OUT FROM NOUEX-LES-MINES

Every soldier to his trade—
Trigger sure and bayonet keen—
But we go forth to use a spade
Marching out from Nouex-les-Mines.

AS I was sitting in the Café Pierre le Blanc helping Bill Teake, my
Cockney mate, to finish a bottle of vin rouge, a snub-nosed soldier
with thin lips who sat at a table opposite leant towards me and asked:

“Are you MacGill, the feller that writes?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Thought I twigged yer from the photo of yer phiz in the papers,”
said the man with the snub nose, as he turned to his mates who were
illustrating a previous fight in lines of beer representing trenches on
the table.

“See!” he said to them, “I knew ‘im the moment I clapped my eyes on
‘im.”

“Hold your tongue,” one of the men, a ginger-headed fellow, who had his
trigger finger deep in beer, made answer. Then the dripping finger rose
slowly and was placed carefully on the table.

“This,” said Carrots, “is Richebourg, this drop of beer is the German
trench, and these are our lines. Our regiment crossed at this point and
made for this one, but somehow or another we missed our objective. Just
another drop of beer and I’ll show you where we got to; it was—Blimey!
where’s that bloomin’ beer? ‘Oo the ‘ell!—Oh! it’s Gilhooley!”

I had never seen Gilhooley before, but I had often heard talk of him.
Gilhooley was an Irishman and fought in an English regiment; he was
notorious for his mad escapades, his dare-devil pranks, and his wild
fearlessness. Now he was opposite to me, drinking a mate’s beer, big,
broad-shouldered, ungainly Gilhooley.

The first impression the sight of him gave me was one of almost
irresistible strength; I felt that if he caught a man around the
waist with his hand he could, if he wished it, squeeze him to death.
He was clumsily built, but an air of placid confidence in his own
strength gave his figure a certain grace of its own. His eyes glowed
brightly under heavy brows, his jowl thrust forward aggressively
seemed to challenge all upon whom he fixed his gaze. It looked as if
vast passions hidden in the man were thirsting to break free and rout
everything. Gilhooley was a dangerous man to cross. Report had it that
he was a bomber, and a master in this branch of warfare. Stories were
told about him how he went over to the German trenches near Vermelles
at dusk every day for a fortnight, and on each visit flung half a dozen
bombs into the enemy’s midst. Then he sauntered back to his own lines
and reported to an officer, saying, “By Jasus! I got them out of it!”

Once, when a German sniper potting at our trenches in Vermelles picked
off a few of our men, an exasperated English subaltern gripped a Webley
revolver and clambered over the parapet.

“I’m going to stop that damned sniper,” said the young officer. “I’m
going to earn the V.C. Who’s coming along with me?”

“I’m with you,” said Gilhooley, scrambling lazily out into the open
with a couple of pet bombs in his hand. “By Jasus! we’ll get him out of
it!”

The two men went forward for about twenty yards, when the officer fell
with a bullet through his head. Gilhooley turned round and called back,
“Any other officer wantin’ to earn the V.C.?”

There was no reply: Gilhooley sauntered back, waited in the trench till
dusk, when he went across to the sniper’s abode with a bomb and “got
him out of it.”

A calamity occurred a few days later. The irrepressible Irishman
was fooling with a bomb in the trench when it fell and exploded. Two
soldiers were wounded, and Gilhooley went off to the Hospital at X.
with a metal reminder of his discrepancy wedged in the soft of his
thigh. There he saw Colonel Z., or “Up-you-go-and-the-best-of-luck,” as
Colonel Z. is known to the rank and file of the B.E.F.

The hospital at X. is a comfortable place, and the men are in no hurry
to leave there for the trenches; but when Colonel Z. pronounces them
fit they must hasten to the fighting line again.

Four men accompanied Gilhooley when he was considered fit for further
fight. The five appeared before the Colonel.

“How do you feel?” the Colonel asked the first man.

“Not well at all,” was the answer. “I can’t eat ‘ardly nuffink.”

“That’s the sort of man required up there,” Colonel Z. answered. “So up
you go and the best of luck.”

“How far can you see?” the Colonel asked the next man, who had
complained that his eyesight was bad.

“Only about fifty yards,” was the answer.

“Your regiment is in trenches barely twenty-five yards from those of
the enemy,” the Colonel told him. “So up you go, and the best of luck.”

“Off you go and find the man who wounded you,” the third soldier was
told; the fourth man confessed that he had never killed a German.

“_You_ had better double up,” said the Colonel. “It’s time you killed
one.”

It came to Gilhooley’s turn.

“How many men have you killed?” he was asked.

“In and out about fifty,” was Gilhooley’s answer.

“Make it a hundred then,” said the Colonel; “and up you go, and the
best of luck.”

“By Jasus! I’ll get fifty more out of it in no time,” said Gilhooley,
and on the following day he sauntered into the Café Pierre le Blanc in
Nouex-les-Mines, drank another man’s beer, and sat down on a chair at
the table where four glasses filled to the brim stood sparkling in the
lamplight.

Gilhooley, penniless and thirsty, had an unrivalled capacity for
storing beer in his person.

“Back again, Gilhooley?” someone remarked in a diffident voice.

“Back again!” said Gilhooley wearily, putting his hand in the pocket
of his tunic and taking out a little round object about the size of a
penny inkpot.

“I hear there’s going to be a big push shortly,” he muttered. “This,”
he said, holding the bomb between trigger finger and thumb, “will go
bang into the enemy’s trenches next charge.”

A dozen horror-stricken eyes gazed at the bomb for a second, and the
soldiers in the café remembered how Gilhooley once, in a moment of
distraction, forgot that a fuse was lighted, then followed a hurried
rush, and the café was almost deserted by the occupants. Gilhooley
smiled wearily, replaced the bomb in his pocket, and set himself the
task of draining the beer glasses.

My momentary thrill of terror died away when the bomb disappeared, and,
leaving Bill, I approached the Wild Man’s table and sat down.

“Gilhooley?” I said.

“Eh, what is it?” he interjected.

“Will you have a drink with me?” I hurried to inquire. “Something
better than this beer for a change. Shall we try champagne?”

“Yes, we’ll try it,” he said sarcastically, and a queer smile hovered
about his eyes. Somehow I had a guilty sense of doing a mean action….
I called to Bill.

“Come on, matey,” I said.

Bill approached the table and sat down. I called for a bottle of
champagne.

“This is Gilhooley, Bill,” I said to my mate. “He’s the bomber we’ve
heard so much about.”

“I suppose ye’ll want to know everythin’ about me now, seein’ ye’ve
asked me to take a drop of champagne,” said Gilhooley, his voice
rising. “Damn yer champagne. You think I’m a bloomin’ alligator in the
Zoo, d’ye? Give me a bun and I’ll do anythin’ ye want me to.”

“That men should want to speak to you is merely due to your fame,” I
said. “In the dim recesses of the trenches men speak of your exploits
with bated breath——”

“What the devil are ye talkin’ about?” asked Gilhooley.

“About you,” I said.

He burst out laughing at this and clinked glasses with me when we
drank, but he seemed to forget Bill.

For the rest of the evening he was in high good humour, and before
leaving he brought out his bomb and showed that it was only a dummy
one, harmless as an egg-shell.

“But let me get half a dozen sergeants round a rum jar and out comes
this bomb!” said Gilhooley. “Then they fly like hell and I get a double
tot of rum.”

“It’s a damned good idea,” I said. “What is he wanting?”

I pointed at the military policeman who had just poked his head
through the café door. He looked round the room, taking stock of the
occupants.

“All men of the London Irish must report to their companies at once,”
he shouted.

“There’s somethin’ on the blurry boards again,” said Bill Teake. “I
suppose we’ve got to get up to the trenches to-night. We were up last
night diggin’,” he said to Gilhooley.

Gilhooley shrugged his shoulders, took a stump of a cigarette from
behind his ear and lit it.

“Take care of yourselves,” he said as he went out.

At half-past nine we marched out of Nouex-les-Mines bound for the
trenches where we had to continue the digging which we had started the
night before.

The brigade holding the firing line told us that the enemy were
registering their range during the day, and the objective was the
trench which we had dug on the previous night…. Then we knew that the
work before us was fraught with danger; we would certainly be shelled
when operations started. In single file, with rifles and picks over
their shoulders, the boys went out into the perilous space between the
lines. The night was grey with rain; not a star was visible in the drab
expanse of cloudy sky, and the wet oozed from sandbag and dug-out;
the trench itself was sodden, and slush squirted about the boots that
shuffled along; it was a miserable night. One of our men returned to
the post occupied by the stretcher-bearers; he had become suddenly
unwell with a violent pain in his stomach. We took him back to the
nearest dressing-station and there he was put into an Engineers’ wagon
which was returning to the village in which our regiment was quartered.

Returning, I went out into the open between the lines. Our men were
working across the front, little dark, blurred figures in the rainy
greyness, picks and shovels were rising and falling, and lumps of earth
were being flung out on to the grass. The enemy were already shelling
on the left, the white flash of shrapnel and the red, lurid flames of
bursting concussion shells lit up the night. So far the missiles were
either falling short or overshooting their mark, and nobody had been
touched. I just got to our company when the enemy began to shell it.
There was a hurried flop to earth in the newly-dug holes, and I was
immediately down flat on my face on top of several prostrate figures,
a shrapnel burst in front, and a hail of singing bullets dug into the
earth all round. A concussion shell raced past overhead and broke into
splinters by the fire trench, several of the pieces whizzing back as
far as the working party.

There followed a hail of shells, flash on flash, and explosion after
explosion over our heads; the moment was a ticklish one, and I longed
for the comparative safety of the fire trench. Why had I come out? I
should have stopped with the other stretcher-bearers. But what did it
matter. I was in no greater danger than any of my mates; what they had
to stick I could stick, for the moment at least.

The shelling subsided as suddenly as it had begun. I got up again to
find my attention directed towards something in front; a dark figure
kneeling on the ground. I went forward and found a dead soldier, a
Frenchman, a mere skeleton with the flesh eaten away from his face,
leaning forward on his entrenching tool over a little hole that he had
dug in the ground months before.

A tragedy was there, one of the sorrowful sights of war. The man,
no doubt, had been in a charge—the French made a bayonet attack
across this ground in the early part of last winter—and had been
wounded. Immediately he was struck he got out his entrenching tool and
endeavoured to dig himself in. A few shovelsful of earth were scooped
out when a bullet struck him, and he leaned forward on his entrenching
tool, dead. Thus I found him; and the picture in the grey night was one
of a dead man resting for a moment as he dug his own grave.

“See that dead man?” I said to one of the digging party.

“H’m! there are hundreds of them lying here,” was the answer, given
almost indifferently. “I had to throw four to one side before I could
start digging!”

I went back to the stretcher-bearers again; the men of my own company
were standing under a shrapnel-proof bomb store, smoking and humming
ragtime in low, monotonous voices. Music-hall melodies are so
melancholy at times, so full of pathos, especially on a wet night under
shell fire.

“Where are the other stretcher-bearers?” I asked.

“They’ve gone out to the front to their companies,” I was told. “Some
of their men have been hit.”

“Badly?”

“No one knows,” was the answer. “Are our boys all right?”

“As far as I could see they’re safe; but they’re getting shelled in an
unhealthy manner.”

“They’ve left off firing now,” said one of my mates. “You should’ve
seen the splinters coming in here a minute ago, pit! pit! plop! on the
sandbags. It’s beastly out in the open.”

A man came running along the trench, stumbled into our shelter, and sat
down on a sandbag.

“You’re the London Irish?” he asked.

“Stretcher-bearers,” I said. “Have you been out?”

“My God! I have,” he answered. “‘Tisn’t half a do, either. A shell
comes over and down I flops in the trench. My mate was standing on the
parapet and down he fell atop of me. God! ’twasn’t half a squeeze; I
thought I was burst like a bubble.

“‘Git off, matey,’ I yells, ‘I’m squeezed to death!’

“‘Squeezed to death,’ them was my words. But he didn’t move, and
something warm and sloppy ran down my face. It turned me sick…. I
wriggled out from under and had a look…. He was dead, with half his
head blown away…. Your boys are sticking to the work out there; just
going on with the job as if nothing was amiss. When is the whole damned
thing to come to a finish?”

A momentary lull followed, and a million sparks fluttered earthwards
from a galaxy of searching star-shells.

“Why are such beautiful lights used in the killing of men?” I asked
myself. Above in the quiet the gods were meditating, then, losing
patience, they again burst into irrevocable rage, seeking, as it
seemed, some obscure and fierce retribution.

The shells were loosened again; there was no escape from their
frightful vitality, they crushed, burrowed, exterminated; obstacles
were broken down, and men’s lives were flicked out like flies off a
window pane. A dug-out flew skywards, and the roof beams fell in the
trench at our feet. We crouched under the bomb-shelter, mute, pale,
hesitating. Oh! the terrible anxiety of men who wait passively for
something to take place and always fearing the worst!

“Stretcher-bearers at the double!”

We met him, crawling in on all fours like a beetle, the first case that
came under our care. We dressed a stomach wound in the dug-out, and
gave the boy two morphia tablets…. He sank into unconsciousness and
never recovered. His grave is out behind the church of Loos-Gohelle,
and his cap hangs on the arm of the cross that marks his sleeping
place. A man had the calf of his right leg blown away; he died from
shock; another got a bullet through his skull, another…. But why
enumerate how young lives were hurled away from young bodies?…

On the field of death, the shells, in colossal joy, chorused their
terrible harmonies, making the heavens sonorous with their wanton
and unbridled frenzy; star-shells, which seemed at times to be fixed
on the ceiling of the sky, oscillated in a dazzling whirl of red and
green—and men died…. We remained in the trenches the next day. They
were very quiet, and we lay at ease in our dug-outs, read week-old
papers, wrote letters and took turns on sentry-go. On our front lay
a dull brown, monotonous level and two red-brick villages, Loos and
Hulluch. Our barbed-wire entanglement, twisted and shell-scarred,
showed countless rusty spikes which stuck out ominous and forbidding.
A dead German hung on a wire prop, his feet caught in a _cheval de
frise_, the skin of his face peeling away from his bones, and his
hand clutching the wire as if for support. He had been out there for
many months, a foolhardy foe who got a bullet through his head when
examining our defences.

Here, in this salient, the war had its routine and habits, everything
was done with regimental precision, and men followed the trade of
arms as clerks follow their profession: to each man was allocated his
post, he worked a certain number of hours, slept at stated times, had
breakfast at dawn, lunch at noon, and tea at four. The ration parties
called on the cave-dwellers with the promptitude of the butcher and
baker, who attend to the needs of the villa-dwellers.

The postmen called at the dug-outs when dusk was settling, and
delivered letters and parcels. Letter-boxes were placed in the parados
walls and the hours of collection written upon them in pencil or chalk.
Concerts were held in the big dug-outs, and little supper parties were
fashionable when parcels were bulky. Tea was drunk in the open, the
soldiers ate at looted tables, spread outside the dug-out doors. Over
the “Savoy” a picture of the Mother of Perpetual Succour was to be seen
and the boys who lived there swore that it brought them good luck;
they always won at Banker and Brag. All shaved daily and washed with
perfumed soaps.

The artillery exchanged shots every morning just to keep the guns
clean. Sometimes a rifle shot might be heard, and we would ask, “Who is
firing at the birds on the wire entanglements?” The days were peaceful
then, but now all was different. The temper of the salient had changed.

In the distance we could see Lens, a mining town with many large
chimneys, one of which was almost hidden in its own smoke. No doubt
the Germans were working the coal mines. Loos looked quite small,
there was a big slag-heap on its right, and on its left was a windmill
with shattered wings. We had been shelling the village persistently
for days, and, though it was not battered as Philosophé and Maroc
were battered, many big, ugly rents and fractures were showing on the
red-brick houses.

But it stood its beating well; it takes a lot of strafing to bring down
even a jerry-built village. Houses built for a few hundred francs in
times of peace, cost thousands of pounds to demolish in days of war. I
suppose war is the most costly means of destruction.

Rumours flew about daily. Men spoke of a big push ahead, fixed the
date for the great charge, and, as proof of their gossip, pointed at
innumerable guns and wagons of shell which came through Les Brebis and
Nouex-les-Mines daily. Even the Germans got wind of our activities, and
in front of the blue-black slag-heap on the right of Loos they placed a
large white board with the question written fair in big, black letters:

“WHEN IS THE BIG PUSH COMING OFF?
WE ARE WAITING.”

A well-directed shell blew the board to pieces ten minutes after it was
put up.

I had a very nice dug-out in these trenches. It burrowed into the
chalk, and its walls were as white as snow. When the candle was lit
in the twilight, the most wonderfully soft shadows rustled over the
roof and walls. The shadow of an elbow of chalk sticking out in the
wall over my bed looked like the beak of a great formless vulture.
On a closer examination I found that I had mistaken a wide-diffused
bloodstain for a shadow. A man had come into the place once and he died
there; his death was written in red on the wall.

I named the dug-out “The Last House in the World.” Was it not? It was
the last tenanted house in our world.

Over the parapet of the trench was the Unknown with its mysteries deep
as those of the grave.