THEODORE GOODRIDGE ROBERTS
In civil lije, the man who consulted a book of traffic regulations when his automobile was hurtling towards a precipice would be regarded as a maniac; in the army, the same man might, with some reason, consider himself a sterling officer; as this scene from the drama of the Great War most graphically shows.
THIS happened a long time ago, back even in that period of the world’s history to which smart young militia officers with hairless and unadorned chests facetiously refer as “the bow-and-arrow days.” It was before the advent of the tin lid, but the excellent Mills grenade was no longer a novelty. It was, to be exact, the tail-end of the strenuous year 1915.
Benjamin Lewis was the Scout Officer of his battalion.
“That’s the ideal command, in my opinion,” he said to his best friend. “Twelve scouts, every one of whom is able to look after himself. A platoon’s too much worry— fifty or sixty men one day and half of them casualties the next. As for a company, and your nominal roll shot to hell every other day—not on your life! And I wouldn’t take a battalion if Alderson himself begged me to. But with only twelve handy lads to look after, you have time to harass the Huns.”
(We called them Huns in those days. )
Lewis and his scouts harassed the enemy, no doubt about it. They were affectionately, and admiringly, known throughout the battalion as “the Devil’s dozen.” One day Lewis made a little speech to his twelve.
“I’ll never tell you chaps to do anything I won’t do myself; and when we’re out in front I’ll look after you like a mother dog with twelve pups,” he said. “I’ll be your father and your mother in No Man’s Land or the enemy wire, don’t you fret!—but when we’re safe in the line, and out at rest, don’t expect me to come running ’round looking at your feet and your tongues. You’re in a better position to know about your organs and members than I am. If you feel anything going wrong with them, come and tell me. You’re hand-picked, remember that. If it’s a nurse and guardian you want instead of a leader, go back to your platoons.”
That was Ben Lewis—the best scout officer in the brigade when out in front but not so good between tours of duty.
The German trench system, at this point, occupied slightly higher ground than ours, though too low for absolute comfort, and a little river ran midway between the opposing parapets. This river overflowed its low banks of mud in rainy weather and, despite a variety of pumps and unstinted elbow grease, made a desolate ditch of the Canadian front line. Duckboards and revetments went adrift. It was really very uncomfortable, and not at all healthy. Some of our best minds, including that of Lieutenant Lewis, were brought to bear on the situation. In Ben’s opinion, much of the unsatisfactory condition of the river was due to a short bridge of brick and masonry which spanned it, at a point about two hundred yards
down-stream from the battalion front, and close against the enemy wire. He was right. The wide buttresses of the little bridge undoubtedly backed the river into us at high water. He told a company commander about It, who told the Old Man.
Lieut.-Colonel A. D. Belton was neither old nor elderly, but not so young as some other battalion commanders. Though steady as a rock in the face of the enemy and painstaking in all his duties, he lacked that indefinable something--fire in the brain or the turrlmy, perhaps — which is the difference between a good and a brilliant soldier.
“I’ll tell the guns to wipe it out,” he said.
Lewis has a plan for blowing it up,” Major Steel
informed him. “He thinks that he and his scouts could do it handily, sir.”
“Blow it up? That would be a job for the sappers—but it is the gunners’ duty to knock it down.”
The company commander might have said more, but he didn’t. He might have said that, owing to the peculiar position of the bridge in relation to our guns, the demolition by shell-fire might prove more difficult than it sounded.
A BATTERY of eighteen-pounders did a shoot at the bridge next day, with one of their own officers out in a sap directing their fire by telephone. The sturdy little bridge, squatting low over the yellow flood at the only point within miles at which the banks rose above the surrounding soppy level, did not lose a brick. The trajectory of the shells was too flat to clear the swell of the near bank. Plenty of mud was displaced, and some damage was done to wire, on and beyond the farther bank, but the bridge was not touched.
Having decided that he and his scouts would deal with the bridge, Ben Lewis went about it in his own way. He did not want any advice, nor much help beyond what his own command could supply. For that little outside help he appealed to an engineer friend of his who specialized in undermining and exploding hostile positions. All he asked of the sapper was material, and no more of that than a man could carry easily with the left hand.
WHEN Dandy Dan heard from his brigade-major that Colonel Belton had said that it was the brigade’s duty to remove the bridge which backed the river into our front line, he did not like it.
“There’s been too much talk about that bridge,” he said. “What’s your opinion, Mac?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the brigade-major, who was the soul of discretion.
“The trouble is, Belton’s so darned touchy,” resumed Dandy Dan. “If I were to tell him to remove it himself, if he objects to wet feet, he’d be hot as a Q-M-G in torment. I know him. I know exactly how he feels about it. lie will hand over that bit of trench, every time, in the exaci condition in which he takes it over, for that is.h is soldierly duty, but he can’t see why he should make a permanent improvement in a position for which he is responsible only when he occupies it. He’s like that! He thinks that a military man who exceeds his duty is almost as bad a soldier as one who neglects it. I’ve heard him say so. He was my commanding officer in the darling old militia in the sweet old days before the war. He’ll
always do his duty, just as surely as he’ll never exceed it by an inch.”
“Of the old school,” murmured the brigade-major.
“We’ll call it that,” smiled the brigadier.
“And what shall I tell him, sir?”
“Tell him we’ll get the sappers to see to it.”
T\N THE fifth night of that particular seven-day tour in the front line, Mr. Lewis and his twelve went out as usual. They moved with extreme caution, freezing to immobility whenever a star-shell went up. Lewis led the way. He carried the material, which he had obtained earlier in the day from his mining and tunneling friend. He carried it with the utmost care, done up in a rubber ground-sheet. The night was black and quiet. The scouts reached the bank of the river at a point where a few stunted willows stood knee-deep in water. Here, a little raft lay concealed; a modest thing composed of two sections of duck-board bound one atop the other with wire. It was launched, and the ground-sheeted parcel was placed exactly amidships; and a long fuse was produced, uncoiled, attached to the parcel and lighted. Then Lewis waded out, pushing the raft before him. When the water was up to his ribs he let the raft go.
All this had been carefully planned. Lewis knew the speed of the river and also of the fuse. He had been generous with the fuse, for he had learned by investigation that there were submerged obstructions of old wire beneath the arch of the bridge which would stop and hold the raft in a practical place and position, where, in short, it would do the most harm.
Lewis and his scouts moved along through the thin mud, doing their best to keep abreast of the raft.
“She’s driftin’ over to the other side,” whispered the sergeant, pointing a hand. “There’s a mess of bushes an’ snags along there.”
The fiare sank, and its ghastly light was withdrawn; and the scouts toiled onward through the gloom. Another star-shell soared aloft, spreading its sickly illumination over the waste of brown mud and brown water and disclosing a shocking thing to the anxious scouts— the raft motionless among the flooded bushes on the opposite edge of the stream.
“That’s tore it!” exclaimed the sergeant.
Mr. Lewis produced a knife and cut the lacings of his high boots from knee to instep. He pulled off his trenchcoat, jacket and breeches.
“Take these, Moony, and move down about thirty yards,” he said. “Spread along, the rest of you, and sit tight. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“I’m a strong swimmer, sir,” Private Wedge told him.
“Me, too,” said several others.
“Let me go, sir,” urged the sergeant. “My middle name is duck.”
“Do as I tell you,” said Lewis, shivering in his underclothes.
He drew a small match-box from a pocket of the discarded jacket and thrust it into his mouth, then waded out into the cold brown fluid—hip-deep, waist-deep, shoulder-deep. Then he swam. His very soul shivered with cold and distaste.
He found the raft without difficulty, and pinched off the red tip of the fuse. There was still enough fuse left to last to the bridge. He cleared the raft and moved down with it, close along the edge of the brush, for a distance of twenty yards or so. That was far enough. Hang the war, anyway! He extracted the match-box, relit the fuse under cover of the bushes and swam out with the raft. In midstream he let the raft go. He headed for the home-shore. By this time he was numb to the marrow of his bones. Only his brain felt warm and alive. Dear Lord, what a life! What a job for a civilized young man with a new and perfectly good B.C.L. degree—swimming about in a dirty Flemish ditch, full of death and corruption, in two shirts and a pair of drawers!
He was not a strong swimmer. He wondered if he would have been wiser to allow one of his men to do this
job. His arms weighed like iron and seemed to belong to somebody else. He felt as if his legs were anchored.
“That you, sir?”
“Gimme a hand!”
STRONG arms embraced him; and, in that same instant of time, the night was ripped by a dazzling flash and a thumping roar. Darkness blinked down again; and ponderous objects fell far and near, thudding in the mud and splashing in the water. Mr. Lewis and Private Moony floundered and reeled, clinging together. Sergeant Coy steadied them.
“Well done, sir! Put this into you. Tot of rum.”
A score of star-shells curved up from the German trenches, illuminating and searching the wilderness. Lewis, Coy, Moony and Wedge took to a wet old shellhole; and doubtless the other scouts took to other wet depressions—for all knew what was coming next. It came. A dozen hostile machine-guns cut loose and sprayed the mounds of mud from between which the bridge had vanished, and the river above and the empty flat beyond. A second dozen joined in the sport, and the muddy face of No Man’s Land was combed with spatting teeth. Trench mortars thumped and their heavy projectiles churned the mud and water.
“We sure put their wind up,” said Sergeant Coy. “You’ll catch cold, sir,” said Moony. “Here’s your pants.”
“What’s the use? They’re full of water.”
“There’s warmth in ’em, for all that. An’ here’s your coat.”
While the enemy strafed No Man’s Land, Ben Lewis resumed his clothing in the shelter of the little crater. He was over his ankles in mud and over his knees in water. Coy, Moony and W’edge assisted him.
“If you’d lay on your back I could get at you, sir,” said Moony. “Where’s your left leg?”
“That’s the coat you got there,” said Wedge. “Here’s the breeches.”
“I don’t want ’em!” cried Lewis, rattling his teeth.
But they would not let him risk his health. They persisted until all his sodden garments were upon his sodden person. Then the sergeant produced cigarettes.
“We’ll pick up the others and go home as soon as this blows over,” said Lewis. “And I bet a dollar the Old Man will raise more of a row about it than the Boche is
raising now. Well, let him. It’s my funeral. All we did was our duty. You lads don’t have to worry.”
“There was talk about the engineers bein’ all set to demolish that bridge at two a.m.,” remarked the sergeant.
“Perhaps so. I heard nothing of it—officially, that is to say. I’m Scout Officer of this battalion; and whenever the sappers and miners want to take over my duty they’ll have to let me know about it—officially.”
WHAT of Lieut.-Col. A. D. Belton? The flame of the candle in his dugout in the reserve-trench jumped and trembled. Flakes of dry mud fell from the walls. “What the devil’s that?” he asked.
The adjutant pulled on his boots and went out to inquire. The colonel looked at his watch. Eleven-fifty. Could it be that the engineers had altered their plan, put their operation more than two hours ahead, without informing him? That was not at all probable. He put aside all thought of the bridge and wondered who had sprung à mine.
The adjutant went up the communicating trench to the support, and there ran into a lieutenant named Willet.
“What’s the row?” he asked. “Who do the Huns think they’re fighting? What blew up?”
“Let’s go see,” returned Mr. Willet. “Sounds like a war to me.”
So they went up another communicating trench and into the front line, where they found the garrison standing
“The bridge blew up, and a dashed good thing,” said Major Steel. “It should have happened long ago.”
“Happened?” queried the adjutant. “What d’ye mean by that? It was blown up, I suppose.”
“Yes, I suppose so. The enemy’s all worked up about it—and that’s the state of mind to keep him in. Rasp his nerves, that’s the game.”
A suspicion stirred in the other’s mind.
“Where’re the scouts?” he asked. “Have they come in yet?”
“How the deuce should I know?” retorted Steel. “My job’s running a company.”
But Major Steel had disappeared. The adjutant questioned a sergeant and learned that the scouts had gone
out about an hour ago and hadn’t come in yet. So made his way back to Battalion H.Q. He was within a few yards of it, when he met an orderly officer from brigade.
“Dandy Dan wants to know what all the row’s about,” said the orderly officer.
“The bridge, if you must know,” replied the adjutant. “She’s gone up—and Fritzie’s doing the rest.”
“Didn’t need the sappers, after all, what?”
“Looks like that. Come in and have a drink on the Old Man.”
“Sorry, but I must be toddling.”
HE adjutant re-entered the colonel’s presence.
“It was the bridge, sir,” he reported.
“The bridge? D’ye mean the bridge at E.7.b.2?”
“Yes, sir. It’s gone higher than Gilroy’s kite.”
“But were you warned of the change of time? You didn’t mention it to me. When did they alter their plans?
“I don’t know that the sappers have changed their plans, sir—though they’ll certainly do so now. The sappers didn’t blow it.”
“The sappers didn’t blow it? I’m not fond of riddles, Barstow.”
“Sorry, sir. I’ve no intention of propounding a riddle. We blew the bridge. Our scouts, sir, Lewis and his lot.” The Old Man bit off and swallowed several large mouthfuls of air before he regained his power of speech. His moustaches bristled, his nose reddened and his eyes appeared to revolve.
“By whose orders?”
“Without orders, sir. An enterprising officer, sir—and very young. The duties of the scouts are not very clearly defined—nor is the authority of the Scout Officer—to my way of thinking, sir.”
“Send Mr. Lewis to me.”
“He’s still out, sir—or was five minutes ago. I’ll send up a chit. The Fritzies are doing a bit of machine-gunning, so Lewis and his men are not likely to come home till that’s over.” Captain Barstow stepped to the door. “They’ve shut off, sir. The scouts will soon be in.”
The red receded from Belton’s nose, leaving the tip of it pale blue. The appearance of revolving left his eyes, and Continued on page 48
Continued from page 17
he stared fixedly at the candle on the table.
“Bring him here,” he said. “Fetch him yourself.”
BEN LEWIS and his companions left their retreat at the first opportunity and headed for home, picking up the other scouts from holes in the ground on their way. The complete Devil’s Dozen regained the fire-trench; and there the right hand of Captain Barstow fell upon Mr. Lewis’s shoulder.
“Great work, Ben!” exclaimed the adjutant. .“That was well done. But the Old Man doesn’t think so. He wants to see you. Sorry, Ben.”
“I’ve been swimming,” returned Ben. “There’s mud down my neck and my teeth are knocking themselves loose—but give me a jolt of rum and I’ll face a tiger in his den.”
The rum was administered.
At sight of Lieutenant Lewis, the colonel’s eyes began to revolve again and the arterial blood welled back to his nose. Lewis saluted heavily, like a man of wood. He was an extraordinary sight. His trench-boots yawned from instep to knee and oozed mud and water. He oozed at every point and joint. His cap looked like a rag. His face was dirty. His trench-coat was plastered with mud.
“Did you demolish the bridge at E.7.b.2.?” asked the colonel.
“Yes, sir,” replied Lewis, thickly.
“By whose orders, if I may ask?”
“I had no orders, sir—not about the bridge, in particular. But I knew that you wanted it removed and felt that it was my duty, as Battalion Scout Officer, to remove it.”
“Were you aware of the fact that the engineers had undertaken to demolish it, at my request?”
“Not officially, sir.”
“Not officially! God bless my soul! I, the commanding officer of this batalion. am guilty of neglect of duty, I suppose, in failing to notify you? You! Perhaps you think that I should have consulted you before communicating with Brigade?” “Yes, sir, I do—as your scout officer I had a right to know.”
The adjutant trod warningly on Lewis’s foot. The Old Man talked to himself for a minute or two. He told himself that the world was upside-down and the human race and the army and discipline were all gone to the devil. Lewis shuffled his oozing boots uneasily.
“I must tell you that you have monstrously exceeded your duty and your authority,” said Belton, glaring along his crimson nose. “In all my years of military service I’ve not known so flagrant a case of the kind . . . Did you speak?”
“Yes, sir. I said that the present conditions of service differ from those of peace and the rural militia.”
The colonel’s nose was like a torch. “Permit me to remind you of the fact that I arrived on this front in August, Mr. Lewis.”
Lewis shuffled his feet. Barstow went around the table and whispered in Belton’s ear.
“He’s one of the originals, sir. Lost eighty per cent, of his platoon at Rum-jar Redoubt, sir. Buried by shell-fire himself.”
The colonel brushed the adjutant aside without looking at him and was about to resume his address to the scout, when Major Steel entered, saluted and burst into speech.
“Their raft stuck on the farther shore half-way down to the bridge, sir, and Lewis swam across and towed it out and placed it right where he wanted it. Thought you’d like to know, sir.”
“Thank you, Steel,” said the colonel, drily. “I’m always glad to hear of what my battalion has done. Many thanks for the information; and now let me advise you to read up the King’s Regulations and Orders. That’s all, Major Steel. Goodnight to you.”
Steel faded away and talked to himself in the outer darkness.
Belton turned his attention again to the slonely, muddy figure in the gloom beyond the table.
“I am sorry to have to say that this affair of the bridge—”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I-—”
“I am talking! This affair of the bridge has not come as an absolute surprise to me. I have noticed a suggestion, more than a suggestion, of—will you be kind enough to stand steady while I’m addressing you! More than a suggestion of impudence in your attitude toward—” Lieutenant Lewis laughed. It was a queer laugh, mirthless and ironical. Then he said to the adjutant, “Take me out of this, Barstow, before I make a fool of myself—and a mess of your—nice mud floor.”
But he was down on his hands-andknees before Barstow could get around the table to him. Barstow stooped over him and pulled at him. The colonel stood up and held the candle aloft and demanded to know what the devil was the matter.
“He’s bleeding,” said Barstow. “Hit— the darned fool!”
Again the blood receded from the colonel’s nose, leaving the tip of it a pale blue. Barstow yelled for the doctor. He had a carrying voice.
“Hit!” exclaimed Belton. “Where? When? D’ye mean to say he’s been standing there arguing with me wounded?”
HAVING breakfasted and inspected his trenches, Lieut.-Col. A. D. Belton sat down to consider the case of Lieut. -Benjamin Lewis. He had intended to place the young man under arrest last night, but the dramatic disclosure of the wound had interfered; and now Lewis was at the nearest field hospital with nothing more serious the matter with him than a clean cut across the flesh of his shoulders. It appeared that he would be fit for duty again in ten or twelve days.
“I’ll see to it that he never serves under me again,” said the colonel. “With subalterns like that, commanding officers are nothing more than figure-heads. The thing must be nipped in the bud.”
He drew pen and paper to him and wrote a report on Lieutenant Lewis’s unauthorized demolition of the enemy bridge at E.7.b.2., for the information and action of his brigadier. He signed it, then leaned back and lit his pipe. It was an adverse report. It could not have been much more adverse had Lewis deserted to the enemy. While his eyes were intent on the flame of the match and the bowl of his pipe, a wisp of wind flicked in and slid the report from the table to the floor. Then the open doorway was darkened by stooped figures; and, as he threw down the burnt match, Dandy Dan and a staffcaptain entered. He sprang to his feet. Dandy Dan advanced, grinning, and seized his hand.
“Great work, Belton!” exclaimed the brigadier. “I can tell you now that you were just in the nick of time.”
“Sir?” queried the colonel.
“They didn’t like it back at Division, you know—the fuss you made about that bridge. There was a good deal of talk. They felt that it was a battalion matter— and I don’t mind telling you now that I felt the same way about it. But I hoped that you’d wake up in time, Davy—and you did. I congratulate you and your battalion on saving your faces.”
The colonel’s brain was in a whirl and his heart pounded in his ears. He felt astonishment, dismay and anger. He tried to speak, but he had so much to say that he could not decide on the first word. He saw, as things are seen in a nightmare, the staff-captain stoop and recover a sheet of paper from the floor, glance at it ánd hand it to Dandy Dan. Spellbound, he saw Dandy Dan read it with puckering lips and arching eyebrows.
“So!” ejaculated the brigadier-general. “That was the way of it, was it?
LIEUT.-COL. A. D. BELTON was
1 promoted back to England, where he continued to refrain from exceeding his duty and was eventually rewarded with the Order oí the British Empire.
Ben Lewis became Brigade Scout Officer.