ACROSS THE OPEN

“The firefly lamps were lighted yet,
As we crossed the top of the parapet,
But the East grew pale to another fire,
As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman’s wire.
And the Eastern sky was gold and grey,
And under our feet the dead men lay,
As we entered Loos in the morning.”

THE moment had come when it was unwise to think. The country round Loos
was like a sponge; the god of war had stamped with his foot on it, and
thousands of men, armed, ready to kill, were squirted out on to the
level, barren fields of danger. To dwell for a moment on the novel
position of being standing where a thousand deaths swept by, missing
you by a mere hair’s breadth, would be sheer folly. There on the
open field of death my life was out of my keeping, but the sensation
of fear never entered my being. There was so much simplicity and so
little effort in doing what I had done, in doing what eight hundred
comrades had done, that I felt I could carry through the work before
me with as much credit as my code of self respect required. The maxims
went crackle like dry brushwood under the feet of a marching host. A
bullet passed very close to my face like a sharp, sudden breath; a
second hit the ground in front, flicked up a little shower of dust, and
ricochetted to the left, hitting the earth many times before it found
a resting place. The air was vicious with bullets; a million invisible
birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of
smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in
volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking
background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards
the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was
no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental
precision, and twice on the way across the Irish boys halted for a
moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there
was some confusion and a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No
fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards
the German trench.

Raising the stretcher, my mate and I went forward. For the next few
minutes I was conscious of many things. A slight rain was falling;
the smoke and fumes I saw had drifted back, exposing a dark streak on
the field of green, the enemy’s trench. A little distance away from
me three men hurried forward, and two of them carried a box of rifle
ammunition. One of the bearers fell flat to earth, his two mates halted
for a moment, looked at the stricken boy, and seemed to puzzle at
something. Then they caught hold of the box hangers and rushed forward.
The man on the ground raised himself on his elbow and looked after his
mates, then sank down again to the wet ground. Another soldier came
crawling towards us on his belly, looking for all the world like a
gigantic lobster which had escaped from its basket. His lower lip was
cut clean to the chin and hanging apart; blood welled through the muddy
khaki trousers where they covered the hips.

I recognised the fellow.

“Much hurt, matey?” I asked.

“I’ll manage to get in,” he said.

“Shall I put a dressing on?” I inquired.

“I’ll manage to get into our own trench,” he stammered, spitting the
blood from his lips. “There are others out at the wires. S—— has
caught it bad. Try and get him in, Pat.”

“Right, old man,” I said, as he crawled off. “Good luck.”

My cap was blown off my head as if by a violent gust of wind, and it
dropped on the ground. I put it on again, and at that moment a shell
burst near at hand and a dozen splinters sung by my ear. I walked
forward with a steady step.

“What took my cap off?” I asked myself. “It went away just as if it was
caught in a breeze. God!” I muttered, in a burst of realisation, “it
was that shell passing.” I breathed very deeply, my blood rushed down
to my toes and an airy sensation filled my body. Then the stretcher
dragged.

“Lift the damned thing up,” I called to my mate over my shoulder.
There was no reply. I looked round to find him gone, either mixed up
in a whooping rush of kilted Highlanders, who had lost their objective
and were now charging parallel to their own trench, or perhaps he
got killed…. How strange that the Highlanders could not charge in
silence, I thought, and then recollected that most of my boyhood
friends, Donegal lads, were in Scottish regiments…. I placed my
stretcher on my shoulder, walked forward towards a bank of smoke which
seemed to be standing stationary, and came across our platoon sergeant
and part of his company.

“Are we going wrong, or are the Jocks wrong?” he asked his men, then
shouted, “Lie flat, boys, for a minute, until we see where we are.
There’s a big crucifix in Loos churchyard, and we’ve got to draw on
that.”

The men threw themselves flat; the sergeant went down on one knee and
leant forward on his rifle, his hands on the bayonet standard, the
fingers pointing upwards and the palms pressed close to the sword which
was covered with rust…. How hard it would be to draw it from a dead
body!… The sergeant seemed to be kneeling in prayer…. In front the
cloud cleared away, and the black crucifix standing over the graves of
Loos became revealed.

“Advance, boys!” said the sergeant. “Steady on to the foot of the Cross
and rip the swine out of their trenches.”

The Irish went forward….

A boy sat on the ground bleeding at the shoulder and knee.

“You’ve got hit,” I said.

“In a few places,” he answered, in a very matter-of-fact voice. “I want
to get into a shell-hole.”

“I’ll try and get you into one,” I said. “But I want someone to help
me. Hi! you there! Come and give me a hand.”

I spoke to a man who sat on the rim of a crater near at hand. His eyes,
set close in a white, ghastly face, stared tensely at me. He sat in a
crouching position, his head thrust forward, his right hand gripping
tightly at a mud-stained rifle. Presumably he was a bit shaken and was
afraid to advance further.

“Help me to get this fellow into a shell-hole,” I called. “He can’t
move.”

There was no answer.

“Come along,” I cried, and then it was suddenly borne to me that the
man was dead. I dragged the wounded boy into the crater and dressed his
wounds.

A shell struck the ground in front, burrowed, and failed to explode.

“Thank Heaven!” I muttered, and hurried ahead. Men and pieces of men
were lying all over the place. A leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut
off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed.
A dummy leg in a tailor’s window could not be more graceful. It might
be X; he was an artist in dress, a Beau Brummel in khaki. Fifty yards
further along I found the rest of X….

The harrowing sight was repellent, antagonistic to my mind. The
tortured things lying at my feet were symbols of insecurity, ominous
reminders of danger from which no discretion could save a man. My soul
was barren of pity; fear went down into the innermost parts of me,
fear for myself. The dead and dying lay all around me; I felt a vague
obligation to the latter; they must be carried out. But why should I
trouble! Where could I begin? Everything was so far apart. I was too
puny to start my labours in such a derelict world. The difficulty of
accommodating myself to an old task under new conditions was enormous.

A figure in grey, a massive block of Bavarian bone and muscle, came
running towards me, his arms in air, and Bill Teake following him with
a long bayonet.

“A prisoner!” yelled the boy on seeing me. “‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ ‘e
shouted when I came up. Blimey! I couldn’t stab ‘im, so I took ‘im
prisoner. It’s not ‘arf a barney!… Ave yer got a fag ter spare?”

The Cockney came to a halt, reached for a cigarette, and lit it.

The German stood still, panting like a dog.

“Double! Fritz, double!” shouted the boy, sending a little puff of
smoke through his nose. “Over to our trench you go! Grease along if yer
don’t want a bayonet in your——!”

They rushed off, the German with hands in air, and Bill behind with
his bayonet perilously close to the prisoner. There was something
amusing in the incident, and I could not refrain from laughing. Then
I got a whiff from a German gas-bomb which exploded near me, and I
began spluttering and coughing. The irritation, only momentary, was
succeeded by a strange humour. I felt as if walking on air, my head
got light, and it was with difficulty that I kept my feet on earth. It
would be so easy to rise into space and float away. The sensation was
a delightful one; I felt so pleased with myself, with everything. A
wounded man lay on the ground, clawing the earth with frenzied fingers.
In a vague way, I remembered some ancient law which ordained me to
assist a stricken man. But I could not do so now, the action would clog
my buoyancy and that delightful feeling of freedom which permeated my
being. Another soldier whom I recognised, even at a distance, by his
pink-and-white bald pate, so often a subject for our jokes, reeled over
the bloodstained earth, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets.

“You look bad,” I said to him with a smile.

He stared at me drunkenly, but did not answer.

A man, mother-naked, raced round in a circle, laughing boisterously.
The rags that would class him as a friend or foe were gone, and I could
not tell whether he was an Englishman or a German. As I watched him an
impartial bullet went through his forehead, and he fell headlong to the
earth. The sight sobered me and I regained my normal self.

Up near the German wire I found our Company postman sitting in a
shell-hole, a bullet in his leg below the knee, and an unlighted
cigarette in his mouth.

“You’re the man I want,” he shouted, on seeing me. And I fumbled in my
haversack for bandages.

“No dressing for me, yet,” he said with a smile. “There are others
needing help more than I. What I want is a match.”

As I handed him my match box a big high explosive shell flew over our
heads and dropped fifty yards away in a little hollow where seven or
eight figures in khaki lay prostrate, faces to the ground. The shell
burst and the wounded and dead rose slowly into air to a height of six
or seven yards and dropped slowly again, looking for all the world like
puppets worked by wires.

“This,” said the postman, who had observed the incident, “is a solution
of a question which diplomacy could not settle, I suppose. The last
argument of kings is a damned sorry business.”

By the German barbed wire entanglements were the shambles of war. Here
our men were seen by the enemy for the first time that morning. Up
till then the foe had fired erratically through the oncoming curtain
of smoke; but when the cloud cleared away, the attackers were seen
advancing, picking their way through the wires which had been cut to
little pieces by our bombardment. The Irish were now met with harrying
rifle fire, deadly petrol bombs and hand grenades. Here I came across
dead, dying and sorely wounded; lives maimed and finished, and all the
romance and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever.
Here, too, I saw, bullet-riddled, against one of the spider webs known
as _chevaux de frise_, a limp lump of pliable leather, the football
which the boys had kicked across the field.

I came across Flannery lying close to a barbed wire support, one
arm round it as if in embrace. He was a clumsily built fellow, with
queer bushy eyebrows and a short, squat nose. His bearing was never
soldierly, but on a march he could bear any burden and stick the job
when more alert men fell out. He always bore himself however with a
certain grace, due, perhaps, to a placid belief in his own strength. He
never made friends; a being apart, he led a solitary life. Now he lay
close to earth hugging an entanglement prop, and dying.

There was something savage in the expression of his face as he looked
slowly round, like an ox under a yoke, on my approach. I knelt down
beside him and cut his tunic with my scissors where a burnt hole
clotted with blood showed under the kidney. A splinter of shell had
torn part of the man’s side away. All hope was lost for the poor soul.

“In much pain, chummy?” I asked.

“Ah, Christ! yes, Pat,” he answered. “Wife and two kiddies, too. Are we
getting the best of it?”

I did not know how the fight was progressing, but I had seen a line of
bayonets drawing near to the second trench out by Loos.

“Winning all along,” I answered.

“That’s good,” he said. “Is there any hope for me?”

“Of course there is, matey,” I lied. “You have two of these morphia
tablets and lie quiet. We’ll take you in after a while, and you’ll be
back in England in two or three days’ time.”

I placed the morphia under his tongue and he closed his eyes as if
going to sleep. Then, with an effort, he tried to get up and gripped
the wire support with such vigour that it came clean out of the ground.
His legs shot out from under him, and, muttering something about
rations being fit for pigs and not for men, he fell back and died.

The fighting was not over in the front trench yet, the first two
companies had gone ahead, the other two companies were taking
possession here. A sturdy Bavarian in shirt and pants was standing on
a banquette with his bayonet over the parapet, and a determined look
in his eyes. He had already done for two of our men as they tried to
cross, but now his rifle seemed to be unloaded and he waited. Standing
there amidst his dead countrymen he formed a striking figure. A bullet
from one of our rifles would have ended his career speedily, but no
one seemed to want to fire that shot. There was a moment of suspense,
broken only when the monstrous futility of resistance became apparent
to him, and he threw down his rifle and put up his hands, shouting
“Kamerad! Kamerad!” I don’t know what became of him afterwards, other
events claimed my attention.

Four boys rushed up, panting under the machine gun and ammunition belts
which they carried. One got hit and fell to the ground, the maxim
tripod which he carried fell on top of him. The remainder of the party
came to a halt.

“Lift the tripod and come along,” his mates shouted to one another.

“Who’s goin’ to carry it?” asked a little fellow with a box of
ammunition.

“You,” came the answer.

“Some other one must carry it,” said the little fellow. “I’ve the
heaviest burden.”

“You’ve not,” one answered. “Get the blurry thing on your shoulder.”

“Blurry yourself!” said the little fellow. “Someone else carry the
thing. Marney can carry it?”

“I’m not a damned fool!” said Marney. “It can stick there ‘fore I take
it across.”

“Not much good goin’ over without it,” said the little fellow.

I left them there wrangling: the extra weight would have made no
appreciable difference to any of them.

It was interesting to see how the events of the morning had changed
the nature of the boys. Mild-mannered youths who had spent their
working hours of civil life in scratching with inky pens on white
paper, and their hours of relaxation in cutting capers on roller skates
and helping dainty maidens to teas and ices, became possessed of mad
Berserker rage and ungovernable fury. Now that their work was war the
bloodstained bayonet gave them play in which they seemed to glory.

“Here’s one that I’ve just done in,” I heard M’Crone shout, looking
approvingly at a dead German. “That’s five of the bloody swine now.”

M’Crone’s mother never sends her son any money lest he gets into the
evil habit of smoking cigarettes. He is of a religious turn of mind and
delights in singing hymns, his favourite being, “There is a green hill
far away.” I never heard him swear before, but at Loos his language
would make a navvy in a Saturday night taproom green with envy.
M’Crone was not lacking in courage. I have seen him wait for death with
untroubled front in a shell-harried trench, and now, inflicting pain on
others, he was a fiend personified; such transformations are of common
occurrence on the field of honour.

The German trench had suffered severely from our fire; parapets were
blown in, and at places the trench was full to the level of the ground
with sandbags and earth. Wreckage was strewn all over the place,
rifles, twisted distortions of shapeless metal, caught by high-velocity
shells, machine guns smashed to atoms, bomb-proof shelters broken to
pieces like houses of cards; giants had been at work of destruction in
a delicately fashioned nursery.

On the reverse slope of the parapet broken tins, rusty swords, muddy
equipments, wicked-looking coils of barbed wire, and discarded articles
of clothing were scattered about pell-mell. I noticed an unexploded
shell perched on a sandbag, cocking a perky nose in air, and beside it
was a battered helmet, the brass glory of its regal eagle dimmed with
trench mud and wrecked with many a bullet….

I had a clear personal impression of man’s ingenuity for destruction
when my eyes looked on the German front line where our dead lay in
peace with their fallen enemies on the parapet. At the bottom of the
trench the dead lay thick, and our boys, engaged in building a new
parapet, were heaping the sandbags on the dead men and consolidating
the captured position.