under the belching muzzles of our guns, it was not intended by Providence (nor yet peradventure by himself) that we should track that light artillery comedian to his place of concealment.
Still, one can get at a gunner (in the above sense only) quicker than at any other class of acquaintance in the Line.
It is, after all, a very small war in the same sense as it is said to be a small world; and in our ruined town I was always running into some soldier whom I had known of old in leather or prunella. I have had the pleasure of serving an old servant as an impressive N.C.O., of welcoming others of all ranks on both sides of the counter. Thus it was that one day I had a car lent me to go pretty well where I liked, subject to the approval of a young Staff Officer, my escort. I thought of a Gunner friend hidden away somewhere in those parts. He was an Old Boy of my old school. So, as it happened, was the High Commander to whom the car belonged; so, by an extraordinary chance, was the young Staff Officer. The oldest of them, of course, long years after my time; but an All Uppingham Day for me, if ever I had one! I only wish we could have claimed the hero of the day as well.
The car took us to within a couple of miles of my friend, who was not above another mile from No-Man's Land. It was a fairly lively sector at the best of times, which was about the time I was there. The enemy had shown unseasonable activity only the night before, and we met some of the casualties coming down a light railway, up which we walked the last part of the way. Two or three khaki figures pushing a truck laden with a third figure – supine, blanketed, and very still: that was the picture we passed several times in the thin February sunlight. One man looked as dead as the livid landscape; one had a bloody head and a smile that stuck; one was walking, supported by a Red Cross man, coughing weakly as he went. Round about our destination were a number of shell-sockets, very sharp and clean, all made in the night.
It was quite the deepest dug-out I was ever in, but I was not sorry when I had found my eyes in the twilight of its single candle. Warm, down there; a petrol engine throbbing incomprehensibly behind a curtain at the foot of the flight; a ventilating shaft at the inner end; hardly any more room than in an Uppingham study.
His second-in-command, my Uppingham friend, told me as he saw us along the light railway on our way back. In 1914 the Major had been a Nonconformist Minister. Never mind the Denomination, or the part of Great Britain: because the Call sounded faint there, and his flock were slow to answer, the shepherd showed the way, himself enlisting in the ranks: because he was what he was, and came whence he came, here and thus had I found him in 1918, commanding a battery on the Somme, at the age – but that would be a tale out of school. A legion might be made up of the men whose real ages are nobody's business till the war is over; then they might be formed into a real Old Guard of Honour, and splendidissime mendax might be their motto.
I do not say the Major would qualify. I have forgotten exactly what it was I heard upon the point. But I am not going to forget something that reached me later from another source altogether, namely the lips of a sometime N.C.O. of the Battery.
'There was not,' he asserted, 'better discipline in any battery in France. But not a man of us ever heard the Major swear.'
It was a great friend of mine that I had gone forth to see: a cricketer whose only sin was the century that kept him out of the pavilion: a man without an enemy but the one he turned out to fight at forty. Yet the man I am gladdest to have seen that day on the Somme is not my friend, but my friend's friend and Major… And to think that he opened his kindly fire upon me by saying absurd things about the only book of mine which has very many friends; and that I let him, God forgive me, instead of bowing down before the gorgeous man!
The Jocks started me thinking in units, the Gunners set me off on the chance meetings of this little war, and between them they have taken me rather far afield from my Noah's Ark in the mud. But I am not going back just yet, though the ground is getting dangerous. I am only too well aware of that. It is presumptuous to praise the living; and I for one would rather stab a man in the back than pat him on it; but may I humbly hope that I do neither in these notes? The bristling risks shall not deter me from speaking of marvellous men as I found them, nor yet from expressing as best I may the homage they inspired. I can only leave out their names, and the names of the places where we met, and trust that my precautions are not themselves taken in vain. But there is no veiling whole units, or at least no avoiding some little rift within the veil. And when the unit is the Guards – but even the Guards were not all in one place last winter.
Enough that at one time there were Guardsmen to be seen about the purlieus of that 'battered caravanserai' which the war found an antique city of sedate distinction, and is like to leave yet another scrap-heap. The Guards were in the picture there, if not so much so as the Jocks; for in kilt and bonnet the Jocks on active service are more like Jocks than the Guards are like Guardsmen; nevertheless, and wherever they wander, the Guards are quite platitudinously unlike any other troops on earth.
Memorable was the night they first swarmed into my first hut. 'Debouched,' I daresay, would be the more becoming word; but at any rate they duly marched upon the counter, in close order at that, and (as the correspondents have it) 'as though they had been on parade.' Few of them had anything less than a five-franc note; all required change; soon there was not a coin in the till. I wish the patronesses of Grand Clearance Sales could have seen how the Guards behaved that night. Not one of them showed impatience; not one of them was inconsiderate, much less impolite; the sanctity of the queue could not have been more scrupulously observed had our Labour boy been there to see to nothing else. He was not there, and I sighed for him when there was time to sigh; for it was easily the hardest night's work I had in France. But the Guards did their best to help us; they were always buying more than they wanted, 'to make it even money'; continually prepared to present the Y.M.C.A. with the change we could not give them. Never was a body of men in better case – calmer, more immaculate, better-set-up, more dignified and splendid to behold. They might have walked across from Wellington Barracks; they were actually fresh from what I have heard them call 'the Cambrai do.'
There was a bitterly cold night a little later on; it was also later in the night. My young chief was already a breathing pillar of blankets. I was still cowering over a reddish stove, thinking of the old hot-water bottle which was even then preparing a place for my swaddled feet: from outer darkness came the peculiar crunch of heavy boots – many pairs of them – rhythmically planting themselves in many inches of frozen snow. I went out and interviewed a Guards' Corporal with eighteen eager, silent file behind him, all off a leave train and shelterless for the night, unless we took them in. I pointed out that we had no accommodation except benches and trestle-tables, and the bare boards of the hut, where the stove had long been black and the clean mugs were freezing to their shelf.
'We shall be very satisfied,' replied the Corporal, 'to have a roof over us.'
I can hear him now: the precise note of his appreciation, candid yet not oppressive: the dignified, unembittered tone of a man too proud to make much of a minor misfortune of war. Yet for fighting-men just back from Christmas leave, howsoever it may have come about, what a welcome! I never felt a greater brute than lying warm in my bed, within a yard of the stove that still blushed for me, and listening to those silent men taking off their accoutrements with as little noise as possible, preparing for a miserable night without a murmur. Later in the winter, it was said that men were coming back from leave disgruntled and depressed. My answer was this story of the Corporal and the eighteen freezing file. But they were Guardsmen nearly all.
Not the least interesting of individual Guardsmen was one who across our counter nicely and politely declared himself an anarchist. It was the slack hour towards closing-time, before the National Anthem at the cinema prepared us for the final influx, and I am glad I happened to be free to have that chat. It was most instructive. My Guardsman, who was accompanied by the inevitable Achates, was not a temporary soldier; both were fine, seasoned men of twelve or thirteen years' service, who had been through all the war, with such breaks as their tale of wounds had necessitated. The anarchist did all the talking, beginning (most attractively to me) about cricket. He was a keen watcher of the game, an old habitu? of Burton Court and intense admirer of certain distinguished performers for the Household Brigade. 'A great man!' was his concise encomium for more than one. How the anarchy came in I have forgotten. It was decked in dark sayings of a rather homely cut, concerning the real war to follow present preliminaries; but I thought the real warrior was himself rather in the dark as to what it was all to be about. At any rate he failed to enlighten me, as perhaps I failed to enlighten him on the common acceptation of the term 'anarchy.' Reassure me he did, however, by several parenthetical observations, which seemed to fall from the inveterate soldier rather than the soi-disant revolutionary.
'But of course we shall see this war through first,' he kept interrupting himself to impress on me. 'Nothing will be done till we have beaten Germany.'
On balance I was no wiser about the anarchist point of view, but all the richer for this peep into a Guardsman's mind. It was like a good sanitary cubicle filled with second-hand gimcrackery, but still the same good cubicle, still in essentials exactly like a few thousand more. The meretricious jumble was kept within rigid bounds of discipline and good manners, and not as a temporary measure either; for I was solemnly assured that the 'real war,' when it came, would be a bloodless one. Let us hope other incendiaries will adopt my friend's somewhat difficult ideal of an ordered anarchy! As for his manners, I can only say I have heard views with which I was in full personal agreement made more offensive by a dogmatic advocate than were these monstrous but quite amiable nebulosities. If anarchy is to come, I know which anarchist I want to 'ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm'; he will spare Burton Court, I do believe; and even catch himself saluting, with true Guards' ?lan, the 'great men' who are still permitted to hit out of it.
Tradition in the Guards, you conjecture, means more than machine-guns, more than artillery support; it is half the battle they are always pulling out of the fire. It may be other things as well. I heard a delightful story about one Battalion – but I heard it from a fellow-tradesmen whose business it is (or was, before the war) to say more than his prayers. The libel, for it is too good to be true, was that one of the senior Battalions, having given a dinner in some Flemish town early in the war, did a certain amount of inadvertent damage to municipal property during the subsequent proceedings. One in authority wrote to apologise to the maire, enclosing the wherewithal for reparation: whereupon the maire presented himself in high glee, brandishing an equally handsome apology for the same thing done in the same place by the same Regiment in – 1711!
One royal night I had myself as the guest of a Company in another of their Battalions. The camp was about half-way between our hut and the front line, near the road and in mud enough to make me feel at home. But whereas we weltered in a town-locked pool, this was in the open sea; not a tree or a chink of masonry in sight; just a herd of 'elephants' or Nissen huts, linked up by a network of duck-boards like ladders floating in the mud. Mud! It was more like clotted cocoa to a mind debauched by such tipple, and the great split tubes of huts like a small armada turned turtle in the filth.
The outer tube I think was steel – duly corrugated – but wooden inner tubes made the mess-hut and the one I shared with my host voluptuously snug and weather-proof. It was the wildest and wettest night of all the winter, but not a drop or a draught came in anywhere, and I am afraid I thought with selfish satisfaction of the many perforations in our own thin-skinned hut. An open fire was another treat to me; and I remember being much intrigued by a buttery-hatch in the background. It reminded me of the third act of The Admirable Crichton.
There were only four of us at dinner, or five including a parrot who hopped about saying things I have forgotten. All the other three were temporary Guardsmen; that I knew; but to me they seemed the lineal descendants of the bear-skinned and whiskered heroes in old volumes of Punch. I suppose they were colder in their Balaclava huts, but I warrant the other atmosphere was much the same. We should not have had Wagner on a gramophone before Sebastopol; but they would have given me Veuve Cliquot, or whatever the very best may have been in those days; and if I had committed the solecism of asking for more bread, having consumed my statutory ration, the mess-waiter of 1855 would have put me right in the same solicitous undertone that spared my blushes in 1918. The perfect blend of luxury and discipline would have been as captivating then as now and ever, and the kindness of my hosts a thing to write about in fear and trembling, no matter how gratefully.
But there would have been no duck-boards to follow through wind and rain to my host's warm hut, and I should not be looking back upon as snug a winter's night as one could wish to spend. How we lay talking while the storm frittered its fury upon the elephant's tough hide! Once more it was talk of schooldays, but not of mine; it was all about Eton this time, and nearly all about a boy there who had been most dear to us both. He was now out here in his grave; but which of them was not? Of the group that I knew best before the war, only he whom I was with to-night! I lay awake listening to his even breathing, and prayed that he at least might survive the holocaust yet to come.
Somewhere in Flanders there was a ruined estaminet, with an early trench running round it, that I longed to see for the sake of a grave in a farm-yard not far behind. The grave itself was known to be obliterated. Though dug very deep by men who loved the boy they laid there at dead of night, and though the Sergeant (who loved him most) could say what a strong cross they had placed over it, the grave was so situated, and the whole position so continuously under fire, that official registration was never possible, nor any further reassurance to be had. The boy's Division went out of the Line, and at length went back into another sector; but more than one officer who knew his people, and one brave friend who had only heard of them, searched the spot without avail. For two years it was so near the enemy and so heavily shelled that the fear became a moral certainty that everything had been swept away; then the boy's father chanced to meet his Army Commander; and that great human soldier ordered the investigation that bore out every dread. Nothing remained to mark the grave. And yet I longed to see the place; the tide of battle had at last receded; at least I might see what was left of the trench where the boy had fallen, and have something to tell his mother on my return. So I had set my heart, originally, on working for the Y.M.C.A. in Flanders. Had I been given my way about that, very little that I have now to tell could possibly have happened.
It was ordained, however, that I should go to France, and a long way down the Line, an impossible journey from my secret goal. To be honest, I had a voice in this myself, and even readily acquiesced in the arrangement; for there were sound reasons for taking the first opening that offered; and on reflection I saw myself the unsoundness of my first position. After all, I was not going out for secret or for private ends; and even in Flanders, what means or what authority should I have had for hunting among graves, marked or unmarked? What guide could I have hoped to get to show me all I wished to see, and what could I have seen or done without a guide? Already the new plan spelt a providential exclusion from a sphere of futile mortification and divided desires: to France I went, and with an easy mind. And in France the first people I saw, in my first hut, as customers across the counter, were the boy's old Division!
I suppose the odds against that must have been fairly long. Of all the Divisions in the B.E.F. only three were plying between our town and the Line; and of those three that Division was one. It was, moreover, the one that we saw most of in the Ark. Theirs were the pink barracks just outside our gates; it was their cinema that lay across our bows in the mud; their motley Battalions that could make the hut a Babel of all the dialects in Great Britain. The boy's Brigade was up the Line when I arrived; in a few days it came down, and under the familiar regimental cap-badge how eagerly I sought the faces that looked old enough to have three years' service! They are the veterans of this war; but few, it seemed, were left. Did I discover one, he had not been in B Company. I grew ashamed of questioning. It was not before the Brigade had been up the Line for another sixteen days, and come back again, that a little hard-bitten man aroused fresh hopes and passed all tests. He had not only been in the Regiment at the time, but in B Company; not only in B Company, but in the boy's Platoon; there when he fell; one of the burial party!
We had a long talk in the inner room. It appeared there were two other survivors of the old Platoon; the Sergeant, as I knew to my sorrow, had died Company Sergeant-Major at Passchendaele. Of the other two, one in particular, now a bandsman but in 1915 a stretcher-bearer, could tell me everything: he should come and see me himself. He never did come, and I saw no more of the little man who promised to send him. Once again they all went up the Line, and by the time that tour was over I had deserted the hut near their barracks. The little man called there and left a message; it was to say he was going on leave for three weeks, and the Battalion were going away to rest. When they all got back, he would bring the bandsman to see me without fail.
It is a long story; but then Coincidence (or what we will) was stretching a very long arm. Coincidence (at least in the literal sense) was indeed stretching out both arms: one of them was busy all this time at distant Ypres. An unknown friend there, remotely connected with the boy's people, thought he had discovered the boy's grave. He had written home to say so; the news was sent out to me, and we got into correspondence. He had searched the shell-blasted farm-yard where the burial was known to have taken place, and he had discovered – evidence. Some of this evidence he eventually sent me: a cheap French or Flemish watch, red with the rust and mould of a soldier's grave: just the watch that a boy would buy at the nearest town for his immediate needs. Now, at the time of his death, this boy's watch was being mended in London; therefore, the one now in my hands was good evidence as far as it went. A boot-strap had been found as well, and something else that tallied terribly; on the strength of all this testimony, and of an instinctive certainty in the mind of our unknown friend, a new cross already marked the site of these discoveries. He wanted me to see the place for myself, and as soon as possible, in case the enemy should make his expected thrust in that quarter. Nor could I have gone too soon for my own satisfaction. Grave or no grave (for I could not quite share his sanguine conviction), I longed to grasp the hand of a man who had done so much for people he had never met: and to see all there was to see with my own eyes.