Gas and Glory
Concerning a famous gas-mask raid and the heroism of Private Lemuel Bolster
THEODORE GOODRIDGE ROBERTS
OF THE four battalions of the -—th Brigade of Canadian Infantry, the ‘Raspberries’ were the last to gouge the trench-system opposite—but when they did get around to it, circumstances and conditions were such that they not only shook the enemy’s morale, but made about half a page of military history. Their commanding officer’s thirst for glory and hostile blood was not so sudden as it appeared to be. It was, in reality, the result of nights and days of uneasy consideration. The fact is, our Lieutenant-Colonel Bingle was no fire-eater—but he had been painfully conscious for weeks past, of the growing impatience of his officers and ‘other ranks,’ and of the increasing chilliness of the inquiring glances of the slightly protruberant eyes of the general officer commanding the —th Brigade.
“It has to be done,” he decided; and straightway he called upon the brigadier in his new trench-coat and best pair of boots.
“Sir, I feel that my lads are now ready to show their mettle,” he said, advancing his chest.
“Huh?” returned the brigadier. “Hum!”
“They have proved their steadiness to my complete satisfaction,” continued Bingle. “I feel that we should now be afforded an opportunity to show our dash. A chance is all I ask, sir.”
The G.O.C. opened his mouth—but nothing came of it. His round eyes clouded and, at the same time, appeared to recede. His expression was of baffled bewilderment, as if something that had long been hot in his heart, ripening for utterance, no longer applied. He gagged, and shut his mouth, and smiled feebly; and Bingle instantly produced and spread a map and began to point and explain at top speed. He continued to point and explain and expound for twelve full minutes.
“Go to it,” said the brigadier.
Thus it happened that five officers and fifty other ranks of the Raspberries were excused four days of a
tour in the front line, and devoted that time to rehearsing a raid over taped ground, under the eye of an expert from the brigade staff. This was no new thing, though it was new to them. Odium had instituted this scientific method away back in November, 1915.
Private Lemuel Bolster was one of the chosen and trained fifty. In civil life and a small town he had clerked for a retail tobacconist, and enjoyed a reputation for perspicacity. At the commencement of his military career he had wondered that a commission was not thrust upon him, for he was a snappy dresser; and in England he had been piqued and puzzled by the colonel’s neglect to make a sergeant-major of him; and even now he sometimes asked himself why he was not even a corporal. If he had questioned others he might have learned something of the truth, which was that he was generally considered by equals and superiors alike, to be a darned fool.
The fifty-five were all ready to go over and out, and into the hostile works. Our guns and hows, light and heavy, were preparing the way for them. Lem Bolster felt uncomfortable—to put it mildly. He would gladly have given a leg to be safe back behind the tobacconist’s counter.
“What ails you, Lem?” asked the man on his right. “Shakin’ like a wet dog. Cold?”
“Who, me? I was laughin’ to myself. Just thought of a good one.”
“If you know anything to laugh about, let’s hear it.”
But something else was heard, instead. Above the rushing and trundling and whining and crumping of our shells, a sudden desperate, frantic clanging and whanging arose along the trench and swelled in volume momentar-
ily, as sentry after sentry hammered out the gas alarm. On went the masks, like winking.
“That’s all for to-night anyhow, thank God!” thought Lem.
He was vastly relieved. He thrilled with the sensation. He felt a throb of gratitude, almost of affection, for the projectors of the timely gas, the postponers of the offensive operation. But he was reckoning without the colonel. The colonel was right there in the fire-trench, on the spot and on the job; and, despite the fact that his head was in a respirator, his mind’s eye continued to see the face of the brigadier. Inspiration came to him. Here was his chance! He saw it and he seized it. He dashed along the line of masked men paused at every officer and at every non-com and grabbed him, shook him, pointed to the illuminated dial of his watch, and flourished a trench-stick in the direction of the enemy. The dullest could not fail to get his meaning. The raid was to be launched and carried through as and when planned, in spite of the gas.
Our guns lifted from the hostile wire and front line, to farther features of that intricate system of defence. The fifty-five went over. Lemuel Bolster, hesitating, was assisted in the escalade of the parapet by a powerful sentry. So vigorous was that assistance that he landed on the other side on his hands and knees. Surprise and indignation jolted his heart, even as the violent contact with the strip of earth between the parapet and wire jolted some other organs. What the Hell! A raid in the face of a gas attack? All wrong! Never been done before! And who was Bingle to take it upon himself to fly in the face of accepted military usage? Bingle. Piccadilly Bingle! But he would stop back in the trench, would Bingle! It was shameful. It was unjust. He, Lemuel Bolster, would protest. He would return to the trench and go back beyond the gassed area and remove his gas-mask, and lift his voice in righteous protest. The sympathy of fifty of the fifty-five at least would be with Continued on page 35
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him. The sympathy of the battalion, of the brigade, of the division, of the army, of the entire British Expeditionary Force would be his. And what would Haig say when he heard that a green battalion commander, even ‘Piccadilly’ Bingle, had put fifty-five good men over in the face of chlorine gas, for his own glory but without personal risk? All of which went through Lem’s head quicker than a parrot could tell it.
He scrambled to his feet, and turned and clawed to the top of the parapet; and there he was met and heavily repulsed by a second gas-masked sentry. He came to earth on his back that time; and the jar of it cleared his brain. He rolled over, staggered up, negotiated a lane through the wire and doubled after his comrades. It was the only thing for him to do at the moment.
' I 'HE Fritzies felt secure, for they very naturally thought that the dose of gas which they had projected so successfully on the night breeze would keep the Canadians at home for the remainder of the night, at least. The wind was exactly right, as if the All Highest had ordered it for the occasion. The sentries stepped down. The garrison, which had retired at the commencement of our preparatory bombardment, returned to the fire-trench ; and there guttural jokes were cracked at the expense of the greenhorns opposite.
Then the Canadians dropped in. Sudden and heavy was the drop. Jokes went unfinished. Laughter was bitten off short. Chuckles thickened to groans. The rasping of bayonets was drowned by the crashing of bombs.
Captain Starlin led to the right. As soon as he was clear of the initial struggle, he advanced at a rate which could not have been improved on had a leave-train for Boulogne been all ready to pull out of the next bay. He was fully and variously armed. His primary weapon was a bayonet-tipped rifle, which he had borrowed from his batman for the occasion. His secondary armament consisted of an automatic pistol and eight Mill’s grenades. Shooting from the hip, he emptied
a clip in the first bay. He lobbed two bombs across the traverse, fed five rounds more into the magazine of the rifle and dashed onward. The defence wilted before him. He hurdled dead and wounded alike, leaving the ‘mopping up’ to those who followed; for he was in a hurry. His haste was considered, purposeful. ,He was looking for one or other of a certain brace of light trench-mortars, with the intention of capturing it.
Captain Starlin was the battalion scout-officer; and he had observed the work of those two mortars very particularly on at least four occasions, and from as many vantage-points. From what he had observed, he believed them to be British weapons—Stokes-guns, in fact. His brother officers had derided the idea. They had argued, on high authority, that no Stokes had ever been captured by the enemy on the Western Front. But, being a scout, he believed what he saw and less than half what he heard. So he had backed his belief heavily with money; and his bet had been taken by ten or a dozen of his mess-mates. No one but himself thought that there was the ghost of a chance that the wager would ever be settled, one way or the other. But he had seized upon this opportunity of deciding the issue. He had calculated the position of the debatable guns to be on the extreme right of the zone of the night’s operation, and about thirty yards behind the firetrench. That calculated point was his objective. In the hope of reaching it, he distanced his comrades and acted as a combination of rifleman and bomber. He needed the money, for a leave of ten days duration was almost due him.
Starlin maintained his amazing pace from the second bay to the third, from the third to the fourth. It was after he had entered the fourth bay that the fact that the Fritzies were not wearing their gas-masks first registered on the front of his brain; and, being a scout, he instantly deduced the truth—which was that the trench was clear of gas. He immediately removed his own respirator. That was a great relief. He found the communicating trench he was looking for,
lobbed one of his three remaining bombs up it, loosed five rounds rapidly after the bomb, and then charged.
Yards of that trench had been blown in by our bombardment. Starlin checked to a walk, then sank to a crawl on hands and knees. He crawled over obstructing mounds of earth, clawing up and slithering down, with the stutter of machineguns and the dry smashes of grenades in his ears. Something whizzed low over his head and exploded so close behind him that he dived from his knees at the flash. It was the dive that did it. Deep and head down between two caved-in sections of the trench wall, his chin came into violent contact with something sharp and hard which protruded from the loose earth; and, in an effort to get clear of the thing, his hands fumbled at it and it came away in his grasp. It was a dented tube of metal—a light trench-mortar broken from its base. He investigated it with eager, knowing fingers, heedless of the Dain and blood of his chin. It was a Stokes-gun!
He considered his position. Bombs were smashing both before and behind him in the wrecked communicating trench. Mills’ grenades came from behind and detonated in front, and pineapples lobbed over from farther along the trench and crashed in his rear. Low overhead and to right and left whispered the thin ‘zee-zip’ of bullets, warning him not to leave what was left of thetrench. Heslung his rifle, bowled his last two bombs, grabbed up the precious wreck of the Stokes-gun, turned and crawled hastily away.
LEMUEL BOLSTER had also gone J to the right. He, too, had reached the fourth bay from the point of entry, and gone up the communicating trench. As he hurled his last bomb, the ‘recall’ was whistled shrilly. The men behind him turned and retired instantly; but he, in the very act of achieving the quickest turn on record, tangled his feet in the equipment of a dead Fritzie and fell heavily. As he hit the ground, his slung rifle bounced un and smacked him violently on the base of the skull. He scrambled and staggered to his feet, hunching his shoulders and yanking desperately at the sling of his rifle, maddened and chilled bytheagonizingthought that an unseen enemy had given him the butt, and was about to follow it with the point. He visualized it as he squirmed to face it—the monstrous, deep-helmeted figure poised and ready to lunge with a bayonet notched like a hellish saw. His very soul squirmed and sickened in his flinching flesh. He faced about, sweating and shaking like one who wrestles in a nightmare—but with his rifle in his hands at last. The menacing figure was not there. No enemy was in sight except the dead one, over whom he had stumbled.
Lem stared stupidly. He was still groggy from the mvsterious blow on the head; and, before he could fully realize that he had not been on the verge of death by a saw-toothed bayonet an unmasked figure came suddenly into his obscure field of vision from beyond a break in the wall of the trench. Unmasked! And from the direction of the hostile support line. He snapped the butt to his shoulder and pressed the trigger. Nothing came of it. Chamber and magazine were empty. He clawed for a clip, found it—and dropped it. He fumbled and spilled another; and still the unmasked man drew nearer. Panic shook him. Would he turn and run? Dared he turn? Or would he charge? Indecision palsied him. Would he run, or would he fight?
He did neither. A blinding explosion against the wall of the trench sent him to the ground. There he lay helpless, deaf and numb, wondering dully and pitifully if he were dead or only mortally wounded. He was brought out of it by a heavy and urgent hand on his shoulder. Then his gas-mask was pulled off; and he beheld
the face of Captain Starlin within a few inches of his own. There was blood on the captain’s chin.
“Wounded? Where? . . . No blood . . . Not a drop. Not a break. You’re not wounded—but I am. Right leg. Get up an’ gimme a hand. Up with you!”
Lem obeyed. He was not wounded, not even scratched nor sprained.
“Pick up that gun. It’s a Stokes— what’s left of it. Got it? Damn important. Away we go.”
Away they went, Lem carrying the dented tube that had been a Stokes-gun, and Starlin clinging to him and hobbling desperately. Thus they gained the front line.
“We’ll go over right here,” commanded Starlin. “No time to waste.”
They climbed the parapet, Bolst/er hugging Starlin’s trophy, and Starlin hugging Bolster. Still clinging like lovers, they dragged their way through and out of the torn German wire. They were halfway across No Man’s Land when the captain flopped at last, done in and sick and dizzy from loss of blood. His right leg needed a tourniquet. Nothing else could save him. He knew it and he said so.
■ “Right here. Bandage—handkerchief —belt—anything.”
There was no response from Lemuel Bolster.
“Be quick about it. Tourniquet. Bleeding to death. Anything will do— but get a move on. Tie it an’ twist it.”
But Lem was not present. Lem had passed onward, intent on his own salvation.
Down through the black dizziness of exhaustion in which Starlin was submerged as in an opaque and swirling tide sank consciousness of the fact that he had been deserted. That snapped him out of it. What blood was left in him fairly boiled with indignation. Sitting up, he snatched a handkerchief from a pocket, placed it around the thigh of the wounded leg and tied it. Now for a stick, or something like a stick, with which to twist it tight. What had he of the kind? His brain searched frantically. He had left his knife in his dugout. His pistol? There was not enough slack to the handkerchief to take hold of anything so short and thick. A pipe would do the trick— but he smoked cigarettes only. He fumbled despairingly at his pockets. Nothing! His right hand dropped hopelessly to the cold ground beside him, fumbling aimlessly. Suddenly the listless fingers thrilled and stiffened. The thrill struck straight to heart and brain. A stick! It was the stick of an old riflegrenade—of a German rifle-grenade. He thrust it into place and twisted. It bent —but it did not break. He twisted again and tucked away the ends somehow. It held.
LEMUEL BOLSTER regained our J fire-trench about ten minutes after the main party of homing raiders. The sentry, who challenged him, gave him a hand over the parapet. The wind had strengthened, and the position was practically clear of gas.
“What you got there?” asked the sentry. “A war baby?” He tapped the thing in Bolster’s arms with a hard finger.
Bolster dropped it to the duck-boards with a clang and an oath. He had forgotten all about it, had carried it unconsciously, so hotly had his attention been concentrated on the absorbing job of getting home.
“It’s a trench-mortar Starlin gave me,” he said.
An officer stepped close out of the gloom and peered into his face.
“You, Bolster? What about Captain Starlin? Where’d you see him last? Where is he?”
“I run across him up a trench over there. He gave me that gun and told me to lug it home. I lugged him, too. He was hit in the leg. I got ’im out of that Continued on page 38
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Continued from page 36 trench all right—over the parapet an’ clear of the wire. He’s back there somewheres.”
“You left him out there?—wounded— and brought in that junk!”
“He told me to bring it in. I got ’im half way across, anyhow.”
“Halfway? You’re a fool! That’s your style, is it?—every man for himself. That’s your kind, Bolster. Well, I could have guessed it. Scared blue, hey? So damn scared you didn’t know what you were doing—and deserted a wounded comrade and carried in an armful of junk. God help you!”
“I—he—Captain Starlin said it was a Stokes-gun, sir.”
The officer stooped and examined the trophy by the thin ray of his electric torch. Other vague shapes from the surrounding shadows also stooped and looked.
“Well, I’ll be damned if it isn’t!”
The hostile guns commenced a retaliation at that moment. The garrison of the trench stood-to. After a great deal of noise and much unpleasant vibration of earth and air, the demonstration of hate and defiance ceased as suddenly as it had begun; and the total damage was a gap in the parapet, which was immediately repaired.
A party of four volunteers went out for Captain Starlin. They found him in a small shell-hole, alive but unconscious, and brought him in without accident. He came out of the swoon as they lifted him over the parapet. He opened his eyes, bright as glass, and rolled them inquiringly; and as they laid him gently on a stretcher he asked, clear and loud, “Where’s that hero Bolster?”
“Don’t worry about him, Alec, old scout,” replied Cartling. “He got in with your blasted gun, all right, all right.” Starlin closed his eyes for a second. His expression changed.
“Brought it in, did he? The Stokes? Got it here, did he?”
“Surest thing I know.”
“I found it up a communicating trench. Make a note of it.”
Then the stretcher-bearers lifted and carried him away.
'T''HE Raspberries were cock-a-hoop.
Their chests and heads swelled. Forty-seven other battalions of Canadian Infantry, and innumerable units of the allied armies, had pulled off even bigger and better raids—but this one had been launched and successfully carried through in the face of a hostile gas-attack. This was different. This particular thing had never been done before.
Lieutenant-Colonel Bingle reported the operation to brigade; the brigade-major repotted it to division; corps was officially informed of it; a selection of the facts went up and back to army; and, in due course, the commander-in-chief of the British armies on the Western Front received the intelligence.
“Splendid fellows!” exclaimed the commander-in chief. “Now they’ll all want to raise hell in their box-respirators.’
Bingle’s version of the affair was by far the fullest, naturally. The brigade-major left out the weights and ages of the prisoners. Division dropped a few names and a few adjectives. Corps ignored the identity of the captured trench-mortar. “As it was undoubtedly a Stokes-gun, and just as undoubtedly should not have been a Stokes-gun, the less said about it the better,” reasoned and argued the best minds at H.Q., Canadian Corps.
The rest of the story is soon told. Bingle received the Distinguished Service Order and many letters and messages of congratulations from high places, and a silver cigarette case from his own brigadier. Captain Alexander Starling, too, got the Distinguished Service Order, not to mention a flock of his brother officers’ cheques which reached him while he was resting comfortably in a hospital near London. Four Military Crosses, four Distinguished Conduct Medals and five Military Medals also came up to the Raspberries. As for Private Lemuel Bolster, with a Distinguished Conduct Medal on his chest, he now claims that the idea of making a raid in gas-masks originated in his own fertile brain.