The Shrapnel of their Friends
FROM far over the knolls came the tiny sound of a cavalry bugle singing out the recall, and later, detached parties of His Majesty's Second Hussars came trotting back to where the Spitzenbergen infantry sat complacently on the captured Rostina position. The horsemen were well pleased, and they told how they had ridden thrice through the helter-skelter of the fleeing enemy. They had ultimately been checked by the great truth that when an enemy runs away in daylight he sooner or later finds a place where he fetches up with a jolt and turns to face the pursuit -- notably if it is a cavalry pursuit. The Hussars had discreetly withdrawn, displaying no foolish pride of corps.
There was a general admission that the Kicking Twelfth had taken the chief honors of the day, but the Artillery added that if the guns had not shelled so accurately the Twelfth's charge could not have been made so successfully, and the three other regiments of infantry, of course, did not conceal their feeling that their attack on the enemy's left had withdrawn many rifles that otherwise would have been pelting at the Twelfth. The Cavalry simply said that but for them the victory would not have been complete.
Corps prides met each other face to face at every step, but the Kickers smiled easily and indulgently. A few recruits bragged, but they bragged because they were recruits. The older men did not wish it to appear that they were surprised and rejoiced at the performance of the regiment. If they were congratulated they simply smirked, suggesting that the ability of the Twelfth had long been known to them and that the charge had been a little thing, you know, just turned off in the way of an afternoon's work. Major-General Richie encamped his troops on the position which they had taken from the enemy. Old Colonel Sponge, of the Twelfth, redistributed his officers, and the losses had been so great that Timothy Lean got command of a company. It was not too much of a company. Forty-seven smudged and sweating men faced their new commander. The company had gone into action with a strength of eighty-six. The heart of Timothy Lean beat high with pride. He intended to be, some day, a general, and if he ever became a general, that moment of promotion was not equal in joy to the moment when he looked at his new possession of forty-seven vagabonds. He scanned the faces and recognized with satisfaction one old sergeant and two bright young corporals. "Now," said he to himself, "I have here a snug little body of men with which I can do something." In him burned the usual fierce fire to make them the best company in the regiment. He had adopted them; they were his men. "I will do what I can for you," he said. "Do you the same for me."
The Twelfth bivouacked on the ridge. Little fires were built, and there appeared among the men innumerable blackened tin-cups, which were so treasured that a faint suspicion in connection with the loss of one could bring on the grimmest of fights. Meantime certain of the privates silently re-adjusted their kits as their names were called out by the sergeants. These were the men condemned to picket duty after a hard day of marching and fighting. The dusk came slowly, and the color of the countless fires, spotting the ridge and the plain, grew in the falling darkness. Far away pickets fired at something.
One by one the men's heads were lowered to the earth until the ridge was marked by two long, shadowy rows of men. Here and there an officer sat musing in his dark cloak with the ray of a weakening fire gleaming on his sword hilt. From the plain there came at times the sound of battery horses moving restlessly at their tethers, and one could imagine he heard the throaty grumbling curse of the aroused drivers. The moon dived swiftly through flying light clouds. Far away pickets fired at something.
In the morning the infantry and guns breakfasted to the music of a racket between the cavalry and the enemy which was taking place some miles up the valley. The ambitious Hussars had apparently stirred some kind of a hornet's nest, and they were having a good fight with no officious friends near enough to interfere. The remainder of the army looked toward the fight musingly over the tops of tin cups. In time the column crawled lazily forward to see. The Twelfth, as it crawled, saw a regiment deploy to the right, and saw a battery dash to take position. The cavalry jingled back, grinning with pride and expecting to be greatly admired. Presently the Twelfth was bidden to take seat by the roadside and await its turn. Instantly the wise men -- and there were more than three -- came out of the east and announced that they had divined the whole plan. The Kicking Twelfth was to be held in reserve until the critical moment of the fight, and then they were to be sent forward to win a victory. In corroboration they pointed to the fact that the general in command was sticking close to them in order, they said, to give the word quickly at the proper moment. And, in truth, on a small hill to the right Major-General Richie sat his horse and used his glasses, while back of him his staff and the orderlies bestrode their champing, dancing mounts.
It is always good to look hard at a general, and the Kickers were transfixed with interest. The wise men again came out of the east and told what was inside the Richie head, but even the wise men wondered what was inside the Richie head.
Suddenly, an exciting thing happened. To the left and ahead was a pounding Spitzbergen battery, and a toy suddenly appeared on the slope behind the guns. The toy was a man with a flag -- the flag was white save for a square of red in the centre. And this toy began to wig-wag, wig-wag, and it spoke to General Richie under the authority of the captain of the battery. It said: "The Eighty-eighth are being driven on my centre and right."
Now, when the Kicking Twelfth had left Spitzbergen there was an average of six signal-men in each company. A proportion of these signalers had been destroyed in the first engagement, but enough remained so that the Kicking Twelfth read, as a unit, the news of the Eighty-eighth. The word ran quickly. "The eighty-eighth are being driven on my centre and right."
Richie rode to where Colonel Sponge sat aloft, on his big horse, and a moment later a cry rang along the column. "Kim up the Kickers." A large number of the men were already in the road, hitching and twisting at their belts and packs. The Kickers moved forward.
They deployed and passed in a straggling line through the battery and to the left and right of it. The gunners called out to them cheerfully, telling them not to be afraid.
The scene before them was startling. They were facing a country cut up by many steep-sided ravines, and over the resultant hills were retreating little squads of the Eighty-eighth. The Twelfth laughed in its exultation. The men could now tell by the volume of fire that the Eighty-eighth were retreating for reasons which were not sufficiently expressed in the noise of the Rostina shooting. Held together by the bugle, the Kickers swarmed up the first hill and laid on its crest. Parties of the Eighty-eighth went through their lines, and the Twelfth told them coarsely its several opinions. The sights were clicked up to 600 yards, and with a crashing volley the regiment entered its second battle.
A thousand yards away on the right, the cavalry and a regiment of infantry were creeping onward. Sponge decided not to be backward, and the bugle told the Twelfth to go ahead once more. The Twelfth charged, followed by a rabble of rallied men of the Eighty-eighth, who were crying aloud that it had been all a mistake.
A charge in these days is not a running match. Those splendid pictures of leveled bayonets dashing at headlong pace towards the closed ranks of the enemy are absurd as soon as they are mistaken for the actuality of the present. In these days charges are likely to cover at least the half of a mile, and, to go at the pace exhibited in the pictures, a man would be obliged to have a little steam engine inside of him.
The charge of the Kicking Twelfth somewhat resembled the advance of a great crowd of beaters, who for some reason passionately desired to start the game. Men stumbled; men fell; men swore. There were cries: "This way! Come this way! Don't go that way! You can't get up that way." Over the rocks the Twelfth scrambled, red in the face, sweating and angry. Soldiers fell because they were struck by bullets and because they had not an ounce of strength left in them. Colonel Sponge, with a face like a red cushion, was being dragged windless up the steps by devoted and athletic men. Three of the older captains lay afar back, and swearing with their eyes because their tongues were temporarily out of service.
And yet -- and yet the speed of the charge was slow. From the position of the battery, it looked as if the Kickers were taking a walk over some extremely difficult country.
The regiment ascended a superior height and found trenches and dead men. They took seat with the dead, satisfied with this company until they could get their wind. For thirty minutes, purple-faced stragglers re-joined from the rear. Colonel Sponge looked behind him and saw that Richie, with his staff, had approached by another route, and had evidently been near enough to see the full extent of the Kickers' exertions. Presently Richie began to pick a way for his horse toward the captured position. He disappeared in a gully between two hills.
Now, it came to pass that a Spitzbergen battery on the far right took occasion to mistake the identity of the Kicking Twelfth, and the captain of these guns, not having anything to occupy him in front, directed his six 3.2's upon the ridge where the tired Kickers lay side by side with the Rostina dead. A shrapnel, of course, scattered forward, hurting nobody. But a man screamed out to his officer, "By God, sir, that is one of our own batteries." The whole line quivered with fright. Five more shells streamed overhead, and one flung its hail into the middle of the third battalion's line, and the Kicking Twelfth shuddered to the very centre of its heart -- and arose like one man -- and fled.
Colonel Sponge, fighting, frothing at the mouth, dealing blows with his fist right and left, found himself confronting a fury on horseback. Richie was as pale as death, and his eyes sent out sparks. "What does this conduct mean?" he flashed out from between his fastened teeth.
Sponge could only gurgle, "The battery -- the battery -- the battery -- "
"The battery?" cried Richie in a voice which sounded like pistol shots. "Are you afraid of the guns you almost took yesterday? Go back there, you white-livered cowards! you swine! you dogs! curs! curs! curs! Go back there!"
Most of the men halted and crouched under the lashing tongue of their maddened general. But one man found desperate speech, and he yelled: "General, it is our own battery that is firing on us!"
Many say that the general's face tightened until it looked like a mask. The Kicking Twelfth retired to a comfortable place where they were only under the fire of the Rostina artillery. The men saw a staff officer riding over the obstructions in a manner calculated to break his neck directly.
The Kickers were aggrieved, but the heart of the old colonel was cut in twain. He even babbled to his majors, talking like a man who is about to die of simple rage. "Did you hear what he said to me? Did you hear what he called us? Did you hear what he called us?"
The majors searched their minds for words to heal a deep wound.
The Twelfth received orders to go into camp upon the hill where they had been insulted. Old Sponge looked as if he were about to knock the aide out of the saddle, but he saluted and took the regiment back to the temporary companionship of the Rostina dead.
Major-General Richie never apologized to Colonel Sponge. When you are a commanding officer you do not adopt the custom of apologizing for the wrong done to your subordinates. You ride away. And they understand and are confident of the restitution to honor. Richie never opened his stern young lips to Sponge in reference to the scene near the hill of the Rostina dead, but in time there was General Order No. 20, which spoke definitely of the gallantry of His Majesty's Twelfth Regiment of the Line and its colonel. In the end Sponge was given a high decoration because he had been badly used by Richie on that day. Richie knew that it is hard for men to withstand the shrapnel of their friends. A few days later the Kickers, marching in column on the road, came upon their friend, the battery, halted in a field. And they addressed the battery. And the captain of the battery blanched to the tips of his ears. But the men of the battery told the Kickers to go to the devil -- frankly -- freely, placidly, told the Kickers to go to the devil.
And this story proves that it is sometimes better to be a private.