A NIGHT IN LOOS

“Never see good in an enemy until you have defeated him.”—WAR PROVERB.

TWILIGHT softened the gaunt corners of the ruined houses, and sheaves
of shadows cowered in unfathomable corners. A wine shop, gashed and
fractured, said “hush!” to us as we passed; the shell-holed streets
gaped at the indifferent, unconcerned sky.

“See the streets are yawning,” I said to my mate, Bill Teake.

“That’s because they’re bored,” he replied.

“Bill,” I said, “what do you mean by bored?”

“They’ve holes in them,” he answered. “Why d’yer arst me?”

“I wanted to know if you were trying to make a pun,” I said. “That’s
all.”

Bill grunted, and a moment’s silence ensued.

“Suppose it were made known to you, Bill,” I said, “that for the rest
of your natural life this was all you could look forward to, dull
hours of waiting in the trenches, sleep in sodden dug-outs, eternal
gun-firing and innumerable bayonet-charges; what would you do?”

“Wot would I do?” said Bill, coming to a halt in the middle of the
street. “This is wot I’d do,” he said with decision. “I’d put a round
in the breech, lay my ‘ead on the muzzle of my ‘ipe, and reach down and
pull the blurry trigger. Wot would you do?”

“I should become very brave,” I replied.

“I see wot yer mean,” said Bill. “Ye’d be up to the Victoria Cross
caper, and run yer nose into danger every time yer got a chance.”

“You may be right,” I replied. “No one likes this job, but we all
endure it as a means towards an end.”

“Flat!” I yelled, flopping to the ground and dragging Bill with me, as
a shell burst on a house up the street and flung a thousand splinters
round our heads. For a few seconds we cowered in the mud, then rose to
our feet again.

“There are means by which we are going to end war,” I said. “Did you
see the dead and wounded to-day, the men groaning and shrieking, the
bombs flung down into cellars, the bloodstained bayonets, the gouging
and the gruelling; all those things are means towards creating peace
in a disordered world.”

The unrest which precedes night made itself felt in Loos. Crows made
their way homeward, cleaving the air with weary wings; a tottering
wall fell on the street with a melancholy clatter, and a joist
creaked near at hand, yearning, as it seemed, to break free from its
shattered neighbours. A lone wind rustled down the street, weeping
over the fallen bricks, and crooning across barricades and machine-gun
emplacements. The greyish-white evening sky cast a vivid pallor over
the Twin Towers, which stood out sharply defined against the lurid glow
of a fire in Lens.

All around Loos lay the world of trenches, secret streets, sepulchral
towns, houses whose chimneys scarcely reached the level of the earth,
crooked alleys, bayonet circled squares, and lonely graveyards where
dead soldiers lay in the silent sleep that wakens to no earthly
réveillé.

The night fell. The world behind the German lines was lighted up with
a white glow, the clouds seemed afire, and ran with a flame that was
not red and had no glare. The tint was pale, and it trailed over Lens
and the spinneys near the town, and spread trembling over the levels.
White as a winding sheet, it looked like a fire of frost, vast and
wide diffused. Every object in Loos seemed to loose its reality, a
spectral glimmer hung over the ruins, and the walls were no more than
outlines. The Twin Towers was a tracery of silver and enchanted fairy
construction that the sun at dawn might melt away, the barbed-wire
entanglements (those in front of the second German trench had not been
touched by our artillery) were fancies in gossamer. The world was an
enchanted poem of contrasts of shadow and shine, of nooks and corners
black as ebony, and prominent objects that shone with a spiritual glow.
Men coming down the street bearing stretchers or carrying rations were
phantoms, the men stooping low over the earth digging holes for their
dead comrades were as ghostly as that which they buried. I lived in a
strange world—a world of dreams and illusions.

Where am I? I asked myself. Am I here? Do I exist? Where are the boys
who marched with me from Les Brebis last night? I had looked on them
during the day, seeing them as I had never seen them before, lying in
silent and unquestioning peace, close to the yearning earth. Never
again should I hear them sing in the musty barns near Givenchy; never
again would we drink red wine together in Café Pierre le Blanc,
Nouex-les-Mines….

Bill Teake went back to his duties in the trench and left me.

A soldier came down the street and halted opposite.

“What’s that light, soldier?” he asked me.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” I answered.

“I hear it’s an ammunition depot afire in Lens,” said the man. “Our
shells hit it, and their blurry bullets have copped me now,” he
muttered, dropping on the roadway and crawling towards the shelter of
the wall on his belly.

“Where are you hit?” I asked, helping him into the ruins of the
_estaminet_—my dressing-station.

“In the leg,” he answered, “just below the knee. It was when I was
speaking to you about the ammunition depot on fire. ‘Our shells hit
it,’ I said, and just then something went siss! through my calf. ‘Their
blurry bullets have copped me now,’ I said, didn’t I?”

“You did,” I answered, laying my electric torch on the table and
placing the wounded man on the floor. I ripped open his trousers and
found the wound; the bullet had gone through the calf.

“Can you use your foot?” I asked, and he moved his boot up and down.

“No fracture,” I told him. “You’re all right for blighty, matey.”

One of my mates who was sleeping in a cellar came up at that moment.

“Still dressing wounded, Pat?” he asked.

“I just got wounded a minute ago,” said the man on the floor as I
fumbled about with a first field dressing. “I was speaking to Pat about
the fire at Lens, and I told him that our shells hit it, ‘and a blurry
bullet has copped me now,’ I said, when I felt something go siss!
through my leg.”

“Lucky dog,” said the man on the stair head. “I’d give fifteen pounds
for your wound.”

“Nothing doing,” said the man on the floor with a laugh.

“When can I get down to the dressing-station?” he asked.

“Now, if you can walk,” I told him. “If you’re to be carried I shall
need three other men; the mud is knee deep on the road to Maroc.”

“I’ll see if I can walk,” said the man, and tried to rise to his feet.
The effort was futile, he collapsed like a wet rag. Fifteen minutes
later four of us left Loos bearing a stretcher on our shoulders, and
trudged across the fields to the main road and into the crush of war
traffic, hideously incongruous in the pale light of the quiet night.
The night was quiet, for sounds that might make for riot were muffled
by the mud. The limbers’ wheels were mud to the axles, the mules drew
their legs slowly out of muck almost reaching their bellies. Motor
ambulances, wheeled stretchers, ammunition wagons, gun carriages,
limbers, water-carts, mules, horses and men going up dragged their
sluggish way through the mud on one side of the road; mules, horses and
men, water-carts, limbers, gun carriages, ammunition wagons, wheeled
stretchers and motor ambulances coming down moved slowly along the
other side. Every man had that calm and assured indifference that comes
with ordinary everyday life. Each was full of his own work, preoccupied
with his toil, he was lost to the world around him. For the driver of
the cart that we followed, a problem had to be worked out. The problem
was this: how could he bring his mules and vehicles into Maroc and
bring up a second load, then pilot his animals through mud and fire
into Les Brebis before dawn; feed himself and his mules (when he got
into safety), drink a glass or two of wine (if he had the money to pay
for it), and wrap himself in his blanket and get to sleep in decent
time for a good day’s rest. Thus would he finish his night of work if
the gods were kind. But they were not.

A momentary stoppage, and the mules stood stiffly in the mud, the
offside wheeler twitching a long, restless ear. The driver lay back
in his seat, resigned to the delay. I could see his whip in air, his
face turned to the east where the blazing star-shells lit the line of
battle. A machine gun spoke from Hill 70, and a dozen searching bullets
whizzed about our heads. The driver uttered a sharp, infantile yell
like a snared rabbit, leant sideways, and fell down on the roadway. The
mule with the twitching ear dropped on top of the man and kicked out
wildly with its hind legs.

“Cut the ‘oss out!” yelled someone from the top of a neighbouring
wagon, and three or four soldiers rushed to the rescue, pulled the
driver clear, and felt his heart.

“Dead,” one said, dodging to avoid the hoofs of the wounded mule. “The
bullet ‘as caught the poor cove in the forehead…. Well, it’s all over
now, and there’s nothing to be done.”

“Shoot the mule,” someone suggested. “It’s kicking its mate in the
belly…. Also put the dead man out of the roadway. ‘E’ll get mixed
with the wheels.”

Someone procured a rifle, placed the muzzle close to the animal’s ear,
and fired. The mule stretched its hind legs lazily out and ceased its
struggles. Movement was resumed ahead, and dodging round the dead
man, we continued our journey through the mud. It was difficult to
make headway, our legs were knee-deep in slush, and the monstrous
futility of shoving our way through, wearied us beyond telling. Only at
rare intervals could we lift our feet clear of the ground and walk in
comparative ease for a few moments. Now and again a machine gun opened
on the moving throng, and bullets hummed by perilously close to our
ears. The stretcher was a dead weight on us, and the poles cut into our
shoulders.

The Scottish had charged across the road in the morning, and hundreds
had come to grief. They were lying everywhere, out on the fields, by
the roadside, and in the roadway mixed up with the mud. The driver who
had been killed a moment ago was so preoccupied with his task that he
had no time for any other work but his own. We were all like him. We
had one job to do and that job took up our whole attention until it was
completed. That was why our party did not put down our stretcher on the
road and raise the dead from the mud; we walked over them.

How cold they looked, the kilted lads lying on their backs in the open,
their legs, bare from knee to hip, white and ghostly in the wan light
of the blazing ammunition depot at Lens.

Mud on the roadway, reaching to the axles of the limber wheels, dead
men on the roadside, horses and mules tugging and straining at the
creaking vehicles, wounded men on the stretchers; that was the picture
of the night, and on we trudged, moving atoms of a pattern that kept
continually repeating itself.

The mutilated and maimed who still lay out in the open called
plaintively for succour. “For God’s sake bring me away from here,”
a voice called. “I’ve been lying out this last four days.” The man
who spoke had been out since dawn, but periods of unconsciousness
had disordered his count of time, and every conscious moment was an
eternity of suffering.

We arrived at Q—— instead of Maroc, having missed the right turning.
The village was crowded with men; a perfect village it was, with every
house standing, though the civilian population had long since gone to
other places. Two shells, monstrous twelve-inch terrors, that failed
to explode, lay on the pavement at the entrance. We went past these
gingerly, as ladies in dainty clothing might pass a fouling post, and
carried our burden down the streets to the dressing-station. Outside
the door were dozens of stretchers, and on each a stricken soldier,
quiet and resigned, who gazed into the cheerless and unconcerned sky
as if trying to find some deadened hope.

A Scottish regiment relieved from the trenches stood round a steaming
dixie of tea, each man with a mess-tin in his hand. I approached the
Jocks.

“Any tea to spare?” I asked one.

“Aye, mon, of course there’s a drappie goin’,” he answered, and handed
me the mess-tin from which he had been drinking.

“How did you fare to-day?” I asked.

“There’s a wheen o’ us left yet,” he replied with a solemn smile. “A
dozen dixies of tea would nae gang far among us yesterday; but wi’ one
dixie the noo, we’ve some to spare…. Wha’ d’ye belong tae?” he asked.

“The London Irish,” I told him.

“‘Twas your fellows that kicked the futba’ across the field?”

“Yes.”

“Into the German trench?”

“Not so far,” I told the man. “A bullet hit the ball by the barbed-wire
entanglements; I saw it lying there during the day.”

“‘Twas the maddest thing I’ve ever heard o’,” said the Jock. “Hae ye
lost many men?”

“A good number,” I replied.

“I suppose ye did,” said the man, but by his voice, I knew that he
was not in the least interested in our losses; not even in the issue
of battle. In fact, few of us knew of the importance of the events in
which we took part, and cared as little. If I asked one of our boys at
that moment what were his thoughts he would answer, if he spoke truly:
“I wonder when we’re going to get relieved,” or “I hope we’re going to
get a month’s rest when we get out.” Soldiers always speak of “we”;
the individual is submerged in his regiment. We, soldiers, are part of
the Army, the British Army, which will be remembered in days to come,
not by a figurehead, as the fighters of Waterloo are remembered by
Wellington, but as an army mighty in deed, prowess and endurance; an
army which outshone its figureheads.

I went back to the dressing-station. Our wounded man was inside, and
a young doctor was busy putting on a fresh dressing. The soldier was
narrating the story of his wound.

“I was speaking to a stretcher-bearer about the ammunition depot afire
in Lens,” he was saying. “‘Our shells hit it, and their bloomin’
bullets ‘ave copped me now,’ I said, when something went siss! through
my leg.”

The man gazed round at the door and saw me.

“Wasn’t that what I said, Pat?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “You said that their _blooming_ bullets had copped
you.”