GERMANS AT LOOS

“Some’ow a dyin’ Alleymong don’t seem a real Alleymong; you ain’t able
to ‘ate ‘im as you ought.”—BILL TEAKE’S PHILOSOPHY.

FROM the day I left England up till the dawn of September 25th I never
met a German, and I had spent seven months in France. At night when
out on working-parties I saw figures moving out by the enemy trenches,
mere shadows that came into view when an ephemeral constellation of
star-shells held the heavens. We never fired at these shadows, and
they never fired at us; it is unwise to break the tacit truces of the
trenches. The first real live German I saw was the one who blundered
down the ladder into our trench, the second raced towards our trenches
with Bill Teake following at his heels, uttering threats and vowing
that he would stab the prisoner if he did not double in a manner
approved of by the most exacting sergeant-major.

Of those who are England’s enemies I know, even now, very little. I
cannot well pass judgment on a nation through seeing distorted lumps of
clotting and mangled flesh pounded into the muddy floor of a trench,
or strewn broadcast on the reverse slopes of a shell-scarred parapet.
The enemy suffered as we did, yelled with pain when his wounds prompted
him, forgot perhaps in the insane combat some of the nicer tenets
of chivalry. After all, war is an approved licence for brotherly
mutilation, its aims are sanctioned, only the means towards its end
are disputed. It is a sad and sorry business from start to finish,
from diplomacy that begets it to the Te Deums that rise to God in
thanksgiving for victory obtained.

In the first German trench there were dozens of dead, the trench was
literally piled with lifeless bodies in ugly grey uniforms. Curiosity
prompted me to look into the famous German dug-outs. They were
remarkable constructions, caves leading into the bowels of the earth,
some of them capable of holding a whole platoon of soldiers. These big
dug-outs had stairs leading down to the main chamber and steps leading
out. In one I counted forty-seven steps leading down from the floor of
the trench to the roof of the shelter. No shell made was capable of
piercing these constructions, but a bomb flung downstairs….

I looked into a pretentious dug-out as I was going along the trench.
This one, the floor of which was barely two feet below the level of
the trench floor, must have been an officer’s. It was sumptuously
furnished, a curtained bed with a white coverlet stood in one corner.
Near the door was a stove and a scuttle of coal. In another corner
stood a table, and on it was a half bottle of wine, three glasses, a
box of cigars, and a vase of flowers. These things I noticed later;
what I saw first on entering was a wounded German lying across the bed,
his head against the wall and his feet on the floor. His right arm was
almost severed at the shoulder.

I entered and gazed at him. There was a look of mute appeal in his
eyes, and for some reason I felt ashamed of myself for having intruded
on the privacy of a dying man. There come times when a man on the field
of battle should be left alone to his own thoughts. I unloosened my
water-bottle from its holder and by sign inquired if he wanted a drink.
He nodded, and I placed the bottle to his lips.

“Sprechen Anglais?” I inquired, and he shook his head.

I took my bottle of morphia tablets from my pocket and explained to
him as well as I was able what the bottle contained, and he permitted
me to place two under his tongue. When rummaging in my pocket I
happened to bring out my rosary beads and he noticed them. He spoke and
I guessed that he was inquiring if I was a Catholic.

I nodded assent.

He fumbled with his left hand in his tunic pocket and brought out a
little mud-stained booklet and handed it to me. I noticed that the
volume was a prayer-book. By his signs I concluded that he wanted me to
keep it.

I turned to leave, but he called me back and pointed to his trousers
pocket as if he wanted me to bring something out of it. I put in my
hand and drew out a little leather packet from which the muzzle of a
revolver peeped forth. This I put in my pocket. He feared that if some
of our men found this in his possession his life might be a few hours
shorter than it really would be if he were left to die in peace. I
could see that he required me to do something further for him. Raising
his left hand with difficulty (I now saw that blood was flowing down
the wrist) he pointed at his tunic pocket, and I put my hand in there.
A clasp-knife, a few buttons, a piece of string and a photo were all
that the pocket contained. The photograph showed a man, whom I saw was
the soldier, a woman and a little child seated at a table. I put it in
his hand, and with brilliant eyes and set teeth he raised his head to
look at it….

I went outside. M’Crone was coming along the trench with a bomb in his
hand.

“Any of them in that dug-out?” he asked me.

“One,” I replied.

“Then I’ll give him this,” M’Crone shouted. His gestures were violent,
and his indifference to personal danger as shown in his loud laughter
was somewhat exaggerated. As long as he had something to do he was all
right, but a moment’s thought would crumple him up like a wet rag.

“I’ve done in seven of them already,” he shouted.

“The one in here is dying,” I said. “Leave him alone.”

M’Crone went to the dug-out door, looked curiously in, then walked away.

Behind the German trench I found one of our boys slowly recovering from
an attack of gas. Beside him lay a revolver, a mere toy of a thing, and
touching him was a German with a bullet in his temple. The boy told me
an interesting story as I propped him up in a sitting position against
a couple of discarded equipments.

“I tripped up, and over I went,” he said. “I came to slowly, and was
conscious of many things ‘fore I had the power to move my hands or
feet. What do you think was happenin’? There was a bloomin’ German
sniper under cover pottin’ at our boys, and that cover was a bundle
of warm, livin’ flesh; the blighter’s cover was me! ‘If I get my hand
in my pocket,’ I says to myself, ‘I’ll get my revolver and blow the
beggar’s brains out.'”

“Blow out his brains with that!” I said, looking at the weapon. “You
might as well try to blow out his brains with a pinch of snuff!”

“That’s all you know!” said the boy. “Anyway, I got my hand into my
pocket, it crawled in like a snake, and I got the little pet out. And
the German was pot-pottin’ all the time. Then I fetched the weapon up,
stuck the muzzle plunk against the man’s head and pulled the trigger
twice. He didn’t half kick up a row. See if the two bullets have gone
through one hole, Pat.”

“They have,” I told him.

“I knew it,” he answered. “Ah! it’s an easy job to kill a man. You just
rush at him and you see his eyes and nothin’ else. There’s a mist over
the trench. You shove your bayonet forward and it sticks in something
soft and almost gets dragged out of your hands. Then you get annoyed
because you can’t pull it back easy. That’s all that happens and
you’ve killed a man…. How much water have you got?”

A German youth of seventeen or eighteen with a magnificent helmet on
his head and a red cross on his arm was working in the centre of a
square formed by four of his dead countrymen, digging a grave. The
sweat stood out on his forehead, and from time to time he cast an
uneasy glance about him.

“What are you doing there?” I asked.

“Digging a grave for these,” he said, in good English, pointing a shaky
finger at the prostrate figures. “I suppose I’ll be put in it myself,”
he added.

“Why?” I inquired.

“Oh! you English shoot all prisoners.”

“You’re a fool, Fritz,” said M’Crone, approaching him. “We’re not going
to do you any harm. Look, I’ve brought you something to eat.”

He handed the boy a piece of cake, but the young Bavarian shook his
head. He was trembling with terror, and the shovel shook in his hands.
Fifteen minutes later when I passed that way carrying in a wounded man,
I saw M’Crone and the young Bavarian sitting on the brink of the grave
smoking cigarettes and laughing heartily over some joke.

Prisoners were going down towards M—— across the open. Prisoners
are always taken across the open in bulk with as small an escort as
possible. I saw a mob of two hundred go along, their hands in the
air, and stern Tommies marching on flank and at rear. The party was
a mixed one. Some of the prisoners were strong, sturdy youngsters of
nineteen or twenty, others were old men, war-weary and dejected. A few
were thin, weedy creatures, but others were massive blocks of bone
and muscle, well set-up and brimful of energy even in their degrading
plight.

Now and again queer assortments of these came along. One man was taken
prisoner in a cellar on the outskirts of Loos. Our men discovered
him asleep in a bed, pulled him out and found that he was enjoying
a decent, civilised slumber. He came down to M—— as he was taken
prisoner, his sole clothing being a pair of stockings, a shirt and
an identity disc. Four big Highlanders, massive of shoulder and leg,
escorted a puny, spectacled youth along the rim of the trench, and
following them came a diminutive Cockney with a massive helmet on his
head, the sole escort for twelve gigantic Bavarian Grenadiers. The
Cockney had now only one enemy, he was the man who offered to help him
at his work.

I came across a crumpled figure of a man in grey, dead in a
shell-crater. One arm was bent under him, the other stretched forward
almost touching a photograph of a woman and three little children. I
placed the photograph under the edge of the man’s tunic.

Near him lay another Bavarian, an old man, deeply wrinkled and white
haired, and wounded through the chest. He was trembling all over like
a wounded bird, but his eyes were calm and they looked beyond the
tumult and turmoil of the battlefield into some secret world that
only the dying can see. A rosary was in the man’s hand and his lips
were mumbling something: he was telling his beads. He took no notice
of me. Across the level at this point came a large party of prisoners
amidst a storm of shells. The German gunners had shortened their range
and were now shelling the ground occupied by their troops an hour
previous. Callous, indifferent destruction! The oncoming prisoners were
Germans—as men they were of no use to us; it would cost our country
money and men to keep and feed them. They were Germans, but of no
further use to Germany; they were her pawns in a game of war and now
useless in the play. As if to illustrate this, a shell from a German
gun dropped in the midst of the batch and pieces of the abject party
whirled in air. The gun which had destroyed them had acted as their
guardian for months. It was a frantic mother slaying her helpless brood.

The stretcher-bearer sees all the horror of war written in blood and
tears on the shell-riven battlefield. The wounded man, thank heaven!
has only his own pain to endure, although the most extreme agony which
flesh is heir to is written large on the field of fight.

Several times that day I asked myself the question, “Why are all
soldiers not allowed to carry morphia?” How much pain it would save!
How many pangs of pain might morphia alleviate! How often would it give
that rest and quiet which a man requires when an excited heart persists
in pumping blood out through an open wound! In the East morphia is
known as “The gift of God”; on the field of battle the gift of God
should not be denied to men in great pain. It would be well indeed if
all soldiers were taught first aid before a sergeant-major teaches them
the art of forming fours on the parade ground.