The Colonel said:
‘Look here, Tietjens, lend me two hundred and fifty quid. They say you’re a damn beastly rich fellow. My accounts are all out. I’ve got a loathsome complaint. My friends have all gone back on me. I shall have to face a Court of Enquiry if I go home. But my nerve’s gone. I’ve got to go home.’
‘I daresay you knew all that.’
From the sudden fierce hatred that he felt at the thought of giving money to this man, Tietjens knew that his inner mind based all his calculations on the idea of living with Valentine Wannop . . . when men could stand up on hills.
He had found the Colonel in his cellar — it really, actually was a cellar, the remains of a farm — sitting on the edge of his camp-bed, in his shorts, his khaki shirt very open at the neck. His eyes were a little bloodshot, but his cropped, silver-grey hair was accurately waved, his grey moustache beautifully pointed. His silver-backed hair-brushes and a small mirror were indeed on the table in front of him. By the rays of the lamp that, hung overhead, rendered that damp stone place faintly nauseating, he looked keen, clean and resolute. Tietjens wondered how he would look by daylight. He had remarkably seldom seen the fellow by daylight. Beside the mirror and the brushes lay, limply, an unfilled pipe, a red pencil and the white buff papers from Whitehall that Tietjens had already read.
He had begun by looking at Tietjens with a keen, hard, bloodshot glance. He had said:
‘You think you can command this battalion? Have you any experience? It appears you suggest that I take two months’ leave.’
Tietjens had expected a violent outbreak. Threats even. None had come. The Colonel had continued to regard him with intentness, nothing more. He sat motionless, his long arms, bare to the elbow, dependent over each of his knees which were far apart. He said that if he decided to go he didn’t want to leave his battalion to a man that would knock it about. He continued staring hard at Tietjens. The phrase was singular in that place and at that hour, but Tietjens understood it to mean that he did not want his battalion discipline to go to pieces.
Tietjens answered that he did not think he would let the discipline go to pieces. The Colonel bad said:
‘How do you know? You’re no sddier, are you?’
Tietjens said he had commanded in the line a Company at full strength — nearly as large as the battalion and, out of it, a unit of exactly eight times its present strength. He did not think any complaints had been made of him. The Colonel said, frostily:
‘Well! I know nothing about you.’ He had added:
‘You seem to have moved the battalion all right the night before last. I wasn’t in a condition to do it myself. I’m not well. I’m obliged to you. The men appear to like you. They’re tired of me.’
Tietjens felt himself on tenterhooks. He had, now, a passionate desire to command that battalion. It was the last thing he would have expected of himself. He said:
‘If it becomes a question of a war of motion, sir, I don’t know that I should have much experience.’
The Colonel answered:
‘It won’t become a war of motion before I come back. If I ever do come back.’
‘Isn’t it rather like a war of motion now, sir?’ It was perhaps the first time in his life he had ever asked for information from a superior in rank — with an implicit belief that he would get an exact answer. The Colonel said:
‘No. This is only falling back on prepared positions. There will be positions prepared for us right back to the sea. If the Staff has done its work properly. If it hasn’t, the war’s over. We’re done, finished, smashed, annihilated, non-existent.’
‘But if the great strafe that, according to Division, is due now . . . ’
The Colonel said: ‘What?’ Tietjens repeated his words and added:
‘We might get pushed beyond the next prepared position.’
The Colonel appeared to withdraw his thoughts from a great distance.
‘There isn’t going to be any great strafe,’ he said. He was beginning to add: ‘Division has got . . . ’ A considerable thump shook the hill behind their backs. The Colonel sat listening without much attention. His eyes gloomily rested on the papers before him. He said, without looking up:
‘Yes: I don’t want my battalion knocked about!’ He went on reading again — the communication from Whitehall. He said: ‘You’ve read this?’ and then:
‘Falling back on prepared positions isn’t the same as moving in the open. You don’t have to do more than you do in a trench-to-trench attack. I suppose you can get your direction by compass all right. Or get someone to, for you.’
Another considerable crump of sound shook the earth but from a little further away. The Colonel turned the sheet of paper over. Pinned to the back of it was the private note of the Brigadier. He perused this also with gloomy and unsurprised eyes.
‘Pretty stiff, all this,’ he said. ‘You’ve read it? I shall have to go back and see about this.’
‘It’s rough luck. I should have liked to leave my battalion to someone that knew it. I don’t suppose you do. Perhaps you do, though.’
An immense collection of fire-irons: all the fire-irons in the world fell just above their heads. The sound seemed to prolong itself in echoes, though of course it could not have. It was repeated.
The Colonel looked upwards negligently. Tietjens proposed to go to see. The Colonel said:
‘No, don’t. Notting will tell us if anything’s wanted . . . Though nothing can be wanted!’ Notting was the beady-eyed Adjutant in the adjoining cellar. ‘How could they expect us to keep accounts straight in August 1914? How can they expect me to remember what happened? At the Depot. Then!’ He appeared listless, but without resentment. ‘Rotten luck . . . ’ he said. ‘In the battalion and . . . with this!’ He rapped the back of his hand on the papers. He looked up at Tietjens.
‘I suppose I could get rid of you; with a bad report,’ he said. ‘Or perhaps I couldn’t . . . General Campion put you here. You’re said to be his bastard.’
‘He’s my godfather,’ Tietjens said. ‘If you put in a bad report of me I should not protest. That is, if it were on the grounds of lack of experience. I should go to the Brigadier over anything else.’
‘It’s the same thing,’ the Colonel said, ‘I mean a godson. If I had thought you were General Campion’s bastard, I should not have said it . . . No; I don’t want to put in a bad report of you. It’s my own fault if you don’t know the battalion. I’ve kept you out of it. I didn’t want you to see what a rotten state the papers are in. They say you’re the devil of a paper soldier. You used to be in a Government office, didn’t you?’
Heavy blows were being delivered to the earth with some regularity on each side of the cellar. It was as if a boxer of the size of a mountain were delivering rights and lefts in heavy alternation. And it made hearing rather difficult.
‘Rotten luck,’ the Colonel said. ‘And McKechnie’s dotty. Clean dotty.’ Tietjens missed some words. He said that he would probably be able to get the paper work of the battalion straight before the Colonel came back.
The noise rolled down hill like a heavy cloud. The Colonel continued talking and Tietjens, not being very accustomed to his voice, lost a good deal of what he said but, as if in a rift, he did hear:
‘I’m not going to burn my fingers with a bad report on you that may bring a General on my back — to get back McKechnie who’s dotty . . . Not fit to . . . ’
The noise rolled in again. Once the Colonel listened to it, turning his head on one side and looking upwards. But he appeared satisfied with what he heard and recommenced his perusal of the Horse Guards letter. He took the pencil, underlined words and then sat idly stabbing the paper with the point.
With every minute Tietjens’ respect for him increased. This man at least knew his job — as an engine-dresser does, or the captain of a steam tramp. His nerves might have gone to pieces. They probably had; probably he could not go very far without stimulants: he was probably under bromides now.
And, all things considered, his treatment of Tietjens had been admirable and Tietjens had to revise his view of it. He realized that it was McKechnie who had given him the idea that the Colonel hated him: but he would not have said anything. He was too old a hand in the Army to give Tietjens a handle by saying anything definite . . . And he had always treated Tietjens with a sort of monumental deference that, in a Mess, the Colonel should bestow on his chief assistant. Going through a door at meal-times, for instance, if they happened to be side by side, he would motion with his hand for Tietjens to go first, naturally though, taking his proper precedence when Tietjens halted. And here he was, perfectly calm. And quite ready to be instructive.
Tietjens was not calm: he was too much bothered by Valentine Wannop and by the thought that, if the strafe was on, he ought to be seeing about his battalion. And of course by the bombardment. But the Colonel said, when Tietjens with the aid of signs again made proposals to take a look around:
‘No. Stop where you are. This isn’t the strafe. There is not going to be a strafe. This is only a little extra Morning Hate. You can tell by the noise. That’s only four point two’s. There’s nothing really heavy. The really heavies don’t come so fast. They’ll be turning on to the Worcesters now and only giving us one every half minute . . . That’s their game. If you don’t know that, what are you doing here?’ He added: ‘You hear?’ pointing his forefinger to the roof. The noise shifted. It went away to the right as a slow coal-wagon might. He went on:
‘This is your place. Not doing things up above. They’ll come and tell you if they want things. And you’ve got a first-rate Adjutant in Notting and Dunne’s a good man . . . The men are all under cover: that’s an advantage in having your strength down to three hundred. There’s dugouts for all and to spare . . . All the same, this is no place for you. Nor for me. This is a young man’s war. We’re old uns. Three and a half years of it have done for me. Three and a half months will do for you.’
He looked gloomily at his reflection in the mirror that stood before him.
‘You’re a gone coon!’ he said to it. Then he took it and holding it for a moment poised at the end of a bare white arm, flung it violently at the rough stones of the wall behind Tietjens. The fragments tinkled to the ground.
‘There’s seven years’ bad luck,’ he said. ‘God take ’em, if they can give me seven years worse than this last I’d find it instructive!’
He looked at Tietjens with infuriated eyes.
‘Look here you!’ he said, ‘you’re an educated man . . . What’s the worst thing about this war? What’s the worst thing? Tell me that!’ His chest began to heave. ‘It’s that they won’t let us alone. Never! Not one of us! If they’d let us alone we could fight. But never . . . No one! It’s not only the beastly papers of the battalion, though I’m no good with papers. Never was and never shall be . . . But it’s the people at home. One’s own people. God help us, you’d think that when a poor devil was in the trenches they’d let him alone . . . Damn it: I’ve had solicitors’ letters about family quarrels when I was in hospital. Imagine that! . . . Imagine it! I don’t mean tradesmen’s dunnings. But one’s own people. I haven’t even got a bad wife as McKechnie has and they say you have. My wife’s a bit extravagant and the children are expensive. That’s worry enough . . . But my father died eighteen months ago. He was in partnership with my uncle. A builder. And they tried to do his estate out of his share of the business and leave my old mother with nothing. And my brother and sister threw the estate into Chancery in order to get back the little bit my father spent on my wife and children. My wife and children lived with my father whilst I was in India . . . And out here . . . My solicitor says they can get it out of my share: the cost of their keep. He calls it the doctrine of ademption. Ademption . . . Doctrine of . . . I was better off as a Sergeant,’ he added gloomily. ‘But Sergeants don’t get let alone. They’ve always got women after them. Or their wives take up with Belgians and they get written to about it. Sergeant Cutts of “D” Company gets an anonymous letter every week about his wife. How’s he to do his duty! But he does. So have I till now . . . ’ He added with renewed violence:
‘Look here. You’re an educated man, aren’t you? The sort of man that could write a book. You write a book about that. You write to the papers about it. You’d be more use to the Army doing that than being here. I daresay you’re a good enough officer. Old Campion is too keen a commander to stick a rotten officer into this job, godson or no godson . . . Besides, I don’t believe the whole story about you. If a General wanted to give a soft godson’s job to a fellow, it would be a soft job and a fat one. He wouldn’t send him here. So take the battalion with my blessing. You won’t worry over it more than I have: the poor bloody Glamorgans.’
So he had his battalion! He drew an immense breath. The bumps began to come back along the line. He figured those shells as being like sparrow-hawks beating along a hedge. They were probably pretty accurate. The Germans were pretty accurate. The trenches were probably being knocked about a good deal, the pretty, pinkish gravel falling about in heaps as it would lie in a park, ready to be spread on paths. He remembered how he had been up on the Montagne Noire, still, thank God, behind where they were now. Why did he thank God? Did he really care where the Army was. Probably! But enough to say ‘thank God’ about? Probably too . . . But as long as they kept on at the job did anything matter? Anything else? It was keeping on that mattered. From the Montagne Noire he had seen our shells bursting on a thinnish line in the distance, in shining weather. Each shell existing in a white puff, beautifully. Forward and backward along the line . . . Under Messines village. He had felt exhilaration to think that our gunners were making such good practice. Now some Hun on a hill was feeling exhilaration over puffs of smoke in our line! . . . But he, Tietjens, was . . . Damn it, he was going to make two hundred and fifty quid towards living with Valentine Wannop — when you really could stand up on a hill . . . anywhere!
The Adjutant, Notting, looked in and said:
‘Brigade wants to know if we’re suffering any, sir?’ The Colonel surveyed Tietjens with irony:
‘Well, what are you going to report?’ he asked . . . ‘This officer is taking over from me,’ he said to Notting. Notting’s beady eyes and red-varnished cheeks expressed no emotions.
‘Oh, tell Brigade,’ the Colonel said, ‘that we’re all as happy as sand-boys. We could stand this till Kingdom come.’ He asked: ‘We aren’t suffering any, are we?’
Notting said: no, not in particular. ‘C’ Company was grumbling that all its beautiful revetments had been knocked to pieces. The sentry near their own dugout complained that the pebbles in the gravel were nearly as bad as shrapnel.
‘Well, tell Brigade what I said. With Major Tietjens’ compliments, not mine. He’s in command.’
. . . You may as well make a cheerful impression to begin with,’ he added to Tietjens.
It was then that, suddenly, he burst out with:
‘Look here! Lend me two hundred and fifty quid!’
He remained staring fixedly at Tietjens with an odd air of a man who has just asked a teasing, jocular conundrum . . .
Tietjens had recoiled — really half an inch. The man said he was suffering from a loathsome disease: it was being near something dirty. You don’t contract loathsome diseases except from the cheapest kind of women or through being untidy-minded . . . The man’s pals had gone back on him. That sort of man’s pals do go back on him His accounts were all out . . . He was in short the sort of swindling, unclean scoundrel to whom one lent money . . . Irresistibly!
A crash of the sort you couldn’t ignore, as is the case with certain claps in thunderstorms, sent a good deal of gravel down their cellar steps. It crashed against their shaky door. They heard Notting come out of his cellar and tell someone to shovel the beastly stuff back again where it had come from.
The Colonel looked up at the roof. He said that had knocked their parapet about a bit. Then he resumed his fixed gaze at Tietjens.
Tietjens said to himself.
‘I’m losing my nerve . . . It’s the damned news that Campion is coming . . . I’m becoming a wretched, irresolute Johnny.’
The Colonel said:
‘Pm not a beastly sponger. I never borrowed before!’ His chest heaved . . . It really expanded and then got smaller again, the orifice in the khaki at his throat contracting . . . Perhaps he had never borrowed before . . .
After all, it didn’t matter what kind of man this was, it was a question of what sort of a man Tietjens was becoming. He said:
‘I can’t lend you the money. I’ll guarantee an overdraft to your agents. For two hundred and fifty.’
Well, then, he remained the sort of man who automatically lent money. He was glad.
The Colonel’s face fell. His martially erect shoulders indeed collapsed. He exclaimed ruefully:
‘Oh, I say, I thought you were the sort one could go to.’ Tietjens said:
‘It’s the same thing. You can draw a cheque on your bank exactly as if I paid the money in.’
The Colonel said:
‘I can? It’s the same thing? You’re sure?’ His questions were like the pleas of a young woman asking you not to murder her.
. . . He obviously was not a sponger. He was a financial virgin. There could not be a subaltern of eighteen in the whole army who did not know what it meant to have an overdraft guaranteed after a fortnight’s leave . . . Tietjens only wished they didn’t. He said:
‘You’ve practically got the money in your hand as you sit there. I’ve only to write the letter. It’s impossible your agents should refuse my guarantee. If they do, I’ll raise the money and send it to you.’
He wondered why he didn’t do that last in any case. A year or so ago he would have had no hesitation about overdrawing his account to any extent. Now he had an insupportable objection. Like a hatred!
‘You’d better let me have your address,’ he added, for his mind was really wandering a little. There was too much talk! ‘I suppose you’ll go to No. IX Red Cross at Rouen for a bit.’
The Colonel sprang to his feet:
‘My God, what’s that?’ he cried out. ‘Me . . . to No. IX.’
‘I don’t know the procedure. You said you had . . . ’
The other cried out:
‘I’ve got cancer. A big swelling under the armpit.’ He passed his hand over his bare flesh through the opening of his shirt, the long arm disappearing to the elbow. ‘Good God . . . I suppose when I said my pals had gone back on me you thought I’d asked them for help and been refused. I haven’t . . . They’re all killed. That’s the worst way you can go back on a pal, isn’t it? Don’t you understand men’s language?’
He sat down heavily on his bed again.
‘By Jove: if you hadn’t promised to let me have the money there would have been nothing for me but to make a hole in the water.’
‘Well, don’t contemplate it now. Get yourself well looked after. What does Derry say?’
The Colonel again started violently:
‘Derry! The M.O . . . Do you think I’d tell him! Or little squits of subalterns? Or any man! You understand now why I wouldn’t take Derry’s beastly pill. How do I know what it mightn’t do to . . . ’
Again he passed his hand under his armpit, his eyes taking on a yearning and calculating expression. He added:
‘I thought it a duty to tell you as I was asking you for a loan. You might not get repaid. I suppose your offer still holds good?’
Drops of moisture had hitherto made beads on his forehead; it now shone, uniformly wet.
‘If you haven’t consulted anybody,’ Tietjens said, ‘you mayn’t have got it. I should have yourself seen to right away. My offer still holds good!’
‘Oh, I’ve got it, all right,’ the Colonel answered with an air of infinite sapience. ‘My old man — my governor — had it. Just like that. And he never told a soul till three days before his death. Neither shall I.’
‘I should get it seen to,’ Tietjens maintained. ‘It’s a duty to your children. And the King. You’re too damn good a soldier for the Army to lose.’
‘Nice of you to say so,’ the Colonel said. ‘But I’ve stood too much. I couldn’t face waiting for the verdict.’
. . . It was no good saying he had faced worse things. He very likely hadn’t, being the man he was.
The Colonel said:
‘Now if I could be any good!’
‘I suppose I may go along the trenches now. There’s a wet place . . .
He was determined to go along the trenches. He had to . . . what was it . . . ‘find a place to be alone with Heaven.’ He maintained also his conviction that he must show the men his mealsack of a body, mooning along; but attentive.
A problem worried him. He did not like putting it since it might seem to question the Colonel’s military efficiency. He wrapped it up: had the Colonel any special advice as to keeping in touch with units on the right and left? And as to passing messages.
. . . That was a mania with Tietjens. If he had had his way he would keep the battalion day and night at communication drill. He had not been able to discover that any precautions of that sort were taken in that unit at all. Or in the others alongside . . .
He had hit on the Colonel’s heel of Achilles.
In the open it became evident: more and more and more and always more evident! The news that General Campion was taking over that command had changed Tietjens’ whole view of the world.
The trenches were much as he had expected. They conformed indeed exactly to the image he had had in the cellar. They resembled heaps of reddish gravel laid out ready to distribute over the roads of parks. Getting out of the dugout had been like climbing into a trolley that had just been inverted for the purposes of discharging its load. It was a nasty job for the men, cleaving a passage and keeping under cover. Naturally the German sharpshooters were on the lookout. Our problem was to get as much of the trench as you could set up by daylight. The German problem was to get as many of our men as possible. Tietjens would see that our men stayed under cover until nightfall; the commander of the unit opposite would attend to the sniping of as many men as he could. Tietjens himself had three first-class snipers left: they would attempt to get as many of the German snipers as they could. That was self-defence.
In addition a great many Enemy attentions would direct themselves to Tietjens’ stretch of the line. The artillery would continue to plunk in a shell or so from time to time. They would not do this very often because it would invite the attention of our artillery and that might prove too costly. More or less heavy masses of High Explosives would be thrown on to the line: what the Germans called Minenwerfer might project what our people called sausages. These being visible coming through the air you posted lookouts who gave you warning in time to get under cover. So the Germans had rather abandoned the use of these, probably as being costly in explosives and not so very effective. They made, that is to say, good holes but accounted for few men.
Airplanes with their beastly bullet-distributing hoppers — that is what they seemed like — would now and then duck along the trench, but not very often. The proceeding was, again, too costly: they would limit themselves as a rule to circling leisurely overhead and dropping things whilst the shrapnel burst round them — and spattered bullets over the trench. Flying pigs, aerial torpedoes, and other floating missiles, pretty, shining, silvery things with fins, would come through the air and would explode on striking the ground or after burying themselves. There was practically no end to their devices and the Huns had a new one every other week or so. They perhaps wasted themselves on new devices. A good many of them turned out to be duds. And a good many of their usually successful missiles turned out to be duds. They were undoubtedly beginning to feel the strain — mental and in their materials. So that if you had to be in these beastly places it was probably better to be in our trenches than theirs. Our war material was pretty good!
This was the war of attrition . . . A mug’s game! A mug’s game as far as killing men was concerned, but not an uninteresting occupation if you considered it as a struggle of various minds spread all over the broad landscape in the sunlight. They did not kill many men and they expended an infinite number of missiles and a vast amount of thought. If you took six million men armed with loaded canes and stockings containing bricks or knives and set them against another six million men similarly armed, at the end of three hours four million on the one side and the entire six million on the other would be dead. So, as far as killing went, it really was a mug’s game. That was what happened if you let yourself get into the hands of the applied scientist. For all these things were the products not of the soldier but of hirsute, bespectacled creatures who peered through magnifying glasses. Or of course, on our side, they would be shaven-cheeked and less abstracted. They were efficient as slaughterers in that they enabled the millions of men to be moved. When you had only knives you could not move very fast. On the other hand, your knife killed at every stroke: you would set a million men firing at each other with rifles from eighteen hundred yards. But few rifles ever registered a hit. So the invention was relatively inefficient. And it dragged things out!
And suddenly it had become boring.
They were probably going to spend a whole day during which the Germans would strain themselves, their intelligences flickering across the world, to kill a couple of Tietjens’ men, and Tietjens would exercise all his care in the effort not to have even one casualty. And at the end of the day they would all be very tired and the poor b —— y men would have to set to work to repair the trenches in earnest. That was the ordinary day’s work.
He was going about it . . . He had got ‘A’ Company Commander to come up and talk to him about his fatigues. To the right of Headquarters the trenches appeared to have suffered less than to the left and it was possible to move quite a number of men without risk. ‘A’ Company Commander was an astonishingly thin, bald man of fifty. He was so bald that his tin hat slid about all over his skull. He had been a small shipowner and must have married very late in life, for he spoke of having two children, one of five, one of seven. A pigeon pair. His business was now making fifty thousand a year for him. It pleased Tietjens to think that his children would be well provided for if he were killed. A nice, silent, capable man who usually looked into the distance rather abstractedly when he talked. He was killed two months later, cleanly, by a bullet.
He was impatient that things had not got a move on. What had become of the big Hun strafe?
‘You remember the Hun company-sergeant-major that surrendered to your crowd the night before last? The fellow who said he was going to open a sweet-stuff shop in the Tottenham Court Road with the company money he had stolen? . . . Or perhaps you did not hear?’
The remembrance of that shifty-looking N.C.O. in blue-grey that was rather smart for a man coming in during a big fight stirred up intensely disagreeable feelings from the bottom of Tietjens’ mind. It was detestable to him to be in control of the person of another human being — as detestable as it would have been to be himself a prisoner . . . that thing that he dreaded most in the world. It was indeed almost more detestable, since to be taken prisoner was at least a thing outside your own volition, whereas to control a prisoner, even under the compulsion of discipline on yourself, implies a certain free-will of your own. And this had been an especially loathsome affair. Even normally, though it was irrational enough, prisoners affected him with the sense that they were unclean. As if they were maggots. It was not sensible; but he knew that if he had had to touch a prisoner he would have felt nausea. It was no doubt the product of his passionate Tory sense of freedom. What distinguished man from the brutes was his freedom. When then a man was deprived of freedom he became like a brute. To exist in his society was to live with brutes: like Gulliver amongst the Houyhnhms!
And this unclean fellow had been a deserter in addition!
He had been brought into the H.Q. dugout at three in the morning after the strafe had completely died out. It appeared that he had come over, ostensibly in the ordinary course of the attack. But he had lain all night in a shell hole, creeping in to our lines only when things were quiet. Previously to starting he had crammed his pockets with all the company money and even the papers that he could lay his hands on. He had been brought to H.Q. at that disagreeable hour because of the money and the papers, ‘A’ Company judging that such things ought to be put in the hands at least of the Adjutant as quickly as possible.
The C.O., McKechnie, the Intelligence Officer and the doctor had all, in addition to Tietjens himself, just settled in there, and the air of the smallish place was already fetid and reeking with service rum and whisky. The appearance of the German had caused Tietjens almost to vomit, and he was already in a state of enervation from having had to bring the battalion in. His temples were racked with a sort of neuralgia that he believed to be caused by eyestrain.
Normally, the questioning of prisoners before they reached Division was strongly discountenanced, but a deserter excites more interest than an ordinary prisoner, and the C.O. who was by then in a state of hilarious mutiny absolutely ordered Tietjens to get all he could out of the prisoner. Tietjens knew a little German: the Intelligence Officer who knew that language well had been killed. Dunne, replacing him, had no German.
The shifty, upright, thin, dark fellow with even unusually uneasy eyes, had answered questions readily enough. Yes, the Huns were fed up with the war; discipline had become so difficult to maintain that one of his reasons for deserting had been sheer weariness over the effort to keep the men under him in order. They had no food. It was impossible to get the men, in an advance, past any kind of food dumps. He was continually being unjustly reprimanded for his want of success, and standing there he cursed his late officers! Nevertheless, when the C.O. made Tietjens ask him some questions about an Austrian gun that the Germans had lately introduced to that front and that threw a self-burying shell containing an incredible quantity of H.E., the fellow had clicked his heels together and had answered:
‘Nein, Herr Offizier, das wäre Landesverratung!’ . . . to answer that would be to betray one’s country. His psychology had been difficult to grasp. He had explained as well as he could, using a few words of English, the papers that he had brought over. They were mostly exhortations to the German soldiers, circulars containing news of disasters to and the demoralization of the Allied troops; there were also a few returns of no great interest — mostly statistics of influenza cases. But when Tietjens had held before the fellow’s eyes a typewritten page with a heading that he had now forgotten, the Sergeant had exclaimed: ’Ach, nicht das!’ . . . and had made as if to snatch the paper from Tietjens’ fingers. Then he had desisted, realizing that he was risking his life, no doubt. But he had become as pale as death, and had refused to translate the phrases that Tietjens did not understand; and indeed Tietjens understood practically none of the words, which were all technical.
He knew the paper contained some sort of movement orders; but he was by that time heartily sick of the affair and he knew that that was just the sort of paper that the staff did not wish men in the line to meddle with. So he dropped the matter, and the Colonel and the Pals being by that time tired of listening and not grasping what was happening, Tietjens had sent the fellow at the double back to Brigade under the charge of the Intelligence Officer and a heavier escort than was usual.
What remained to Tietjens of the affair was the expression that the fellow had used when asked what he was going to do with the Company money he had stolen. He was going to open a little sweet shop in the Tottenham Court Road. He had, of course, been a waiter: in Old Compton Street. Tietjens wondered vaguely what would become of him. What did they do with deserters? Perhaps they interned them: perhaps they made them N.C.O.’s in prisoners’ units. He could never go back to Germany . . .
That remained to him — and the horror and loathing he had felt at the episode: as if it had caused him personal deterioration. He had put the matter out of his mind.
It occurred to him now that, very likely, the urgent announcements from Staff of all sorts had been inspired by that very paper! The paper that loathsome fellow had tried to grab at. He remembered that he had been feeling so sick that he hadn’t bothered to have the man handcuffed . . . It raised a number of questions. Does a man desert and at the same time refuse to betray his country? Well, he might. There was no end to the contradictions in men’s characters. Look at the C.O. An efficient officer and a muddled ass in one: even in soldiering matters!
On the other hand, the whole thing might be a plant of the Huns. The paper — the movement order — might have been meant to reach our Army Headquarters. On the face of it, important movement orders do not lie about in Company offices. Not usually. The Huns might be trying to call our attention to this part of the line whilst their real attack might be coming somewhere else. That again was unlikely because that particular part of the line was so weak owing to poor General Puffles’ unpopularity with the great ones at home that the Huns would be mad if they attacked anywhere else. And the French were hurrying up straight to that spot in terrific force. He might then be a hero! . . . But he didn’t look like a hero!
This sort of complication was wearisome nowadays, though once it would have delighted him to dwell on it and work it out with nice figures and calculations of stresses. Now his only emotion about the matter was that, thank God, it was none of his job. The Huns didn’t appear to be coming.
He found himself regretting that the strafe was not coming after all. That was incredible. How could he regret not being put into immediate danger of death?
Long, thin, scrawny and mournful, with his tin hat now tilted forward over his nose, the O.C. ‘A’ Company gazed into futurity and remarked:
‘I’m sorry the Huns aren’t coming!’
He was sorry the Huns were not coming. Because if they came they might as well come according to the information supplied by that prisoner. He had captured that fellow. He might as well therefore get the credit. It might get him remembered if he put in for leave. He wanted leave. He wanted to see his children. He had not seen them for two years now. Children of five and seven change a good deal in two years. He grumbled on. Without any shame at the revelation of his intimate motives. The quite ordinary man! But he was perfectly to be respected. He had a rather grating chest voice. It occurred to Tietjens that that man would never see his children.
He wished these intimations would not come to him. He found himself at times looking at the faces of several men and thinking that this or that man would shortly be killed. He wished he could get rid of the habit. It seemed indecent. As a rule he was right. But then, almost every man you looked at there was certain to get killed . . . Himself excepted. He himself was going to be wounded in the soft place behind the right collar-bone.
He regretted that the strafe was not coming that morning! Because if they came they might as well come according to the information supplied by the prisoner he had examined in the stinking dug-out. His unit had captured the fellow. He would now be signing its H.Q. chits as Acting O.C. Ninth Glamorganshires. So he, Tietjens, had captured that fellow. And his perspicacity in having him sent immediately back to Brigade with his precious paper might get him, Tietjens, remembered favourably at Brigade H.Q. Then they would leave him in temporary command of his battalion. And if they did that he might do well enough to get a battalion of his own!
He astounded himself . . . His mentality was that of O.C. ‘A’ Company!
‘It was damn smart of you to see that fellow was of importance and have him sent at the double to me.’ O.C. ‘A’ Coy. grew red over all his grim face. So, one day, he, Tietjens, might flush with pleasure at the words of some squit with a red band round his hat!
‘Even if the Germans don’t come it might have been helpful. It might have been even more helpful. It might have been the means of keeping them back.’ Because of course if the Germans knew that we had got hold of their Movement Order they might change their plans. That would inconvenience them. It was not likely. There was perhaps not time for the news that we knew to have got through to their Important Ones. But it was possible. Such things had happened.
Aranjuez and the Lance-Corporal stood still and so silent in the sunlight that they resembled fragments of the reddish trench. The red gravel of the trenches began here, however, to be smirched with more agricultural marl. Later the trenches became pure alluvial soil and then ran down more smartly into stuff so wet that it was like a quicksand. A bog. It was there he had tried revetting with a syphon-drain. The thought of that extreme of his line reminded him. He said:
‘You know all about keeping in communication with immediately neighbouring units?’
The grim fellow said:
‘Only what they taught in the training camps at the beginning of the war, sir. When I joined up. It was fairly thorough but it’s all forgotten now.’
Tietjens said to Aranjuez:
‘You’re Signalling Officer. What do you know about keeping in communication with units on your right and left?’
Aranjuez, blushing and stammering, knew all about buzzers and signals. Tietjens said:
‘That’s only for trenches, all that. But, in motion. At your O.T.C. Didn’t they practise you in keeping communication between troops in motion?’
They hadn’t at the 0.T.C . . . At first it had been in the programme. But it had always been crowded out by some stunt. Rifle-grenade drill. Bomb-throwing. Stokes-gun drill. Any sort of machine drill as long as it was not moving bodies of men over difficult country — sandhills, say — and hammering into them that they must keep in touch unit with unit or drop connecting files if a unit itself divided up.
It was perhaps the dominant idea of Tietjens, perhaps the main idea that he got out of warfare — that at all costs you must keep in touch with your neighbouring troops. When, later, he had to command the escorts over immense bodies of German prisoners on the march it several times occurred to him to drop so many connecting files for the benefit of the men or N.C.O.s — or even the officers, of his escort who had fallen out through sheer fatigue or disease, that he would arrive in a new camp at the day’s end with hardly any escort left at all — say thirty for three thousand prisoners. The business of an escort being to prevent the escape of prisoners it might have been thought better to retain the connecting files for that purpose. But, on the other hand, he never lost a prisoner except by German bombs, and he never lost any of his stragglers at all.
. . . He said to O.C. ‘A’ Company:
‘Please look after this matter in your Company. I shall arrange as soon as I can to transfer you to the outside right of the unit. If the men are doing nothing lecture them, please, yourself on this subject and talk very seriously to all lance-corporals, section leaders and oldest privates of platoons. And be good enough to get into communication at once with the Company Commander of the Wiltshires immediately on our right. In one of two ways the war is over. The war of trenches. Either the Germans will immediately drive us into the North Sea or we shall drive them back. They will then be in a state of demoralization and we shall need to move fast. Lieutenant Aranjuez, you will arrange to be present when Captain Gibbs talks to his Company and you will repeat what he says in the other Companies.’
He was talking quickly and distinctly, as he did when he was well, and he was talking stiltedly on purpose. He could not obviously call an officers’ conference with a German attack possibly impending; but he was pretty certain that something of what he said would penetrate to nearly every ear of the Battalion if he said it before a Company Commander, a Signalling Lieutenant and an Orderly-room Lance-Corporal. It would go through that the Old Man was dotty on this joke, and Sergeants would see that some attention was paid to the matter. So would the officers. It was all that could be done at the moment.
He walked behind Gibbs along the trench which at this point was perfectly intact and satisfactory, the red gravel giving place to marl. He remarked to the good fellow that in that way they would do something to checkmate the blasted civilians whose meddling with the processes of war had put them where they were. Gibbs agreed gloomily that civilian interference had lost the war. They so hated the regular army that whenever a civilian saw a trace of regular training remaining in this mud-fighting that they liked us to indulge in, he wrote a hundred letters under different names to the papers, and the War Secretary at once took steps to retain that hundred votes; Gibbs had been reading a home newspaper that morning.
Tietjens surprised himself by saying:
‘Oh, we’ll beat them yet!’ It was an expression of impracticable optimism. He sought to justify his words by saying that their Army Commanders having put up such a damn good fight in spite of the most criminal form of civilian interference had begun to put a stopper on their games. Campion’s coming was a proof that soldiers were going to be allowed to have some say in the conduct of the war. It meant the single command . . . Gibbs expressed a muted satisfaction. If the French took over those lines as they certainly would if they had the Single Command he would no doubt be able to go home and see his children. All their divisions would have to be taken out of the lines to be reorganized and brought up to strength.
‘As to what we were talking about . . . Supposing you detailed outside section leaders and another file to keep in touch with the Wiltshires and they did the same. Supposing that for purpose of recognition they wore handkerchiefs round their right and left arms respectively . . . It has been done . . . ’
‘The Huns,’ Captain Gibbs said grimly, ‘would probably pick them off specially. They’d probably pick off specially any one who had any sort of badge. So you would be worse off.’
They were going at his request to look at a section of his trench. Orderly Room had ordered him to make arrangements for machine-gun performances there. He couldn’t. It didn’t exist. Nothing existed. He supposed that to have been the new Austrian gun. New probably, but why Austrian? The Austrians did not usually interest themselves much in High Explosives. This one, whatever it was, threw something that buried itself and then blew up half the universe. With astonishingly little noise and commotion. Just lifted up. Like a hippopotamus. He, Gibbs, had hardly noticed anything as you would have if it had been say a mine. When they came and told him that a mine had gone off there he would not believe them . . . But you could see for yourself that it looked exactly as if a mine had been chucking things about. A small mine. But still a mine . . .
In the shelter of the broken end of the trench a fatigue of six men worked with pick and shovel, patiently, two at a time. They threw up mud and stones and patted them and, stepping down into the thus created vacancy, threw up more mud and stones. Water oozed about, uncertain where to go. There must be a spring there. That hillside was honeycombed with springs . . .
You would certainly have said there had been a mine there. If we had been advancing it would have been a small mine left by the Huns to cheer us up. But we had retreated on to ground we had always held. So it couldn’t have been a mine.
Also it kicked the ground forward and backward and relatively little laterally, so that the deep hole it had created more resembled the entry into a rudimentary shaft than the usually circular shell hole. A mound existed between Tietjens and ‘B’ Company trench, considerably higher than you could see over. A vast mound; a miniature Primrose Hill. But much bigger than anything they had seen created by flying pigs or other aerial missiles as yet. Anyhow the mound was high enough to give Tietjens a chance to get round it in cover and shuffle down into ‘B’ Company’s line. He said to Gibbs:
‘We shall have to see about that machine gun place. Don’t come any further with me. Make those fellows keep their heads down and send them back if the Huns seem like sending over any more dirt.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08