LOOS

The dead men lay on the cellar stair,
Toll of the bomb that found them there;
In the streets men fell as a bullock drops,
Sniped from the fringe of Hulluch copse.
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid—
Food of the bullet and hand-grenade—
This we saw when the charge was done,
And the East grew pale to the rising sun
In the town of Loos in the morning.

A RIM of grey clouds clustered thick on the horizon as if hiding some
wonderful secret from the eyes of men. Above my head the stars were
twinkling, a soft breeze swung over the open, and moist gusts caught me
in the face as I picked my way carefully through the still figures in
brown and grey that lay all over the stony face of the level lands. A
spinney on the right was wrapped in shadow, and when, for a moment, I
stood to listen, vague whispers and secret rustlings could be heard all
around. The hour before the dawn was full of wonder, the world in which
I moved was pregnant with mystery. “Who are these?” I asked myself
as I looked at the still figures in khaki. “Where is the life, the
vitality of yesterday’s dawn; the fire of eager eyes, the mad pulsing
of roving blood, and the great heart of young adventure? Has the
roving, the vitality and the fire come to this; gone out like sparks
from a star-shell falling in a pond? What are these things here? What
am I? What is the purpose served by all this demolition and waste?”
Like a child in the dark I put myself the question, but there was no
answer. The stars wheel on their courses over the dance of death and
the feast of joy, ever the same.

I walked up to the church by the trench through the graveyard where
the white bones stuck out through the parapet. A pale mist gathered
round the broken headstones and crept along the bushes of the fence.
The Twin Towers stood in air—moody, apathetic, regardless of the
shrapnel incense that the guns wafted against the lean girders.
Sparrows twittered in the field, and a crow broke clumsily away from
the branches in the spinney. A limber jolted along the road near me
creaking and rumbling. On! driver, on! Get to Les Brebis before the
dawn, and luck be with you! If the enemy sees you! On! on! I knew that
he hurried; that one eye was on the east where the sky was flushing a
faint crimson, and the other on the road in front where the dead mules
grew more distinct and where the faces of the dead men showed more
clearly.

At that moment the enemy began to shell the road and the trench running
parallel to it. I slipped into the shelter and waited. The transport
came nearer, rolling and rumbling; the shrapnel burst violently. I
cowered close to the parapet and I had a vivid mental picture of the
driver leaning forward on the neck of his mule, his teeth set, his
breath coming in short, sudden gasps. “Christ! am I going to get out of
it?” he must have said. “Will dawn find me at Les Brebis?”

Something shot clumsily through the air and went plop! against the
parados.

“Heavens! it’s all up with me!” I said, and waited for the explosion.
But there was none. I looked round and saw a leg on the floor of the
trench, the leg of the transport driver, with its leg-iron shining
like silver. The man’s boot was almost worn through in the sole, and
the upper was gashed as if with a knife. I’m sure it must have let in
the wet…. And the man was alive a moment ago! The mule was still
clattering along, I could hear the rumble of the wagon…. The firing
ceased, and I went out in the open again.

I walked on the rim of the parapet and gazed into the dark streak of
trench where the shadows clustered round traverse and dug-out door. In
one bay a brazier was burning, and a bent figure of a man leant over
a mess-tin of bubbling tea. All at once he straightened himself and
looked up at me.

“Pat MacGill?” he queried.

“A good guess,” I answered. “You’re making breakfast early.”

“A drop of tea on a cold morning goes down well,” he answered. “Will
you have a drop? I’ve milk and a sultana cake.”

“How did you come by that?” I asked.

“In a dead man’s pack,” he told me, as he emptied part of the contents
of the tin into a tin mug and handed it up.

The tea was excellent. A breeze swept over the parapet and ushered in
the dawn. My heart fluttered like a bird; it was so happy, so wonderful
to be alive, drinking tea from a sooty mess-tin on the parapet of the
trench held by the enemy yesterday.

“It’s quiet at present,” I said.

“It’ll soon not be quiet,” said the man in the trench, busy now with a
rasher of bacon which he was frying on his mess-tin lid. “Where have
you come from?”

“I’ve been all over the place,” I said. “Maroc, and along that way.
You should see the road to Maroc. Muck to the knees; limbers, carts,
wagons, guns, stretchers, and God knows what! going up and down. Dead
and dying mules; bare-legged Jocks flat in the mud and wheels going
across them. I’ll never forget it.”

“Nobody that has been through this will ever forget it,” said the man
in the trench. “I’ve seen more sights than enough. But nothing disturbs
me now. I remember a year ago if I saw a man getting knocked down I’d
run a mile; I never saw a dead person till I came here. Will you have a
bit of bacon and fried bread?”

“Thanks,” I answered, reaching down for the food. “It’s very good of
you.”

“Don’t mention it, Pat,” he said, blushing as if ashamed of his
kindness. “Maybe, it’ll be my turn to come to you next time I’m hungry.
Any word of when we’re getting relieved?”

“I don’t hear anything,” I said. “Shortly, I hope. Many of your mates
killed?” I asked.

“Many of them indeed,” he replied. “Old L. went west the moment he
crossed the top. He had only one kick at the ball. A bullet caught him
in the belly. I heard him say ‘A foul; a blurry foul!’ as he went all
in a heap. He was a sticker! Did you see him out there?”

He pointed a thumb to the field in rear.

“There are so many,” I replied. “I did not come across him.”

“And then B., D., and R., went,” said the man in the trench. “B. with a
petrol bomb, D. with shrapnel, and R. with a bayonet wound. Some of the
Bavarians made a damned good fight for it.”…

Round the traverse a voice rose in song, a trembling, resonant voice,
and we guessed that sleep was still heavy in the eyes of the singer:

“There’s a silver lining through the dark clouds shining,
We’ll turn the dark cloud inside out till the boys come home.”

“Ah! it will be a glad day and a sorrowful day when the boys come
home,” said the man in the trench, handing me a piece of sultana
cake. “The children will be cheering, the men will be cheering, the
women—some of them. One woman will say: ‘There’s my boy, doesn’t
he look well in uniform?’ Then another will say: ‘Two boys I had,
_they’re_ not here——'”

I saw a tear glisten on the cheek of the boy below me, and something
seemed to have caught in his throat. His mood craved privacy, I could
tell that by the dumb appeal in his eyes.

“Good luck, matey,” I mumbled, and walked away. The singer looked up as
I was passing.

“Mornin’, Pat,” he said. “How goes it?”

“Not at all bad,” I answered.

“Have you seen W.?” asked the singer.

“I’ve been talking to him for the last twenty minutes,” I said. “He has
given me half his breakfast.”

“I suppose he couldn’t sleep last night,” said the singer, cutting
splinters of wood for the morning fire. “You’ve heard that his brother
was killed yesterday morning?”

“Oh!” I muttered. “No, I heard nothing about it until now.”

The dawn glowed crimson, streaks of red shot through the clouds to
eastwards and touched the bowl of sky overhead with fingers of flame.
From the dug-outs came the sound of sleepy voices, and a soldier out
in open trench was cleaning his bayonet. A thin white fog lay close to
the ground, and through it I could see the dead boys in khaki clinging,
as it were, to the earth. I could see a long way round. Behind was
the village where the wounded were dressed; how blurred it looked
with its shell-scarred chimneys in air like the fingers of a wounded
hand held up to a doctor. The chimneys, dun-tinted and lonely, stood
silent above the mist, and here and there a tree which seemed to have
been ejected from the brotherhood of its kind stood out in the open
all alone. The smoke of many fires curled over the line of trenches.
Behind the parapets lay many dead; they had fallen in the trench and
their comrades had flung them out into the open. It was sad to see them
there; yesterday or the day before their supple legs were strong for a
long march; to-day——

A shell burst dangerously near, and I went into the trench; the Germans
were fumbling for their objective. Our artillery, as yet quiet, was
making preparations for an anticipated German counter-attack, and back
from our trench to Les Brebis, every spinney concealed a battery, every
tree a gun, and every broken wall an ammunition depot. The dawning
sun showed the terror of war quiet in gay disguise; the blue-grey,
long-nosed guns hidden in orchards where the apples lingered late,
the howitzers under golden-fringed leaves, the metallic glint on the
weapons’ muzzles; the gunners asleep in adjacent dug-outs, their
blankets tied tightly around their bodies, their heads resting on
heavy shells, fit pillows for the men whose work dealt in death and
destruction. The sleepers husbanded their energy for trying labour,
the shells seemed to be saving their fury for more sure destruction.
All our men were looking forward to a heavy day’s work.

I went back to the dressing-station in Loos. The street outside, pitted
with shell-holes, showed a sullen face to the leaden sky. The dead lay
in the gutters, on the pavement, at the door-steps; the quick in the
trenches were now consolidating our position, strengthening the trench
which we had taken from the Germans. Two soldiers on guard stood at
the door of the dressing-station. I dressed a few wounds and lit a
cigarette.

“What’s up with that fool?” said a voice at the door, and I turned to
the man who spoke.

“Who?” I inquired.

“Come and see,” said the man at the door. I looked up the street
and saw one of our boys standing in the roadway and the smoke of a
concussion shell coiling round his body. It was Bill Teake. He looked
round, noticed us, and I could see a smile flower broadly on his face.
He made a step towards us, halted and said something that sounded like
“Yook! yook!” Then he took another step forward and shot out his hand
as if playing bowls.

“He’s going mad?” I muttered. “Bill, what are you doing?” I cried to
him.

“Yook! yook! yook!” he answered in a coaxing voice.

“A bullet will give you yook! yook! directly,” I cried. “Get under
cover and don’t be a fool.”

“Yook! yook!”

Then a shell took a neighbouring chimney away and a truckful of bricks
assorted itself on the roadway in Bill’s neighbourhood. Out of the
smother of dust and lime a fowl, a long-necked black hen, fluttered
into the air and flew towards our shelter. On the road in front it
alighted and wobbled its head from one side to another in a cursory
inspection of its position. Bill Teake came racing down the road.

“Don’t frighten it away!” he yelled. “Don’t shout. I want that ‘en.
It’s my own ‘en. I discovered it. Yook! yook! yook!”

He sobered his pace and approached the hen with cautious steps. The
fowl was now standing on one leg, the other leg drawn up under its
wing, its head in listening position, and its attitude betokened
extreme dejection. It looked for all the world like Bill when he peers
down the neck of a rum jar and finds the jar empty.

“Not a word now,” said Teake, fixing one eye on me and another on the
hen. “I must get my feelers on this ‘ere cackler. It was up there
sittin’ atop of a dead Jock when I sees it…. Yook! yook! That’s wot
you must say to a bloomin’ ‘en w’en yer wants ter nab it…. Yook!
yook! yook!”

He threw a crumb to the fowl. The hen picked it up, swallowed it, and
hopped off for a little distance. Then it drew one leg up under its
wing and assumed a look of philosophic calm.

“Clever hen!” I said.

“Damned ungrateful fraud!” said Bill angrily. “I’ve given it ‘arf my
iron rations. If it wasn’t that I might miss it I’d fling a bully-beef
tin at it.”

“Where’s your rifle?” I inquired.

“Left it in the trench,” Bill replied. “I just came out to look for
sooveneers. This is the only sooveneer I seen. Yook! yook! I’ll
sooveneer yer, yer swine. Don’t yer understand yer own language?”

The hen made a noise like a chuckling frog.

“Yes, yer may uck! uck!” cried Bill, apostrophising the fowl. “I’ll
soon stop yer uck! uck! yer one-legged von Kluck! Where’s a rifle to
spare?”

I handed him a spare rifle which belonged to a man who had been shot
outside the door that morning.

“Loaded?” asked Bill.

“Loaded,” I lied.

The Cockney lay down on the roadway, stretched the rifle out in front,
took steady aim, and pulled the trigger. A slight click was the only
response.

“That’s a dirty trick,” he growled, as we roared with laughter. “A
bloomin’ Alleymong wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

So saying he pulled the bolt back, jerked a cartridge from the
magazine, shoved a round into the breech and fired. The fowl fluttered
in agony for a moment, then fell in a heap on the roadway. Bill handed
the rifle back to me.

“I’ll cook that ‘en to-night,” he said, with studied slowness. “It’ll
make a fine feed. ‘En well cooked can’t be beaten, and I’m damned if
you’ll get one bone to pick!”

“Bill!” I protested.

“Givin’ me a hipe as wasn’t loaded and sayin’ it was,” he muttered
sullenly.

“I haven’t eaten a morsel of hen since you pinched one at Mazingarbe,”
I said. “You remember that. ‘Twas a damned smart piece of work.”

A glow of pride suffused his face.

“Well, if there’s any to spare to-night I’ll let you know,” said my
mate. “Now I’m off.”

“There’s a machine gun playing on the road,” I called to him, as he
strolled off towards the trench with the hen under his arm. “You’d
better double along.”

He broke into a run, but suddenly stopped right in the centre of the
danger zone. I could hear the bullets rapping on the cobblestones.

“I’ll tell yer when the feed’s ready, Pat,” he called back. “You can
‘ave ‘arf the ‘en for supper.”

Then he slid off and disappeared over the rim of the trench.