Months and months before Christopher Tietjens had stood extremely wishing that his head were level with a particular splash of purposeless whitewash. Something behind his mind forced him to the conviction that, if his head — and of course the rest of his trunk and lower limbs — were suspended by a process of levitation to that distance above the duckboard on which, now, his feet were, he would be in an inviolable sphere. These waves of conviction recurred continually: he was constantly glancing aside and upwards at that splash: it was in the shape of the comb of a healthy rooster; it gleamed, with five serrations, in the just beginning light that shone along the thin, unroofed channel in the gravel slope. Wet half-light, just filtering; more visible there than in the surrounding desolation because the deep, narrow channel framed a section of just-illuminated rift in the watery eastwards!
Twice he had stood up on a rifleman’s step enforced by a bully-beef case to look over — in the last few minutes. Each time, on stepping down again, he had been struck by that phenomenon: the light seen from the trench seemed if not brighter, then more definite. So, from the bottom of a pit-shaft in broad day you can see the stars. The wind was light, but from the North-West. They had there the weariness of a beaten army: the weariness of having to begin always new days again . . .
He glanced aside and upwards: that cockscomb of phosphorescence . . . He felt waves of some X force propelling his temples towards it. He wondered if perhaps the night before he had not observed that that was a patch of reinforced concrete, therefore more resistant. He might of course have observed that and then forgotten it. He hadn’t! It was therefore irrational.
If you are lying down under fire — flat under pretty smart fire — and you have only a paper bag in front of your head for cover you feel immeasurably safer than you do without it. You have a mind at rest. This must be the same thing.
It remained dark and quiet. It was forty-five minutes: it became forty-four . . . forty-three . . . Forty-two minutes and thirty seconds before a crucial moment and the slate grey cases of miniature metal pineapples had not come from the bothering place . . . Who knew if there was anyone in charge there?
Twice that night he had sent runners back. No results yet. That bothering fellow might quite well have forgotten to leave a substitute. That was not likely. A careful man. But a man with a mania might forget. Still it was not likely! . . .
Thoughts menaced him as clouds threaten the heads of mountains, but for the moment they kept away. It was quiet; the wet cool air was agreeable. They had autumn mornings that felt like that in Yorkshire. The wheels of his physique moved smoothly; he was more free in the chest than he had been for months.
A single immense cannon at a tremendous distance said something. Something sulky. Aroused in its sleep and protesting. But it was not a signal to begin anything. Too heavy. Firing at something at a tremendous distance. At Paris, may be: or the North Pole: or the moon! They were capable of that, those fellows!
It would be a tremendous piece of frightfulness to hit the moon. Great gain in prestige. And useless. There was no knowing what they would not be up to, as long as it was stupid and useless. And, naturally boring . . . And it was a mistake to be boring. One went on fighting to get rid of those bores — as you would to get rid of a bore in a club.
It was more descriptive to call what had spoken a cannon than a gun — though it was not done in the best local circles. It was all right to call 75’s or the implements of the horse artillery “guns”; they were mobile and toy-like. But those immense things were cannons; the sullen muzzles always elevated. Sullen, like cathedral dignitaries or butlers. The thickness of barrel compared to the bore appeared enormous as they pointed at the moon, or Paris, or Nova Scotia.
Well, that cannon had not announced anything except itself! It was not the beginning of any barrage; our own fellows were not pooping off to shut it up. It had just announced itself, saying protestingly, ‘CAN . . . NON,’ and its shell roaring away to an enormous height caught the reflection of the unrisen sun on its base. A shining disc, like a halo in flight . . . Pretty! A pretty motive for a decoration, tiny pretty planes up on a blue sky amongst shiny, flying haloes! Dragon flies amongst saints . . . No, ‘with angels and archangels!’ . . . Well, one had seen it!
Cannon . . . Yes, that was the right thing to call them. Like the up-ended, rusted things that stuck up out of parades when one had been a child.
No, not the signal for a barrage! A good thing! One might as well say ‘Thank Goodness’, for the later they began the less long it lasted . . . Less long it lasted was ugly alliteration. Sooner it was over better . . . No doubt half-past eight or at half-past eight to the stroke those boring fellows would let off their usual offering, probably plump, right on top of that spot . . . As far as one could tell three salvoes of a dozen shells each at half-minute intervals between the salvoes. Perhaps salvoes was not the right word. Damn all artillery, anyhow!
Why did those fellows do it? Every morning at half-past eight; every afternoon at half-past two. Presumably just to show that they were still alive, and still boring. They were methodical. That was their secret. The secret of their boredom. Trying to kill them was like trying to shut up Liberals who would talk party politics in a non-political club had to be done, though! Otherwise the world was no place for . . . Oh, post-prandial naps! . . . Simple philosophy of the contest! . . . Forty minutes! And he glanced aside and upwards at the phosphorescent cockscomb! Within his mind something said that if he were only suspended up there . . .
He stepped once more on to the rifle-step and on to the bully-beef case. He elevated his head cautiously: grey desolation sloped down and away. FRRRrrr! A gentle purring sound!
He was automatically back, on the duckboard, his breakfast hurting his chest. He said:
‘By jove! I got the fright of my life!’ A laugh was called for: he managed it, his whole stomach shaking. And cold!
A head in a metal pudding-basin — a Suffolk type of blonde head, pushed itself from a withdrawn curtain of sacking in the gravel wall beside him, at his back. A voice said with concern:
‘There ain’t no beastly snipers, is there, sir? I did ‘ope there would’n be henny beastly snipers ’ere. It gives such a beastly lot of extra trouble warning the men.’
Tietjens said it was a beastly skylark that almost walked into his mouth. The Acting Seargeant-Major said with enthusiasm that them ’ere skylarks could fair scare the guts out of you. He remembered a raid in the dark, crawling on ‘is ‘ands ‘n knees wen ‘e put ‘is ‘and on a skylark on its nest. Never left ‘is nest till ‘is ‘and was on ’im! Then it went up and fair scared the wind out of ’im. Cor! Never would ‘e fergit that!
With an air of carefully pulling parcels out of a carrier’s cart he produced from the cavern behind the sacking two blinking assemblages of tubular khaki-clad limbs. They wavered to erectness, pink cheeses of faces yawning beside tall rifles and bayonets. The Sergeant said:
‘Keep yer ‘eds down as you go along. You never knows!’
Tietjens told the Lance-Corporal of that party of two that his confounded gas-mask nozzle was broken. Hadn’t he seen that for himself? The dismembered object bobbed on the man’s chest. He was to go and borrow another from another man and see the other drew a new one at once.
Tietjens’ eyes were drawn aside and upwards. His knees were still weak. If he were levitated to the level of that thing he would not have to use his legs for support.
The elderly Sergeant went on with enthusiasm about skylarks. Wonderful the trust they showed in hus ‘uman beens! Never left ther nesteses till you trod on them tho hall ‘ell was rockin’ around them . . . An appropriate skylark from above and before the parapet made its shrill and heartless noise heard. No doubt the skylark that Tietjens had frightened — that had frightened him.
Therd bin, the Sergeant went on still enthusiastically, pointing a hand in the direction of the noise, skylarks singin’ on the mornin’ of every straf ‘e’d ever bin in! Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty! For oo was goin’ to ‘it a skylark on a battlefield!
The solitary Man drooped beside his long, bayoneted rifle that was muddied from stock to bayonet attachment. Tietjens said mildly that he thought the Sergeant had got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at ‘other male skylarks in the vicinity.
He said to himself that he must get the doctor to give him a bromide. A filthy state his nerves had got into unknown to himself. The agitation communicated to him by that bird was still turning his stomach round . . .
‘Gilbert White of Selborne,’ he said to the Sergeant, ‘called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.’ But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H.E. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.
The Sergeant said to the re-joined Lance-Corporal whose box now hung correctly on his muddied chest:
‘Now it’s HAY post you gotter wait at!’ They were to go along the trench and wait where another trench ran into it and there was a great A in whitewash on a bit of corrugated iron that was half-buried. ‘You can tell a great HAY from a bull’s foot as well as another, can’t you, Corporal?’ patiently.
Wen they Mills bombs come ‘e was to send ‘is Man into Hay Cumpny dugout fer a fatigue to bring ’em along ’ere, but Hay Cumpny could keep is little lot fer ‘isself.
An if they Mills Bomb didn’ come the Corporal’d better manufacture them on ‘is own. An not make no mistakes!
The Lance-Corporal said ‘Yes sargint, no sargint!’ and the two went desultorily wavering along the duckboards, grey silhouettes against the wet bar of light, equilibrating themselves with hands on the walls of the trench.
‘Ju ‘eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,’ the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ‘e say next! Skylarks not trust ‘uman beens in battles! Cor!’ The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.
The cockscomb-shaped splash became of overwhelming interest momentarily to Tietjens; at the same time his mind began upon abstruse calculation of chances! Of his chances! A bad sign when the mind takes to doing that. Chances of direct hits by shells, by rifle bullets, by grenades, by fragments of shells or grenades. By any fragment of metal impinging on soft flesh. He was aware that he was going to be hit in the soft spot behind the collar-bone. He was conscious of that spot — the right-hand one; he felt none of the rest of his body. It is bad when the mind takes charge like that. A bromide was needed. The doctor must give him one. His mind felt pleasure at the thought of the M.O. A pleasant little fellow of the no account order that knows his job. And carried liquor cheerfully. Confoundedly cheerfully!
He saw the doctor — plainly! It was one of the plainest things he could see of this whole show — the doctor, a slight figure, vault on to the parapet, like a vaulting horse for height; stand up in the early morning sun . . . Blind to the world, but humming Father O’Flynn. And stroll in the sunlight, a swagger cane of all things in the world, under his arms, right straight over to the German trench . . . Then throw his cap down into that trench. And walk back! Delicately avoiding the strands in the cut apron of wire that he had to walk through!
The doctor said he had seen a Hun — probably an officer’s batman — cleaning a top-boot with an apron over his knees. The Hun had shied a boot brush at him and he had shied his cap at the Hun. The blinking Hun, he called him! No doubt the fellow had blinked!
No doubt you could do the unthinkable with impunity!
No manner of doubt: if you were blind drunk and all! . . . And however you strained, in an army you fell into routine. Of a quiet morning you do not expect drunken doctors strolling along your parapet. Besides, the German front lines were very thinly held. Amazingly! There might not have been a Hun with a gun within half a mile of that boot-black!
If he, Tietjens, stood in space, his head level with that cockscomb, he would be in an inviolable vacuum — as far as projectiles were concerned!
He was asking desultorily of the Sergeant whether he often shocked the men by what he said and the Sergeant was answering with blushes: Well, you do say things, sir! Not believing in skylarks now! If there was one thing the men believed hit was in the hinstincks of them little creatures!
‘So that,’ Tietjens said, ‘they look at me as a sort of an atheist.’
He forced himself to look over the parapet again, climbing heavily to his place of observation. It was sheer impatience and purely culpable technically. But he was in command of the regiment, of an establishment of a thousand and eighteen men, or that used to be the Establishment of a battalion; of a strength of three hundred and thirty-three. Say seventy-five per company. And two companies in command of second lieutenants, one just out . . . The last four days . . . There ought to be, say, eighty pairs of eyes surveying what he was going to survey. If there were fifteen it was as much as there were! . . . Figures were clean and comforting things. The chance against being struck by a shell-fragment that day, if the Germans came in any force, was fourteen to one against. There were battalions worse off than they. The sixth had only one one six left!
The tortured ground sloped down into mists. Say a quarter of a mile away. The German front lines were just shadows, like the corrugations of photographs of the moon: the paradoses of our own trenches two nights ago! The Germans did not seem to have troubled to chuck up much in the way of parapets. They didn’t. They were coming on. Anyhow they held their front lines very sparsely . . . Was that the phrase? Was it even English?
Above the shadows the mist behaved tortuously: mounting up into umbrella shapes. Like snow-covered umbrella pines.
Disagreeable to force the eye to examine that mist. His stomach turned over . . . That was the sacks. A flat, slightly disordered pile of wet sacks, half-right at two hundred yards. No doubt a shell had hit a G.S. wagon coming up with sacks for trenching. Or the bearers had bolted, chucking the sacks down. His eyes had fallen on that scattered pile four times already that morning. Each time his stomach had turned over. The resemblance to prostrate men was appalling. The enemy creeping up . . . Christ! Within two hundred yards. So his stomach said. Each time, in spite of the preparation.
Otherwise the ground had been so smashed up that it was flat: went down into holes but did not rise up into mounds. That made it look gentle. It sloped down. To the untidiness. They appeared mostly to lie on their faces. Why? Presumably they were mostly Germans pushed back in the last counter-attack. Anyhow you saw mostly the seats of their trousers. When you did not, how profound was their repose! You must phrase it a little like that — rhetorically. There was no other way to get the effect of that profoundness. Call it profundity!
It was different from sleep. Flatter. No doubt when the appalled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs . . . Well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that . . . But you collapsed inwards. Like the dying pig they sold on trays in the street. Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. Intimate to them there. Unknown to the corridors in Whitehall . . . Probably because they — the painters — drew from living models or had ideas as to the human form . . . But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi . . . Collections of tubular shapes in field-grey or mud-colour they were. Chucked about by Almighty God! As if He dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth . . . Good gravel soil, that slope and relatively dry. No dew to speak of. The night had been covered . . .
Dawn on the battlefield . . . Damn it all, why sneer? It was dawn on the battlefield . . . The trouble was that this battle was not over. By no means over. There would be a hundred and eleven years, nine months and twenty-seven days of it still . . . No, you could not get the effect of that endless monotony of effort by numbers. Nor yet by saying ‘Endless monotony of effort’ . . . It was like bending down to look into darkness of corridors under dark curtains. Under clouds . . . Mist . . .
At that, with dreadful reluctance his eyes went back to the spectral mists over the photographic shadows. He forced himself to put his glasses on the mists. They mopped and mowed, fantastically; grey, with black shadows; drooping like the dishevelled veils of murdered bodies. They were engaged in fantastic and horrifying layings out of corpses of vast dimensions; in silence but in accord they performed unthinkable tasks. They were the Germans. This was fear. This was the intimate fear of black quiet nights, in dugouts where you heard the obscene suggestions of the miners’ picks below you; tranquil, engrossed. Infinitely threatening . . . But not FEAR.
It was in effect the desire for privacy. What he dreaded at those normal times when fear visited him at lunch; whilst seeing that the men got their baths or when writing, in a trench, in support, a letter to his bank-manager, was finding himself unhurt, surrounded by figures like the brothers of the Misericordia, going unconcerned about their tasks, noticing him hardly at all . . . Whole hillsides, whole stretches of territory, alive with myriads of whitish-grey, long cagoules, with slits for eyeholes. Occasionally one would look at him through the eye-slits in the hoods . . . The prisoner!
He would be the prisoner: liable to physical contacts — to being handled and being questioned. An invasion of his privacy!
As a matter of fact that wasn’t so far out; not so dotty as it sounded. If the Huns got him — as they precious near had the night before last I— they would be — they had then been — in gas-masks of various patterns. They must be short of these things: but they looked, certainly, like goblin pigs with sore eyes, the hood with the askew, blind-looking eyeholes and the mouthpiece or the other nose attachment going down into a box, astonishingly like snouts! . . . Mopping and mowing — no doubt shouting through the masks!
They had appeared with startling suddenness and as if with a supernatural silence, beneath a din so overwhelming that you could not any longer bother to notice it. They were there, as it were, under a glass dome of silence that sheltered beneath that dark tumult, in the white illumination of Verey lights that went on. They were there, those of them that had already emerged from holes — astonishingly alert hooded figures with the long rifles that always looked rather amateurish — though, Hell, they weren’t. The hoods and the white light gave them the aspects of Canadian trappers in snow; made them no doubt look still more husky fellows as against our poor rats of Derby men. The heads of goblin pigs were emerging from shell-holes, from rifts in the torn earth, from old trenches . . . This ground had been fought over again and again . . . Then the counter-attack had come through his, Tietjens’, own crowd. One disorderly mob, as you might think, going through a disordered crowd that was damn glad to let them get through, realizing slowly, in the midst of a general not knowing what was going to happen, that the fellows were reliefs. They shot past you clumsily in a darkness spangled with shafts of light coming from God knows where and appeared going forward, whilst you at least had the satisfaction that, by order, you were going back. In an atmosphere of questioning. What was happening? What was going to happen? . . . What the bloody hell . . . What . . .
Tidy-sized shells began to drop among them saying: ‘Wee . . . ee . . . ry . . . Whack!’ Some fellow showed Tietjens the way through an immense apron of wire that was beginning to fly about. He, Tietjens, was carrying a hell of a lot of paper folders and books. They ought to have evacuated an hour ago; or the Huns ought not to have got out of their holes for an hour . . . But the Colonel had been too . . . too exalted. Call it too exalted. He was not going to evacuate for a pack of . . . Damn orders! . . . The fellow, McKechnie, had at last had to beg Tietjens to give the order . . . Not that the order mattered. The men could not have held ten minutes longer. The ghostly Huns would have been in the trenches. But the Company Commanders knew that there was a Divisional Order to retire, and no doubt they had passed it on to their subalterns before getting killed. Still, that Bn. H.Q. should have given the order made it better even if there was no one to take it to the companies. It turned a practical expulsion into an officially strategic retreat . . . And damn good divisional staff work at that. They had been fitted into beautiful, clean, new trenches, all ready for them — like chessmen fitting into their boxes. Damn good for a beaten army that was being forced off the face of the earth. Into the English Channel . . . What made them stick it? What the devil made the men stick it? They were unbelievable.
There was a stroking on his leg. A gentle, timid, stroking! Well, he ought to get down: it was setting a bad example. The admirable trenches were perfectly efficiently fitted up with spy-holes. For himself he always disliked them. You thought of a rifle bullet coming smack through them and guided by the telescope into your right eye. Or perhaps you would not have a telescope. Anyhow you wouldn’t know . . .
There were still the three wheels, a-tilt, attached to slanting axles: in a haze of disintegrated wire, that, bedewed, made profuse patterns like frost on a window. There was their own apron — a perfect village! — of wire over which he looked. Fairly intact. The Germans had put up some of their own in front of the lost trenches, a quarter of a mile off: over the reposing untidinesses. In between there was a perfect maze: their own of the night before last. How the deuce had it not been all mashed to pieces by the last Hun barrage? Yet there were three frosty erections — like fairy sheds, half-way between the two lines. And, suspended in them, as there would have to be, three bundles of rags and what appeared to be a very large, squashed crow. How the devil had that fellow managed to get smashed into that shape? It was improbable. There was also — suspended, too, a tall melodramatic object, the head cast back to the sky. One arm raised in the attitude of, say, a Walter Scot Highland officer waving his men on. Waving a sword that wasn’t there . . . That was what wire did for you. Supported you in grotesque attitudes, even in death! The beastly stuff! The men said that was Lieutenant Constantine. It might well be. The night before last he, Tietjens, had looked round at all the officers that were in H.Q. dug-out, come for a last moment conference. He had speculated on which of them would be killed. Ghostly! Well, they had all been killed: and more on to that. But his premonition hadn’t run to thinking that Constantine would get caught up in the wire. But perhaps it was not Constantine. Probably they would never know. The Huns would be where he stood by lunchtime. If the attack of which Brigade H.Q. had warned them came off. But it mightn’t . . .
As a final salute to the on the whole not thrilling landscape, he wetted his forefinger by inserting it in his mouth and held it in the air. It was comfortingly chilly on the exterior, towards his back. Light airs were going right in the other fellows’ faces. It might only be the dawn wind. But if it stiffened a very little or even held, those blessed Wurtembergers would never that day get out of their trenches. They couldn’t come without gas. They were probably pretty well weakened, too . . . You were not traditionally supposed to think much of Wurtembergers. Mild, dull creatures they were supposed to be. With funny hats. Good Lord! Traditions were going by the board!
He dropped down into the trench. The rather reddish soil with flakes of flint and little, pinkish nodules of pebbles was a friendly thing to face closely.
That sergeant was saying:
‘You hadn’t ought to do it, sir. Give me the creeps.’ He added rather lachrymosely that they couldn’t do without superior officers altogether. Odd creatures these Derby N.C.O.’s! They tried to get the tone of the old, timeserving N.C.O. They couldn’t; all the same you couldn’t say they weren’t creditable achievements.
Yes, it was friendly, the trench face. And singularly unbellicose. When you looked at it you hardly believed that it was part of this affair . . . Friendly! You felt at peace looking at its flints and pebbles. Like being in the butts up above Groby on the moor, waiting for the grouse to come over. The soil was not of course like those butts which were built of turfs . . .
He asked, not so much for information, as to get the note of this fellow:
Why? What difference did it make whether there were senior officers or not? Anyone above eighteen would do, wouldn’t they? They would keep on going on. It was a young man’s war!
‘It hasn’t got that comfortable feeling, sir!’ the Sergeant expressed it. The young officers were very well for keeping you going through wire and barrages. But when you looked at them you didn’t feel they knew so well what you were doing it for, if he might put it that way.
‘Why? What are you doing it for?’
It wanted thirty-two minutes to the crucial moment. He said:
‘Where are those bloody bombs?’
A trench cut in gravel wasn’t, for all its friendly reddish-orange coloration, the ideal trench. Particularly against rifle-fire. There were rifts presumably alongside flakes of flint, that a rifle-bullet would get along. Still, the chances against a hit by a rifle-bullet were eighty thousand to one in a deep gravel trench like that. And he had had poor Jimmy Johns killed beside him by a bullet like that. So that gave him, say, 140,000 chances to one against. He wished his mind would not go on and on figuring. It did it whilst you weren’t looking. As a well-trained dog will do when you tell it to stay in one part of a room and it prefers another. It prefers to do figuring. Creeps from the rug by the door to the hearth-rug, its eyes on your unconscious face . . . That was what your mind was like. Like a dog!
The Sergeant said:
‘They do say the first consignment of bombs was it n smashed. Hin a gully; well behind the line.’ Another was coming down.
‘Then you’d better whistle,’ Tietjens said. ‘Whistle for all you’re worth.’
The Sergeant said:
Ter a wind, sir? Keep the ‘Uns beck, sir?’
Looking up at the whitewash cockscomb Tietjens lectured the sergeant on Gas. He always had said, and he said now, that the Germans had ruined themselves with their gas . . .
He went on lecturing that Sergeant on gas . . .
He considered his mind: it was alarming him. All through the war he had had one dread — that a wound, the physical shock of a wound, would cause his mind to fail. He was going to be hit behind the collar-bone. He could feel the spot; not itching but the blood pulsing a little warmer. Just as you can become conscious of the end of your nose if you think about it!
The Sergeant said that ‘e wished ‘e could feel the Germans ‘ad ruined themselves: they seemed to be drivin’ us into the Channel. Tietjens gave his reasons. They were driving us. But not fast enough. Not fast enough. It was a race between our disappearance and their endurance. They had been hung up yesterday by the wind: they were as like as not going to be held up to-day . . . They were not going fast enough. They could not keep it up.
The Sergeant said ‘e wished, sir, you’d tell the men that. That was what the men ought to be told: not the stuff that was hin Divisional Comic Cuts and the ‘ome pipers . . .
A key-bugle of singular sweetness — at least Tietjens supposed it to be a key-bugle, for he knew the identities of practically no wind-instruments; it was certainly not a cavalry bugle, for there were no cavalry and even no Army Service Corps at all near — a bugle, then, of astounding sweetness made some remarks to the cool, wet dawn. It induced an astonishingly melting mood. He remarked:
‘Do you mean to say, then, that your men, Sergeant, are really damned heroes? I suppose they are!’
He said ‘your men’, instead of ‘our’ or even ‘the’ men, because he had been till the day before yesterday merely the second-in-command — and was likely to be to-morrow again merely the perfectly inactive second-in-command of what was called a rag-time collection that was astonishingly a clique and mutely combined to regard him as an outsider. So he really regarded himself as rather a spectator; as if a railway passenger had taken charge of a locomotive whilst the engine-driver had gone to have a drink.
The Sergeant flushed with pleasure. ‘Hit was,’ he said, ‘good to ‘ave prise from Regular officers.’ Tietjens said that he was not a Regular. The Sergeant stammered:
‘Hain’t you, sir, a Ranker? The men all thinks you are a promoted Ranker.’
No, Tietjens said, he was not a promoted Ranker. He added, after consideration, that he was a militia-man. The men would have, by the will of chance, to put up with his leadership for at least that day. They might as well feel as good about it as they could — as settled in their stomachs! It certainly made a difference that the men should feel assured about their officers: what exact difference there was no knowing. This crowd was not going to get any satisfaction out of being led by a ‘gentleman’. They did not know what a gentleman was: a quite un-feudal crowd. Mostly Derby men. Small drapers, rate-collectors’ clerks, gas-inspectors. There were even three music-hall performers, two scene shifters and several milkmen.
It was another tradition that was gone. Still, they desired the companionship of elder, heavier men who had certain knowledges. A militiaman probably filled the bill! Well, he was that, officially!
He glanced aside and upwards at the whitewash cockscomb. He regarded it carefully. And with amusement. He knew what it was that had made his mind take the particular turn it had insisted on taking . . . The picks going in the dark under the H.Q. dugout in the Casse-noisette section. The men called it Crackerjack.
He had been all his life familiar with the idea of picks going in the dark, underground. There is no North Country man who is not. All through that country, if you awake at night you hear the sound, and always it appears supernatural. You know it is the miners, at the pit-face, hundreds and hundreds of feet down.
But just because it was familiar it was familiarly rather dreadful. Haunting. And the silence had come at a bad moment. After a perfect hell of noise; after so much of noise that he had been forced to ascend the slippery clay stairs of the dug-out . . . And heaven knew if there was one thing that on account of his heavy-breathing chest he loathed, it was slippery clay . . . he had been forced to pant up those slippery stairs . . . His chest had been much worse, then . . . two months ago!
Curiosity had forced him up. And no doubt FEAR. The large battle fear; not the constant little, haunting misgivings. God knew! Curiosity or fear. In terrific noise; noise like the rushing up of innumerable noises determined not to be late, whilst the earth rocks or bumps or quakes or protests, you cannot be very coherent about your thoughts. So it might have been cool curiosity or it might have been sheer panic at the thought of being buried alive in that dug-out, its mouth sealed up. Anyhow, he had gone up from the dug-out where in his capacity of second-incommand, detested as an interloper by his C.O., he had sat ignominiously in that idleness of the second-in-command that it is in the power of the C.O. to inflict. He was to sit there till the C.O. dropped dead: then, however much the C.O. might detest him, to step into his shoes. Nothing the C.O. could do could stop that. In the meantime, as long as the C.O. existed the second-in-command must be idle; he would be given nothing to do. For fear he got kudos!
Tietjens flattered himself that he cared nothing about kudos. He was still Tietjens of Groby; no man could give him anything, no man could take anything from him. He flattered himself that he in no way feared death, pain, dishonour, the after-death, feared very little disease — except for choking sensations! . . . But his Colonel got in on him.
He had no disagreeable feelings, thinking of the Colonel. A good boy, as boys go: perfectly warranted in hating his second-in-command . . . There are positions like that! But the fellow got in on him. He shut him up in that reeling cellar. And, of course, you might lose control of your mind in a reeling cellar where you cannot hear your thoughts. If you cannot hear your thoughts how the hell are you going to tell what your thoughts are doing?
You couldn’t hear. There was an orderly with fever or shell-shock or something — a rather favourite orderly of the orderly room — asleep on a pile of rugs. Earlier in the night Orderly Room had asked permission to dump the boy in there because he was making such a beastly row in his sleep that they could not hear themselves speak and they had a lot of paper work to do. They could not tell what had happened to the boy, whom they liked. The acting Sergeant-Major thought he must have got at some methylated spirits.
Immediately, that strafe had begun. The boy had lain, his face to the light of the lamp, on his pile of rugs — army blankets, that is to say . . . A very blond boy’s face, contorted in the strong light, shrieking — positively shrieking obscenities at the flame. But with his eyes shut. And two minutes after that strafe had begun you could see his lips move, that was all.
Well, he, Tietjens, had gone up. Curiosity or fear? In the trench you could see nothing and noise rushed like black angels gone mad; solid noise that swept you off your feet . . . Swept your brain off its feet. Someone else took control of it. You became second-in-command of your own soul. Waiting for its C.O. to be squashed flat by the direct hit of a four point two before you got control again.
There was nothing to see; mad lights whirled over the black heavens. He moved along the mud of the trench. It amazed him to find that it was raining. In torrents. You imagined that the heavenly powers in decency suspended their activities at such moments. But there was positively lightning. They didn’t! A Verey light or something extinguished that: not very efficient lightning, really. Just at that moment he fell on his nose at an angle of forty-five degrees against some squashed earth where, as he remembered, the parapet had been revetted. The trench had been squashed in. Level with the outside ground. A pair of boots emerged from the pile of mud. How the deuce did the fellow get into that position?
Broadside on to the hostilities in progress! . . . But naturally, he had been running along the trench when that stuff buried him. Clean buried, anyhow. The obliging Verey light showed to Tietjens, just level with his left hand, a number of small smoking fragments. The white smoke ran level with the ground in a stiff breeze. Other little patches of smoke added themselves quickly. The Verey light went out. Things were coming over. Something hit his foot; the heel of his boot. Not unpleasantly, a smarting feeling as if his sole had been slapped.
It suggested itself to him, under all the noise, that there being no parapet there . . . He got back into the trench towards the dug-out, skating in the sticky mud. The duck-boards were completely sunk in it. In the whole affair it was the slippery mud he hated most. Again a Verey light obliged, but the trench being deep there was nothing to see except the backside of a man. Tietjens said:
‘If he’s wounded . . . Even if he’s dead one ought to pull him down . . . And get the Victoria Cross!’
The figure slid down into the trench. Speedily, with drill-movements, engrossed, it crammed two clips of cartridges into a rifle correctly held at the loading angle. In a rift of the noise, like a crack in the wall of a house, it remarked:
‘Can’t reload lying up there, sir. Mud gets into your magazine.’ He became again merely the sitting portion of a man, presenting to view the only part of him that was not caked with mud. The Verey light faded. Another reinforced the blinking effect. From just overhead.
Round the next traverse after the mouth of their dug-out a rapt face of a tiny subaltern, gazing upwards at a Verey illumination, with an elbow on an equality of the trench and the forearm pointing upwards suggested — the rapt face suggested The Soul’s Awakening! . . . In another rift in the sound the voice of the tiny subaltern stated that he had to economise the Verey cartridges. The battalion was very short. At the same time it was difficult to time them so as to keep the lights going . . . This seemed fantastic! The Huns were just coming over.
With the finger of his upward pointing hand the tiny subaltern pulled the trigger of his upward-pointing pistol. A second later more brilliant illumination descended from above. The subaltern pointed the clumsy pistol to the ground in the considerable physical effort — for such a tiny person! — to reload the large implement. A very gallant child — name of Aranjuez. Maltese, or Portuguese, or Levantine — in origin.
The pointing of the pistol downwards revealed that he had practically coiled around his little feet, a collection of tubular, dead, khaki limbs. It didn’t need any rift in the sound to make you understand that his loader had been killed on him . . . By signs and removing his pistol from his grasp Tietjens made the subaltern — he was only two days out from England — understand that he had better go and get a drink and some bearers for the man who might not be dead.
He was, however. When they removed him a little to make room for Tietjens’ immensely larger boots his arms just flopped in the mud, the tin hat that covered the face, to the sky. Like a lay figure, but a little less stiff. Not yet cold.
Tietjens became like a solitary statue of the Bard of Avon, the shelf for his elbow being rather low. Noise increased. The orchestra was bringing in all the brass, all the strings, all the wood-wind, all the percussion instruments. The performers threw about biscuit tins filled with horseshoes; they emptied sacks of coal on cracked gongs, they threw down forty-storey iron houses. It was comic to the extent that an operatic orchestra’s crescendo is comic. Crescendo! . . . Crescendo! CRRRRRESC . . . The Hero must be coming! He didn’t!
Still like Shakespeare contemplating the creation of, say, Cordelia, Tietjens leaned against his shelf. From time to time he pulled the trigger of the horse-pistol; from time to time he rested the butt on his ledge and rammed a charge home. When one jammed he took another. He found himself keeping up a fairly steady illumination.
The Hero arrived. Naturally, he was a Hun. He came over, all legs and arms going, like a catamount; struck the face of the parados, fell into the trench on the dead body, with his hands to his eyes, sprang up again and danced. With heavy deliberation Tietjens drew his great trench-knife rather than his revolver. Why? The butcher-instinct? Or trying to think himself with the Exmoor stag-hounds? The man’s shoulders had come down heavily on him as he had rebounded from the parados-face. He felt outraged. Watching that performing Hun he held the knife pointed and tried to think of the German of Hands Up. He imagined it to be Hoch die Hände!! He looked for a nice spot in the Hun’s side.
His excursion into a foreign tongue proved supererogatory. The German threw his arms abroad, his — considerably mashed! — face to the sky.
Always dramatic, Cousin Fritz! Too dramatic, really.
He fell, crumpling, into his untidy boots. Nasty boots, all crumpled too, up the calves! But he didn’t say Hoch der Kaiser, or Deutschland über alles, or anything valedictory.
Tietjens fired another light upwards and filled in another charge, then down on his hams in the mud he squatted over the German’s head, the fingers of both hands under the head. He could feel the great groans thrill his fingers. He let go and felt tentatively for his brandy flask.
But there was a muddy group round the traverse end. The noise reduced itself to half. It was bearers for the corpse. And the absurdly wee Aranjuez and a new loader . . . In those days they had not been so short of men! Shouts were coming along the trench. No doubt other Huns were in.
Noise reduced itself to a third. A bumpy diminuendo. Bumpy! Sacks of coal continued to fall down the stairs with a regular cadence; more irregularly, Bloody Mary, who was just behind the trench, or seemed like it, shook the whole house as you might say and there were other naval howitzers or something, somewhere.
Tietjens said to the bearers:
‘Take the Hun first. He’s alive. Our man’s dead.’ He was quite remarkably dead. He hadn’t, Tietjens had observed, when he bent over the German, really got what you might call a head, though there was something in its place. What had done that?
Aranjuez, taking his place beside the trench-face, said:
‘Damn cool you were, sir. Damn cool. I never saw a knife drawn so slow!’ They had watched the Hun do the danse du ventre! The poor beggar had had rifles and the young feller’s revolver turned on him all the time. They would probably have shot him some more but for the fear of hitting Tietjens. Half-a-dozen Germans had jumped into that sector of trenches in various places. As mad as march hares! . . . That fellow had been shot through both eyes, a fact that seemed to fill the little Aranjuez with singular horror. He said he would go mad if he thought he would be blinded, because there was a girl in the teashop at Bailleul, and a fellow called Spofforth of the Wiltshires would get her if his, Aranjuez’s, beauty was spoiled. He positively whimpered at the thought, and then gave the information that this was considered to be a false alarm: he meant a feigned attack to draw off troops from somewhere else where the real attempt was being made. There must be pretty good hell going on somewhere else, then.
It looked like that. For almost immediately all the guns had fallen silent except for one or two that bumped and grumped . . . It had all been just for fun, then!
Well, they were damn near Bailleul now. They would be driven past it in a day or two. On the way to the Channel. Aranjuez would have to hurry to see his girl. The little devil! He had overdrawn his confounded little account over his girl, and Tietjens had had to guarantee his overdraft — which he could not afford to do. Now the little wretch would probably overdraw still more — and Tietjens would have to guarantee still more of an overdraft.
But that night, when Tietjens had gone down into the black silence of his own particular branch of a cellar — they really had been in wine-cellars at that date, cellars stretching for hundreds of yards under chalk with strata of clay which made the mud so particularly sticky and offensive — he had found the sound of the pickaxes beneath his fleabag almost unbearable. They were probably our own men. Obviously they were our own men. But it had not made much difference, for, of course, if they were there they would be an attraction, and the Germans might just as well be below them, countermining.
His nerves had been put in a bad way by that rotten strafe that had been just for fun. He knew his nerves were in a bad way because he had a ghostly visit from 09 Morgan, a fellow whose head had been smashed, as it were, on his, Tietjens’, own hands, just after Tietjens had refused him home leave to go and get killed by a prize-fighter who had taken up with his, 09 Morgan’s, wife. It was complicated but Tietjens wished that fellows who wished to fall on him when they were stopping things would choose to stop things with something else than their heads. That wretched Hun dropping on his shoulder, when, by the laws of war, he ought to have been running back to his own lines, had given him, Tietjens, a jar that still shook his whole body. And, of course, a shock. The fellow had looked something positively Apocalyptic, his whitey-grey arms and legs spread abroad . . . And it had been an imbecile affair, with no basis of real fighting . . .
That thin surge of whitey-grey objects of whom not more than a dozen had reached the line — Tietjens knew that, because, with a melodramatically drawn revolver and the fellows who would have been really better employed carrying away the unfortunate Hun who had had in consequence to wait half an hour before being attended to — with those fellows loaded up with Mills bombs like people carrying pears, he had dodged, revolver first, round half-a-dozen traverses, and in quite enough of remains of gas to make his lungs unpleasant . . . Like a child playing a game of ‘I spy!’ Just like that . . . But only to come on several lots of Tommies standing round unfortunate objects who were either trembling with fear and wet and sweat, or panting with their nice little run . . .
This surge then of whitey-grey objects, sacrificed for fun, was intended . . . was intended ulti ultim . . . then . . . A voice, just under his camp-bed, said:
‘Bringt dem Hauptmann eine Kerze . . . ’ As who should say: ‘Bring a candle for the Captain . . . Just like that! A dream!
It hadn’t been as considerable a shock as you might have thought to a man just dozing off. Not really as bad as the falling dream: but quite as awakening . . . His mind had resumed that sentence.
The handful of Germans who had reached the trench, had been sacrificed for the stupid sort of fun called Strategy. Probably. Stupid! . . . It was, of course, just like German spooks to go mining by candle-light. Obsoletely Nibelungen-like. Dwarfs probably! . . . They had sent over that thin waft of men under a blessed lot of barrage and stuff . . . A lot! a whole lot! It had been quite an artillery strafe. Ten thousand shells as like as not. Then, somewhere up the line they had probably made a demonstration in force. Great bodies of men, an immense surge. And twenty to thirty thousand shells. Very likely some miles of esplanade, as it were, with the sea battering against it. And only a demonstration in force . . .
It could not be real fighting. They had not been ready for their spring advance.
It had been meant to impress somebody imbecile . . . Somebody imbecile in Wallachia, or Sofia, or Asia Minor. Or Whitehall, very likely. Or the White House! . . . Perhaps they had killed a lot of Yankees — to make themselves Transatlantic popular. There were no doubt, by then, whole American Army Corps in the line somewhere. By then! Poor devils, coming so late into such an accentuated hell. Damnably accentuated . . . The sound of even that little bit of fun had been portentously more awful than even quite a big show say in ‘15. It was better to have been in then and got used to it . . . If it hadn’t broken you, just by duration . . .
Might be to impress anybody . . . But who was going to be impressed? Of course, our legislators with the stewed-pear brains running about the ignoble corridors with cokebrize floors and mahogany doors . . . might be impressed. You must not rhyme! . . . Or, of course, our own legislators might have been trying a nice little demonstration in force, equally idiotic somewhere else, to impress someone just as unlikely to be impressed . . . This, then, would be the answer! But no one ever would be impressed again. We all had each other’s measures. So it was just wearisome . . .
It was remarkably quiet in that thick darkness. Down below, the picks continued their sinister confidences in each other’s ears . . . It was really like that. Like children in the corner of a schoolroom whispering nasty comments about their masters, one to the other . . . Girls, for choice . . . Chop, chop, chop, a pick whispered. Chop? another asked in an undertone. The first said Chopchopchop. Then Chup . . . And a silence of irregular duration . . . Like what happens when you listen to typewriting and the young woman has to stop to put in another page . . .
Nice young women with typewriters in Whitehall had very likely taken from dictation, on hot-pressed, square sheets with embossed royal arms, the plan for that very strafe . . . Because, obviously, it might have been dictated from Whitehall almost as directly as from Unter den Linden. We might have been making a demonstration in force on the Dwolologda in order to get the Huns to make a counter-demonstration in Flanders. Hoping poor old Puffles would get it in the neck. For they were trying still to smash poor old General Puffles and stop the single command . . . They might very well be hoping that our losses through the counter-demonstration would be so heavy that the Country would cry out for the evacuation of the Western Front . . . If they could get half-a-million of us killed perhaps the Country might . . . They, no doubt, thought it worth trying. But it was wearisome: those fellows in Whitehall never learned. Any more than Brother Boche . . .
Nice to be in poor old Puffles’ army. Nice but wearisome . . . Nice girls with typewriters in well-ventilated offices. Did they still put paper cuffs on to keep their sleeves from ink? He would ask Valen . . . Valen . . . It was warm and still . . . On such a night . . .
‘Bringt dem Hauptmann eine Kerze!’ A voice from under his camp bed! He imagined that the Hauptmann spook must be myopic: short-sightedly examining a tamping fuze . . . If they used tamping fuzes or if that was what they called them in the army!
He could not see the face or the spectacles of the Hauptmann any more than he could see the faces of his men. Not through his flea-bag and shins! They were packed in the tunnel; whitish-grey, tubular agglomerations . . . Large! Like the maggots that are eaten by Australian natives . . . Fear possessed him!
He sat up in his flea-bag, dripping with icy sweat.
‘By Jove, I’m for it!’ he said. He imagined that his brain was going: he was mad and seeing himself go mad. He cast about in his mind for some subject about which to think so that he could prove to himself that he had not gone mad.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08