IN THE ADVANCE TRENCHES

Now when we take the cobbled road
We often took before,
Our thoughts are with the hearty lads
Who tread that way no more.

Oh! boys upon the level fields,
If you could call to mind
The wine of Café Pierre le Blanc
You wouldn’t stay behind.

But when we leave the trench at night,
And stagger neath our load,
Grey, silent ghosts as light as air
Come with us down the road.

And when we sit us down to drink
You sit beside us too,
And drink at Café Pierre le Blanc
As once you used to do.

THE Company marched from the village of Les Brebis at nightfall; the
moon, waning a little at one of its corners, shone brightly amidst the
stars in the east, and under it, behind the German lines, a burning
mine threw a flame, salmon pink and wreathed in smoke, into the air.
Our Company was sadly thinned now, it had cast off many—so many of its
men at Cuinchy, Givenchy, and Vermelles. At each of these places there
are graves of the London Irish boys who have been killed in action.

We marched through a world of slag heaps and chimney stacks, the
moonlight flowing down the sides of the former like mist, the smoke
stood up from the latter straight as the chimneys themselves. The whirr
of machinery in the mine could be heard, and the creaking wagon wheels
on an adjoining railway spoke out in a low, monotonous clank the half
strangled message of labour.

Our way lay up a hill, at the top we came into full view of the night
of battle, the bursting shells up by Souchez, the flash of rifles by
the village of Vermelles, the long white searchlights near Lens, and
the star-shells, red, green and electric-white, rioting in a splendid
blaze of colour over the decay, death and pity of the firing line. We
could hear the dull thud of shells bursting in the fields and the sharp
explosion they made amidst the masonry of deserted homes; you feel glad
that the homes are deserted, and you hope that if any soldiers are
billeted there they are in the safe protection of the cellars.

The road by which we marched was lined with houses all in various
stages of collapse, some with merely a few tiles shot out of the
roofs, others levelled to the ground. Some of the buildings were still
peopled; at one home a woman was putting up the shutters and we could
see some children drinking coffee from little tin mugs inside near the
door; the garret of the house was blown in, the rafters stuck up over
the tiles like long, accusing fingers, charging all who passed by with
the mischief which had happened. The cats were crooning love songs on
the roofs, and stray dogs slunk from the roadway as we approached. In
the villages, with the natives gone and the laughter dead, there are
always to be found stray dogs and love-making cats. The cats raise
their primordial, instinctive yowl in villages raked with artillery
fire, and poor lone dogs often cry at night to the moon, and their
plaint is full of longing.

We marched down the reverse slope of the hill in silence. At the end
of the road was the village; our firing trench fringed the outer row
of houses. Two months before an impudent red chimney stack stood high
in air here; but humbled now, it had fallen upon itself, and its own
bricks lay still as sandbags at its base, a forgotten ghost with
blurred outlines, it brooded, a stricken giant.

The long road down the hill was a tedious, deceptive way; it took a
deal of marching to make the village. Bill Teake growled. “One would
think the place was tied to a string,” he grumbled, “and some one
pullin’ it away!”

We were going to dig a sap out from the front trench towards the German
lines; we drew our spades and shovels for the work from the Engineers’
store at the rear and made our way into the labyrinth of trenches. Men
were at their posts on the fire positions, their Balaclava helmets
resting on their ears, their bayonets gleaming bright in the moonshine,
their hands close to their rifle barrels. Sleepers lay stretched out
on the banquette with their overcoats over their heads and bodies. Out
on the front the Engineers had already taped out the night’s work; our
battalion had to dig some two hundred and fifty yards of trench 3 ft.
wide and 6 ft. deep before dawn, and the work had to be performed with
all possible dispatch. Rumour spoke of thrilling days ahead; and men
spoke of a big push which was shortly to take place. Between the lines
there are no slackers; the safety of a man so often depends upon the
dexterous handling of his spade; the deeper a man digs, the better is
his shelter from bullet and bomb; the spade is the key to safety.

The men set to work eagerly, one picked up the earth with a spade and
a mate shovelled the loose stuff out over the meadow. The grass, very
long now and tapering tall as the props that held the web of wire
entanglements in air, shook gently backwards and forwards as the slight
breezes caught it. The night was wonderfully calm and peaceful; it
seemed as if heaven and earth held no threat for the men who delved in
the alleys of war.

Out ahead lay the German trenches. I could discern their line of
sandbags winding over the meadows and losing itself for a moment when
it disappeared behind the ruins of a farm-house—a favourite resort of
the enemy snipers, until our artillery blew the place to atoms. Silent
and full of mystery as it lay there in the moonlight, the place had a
strange fascination for me. How interesting it would be to go out there
beyond our most advanced outpost and have a peep at the place all by
myself. Being a stretcher-bearer there was no necessity for me to dig;
my work began when my mates ceased their labours and fell wounded.

Out in front of me lay a line of barbed wire entanglements.

“Our wire?” I asked the Engineer.

“No—the Germans’,” he answered.

I noticed a path through it, and I took my way to the other side.
Behind me I could heard the thud of picks and the sharp, rasping sound
of shovels digging into the earth, and now and again the whispered
words of command passing from lip to lip. The long grass impeded my
movements, tripping me as I walked, and lurking shell-holes caught me
twice by the foot and flung me to the ground. Twenty yards out from
the wire I noticed in front of me something moving on the ground,
wriggling, as I thought, towards the enemy’s line. I threw myself flat
and watched. There was no mistaking it now; it was a man, belly flat on
the ground, moving off from our lines. Being a non-combatant I had no
rifle, no weapon to defend myself with if attacked. I wriggled back a
few yards, then got to my feet, recrossed the line of wires and found a
company-sergeant-major speaking to an officer.

“There’s somebody out there lying on the ground,” I said. “A man moving
off towards the German trenches.”

The three of us went off together and approached the figure on the
ground, which had hardly changed its position since I last saw it.
It was dressed in khaki, the dark barrel of a rifle stretched out in
front. I saw stripes on a khaki sleeve….

“One of a covering-party?” asked the sergeant-major.

“That’s right,” came the answer from the grass, and a white face looked
up at us.

“Quiet?” asked the S.-M.

“Nothing doing,” said the voice from the ground. “It’s cold lying
here, though. We’ve been out for four hours.”

“I did not think that the covering-party was so far out,” said the
officer, and the two men returned to their company.

I sat in the long grass with the watcher; he was the sergeant in
command of the covering party.

“Are your party out digging?” he asked.

“Yes, out behind us,” I answered. “Is the covering-party a large one?”

“About fifty of us,” said the sergeant. “They’ve all got orders to
shoot on sight when they see anything suspicious. Do you hear the
Germans at work out there?”

I listened; from the right front came the sound of hammering.

“They’re putting up barbed wire entanglements and digging a sap,” said
the sergeant. “Both sides are working and none are fighting. I must
have another smoke,” said the sergeant.

“But it’s dangerous to strike a light here,” I said.

“Not in this way,” said the sergeant, drawing a cigarette and a patent
flint tinder-lighter from his pocket. Over a hole newly dug in the
earth, as if with a bayonet, the sergeant leant, lit the cigarette in
its little dug-out, hiding the glow with his hand.

“Do you smoke?” he asked.

“Yes, I smoke,” and the man gave me a cigarette.

It was so very quiet lying there. The grasses nodded together,
whispering to one another. To speak of the grasses whispering during
the day is merely a sweet idea; but God! they do whisper at night. The
ancients called the winds the Unseen Multitude; the grasses are long,
tapering fingers laid on the lips of the winds. “Hush!” the night
whispers. “Hush!” breathes the world. The grasses touch your ears,
saying sleepily, “Hush! be quiet!”

At the end of half an hour I ventured to go nearer the German lines.
The sergeant told me to be careful and not to go too close to the
enemy’s trenches or working parties. “And mind your own covering-party
when you’re coming in,” said the sergeant. “They may slip you a bullet
or two if you’re unlucky.”

Absurd silvery shadows chased one another up and down the entanglement
props. In front, behind the German lines, I could hear sounds of
railway wagons being shunted, and the clank of rails being unloaded.
The enemy’s transports were busy; they clattered along the roads, and
now and again the neighing of horses came to my ears. On my right a
working party was out; the clank of hammers filled the air. The Germans
were strengthening their wire entanglements; the barbs stuck out, I
could see them in front of me, waiting to rip our men if ever we dared
to charge. I had a feeling of horror for a moment. Then, having one
more look round, I went back, got through the line of outposts, and
came up to our working party, which was deep in the earth already.
Shovels and picks were rising and falling, and long lines of black clay
bulked up on either side of the trench.

I took off my coat, got hold of a mate’s idle shovel, and began to work.

“That my shovel?” said Bill Teake.

“Yes, I’m going to do a little,” I answered. “It would never do much
lying on the slope.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t,” he answered. “Will you keep it goin’ for a
spell?”

“I’ll do a little bit with it,” I answered. “You’ve got to go to the
back of the trenches if you’re wanting to smoke.”

“That’s where I’m goin’,” Bill replied. “‘Ave yer got any matches?”

I handed him a box and bent to my work. It was quite easy to make
headway; the clay was crisp and brittle, and the pick went in easily,
making very little sound. M’Crone, one of our section, was working
three paces ahead, shattering a square foot of earth at every blow of
his instrument.

“It’s very quiet here,” he said. “I suppose they won’t fire on us,
having their own party out. By Jove, I’m sweating at this.”

“When does the shift come to an end?” I asked.

“At dawn,” came the reply. He rubbed the perspiration from his brow as
he spoke. “The nights are growing longer,” he said, “and it will soon
be winter again. It _will_ be cold then.”

As he spoke we heard the sound of rifle firing out by the German wires.
Half a dozen shots were fired, then followed a long moment of silent
suspense.

“There’s something doing,” said Pryor, leaning on his pick. “I wonder
what it is.”

Five minutes afterwards a sergeant and two men came in from listening
patrol and reported to our officer.

“We’ve just encountered a strong German patrol between the lines,” said
the sergeant. “We exchanged shots with them and then withdrew. We have
no casualties, but the Germans have one man out of action, shot through
the stomach.”

“How do you know it went through his stomach?” asked the officer.

“In this way,” said the sergeant. “When we fired one of the Germans (we
were quite close to them) put his hands across his stomach and fell to
the ground yellin’ ‘Mein Gutt! Mein Gutt!'”

“So it did get ‘im in the guts then,” said Bill Teake, when he heard of
the incident.

“You fool!” exclaimed Pryor. “It was ‘My God’ that the German said.”

“But Pat ‘as just told me that the German said ‘Mine Gut,'” Bill
protested.

“Well, ‘Mein Gott’ (the Germans pronounce ‘Gott’ like ‘Gutt’ on a dark
night) is the same as ‘My God,'” said Pryor.

“Well, any’ow, that’s just wot the Allymongs would say,” Bill muttered.
“It’s just like them to call God Almighty nick names.”

When dawn showed pale yellow in a cold sky, and stars were fading
in the west, we packed up and took our way out and marched back to
Nouex-les-Mines, there to rest for a day or two.