RETREAT

“There’s a battery snug in the spinney,
A French ‘seventy-five’ in the mine,
A big ‘nine-point-two’ in the village,
Three miles to the rear of the line.
The gunners will clean them at dawning,
And slumber beside them all day,
But the guns chant a chorus at sunset,
And then you should hear what they say.”

THE hour was one o’clock in the afternoon, and a slight rain was now
falling. A dug-out in the bay leant wearily forward on its props; the
floor of the trench, foul with blood and accumulated dirt, showed a
weary face to the sky. A breeze had sprung up, and the watcher who
looked over the parapet was met in the face with a soft, wet gust laden
with rain swept off the grassy spot in front…. A gaunt willow peeped
over the sandbags and looked timorously down at us. All the sandbags
were perforated by machine-gun fire, a new gun was hidden on the rise
on our right, but none of our observers could locate its position. On
the evening before it had accounted for eighty-seven casualties; from
the door of a house in Loos I had seen our men, who had attempted to
cross the street, wiped out like flies.

Very heavy fighting had been going on in the front line to the east of
Hill 70 all through the morning. Several bomb attacks were made by the
enemy, and all were repulsed. For the men in the front line trench the
time was very trying. They had been subject to continual bomb attacks
since the morning before.

“‘Ow long ‘ave we been ‘ere?” asked Bill Teake, as he removed a clot
of dirt from the foresight guard of his rifle. “I’ve lost all count of
time.”

“Not such a length of time,” I told him.

“Time’s long a-passin’ ‘ere,” said Bill, leaning his head against the
muddy parados. “Gawd, I’d like to be back in Les Brebis drinkin’ beer,
or ‘avin’ a bit of a kip for a change. When I go back to blighty I’ll
go to bed and I’ll not get up for umpty-eleven months.”

“We may get relieved to-morrow night,” I said.

“To-morrow’ll be another day nearer the day we get relieved, any’ow,”
said Bill sarcastically. “And another day nearer the end of the war,”
he added.

“I’m sick of it,” he muttered, after a short silence. “I wish the
damned war was blurry well finished. It gives me the pip. Curse the
war! Curse everyone and everything! If the Alleymongs would come over
now, I’d not lift my blurry ‘ipe. I’d surrender; that’s wot I’d do.
Curse…. Damn…. Blast….”

I slipped to the wet floor of the trench asleep and lay there, only to
awaken ten minutes later. I awoke with a start; somebody jumping over
the parapet had planted his feet on my stomach. I rose from the soft
earth and looked round. A kilted soldier was standing in the trench, an
awkward smile on his face and one of his knees bleeding. Bill, who was
awake, was gazing at the kiltie with wide open eyes.

The machine gun was speaking from the enemy’s line, a shrewish tang in
its voice, and little spurts of dirt flicked from our sandbags shot
into the trench.

Bill’s eyes looked so large that they surprised me; I had never seen
him look in such a way before. What was happening? Several soldiers
belonging to strange regiments were in our trench now; they were
jumping over the parapet in from the open. One man I noticed was a
nigger in khaki….

“They’re all from the front trench,” said Bill in a whisper of
mysterious significance, and a disagreeable sensation stirred in my
being.

“That means,” I said, and paused.

“It means that the Allemongs are gettin’ the best of it,” said Bill,
displaying an unusual interest in the action of his rifle. “They say
the 21st and 24th Division are retreating from ‘Ill 70. Too ‘ot up
there. It’s goin’ to be a blurry row ‘ere,” he muttered. “But we’re
goin’ to stick ‘ere, wotever ‘appens. No damned runnin’ away with us!”

The trench was now crowded with strangers, and others were coming in.
The field in front of our line was covered with figures running towards
us. Some crouched as they ran, some tottered and fell; three or four
crawled on their bellies, and many dropped down and lay where they fell.

The machine gun swept the field, and a vicious hail of shrapnel swept
impartially over the quick, the wounded and the dead. A man raced up
to the parapet which curved the bay in which I stood, a look of terror
on his face. There he stood a moment, a timorous foot on a sandbag,
calculating the distance of the jump…. He dropped in, a bullet wound
showing on the back of his tunic, and lay prostrate, face upwards on
the floor of the trench. A second man jumped in on the face of the
stricken man.

I hastened to help, but the newcomers pressed forward and pushed me
along the trench. No heed was taken of the wounded man.

“Back! get back!” yelled a chorus of voices. “We’ve got to retire.”

“‘Oo the blurry ‘ell said that?” I heard Bill Teake thunder. “If ye’re
not goin’ to fight, get out of this ‘ere place and die in the fields.
Runnin’ away, yer blasted cowards!”

No one seemed to heed him. The cry of “Back! back!” redoubled in
violence. “We’ve got orders to retire! We must get back at once!” was
the shout. “Make way there, let us get by.”

It was almost impossible to stem the tide which swept up the trench
towards Loos Road where the road leaves the village. I had a fleeting
glimpse of one of our men rising on the fire position and gazing over
the parapet. Even as he looked a bullet hit him in the face, and he
dropped back, clawing at the air with his fingers…. Men still crowded
in from the front, jumping on the struggling crush in the trench….
In front of me was a stranger, and in front of him was Rifleman Pryor,
trying to press back against the oncoming men. A bullet ricochetted
off a sandbag and hit the stranger on the shoulder and he fell face
downwards to the floor. I bent to lift the wounded fellow and got
pushed on top of him.

“Can you help him?” Pryor asked.

“If you can keep the crowd back,” I muttered, getting to my feet and
endeavouring to raise the fallen man.

Pryor pulled a revolver from his pocket, levelled it at the man behind
me and shouted:

“If you come another step further I’ll put a bullet through your head.”

This sobered the soldier at the rear, who steadied himself by placing
his hand against the traverse. Then he called to those who followed,
“Get back! there’s a wounded man on the floor of the trench.”

A momentary halt ensued. Pryor and I gripped the wounded man, raised
him on the parapet and pushed him into a shell-hole behind the
sandbags. Lying flat on the ground up there I dressed the man’s wounds.
Pryor sat beside me, fully exposed to the enemy’s fire, his revolver in
his hand.

“Down, Pryor,” I said several times. “You’ll get hit.”

“Oh, my time hasn’t come yet,” he said. “I’ll not be done in this time,
anyway. Fighting is going on in the front trench yet, and dozens of men
are racing this way. Many of them are falling. I think some of our boys
are firing at them, mistaking them for Germans…. Here’s our colonel
coming along the trench.”

The colonel was in the trench when I got back there, exhorting his men
to stand and make a fight of it. “Keep your backs to the walls, boys,”
he said, “and fight to the last.”

The Irish had their back to the wall, no man deserted his post. The
regiment at the moment was the backbone of the Loos front; if the
boys wavered and broke the thousands of lives that were given to make
the victory of Loos would have been lost in vain. Intrepid little
Bill Teake, who was going to surrender to the first German whom he
met, stood on the banquette, his jaw thrust forward determinedly and
the light of battle in his eyes. Now and again he turned round and
apostrophised the soldiers who had fallen back from the front line.

“Runnin’ away!” he yelled. “Ugh! Get back again and make a fight of it.
Go for the Allemongs just like you’s go for rum rations.”

The machine gun on the hill peppered Loos Road and dozens dropped
there. The trench crossing the road was not more than a few feet
deep at any time, and a wagon which had fallen in when crossing a
hastily-constructed bridge the night before, now blocked the way. To
pass across the men had to get up on the road, and here the machine gun
found them; and all round the wagon bleeding bodies were lying three
deep.

A young officer of the —— Regiment, whose men were carried away in
the stampede, stood on the road with a Webley revolver in his hand
and tried to urge his followers back to the front trench. “It’s all a
mistake,” he shouted. “The Germans did not advance. The order to retire
was a false one. Back again; boys, get back. Now, get back for the
regiment’s sake. If you don’t we’ll be branded with shame. Come now,
make a stand and I’ll lead you back again.”

Almost simultaneously a dozen bullets hit him and he fell, his revolver
still in his hand. Bill Teake procured the revolver at dusk….

Our guns came suddenly into play and a hell-riot of artillery broke
forth. Guns of all calibres were brought into work, and all spoke
earnestly, madly, the 4·2’s in the emplacement immediately to rear, the
9·2’s back at Maroc, and our big giants, the caterpillar howitzers,
away behind further still. Gigantic shells swung over our heads,
laughing, moaning, whistling, hooting, yelling. We could see them
passing high up in air, looking for all the world like beer bottles
flung from a juggler’s hand. The messengers of death came from
everywhere and seemed to be everywhere.

The spinney on the spur was churned, shivered, blown to pieces. Trees
uprooted rose twenty yards in the air, paused for a moment to take
a look round, as it were, when at the zenith of their flight, then
sank slowly, lazily to earth as if selecting a spot to rest upon. Two
red-brick cottages with terra-cotta tiles which snuggled amidst the
trees were struck simultaneously, and they went up in little pieces,
save where one rafter rose hurriedly over the smoke and swayed, a
clearly defined black line, in mid-air. Coming down abruptly it found
a resting place on the branches of the trees. One of the cottages held
a German gun and gunners…. Smoke, dust, lyddite fumes robed the
autumn-tinted trees on the crest, the concussion shells burst into
lurid flame, the shrapnel shells puffed high in air, and their white,
ghostly smoke paled into the overcast heavens.

The retreat was stopped for a moment. The —— Regiment recovered
its nerve and fifty or sixty men rushed back. Our boys cheered….
But the renewed vitality was short-lived. A hail of shrapnel caught
the party in the field and many of them fell. The nigger whom I had
noticed earlier came running back, his teeth chattering, and flung
himself into the trench. He lay on the floor and refused to move until
Bill Teake gave him a playful prod with a bayonet. Our guns now spoke
boisterously, and the German trenches on the hill were being blown
to little pieces. Dug-outs were rioting, piecemeal, in air, parapets
were crumbling hurriedly in and burying the men in the trench, bombs
spun lazily in air, and the big caterpillar howitzers flung their
projectiles across with a loud whoop of tumult. Our thousand and one
guns were bellowing their terrible anthem of hate.

Pryor stood on the fire-step, his bayonet in one hand, an open tin of
bully-beef in the other.

“There’s no damned attack on at all,” he said. “A fresh English
regiment came up and the —— got orders to retire for a few hundred
yards to make way for them. Then there was some confusion, a telephone
wire got broken, the retirement became a retreat. A strategic retreat,
of course,” said Pryor sarcastically, and pointed at the broken wagon
on the Loos Road. “A strategic retreat,” he muttered, and munched a
piece of beef which he lifted from the tin with his fingers.

The spinney on which we had gazed so often now retained its unity
no longer, the brick houses were gone; the lyddite clouds took on
strange forms amidst the greenery, glided towards one another in a
graceful waltz, bowed, touched tips, retired and paled away weary
as it seemed of their fantastic dance. Other smoke bands of ashen
hue intermixed with ragged, bilious-yellow fragments of cloud rose
in the air and disappeared in the leaden atmosphere. Little wisps of
vapour like feathers of some gigantic bird detached themselves from
the horrible, diffused glare of bursting explosives, floated towards
our parapet, and the fumes of poisonous gases caused us to gasp for
breath. The shapelessness of Destruction reigned on the hill, a fitting
accompaniment to the background of cloudy sky, dull, dark and wan.

Strange contrasts were evoked on the crest, monstrous heads rose over
the spinney, elephants bearing ships, Vikings, bearded and savage,
beings grotesque and gigantic took shape in the smoke and lyddite fumes.

The terrible assault continued without truce, interruption or respite;
our guns scattered broadcast with prodigal indifference their
apparently inexhaustible resources of murder and terror. The essence
of the bombardment was in the furious succession of its blows. In the
clamour and tumult was the crash and uproar of a vast bubbling cauldron
forged and heated by the gods in ungodly fury.

The enemy would reply presently. Through the uproar I could hear the
premonitory whispering of his guns regulating their range and feeling
for an objective. A concussion shell whistled across the traverse in
which I stood and in futile rage dashed itself to pieces on the level
field behind. Another followed, crying like a child in pain, and
finished its short, drunken career by burrowing into the red clay of
the parados where it failed to explode. It passed close to my head,
and fear went down into the innermost parts of me and held me for a
moment…. A dozen shells passed over in the next few moments, rushing
ahead as if they were pursued by something terrible, and burst in the
open a hundred yards away. Then a livid flash lit a near dug-out; lumps
of earth, a dozen beams and several sandbags changed their locality,
and a man was killed by concussion. When the body was examined no
trace of a wound could be seen. Up the street of Loos was a clatter
and tumult. A house was flung to earth, making a noise like a statue
falling downstairs in a giant’s castle; iron girders at the coal-mine
were wrenched and tortured, and the churchyard that bordered our trench
had the remnants of its headstones flung about and its oft muddled
graves dug anew by the shells.

The temporary bridge across the trench where it intersected the road,
made the night before to allow ammunition limbers to pass, was blown
sky high, and two men who sheltered under it were killed. Earth,
splinters of wood and bits of masonry were flung into the trench, and
it was wise on our part to lie on the floor or press close to the
parapet. One man, who was chattering a little, tried to sing, but
became silent when a comrade advised him “to hold his row; if the
Germans heard the noise they might begin shelling.”

The gods were thundering. At times the sound dwarfed me into such
infinitesimal littleness that a feeling of security was engendered.
In the midst of such an uproar and tumult, I thought that the gods,
bent though they were upon destruction, would leave such a little atom
as myself untouched. This for a while would give me a self-satisfying
confidence in my own invulnerability.

At other times my being swelled to the grand chorus. I was one with it,
at home in thunder. I accommodated myself to the Olympian uproar and
shared in a play that would have delighted Jove and Mars. I had got
beyond that mean where the soul of a man swings like a pendulum from
fear to indifference, and from indifference to fear. In danger I am
never indifferent, but I find that I can readily adapt myself to the
moods and tempers of my environment. But all men have some restraining
influence to help them in hours of trial, some principle or some
illusion. Duty, patriotism, vanity, and dreams come to the help of men
in the trenches, all illusions probably, ephemeral and fleeting; but
for a man who is as ephemeral and fleeting as his illusions are, he can
lay his back against them and defy death and the terrors of the world.
But let him for a moment stand naked and look at the staring reality of
the terrors that engirt him and he becomes a raving lunatic.

The cannonade raged for three hours, then ceased with the suddenness of
a stone falling to earth, and the ordeal was over.

As the artillery quietened the men who had just come into our trench
plucked up courage again and took their way back to the front line of
trenches, keeping well under the cover of the houses in Loos. In twenty
minutes’ time we were left to ourselves, nothing remained of those
who had come our way save their wounded and their dead; the former we
dressed and carried into the dressing-station, the latter we buried
when night fell.

The evening came, and the greyish light of the setting sun paled away
in a western sky, leaden-hued and dull. The dead men lying out in the
open became indistinguishable in the gathering darkness. A deep silence
settled over the village, the roadway and trench, and with the quiet
came fear. I held my breath. What menace did the dark world contain?
What threat did the ghostly star-shells, rising in air behind the Twin
Towers, breathe of? Men, like ghosts, stood on the banquettes waiting,
it seemed, for something to take place. There was no talking, no
laughter. The braziers were still unlit, and the men had not eaten for
many hours. But none set about to prepare a meal. It seemed as if all
were afraid to move lest the least noise should awake the slumbering
Furies. The gods were asleep and it was unwise to disturb them….

A limber clattered up the road and rations were dumped down at the
corner of the village street.

“I ‘ope they’ve brought the rum,” somebody remarked, and we all laughed
boisterously. The spell was broken, and already my mate, Bill Teake,
had applied a match to a brazier and a little flame glowed at the
corner of a traverse. Now was the moment to cook the hen which he had
shot that morning.

As he bent over his work, someone coming along the trench stumbled
against him, and nearly threw Bill into the fire.

“‘Oo the blurry ‘ell is that shovin’ about,” spluttered Teake, rubbing
the smoke from his eyes and not looking round.

“It’s the blurry Colonel of the London Irish,” a voice replied, and
Bill shot up to attention and saluted his commanding officer.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said.

“It’s all right,” said the officer. “If I was in your place, I might
have said worse things.”

Bill recounted the incident afterwards and concluded by saying, “‘E’s a
fine bloke, ‘e is, our C.O. I’d do anythink for him now.”