A dramatic story of courage and cowardice in war
WILL R. BIRD
A RAINY night and a strong wind hurtled over the Salient swamps, a biting wind that swept gusts of rain into the faces of men plodding through the muck of the path that led from the Steenbeek shelters. All around, in a giant horseshoe, the watery blackness was shot with little spurts of fire, misty flashes, streaks and glows, and the air whimpered with passing projectiles. The marching men were a platoon of the “Iron Dukes,” one of England’s famous regiments, and they were going up to Bulow Farm to take over one of the vilest and most melancholy bits of line on all the Flemish front.
Corporal “Bully” Dawes plugged through the clutching, ankle-deep mire as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do. It was not his to grouse and fret and shudder at every turn of the track, but his to see that each man kept in touch with the man ahead, that none faltered by the way or ditched a part of their loads. The men were heavily laden, carrying a two-day supply, for ration parties never reached their battered, shellshocked objective.
“Keep up, keep up and watch yer step!” The rasping voice of Dawes spurred each plodder to spasmodic effort. “Show some guts, or I’ll tramp on yer heels.” “You’ll help the new officer at Bulow Farm,” his major had said as they had left the support line. “It will be a dirty tour and the men are not as reliable as the old crowd used to be, for the drafts they send us now are pretty raw material. That’s why I’ve detailed you for the front posts, Dawes, and I hope you’ll break in the newcomers.”
“Yes, sir. I will, sir,” Dawes had said, giving one of
his snappy salutes and tingling under this slight praise. “I’ll climb them till they know they’re sojers, sir.”
“Right-o,” the major had smiled. “I feel that all will be right with you there, Dawes, but keep your eyes open at Bulow Farm.”
AN OLD regular was Bully Dawes, with the strength ■**• of two men in his rugged frame, with hardness in his voice and hardness in his soul. He had one creed, and it was his religion: “Keep up yer front and devil take the hindmost.” He had come to the Salient with his regiment in ’14 and had never missed a battle, and now was a corporal doing a sergeant’s work, especially for this trip under a new officer.
Two days on the support line had proved that his task would be no soft one. The trench there had been but a foul ditch, a sucking quagmire, and the water had undermined the parappts so that constant work was required to keep them in position. At places the wall had caved in under its own weight and no attempt had been made to rebuild it. Bags filled with wet straw had been pushed into the breach to foil enemy snipers.
The men were nothing more than muddy automatons and the officer had said that it would be difficult to rouse them to futile labor with the defenses. Yet Dawes had cursed them to life, had found them shovels and kept them going though they were mud from hoofs to horns, dead-beat and chilled to the bone. They had tried to
drain the trench by devious ways, to make footways over the boggy places, to build up the main posts; they had worked in relays, and worn waders which leaked, thigh boots discarded by the platoon they relieved.
The men were wet as they worked; they were wet in their shelters; they slept in sodden clothing; their boots were full of water; they caught rain in their rubber sheets and made tea. At dawn a clinging fog had crept over the ground, so that the shovels and their rifles were clammy to the touch, and the blanketing moisture had penetrated their flimsy shelters; but Dawes had made them stand-to, shivering and shaking, muttering and whimpering, until the mists lifted enough to reveal the nightmare of scummy holes that bordered the putrid Steenbeek.
Those two days in supports had given the corporal a chance to appraise his men, and his temper had not sweetened. There were only a handful of veterans among them, and these were ailing with trench feet. Two of the newcomers were mere boys, striplings in oversized khaki, and the rest were tragically inferior to the original "Iron Dukes.” Moreover, Dawes had suspicioned a hint of insubordination in the platoon. His orders had never been questioned, and the officer had seemed satisfied with results; but Dawes knew that shovels were lost too easily, that rifles were neglected, that faces were too evasive and sullen. These new men were not soldiers, and they had not the soldier’s spirit. He had clenched his iron jaws the tighter and added to their duties.
“You there, Sikes,” he had growled. “Get a shovel and drain about the officer’s shelter.” Sikes was a tall, sallow, shrinking youth.
“And you, Billings, bail out the upper end. Do ye think yer on a picnic?’’ Billings was a patient-eyed man past middle age, but he had served six months with the Dukes.
“You, too, lidy-face. Come out of yer trance. Wot’s yer nime?”
"Lidy-face” was a slight youth with delicate, clear-cut features. He was scooping liquid mud from his post. Dawes despised the very sight of him. Such a type never made soldiers.
“My name is Gregory, Paul Gregory,” the youth had answered. He had stayed his shovel and looked at Dawes.
“Paul! Wot a nime! Fits a sissy like yer kind.” Derision rode high in Dawes’ remarks. “A clerk in a pastry shop, wasn’t yer?”
“No,” Gregory had said in a toneless voice, “I was a student.”
“A student!” Dawes had mocked. “Blimey! Yer don’t say! Wot was yer a-studyin’ of?”
“Law,” Gregory had said curtly, and resumed his shovelling.
“Law!” Dawes had sworn wholeheartedly. “That’s w'ot's wrong with the country, the likes of yer gettin’ into orfice. Law ! I’ll give yer the law of the army. Take yer shovel and clean out that ditch at the end of the trench.”
The end of the trench was a veritable graveyard of mud and slime, a gruesome bog with unburied dead showing in a dozen places. White, chalky hands reached up from one green-scummed pool. Worn, water-logged boots protruded from another. Steel hats, rifles, bits of equipment showed here and there. Sometime it had been a trench, but a blast of shell fire had literally erased it, leaving it an area of concentrated horror. Gregory had gone to the ditch and begun a hopeless effort to clear it. As fast as he had scooped out the slimy mixture the sides of the ditch had oozed in to fill it anew.
Dawes had looked up and down the trench. Most of the platoon were huddled in their shelters, on wet straw that reeked of chloride of lime. Here and there a mud-plastered soldier was doggedly endeavoring to bail his burrow dry enough to enable him to get to sleep in it before the water seeped back. At the two posts lone sentries stood on duty, hugging themselves to restore warmth, continually changing position to keep their feet from sinking fast in the mud, feet that were numbed, soggy clumps. As Sikes labored near the officer’s shelter, the waterproof sheet that served as its door was thrust aside and the lieutenant’s face appeared, mudstreaked, unshaven. “Get to hell away from here,” he had ordered, "I’m trying to get to sleep.”
Sikes had drawn back at once, splashing needlessly into a pool and saluting awkwardly. “Yes, sir,” he had stammered. “I—-I will.”
Dawes had gritted his teeth and spoken with harsh vindictiveness. “Get down to that ditch there on the other side of that law puppy, and use yer shovel. Use it, don’t play with it.”
Sikes had gone without a word. He had pushed by Gregory, smiling wanly in answer to his questioning look, and began scooping the slime. Dawes knew they were in a rather exposed position, $
but he had let them remain, grimly determined that they should have a lesson of discipline ground into them.
He had shouted their recall later when a
sudden zip-zip-zip of bullets had sounded close above
Gregory had ducked back to safety, doubled in abject fear, his face spattered with filth, but Sikes had not been with him. Dawes was out to him in a bound and had dragged the long, limp body in. There was a small hole in the youth’s forehead and his eyes were sightless. “That’s wot comes of yer not knowin’ w hen to get down,” the corporal had rasped as he glared at Gregory. “Yer needn’t stare like that, yer can’t do nothin’ for him. Go crawl in yer hole.”
Gregory had gone to his shelter, but there had been that in his eyes which Dawes could not fathom, and the corporal had been conscious of a faint twinge of regret. The platoon wfas under strength, and it had not been entirely necessary to have Sikes killed in order to discipline the new men, and yet, he had reflected, it would
probably have the ultimate tendency to impress them.
Gradually the hurtling missiles overhead became fewer and fewer, and soon there were lulls in the storm, lulls that would make the new men feel the awesome, deathly atmosphere of the Salient. Dawes knew that a sense of wonderment, of weird, nerve-wringing expectation would grip them. It had gripped him every time in the old days, and those night-borne silences between shell bursts had been his dread. He spoke roughly to the man ahead of him. “Hump yerself while Jerry’s quiet. Keep up in yer plice.”
Then dark forms materialized ahead of him, guides from the platoon they were to relieve, and he heard the new officer’s voice, tense and high-pitched, asking questions. Dawes wanted to jeer.
The lieutenant would learn a thing or two before the tour was over.
The front to be held was even
worse than he had imagined. There were six posts, centred on a captured pillbox that was to be the officer’s quarters. It was a loathsome spot. The entrance faced the wrong way, looking over the German lines: the rain came in and stayed, and the floor was knee-deep with a frightful slime, three planks bridging it to broad concrete ledges at the back of the chamber: the stench was almost beyond human endurance. Dawes considered a moment and then detailed Gregory as one of the men to stay there.
A second post was in the farmhouse ruins, a third under the collapsed roof of an outbuilding, and the others were simply enlarged shell holes. Each and every one was entirely unfit for occupation, but Dawes
hustled his men into them and gave them harsh instructions as to their duties. He went back to the sergeant he was relieving and was told that a crooked sap extended in front, apparently an old trench that led into the enemy lines, and that the other platoon had manned it until the small post they had established had been flooded.
The corporal waited until the sergeant had gone and then called Billings to come with him. He stopped at the pillbox for Gregory. “Come with me, you two,” he ordered, “and bring something with yer for bailin’ water. There’s a post out front yer will hold till daylight.” They found the blockade, a ledge of sandbags that had dammed the seepage and formed a pond. On the bank lay a rubber boot with part of the leg cut away. It and a German shrapnel helmet had been used for bailing purposes. “Get into it and get busy,” Dawes growled, “and keep yer nappers low, for there’s Jerry snipers around.”
He untied a shovel from his equipment. They would need it as soon as the water was low. “Yer’d never know enough to bring one with yer,” he snarled, “but yer’d cry for it when yer got here. Cut out to that hole,” he pointed to a dark blot in the swamp, a newmade crater, “and yer’ll drain this bit. Billings, yer ought to know by this time that yer should be on watch. Yer can spell each other.” After an hour’s hard work they completed the drain and the water poured into the crater, leaving their post in as good condition as any of the others. “Use yer eyes and ears,” said Dawes as he left them. “Don’t move when flares goes up and challenge anyone who comes to yer, from in front or behind.”
He went back, floundering through the mud and water, to report conditions to the lieutenant, whom he found in the pillbox shivering with nausea. “Yer don’t need to stay in it at nights, sir,” he said respectfully. “Yer can move around the posts, sir, and have a drink of tea with the men.” Tommy cookers, shielded by rubber sheets, were alight in the cellar post, and the bubbling contents of the dixies were the only comfort the men could acquire. They crouched in their cramped quarters, where everything oozed slime greasy to the touch, counting the hours by halves and quarters, every nerve attuned to the note of the guns and shell explosions. Dawes left the officer in the cellar and went to the shell posts himself. He gave drastic orders that every man was to be on the alert until it was light. “Jerry’s trench is on the other side of the Poelcappelle-St. Julien road,” he muttered to each, “but that don’t mean nothin’ at night times. He’ll take any chance to nip a post, and when he comes he comes sudden. Pin yer ears back and keep lookin’.”
A long spark streaked into the dark and burst with a whitish glare that hovered for a second or two, and then all was blacker than before. “Don’t move yer eyewinks when them things is up,” hissed Dawes to the occupants of the post he was visiting. “Keep steady no matter wot yer sees.”
The palpitating Very lights continued to throw shadows over the churned-up waste, and Dawes gave his sibilant orders to every post. Then he went to the cellar and found the officer eager to inspect his line. The hot tea had revived him. The corporal guided him to all save the blockade up the sap, and explained that it was in reality a listening post, and the less movement near it the better. But the lieutenant was not to be denied. “I can go as quietly as you can,” he said crisply. “I’ll go out there myself. You stay here.”
Dawes made no further protest. He was a soldier of the old school.
rT'HE rain dwindled to a fine mist that deadened the.
sullen mutter of the guns, a penetrating vapor, damp and cold, that would plumb the resistance of the hardiest. It would also afford splendid cover for an enemy that could sense his way to dripping posts occupied by chilled and blinded sentries. Dawes listened to every noise, and presently came one of the lulls in the firing,
those unfathomable stillnesses he hated, void, deathlike quiets when every tiny sound was distorted and mysterious.
It was broken by a sudden cry in the murk ahead. There came a spatter of rifle shots and the metallic pin-n-g of Mills bombs. Dawes slipped the safety lever on his Lee-Enfield and plunged up the sap. There were more rifle shots and the snapping bark of Lugers. He stopped and fired at the most distant flashes, five rounds rapid. Flares went up from the German trench and made a milky whiteness in the mist. The firing ceased as abruptly as it had begun and somewhere in the gloom a man groaned, a deep-drawn, shuddering sound.
Dawes found the man a moment later. It was the officer, and Billings was bending over him, trying to bandage a gaping head wound that would never be closed. “We heard somethink in the dark,” said Billings excitedly, “just as the orficer come up. We told ’im, but he would stick hisself up. He copped it fair ...”
“Shut up,” said Dawes, “and get back to yer post.” He had felt the lieutenant’s body go limp and still. “Never shoot blindlike in the dark. They can see yer flashes. Use yer bombs every time.”
He muddled his way back to the nearest post and got a man to help him take the officer to the pillbox. It was back-breaking toil, but they got him there at last and rolled him in a sodden blanket, ready to be buried when there was opportunity. Then Dawes went back up the crooked sap to the blockade. He found Gregory hunched in the post, peering over the bags, and Billings dozing beside him. “Did yer hear anythin’?” he demanded sharply.
Gregory’s teeth were chattering with cold so that he could scarcely answer. “I ... I thought I did,” he said. “But I couldn’t be sure.”
“Get up, Billings,” ordered Dawes. “Keep yer eyes open. I’ll take Gregory, and we’ll crawl out in front a bit. We’ll keep to the left, so yer needn’t get jumpy unless yer sees somethin’ on yer right. Come along, you.”
Gregory did not move. He appeared to press back, to flatten against the barrier. A flare went up and the corporal saw his face, grey-green in the flickering light, his eyes fixed and staring.
“Did yer hear me, Gregory?” he grated as the flare died. “Come along with yer.”
“I ... I can’t do it!” Gregory’s whisper was barely audible.
“Yer can’t do it! Why?” There was menace in the query.
“I . . . I’m too c-cold, and I ... I haven’t the courage.”
“Haven’t the . . . yer will have! I’m givin’ yer an order.”
“I know it.” Gregory’s voice was still faint, but firmer. "I simply can’t crawl out there, corporal.”
"Do yer know wot that means?” The question came like a serpent’s hiss.
"It . . it’s cowardice . . . but I can’t help it.” Gregory’s teeth were chattering again.
“Yer’ll be for the wall.” Like a judge’s sentence came the corporal’s edict. Then he turned to Billings. “Let this tripe tyke yer plice,” he said, “and come with me yerself.” Billings appeared to fumble with his pocket in the dark. “Never mind yer bombs,” snapped Dawes. “Come along.”
He crawled from the ditch and led the way, pausing only to see that Billings followed hin. The mist had lifted to a certain extent, and as far as his eye could pierce the gloom he could see shell holes filled with water, an indescribable desolation. He went on. The enemy had been near in the dark and must have had some other way of approach than wading the trackless mire. Billings labored with each plunging step, panting and gasping, and Dawes slowed to give him rest. “The Dukes has gone to the devil,” he muttered savagely to himself. “It’s filled with old men, and kids, and sissies. Blimey, who’d have thought it!”
Bitterly he recalled, as he lay in the muck, the glorious long ago when the originals had come to France, roaring the chorus of “Tipperary” as they marched along the dusty roads. They had been big-boned, gallant men, gay in their larking; iron-jawed, unswerving, Kitchenerlike men when they were at grips with the foe.
“They must ’ave come up this trench.” It was Billings whispering hoarsely in his ear that jerked him back to the situation as he pointed to a sort of ditch.
“How do yer know?” he retorted, but he turned to examine the sap.
Crack! A sniper’s rifle somewhere near the Poelcappelle-St. Julien road. The bullet zipped very near to them and they heard it “plup” in tha mud. Crack! Another shot, and the bullet ricocheted Dom some metal protuberance in the swamp. “The Jerries must ’ave spotted us,” whispered Billings again, more hoarsely than before. “Who, who’ll be in charge if you get hit?”
A queer sensation seized Dawes. His first big responsibility, and he had almost muddled it! He had forgotten entirely that he was now the only man on the platoon front who was cloaked with authority. “We’ll go back,” he hissed sharply. “Mind yerself and don’t make a noise.”
They travelled up the trench toward the blockade. Billings clutched his arm and pointed. Pop! A thin streak of light, and a flare sizzled high in a luminous glow, the light exposing that which had alarmed—a crumpled form on the broken parapet, a face uplifted, with marble eyeballs, blackened flash, bared teeth like ivory. He heard Billings catch his breath in a quivering intake, then the flare died.
AT DAWN the sky was a leaden pall. Dawes, gaunt and grim, manoeuvred back to the pillbox. He had been to every post and given orders for the day, and now he would get himself something to eat before he sank to
fitful slumber on one of the slimy concrete ledges. As he wolfed his cold bully and biscuits, he looked over the dismal waste he could see through the frontal entrance, then started and cursed luridly. He had forgotten the two at the blockade! A part of Billings’ back and his steel hat were in plain view as he lay on the piled sandbags, his rifle thrust through a makeshift parapet and pointing up the sap on the opposite side. Gregory was not in sight.
Dawes ate every crumb of his rations, then went out, crouching low, and wormed his way up the sap. It seemed a long way out to the block, and he was tired despite his mighty muscles. He saw Gregory rise a trifle and watch him, and the student’s features were haggard and corpselike in the grey light. He was near Billings’ feet.
“Why didn’t yer come in?” Dawes demanded in a husky growl. “I told yer this post was to be held till daylight. Didn’t yer catch anything out of that?”
“We had no orders about what to do at daylight,” said Gregory defensively. “So we just stayed.”
“Yer keep shut till I speaks to yer.” Dawes’ voice was vitriolic with hate and contempt. “It makes no difference wot yer does, yer for the wall. See, I made out yer ticket as soon as it was light.” He drew from his tunic pocket a folded paper covered with scrawled lead pencil writing. “That’ll fix yer goose,” he leered.
Dawes looked about the drained sap with a speculative eye. The place was now dryer than any of the posts, and there was no stench as bad as that, of the pillbox. “Yer in luck, Billings.” His voice croaked as he tried to make it cheerful. “Yer post’s better than any of them back there. I’m goin’ to stay with yer, and I’ll spell yer after a bit.”
“I’ve just got up here,” returned Billings. “Gregory has been watchin’ ever since I came off patrol.”
Crump! Crump! Crump! A mist hung over the lower, more swampy ground beyond their line and near the Steenbeek. Great, belching explosions now shattered it into shreds, swirled it in eddies until it mixed with the smoke and shell fumes. The shelling continued, raging over an area already an impassable mire. Dawes watched a while, then settled near Gregory who had his hand in his pocket. He withdrew it and revealed a dirty hardtack, which he nibbled. The corporal snorted fresh contempt, then looked up at Billings. “Yer’ll be better off if yer leaves them biscuits alone between times,” he said roughly. “I've seen the both of yer dippin’ in yer pockets for them. They’ll make yer no good for march in'.”
Billings did not look at him, but he nodded. “I'm goin’ to sleep a bit,” Dawes went on. "Don’t yer mind
them big ones. He’ll not throw any near here, and he’s not likely to try any post-grabbin’ stunts when he’s shellin’, but keep yer eyes skinned open. Yer can’t trust the swine.”
VL 7TIEN Dawes finally slept it was almost a stupor, and he woke in a daze, knowing that something was amiss, but unable to grasp matters quickly. He struggled to jump up, but his muscles had stiffened and his legs cramped, then he was suddenly aware of a red-faced, hard-breathing German officer menacing him with a Luger. Instinctively, he turned to Gregory, but the student was in a like predicament. A second German, a bull-like fellow', was prodding him from his corner.
"You will to the other side over go,” said the officer in thiek-tongued English. He repeated the words, and Gregory’s captor hoisted him by the collar and booted him out of the trench. The student was shaking with fear, but he scrambled around the bags and dropped into the sap on the other side.
Dawes followed him, raging inwardly, yet knowing that the slightest resistance would bring sure death. He glanced at Billings and saw that he was still in position, his rifle through the slit in the bats, his finger on the
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trigger—but his rigid posture explained. Billings was dead, and the hole drilled in the rim of his helmet told that he had been shot by someone coming up the trench—an easy target as his head had been drooped forward in sleep. The labor and excitement of the night had overcome him.
The corporal squirmed around the bags and dropped in the sap beside Gregory, in a muck that rose above his puttees." He grunted with surprise to see a third German, an ugly-faced fellow armed with stick bombs, calmly watching every move. The Germans had taken every precaution. “You will the shovels use to this clean out,” said the officer harshly as soon as he, too, was around the barrier. “Keep your heads low and do not the mud put high.” He tapped his pistol significantly.
There was no mistaking his orders, and Dawes saw the cleverness of the plan. The Germans would remain on their side of the blockade until after dusk, so that any chance observers on the English side would only see the sentry lying at his post, his rifle ready. Then, when it was dark enough, a raiding party would come from the German lines and go down the sap and thus get behind the posts around Bulow Farm. Unless luck went against them they should easily capture the whole platoon.
The German officer and his non-com established themselves, one on each side of the trench, close to the shovellers, and the scowling private remained in the rear. Gregory worked with machinelike precision, scooping steadily and rarely looking up. Dawes caught a glimpse of his face. It was deathly white, as he had expected, but he was surprised by the look in the student’s eyes. They held a cool craftiness in their depths. What was the sissy thinking?
Dawes studied his captors and tried to evolve some scheme, however desperate, for escape. He knew he would have to make a lone attempt, for he was sure that Gregory would simply freeze at the first sign of hostilities. At the end of half an hour he abandoned his planning. There was not a chance. The Germans beside him never relaxed an instant; the muzzles of their Lugers never wavered; and a few feet away the third fellow was ready with his rifle and grenades.
He felt that he would be fortunate to reach a German prison camp. Tempers were short in the Salient and German nerves were finely strung. Then he began to watch Gregory. The student was shovelling as if he were in earnest in his attempts to clean the trench.
Their combined efforts had not drained the place more than a few inches, but Gregory pressed by Dawes and began to cut a channel that would lead around the barricade. The German officer pushed him back and grunted an enquiry. “If I make a drain through there the water will all run to the other side,” the student explained carefully. “This side would be dry.”
The officer nodded assent and Dawes began to wonder what sort of a chap Gregory was; did he really wish to help his captors? A student, according to his conception, was a diffident, delicately organized sort of a person, one who measured and calculated things—and was of little use in general. He was firmly convinced that such a breed was useless in the army. They were too individualistic, and he had never believed that a soldier should be permitted the luxury of private feelings. In comparison with this slight, white-faced youth, he pictured some of his old mates of ’14, and their heroic figures seemed to him emblematic of all that the .traditions of the “Dukes” typified.
Gregory gradually cut a neat drain
through to the other side, and it seemed as if he were taking careful measure of each foot of the way. Dawes understood his slow movements, however, when the student rested on his shovel, and then handed it to him. “I am almost played out,” he said quietly. “You will have to finish it.”
The German officer understood. He gave a curt signal that Dawes do as he was asked, and the corporal sullenly obeyed. It needed but a half hour to complete the task and then the waters poured and gurgled through the vent, lowering quickly the pool in which they stood.
Gregory had been working with his entrenching tool, and he scooped up something from the soft mud that caused him to utter a sharp exclamation. He picked it loose with his fingers and held it to view. It was a wrist watch, a dainty thing, and both the Germans stepped over to examine it. Dawes had looked back at the instant, then glanced forward again. The rushing water had weakened the foundation of the piled bags and he knew that the weight of Billings body would probably cause them to spread and close the drain. He was totally unprepared for what did happen.
One bag slid out, then the body settled with a jerk—and the death-stiffed fingers on the trigger discharged the pointed rifle. The Germans had bent together to look at the watch, evidently trusting the ugly-faced man to keep guard, and their heads were in the path of the bullet. Simultaneously with the crack of the LeeEnfield, they dropped heavily in the liquid mud and in the same heart beat Gregory hurled his entrenching tool.
It caught the watching sentry off balance. The blade hit his hand as he raised his rifle and he yelled with pain. More swiftly than it seemed possible, the student caught the Luger from the officer’s hand, and fired. The sentry, just recovering his rifle, collapsed like a wet sack, groaning through clenched teeth.
Dawes leaped to action. He wrenched the rifle from the dying German and pitched his store of bombs over the side of the trench. Then he chuckled throatily. “Good work, Gregory,” he rasped. “Yer moved snappy at the right time, if yer never did before. Keep yer napper low and we’ll have fun with these swine yet. If they didn’t guess anything from that rifle shot they’ll come creepin’ in after dark—and we’ll have a Lewis gun here to meet them. Huh! Wot’s wrong with yer? Wot are yer shakin’ for?”
“It’s nothing,” said Gregory. “It’s just the reaction.” His voice was unsteady, but it was not timorous.
“Reaction! Wot yer givin’ me? Snap out of it, man, and help put this place to rights. Hand me them Lugers. I’ll have them for souvenirs.”
Gregory handed over the pistols without a word, though he had to wrench one from the dead Feldwebel's hand. Then he looked Dawes straight in the eyes.
“Listen,” he said determinedly. “What happened here wasn’t any freak of luck. I planned every move. You know how T worked the drain business, and got you to finish it? I did that so that I could get back here and work that watch stunt, so as to get them to put their heads in line with the rifle, and you’ll admit that it needed some good judging. I slipped off my own wrist watch and used it as the decoy, and kept my own head out of range while I was getting set to pitch my spade at the sentry. The Germans forgot to slip the safety on poor Billings’ rifle. I saw that, and thought out the trick.”
Dawes stared at the dead body lying on the parapet of the barricade. He had thought for a moment of trying to snatch the rifle from those grey-white hands and
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use it on his enemies, but had desisted as he reckoned the grip that death would give Billings’ fingers. He stared at the drain, so cleverly dug as to weaken the strength of the barrier, at the three dead Germans, and the conviction came to him —as sharp as an inoculating needle—that this pale-faced youth he despised had accomplished an almost incredible thing. He felt stirred, as if he should say something decent, give some praise, but remembered instantly the paper in his pocket and the affair of the night. How could he say anything when his feelings were so mixed? There were no words to express himself in his crude diction.
“You can believe it or not,” said Gregory, watching him. “But I’ve told you the exact truth.”
“All right,” said Dawes shortly. “Yer don’t need to make a song about it. It’s a pity yer didn’t act bright before, and it’s a disgrace to the Dukes that them Jerries ever got in here.”
“It’s not,” retorted Gregory, and his eyes met Dawes’ scrutiny as fairly as before “You were so all in yourself that you slept like a log, so how did you expect Billings to keep awake up there? You tired him out on that patrol.”
“Why didn’t yer relieve him?” blurted Dawes. “And do yer think I’ll take yer guff just because yer was lucky now? Shut yer trap and get hold of a shovel. Not one of yer lot is half a soldier.”
“And none of my lot wants to be,” returned Gregory, with the same controlled defiance. “It’s your kind that are only fit for soldiering. Billings was ten years older than you and he never had a rifle in his hands until a year ago. He was an honest workman with a nice family and he hated all this devilish killing and soldier business as much as I do, but he came out here because he thought it was his duty ...”
“Stow it!” roared Dawes. “Shut yer pasty flee or I’ll bash it with this rifle.” He jumped forward, his eyes rage-reddened, threatening with the butt of his Lee-Enfield.
As both men drew long breaths Gregory slid his hand to his tunic pocket and drew out another piece of hardtack. He looked at it, grimaced, and threw it from him in disgust. “I wouldn’t hold that rifle so high if I were you,” he said in a matter-offact way. “The Germans might see it.”
Dawes lowered the rifle and ducked instinctively, jerkily, and was angered the more at his own jumpiness. He glared at the slim, mud-coated figure that had dared defy him. “By the . . . ” he began in a choking fury.
Crash! Crump! Crash! Three explosions, almost as one, near the pillbox. Crash! Crash! Two more over by the Farm ruins. The Germans were shelling the front line.
More shells came with a shrill, intensifying snarl and Dawes squatted beside the student with his back to the trench wall. A thousand questions tugged at him. What did Jerry mean to do?
Again and again shells dropped very near them, blinding, stifling, ear-splitting salvos that miraculously missed their strained, cowering bodies, but strangled them with acrid fumes. Then the barrage went to the right and left, searching the flanking positions. Gregory lurched over so that his mouth was close to the corporal’s ear.
"Listen,” he shouted above the din. “I’m going to tell you something before anything happens. You’re just a bruteminded, bull-voiced roughneck. You don’t understand your men and you’ll never do anything with them. You think you can drive them with your abuse, but it won’t work. They hate the very sight of you and they’ll hold out on you every chance.”
DawTes had heard every word, and wras surprised at himself for listening. The shelling had erased the rage from his mind. He turned and looked at Gregory. “Ye’re barmy,” he rasped. “Rest yer jaw\”
“I’m not barmy,” shouted Gregory. “I’m as sane as you are, and now that I’ve got myself in hand I’ve got as much courage as you have. You’re devoid of feeling because you’ve had every atom of it drilled out of you, and when men with souls and intelligence come out here with hardly any training, you expect them to be an iron machine like yourself. You haven’t got brains enough to understand another man’s nerves. You had Sikes murdered just to show your bullying authority, and you’ve tried to break my heart. Listen. You’ll never —do—it!”
The last words were screamed. Dawes, listening to the shelling as well, had every word seared into his mind. He was certain that Gregory’s brain had become unbalanced under the strain, and yet—the things he had said hit hard. Once more the explosions came near them, until he was numbed beyond thinking by successive detonations. Gregory, dazed, more pallid than before, stared at the dead Germans in an unseeing manner, his limbs twitching convulsively at each explosion. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shelling stopped.
Dawes raised himself cautiously. Smoke and mist obscured the line of posts. He peered along the ditch they were in and fancied he saw something move at one of the distant turns. He watched, and a coalscuttle helmet was clearly in view. A German prowler was coming up to their sap. It was too late to try and get to the other side of the blockade, and there was not much cover for them. All would depend on who got the first shot. “There’s a Jerry creepin’ up on us,” he said roughly to Gregory. “Do yer get me? Just stay where yer are. I’ll pot the swine when he gets closer.”
He took position close behind the dead officer and cleaned his rifle sights. Then came a last salvo of shells, directed at the pillbox, and one dropped short. It exploded near the blockade and a flying bit struck Dawes on the head. His stee’, helmet saved him, but he was knocked unconscious.
VJLTTTEN Dawes regained consciousness v v he was sprawled where he had lain with his rifle. Gregory was close by, scraping fresh mud from his uniform. He stooped when he saw that the corporal had roused, and picked up a mess tin. Prying off the cover, he took out a tin of jam, a slice of cheese, and some bread.
“I’m starved,” he said quietly. “I managed to reach Billings’ rations. Will you have something?”
Dawes sat up. His head throbbed and pounded. He stared down the sap, remembering, then grunted his amazement. A fourth German lay close to the others. His head had been battered bloodily. His clenched hands and the position of his body told that he had struggled.
“Wot happened?” croaked Dawes. He was not sure that he saw correctly.
“Nothing much,” said Gregory. “I tricked that fellow easily. I’m a poor shot with a rifle, and anyway I expect that chap’s a scout they sent out to see how things were, and if they heard a shot they’d be suspicious. So I got down with the rest of you and played dead until he was close enough.”
“But . . . how?” Dawes stared at the student.
“These Germans are Brandenburgers,” said Gregory. “I could tell by their uniforms, and I’ve always heard that they’re not to be trusted. So I didn’t try to take him prisoner. I killed him with my entrenching tool.” He reached for the jam and opened it.
Dawes looked at the dead man. “Can yer beat that?” he said huskily.
He accepted a slice of bread and jam and ate mechanically, his eyes on Gregory. Within, he was seething, absorbed in a sort of silent and awful adjustment. How could a man estimate these white-faced youths? Thus one had funked dreadfully in the night, but now had shown tigerish
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courage. Would some of those others he had seen cowering, one he had reported ... ? One of them had gone to the wall. It came to him in a vague way that perhaps the emotions of these young lads must run their full gamut in this land of topsy-turvy, that after a careful testing they might find themselves and prove fighters, of a kind. Soldiers they would never be, not men like the old Dukes, who marched, tight-lipped, to their death. He knew that absolutely.
Dawes wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and undid the flap of a pocket. He drew out a folded dirty paper, covered with scrawled writing. “Do yer see this?” he said, with some of the rasp gone out of his voice. “This is yer ticket—and see.” He tore the report into shreds. “Yer have made good, and when Dawes tells yer that, it’s the truth.”
Gregory’s wan features softened. “Thanks, corporal,” he answered. His hand trembled slightly as he thrust it in his tunic pocket, and when he drew it out a small automatic pistol nestled in the palm !
“I was going to kill you with this,” he said, speaking in a tense way. “But I thought I’d give you a chance first. I’ve told you some plain things, but you needed to hear them, because you’ve got to realize that you’re handling a different class of men now, not soldiers, just men who’ve come to do their bit. If you hadn’t destroyed that paper I was going to shoot you here, and say the Germans did it, and ...”
“Where did yer get it?” blurted Dawes. He could not bear that calm voice longer.
Gregory hesitated, then spoke. “I believe it would help you to know,” he said. “I got it from Billings.”
“Billings! Him?” Dawes pointed a thumb.
“Yes, old Billings. Someone in the platoon had it and they decided to shoot you, and Billings offered to do it. He said it wasn’t right, but it was the only way he knew to save some of the young chaps. He was going to use it last night, but I stopped him. I wanted you to know— first.” With a careless toss, Gregory pitched the weapon over the parapet. They heard it splash in the mire. “There —you know everything,” he finished. ‘‘Now let’s get the blockade ready for tonight.”
He replaced the lid of the mess tin, pushed his spade around the barrier and wormed around it himself. Dawes watched him go, and the Corporal’s mouth opened as if he would speak, but no words came to him. Presently he heard the sound of shovelling.
He looked around, at his muddy self. It was difficult to grasp all that he had heard. A corporal of the Iron Dukes to be killed by his own men ! Ghastly treason ! Who’d ever thought that such a day would come? Yet he sensed that Gregory
was sincere, and he knew men well enough to realize that these white-faced recruits were capable of their intentions, and the knowledge haunted him. His head throbbed dizzily. He looked at the dead Germans again, at the one with his head crushed in, then rose and squirmed his way around the muddy barricade.
TAARK forms stumbled along the muddy trail that led by the Steenbeek. It was the remnant of Dawes’ platoon on their way out. Around and behind them were watery lights, winking flashes, the dull thudding of gun fire. They had won special recognition by the wfay in which they had repulsed a German attack on the evening of their second day in the shell-hole line.
Dawes was in the rear, plodding through the clinging muck as if it were a hard road. Rain dribbled down his neck and his clothing was sodden. Gregory was in the lead, for he had been made an acting lance-corporal to serve the needs of the hectic second night, and had had charge of the line while the corporal clung to the blocked-trench position. Dawes’ mind was still a chaos of conflicting impressions. He was hardly sure of himself.
The file was moving slower and slower. They were passing a place which nightly shelling had made a morass unusually discouraging. Through sheer force ot habit, Dawes set himself to hurl profane urging at the laggers a few paces in front of him. One in particular, the stripling who had survived the post line, was staggering with exhaustion and continually shifting his rifle. Then distinct and clear, he heard Gregory’s voice in quiet urging of the men nearest him.
Dawes caught back the words that were rolling off his tongue, hesitated, then plunged by the man in front of him and took the tired stripling’s rifle.
“Keep yer chin up, kid,” he said in gruff kindness. “Yer’ll make the grade.”
The lad had cringed as Dawes took his mud-crusted rifle, but at the rough speech he straightened in his equipment. “I think I can, corp,” he said in a voice thin with weariness but gritty. “That rifle was breakin’ my shoulders.”
UACK in his place with the two rifles, ■*-'* Dawes hoped that none of his old mates would think he had “gone soft.” He trudged on, wondering if he were under the spell of the Salient or whether it was that men were changing, and at last found thoughts to console him. When this hell-driven war was over, things would revert to the old order. The Iron Dukes would fill their ranks with brawny, hard-fisted men, men with a creed like his own and a bulldog heart to back it. He glowed with the thought, treasured it, and knew that he could now endure all things until he was with his own kind again, soldiers—real soldiers!