OVER THE TOP

Was it only yesterday
Lusty comrades marched away?
Now they’re covered up with clay.
Hearty comrades these have been,
But no more will they be seen
Drinking wine at Nouex-les-Mines.

A BRAZIER glowed on the floor of the trench and I saw fantastic figures
in the red blaze; the interior of a vast church lit up with a myriad
candles, and dark figures kneeling in prayer in front of their plaster
saints. The edifice was an enchanted Fairyland, a poem of striking
contrasts in light and shade. I peered over the top. The air blazed
with star-shells, and Loos in front stood out like a splendid dawn. A
row of impassive faces, sleep-heavy they looked, lined our parapet;
bayonets, silver-spired, stood up over the sandbags; the dark bays, the
recessed dug-outs with their khaki-clad occupants dimly defined in the
light of little candles took on fantastic shapes.

From the North Sea to the Alps stretched a line of men who could, if
they so desired, clasp one another’s hands all the way along. A joke
which makes men laugh at Ypres at dawn may be told on sentry-go at
Souchez by dusk, and the laugh which accompanies it ripples through the
long, deep trenches of Cuinchy, the breastworks of Richebourg and the
chalk alleys of Vermelles until it breaks itself like a summer wave
against the traverse where England ends and France begins.

Many of our men were asleep, and maybe dreaming. What were their
dreams?… I could hear faint, indescribable rustlings as the winds
loitered across the levels in front; a light shrapnel shell burst, and
its smoke quivered in the radiant light of the star-shells. Showers
and sparks fell from high up and died away as they fell. Like lives of
men, I thought, and again that feeling of proximity to the enemy surged
through me.

A boy came along the trench carrying a football under his arm. “What
are you going to do with that?” I asked.

“It’s some idea, this,” he said with a laugh. “We’re going to kick it
across into the German trench.”

“It _is_ some idea,” I said. “What are our chances of victory in the
game?”

“The playing will tell,” he answered enigmatically. “It’s about four
o’clock now,” he added, paused and became thoughtful. The mention of
the hour suggested something to him….

I could now hear the scattered crackling of guns as they called to one
another saying: “It’s time to be up and doing!” The brazen monsters
of many a secret emplacement were registering their range, rivalry
in their voices. For a little the cock-crowing of artillery went
on, then suddenly a thousand roosts became alive and voluble, each
losing its own particular sound as all united in one grand concert of
fury. The orchestra of war swelled in an incessant fanfare of dizzy
harmony. Floating, stuttering, whistling, screaming and thundering the
clamorous voices belched into a rich gamut of passion which shook the
grey heavens. The sharp, zigzagging sounds of high velocity shells
cut through the pandemonium like forked lightning, and far away, as
it seemed, sounding like a distant breakwater the big missiles from
caterpillar howitzers lumbered through the higher deeps of the sky. The
brazen lips of death cajoled, threatened, whispered, whistled, laughed
and sung: here were the sinister and sullen voices of destruction, the
sublime and stupendous p├Žan of power intermixed in sonorous clamour and
magnificent vibration.

Felan came out into the trench. He had been asleep in his dug-out. “I
can’t make tea now,” he said, fumbling with his mess-tin. “We’ll soon
have to get over the top. Murdagh, Nobby Byrne and Corporal Clancy are
here,” he remarked.

“They are in hospital,” I said.

“They were,” said Felan; “but the hospitals have been cleared out to
make room for men wounded in the charge. The three boys were ordered to
go further back to be out of the way, but they asked to be allowed to
join in the charge, and they are here now.”

He paused for a moment. “Good luck to you, Pat,” he said with a strange
catch in his voice. “I hope you get through all right.”

A heavy rifle fire was opened by the Germans and the bullets snapped
viciously at our sandbags. Such little things bullets seemed in the
midst of all the pandemonium! But bigger stuff was coming. Twenty yards
away a shell dropped on a dug-out and sandbags and occupants whirled
up in mid-air. The call for stretcher-bearers came to my bay, and I
rushed round the traverse towards the spot where help was required
accompanied by two others. A shrapnel shell burst overhead and the
man in front of me fell. I bent to lift him, but he stumbled to his
feet. The concussion had knocked him down; he was little the worse for
his accident, but he felt a bit shaken. The other stretcher-bearer
was bleeding at the cheek and temple, and I took him back to a sound
dug-out and dressed his wound. He was in great pain, but very brave,
and when another stricken boy came in he set about dressing him. I
went outside into the trench. A perfect hurricane of shells was coming
across, concussion shells that whirled the sandbags broadcast and
shrapnel that burst high in air and shot their freight to earth with
resistless precipitancy; bombs whirled in air and burst when they found
earth with an ear-splitting clatter. “Out in the open!” I muttered and
tried not to think too clearly of what would happen when we got out
there.

It was now grey day, hazy and moist, and the thick clouds of pale
yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from
the scene of war. The word was passed along. “London Irish lead on
to assembly trench.” The assembly trench was in front, and there the
scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death,
as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders
when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands, and at a little
distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard.

The company were soon out in the open marching forward. The enemy’s
guns were busy, and the rifle and maxim bullets ripped the sandbags.
The infantry fire was wild but of slight intensity. The enemy could not
see the attacking party. But, judging by the row, it was hard to think
that men could weather the leaden storm in the open.

The big guns were not so vehement now, our artillery had no doubt
played havoc with the hostile batteries…. I went to the foot of
a ladder and got hold of a rung. A soldier in front was clambering
across. Suddenly he dropped backwards and bore me to the ground; the
bullet caught him in the forehead. I got to my feet to find a stranger
in grey uniform coming down the ladder. He reached the floor of the
trench, put up his hands when I looked at him and cried in a weak,
imploring voice, “Kamerad! Kamerad!”

“A German!” I said to my mate.

“H’m! h’m!” he answered.

I flung my stretcher over the parapet, and, followed by my comrade
stretcher-bearer, I clambered up the ladder and went over the top.