AT LOOS

“The wages of sin and a soldier is death.”—TRENCH PROVERB.

FOR long I had looked on Loos from a distance, had seen the red-brick
houses huddled together brooding under the shade of the massive Twin
Towers, the giant sentinels of the German stronghold. Between me and
the village lurked a thousand rifles and death-dealing maxims; out in
the open no understanding could preserve a man from annihilation, luck
alone could save him.

On September 25th I lived in the village. By night a ruined village has
a certain character of its own, the demolition of war seems to give
each broken wall a consciousness of dignity and worth; the moonlight
ripples over the chimneys, and sheaves of shadow lurk in every nook and
corner. But by day, with its broken, jerry-built houses, the village
has no relieving features, it is merely a heap of broken bricks, rubble
and mud. Some day, when ivy and lichen grow up the walls and cover
green the litter that was Loos, a quaint, historical air may be given
to the scene, but now it showed nothing but a depressing sameness of
latchless doors, hingeless shutters, destruction and decay. Gone was
all the fascinating, pathetic melancholy of the night when we took
possession, but such might be expected: the dead is out of keeping with
the day.

I was deep in thought as I stood at the door of the dressing-station,
the first in Loos, and at the moment, the only one. The second German
trench, the trench that was the enemy’s at dawn, ran across the bottom
of the street, and our boys were busy there heaping sandbags on the
parapet. A dozen men with loaded rifles stood in the dressing-station
on guard, and watchful eyes scanned the streets, looking for the enemy
who were still in hiding in the cellars or sniping from the upper
stories of houses untouched by shell-fire. Down in our cellar the
wounded and dying lay: by night, if they lived till then, we would
carry them across the open to the dressing-station of Maroc. To venture
across now, when the big guns chorused a fanfare of fury on the levels,
would have been madness.

I went to the door and looked up the street; it was totally deserted;
a dead mule and several khaki-clad figures lay on the pavement, and
vicious bullets kicked up showers of sparks on the cobblestones. I
could not tell where they were fired from…. A voice called my name
and I turned round to see a head peep over the trench where it crossed
the road. My mate, Bill Teake, was speaking.

“Come ‘ere!” he called. “There’s some doin’s goin’ to take place.”

I rushed across the open road where a machine gun from a hill on the
right was sending its messages with shrewish persistence, and tumbled
into the trench at my mate’s side.

“What are the doings?” I asked.

“The word ‘as been passed along that a German observation balloon is
going up over Lens an’ we’re goin’ to shell it,” said Bill.

“I can’t see the blurry thing nohow,” he added.

I looked towards Lens, and saw the town pencilled reddish in the
morning light with several defiant chimney stacks standing in air. One
of these was smoking, which showed that the enemy was still working it.

I saw the balloon rise over the town. It was a massive banana-like
construction with ends pointing downwards, and it climbed slowly up
the heavens. At that moment our gunners greeted it with a salvo of
shrapnel and struck it, as far as I could judge.

It wriggled for a moment, like a big feather caught in a drift of air,
then disappeared with startling suddenness.

“A neat shot,” I said to Bill, who was now engaged on the task of
looking for the snappy maxim shrew that tapped impatiently on the
sandbagged parapet.

“I think it’s up there,” he said, pointing to the crest where three or
four red-tiled houses snuggled in the cover of a spinney. “It’s in one
of them big ‘ouses, bet yer. If I find it I’ll get the artillery to
blow the place to blazes!” he concluded, with an air of finality.

I went back to the dressing-station and found the men on guard in a
state of tense excitement. They had seen a German cross the street two
hundred yards up, and a red-haired youth, Ginger Turley, who had fired
at the man, vowed that he had hit him.

“I saw ‘im fall,” said Ginger. “Then ‘e crawled into a ‘ouse on ‘ands
and knees.”

“‘E was only shammin’,” said the corporal of the guard. “Nobody can be
up to these ‘ere Allemongs.”

“I ‘it ‘im,” said Ginger heatedly. “Couldn’t miss a man at two ‘undred
and me gettin’ proficiency pay for good shootin’ at S’nalbans (St.
Albans).”

A man at the door suddenly uttered a loud yell.

“Get yer ‘ipes,” he yelled. “Quick! Grease out of it and get into the
scrap. There’s ‘undreds of ’em up the streets. Come on! Come out of it!
We’ll give the swine socks!”

He rushed into the street, raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired
two rounds. Then he raced up the street shouting, with the guard
following. I looked out.

The men in khaki were rushing on a mob of some fifty or sixty Germans
who advanced to meet them with trembling arms raised over their heads,
signifying in their manner that they wished to surrender. I had seen
many Germans surrender that morning and always noticed that their
uplifted arms shook as if stricken with palsy. I suppose they feared
what might befall them when they fell into our hands.

With hands still in air and escorted by our boys they filed past the
door of the dressing-station. All but one man, who was wounded in the
jaw.

“This is a case for you, Pat,” said the corporal of the guard, and
beckoned to the wounded German to come indoors.

He was an ungainly man, and his clothes clung to his body like rags to
a scarecrow. His tunic was ripped in several places, and a mountain of
Loos mud clung to his trousers. His face was an interesting one, his
eyes, blue and frank, seemed full of preoccupation that put death out
of reckoning.

“Sprechen Anglais?” I asked, floundering in the mud of Franco-Germaine
interrogation. He shook his head; the bullet had blown away part of the
man’s jaw and he could not speak.

I dressed his wound in silence, an ugly, ghastly wound it looked, one
that he would hardly recover from. As I worked with the bandages he
brought out a little mirror, gazed for a moment at his face in the
glass, and shook his head sadly. He put the mirror back in his pocket,
but after a second he drew it out again and made a second inspection of
his wound.

The dressing done, I inquired by signs if he wanted to sleep; there
was still some room in the cellar. He pointed his finger at his tunic
over the breast and I saw a hole there that looked as if made by a
red-hot poker. I cut the clothes off the man with my scissors and
discovered that the bullet which went through the man’s jaw had also
gone through his chest. He was bleeding freely at the back near the
spine and in front over the heart…. The man brought out his mirror
again, and, standing with his back to a shattered looking-glass that
still remained in the building, he examined his wound after the manner
of a barber who shows his customer the back of his head by use of a
mirror…. Again the German shook his head sadly. I felt sorry for the
man. My stock of bandages had run short, and Ginger Turley, who had
received a parcel of underclothing a few days before, brought out a
new shirt from his haversack, and tearing it into strips, he handed me
sufficient cloth for a bandage.

“Poor bloke!” muttered Turley, blushing a little as if ashamed of the
kind action. “I suppose it was my shot, too. ‘E must be the feller that
went crawlin’ into the buildin’.”

“Not necessarily,” I said, hoping to comfort Ginger.

“It was my shot that did it, sure enough,” Ginger persisted. “I
couldn’t miss at two ‘undred yards, not if I tried.”

One of the men was looking at a little book, somewhat similar to the
pay-book we carry on active service, which fell from the German’s
pocket.

“Bavarian!” read the man with the book, and fixed a look of
interrogation on the wounded man, who nodded.

“Musician?” asked the man, who divined that certain German words stated
that the Bavarian was a musician in civil life.

A sad look crept into the prisoner’s eyes. He raised his hands and held
them a little distance from his lips and moved his fingers rapidly;
then he curved his left arm and drew his right slowly backward and
forward across in front of his body.

We understood; he played the flute and violin. Ginger Turley loves
ragtime and is a master of the mouth-organ; and now having met a
brother artist in such a woeful plight, Ginger’s feelings overcame him,
and two tears gathered in his eyes.

“I wish I wasn’t such a good shot,” he muttered.

We wrapped the German up in a few rags, and since he wanted to follow
his comrades, who left under escort, we allowed him to go. Ten minutes
later, Bill Teake poked his little white potato of a nose round the
door.

“I’ve found ‘im out,” he said, and his voice was full of enthusiasm.

“Who have you found out?” I asked.

“That bloomin’ machine gun,” Bill answered. “I saw a little puff of
smoke at one of the winders of a ‘ouse up in the spinney. I kept my
eye on that ‘ere winder. Ev’ry time I seed a puff of smoke, over comes
a bullet. I told the officer, and he ‘phones down to the artillery.
There’s goin’ to be some doin’s. Come on, Pat, and see the fun.”

It was too good to miss. Both of us scurried across the road and took
up a position in the trench from which we could get a good view of the
spinney.

“That ‘ouse there,” said Bill, pointing to the red-brick building
bordering a slag-heap known as “The Double Crassier” which tailed to a
thin point near the village of Maroc. “There! see at the winder on the
left a puff of smoke.”

A bullet hit the sandbag at my side. I looked at the house indicated
by Bill and saw a wisp of pale smoke trail up from one of the lower
windows towards the roof.

“The machine gun’s there, sure enough,” I said.

Then a bigger gun spoke; a shell whizzed through the air and raised a
cloud of black dust from the rim of the slag-heap.

“More to the left, you bounders, more to the left!” yelled Bill.

He could not have been more intent on the work if he were the gunner
engaged upon the task of demolition.

The second shot crept nearer and a shrub uprooted whirled in air.

“That’s the ticket!” yelled Bill, clapping his hands. “Come, gunner,
get the bounder next time!”

The gunner got him with the next shot which struck the building fair in
the centre and smashed it to pieces.

“That was a damned good one,” said Bill approvingly. “The bloomin’ gun
is out of action now for the duration of war. Have you seen that bloke?”

Bill Teake pointed at a dead German who lay on the crest of the
parados, his hands doubled under him, and his jaw bound with a
bloodstained dressing.

“He just got killed a minute ago,” said Bill. “He jumped across the
trench when the machine gun copped ‘im and ‘e went down flop!”

“I’ve just dressed his wounds,” I said.

“He’ll need no dressin’ now,” said Bill, and added compassionately,
“Poor devil! S’pose ‘e ‘s ‘ad some one as cared for ‘im.”

I thought of home and hoped to send a letter along to Maroc with a
wounded man presently. From there letters would be forwarded. I had a
lead pencil in my pocket, but I had no envelope.

“I’ll give you a half-franc for a green envelope,” I said, and Bill
Teake took from his pocket the green envelope, which needed no
regimental censure, but was liable to examination at the Base.

“‘Arf-franc and five fags,” he said, speaking with the studied
indifference of a fishwife making a bargain.

“Half a franc and two fags,” I answered.

“‘Arf a franc and four fags,” he said.

“Three fags,” I ventured.

“Done,” said Bill, and added, “I’ve now sold the bloomin’ line of
communication between myself and my ole man for a few coppers and three
meesly fags.”

“What’s your old man’s profession, Bill?” I asked.

“‘Is wot?”

“His trade?”

“Yer don’t know my ole man, Pat?” he inquired. “Everybody knows ‘im. ‘E
‘as as good a reputation as old Times. Yer must ‘ave seen ‘im in the
Strand wiv ‘is shiny buttons, burnished like gold in a jooler’s winder,
carryin’ a board wiv ‘Globe Metal Polish’ on it.”

“Oh!” I said with a laugh.

“But ‘e’s a devil for ‘is suds ‘e is——”

“What are suds?” I asked.

“Beer,” said Bill. “‘E can ‘old more’n any man in Lunnon, more’n the
chucker-out at ‘The Cat and Mustard Pot’ boozer in W—— Road even.
Yer should see the chucker-out an’ my ole man comin’ ‘ome on Saturday
night. They keep themselves steady by rollin’ in opposite directions.”

“Men with good reputations don’t roll home inebriated,” I said.
“Excessive alcoholic dissipation is utterly repugnant to dignified
humanity.”

“Wot!”

“Is your father a churchgoer?” I asked.

“Not ‘im,” said Bill. “‘E don’t believe that one can go to ‘eaven by
climbin’ up a church steeple. ‘E’s a good man, that’s wot ‘e is. ‘E
works ‘ard when ‘e’s workin’, ‘e can use ‘is fives wiv anyone, ‘e can
take a drink or leave it, but ‘e prefers takin’ it. Nobody can take a
rise out o’ ‘im fer ‘e knows ‘is place, an’ that’s more’n some people
do.”

“Bill, did you kill any Germans this morning?” I asked.

“Maybe I did,” Bill answered, “and maybe I didn’t. I saw one bloke,
an Allemong, in the front trench laughin’ like ‘ell. ‘I’ll make yer
laugh,’ I said to ‘im, and shoved my bayonet at ‘is bread basket. Then
I seed ‘is foot; it was right off at the ankle. I left ‘im alone. After
that I ‘ad a barney. I was goin’ round a traverse and right in front of
me was a Boche, eight foot ‘igh or more. Oh! ‘e ‘ad a bayonet as long
as ‘imself, and a beard as long as ‘is bayonet.”

“What did you do?”

“Oh! I retreated,” said Bill. “Then I met four of the Jocks, they ‘ad
bombs. I told them wot I seen an’ they went up with me to the place.
The Boche saw us and ‘e rushed inter a dug-out. One of the Jocks threw
a bomb, and bang!——”

“Have you seen Kore?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t see ‘im at all,” Bill answered. “I was mad for a while.
Then I saw a lot of Alleymongs rush into a dug-out. ‘Gorblimey’ I said
to the Jocks, ‘we’ll give ’em ‘ell,’ and I caught ‘old of a German
bomb, one o’ them kind where you pull the string out and this sets
the fuse goin’. I coiled the string round my fingers and pulled. But
I couldn’t loosen the string. It was a go! I ‘eld out my arm with the
bomb ‘angin’. ‘Take it off!’ I yelled to the Jocks. Yer should see them
run off. There was no good in me runnin’. Blimey! I didn’t ‘arf feel
bad. Talk about a cold sweat; I sweated icicles! And there was the
damned bomb ‘angin’ from my ‘and and me thinkin’ it was goin’ to burst.
But it didn’t; I ‘adn’t pulled the string out far enough.

“And that’s Loos,” he went on, standing on the fire-step and looking up
the road. “It’s bashed about a lot. There’s ‘ardly a ‘ouse standin’.
And that’s the Tower Bridge,” he added, looking fixedly at the Twin
Towers that stood scarred but unbroken over Loos coal mine.

“There was a sniper up there this mornin’,” he told me. “‘E didn’t ‘arf
cause some trouble. Knocked out dozens of our fellers. ‘E was brought
down at last by a bomb.”

He laughed as he spoke, then became silent. For fully five minutes
there was not a word spoken.

I approached the parapet stealthily and looked up the street of Loos,
a solemn, shell-scarred, mysterious street where the dead lay amidst
the broken tiles. Were all those brown bundles dead men? Some of them
maybe were still dying; clutching at life with vicious energy. A
bundle lay near me, a soldier in khaki with his hat gone. I could see
his close, compact, shiny curls which seemed to have been glued on
to his skull. Clambering up the parapet I reached forward and turned
him round and saw his face. It was leaden-hued and dull; the wan and
almost colourless eyes fixed on me in a vague and glassy stare, the jaw
dropped sullenly, and the tongue hung out. Dead…. And up the street,
down in the cellars, at the base of the Twin Towers, they were dying.
How futile it was to trouble about one when thousands needed help.
Where should I begin? Who should I help first? Any help I might be able
to give seemed so useless. I had been at work all the morning dressing
the wounded, but there were so many. I was a mere child emptying the
sea with a tablespoon. I crawled into the trench again to find Bill
still looking over the parapet. This annoyed me. Why, I could not tell.

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

There was no answer. I looked along the trench and saw that all the
men were looking towards the enemy’s line; watching, as it seemed, for
something to take place. None knew what the next moment would bring
forth. The expectant mood was prevalent. All were waiting.

Up the road some houses were still peopled with Germans, and snipers
were potting at us with malicious persistency, but behind the parapet
we were practically immune from danger. As we looked a soldier appeared
round the bend of the trench, the light of battle in his eyes and his
body festooned with bombs.

“It’s dangerous to go up the centre of the street,” I called to him as
he came to a halt beside me and looked up the village.

“Bend down,” I said. “Your head is over the parapet.” I recognised the
man. He was Gilhooley the bomber.

“What does it matter?” he muttered. “I want to get at them…. Oh! I
know yer face…. D’ye mind the champagne at Nouex-les-Mines…. These
bombs are real ones, me boy…. Do you know where the snipers are?”

“There’s one up there,” I said, raising my head and pointing to a large
house on the left of the road near the Twin Towers. “I saw the smoke
of his rifle when he fired at me a while ago.”

“Then he must get what he’s lookin’ for,” said Gilhooley, tightening
his belt of bombs, and, clutching his rifle, rushed out into the
roadway. “By Jasus! I’ll get him out of it!”

I raised my head and watched, fascinated. With prodigious strides
Gilhooley raced up the street, his rifle clutched tightly in his hand.
Suddenly he paused, as if in thought, and his rifle went clattering
across the cobbles. Then he sank slowly to the ground, kicking out a
little with his legs. The bullet had hit him in the jaw and it came out
through the back of his neck….

I could hear the wounded crying and moaning somewhere near, or perhaps
far away. A low, lazy breeze slouched up from the field which we had
crossed that morning, and sound travelled far. The enemy snipers on
Hulluch copse were busy, and probably the dying were being hit again.
Some of them desired it, the slow process of dying on the open field
of war is so dreadful…. A den of guns, somewhere near Lens, became
voluble, and a monstrous fanfare of fury echoed in the heavens. The
livid sky seemed to pull itself up as if to be out of the way; under
it the cavalcades of war ran riot. A chorus of screeches and yells
rose trembling and whirling in air, snatching at each other like the
snarling and barking of angry dogs.

Bill stood motionless, looking at the enemy’s line, his gaze
concentrated on a single point; in his eyes there was a tense,
troubled expression, as if he was calculating a sum which he could
not get right. Now and again he would shake his head as if trying to
throw something off and address a remark to the man next him, who did
not seem to hear. Probably he was asleep. In the midst of artillery
tumult some men are overcome with languor and drop asleep as they
stand. On the other hand, many get excited, burst into song and laugh
boisterously at most commonplace incidents.

Amidst the riot, an undertone of pain became more persistent than ever.
The levels where the wounded lay were raked with shrapnel that burst
viciously in air and struck the blood stained earth with spiteful
vigour.

The cry for stretcher-bearers came down the trench, and I hurried off
to attend to the stricken. I met him crawling along on all fours,
looking like an ungainly lobster that has escaped from a basket. A
bullet had hit the man in the back and he was in great pain; so much in
pain that when I was binding his wound he raised his fist and hit me in
the face.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, a moment afterwards. “I didn’t mean it, but,
my God! this is hell!”

“You’ll have to lie here,” I said, when I put the bandage on. “You’ll
get carried out at night when we can cross the open.”

“I’m going now,” he said. “I want to go now. I must get away. You’ll
let me go, won’t you, Pat?”

“You’ll be killed before you’re ten yards across the open,” I said.
“Better wait till to-night.”

“Does the trench lead out?” he asked.

“It probably leads to the front trench which the Germans occupied this
morning,” I said.

“Well, if we get there it will be a step nearer the dressing-station,
anyway,” said the wounded boy. “Take me away from here, do please.”

“Can you stand upright?”

“I’ll try,” he answered, and half weeping and half laughing, he got to
his feet. “I’ll be able to walk down,” he muttered.

We set off. I walked in front, urging the men ahead to make way for a
wounded man. No order meets with such quick obedience as “Make way for
wounded.”

All the way from Loos to the churchyard which the trench fringes and
where the bones of the dead stick out through the parapet, the trench
was in fairly good order, beyond that was the dumping ground of death.

The enemy in their endeavour to escape from the Irish that morning
crowded the trench like sheep in a lane-way, and it was here that
the bayonet, rifle-butt and bomb found them. Now they lay six deep
in places…. One bare-headed man lay across the parapet, his hand
grasping his rifle, his face torn to shreds with rifle bullets. One of
his own countrymen, hidden in Hulluch copse, was still sniping at the
dead thing, believing it to be an English soldier. Such is the irony of
war. The wounded man ambled painfully behind me, grunting and groaning.
Sometimes he stopped for a moment, leant against the side of the trench
and swore for several seconds. Then he muttered a word of apology and
followed me in silence. When we came to the places where the dead lay
six deep we had to crawl across them on our hands and knees. To raise
our heads over the parapet would be courting quick death. We would
become part of that demolition of blood and flesh that was necessary
for our victory. In front of us a crowd of civilians, old men, women
and children, was crawling and stumbling over the dead bodies. A little
boy was eating the contents of a bully-beef tin with great relish, and
the ancient female who accompanied him crossed herself whenever she
stumbled across a prostrate German. The civilians were leaving Loos.

On either side we could hear the wounded making moan, their cry was
like the yelping of drowning puppies. But the man who was with me
seemed unconscious of his surroundings; seldom even did he notice the
dead on the floor of the trench; he walked over them unconcernedly.

I managed to bring him down to the dressing-station. When we arrived he
sat on a seat and cried like a child.