Men in war, a bit of plaster and the faith of Private Small
THEODORE GOODRICH ROBERTS
THERE were other craters; there had been craters before and there have been craters since; but that hole in the ground in front of Kiss Me Farm will be the crater of the World War to Avery P. Small until the old harvester with the scythe and the hour-glass gathers him in.
Kiss Me Farm. It had received that significant name a full year before the arrival of Avery and his companions. When Avery first saw it there was nothing left to see of it but a few jagged fragments of ruins, a few heaps of powdered bricks, the stump of a tree and the roots of a hedge. Our trenches cut it and enveloped it. A thing of twisted iron in a tangle of weeds may once have been a little table in an arbor of vines. Perhaps it was in that vanished arbor that somebody had kissed somebody. Then it had been five miles behind the front; and when Avery knew it, the support trench cut the very heart of it.
“I wonder who was it got the kiss, an’ who kissed ’im?” said Avery, who was romantically inclined.
“It was an officer, you can bet yer boots on that,” Sergeant Swim assured him. “An English lieutenant— maybe a guardsman. An’ it was the farmer’s prettiest daughter kissed ’im. That’s my guess.”
“I wouldn’t wonder but they’re both dead by now. It don’t seem possible there was ever anything to kiss in this damn place. It don’t seem right to me, all this here smashin’ of property an’ chasin’ the women to hell-an’gone back from the front. The war’s tough enough anyhow without—”
“Forget it!” exclaimed a corporal named Warren. “You give me a pain. I do believe you expected to find skirts in the trenches to watch you strut yer stuff. You’ve been spoiled.”
Avery P. Small was about to tell the corporal where he got off when something else went off—off and up!—half of Flanders, it seemed to Avery. Earth and air shook and shuddered. Even in the support trench, which was occupied by Small and his comrades, men embraced and staggered and fell, and the wall of the trench slid in here and there. The noise was terrific, indescribable. Tons of earth went up and came showering down. Avery was upset, mentally and physically. He clawed in sliding soil, as if he were a dog with a bone to bury. Sergeant Swim pulled him to his feet an I told him to keep cool.
“What was it?” asked Avery. “Look at the dust!” Captain Fenwood came along the trench, brushing earth from his face. “Steady does it, men!” he cried. “That was only a mine. Stand-to, Number Three Company.” He spoke to Sergeant Swim. “Our own mine, I guess. Pretty close in, by the look of it. Somebody blundered. Front-line garrison will have to occupy it and we’ll have to move up. Find Mr. Dibble.”
He passed on and Swim ran in the opposite direction. “There’s an old hand for you,” said Warren to Small. “Pat Fenwood. One of the originals, he is. Lived within two blocks of me before the war. Come to us from the Fourteenth. Right on to his job, he is. He ain’t worryin’ where the girls as got to.”
“No more’m I,” retorted Avery. “A man can wonder how a place got it’s name without you jawin’ him deef, can’t he?”
“What’s that you got there?” asked Warren, regarding the other’s right hand.
Avery looked. He opened his earth-stained hand and stared. What he saw was a small head in painted plaster, a feminine head with pink cheeks and blue eyes and a gilded crown.
“Now what the hell!” he murmured. “Where’d that come from? I must of picked it up when I was clawin’ round. Looks like the head of a saint, or maybe a queen.”
Mr. Dibble, a platoon commander, appeared and shouted “Stand-to!” whereupon Small thrust the saintly or queenly head into a pocket.
TWO platoons of one of the companies in the front-line having occupied the new crater, Captain Fenwood went up with half of his company, leaving his second - in - command with the remainder. The enemy dredged the crater with shrapnel, then launched two hundred men at it. The
attack checked and withered under Canadian machinegun and rifle fire. Then the colonel, the Old Man, himself, appeared in the fire-trench and looked the situation over and discussed it with Major Black and Captain Fenwood. Fenwood tried to look as if he knew as little about this sort of thing as did the colonel and Black, or even less; for he was the same E.A.P. Fenwood, who, as a lieutenant of the Fourteenth, had distinguished himself at The Pig’s Snout in June and at another hostile strong-point in July. He had wangled a transfer into this battalion of the new division as soon as it had arrived on the field of honor because it came from his own section of Canada. But the colonel was not fooled by Fenwood’s modest demeanor. Questioned, the veteran confessed to having held and consolidated just such another crater as this back in August.
The enemy continued to shoot at the crater until our gunners .back at the Crossroads did some useful counterbattery work. The garrison of the trench began to sap out to the crater, but did not get far before dark. Some walking wounded came in soon after dark. When the sap was completed—and it wasn’t much better than a scratch in the ground—more wounded came in on stretchers. Then the colonel sent Captain Fenwood out to take over the crater from Major Bickley. The relief was completed in twenty minutes.
“There’ll be the devil to pay before morning,” said Fenwood to his platoon commanders. “So fill sandbags and keep your eyes skinned.”
But this is a story of Private Avery P. Small, not of Captain E. A. P. Fenwood. M.C.
'/\VERY took an instant dislike to the crater. He had just begun to feel at home in trenches, and to appreciate their good points, when here he was clinging to the edge of a hole as big as the biggest cellar in Moncton and four times as deep, standing-to and filling sandbags and keeping himself from sliding to the depths all at once. Out in front of the very front line of our trench system, too! Where was the sense in it? What was the use of this hole in the ground, anyhow—to us or to anybody? If the Fritzies were fools enough to want it, they were welcome to it, for all of him. He felt painfully detached from the British Army.
Corporal Warren spoke at his elbow, asking him what he had done with the head which he had picked up in the support trench. He replied that it was in his pocket.
“I’ll give you two francs for it,” said the corporal.
Sergeant Swim came scrambling along.
“What’s this?” he asked. “A—tea party? Wake up! Snap into them sandbags. W’iden the foothold here, you Small. Didn’t Mr. Dibble say three feet? He sure did. D’ye want tobe all on the flats of yer—-—-backs in the bottom of the hole at the first jolt? And there’s a jolt cornin’, don’t you forget it.”
Swim scrambled on. Avery manned a spade and did a little roadwork. Warren filled a sandbag and heaved it into place. Knowing Joe W’arren as he did, Avery felt sure that the plaster head in his pocket must be worth at least six francs. But why? What was it good for?
“Lemme see that there head,” whispered Warren.
At that moment something opened like a red eye, like a glimpse of hell, just a few yards in front of the inadequate parapet; and three men from Avery Small’s right and two from his left went rolling or sliding down to the bottom of the crater. Avery was staggered and momentarily dazed, nothing more. Of the five who had been dislodged from either side of him, two were killed and two wounded. Corporal Warren, bruised and shaken, scrambled back to his place at Avery’s elbow.
“You still here?” he queried.
“Sure,” said Avery. “But I’d sooner be somewheres else.”
“Ain’t you hit?”
“Nary a scratch.”
Avery suddenly became aware of a sensation of fumbling at his left hip, snapped a hand down and gripped the wrist of Corporal Warren.
“What the hell do you want?” he asked.
At a loss for a satisfactory answer, the corporal set to work at repairing the demolished parapet.
Lieutenant Dibble came along with a machine-gun and its crew and set up the gun and demanded more sandbangs. Corporal Warren said to him, “That whizzbang knocked five of us into the bottom of the hole, but didn’t so much as throw dust into Private Small’s face—-, and him right in the middle of the burst.”
“That’s nothing to what’s on the way,” replied the officer. “Get busy with those bags. Half the German army will be on top of us before morning, and it’s up to us to knock the stuffing out of them. Where’s Sergeant Swim””
Warren tweaked Avery’s sleeve and whispered that he’d pay him twenty francs for the head in his pocket. Avery was convinced that the recent upset had injured Warren’s mind. Twenty francs for a doll’s head!
“I’d just as soon keep it, for a souvenir,” he returned, “but if you got twenty francs on you, you can have it.”
“Sure I got twenty francs! Here, hold on to my shovel half a minute and I’ll—”
Avery P. Small was not a fast thinker under normal conditions, but now many and varied impressions registered on his mind at an astounding rate of speed. He thought he was a bird winging the vasty blue and wondered what use twenty francs would be to a bird. He thought he was a diver descending through darkening fathoms for priceless pearls and wondered if the war were over. He thought he was many other things in many other places; and then he snapped
out of it and knew that he was at the bottom of a crater in Flanders and that clods and other things were still falling about him. He scrambled to his feet, staggered over something bulky and fell down on something hard. He recognized the hard object as a machine-gun. Groping with both hands, he discovered the bulky object to be a human figure. He heard a low moaning, a pitiful sound that was no more than a whisper beneath the rattle and bang and swish of battle overhead. Then somebody with a heavy boot trod on his hand, and he swore.
“Are you hit?” asked a voice.
“Guess not—but there’s a man moanin’ round here somewheres,” he answered.
“We got stretchers here,” said the other. “Show a light, Bill. That you, Avery? Say, here’s a nasty muss! More dead nor wounded round here. Who’s that?”
“Joe Warren—what’s left of him,” said another stretcher bearer.
“What’s the matter with Joe?” asked Avery.
“Dead: Say, that’s too damn bad. I was goin’ to sell 'im somethin’. ‘Hold onto my shovel,’ says he—an’ that’s his last words. Now where the hell d’ye reckon that shovel went to!”
But no one paid any attention to Avery. He felt queer —lonely and light-headed. He thought he would like to get in touch with someone with authority—an officer or a sergeant. He wanted to talk about Joe Warren and Joe’s offer of twenty francs for the painted plaster head. And he wanted a drink. He remembered the machine-gun and immediately felt around for it. What better excuse for approaching an officer could one have than a machinegun?
D Y THE time Avery P. Small found Mr. Dibble he felt very tired and very thirsty but otherwise quite his norma! self again.
“I got a emma gee here,” he said.
“What’s that?” cried Dibble. “A gun! Where’s the tripod?”
Avery crouched beside him and explained that he had not seen anything of the tripod.
“Is it you, Small?” asked the officer incredulously. “Avery Small? Dear Heaven, man, they made a direct hit on you! You’re dead and buried.”
“Never touched me, sir. I was hove a piece an’ rolled a ways, but I ain’t wounded.”
“That being the case, go find a tripod and fetch it here—and ammunition. Hop to it!”
Avery hadn’t slid half-way down the slope of the crater before something snubbed him. It was a leg of a tripod protruding from the sliding face of the declivity. He exhumed the whole thing and dragged it up to Mr. Dibble. Sergeant Swim joined them with a box of ammunition under his right arm and his left arm in a sling.
“We won’t set her up 111 this blows over,” said Dibble.
“They’ll be right on the heels of it, sir, or I miss my guess,” said Swim. “That would be their game. The minute the guns quit, then the infantry will jump us with bombs an’ baynits. There won’t be much time to set up the gun, sir.”
“Time enough. You don’t want the whole works shot to hell again, do you? We’ll lie doggo right here till they stop shelling, that’s what we’ll do. Pass a belt. We’ll be all ready to set her up and cut loose in three motions.”
Captain Fenwood appeared and spoke in Dibble’s ear. The lieutenant nodded and, turning to Swim and Small told them that he had to leave them and that they were to fight the gun should the need arise before his return. He promised to send help around to them, if possible. Then he and Fenwood moved off.
“Looks to me like we’re gettin’ it in the neck,” remarked Avery. “There’s Joe Warren killed already, an’ maybe two or three more.”
“Two or three!” derided the sergeant. “Have you been asleep? We’ve lost half our strength—an’ sixteen of ’em dead as mutton. Lieutenant Smith is gone west; an’ the sap’s blown in so’s we can’t send back any more of our wounded; an’ what the hell are our guns doin’? Damn-all! The man who gets out of this will be a curiosity—a— museum piece.”
“I’ve been knocked wrong-end-up twice myself,” said Avery. “They bust right in my face—but I wasn’t touched. That’s queer, too. D’ye believe in mascots?”
“Do I believe in ’em? Why wouldn’t I? Seein’s believin’—-an’ I’ve seen enough mascots since I enlisted, God knows! There was our bear cub we had to leave in St. John; an’ the goat we got when we first landed that went an’ died on us of eatin’ cigarettes in the officers’ mess; an’ the goat we got now, back at the horse-lines. Sure I believe in mascots-—and I wouldn’t mind bein’ one right now!”
“I guess maybe I’ve got a private mascot right here in my pocket. I picked it up when the mine blew, back there in the support line. There’s luck in it, I guess.
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Warren offered me two francs for it; ar’ then he offered me twenty—and I’d of sold it to ’im for twenty only he was killed before he could drag out his money. I didn’t know what he wanted it for then, but I guess I know now. It’s lucky, all right. I wouldn’t sell it now for any money.”
.“What is it? Let’s see it.”
Avery drew the little plaster head from his pocket but did not pass it over. He opened his fingers; and Swim, crouched beside him under the reinforced lip of the crater, examined it in the ray of his flashlight.
“It’s off the image of a saint, or the Virgin Mary,” said the sergeant. “I’ll bet a dollar it was up in a niche over the door of that farm-house, the way I’ve seen them on lots of houses. But you’d think it could have saved itself, and the farm, too, if it was lucky against shells.”
Avery returned it to his pocket.
“That’s as may be. A farm’s one thing an’ a soldier’s another.”
The whine and smash of hostile shells ceased suddenly and only the stuttering of machine-guns from the trenches in rear of the crater, and the thumping of our eighteen-pounders back at the Crossroads, remained of all that devilish tumult. Avery and the sergeant set up their gun in record time, though they had only three good arms among them. Reinforcements of four arrived; and Swim told every man off to his duty. Canadian star-shells illuminated No Man’s Land with a ghastly and unsteady glare.
“Here they come,” said someone, in a thick voice. “Holy cats! Hundreds!”
Sergeant Swim sighted the machinegun and crooked a finger on the trigger.
“Well, here goes,” he said.
The gun sang. The gunner’s hand jiggled, spraying the oncoming mass of Germans with a deadly spray. Other machine-guns, and rifles in the crater and the trench in rear of it, joined in the tuneless song. The onrushing mass of bayonetmen and bombers dwindled, checked, eddied and melted away.
“That’s that,” said Swim, relaxing his trigger-finger and dropping his hand. “That will keep ’em quiet for a while, the silly fools.”
“Duck!” cried Avery; and he ducked himself, head-first beneath the machine gun.
It was a mortar bomb of generous proportions and new pattern—almost the largest, and the very latest, model. It burst with a violence that shook the crater to the farthest nook; and Avery P. Small was the only survivor of that machine-gun’s crew.
THE hostile infantry attacked again and were a third time repulsed. Then the hammering and harrowing of the crater with shell fire was resumed. Avery found himself elbow to elbow with Captain Fenwood.
“What’s our artillery doin’, sir?” he demanded. “They ought to smash them guns an’ give us a chance. That’s the way it looks to me, anyhow.” “Eighteen-pounders!” exclaimed Fen'Wood. “Why the devil don’t they put the ■heavies to work?”
“I’d tell ’em so, if I was you. Yes, sir, I’d damn well tell’em so—an’if they didn’t like it they could do the other thing!”
“My intelligent friend, you must not -think me altogether a fool. I’d tell them if I could—even General Burstall himself. But my rockets were all blown to blazes hours ago, and we’ve shot off all our Verey lights, and four good men have i tried to carry back a message.”
“I’ll take a message, sir.”
“Who are you?”
“Private Small, .of Mr. Dibble’s plaitoon. Avery P. Srnall, sir.”
“Mr. DibbKs.dead . . . I’ll be quite ; frank Awith yqu, Smajl. You haven’t a
chance in a hundred of reaching our trench. On the other hand, you haven’t a chance of living till morning if you stop in this crater—unless our heavies land on those batteries.”
“Guess I can make it, all right,” Avery assured him; and he slipped a hand into a pocket to make certain that the little plaster head was there. “They ain’t hittin’ me to-night. Write out the message an’ I’ll nip across with it.”
Fenwood produced his Field Message Book, (Army Book 153), and the stub of a pencil, and wrote urgently and briefly.
Avery put the message in with his mascot and scrambled around to that point of the crater which was nearest to the trenches of Kiss Me Farm. He looked for the entrance to the sap, but in vain. So he nipped up and over the crater’s ragged edge; and, in spite of his faith in the potency of the plaster head in his pocket, his stomach and the back of his neck felt miserably exposed and cold. Air and earth were whistling and crashing and snapping and vibrating. He ran, doubled at the hips, stumbled and fell and was received by a small shell-hole. He got his feet under him, ran another short course and went to earth again. He lay flat on his face for half a minute. He slid a hand into his pocket and caressed the plaster head with earthy fingers.
“Do your stuff,” he whispered. “Keep it up, for God’s sake!—and we’ll save what’s left of them two platoons.”
As he raised himself to his hands and knees a sudden flashing glare shut his eyes and the air sucked and flapped all around him so that his ears sang. He subsided, flat as a door-mat again; and bushels of earth descended upon him. He continued to lie motionless for a few seconds after the earth ceased to fall— waiting.
“Is that all?” he asked. “We can stand a whole lot of that, my mascot an’ me.” In his next run he made a ten-} ard gain, but his tumble at the end of it was the heaviest yet. A startled and agonized yelp drowned his own protesting grunt. As soon as he had recovered his breath he squirmed around to investigate the source of the outcry and laid his hands on a prone human body. A voice addressed him.
“Watch out where ye’re goin’, can’t you!”
“Is it you, Ted Crewly? Were you tryin’ to get to the colonel with a message from Fenwood? Are you hit?”
“Hit, you fool! Say, it must be Avery Small. Yes, I’m hit. Yes, I was on my way to see the colonel. Ye’re a first class little guesser, Avery ... I’m hit, all right—where you kicked me an’ three or four more places . . . What you doin’ out here, Avery?”
“I got a message from Fenwood for the colonel and the artillery. I’ll tote you the rest of the way on my back.”
Avery reached the wire, with Crewly on his back. He was challenged, then assisted into the trench. Crewly was detached from him and found to be stonedead.
“He was alive when I picked ’im up,” said Avery. “Alive an’ talkin’ to beat the band; and I carried him real careful.” Someone drew his attention to the fact that the back of poor Crewly’s head was missing.
“That must of happened when he was on my back. I thought I felt a kind of jolt. All my friends are gettin’ killed tonight. Say, lead me to an officer, will you.
I have business with the colonel and with General Burstall. Say, if Burstall don’t get busy with his heavies damn quick an’ choke off them hostile guns I’ll be the only survivor of Nine an’ Ten platoons. Gimme a drink, somebody!”
A minute later he handed Captain Fenwood’s message to the colonel without a word. The colonel read it and immediately dispatched an officer to brigade, and his adjutant to the telephone, (just in ease it was working), and another officer on the heels of the first. Then he spoke to Avery.
“You are Small, I think?”
“Direct from the crater?”
“Did you come alone, my lad?”
“Yes, sir. No, sir. I started alone, but I run across Ted Crewly. He was wounded. I fetched him along, but he was dead when we got here. An’ the crater’s full of dead an’ wounded. The captain’s the only officer left, an’ Sergeant Swim’s dead. Captain Fenwood sent out five runners, but I’m the only one that got here alive.”
The colonel pressed Private Small on to his own chair, then roared at the telephone a minute and sent off two more messengers. He returned to Avery and grasped his dirty right hand.
“Great work, my boy! You’re a credit to the battalion. I’m proud of you. Your splendid action shall not be overlooked. You’ll be decorated for it, as sure as I command this battalion! You are a brave man!”
“I knew they couldn’t hit me, sir.”
The great man stooped and gazed keenly into Avery’s guileless eyes. “Knew they couldn’t hit you? Knew it? How was that?”
Avery proudly produced the small head of painted and gilded plaster and gave it into the other’s hand, and told of how he had come into possession of it and of its miraculous powers. The colonel listened gravely to the end, without interruption, then handed it back.
“Well, and why not?” he murmured.
Avery got to his feet and threw his best salute and stated his intention of returning immediately to the crater with all the ammunition and dressings he could carry.
“An’ they could do with a jug of rum, sir,” he added.
Again the other gazed searchingly into his eyes.
“Back to the crater, Small? Are you quite sure that you haven’t a wound somewhere?”
“I’m right as wheat; and Captain Fenwood will be lookin’ for an answer; an’ them Huns couldn’t hit me if they shot at me till nex’ summer-—not with this mascot on me.”
“But Captain Fenwood will get his answer. Listen! Our heavies are at it already. They’ll soon do the business; and then the reinforcements will go out. You have done your part, and done it well, my lad.”
Avery withdrew, murmuring.
Our heavy pieces at The Chicken Coop made up for lost time. They found the hostile guns behind Broken Church and silenced them one by one. The last round from the last of them overshot the crater. It was just then that Avery P. Small went over the parapet with a load of S. A. ammunition, stubborn in his belief that he was needed at the crater and with his faith in his mascot unshaken. He felt for the gap in the wire. He did not find the gap, but a chunk of steel found him.
Avery did not know much after that until he discovered himself in a base hospital with his jaws wired together, taking nourishment by way of a rubber tube passed through a gap in his front teeth. From the base he went to England, and from England he homed to Canada with a Distinguished Conduct Medal on his breast.
That was long ago, but Avery is still a trifle stiff and tender about the jaws; and he is still of the opinion that the crater in front of Kiss Me Farm was the most significant crater of the Great War for Civilization; and his faith in the powers of his mascot remains unshaken.
“I guess she knew best,” he said. “She got me out of it an’ safe home good an’ early. If I’d stopped any longer in the army I’d maybe of got trench-feet or a taste for hard liquor.”