Chapter 10 How an Exile Returned to His Own People
Next morning I found the Army Commander on his way to Doullens.
'Take over the division?' he said. 'Certainly. I'm afraid there isn't muc_eft of it. I'll tell Carr to get through to the Corps Headquarters, when h_an find them. You'll have to nurse the remnants, for they can't be pulled ou_et—not for a day or two. Bless me, Hannay, there are parts of our line whic_e're holding with a man and a boy. You've got to stick it out till the Frenc_ake over. We're not hanging on by our eyelids—it's our eyelashes now.'
'What about positions to fall back on, sir?' I asked.
'We're doing our best, but we haven't enough men to prepare them.' He plucke_pen a map. 'There we're digging a line—and there. If we can hold that bit fo_wo days we shall have a fair line resting on the river. But we mayn't hav_ime.'
Then I told him about Blenkiron, whom of course he had heard of. 'He was on_f the biggest engineers in the States, and he's got a nailing fine eye fo_ountry. He'll make good somehow if you let him help in the job.'
'The very fellow,' he said, and he wrote an order. 'Take this to Jacks an_e'll fix up a temporary commission. Your man can find a uniform somewhere i_miens.'
After that I went to the detail camp and found that Ivery had duly arrived.
'The prisoner has given no trouble, sirr,' Hamilton reported. 'But he's a we_hing peevish. They're saying that the Gairmans is gettin' on fine, and I wa_ellin' him that he should be proud of his ain folk. But he wasn't verra wee_leased.'
Three days had wrought a transformation in Ivery. That face, once so cool an_apable, was now sharpened like a hunted beast's. His imagination was preyin_n him and I could picture its torture. He, who had been always at the to_irecting the machine, was now only a cog in it. He had never in his life bee_nything but powerful; now he was impotent. He was in a hard, unfamilia_orld, in the grip of something which he feared and didn't understand, in th_harge of men who were in no way amenable to his persuasiveness. It was like _roud and bullying manager suddenly forced to labour in a squad of navvies, and worse, for there was the gnawing physical fear of what was coming.
He made an appeal to me.
'Do the English torture their prisoners?' he asked. 'You have beaten me. I ow_t, and I plead for mercy. I will go on my knees if you like. I am not afrai_f death—in my own way.'
'Few people are afraid of death—in their own way.'
'Why do you degrade me? I am a gentleman.'
'Not as we define the thing,' I said.
His jaw dropped. 'What are you going to do with me?' he quavered.
'You have been a soldier,' I said. 'You are going to see a littl_ighting—from the ranks. There will be no brutality, you will be armed if yo_ant to defend yourself, you will have the same chance of survival as the me_round you. You may have heard that your countrymen are doing well. It is eve_ossible that they may win the battle. What was your forecast to me? Amiens i_wo days, Abbeville in three. Well, you are a little behind scheduled time, but still you are prospering. You told me that you were the chief architect o_ll this, and you are going to be given the chance of seeing it, perhaps o_haring in it—from the other side. Does it not appeal to your sense o_ustice?'
He groaned and turned away. I had no more pity for him than I would have ha_or a black mamba that had killed my friend and was now caught to a clef_ree. Nor, oddly enough, had Wake. If we had shot Ivery outright at St Anton, I am certain that Wake would have called us murderers. Now he was in complet_greement. His passionate hatred of war made him rejoice that a chie_ontriver of war should be made to share in its terrors.
'He tried to talk me over this morning,' he told me. 'Claimed he was on m_ide and said the kind of thing I used to say last year. It made me rathe_shamed of some of my past performances to hear that scoundrel imitating them … By the way, Hannay, what are you going to do with me?'
'You're coming on my staff. You're a stout fellow and I can't do without you.'
'Remember I won't fight.'
'You won't be asked to. We're trying to stem the tide which wants to roll t_he sea. You know how the Boche behaves in occupied country, and Mary's i_miens.'
At that news he shut his lips.
'Still—' he began.
'Still,' I said. 'I don't ask you to forfeit one of your blessed principles.
You needn't fire a shot. But I want a man to carry orders for me, for w_aven't a line any more, only a lot of blobs like quicksilver. I want a cleve_an for the job and a brave one, and I know that you're not afraid.'
'No,' he said. 'I don't think I am—much. Well. I'm content!'
I started Blenkiron off in a car for Corps Headquarters, and in the afternoo_ook the road myself. I knew every inch of the country—the lift of the hil_ast of Amiens, the Roman highway that ran straight as an arrow to St Quentin, the marshy lagoons of the Somme, and that broad strip of land wasted by battl_etween Dompierre and Peronne. I had come to Amiens through it in January, fo_ had been up to the line before I left for Paris, and then it had been _eaceful place, with peasants tilling their fields, and new buildings going u_n the old battle-field, and carpenters busy at cottage roofs, and scarcely _ransport waggon on the road to remind one of war. Now the main route wa_hoked like the Albert road when the Somme battle first began—troops going u_nd troops coming down, the latter in the last stage of weariness; a ceaseles_raffic of ambulances one way and ammunition waggons the other; busy staf_ars trying to worm a way through the mass; strings of gun horses, oddments o_avalry, and here and there blue French uniforms. All that I had seen before; but one thing was new to me. Little country carts with sad-faced women an_ystified children in them and piles of household plenishing were creepin_estward, or stood waiting at village doors. Beside these tramped old men an_oys, mostly in their Sunday best as if they were going to church. I had neve_een the sight before, for I had never seen the British Army falling back. Th_am which held up the waters had broken and the dwellers in the valley wer_rying to save their pitiful little treasures. And over everything, horse an_an, cart and wheelbarrow, road and tillage, lay the white March dust, the sk_as blue as June, small birds were busy in the copses, and in the corners o_bandoned gardens I had a glimpse of the first violets.
Presently as we topped a rise we came within full noise of the guns. That, too, was new to me, for it was no ordinary bombardment. There was a specia_uality in the sound, something ragged, straggling, intermittent, which I ha_ever heard before. It was the sign of open warfare and a moving battle.
At Peronne, from which the newly returned inhabitants had a second time fled, the battle seemed to be at the doors. There I had news of my division. It wa_arther south towards St Christ. We groped our way among bad roads to wher_ts headquarters were believed to be, while the voice of the guns grew louder.
They turned out to be those of another division, which was busy getting read_o cross the river. Then the dark fell, and while airplanes flew west into th_unset there was a redder sunset in the east, where the unceasing flashes o_unfire were pale against the angry glow of burning dumps. The sight of th_onnet-badge of a Scots Fusilier made me halt, and the man turned out t_elong to my division. Half an hour later I was taking over from the much- relieved Masterton in the ruins of what had once been a sugar-beet factory.
There to my surprise I found Lefroy. The Boche had held him prisoner fo_recisely eight hours. During that time he had been so interested in watchin_he way the enemy handled an attack that he had forgotten the miseries of hi_osition. He described with blasphemous admiration the endless wheel by whic_upplies and reserve troops move up, the silence, the smoothness, the perfec_iscipline. Then he had realized that he was a captive and unwounded, and ha_one mad. Being a heavy-weight boxer of note, he had sent his two guard_pinning into a ditch, dodged the ensuing shots, and found shelter in the le_f a blazing ammunition dump where his pursuers hesitated to follow. Then h_ad spent an anxious hour trying to get through an outpost line, which h_hought was Boche. Only by overhearing an exchange of oaths in the accents o_undee did he realize that it was our own … It was a comfort to have Lefro_ack, for he was both stout-hearted and resourceful. But I found that I had _ivision only on paper. It was about the strength of a brigade, the brigade_attalions, and the battalions companies.
* * * * *
This is not the place to write the story of the week that followed. I coul_ot write it even if I wanted to, for I don't know it. There was a pla_omewhere, which you will find in the history books, but with me it was blan_haos. Orders came, but long before they arrived the situation had changed, and I could no more obey them than fly to the moon. Often I had lost touc_ith the divisions on both flanks. Intelligence arrived erratically out of th_oid, and for the most part we worried along without it. I heard we were unde_he French—first it was said to be Foch, and then Fayolle, whom I had met i_aris. But the higher command seemed a million miles away, and we were left t_se our mother wits. My problem was to give ground as slowly as possible an_t the same time not to delay too long, for retreat we must, with the Boch_ending in brand-new divisions each morning. It was a kind of war world_istant from the old trench battles, and since I had been taught no other _ad to invent rules as I went along. Looking back, it seems a miracle that an_f us came out of it. Only the grace of God and the uncommon toughness of th_ritish soldier bluffed the Hun and prevented him pouring through the breac_o Abbeville and the sea. We were no better than a mosquito curtain stuck in _oorway to stop the advance of an angry bull.
The Army Commander was right; we were hanging on with our eyelashes. We mus_ave been easily the weakest part of the whole front, for we were holding _ine which was never less than two miles and was often, as I judged, neare_ive, and there was nothing in reserve to us except some oddments of cavalr_ho chased about the whole battle-field under vague orders. Mercifully for u_he Boche blundered. Perhaps he did not know our condition, for our airme_ere magnificent and you never saw a Boche plane over our line by day, thoug_hey bombed us merrily by night. If he had called our bluff we should hav_een done, but he put his main strength to the north and the south of us.
North he pressed hard on the Third Army, but he got well hammered by th_uards north of Bapaume and he could make no headway at Arras. South he drov_t the Paris railway and down the Oise valley, but there Petain's reserves ha_rrived, and the French made a noble stand.
Not that he didn't fight hard in the centre where we were, but he hadn't hi_est troops, and after we got west of the bend of the Somme he was outrunnin_is heavy guns. Still, it was a desperate enough business, for our flanks wer_ll the time falling back, and we had to conform to movements we could onl_uess at. After all, we were on the direct route to Amiens, and it was up t_s to yield slowly so as to give Haig and Petain time to get up supports. _as a miser about every yard of ground, for every yard and every minute wer_recious. We alone stood between the enemy and the city, and in the city wa_ary.
If you ask me about our plans I can't tell you. I had a new one every hour. _ot instructions from the Corps, but, as I have said, they were usually out o_ate before they arrived, and most of my tactics I had to invent myself. I ha_ plain task, and to fulfil it I had to use what methods the Almighty allowe_e. I hardly slept, I ate little, I was on the move day and night, but I neve_elt so strong in my life. It seemed as if I couldn't tire, and, oddly enough, I was happy. If a man's whole being is focused on one aim, he has no time t_orry … I remember we were all very gentle and soft-spoken those days. Lefroy, whose tongue was famous for its edge, now cooed like a dove. The troops wer_n their uppers, but as steady as rocks. We were against the end of the world, and that stiffens a man …
Day after day saw the same performance. I held my wavering front with a_utpost line which delayed each new attack till I could take its bearings. _ad special companies for counter-attack at selected points, when I wante_ime to retire the rest of the division. I think we must have fought more tha_ dozen of such little battles. We lost men all the time, but the enemy mad_o big scoop, though he was always on the edge of one. Looking back, it seem_ike a succession of miracles. Often I was in one end of a village when th_oche was in the other. Our batteries were always on the move, and the work o_he gunners was past praising. Sometimes we faced east, sometimes north, an_nce at a most critical moment due south, for our front waved and blew like _lag at a masthead … Thank God, the enemy was getting away from his bi_ngine, and his ordinary troops were fagged and poor in quality. It was whe_is fresh shock battalions came on that I held my breath … He had a heathenis_mount of machine-guns and he used them beautifully. Oh, I take my hat off t_he Boche performance. He was doing what we had tried to do at the Somme an_he Aisne and Arras and Ypres, and he was more or less succeeding. And th_eason was that he was going bald-headed for victory.
The men, as I have said, were wonderfully steady and patient under th_iercest trial that soldiers can endure. I had all kinds in the division—ol_rmy, new army, Territorials—and you couldn't pick and choose between them.
They fought like Trojans, and, dirty, weary, and hungry, found still some sal_f humour in their sufferings. It was a proof of the rock-bottom sanity o_uman nature. But we had one man with us who was hardly sane… .
In the hustle of those days I now and then caught sight of Ivery. I had to b_verywhere at all hours, and often visited that remnant of Scots Fusilier_nto which the subtlest brain in Europe had been drafted. He and his keeper_ere never on outpost duty or in any counter-attack. They were part of th_ass whose only business was to retire discreetly. This was child's play t_amilton, who had been out since Mons; and Amos, after taking a day to ge_sed to it, wrapped himself in his grim philosophy and rather enjoyed it. Yo_ouldn't surprise Amos any more than a Turk. But the man with them, whom the_ever left—that was another matter.
'For the first wee bit,' Hamilton reported, 'we thocht he was gaun daft. Ever_hell that came near he jumped like a young horse. And the gas! We had to ti_n his mask for him, for his hands were fushionless. There was whiles when h_adna be hindered from standin' up and talkin' to hisself, though the bullet_as spittin'. He was what ye call demoralized … Syne he got as though he didn_ear or see onything. He did what we tell't him, and when we let him be he sa_own and grat. He's aye greetin' … Queer thing, sirr, but the Gairmans cann_it him. I'm aye shakin' bullets out o' my claes, and I've got a hole in m_houlder, and Andra took a bash on his tin that wad hae felled onybody tha_adna a heid like a stot. But, sirr, the prisoner taks no scaith. Our boys ar_eared of him. There was an Irishman says to me that he had the evil eye, an_e can see for yerself that he's no canny.'
I saw that his skin had become like parchment and that his eyes were glassy. _on't think he recognized me.
'Does he take his meals?' I asked.
'He doesna eat muckle. But he has an unco thirst. Ye canna keep him off th_en's water-bottles.'
He was learning very fast the meaning of that war he had so confidently playe_ith. I believe I am a merciful man, but as I looked at him I felt no vestig_f pity. He was dreeing the weird he had prepared for others. I thought o_cudder, of the thousand friends I had lost, of the great seas of blood an_he mountains of sorrow this man and his like had made for the world. Out o_he corner of my eye I could see the long ridges above Combles and Longueva_hich the salt of the earth had fallen to win, and which were again under th_oof of the Boche. I thought of the distracted city behind us and what i_eant to me, and the weak, the pitifully weak screen which was all it_efence. I thought of the foul deeds which had made the German name to stin_y land and sea, foulness of which he was the arch-begetter. And then I wa_mazed at our forbearance. He would go mad, and madness for him was mor_ecent than sanity.
I had another man who wasn't what you might call normal, and that was Wake. H_as the opposite of shell-shocked, if you understand me. He had never bee_roperly under fire before, but he didn't give a straw for it. I had known th_ame thing with other men, and they generally ended by crumpling up, for i_sn't natural that five or six feet of human flesh shouldn't be afraid of wha_an torture and destroy it. The natural thing is to be always a little scared, like me, but by an effort of the will and attention to work to contrive t_orget it. But Wake apparently never gave it a thought. He wasn't foolhardy, only indifferent. He used to go about with a smile on his face, a smile o_ontentment. Even the horrors—and we had plenty of them—didn't affect him. Hi_yes, which used to be hot, had now a curious open innocence like Peter's. _ould have been happier if he had been a little rattled.
One night, after we had had a bad day of anxiety, I talked to him as we smoke_n what had once been a French dug-out. He was an extra right arm to me, and _old him so. 'This must be a queer experience for you,' I said.
'Yes,' he replied, 'it is very wonderful. I did not think a man could g_hrough it and keep his reason. But I know many things I did not know before.
I know that the soul can be reborn without leaving the body.'
I stared at him, and he went on without looking at me.
'You're not a classical scholar, Hannay? There was a strange cult in th_ncient world, the worship of Magna Mater—the Great Mother. To enter into he_ysteries the votary passed through a bath of blood——I think I am passin_hrough that bath. I think that like the initiate I shall be renatus i_eternum—reborn into the eternal.'
I advised him to have a drink, for that talk frightened me. It looked as if h_ere becoming what the Scots call 'fey'. Lefroy noticed the same thing and wa_lways speaking about it. He was as brave as a bull himself, and with ver_uch the same kind of courage; but Wake's gallantry perturbed him. 'I can'_ake the chap out,' he told me. 'He behaves as if his mind was too full o_etter things to give a damn for Boche guns. He doesn't take foolish risks—_on't mean that, but he behaves as if risks didn't signify. It's positivel_erie to see him making notes with a steady hand when shells are dropping lik_ailstones and we're all thinking every minute's our last. You've got to b_areful with him, sir. He's a long sight too valuable for us to spare.'
Lefroy was right about that, for I don't know what I should have done withou_im. The worst part of our job was to keep touch with our flanks, and that wa_hat I used Wake for. He covered country like a moss-trooper, sometimes on _usty bicycle, oftener on foot, and you couldn't tire him. I wonder what othe_ivisions thought of the grimy private who was our chief means o_ommunication. He knew nothing of military affairs before, but he got the han_f this rough-and-tumble fighting as if he had been born for it. He neve_ired a shot; he carried no arms; the only weapons he used were his brains.
And they were the best conceivable. I never met a staff officer who was s_uick at getting a point or at sizing up a situation. He had put his back int_he business, and first-class talent is not common anywhere. One day a G. S.
O. from a neighbouring division came to see me.
'Where on earth did you pick up that man Wake?' he asked.
'He's a conscientious objector and a non-combatant,' I said.
'Then I wish to Heaven we had a few more conscientious objectors in this show.
He's the only fellow who seems to know anything about this blessed battle. M_eneral's sending you a chit about him.'
'No need,' I said, laughing. 'I know his value. He's an old friend of mine.'
I used Wake as my link with Corps Headquarters, and especially with Blenkiron.
For about the sixth day of the show I was beginning to get rather desperate.
This kind of thing couldn't go on for ever. We were miles back now, behind th_ld line of '17, and, as we rested one flank on the river, the immediat_ituation was a little easier. But I had lost a lot of men, and those tha_ere left were blind with fatigue. The big bulges of the enemy to north an_outh had added to the length of the total front, and I found I had to fan ou_y thin ranks. The Boche was still pressing on, though his impetus wa_lacker. If he knew how little there was to stop him in my section he migh_ake a push which would carry him to Amiens. Only the magnificent work of ou_irmen had prevented him getting that knowledge, but we couldn't keep th_ecrecy up for ever. Some day an enemy plane would get over, and it onl_eeded the drive of a fresh storm-battalion or two to scatter us. I wanted _ood prepared position, with sound trenches and decent wiring. Above all _anted reserves—reserves. The word was on my lips all day and it haunted m_reams. I was told that the French were to relieve us, but when—when? M_eports to Corps Headquarters were one long wail for more troops. I knew ther_as a position prepared behind us, but I needed men to hold it.
Wake brought in a message from Blenkiron. 'We're waiting for you, Dick,' h_rote, 'and we've gotten quite a nice little home ready for you. This old ma_asn't hustled so hard since he struck copper in Montana in '92. We've du_hree lines of trenches and made a heap of pretty redoubts, and I gues_hey're well laid out, for the Army staff has supervised them and they're n_louches at this brand of engineering. You would have laughed to see th_abour we employed. We had all breeds of Dago and Chinaman, and some of you_wn South African blacks, and they got so busy on the job they forgot abou_edtime. I used to be reckoned a bit of a slave driver, but my special talent_eren't needed with this push. I'm going to put a lot of money into foreig_issions henceforward.'
I wrote back: 'Your trenches are no good without men. For God's sake ge_omething that can hold a rifle. My lot are done to the world.'
Then I left Lefroy with the division and went down on the back of an ambulanc_o see for myself. I found Blenkiron, some of the Army engineers, and a staf_fficer from Corps Headquarters, and I found Archie Roylance.
They had dug a mighty good line and wired it nobly. It ran from the river t_he wood of La Bruyere on the little hill above the Ablain stream. It wa_esperately long, but I saw at once it couldn't well be shorter, for th_ivision on the south of us had its hands full with the fringe of the bi_hrust against the French.
'It's no good blinking the facts,' I told them. 'I haven't a thousand men, an_hat I have are at the end of their tether. If you put 'em in these trenche_hey'll go to sleep on their feet. When can the French take over?'
I was told that it had been arranged for next morning, but that it had no_een put off twenty-four hours. It was only a temporary measure, pending th_rrival of British divisions from the north.
Archie looked grave. 'The Boche is pushin' up new troops in this sector. W_ot the news before I left squadron headquarters. It looks as if it would be _ear thing, sir.'
'It won't be a near thing. It's an absolute black certainty. My fellows can'_arry on as they are another day. Great God, they've had a fortnight in hell!
Find me more men or we buckle up at the next push.' My temper was coming ver_ear its limits.
'We've raked the country with a small-tooth comb, sir,' said one of the staf_fficers. 'And we've raised a scratch pack. Best part of two thousand. Goo_en, but most of them know nothing about infantry fighting. We've put the_nto platoons, and done our best to give them some kind of training. There'_ne thing may cheer you. We've plenty of machine-guns. There's a machine-gu_chool near by and we got all the men who were taking the course and all th_lant.'
I don't suppose there was ever such a force put into the field before. It wa_ wilder medley than Moussy's camp-followers at First Ypres. There was ever_ind of detail in the shape of men returning from leave, representing most o_he regiments in the army. There were the men from the machine-gun school.
There were Corps troops—sappers and A.S.C., and a handful of Corps cavalry.
Above all, there was a batch of American engineers, fathered by Blenkiron. _nspected them where they were drilling and liked the look of them. 'Forty- eight hours,' I said to myself. 'With luck we may just pull it off.'
Then I borrowed a bicycle and went back to the division. But before I left _ad a word with Archie. 'This is one big game of bluff, and it's you fellow_lone that enable us to play it. Tell your people that everything depends o_hem. They mustn't stint the planes in this sector, for if the Boche onc_uspicions how little he's got before him the game's up. He's not a fool an_e knows that this is the short road to Amiens, but he imagines we're holdin_t in strength. If we keep up the fiction for another two days the thing'_one. You say he's pushing up troops?'
'Yes, and he's sendin' forward his tanks.'
'Well, that'll take time. He's slower now than a week ago and he's got a deuc_f a country to march over. There's still an outside chance we may wi_hrough. You go home and tell the R.F.C. what I've told you.'
He nodded. 'By the way, sir, Pienaar's with the squadron. He would like t_ome up and see you.'
'Archie,' I said solemnly, 'be a good chap and do me a favour. If I thin_eter's anywhere near the line I'll go off my head with worry. This is n_lace for a man with a bad leg. He should have been in England days ago. Can'_ou get him off—to Amiens, anyhow?'
'We scarcely like to. You see, we're all desperately sorry for him, his fu_one and his career over and all that. He likes bein' with us and listenin' t_ur yarns. He has been up once or twice too. The Shark-Gladas. He swears it'_ great make, and certainly he knows how to handle the little devil.'
'Then for Heaven's sake don't let him do it again. I look to you, Archie, remember. Promise.'
'Funny thing, but he's always worryin' about you. He has a map on which h_arks every day the changes in the position, and he'd hobble a mile to pum_ny of our fellows who have been up your way.'
That night under cover of darkness I drew back the division to the newl_repared lines. We got away easily, for the enemy was busy with his ow_ffairs. I suspected a relief by fresh troops.
There was no time to lose, and I can tell you I toiled to get things straigh_efore dawn. I would have liked to send my own fellows back to rest, but _ouldn't spare them yet. I wanted them to stiffen the fresh lot, for they wer_eterans. The new position was arranged on the same principles as the ol_ront which had been broken on March 21st. There was our forward zone, consisting of an outpost line and redoubts, very cleverly sited, and a line o_esistance. Well behind it were the trenches which formed the battle-zone.
Both zones were heavily wired, and we had plenty of machine-guns; I wish _ould say we had plenty of men who knew how to use them. The outposts wer_erely to give the alarm and fall back to the line of resistance which was t_old out to the last. In the forward zone I put the freshest of my own men, the units being brought up to something like strength by the details returnin_rom leave that the Corps had commandeered. With them I put the America_ngineers, partly in the redoubts and partly in companies for counter-attack.
Blenkiron had reported that they could shoot like Dan'l Boone, and were simpl_poiling for a fight. The rest of the force was in the battle-zone, which wa_ur last hope. If that went the Boche had a clear walk to Amiens. Som_dditional field batteries had been brought up to support our very wea_ivisional artillery. The front was so long that I had to put all three of m_maciated brigades in the line, so I had nothing to speak of in reserve. I_as a most almighty gamble.
We had found shelter just in time. At 6.30 next day—for a change it was _lear morning with clouds beginning to bank up from the west—the Boche let u_now he was alive. He gave us a good drenching with gas shells which didn't d_uch harm, and then messed up our forward zone with his trench mortars. A_.20 his men began to come on, first little bunches with machine-guns and the_he infantry in waves. It was clear they were fresh troops, and we learne_fterwards from prisoners that they were Bavarians—6th or 7th, I forget which, but the division that hung us up at Monchy. At the same time there was th_ound of a tremendous bombardment across the river. It looked as if the mai_attle had swung from Albert and Montdidier to a direct push for Amiens. _ave often tried to write down the events of that day. I tried it in my repor_o the Corps; I tried it in my own diary; I tried it because Mary wanted it; but I have never been able to make any story that hung together. Perhaps I wa_oo tired for my mind to retain clear impressions, though at the time I wa_ot conscious of special fatigue. More likely it is because the fight itsel_as so confused, for nothing happened according to the books and the orderl_oul of the Boche must have been scarified … At first it went as I expected.
The outpost line was pushed in, but the fire from the redoubts broke up th_dvance, and enabled the line of resistance in the forward zone to give a goo_ccount of itself. There was a check, and then another big wave, assisted by _arrage from field-guns brought far forward. This time the line of resistanc_ave at several points, and Lefroy flung in the Americans in a counter-attack.
That was a mighty performance. The engineers, yelling like dervishes, went a_t with the bayonet, and those that preferred swung their rifles as clubs. I_as terribly costly fighting and all wrong, but it succeeded. They cleared th_oche out of a ruined farm he had rushed, and a little wood, and re- established our front. Blenkiron, who saw it all, for he went with them an_ot the tip of an ear picked off by a machine-gun bullet, hadn't any word_herewith to speak of it. 'And I once said those boys looked puffy,' h_oaned.
The next phase, which came about midday, was the tanks. I had never seen th_erman variety, but had heard that it was speedier and heavier than ours, bu_nwieldy. We did not see much of their speed, but we found out all about thei_lumsiness. Had the things been properly handled they should have gone throug_s like rotten wood. But the whole outfit was bungled. It looked good enoug_ountry for the use of them, but the men who made our position had had an ey_o this possibility. The great monsters, mounting a field-gun besides othe_ontrivances, wanted something like a highroad to be happy in. They wer_seless over anything like difficult ground. The ones that came down the mai_oad got on well enough at the start, but Blenkiron very sensibly had mine_he highway, and we blew a hole like a diamond pit. One lay helpless at th_oot of it, and we took the crew prisoner; another stuck its nose over an_emained there till our field-guns got the range and knocked it silly. As fo_he rest—there is a marshy lagoon called the Patte d'Oie beside the farm o_avrelle, which runs all the way north to the river, though in most places i_nly seems like a soft patch in the meadows. This the tanks had to cross t_each our line, and they never made it. Most got bogged, and made prett_argets for our gunners; one or two returned; and one the Americans, creepin_orward under cover of a little stream, blew up with a time fuse.
By the middle of the afternoon I was feeling happier. I knew the big attac_as still to come, but I had my forward zone intact and I hoped for the best.
I remember I was talking to Wake, who had been going between the two zones, when I got the first warning of a new and unexpected peril. A dud shel_lumped down a few yards from me.
'Those fools across the river are firing short and badly off the straight,' _aid.
Wake examined the shell. 'No, it's a German one,' he said.
Then came others, and there could be no mistake about the direction—followe_y a burst of machine-gun fire from the same quarter. We ran in cover to _oint from which we could see the north bank of the river, and I got my glas_n it. There was a lift of land from behind which the fire was coming. W_ooked at each other, and the same conviction stood in both faces. The Boch_ad pushed down the northern bank, and we were no longer in line with ou_eighbours. The enemy was in a situation to catch us with his fire on ou_lank and left rear. We couldn't retire to conform, for to retire meant givin_p our prepared position.
It was the last straw to all our anxieties, and for a moment I was at the en_f my wits. I turned to Wake, and his calm eyes pulled me together.
'If they can't retake that ground, we're fairly carted,' I said.
'We are. Therefore they must retake it.'
'I must get on to Mitchinson.' But as I spoke I realized the futility of _elephone message to a man who was pretty hard up against it himself. Only a_rgent appeal could effect anything … I must go myself … No, that wa_mpossible. I must send Lefroy … But he couldn't be spared. And all my staf_fficers were up to their necks in the battle. Besides, none of them knew th_osition as I knew it … And how to get there? It was a long way round by th_ridge at Loisy.
Suddenly I was aware of Wake's voice. 'You had better send me,' he was saying.
'There's only one way—to swim the river a little lower down.'
'That's too damnably dangerous. I won't send any man to certain death.'
'But I volunteer,' he said. 'That, I believe, is always allowed in war.'
'But you'll be killed before you can cross.'
'Send a man with me to watch. If I get over, you may be sure I'll get t_eneral Mitchinson. If not, send somebody else by Loisy. There's desperat_eed for hurry, and you see yourself it's the only way.'
The time was past for argument. I scribbled a line to Mitchinson as hi_redentials. No more was needed, for Wake knew the position as well as I did.
I sent an orderly to accompany him to his starting- place on the bank.
'Goodbye,' he said, as we shook hands. 'You'll see, I'll come back all right.'
His face, I remember, looked singularly happy. Five minutes later the Boch_uns opened for the final attack.
I believe I kept a cool head; at least so Lefroy and the others reported. The_aid I went about all afternoon grinning as if I liked it, and that I neve_aised my voice once. (It's rather a fault of mine that I bellow in a scrap.) But I know I was feeling anything but calm, for the problem was ghastly. I_ll depended on Wake and Mitchinson. The flanking fire was so bad that I ha_o give up the left of the forward zone, which caught it fairly, and retir_he men there to the battle-zone. The latter was better protected, for betwee_t and the river was a small wood and the bank rose into a bluff which slope_nwards towards us. This withdrawal meant a switch, and a switch isn't _retty thing when it has to be improvised in the middle of a battle.
The Boche had counted on that flanking fire. His plan was to break our tw_ings—the old Boche plan which crops up in every fight. He left our centre a_irst pretty well alone, and thrust along the river bank and to the wood of L_ruyere, where we linked up with the division on our right. Lefroy was in th_irst area, and Masterton in the second, and for three hours it was a_esperate a business as I have ever faced … The improvised switch went, an_ore and more of the forward zone disappeared. It was a hot, clear sprin_fternoon, and in the open fighting the enemy came on like troops a_anoeuvres. On the left they got into the battle-zone, and I can see ye_efroy's great figure leading a counter-attack in person, his face all puddle_ith blood from a scalp wound …
I would have given my soul to be in two places at once, but I had to risk ou_eft and keep close to Masterton, who needed me most. The wood of La Bruyer_as the maddest sight. Again and again the Boche was almost through it. Yo_ever knew where he was, and most of the fighting there was duels betwee_achine-gun parties. Some of the enemy got round behind us, and only a fin_erformance of a company of Cheshires saved a complete breakthrough.
As for Lefroy, I don't know how he stuck it out, and he doesn't know himself, for he was galled all the time by that accursed flanking fire. I got a not_bout half past four saying that Wake had crossed the river, but it was som_eary hours after that before the fire slackened. I tore back and forwar_etween my wings, and every time I went north I expected to find that Lefro_ad broken. But by some miracle he held. The Boches were in his battle-zon_ime and again, but he always flung them out. I have a recollection o_lenkiron, stark mad, encouraging his Americans with strange tongues. Once a_ passed him I saw that he had his left arm tied up. His blackened fac_rinned at me. 'This bit of landscape's mighty unsafe for democracy,' h_roaked. 'For the love of Mike get your guns on to those devils across th_iver. They're plaguing my boys too bad.'
It was about seven o'clock, I think, when the flanking fire slacked off, bu_t was not because of our divisional guns. There was a short and very furiou_urst of artillery fire on the north bank, and I knew it was British. The_hings began to happen. One of our planes—they had been marvels all day, swinging down like hawks for machine-gun bouts with the Boch_nfantry—reported that Mitchinson was attacking hard and getting on well. Tha_ased my mind, and I started off for Masterton, who was in greater strait_han ever, for the enemy seemed to be weakening on the river bank and puttin_is main strength in against our right … But my G.S.O.2 stopped me on th_oad. 'Wake,' he said. 'He wants to see you.'
'Not now,' I cried.
'He can't live many minutes.'
I turned and followed him to the ruinous cowshed which was my divisiona_eadquarters. Wake, as I heard later, had swum the river opposite t_itchinson's right, and reached the other shore safely, though the current wa_hipped with bullets. But he had scarcely landed before he was badly hit b_hrapnel in the groin. Walking at first with support and then carried on _tretcher, he managed to struggle on to the divisional headquarters, where h_ave my message and explained the situation. He would not let his wound b_ooked to till his job was done. Mitchinson told me afterwards that with _ace grey from pain he drew for him a sketch of our position and told hi_xactly how near we were to our end … After that he asked to be sent back t_e, and they got him down to Loisy in a crowded ambulance, and then up to u_n a returning empty. The M.O. who looked at his wound saw that the thing wa_opeless, and did not expect him to live beyond Loisy. He was bleedin_nternally and no surgeon on earth could have saved him.
When he reached us he was almost pulseless, but he recovered for a moment an_sked for me.
I found him, with blue lips and a face drained of blood, lying on my camp bed.
His voice was very small and far away.
'How goes it?' he asked.
'Please God, we'll pull through … thanks to you, old man.'
'Good,' he said and his eyes shut.
He opened them once again.
'Funny thing life. A year ago I was preaching peace … I'm still preaching it … I'm not sorry.'
I held his hand till two minutes later he died.
* * * * *
In the press of a fight one scarcely realizes death, even the death of _riend. It was up to me to make good my assurance to Wake, and presently I wa_ff to Masterton. There in that shambles of La Bruyere, while the light faded, there was a desperate and most bloody struggle. It was the last lap of th_ontest. Twelve hours now, I kept telling myself, and the French will be her_nd we'll have done our task. Alas! how many of us would go back to rest? … Hardly able to totter, our counter-attacking companies went in again. They ha_one far beyond the limits of mortal endurance, but the human spirit can def_ll natural laws. The balance trembled, hung, and then dropped the right way.
The enemy impetus weakened, stopped, and the ebb began.
I wanted to complete the job. Our artillery put up a sharp barrage, and th_ittle I had left comparatively fresh I sent in for a counter- stroke. Most o_he men were untrained, but there was that in our ranks which dispensed wit_raining, and we had caught the enemy at the moment of lowest vitality. W_ushed him out of La Bruyere, we pushed him back to our old forward zone, w_ushed him out of that zone to the position from which he had begun the day.
But there was no rest for the weary. We had lost at least a third of ou_trength, and we had to man the same long line. We consolidated it as best w_ould, started to replace the wiring that had been destroyed, found touch wit_he division on our right, and established outposts. Then, after a conferenc_ith my brigadiers, I went back to my headquarters, too tired to feel eithe_atisfaction or anxiety. In eight hours the French would be here. The word_ade a kind of litany in my ears.
In the cowshed where Wake had lain, two figures awaited me. The talc-enclose_andle revealed Hamilton and Amos, dirty beyond words, smoke-blackened, blood- stained, and intricately bandaged. They stood stiffly to attention.
'Sirr, the prisoner,' said Hamilton. 'I have to report that the prisoner i_eid.'
I stared at them, for I had forgotten Ivery. He seemed a creature of a worl_hat had passed away.
'Sirr, it was like this. Ever sin' this mornin', the prisoner seemed to wak_p. Ye'll mind that he was in a kind of dream all week. But he got some ne_otion in his heid, and when the battle began he exheebited signs o_estlessness. Whiles he wad lie doun in the trench, and whiles he was wantin'
back to the dug-out. Accordin' to instructions I provided him wi' a rifle, bu_e didna seem to ken how to handle it. It was your orders, sirr, that he wa_o have means to defend hisself if the enemy cam on, so Amos gie'd him _rench knife. But verra soon he looked as if he was ettlin' to cut his throat, so I deprived him of it.'
Hamilton stopped for breath. He spoke as if he were reciting a lesson, with n_tops between the sentences.
'I jaloused, sirr, that he wadna last oot the day, and Amos here was of th_ame opinion. The end came at twenty minutes past three—I ken the time, for _ad just compared my watch with Amos. Ye'll mind that the Gairmans wer_eginning a big attack. We were in the front trench of what they ca' th_attle-zone, and Amos and me was keepin' oor eyes on the enemy, who could b_bsairved dribblin' ower the open. Just then the prisoner catches sight of th_nemy and jumps up on the top. Amos tried to hold him, but he kicked him i_he face. The next we kenned he was runnin' verra fast towards the enemy, holdin' his hands ower his heid and crying out loud in a foreign langwidge.'
'It was German,' said the scholarly Amos through his broken teeth.
'It was Gairman,' continued Hamilton. 'It seemed as if he was appealin' to th_nemy to help him. But they paid no attention, and he cam under the fire o_heir machine-guns. We watched him spin round like a teetotum and kenned tha_e was bye with it.'
'You are sure he was killed?' I asked.
'Yes, sirr. When we counter-attacked we fund his body.'
* * * * *
There is a grave close by the farm of Gavrelle, and a wooden cross at its hea_ears the name of the Graf von Schwabing and the date of his death. Th_ermans took Gavrelle a little later. I am glad to think that they read tha_nscription.