FOR BLIGHTY

“The villa dwellers have become cave-dwellers.”—DUDLEY PRYOR.

THE night was intensely dark, and from the door of the dug-out I could
scarcely see the outline of the sentry who stood on the banquette
fifteen yards away. Standing on tiptoe I could glance over the parapet,
and when a star-shell went up I could trace the outline of a ruined
mill that stood up, gaunt and forbidding, two hundred yards away from
our front line trench. On the left a line of shrapnel-swept trees stood
in air, leafless and motionless. Now and again a sniper’s bullet hit
the sandbags with a crack like a whip.

Lifeless bodies still lay in the trench; the blood of the wounded whom
I had helped to carry down to the dressing-station was still moist on
my tunic and trousers. In a stretch of eight hundred yards there was
only one dug-out, a shaky construction, cramped and leaky, that might
fall in at any moment.

“Would it be wise to light a fire?” asked Dilly, my mate, who was lying
on the earthen floor of the dug-out. “I want a drop of tea. I didn’t
have a sup of tea all day.”

“The officers won’t allow us to light a fire,” I said. “But if we hang
a ground-sheet over the door the light won’t get through. Is there a
brazier?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s one here,” said Dilly. “I was just going to use it for a
pillow, I feel so sleepy.”

He placed a ground-sheet over the door while speaking and I took a
candle from my pocket, lit it and placed it in a little niche in the
wall. Then we split some wood with a clasp-knife, placed it on a
brazier and lit a fire over which we placed a mess-tin of water.

The candle flickered fitfully, and dark shadows lurked in the corners
of the dug-out. A mouse peeped down from between the sandbags on the
roof, its bright little eyes glowing with mischief. The ground-sheet
hanging over the door was caught by a breeze and strange ripples played
across it. We could hear from outside the snap of rifle bullets on the
parapet….

“It’s very quiet in here,” said Dilly. “And I feel so like sleep. I
hope none get hit to-night. I don’t think I’d be able to help with
a stretcher down to the dressing-station until I have a few hours’
sleep…. How many wounded did we carry out to-day? Nine?”

“Nine or ten,” I said.

“Sharney was badly hit,” Dilly said. “I don’t think he’ll pull through.”

“It’s hard to say,” I remarked, fanning the fire with a newspaper.
“Felan, the cook, who was wounded in the charge a month ago, got a
bullet in his shoulder. It came out through his back. I dressed his
wound. It was ghastly. The bullet pierced his lung, and every time he
breathed some of the air from the lung came out through his back. I
prophesied that he would live for four or five hours. I had a letter
from him the other day. He’s in a London hospital and is able to walk
about again. He was reported dead, too, in the casualty list.”

“Some people pluck up wonderfully,” said Dilly. “Is the tea ready?”

“It’s ready,” I said.

We sat down together, rubbing our eyes, for the smoke got into them,
and opened a tin of bully beef. The beef with a few biscuits and a
mess-tin of warm tea formed an excellent repast. When we had finished
eating we lit our cigarettes.

“Have you got any iodine?” Dilly suddenly inquired.

“None,” I answered. “Have you?”

“I got my pocket hit by a bullet coming up here,” Dilly answered. “My
bottle got smashed.”

Iodine is so necessary when dressing wounds. Somebody might get hit
during the night….

“I’ll go to the dressing-station and get some,” I said to Dilly. “You
can have a sleep.”

I put my coat on and went out, clambered up the rain-sodden parados
and got out into the open where a shell-hole yawned at every step, and
where the dead lay unburied. A thin mist lay low, and solitary trees
stood up from a sea of milk, aloof, immobile. The sharp, penetrating
stench of wasting flesh filled the air.

I suddenly came across two lone figures digging a hole in the ground.
I stood still for a moment and watched them. One worked with a pick,
the other with a shovel, and both men panted as they toiled. When a
star-shell went up they threw themselves flat to earth and rose to
resume their labours as the light died away.

Three stiff and rigid bundles wrapped in khaki lay on the ground near
the diggers, and, having dug the hole deep and wide, the diggers turned
to the bundles; tied a string round each in turn, pulled them forward
and shoved them into the hole. Thus were three soldiers buried.

I stopped for a moment beside the grave.

“Hard at work, boys?” I said.

“Getting a few of them under,” said one of the diggers. “By God, it
makes one sweat, this work. Have you seen a dog about at all?” was the
man’s sudden inquiry.

“No,” I answered. “I’ve heard about that dog. Is he not supposed to be
a German in disguise?”

“He’s old Nick in disguise,” said the digger. “He feeds on the dead,
the dirty swine. I don’t like it all. Look! there’s the dog again.”

Something long, black and ghostly took shape in the mist ten yards away
and stood there for a moment as if inspecting us. A strange thrill ran
through my body.

“That’s it again,” said the nearest digger. “I’ve seen it three times
to-night; once at dusk down by Loos graveyard among the tombstones,
again eating a dead body, and now—some say it’s a ghost.”

I glanced at the man, then back again at the spot where the dog had
been. But now the animal was gone.

An air of loneliness pervaded the whole place, the sounds of soft
rustling swept along the ground: I could hear a twig snap, a man cough,
and in the midst of all the little noises which merely accentuated the
silence, it suddenly rose long-drawn and eerie, the howl of a lonely
dog.

“The dirty swine,” said the digger. “I wish somebody shot it.”

“No one could shoot the animal,” said the other worker. “It’s not a
dog; it’s the devil himself.”

My way took me past Loos church and churchyard; the former almost
levelled to the ground, the latter delved by shells and the bones of
the dead villagers flung broadcast to the winds of heaven. I looked at
the graveyard and the white headstones. Here I saw the dog again. The
silver light of a star-shell shot aslant a crumpled wall and enabled me
to see a long black figure, noiseless as the shadow of a cloud, slink
past the little stone crosses and disappear. Again a howl, lonely and
weird, thrilled through the air.

I walked down the main street of Loos where dead mules lay silent
between the shafts of their limbers. It was here that I saw Gilhooley
die, Gilhooley the master bomber, Gilhooley the Irishman.

“Those damned snipers are in thim houses up the street,” he said,
fingering a bomb lovingly. “But, by Jasus, we’ll get them out of it.”
Then he was shot. This happened a month ago.

In the darkness the ruined houses assumed fantastic shapes, the
fragment of a standing wall became a gargoyle, a demon, a monstrous
animal. A hunchback leered down at me from a roof as I passed, his hump
in air, his head thrust forward on knees that rose to his face. Further
along a block of masonry became a gigantic woman who was stepping
across the summit of a mountain, her shawl drawn over her head and a
pitcher on her shoulder.

In the midst of the ruin and desolation of the night of morbid fancies,
in the centre of a square lined with unpeopled houses, I came across
the Image of Supreme Pain, the Agony of the Cross. What suffering has
Loos known? What torture, what sorrow, what agony? The crucifix was
well in keeping with this scene of desolation.

Old Mac of the R.A.M.C. was sitting on a blanket on the floor of the
dressing-station when I entered. Mac is a fine singer and a hearty
fellow; he is a great friend of mine.

“What do you want now?” he asked.

“A drop of rum, if you have any to spare,” I answered.

“You’re a devil for your booze,” Mac said, taking the cork out of a
water bottle which he often uses for an illegitimate purpose. “There’s
a wee drappie goin’, man.”

I drank.

“Not bad, a wee drappie,” said Mac. “Ay, mon! it’s health tae the
navel and marrow to the bones.”

“Are all the others in bed?” I asked. Several hands work at the
dressing-station, but Mac was the only one there now.

“They’re having a wee bit kip down in the cellar,” said Mac. “I’ll get
down there if you clear out.”

“Give me some iodine, and I’ll go,” I said.

He filled a bottle, handed it to me, and I went out again to the
street. A slight artillery row was in progress now, our gunners were
shelling the enemy’s trenches and the enemy were at work battering in
our parapets.

A few high explosives were bursting at the Twin Towers of Loos and
light splinters were singing through the air. Bullets were whizzing
down the street and snapping at the houses. I lit a cigarette and
smoked, concealing the glowing end under my curved fingers.

Something suddenly seemed to sting my wrist and a sharp pain shot up my
arm. I raised my hand and saw a dark liquid dripping down my palm on to
my fingers.

“I wonder if this will get me back to England,” I muttered, and turned
back to the dressing-station.

Mac had not gone down to the cellar; the water bottle was still
uncorked.

“Back again?” he inquired.

“It looks like it,” I replied.

“You’re bleeding, Pat,” he exclaimed, seeing the blood on my hand.
“Strafed, you bounder, you’re strafed.”

He examined my wound and dressed it.

“Lucky dog,” he said, handing me the water bottle. “You’re for blighty,
man, for blighty. I wish to God I was! Is it raining now?” he asked.

“It is just starting to come down,” I said. “How am I to get out of
this?” I inquired.

“There’ll be an ambulance up here in a wee,” Mac said, then he laughed.
“Suppose it gets blown to blazes,” he said.

“It’s a quiet night,” I remarked, but I was seized with a certain
nervousness. “God! it would be awkward if I really got strafed now, on
the way home.”

“It often happens, man,” said Mac, “and we are going to open all our
guns on the enemy at two o’clock. They’re mobilizing for an attack,
it’s said.”

“At two o’clock,” I repeated. “It’s a quarter to two now. And it’s very
quiet.”

“It’ll not be quiet in a minute,” said my friend.

I had a vivid impression. In my mind I saw the Germans coming up to
their trench through the darkness, the rain splashing on their rifles
and equipment, their forms bent under the weight which they carried.
No doubt they had little bundles of firewood with them to cook their
breakfasts at dawn. They were now thanking God that the night was
quiet, that they could get into the comparative shelter of the trenches
in safety. Long lines of men in grey, keeping close to the shelter of
spinneys sunk in shadow; transport wagons rumbling and jolting, drivers
unloading at the “dumps,” ration parties crossing the open with burdens
of eatables; men thinking of home and those they loved as they sat in
their leaky dug-outs, scrawling letters by the light of their guttering
candles. This was the life that went on in and behind the German lines
in the darkness and rain.

Presently hell would burst open and a million guns would bellow of
hatred and terror. I supposed the dead on the fields would be torn
and ripped anew, and the shuddering quick out on the open where no
discretion could preserve them and no understanding keep them, would
plod nervously onward, fear in their souls and terror in their faces.

Our own men in the trenches would hear the guns and swear at the
gunners. The enemy would reply by shelling the trench in which our boys
were placed. The infantry always suffers when Mars riots. All our guns
would open fire…. It would be interesting to hear them speak…. I
would remain here while the cannonade was on…. It would be safer and
wiser to go than stay, but I would stay.

“Is there another ambulance besides the one due in a minute or two
coming up before dawn, Mac?” I asked.

“Another at four o’clock,” Mac announced sleepily. He lay on the floor
wrapped in his blanket and was just dozing off.

“I’m finished with war for a few weeks at least,” I muttered. “I’m
pleased. I hope I get to England. Another casualty from Loos. The dead
are lying all round here; civilians and soldiers. A dead child lying in
a trench near Hulluch. I suppose somebody has buried it. I wonder how
it got there…. The line of wounded stretches from Lens to Victoria
Station on this side, and from Lens to Berlin on the other side….
How many thousand dead are there in the fields round there?… There
will be many more, for the battle of Loos is still proceeding…. Who
is going to benefit by the carnage, save the rats which feed now as
they have never fed before?… What has brought about this turmoil,
this tragedy that cuts the heart of friend and foe alike?… Why have
millions of men come here from all corners of Europe to hack and slay
one another? What mysterious impulse guided them to this maiming,
murdering, gouging, gassing, and filled them with such hatred? Why
do we use the years of peace in preparation for war? Why do men well
over the military age hate the Germans more than the younger and more
sober souls in the trenches? Who has profited by this carnage? Who will
profit? Why have some men joined in the war for freedom?”

Suddenly I was overcome with a fit of laughter, and old Mac woke up.

“What the devil are you kicking up such a row for?” he grumbled.

“Do you remember B——, the fellow whose wound you dressed one night a
week ago? Bald as a trout, double chin and a shrapnel wound in his leg.
He belonged to the —— Regiment.”

“I remember him,” said Mac.

“I knew him in civil life,” I said. “He kept a house of some repute
in ——. The sons of the rich came there secretly at night; the poor
couldn’t afford to. Do you believe that B—— joined the Army in order
to redress the wrongs of violated Belgium?”

Mac sat up on the floor, his Balaclava helmet pulled down over his
ears, and winked at me.

“Ye’re drunk, ye bounder, ye’re drunk,” he said. “Just like all the
rest, mon. We’ll have no teetotallers after the war.”

He lay down again.

“I know a man who was out here for nine months and he never tasted
drink,” I said.

Mac sat up again, an incredulous look on his face.

“Who was he?” he asked.

“The corporal of our section,” I replied.

“Well, that’s the first I’ve heard o’,” said Mac. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Got killed in the charge,” I answered. “I saw him coming back wounded,
crawling along with his head to the ground like a dog scenting the
trail.”

Sleep was heavy in my eyes and queer thoughts ran riot in my head.
“What is to be the end of this destruction and decay? That is what
it means, this war. Destruction, decay, degradation. We who are here
know its degradation; we, the villa dwellers, who have become cave
dwellers and make battle with club and knobkerry; the world knows of
the destruction and decay of war. Man will recognise its futility
before he recognises its immorality…. Lines of men marching up long,
poplar-lined roads to-day; to-morrow the world grows sick with their
decay…. They are now one with Him…. Yes, there He is, hanging on
the barbed wires. I shall go and speak to Him….”

The dawn blushed in the east and grew redder and redder like a curtain
of blood—and from Souchez to Ypres the poppy fields were of the
same red colour, a plain of blood. For miles and miles the barbed
wire entanglements wound circuitously through the levels, brilliant
with star-clusters of dew-drops hung from spike, barb and intricate
traceries of gossamer. Out in front of my bay gleamed the Pleiades
which had dropped from heaven during the night and clustered round a
dark grey bulk of clothing by one of the entanglement props. I knew the
dark grey bulk, it was He; for days and nights He had hung there, a
huddled heap; the Futility of War.

I was with Him in a moment endeavouring to help Him. In the dawn He was
not repulsive, He was almost beautiful, but His beauty was that of the
mirage which allures to a more sure destruction. The dew-drops were
bright on His beard, His hair and His raiment; but His head sank low
upon the wires and I could not see His face.

A dew-drop disappeared from the man’s beard as I watched and then
another. Round me the glory of the wires faded; the sun, coming out
warm and strong, dispelled the illusion of the dawn; the galaxy faded,
leaving but the rugged props, the ghastly wires and the rusty barbs
nakedly showing in the poppy field.

I saw now that He was repulsive, abject, pitiful lying there, His face
close to the wires, a thousand bullets in his head. Unable to resist
the impulse I endeavoured to turn His face upward, but was unable; a
barb had pierced His eye and stuck there, rusting in the socket from
which sight was gone. I turned and ran away from the thing into the bay
of the trench. The glory of the dawn had vanished, my soul no longer
swooned in the ecstasy of it; the Pleiades had risen, sick of that
which they decorated, the glorious disarray of jewelled dew-drops was
no more, that which endured the full light of day was the naked and
torturing contraption of war. Was not the dawn buoyant, like the dawn
of patriotism? Were not the dew-decked wires war seen from far off? Was
not He in wreath of Pleiades glorious death in action? But a ray of
light more, and what is He and all with Him but the monstrous futility
of war…. Mac tugged at my shoulder and I awoke.

“Has the shelling begun?” I asked.

“It’s over, mon,” he said. “It’s four o’clock now. You’ll be goin’ awa’
from here in a minute or twa.”

“And these wounded?” I asked, looking round. Groaning and swearing they
lay on their stretchers and in bloodstained blankets, their ghastly
eyes fixed upon the roof. They had not been in when I fell asleep.

“The enemy replied to our shellin’,” said Mac curtly.

“Ay, ‘e replied,” said a wounded man, turning on his stretcher. “‘E
replied. Gawd, ‘e didn’t arf send some stuff back! It was quiet enough
before our blurry artillery started. They’ve no damned consideration
for the pore infantry…. Thank Gawd, I’m out of the whole damn
business…. I’ll take damn good care that I….”

“The ambulance car is here,” said Mac. “All who can walk, get outside.”

The rain was falling heavily as I entered the Red Cross wagon, 3008
Rifleman P. MacGill, passenger on the Highway of Pain, which stretched
from Loos to Victoria Station.