FICTION

THE FIRST PLATOON

WILL R. BIRD May 1 1934
FICTION

THE FIRST PLATOON

WILL R. BIRD May 1 1934

THE FIRST PLATOON

FICTION

WILL R. BIRD

DOCTOR”—Danny Meedon’s faded blue eyes fixed on the calm professional face above him— “tell me straight what chances I’ve got. You can’t scare a soldier that was through the Somme about dyin'. An’ I’d like to know.”

“You’ve got an even chance, Danny; fifty-fifty.” Danny settled himself as comfortably as he could on the operating table. The doctor’s voice hadn’t told him anything.

"Let’s go, then,” he said.

He hated taking the anaesthetic and. to ease the moment, tried to think hard, to remember something. . . home. . . work. . . the war. . .

Danny stared!

He’d been straining his mind on some point, he knew, but whatever it was it had fled him. And he was safe in the trench, feeling fine.

“Jake day.” He grinned at the soldier sitting on the firestep, and the fellow nodded amiably, comfortably.

It was a splendid trench, deep and wide and curving gently. It was dry, with good bath mats and a fine high parapet. And the dugout entrance was roomy, with a decent stairway. There was no gas blanket, and no foul air met him so Danny went down. It was cool below, and the bunks were in A 1 condition. He looked around.

"Take the comer one if you like," said a corporal who was writing at a table.

"Jake!” Danny said with enthusiasm. He always liked the comer bunk, but it was seldom he got one. He whistled as he hung his equipment up. Then he looked at the table.

“You’re fixed up pretty snug here,” he said. “Who’s next after you?”

“No one,” smiled the corporal. “Use it all you want to, and this pile of green envelopes is for you.”

“Say!” Danny was so staggered he couldn’t speak. Him next at the table, and all those envelopes. And he'd had to trade chocolate to get the last one.

He went out of the dugout; it didn't seem real.

The parados was low, it really wasn’t a parados at all. It was a grassy bank, a swell place to loaf on one’s back and watch the clouds. A dozen chaps were doing that, and he crawled out beside them. A strangely comfortable sensation had stolen over him a feeling of camaraderie. They were all one; he belonged.

There was a gentle breeze, tempering the warmth to perfection. It was marvellous to relax without equipment. His head felt nice and cool, relieved of its steel heÄ|et. None of the others had theirs on.

.Vrte¿¿eant came aiong the trench with an officer, but thefl.'TW said:

“Wfcji^boys. Good news. No working party tonight.” Then the corporal came out of the dugout and followed them.

“Take it easy, boys, ”he said. “No duty till day after tomorrow'.”

Day after tomorrow!

TNANNY sat up. This was too good to be true. There must be a reason. But he didn’t like to bother others while they were resting so contentedly, so he resolved to go along the trench and find out what had happened.

Just around the bay he came to a bivvy. It was wide, exactly the right height, but not quite finished. A hundred times he had started to make one like that, and always something had prevented. The sides had caved in, mud w’as too soft, there wasn’t time, or he hadn’t had tools. But here was a good spade left beside the job. If only he had a chance like that. . .

He looked along and saw another bivvy, and a fellow was resting in its coolness.

“Say,” he asked, “is anybody having this one?”

“No,” the soldier said. "Help yourself, chum.” “Thanks.” Danny said. “Floy, I’ll make it a jake one.” He spaded carefully, made every cut exactly as he had wished, then spread his groundsheet and fixed a peg for his tin hat.

All the time he worked he had not got tired, and the earth smelled fresh and sweet. There was not a worm hole, not a grub of any kind. Then he noticed that there w'ere no bad odors in the trench at all, and it was very quiet. Not a thing had come over where they were, and he could not hear any guns. A lark rose from just over the parapet and went up and up and up, singing all the way.

Danny, from force of habit, looked at his shirt, inside it. Not a crawler. Fie was clean, free of them; there was not a mark on his skin. And the shirt was clean, just from the baths.

“Say, look here.” Danny went to the fellow in the next bivvy. “What’s happened?”

The soldier smiled.

“Hello!” he ejaculated. “It’s you, Danny. I thought I’d seen you before.”

"Bill! You!” It was Bill Haylor who had got his “packet” at that sunken road on the Somme.

“Sure thing, Danny. Isn’t it great?”

Danny tingled queerly. He felt strange. He looked around and at Bill again. “Is this heaven?” He whispered it. “Sure is,” Bill said. “Make yourself at home.”

They talked about old times, and then Danny walked on. He was too surprised to sit still and, anyway, he would be seeing Bill any time he liked.

Boy, did he feel good ! He did a little jig around the bay by himself. All his dying was over—and he’d got to heaven. And to exactly the right part of it at that. He had never felt this way before, exhilarated, absolutely content. The weather was perfect, he was rested, there was nothing to do, and there was a corking fine dugout for the night.

There was a branch in the trench, a straight sap leading back. He went along it, and came to an “egg-and-chips” place. Looking in, he almost shouted. It was being operated by “Toffee Jane,” she who had stuck it so long up at Kemmel. And her face was clean, all the dishes were clean. There was real butter on the table, and the eggs and chips made his mouth water.

"Bon join,” she cried. “Hello, Danny!”

It was amazing. She could talk his language and he could speak hers with equal fluency.

“Hello yourself,” he grinned. “Say, I’m hungry. How’s my credit—”

“No money here,” came her answer. “Have all you want.”

“Pow!” Danny exclaimed. He felt dazed by such offerings. “How’d you get here?” he asked.

“I fed all the company the time you weren’t fed before the big push,” she said happily. “I lost many francs because so many didn’t come back—but I got here when the shell came that last day.”

DANNY ate his fill and went back to the trench. It was certainly jake to have a place so near. He had never enjoyed a feed so much before. Men were going along the grassy plot back of the trench, and he tried to catch a glimpse of their badges.

There was a certain light in which he could see them, a brief glow that passed over them, and the first one he made out was an A. S. C. badge.

“Army Service Corps bloke !” he said under his breath. “Now what do you suppose—?”

“Gave his fags to a wounded Heinie on a stretcher up Ypres way,” said a voice.

Danny turned quickly. A battalion runner was sitting on the grass behind him. In luck again. Battalion runners always had so much information.

"And there’s an engineer?”

“He was putting in a pipe for water on the Somme when he got wounded bad, but he stayed on the job till it was done so the men would lx able to get their bottles filled.” “And there’s a Red Cap?”

“Yes. He knew one of the boys in our company, and the chap wasn’t what he should have been before he got killed, but that Red Cap wrote a letter to the chap’s mother about her fine son. She’s still showing it to people and it’s her treasure.”

“Where are all these chaps going now?”

“To see the first platoon parade.”

“The first platoon. Who are they?”

“Boys who got their tickets on this anniversary.” “They decorated?”

“Nobody has any medals up here, Danny. The band plays and they have a big march past. It’s great to see the first platoon.”

“All right for me to go and see it?”

“Sure. There’s no duty here till day after tomorrow. You can read that on the orders.” He pointed to an order board at the trench comer, and then Danny noticed another remarkable thing. The orders were not dated!

They went out over the parados, and Danny was surprised to find that it was only a short distance to a swimming pool. It had a clear, sandy bottom without a stick or stone or tin can, and was exactly the right depth. A dozen fellows were swimming.

“Say, have I got time?” He pointed at the pool. Speaking about the Somme had made him remember the way he had wished for a cleansing swim.

Danny plunged in and found the water exquisitely right. He swam with ease; the pool was more buoyant and refreshing than surf at the seashore. He floated, paddled, enjoyed himself immensely.

The runner handed him a big clean tow'el. It was grand to put the clean shirt on and clean socks. When he was dressed they went on.

A bugle blew, an incredibly lovely call.

“That’s the fall in,” the runner said, “but there’s no hurry.”

Danny saw a marker move out on the grassy parade ground. It was a velvety lawn and the marker looked comfortable. He didn’t have his tunic collar fastened or his brass shined.

“Say,” he gasped, “don’t they have to—”

“Not up here,” the runner grinned. "There isn’t any

Brasso.”

THE MARKER turned and Danny thought he saw

a flash of red tabs.

“He was a brigadier,” the runner explained. “There isn’t many of them got into the first platoon, but he refused to send his men into a second attack on Regina Trench. It cost him a promotion but he got into the first platoon.”

“Who’s all in the first platoon?” Danny noticed that their uniforms seemed a slightly different color. They looked splendid, too, as they chatted together, waiting for the fall in. It was so different from the tedious, nervebreaking inspections he had seen on earth.

“They’re fellows who did something big. There’s Duggins, of our old outfit. He gave his gas mask to a new chap who’d lost his. Remember? Duggins suffered terribly that night before he died.”

“I know,” Danny said, “but his face was all burned with the stuff.”

“Up here,” the runner explained, “nobody has any marks on him.”

A young soldier—a pale, delicate, rather sensitivelooking fellow—stepped out in front of the platoon and began to call the roll. He had a soft voice and the men seemed glad to answer him.

"Private Danny Meedon—-just arrived.”

Danny started, and the runner nudged him.

“That’s you,” he whispered.

"It can’t be,” Danny protested. “It’s a mistake. \ou know I never did anything big.”

The runner went over to the pale-faced leader and questioned him. Danny, watching, was surprised to see that lie didn’t salute. Then it came to him that no one had ; there was no saluting in heaven.

The runner returned.

“It’s you,” he said.’ “Go and take your place. Up in the Rat Pit, at the Salient, that night they shelled SÍ) bad, you stayed on a double turn, taking Sammy’s place when he was SÍ) scared he wouldn t leave the culvert.

“How’d they know?” Danny was nonplussed. “I I never told anybody.”

“That’s why you’re here.”

Danny went over to the platoon. He felt bashful and confused but the others nodded at him and the pale lad shook his hand, and when he tcx)k his place in the line he felt proud. There was no rear rank at all; everybody was in the front rank.

'I'he pale lad gave a signal and Danny saw the Guard of Honor coming. They marched with beautiful rhythm and their uniforms were snow-white. '1 heir caps were decorated with little gold stars and their sleeves had crosses of crimson.

“Stretcher-bearers!” Danny exclaimed.

“Yes,” the man beside him said. "Every one of them." The Guard halted, and they all nodded greetings to Danny SÍ) that he felt a lump in his throat. It was good to lx recognized by them. Then, as they stood, the band began to play.

TT WAS the most wonderful music that Danny had ever heard. It thrilled him through and through, made him want to sing and shout, then calmed him and rested him as it became an exquisite lullaby, throbbing with such rapture that all their faces were radiant and glowing.

Someone gave a signal and they began a march past, the Guard of I Ionor leading. Danny squared his shoulders and put his chin up. It was the best marching music he had ever heard. Then he saw the band.

The players were all seated, and most of them were women. Many, he saw-, were nurses from hospitals, V. A. D. workers and ambulance drivers and canteen workers. Others were just grey-headed, wrinkled old women.

“Mothers who did all they could to help others when they had lost their own boys,” whispered the man next to Danny. “It’s their music that makes the harmony. Isn’t it swell?”

“Beats any band I’ve heard four ways over,” Danny

Continued on page 51

The First Platoon

Continued from page 19—Starts on page 18

said huskily, and then his pulses pounded, for the people in the band were nodding and smiling as he went past.

The parade fell out as they circled back to their grounds, and he talked with a friendly soldier who had a queer, pointed beard and an odd badge on his shoulder.

“I remember a night down at the Ravine by Trench Ninety-seven,” the man said, “when our captain himself stood post for one of us who was afraid. We loved him like a father after that.”

His story stirred Danny to many recollections and they talked until it was twilight—of wiring parties on rainy nights, ration parties caught in sudden shelling, of digging in under cover of a barrage—all reminiscences of the old days, but curiously just dealing with incidents in which one soldier had helped the other, risked all for him, shared all with him; and Danny found, when he considered it, that such experiences were the only ones he could remember.

Then he heard a soft “phutt,” and a flare soared into the night and burst into glow.

It was colored a delicate mauve, turning into light blue. Others soared up, and soon they were streaking the darkness with the most gorgeous display of color that Dannyhad ever witnessed. There were golden sprays, and scarlet rockets, and greens-overreds-over-greens, and rainbow bursts that hung in the air for moments before they dissolved in creamy light. He was entranced as they lay on their backs on the soft grass, watching.

It was not cold, not even chilly. The air was just cool and fragrant with the odor of flowers. Suddenly the men along the trench began to sing. Their voices blended perfectly and Danny joined in. They sang all the old pieces, their billet songs, the songs they had learned in training camps; then, as they used to do in the old days, finished with some hymns, singing with a stirring sweetness.

“Best I ever heard,” Danny said when they finished.

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“They sing every night,” the man with the pointed beard said, “and everybody joins in.”

"VXTITHOUT WARNING, a slight figure vv appeared. It was the pale youth, and he sat down beside Danny.

“We’re awfully glad to have you with us,” he said in his soft voice. “It’s great to have you in the first platoon.”

“It was a big surprise to me,” Danny said, “but I’m tickled pink to be with you. By the way, when do the rations come up? I’m getting hungry.”

“I came to tell you,” the pale boy said. “It’s all ready now in the dugout.”

Danny looked around, but the man with the pointed beard had gone.

“Where was Trench Ninety-seven?” he asked the pale boy.

“On the F'rench front. That fellow who was talking with you was a poilu of their Forty-sixth Division.”

“Oh,” Danny said in an awed voice. “So they’re here, too. I thought their religion—” “They don’t use that word up here,” the pale boy said.

They had a table lengthwise of the dugout, and the dishes were heaped with steaks, roast beef and vegetables. There were new ; peas and beans and carrots and beets and greens, every variety that Danny and his : mates had tried to imagine in their chilling, ; smoky dugouts back in T6. There had been five men to a loaf in those days, and no bully beef; they had almost starved.

After the meat and vegetables there was pastry, piles of pastry; deep apple pies that Danny always craved, browned to a nicety, and flanked with plenty of crisp doughnuts covered with sugar. Such a meal !

The pale youth sat on one side of him, and on the other was a straight-backed man with close-cropped hair and a lipped mustache. He did not speak until Danny had said “Hello,” and then he was very friendly.

“All the company’s going on leave,” he smiled. “We’ve just had word from the corporal.”

“Leave!” Danny said blankly. “Why— where—”

“Over to the gardens this time. We get plenty of leave up here. And the gardens are one of the best bits of heaven. They are simply a mass of bloom, and the scent is more sweet than you can think. Every flower is scented up here, and they all bloom all the time. Then there’s fountains and sprays and pools, and canaries and peacocks and humming birds, and—you must see the orchards. There are fruit trees of all kinds, and you can pick all you want. The fruit’s ripe all the time.”

Danny felt so tremulous he couldn’t

1 speak. How he had longed for flowers in those terrible days in the chalk pits up at I^oos. He’d never seen enough flowers. And : fruit !

“Will there be peaches?” he asked. Ripe, luscious yellow peaches had always been his favorites.

“Best you’ve ever tasted. They’re my favorites, too. We can go together. We’ll be mates, because I see you've got your bunk next to mine.”

Danny felt blissfully content as he left the table and went to his blankets. He was going to have a marvellous rest. Down on earth, it had been so long since he could get rest; his old wounds always bothered him at nights.

: '“PHEN HE looked at the soldier’s equipL ment hanging next his bunk and saw the name on it: “Private Otto Junger.

Royal Saxon Fusiliers.”

“Say,” he gasped incredulously, “are you a Fritz?”

Junger nodded, and smiled.

“There are six of us in this dugout,” he said.

“Hot crackers!” Danny gulped. “I—I didn’t know. You—you ain’t prisoners?” “No,” Junger said gently. “There aren’t any prisoners up here.”

“But—how’d you come over here—from your side?”

“My side?”

“Sure. Your trench, I mean.”

“But there isn’t any other trench. We’re all—everybody’s in this one.”

It was hard to grasp it at once, but, somehow, Danny was glad that it was so; they were all in the same trench—together.

They talked a long time. There was a pleasant hum of voices from the other corners and, outside, soldiers were singing. The candlelight was soft and easy on the eyes.

Danny settled back in his bunk.

“I like that pale young fellow who’s head of the platoon,” he said. “He kind of makes you feel right when he’s around.”

“He’s always kind to everybody,” Junger said. “I like his voice.”

“He’s great,” Danny agreed. “How did he—I mean, what did he do to get made head of the platoon?”

“They shot him for cowardice”—the German’s voice was very lowr—“against a wall back of the lines. Made some of his own comrades do it, the men of his battalion. They had him shut up in a filthy stable overnight, alone, and took him at dawn, before it was very light, bound his eyes and shot him.”

Danny couldn’t speak. He was remembering a boy in his company whose nerves had given way under continuous shell fire,

and who had run back, blind to everything.

“Some said he wasn't physically fit when he enlisted,” Junger said, “and he should have had a job at the base, but there was no one to speak a word for him or help him. and he was too sensitive to say anything.”

They were silent a long time, and Danny was very glad that the pale boy had his platoon.

“What was the big thing he did?” he asked at last.

“He forgave his judges,” Junger said. “They were a set of paunchy old base jobbers who had never been under shell fire.”

Danny settled back in his bunk. “I’m glad he’s head of the platoon,” he said. He started to say something about the staff officers who passed such judgment, then forgot them, and. in a vague way, realized that he was only sorry for them.

“Everybody’s glad,” Junger said. “He goes to the best part of heaven when he’s on leave.”

Suddenly the bunk moved, and Danny felt alarmed. He reached up to touch the timbers, and couldn’t feel anything.

“Say,” he exclaimed, “is anything wrong?’

EASY—EASY. Don’t struggle.” It was a calm, professional voice speaking, and all at once Danny smelled anaesthetics and disinfectants and linen sheets.

He opened his eyes and saw the doctor beside his bed, and a nurse in starched white.

“Be easy,” the doctor said. “That’s how you came through so well. You relaxed completely, the best I’ve seen in a long time. It helped a lot. Now take it easy and have a sleep, and you will be all right.”

“Wait,” panted Danny. “Tell me who that pale chap was, him that has the first platoon?”

“There—there,” soothed the doctor, and Danny felt fingers on his wrist.

“But who was he?” Danny persisted. “One of ours, or a Fritz?”

“He’s not quite out of it yet,” the nurse said in a low voice, “but he’ll be all right.” Then Danny realized where he was.

He felt strange and weak, and was conscious of the bandages that held him stiffly. But his mind raced back to where he had been, tried to make connections.

He’d been to heaven, there was no use trying to argue against that; but nobody’d ever believe him. Still, what did it matter?

He wished, though, that he’d asked about that pale boy; what outfit he belonged to, whether he was British or French or German. It had been such a good chance to find out, too. He hoped he was a . . .

Then, slowly, Danny understood. Up there it didn’t matter. It was only because he was back on earth that he wanted to know such things!