A PRISONER OF WAR

A star-shell holds the sky beyond
Shell-shivered Loos, and drops
In million sparkles on a pond
That lies by Hulluch copse.

A moment’s brightness in the sky,
To vanish at a breath,
And die away, as soldiers die
Upon the wastes of death.

“THERE’LL be some char (tea) in a minute,” said Bill, as he slid over
the parapet into the trench. “I’ve got some cake, a tin of sardines and
a box of cigars, fat ones.”

“You’ve been at a dead man’s pack,” I said.

“The dead don’t need nuffink,” said Bill.

It is a common practice with the troops after a charge to take food
from the packs of their fallen comrades. Such actions are inevitable;
when crossing the top, men carry very little, for too much weight is
apt to hamper their movements.

Transports coming along new roads are liable to delay, and in many
cases they get blown out of existence altogether. When rations arrive,
if they arrive, they are not up to the usual standard, and men would go
hungry if death did not come in and help them. As it happens, however,
soldiers feed well after a charge.

Bill lit a candle in the German dug-out, applied a match to a brazier
and placed his mess-tin on the flames. The dug-out with its flickering
taper gave me an idea of cosiness, coming in as I did from the
shell-scarred village and its bleak cobbled streets. To sit down here
on a sandbag (Bill had used the wooden seats for a fire) where men had
to accommodate themselves on a pigmy scale, was very comfortable and
reassuring. The light of the candle and brazier cast a spell of subtle
witchery on the black walls and the bayonets gleaming against the roof,
but despite this, innumerable shadows lurked in the corners, holding
some dark council.

“Ha!” said Bill, red in the face from his exertions over the fire.
“There’s the water singin’ in the mess-tin; it’ll soon be dancin’.”

The water began to splutter merrily as he spoke, and he emptied the tea
on the tin which he lifted from the brazier with his bayonet. From his
pack he brought forth a loaf and cut it into good thick slices.

“Now some sardines, and we’re as comfy as kings,” he muttered. “We’ll
‘ave a meal fit for a gentleman, any gentleman in the land.”

“What sort of meal is fit for a gentleman?” I asked.

“Oh! a real good proper feed,” said Bill. “Suthin’ that fills the guts.”

The meal was fit for a gentleman indeed; in turn we drank the tea from
the mess-tin and lifted the sardines from the tin with our fingers; we
had lost our forks as well as most of our equipment.

“What are you goin’ to do now?” asked Bill, when we had finished.

“I don’t know that there’s anything to be done in my job,” I said. “All
the wounded have been taken in from here.”

“There’s no water to be got,” said Bill. “There’s a pump in the street,
but nobody knows whether it’s poisoned or not. The nearest well that’s
safe to drink from is at Maroc.”

“Is there a jar about?” I asked Bill, and he unearthed one from the
corner of his jacket. “I’ll go to Maroc and bring up a jar of water,” I
said. “I’ll get back by midnight, if I’m not strafed.”

I went out on the road. The night had cleared and was now breezy; the
moon rode high amongst scurrying clouds, the trees in the fields were
harassed by a tossing motion and leant towards the village as if
seeking to get there. The grasses shivered, agitated and helpless, and
behind the Twin Towers of Loos the star-shells burst into many-coloured
flames and showed like a summer flower-garden against the sky. A
windmill, with one wing intact, stood out, a ghostly phantom, on a rise
overlooking Hulluch.

The road to Maroc was very quiet and almost deserted; the nightly
traffic had not yet begun, and the nightly cannonade was as yet merely
fumbling for an opening. The wrecks of the previous days were still
lying there; long-eared mules immobile in the shafts of shattered
limbers, dead Highlanders with their white legs showing wan in the
moonlight, boys in khaki with their faces pressed tightly against
the cobblestones, broken wagons, discarded stretchers, and derelict
mailbags with their rain-sodden parcels and letters from home.

Many wounded were still lying out in the fields. I could hear them
calling for help and groaning.

“How long had they lain there?” I asked myself. “Two days, probably.
Poor devils!”

I walked along, the water jar knocking against my legs. My heart was
filled with gloom. “What is the meaning of all this?” I queried. “This
wastage, this hell?”

A white face peered up at me from a ditch by the roadside, and a weak
voice whispered, “Matey!”

“What is it, chummy?” I queried, coming close to the wounded man.

“Can you get me in?” he asked. “I’ve been out for—oh! I don’t know how
long,” he moaned.

“Where are you wounded?” I asked.

“I got a dose of shrapnel, matey,” he said. “One bullet caught me in
the heel, another in the shoulder.”

“Has anybody dressed the wounds?” I asked.

“Aye, aye,” he answered. “Somebody did, then went off and left me here.”

“Do you think you could grip me tightly round the shoulders if I put
you on my back?” I said. “I’ll try and carry you in.”

“We’ll give it a trial,” said the man in a glad voice, and I flung the
jar aside and hoisted him on my back.

Already I was worn out with having had no sleep for two nights, and
the man on my back was heavy. For awhile I tried to walk upright, but
gradually my head came nearer the ground.

“I can’t go any further,” I said at last, coming to a bank on the
roadside and resting my burden. “I feel played out. I’ll see if I can
get any help. There’s a party of men working over there. I’ll try and
get a few to assist me.”

The man lay back on the grass and did not answer. Probably he had lost
consciousness.

A Scotch regiment was at work in the field, digging trenches; I
approached an officer, a dark, low set man with a heavy black moustache.

“Could you give me some men to assist me to carry in wounded?” I asked.
“On each side of the road there are dozens——”

“Can’t spare any men,” said the officer. “Haven’t enough for the work
here.”

“Many of your own countrymen are out there,” I said.

“Can’t help it,” said the man. “We all have plenty of work here.”

I glanced at the man’s shoulder and saw that he belonged to “The Lone
Star Crush”; he was a second-lieutenant. Second-lieutenants fight well,
but lack initiative.

A captain was directing work near at hand, and I went up to him.

“I’m a stretcher-bearer,” I said. “The fields round here are crowded
with wounded who have been lying out for ever so long. I should like to
take them into the dressing-station. Could you give me some men to help
me?”

“Do you come from the Highlands?” asked the captain.

“No, I come from Ireland,” I said.

“Oh!” said the officer; then inquired: “How many men do you want?”

“As many as you can spare.”

“Will twenty do?” I was asked.

I went down the road in charge of twenty men, stalwart Highlanders,
massive of shoulder and thew, and set about collecting the wounded.
Two doors, a barrow and a light cart were procured, and we helped the
stricken men on these conveyances. Some men were taken away across the
Highlanders’ shoulders, and some who were not too badly hurt limped in
with one man to help each case. The fellow whom I left lying by the
roadside was placed on a door and borne away.

I approached another officer, a major this time, and twelve men were
handed over to my care; again six men were found and finally eight who
set about their work like Trojans.

My first twenty returned with wheeled and hand stretchers, and scoured
the fields near Loos. By dawn fifty-three wounded soldiers were taken
in by the men whom I got to assist me, and I made my way back to
the trench with a jar full of water. Wild, vague, and fragmentary
thoughts rioted through my mind, and I was conscious of a wonderful
exhilaration. I was so pleased with myself that I could dance along
the road and sing with pure joy. Whether the mood was brought about by
my success in obtaining men or saving wounded I could not determine.
Anyhow, I did not attempt to analyse the mood; I was happy and I was
alive, with warm blood palpitating joyously through my veins.

I found a full pack lying in the road beside a dead mule which lay
between the shafts of a limber. The animal’s ears stuck perkily up like
birds on a fence.

In the pack I found an overcoat, a dozen bars of chocolate, and a piece
of sultana cake.

I crossed the field. The darkness hung heavy as yet, and it was
difficult to pick one’s way. Now I dropped into a shell-hole and
fell flat on my face, and again my feet got entangled in lines of
treacherous trip-wire, and I went headlong.

“Halt!”

I uttered an exclamation of surprise and fear, and stopped short a
few inches from the point of a bayonet. Staring into the darkness I
discerned the man who had ordered me to halt. One knee was on the
ground, and a white hand clutched the rifle barrel. I could hear him
breathing heavily.

“What’s wrong with you, man?” I asked.

“‘Oo are yer?” inquired the sentry.

“A London Irish stretcher-bearer,” I said.

“Why are yer comin’ through our lines?” asked the sentry.

“I’m just going back to the trench,” I said. “I’ve been taking a
wounded man down to Maroc.”

“To where?” asked the man with the bayonet.

“Oh! it seems as if you don’t know this place,” I said. “Are you new to
this part of the world?”

The man made no answer, he merely shoved his bayonet nearer my breast
and whistled softly. As if in reply to this signal, two forms took
shape in the darkness and approached the sentry.

“What’s wrong?” asked one of the newcomers.

“This ‘ere bloke comes up just now,” said the sentry, pointing the
bayonet at my face. “‘E began to ask me questions and I ‘ad my
suspicions, so I whistled.”

“That’s right,” said one of the newcomers, rubbing a thoughtful hand
over the bayonet which he carried; then he turned to me. “Come along
wiv us,” he said, and, escorted by the two soldiers, I made my way
across the field towards a ruined building which was raked at intervals
by the German artillery. The field, was peopled with soldiers lying
flat on waterproof sheets, and many of the men were asleep. None had
been there in the early part of the night.

An officer, an elderly man with a white moustache, sat under the shade
of the building holding an electric lamp in one hand and writing in a
notebook with the other. We came to a halt opposite him.

“What have you here?” he asked, looking at one of my captors.

“We found this man inquiring what regiment was here and if it had just
come,” said the soldier on my right who, by the stripes on his sleeve,
I perceived was a corporal. “He aroused our suspicions and we took him
prisoner.”

“What is your name?” asked the officer, turning to me.

I told him. As I spoke a German shell whizzed over our heads and burst
about three hundred yards to rear. The escort and the officer went flop
to earth and lay there for the space of a second.

“You don’t need to duck,” I said. “That shell burst half a mile away.”

“Is that so?” asked the officer, getting to his feet. “I thought
it——Oh! what’s your name?”

I told him my name the second time.

“That’s your real name?” he queried.

I assured him that it was, but my assurance was lost, for a second
shell rioted overhead, and the escort and officer went again flop to
the cold ground.

“That shell has gone further than the last,” I said to the prostrate
figures. “The Germans are shelling the road on the right; it’s a
pastime of theirs.”

“Is that so?” asked the officer, getting to his feet again. Then,
hurriedly, “What’s your regiment?”

Before I had time to reply, three more prisoners were taken in under
escort; I recognised Pryor as one of them. He carried a jar of water in
his hand.

“Who are these?” asked the officer.

“They came up to the sentry and asked questions about the regiment,”
said the fresh escort. “The sentry’s suspicions were aroused and he
signalled to us, and we came forward and arrested these three persons.”

The officer looked at the prisoners.

“What are your names, your regiments?” he asked. “Answer quickly. I’ve
no time to waste.”

“May I answer, sir?” I asked.

“What have you to say?” inquired the officer.

“Hundreds of men cross this field nightly,” I said. “Working-parties,
ration-fatigues, stretcher-bearers and innumerable others cross here.
They’re going up and down all night. By the way you duck when a shell
passes high above you, I judge that you have just come out here. If
you spend your time taking prisoners all who break through your line”
(two fresh prisoners were brought in as I spoke) “you’ll be busy asking
English soldiers questions till dawn. I hope I don’t offend you in
telling you this.”

The officer was deep in thought for a moment; then he said to me,
“Thanks very much, you can return to your battalion.” I walked away. As
I went off I heard the officer speak to the escorts.

“You’d better release these men,” he said. “I find this field is a sort
of public thoroughfare.”

A brigade was camped in the field, I discovered. The next regiment I
encountered took me prisoner also; but a few shells dropped near at
hand and took up the attention of my captor for a moment. This was an
opportunity not to be missed; I simply walked away from bondage and
sought the refuge of my own trench.

“Thank goodness,” I said, as I slid over the parapet. “I’ll have a few
hours’ sleep now.”

But there was no rest for me. A few of our men, weary of the monotony
of the dug-out, had crept up to the German trench, where they amused
themselves by flinging bombs on the enemy. As if they had not had
enough fighting!

On my return they were coming back in certain stages of demolition. One
with a bullet in his foot, another with a shell-splinter in his cheek,
and a third without a thumb.

These had to be dressed and taken into Maroc before dawn.

A stretcher-bearer at the front has little of the excitement of war,
and weary hours of dull work come his way when the excitement is over.