MICHAELMAS EVE

It’s “Carry on!” and “Carry on!” and “Carry on!” all day,
And when we cannot carry on, they’ll carry us away
To slumber sound beneath the ground, pore beggars dead and gone,
‘Till Gabriel shouts on Judgment Day, “Get out and carry on!”

ON Michaelmas Eve things were quiet; the big guns were silent, and
the only sign of war was in the star-shells playing near Hill 70; the
rifles pinging up by Bois Hugo, and occasional clouds of shrapnel
incense which the guns offered to the god they could not break, the
Tower Bridge of Loos. We had not been relieved yet, but we hoped to
get back to Les Brebis for a rest shortly. The hour was midnight, and
I felt very sleepy. The wounded in our sector had been taken in, the
peace of the desert was over the level land and its burden of unburied
dead. I put on my overcoat, one that I had just found in a pack on the
roadway, and went into a barn which stood near our trench. The door
of the building hung on one hinge. I pulled it off, placed it on the
floor, and lay on it. With due caution I lit a cigarette, and the smoke
reeked whitely upwards to the skeleton roof which the shell fire had
stripped of nearly all its tiles.

My body was full of delightful pains of weariness, my mind was full
of contentment. The moon struggled through a rift in the clouds and a
shower of pale light streamed through the chequered framework overhead.
The tiles which had weathered a leaden storm showed dark against the
sky, queer shadows played on the floor, and in the subdued moonlight,
strange, unexpected contrasts were evoked. In the corners, where the
shadows took on definite forms, there was room for the imagination to
revel in. The night of ruination with its soft moonlight and delicate
shading had a wonderful fascination of its own. The enemy machine gun,
fumbling for an opening, chirruped a lullaby as its bullets pattered
against the wall. I was under the spell of an enchanting poem. “How
good, how very good it is to be alive,” I said.

My last remembrance before dozing off was of the clatter of picks and
shovels on the road outside. The sanitary squad was at work burying the
dead. I fell asleep.

I awoke to find somebody tugging at my elbow and to hear a voice which
I recognised as W.’s, saying, “It’s only old Pat.”

“What’s wrong?” I mumbled, raising myself on my elbow and looking
round. The sanitary diggers were looking at me, behind them the Twin
Towers stood out dark against the moonlight. Girders, ties and beams
seemed to have been outlined with a pen dipped in molten silver. I was
out in the open.

“This isn’t half a go,” said one of the men, a mate of mine, who
belonged to the sanitary squad. “We thought you were a dead ‘un. We
dug a deep grave, put two in and there was room for another. Then L.
said that there was a bloke lying on a door inside that house, and in
we goes and carries you out—door and all. You’re just on the brink of
your grave now.”

I peeped over the side and down a dark hole with a bundle of khaki and
a white face at the bottom.

“I refuse to be buried,” I muttered, and took up my bed and walked.

As I lay down again in the building which I had left to be buried, I
could hear my friends laughing. It was a delightful joke. In a moment I
was sound asleep.

I awoke with a start to a hell-riot of creaking timbers and tiles
falling all around me. I got to my feet and crouched against the wall
shuddering, almost paralyzed with fear. A tense second dragged by. The
tiles ceased to fall and I looked up at the place where the roof had
been. But the roof was gone; a shell had struck the centre beam, raised
the whole construction as a lid is raised from a teapot, and flung it
over into the street…. I rushed out into the trench in undignified
haste, glad of my miraculous escape from death, and stumbled across
Bill Teake as I fell into the trench.

“Wot’s wrong with yer, mate?” he asked.

I drew in a deep breath and was silent for a moment. I was trying to
regain my composure.

“Bill,” I replied, “this is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
I’ve led such an exemplary life that St. Michael and All Angels in
Paradise want me to visit them. They caused the sanitary squad to dig
my grave to-night, and when I refused to be buried they sent a shell
along to strafe me. I escaped. I refuse to be virtuous from now until
the end of my days.”

“‘Ave a drop of rum, Pat,” said Bill, uncorking a bottle.

“Thank you, Bill,” I said, and drank. I wiped my lips.

“Are we going to be relieved?” I asked.

“In no time,” said Bill. “The 22nd London are coming along the trench
now. We’re going back to Les Brebis.”

“Good,” I said.

“‘Ave another drop of rum,” said Bill.

He left me then and I began to make up my pack. It was useless for me
to wait any longer. I would go across the fields to Les Brebis.

The night grew very dark, and heavy clouds gathered overhead. The
nocturnal rustling of the field surrounded me, the dead men lay
everywhere and anyhow, some head-downwards in shell-holes, others
sitting upright as they were caught by a fatal bullet when dressing
their wounds. Many were spread out at full length, their legs close
together, their arms extended, crucifixes fashioned from decaying flesh
wrapped in khaki. Nature, vast and terrible, stretched out on all
sides; a red star-shell in the misty heavens looked like a lurid wound
dripping with blood.

I walked slowly, my eyes fixed steadily on the field ahead, for I did
not desire to trip over the dead, who lay everywhere. As I walked a
shell whistled over my head and burst against the Twin Towers, and my
gaze rested on the explosion. At that moment I tripped on something
soft and went headlong across it. A dozen rats slunk away into the
darkness as I fell. I got to my feet again and looked at the dead man.
The corpse was a mere condensation of shadows with a blurred though
definite outline. It was a remainder and a reminder; a remnant of
clashing steel, of rushing figures, of loud-voiced imprecations—of
war, a reminder of mad passion, of organised hatred, of victory and
defeat.

Engirt with the solitude and loneliness of the night it wasted
away, though no waste could alter it now; it was a man who was not;
henceforth it would be that and that alone.

For the thing there was not the quietude of death and the privacy
of the tomb, it was outcast from its kind. Buffeted by the breeze,
battered by the rains it rotted in the open. Worms feasted on its
entrails, slugs trailed silverly over its face, and lean rats gnawed
at its flesh. The air was full of the thing, the night stank with its
decay.

Life revolted at that from which life was gone, the quick cast it away
for it was not of them. The corpse was one with the mystery of the
night, the darkness and the void.

In Loos the ruined houses looked gloomy by day, by night they were
ghastly. A house is a ruin when the family that dwelt within its walls
is gone; but by midnight in the waste, how horrible looks the house of
flesh from which the soul is gone. We are vaguely aware of what has
happened when we look upon the tenantless home, but man is stricken
dumb when he sees the tenantless body of one of his kind. I could only
stare at the corpse until I felt that my eyes were as glassy as those
on which I gazed. The stiffness of the dead was communicated to my
being, the silence was infectious; I hardly dared to breathe.

“This is the end of all the mad scurry and rush,” I said. “What purpose
does it serve? And why do I stand here looking at the thing?” There
were thousands of dead around Loos; fifty thousand perhaps, scattered
over a few square miles of country, unburied. Some men, even, might
still be dying.

A black speck moved along the earth a few yards away from me, slunk up
to the corpse and disappeared into it, as it were. Then another speck
followed, and another. The rats were returning to their meal.

The bullets whistled past my ears. The Germans had a machine gun and
several fixed rifles trained on the Vallé Cross-roads outside Loos, and
all night long these messengers of death sped out to meet the soldiers
coming up the road and chase the soldiers going down.

The sight of the dead man and the rats had shaken me; I felt nervous
and could not restrain myself from looking back over my shoulder
at intervals. I had a feeling that something was following me, a
Presence, vague and terrible, a spectre of the midnight and the field
of death.

I am superstitious after a fashion, and I fear the solitude of the
night and the silent obscurity of the darkness.

Once, at Vermelles, I passed through a deserted trench in the dusk.
There the parapet and parados were fringed with graves, and decrepit
dug-outs leant wearily on their props like hags on crutches. A number
of the dug-outs had fallen in, probably on top of the sleeping
occupants, and no one had time to dig the victims out. Such things
often happen in the trenches, and in wet weather when the sodden
dug-outs cave in, many men are buried alive.

The trench wound wayward as a river through the fields, its traverse
steeped in shadow, its bays full of mystery. As I walked through
the maze my mind was full of presentiments of evil. I was full of
expectation, everything seemed to be leading up to happenings weird
and uncanny, things which would not be of this world. The trench was
peopled with spectres; soldiers, fully armed, stood on the fire-steps,
their faces towards the enemy. I could see them as I entered a bay, but
on coming closer the phantoms died away. The boys in khaki were tilted
sandbags heaped on the banquette, the bayonets splinters of wood
sharply defined against the sky. As if to heighten the illusion, torn
ground-sheets, hanging from the parados, made sounds like travelling
shells, as the breezes caught them and brushed them against the wall.

I went into a bay to see something dark grey and shapeless bulked in
a heap on the fire-step. Another heap of sandbags I thought. But no!
In the darkness of the weird locality realities were exaggerated and
the heap which I thought was a large one was in reality very small;
a mere soldier, dead in the trench, looked enormous in my eyes. The
man’s bayonet was pressed between his elbow and side, his head bending
forward almost touched the knees, and both the man’s hands were clasped
across it as if for protection. A splinter of shell which he stooped
to avoid must have caught him. He now was the sole occupant of the
deserted trench, this poor, frozen effigy of fear. The trench was a
grave unfilled…. I scrambled over the top and took my way across the
open towards my company.

Once, at midnight, I came through the deserted village of Bully-Grenay,
where every house was built exactly like its neighbour. War has played
havoc with the pattern, however, most of the houses are shell-stricken,
and some are levelled to the ground. The church stands on a little
knoll near the coal-mine, and a shell has dug a big hole in the floor
of the aisle. A statue of the Blessed Virgin sticks head downwards in
the hole; how it got into this ludicrous position is a mystery.

The Germans were shelling the village as I came through. Shrapnel swept
the streets and high explosives played havoc with the mine; I had no
love for a place in such a plight. In front of me a limber was smashed
to pieces, the driver was dead, the offside wheeler dead, the nearside
wheeler dying and kicking its mate in the belly with vicious hooves. On
either side of me were deserted houses with the doors open and shadows
brooding in the interior. The cellars would afford secure shelter
until the row was over, but I feared the darkness and the gloom more
than I feared the shells in the open street. When the splinters swept
perilously near to my head I made instinctively for an open door, but
the shadows seemed to thrust me back with a powerful hand. To save my
life I would not go into a house and seek refuge in the cellars.

I fear the solitude of the night, but I can never ascertain what it is
I fear in it. I am not particularly interested in the supernatural, and
spiritualism and table-rapping is not at all to my taste. In a crowded
room a spirit in my way of thinking loses its dignity and power to
impress, and at times I am compelled to laugh at those who believe in
manifestations of disembodied spirits.

Once, at Givenchy, a soldier in all seriousness spoke of a strange
sight which he had seen. Givenchy Church has only one wall standing,
and a large black crucifix with its nailed Christ is fixed to this
wall. From the trenches on a moonlight night it is possible to see the
symbol of sorrow with its white figure which seems to keep eternal
watch over the line of battle. The soldier of whom I speak was on
guard; the night was very clear, and the enemy were shelling Givenchy
Church. A splinter of shell knocked part of the arm of the cross away.
The soldier on watch vowed that he saw a luminous halo settle round
the figure on the Cross. It detached itself from its nails, came down
to the ground, and put the fallen wood back to its place. Then the
Crucified resumed His exposed position again on the Cross. It was
natural that the listeners should say that the sentry was drunk.

It is strange how the altar of Givenchy Church and its symbol of
Supreme Agony has escaped destruction. Many crosses in wayside shrines
have been untouched though the locality in which they stand is swept
with eternal artillery fire.

But many have fallen; when they become one with the rubble of a
roadway their loss is unnoticed. It is when they escape destruction
that they become conspicuous. They are like the faithful in a storm
at sea who prayed to the Maria del Stella and weathered the gale.
Their good fortune became common gossip. But gossip, historical and
otherwise, is mute upon those who perished.