THE RATION PARTY

“In the Army you are certain to receive what you get.”—TRENCH PROVERB.

A RIFLEMAN lay snoring in the soft slush on the floor of the trench,
his arms doubled under him, his legs curved up so that the knees
reached the man’s jaw. As I touched him he shuffled a little, turned
on his side, seeking a more comfortable position in the mud, and fell
asleep again. A light glowed in the dug-out and someone in there was
singing in a low voice a melancholy ragtime song. No doubt a fire was
now lit in the corner near the wall, my sleeping place, and Bill Teake
was there preparing a mess-tin of tea.

The hour was twilight, the hour of early stars and early star-shells,
of dreams and fancies and longings for home. It is then that all
objects take on strange shapes, when every jutting traverse becomes
alive with queer forms, the stiff sandbag becomes a gnome, the old
dug-out, leaning wearily on its props, an ancient crone, spirits lurk
in every nook and corner of shadows; the sleep-heavy eyes of weary men
see strange visions in the dark alleys of war. I entered the dug-out.
A little candle in a winding sheet flared dimly in a niche which I had
cut in the wall a few days previous. Pryor was sitting on the floor,
his hands clasped round his knees, and he was looking into infinite
distances. Bill Teake was there, smoking a cigarette and humming his
ragtime tune. Two other soldiers were there, lying on the floor and
probably asleep. One was covered with a blanket, but his face was bare,
a sallow face with a blue, pinched nose, a weak, hairy jaw, and an
open mouth that gaped at the rafters. The other man lay at his feet,
breathing heavily. No fire was lit as yet.

“No rations have arrived?” I asked.

“No blurry rations,” said Bill. “Never no rations now, nothink now at
all. I ‘ad a loaf yesterday and I left it in my pack in the trench, and
when I come to look for’t, it was gone.”

“Who took it?” I asked.

“Ask me another!” said Bill with crushing irony. “‘Oo ate the first
bloater? Wot was the size of my great grandmuvver’s boots when she was
twenty-one? But ‘oo pinched my loaf? and men in this crush that would
pinch a dead mouse from a blind kitten! Yer do ask some questions, Pat!”

“Bill and I were having a discussion a moment ago,” said Pryor,
interrupting. “Bill maintains that the Army is not an honourable
institution, and that no man should join it. If he knew as much as he
knows now he would never have come into it. I was saying that——”

“Oh, you were talkin’ through yer ‘at, that’s wot you were,” said Bill.
“The harmy a place of honour indeed! ‘Oo wants to join it now? Nobody
as far as I can see. The married men say to the single men, ‘You go
and fight, you slackers! We’ll stay at ‘ome; we ‘ave our old women to
keep!’ Sayin’ that, the swine!” said Bill angrily. “Them thinkin’ that
the single men ‘ave nothin’ to do but to go out and fight for other
men’s wives. Blimey! that ain’t ‘arf cheek!”

“That doesn’t alter the fact that our cause is just,” said Pryor. “The
Lord God of Hosts is with us yet, and the Church says that all men
should fight—except clergymen.”

“And why shouldn’t them parsons fight?” asked Bill. “They say, ‘Go
and God bless you’ to us, and then they won’t fight themselves. It’s
against the laws of God, they say. If we ‘ad all the clergymen, all the
M.P.’s, the Kaiser and Crown Prince, Krupp and von Kluck, and all these
‘ere blokes wot tell us to fight, in these ‘ere trenches for a week,
the war would come to an end very sudden.”

Pryor rose and tried to light a fire. Wood was very scarce, the paper
was wet and refused to burn.

“No fire to-night,” said Bill in a despondent voice. “Two pieces of
wood on a brazier is no go; they look like two crossbones on a ‘earse.”

“Are rations coming up to-night?” I asked. The ration wagons had been
blown to pieces on the road the night before and we were very hungry
now.

“I suppose our grub will get lost this night again,” said Bill. “It’s
always the way. I wish I was shot like that bloke there.”

“Where?” I asked.

“There,” answered Bill, pointing at the man with the blue and pinched
face who lay in the corner. “‘E’s gone West.”

“No,” I said. “He’s asleep!”

“‘E’ll not get up at revelly, ‘im,” said Bill. “‘E’s out of the doin’s
for good. ‘E got wounded at the door and we took ‘im in. ‘E died.” …

I approached the prostrate figure, examined him, and found that Bill
spoke the truth.

“A party has gone down to Maroc for rations,” said Pryor, lighting a
cigarette and puffing the smoke up towards the roof. “They’ll be back
by eleven, I hope. That’s if they’re not blown to pieces. A lot of men
got hit going down last night, and then there was no grub when they got
to the dumping ground.”

“This man,” I said, pointing to the snoring figure on the ground. “He
is all right?”

“Dead beat only,” said Pryor; “but otherwise safe. I am going to have a
kip now if I can.”

So saying he bunched up against the wall, leant his elbow on the
brazier that refused to burn, and in a few seconds he was fast asleep.
Bill and I lay down together, keeping as far away as we could from the
dead man, and did our best to snatch a few minutes’ repose.

We nestled close to the muddy floor across which the shadows of the
beams and sandbags crept in ghostly play. Now the shadows bunched into
heaps, again they broke free, lacing and interlacing as the lonely
candle flared from its niche in the wall.

The air light and rustling was full of the scent of wood smoke from
a fire ablaze round the traverse, of the smell of mice, and the soft
sounds and noises of little creeping things.

Shells travelling high in air passed over our dug-out; the Germans were
shelling the Loos Road and the wagons that were coming along there.
Probably that one just gone over had hit the ration wagon. The light
of the candle failed and died: the night full of depth and whispering
warmth swept into the dug-out, cloaked the sleeping and the dead, and
settled, black and ghostly, in the corners. I feel asleep.

Bill tugging at my tunic awoke me from a horrible nightmare. In my
sleep I had gone with the dead man from the hut out into the open. He
walked with me, the dead man, who knew that he was dead. I tried to
prove to him that it was not quite the right and proper thing to do, to
walk when life had left the body. But he paid not a sign of heed to my
declamation. In the open space between our line and that of the Germans
the dead man halted and told me to dig a grave for him there. A shovel
came into my hand by some strange means and I set to work with haste;
if the Germans saw me there they would start to shell me. The sooner I
got the job done the better.

“Deep?” I asked the man when I had laboured for a space. There was no
answer. I looked up at the place where he stood to find the man gone.
On the ground was a short white stump of bone. This I was burying when
Bill shook me.

“Rations ‘ave come, Pat,” he said.

“What’s the time now?” I asked, getting to my feet and looking round.
A fresh candle had been lit; the dead man still lay in the corner, but
Pryor was asleep in the blanket.

“About midnight,” said my mate, “or maybe a bit past. Yer didn’t ‘arf
‘ave a kip.”

“I was dreaming,” I said. “Thought I was burying a man between the
German lines.”

“You’ll soon be burying a man or two,” said Bill.

“Who are to be buried?” I asked.

“The ration party.”

“What!”

“The men copped it comin’ up ‘ere,” said Bill. “Three of ’em were wiped
out complete. The others escaped. I went out with Murney and O’Meara
and collared the grub. I’m just goin’ to light a fire now.”

“I’ll help you,” I said, and began to cut a fresh supply of wood which
had come from nowhere in particular with my clasp-knife.

A fire was soon burning merrily, a mess-tin of water was singing, and
Bill had a few slices of bacon on the mess-tin lid ready to go on the
brazier when the tea came off.

“This is wot I call comfy,” he said. “Gawd, I’m not arf ‘ungry. I could
eat an ‘oss.”

I took off the tea, Bill put the lid over the flames and in a moment
the bacon was sizzling.

“Where’s the bread, Bill?” I asked.

“In that there sandbag,” said my mate, pointing to a bag beside the
door.

I opened the bag and brought out the loaf. It felt very moist. I
looked at it and saw that it was coloured dark red.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Wot?” queried Bill, kicking Pryor to waken him.

“This bread has a queer colour,” I said. “See it, Pryor.”

Pryor gazed at it with sleep-heavy eyes.

“It’s red,” he muttered.

“Its colour is red,” I said.

“Red,” said Bill. “Well, we’re damned ‘ungry any’ow. I’d eat it if it
was covered with rat poison.”

“How did it happen?” I asked.

“Well, it’s like this,” said Bill. “The bloke as was carryin’ it got
‘it in the chest. The rations fell all round ‘im and ‘e fell on top of
’em. That’s why the loaf is red.”

We were very hungry, and hungry men are not fastidious.

We made a good meal.

When we had eaten we went out and buried the dead.