War, the Liberator, and Other Pieces/In the Wood


THE sun struck through the still unriven trees upon earth, baked by a month of drying suns and torn into fantastic heaps and hollows by the hands of men and the burst of shells; for the wood had been the centre of a ten-days’ struggle, and either side had hurled earth-shaking crumps into it, and had dug frantically little slit trenches to hide themselves from the death which was menaced by every whining shell. Now at last it was British, and save for a commodious dug-out here and there, and some torn grey equipment, no trace was left of the German occupation. The tall trees stood up parched and blasted by the hot breath of the explosions or lay where the explosions had struck them down; the fallen leaves were littered in the hollows, whence rose, if you disturbed them, an acrid smell of the gas launched over the wood four days before, and everywhere among the undergrowth and the fallen trees ran a network of narrow trenches and shallow burrows from which rose the sound of talk and the smell of cooking, the resting-place of the supports who were to be ready that night to move up through the valley and sweep past a victorious front-line brigade into an enemy village two miles away.

All around the wood lay guns which barked occasionally; in front of it was the shell-torn “valley of death,” with its grim windings—“dead man’s corner” and “suicide corner”—up which all troops had to go and on which the German barrage was regularly laid twice or three times a day; not a blade of grass was to be seen in the valley, nothing but huge shell-holes and heaped-up earth, seamed with old and new trenches and littered with all the waste products of a battle, dead men’s equipment and rifles, bombs and shell-cases, huge duds, and here and there the wreck of an ambulance or an ammunition-waggon which had been caught by German shells. Now the valley lay in its hideous squalor basking in the sun, while overhead droned an aeroplane—British it must be, of course. A whistle sounded, and the men in the wood, who lay lazily watching the ’plane, looked round suddenly in alarm. It was a Bosche, was it? Well, wasn’t that the limit? Most of them were young drafts and didn’t understand, but the old hands enlightened them. The Bosche might spot them in that thinned wood, and if it did—well, they wouldn’t do any harm if they got down into a trench for a bit. All slipped down, while on the circling enemy above came rushing two British ’planes, driving him back to his own line. And the incident was apparently at an end. Men got out of their trench once more, and went about the business of the day. Rifles were inspected and bombs issued, for the attack would begin at six o’clock that evening, and they had to be ready to move at five. Runners crossed from Company to Company, officers moved among the burrows as they packed up. Their dinner-hour was just over, and the smoke of many pipes rose upon the air. A Subaltern came strolling across the open to his Company trench, a pipe in his mouth, and his kilt swinging jauntily.

Whee-ee-ee-errump! The air was full of dust and smoke from a little way up the trench. The Subaltern had slid into the trench at the sound, with a rapidity very unlike his former stroll; as he picked himself up—a large lump of earth had hit him in the chest—there came a rush of men away from the smoke towards him, and more crashes on his right and left. In the trees above he heard the vicious sound of bursting shrapnel.

“We’r trench is blown in on us,” gasped a man running, with wild eyes, to some shelter—he knew not quite what. Behind the Subaltern came a shout from another of his Company Mess.

“You can’t let those men any farther up, Tagg. There’s a dead end here; they’ve blown in our trench, and we’ll have to dig some men out. Pass up tools.”

“Can’t get any farther, Murray,” said MacTaggart the Subaltern, “get down oh, Lord, here’s another.”

Another long-drawn whine was followed by a crash so close that the trench seemed to collapse though it was only loose earth falling. The Subaltern saw the mess dixie hurled into a bush, and the terrified man beside him darted his head into a little hole in the side of the trench. Over the Subaltern came the bombardment feeling; a sensation which mingles a curious numbness of all ordinary emotions with an abounding pride and a complete contempt for anybody more frightened than oneself; he turned slowly to the man and told him to take his head out of the hole.

“It’ll come in on you if a crump drops near,” he said, “and then you’ll suffocate. Have a cigarette.”

The man rejected the offer with scorn, as badly shell-shocked men will.

“Well, don’t be so proud about it,” said the Subaltern, “I wish I could find my pipe,” and began to grope for it. The men in the trench crouched listening for the whining to come near to them, and as it did, the Subaltern ceased looking for his pipe and listened with them. Along the trench came shouts from those digging out the buried men. A Corporal had got on top and was digging there unmindful of the shrapnel.

I don’t know if I have given the impression that the Subaltern was a fearless young gentleman; but if so, it was not my intention. He was very afraid and most unwilling to die, and he showed it, if the men had only noticed, by his nervous movement of relief after each close burst. A somewhat vigorous self-control, combined with a very real pleasure in being so close to death and yet alive, enabled him to delude the privates; but inside he was quaking.

At last the barrage moved on to the other side of the wood and he rose up, suddenly remembering that he had not seen his Captain since it began. He hardly dared get out, so numb was his will, when he saw the Captain leap down into the trench.

“I was in the burrow,” the big man explained, rather breathlessly, “so I stayed there. There’s one chap killed, and one wounded just outside it, and a lot more farther along. I wonder where the stretcher-bearers are.”

The Subaltern felt that he ought to get out, but somehow he couldn’t. What if the barrage started again and caught him in the open? He climbed out and stood on the edge ready to jump down again if another shell came. From the next trench stretcher-bearers moved towards him looking for wounded. Almost beside him a man lay in a dabble of blood; you would have thought him asleep until you saw half his head lying beside him cut neatly off by a big piece of shell. Farther over they had dug out the buried men, but only one was alive. The Corporal, who had worked so gallantly in the bombardment, collapsed suddenly with twitching hands and staring, frightened eyes, proclaiming the shell-shock he had held off while the work had to be done. Stretcher-bearers came, carrying broken moaning wounded. The Subaltern, shamed by their calm, braced himself and stepped into the open.

There he met another Sub. helping along a Captain, an old friend of his. MacTaggart greeted him cheerily, and was answered by a hopeless stare and a writhing mouth trying in vain to form words. The Captain was dumb.

“That last 8-inch burst almost on him,” the other Subaltern explained. “All the men with him were killed, and he’s got it badly. Come on now, Willie. It’s all right now.”

The dumb man mumbled piteously and cringed to the ground as a shell whined over. The two started to take him along to the Aid Post, but every movement was a difficulty to his uncontrolled limbs, and every sound a torture to the bewildered brain. It was a long time before they got there, and when they did, the Aid Post was like a shambles with blood and wounded men. The two slung their friend down to the doctor, and went to report him a casualty at Headquarters next door. There the C.O. met them with operation orders for the attack that night, and a request that MacTaggart would take certain messages to other Companies. As they went in for a final farewell to the dumb Captain, he moaned and stretched forward his wavering hand for the orders, the last effort of a gallant spirit. Then they left him in the Aid Post, and went out to their work.

As MacTaggart crossed the open he was gripped with a sudden fear. The whining and the crash of the shells was coming nearer again, and he had two Companies to see before he could get back to his own burrow. He ran hastily over to the first Coy. H.Q., and then paused there, bracing himself for his next rush, for the barrage was on their lines again, although not so heavily. Out he ran and along to the next H.Q., fixing his mind on the job, and not allowing himself to think of shells, when a low shrapnel, beautifully timed, burst close beside him, knocking him over; picking himself up he staggered to the trench and handed over the message, only conscious of a sudden quiet, for that shrapnel had been the last shell of the barrage. Then he found his mouth full of blood and his limbs weak and tottering. He was not wounded he knew; he supposed it must be shell-shock.

At Headquarters he reported the messages delivered, and got some opium from the doctor; in a dream he got rum, then his own men, and found new vigour in his limbs and ferocity in his mind. “Go down? I’m damned if I will,” he muttered, and walked along the trench. The British barrage was on now, and the troops were all ready to move up.

“Will we get into them, sir?” men asked him as he walked along the top of the trench. “Will we get into the ———s with the bayonet?” They were flushed and excited with anticipation and rum, and MacTaggart wondered whether what was left of the old men would carry these raw boys on, or whether they would run and disgrace the regiment. He knew that they had lost a quarter of their strength in the barrage and mostly from his own Company; and he was too old a soldier to be reassured by this feverish talk about bayonets.

“Oh, we’ll get into them all right,” he said. ‘“We’ll give ’em a good deal for this afternoon, and we’ll pay them all right,” but inwardly he was thinking of these boys moving up through another barrage, and his mind was full of foreboding.

In the trench he found the other officers, and knew they were thinking the same.

“The old hands ought to help them on,” said his Captain doubtfully. “But I wish we hadn’t lost so many to-day. It’ll shake them a bit.”

“What is to-day?” said MacTaggart inconsequently. “Sunday, isn’t it?”

A voice from a private echoed his question a little way along. There was a buzz of conversation and suddenly a hush. The strong voice of a Sergeant was lifted up in the shaking lilt of an old Psalm tune.

“By God,” breathed the Subaltern, as the other voices joinedin. “They’re the old gang yet.”

He took me from the fearful pit
And from the miry clay,
And on a rock he set my feet,
Establishing my way.

The Psalm ended; another voice said, “I’ll give you a grand one for this day, boy,” and once again the strong rough voices rang out through the wood, grim earnestness in every tone:

Now Israel may say, and that truly
If that the Lord had not been on our side,
If that the Lord had not our cause maintained
When cruel men against us furiously
Rose up in wrath to make of us their prey.

A runner came to them with a message. The Captain read it, and stood up, shaking his equipment on to his shoulders.

From the valley beyond came the roar of the German barrage, but over it rose the psalm,

Therefore our trust is in the Lord his name,
Who heaven and earth by his own power did frame.

There was a sudden silence and a shout from the Captain. “Get on your equipment, men. We’re to move up now,” and the officers strolled along to their platoons with light hearts. Whatever happened they knew the men would follow them. The spirit of the regiment was still the same.