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On the King's Service

The following is from On the King's Service by Innes Logan (published 1917):

Chapter VII - How the Royals Held the Bluff: An Episode of Trench Warfare

I. Waiting

The beginning of March found me with a battalion of The Royals in a rather battered Belgian town. Its centre received a good deal of attention from enemy artillery, but it offered two attractions which brought in officers from divisions all around. After all, to men accustomed to living in the trenches, the atmosphere was one of almost Sabbath peace. The hall where 'The Fancies' made much of the humours of trench life to uproariously delighted audiences was crowded out night after night. You could not find anywhere greater zest and enjoyment. The striking comradeship of soldiering, the common experience of audience and actors, and the abandonment of all thought for the morrow, gave that impression of cheerful carelessness the root of which is not happiness but the conviction that the future is so uncertain and the possibilities so dreadful that he is wise who lives for the hour only, even as the hour may snatch life from him. I thought I knew the head in front of me, and, leaning forward, saw it was my brother-in-law. It has always struck me as quaint that he, who had been with his battery for a year and a half, and I, who had been out for nine months, should have met again under such circumstances. I had pictured a stricken field and much coolness exhibited in an admittedly dramatic moment--something in line with Stanley's 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume.' It was comforting to find it otherwise, but, as Smee says in Peter Pan, it was 'galling too.' First when looking into a shop window, and now in a concert hall, in all these months of war! We said, 'Not a bad show, is it?' 'Not half bad.' But there have been some strange meetings in this war. A private in our battalion discovered his son, a boy of seventeen, in a new draft which had just come up to the line. He had run away from home and been lost to sight. The father set matters on a proper footing by thrashing his son there and then in the front trench!

War was not very far off after all. Two days later we were having lunch in the comfortable warm restaurant which is this tedious town's other attraction. We drank our coffee to the accompaniment of the nasty sound of arriving shells. Every time a shell screamed towards us the stout lady behind the counter dropped on hands and knees, emerging flushed and trembling after each had burst. We were rather amused; but when we went out and round the corner of the street, the body of a man was being swiftly carried away wrapped in a brown blanket. Forty soldiers, it was said, had been killed and wounded. Distracted women stood in little groups in the passages of the houses, and there was much blood in the gutters.

Only a country invaded by the enemy drinks to its dregs the cup of war, but the narrow belt a few miles behind the friendly army's trenches enjoys great prosperity. The love of home or the love of money keeps the population in many places where it would be better away. One beautiful spring day I took shelter behind a farmhouse in the Hallebast-Vierstraat area until some shelling on the path ahead had died down. The farmer's wife came out and we got into conversation. A rise in the ground gave some shelter from the German lines, but she told me that any movement on horseback was immediately sniped with whizbangs. The day before all her cows had been killed by shell-fire in the paddock behind the farmhouse, but if she and her elderly husband let their land go out of cultivation, how were they to live, and if they left, where could they go? When high-explosives blew great holes in their sown land they just filled in the holes and ploughed and sowed the place over again. The settled sadness of her face and voice haunts me still. Others, however, stay in danger because they are making so much money. Several shopkeepers in this town admitted they had never known such prosperity. The estaminets make enormous profits from the sale of very weak beer. A friend of mine, having drawn battalion pay in notes of too large amounts, was told to return to the paymaster and draw it in smaller sums. He found the office closed, and turned into a little village shop to see if they could change a part of it. To his amazement they changed the whole of it from the till. The total amount was ten thousand francs. But how many Belgians have lost their all?

Our billets were clean and very airy. For some reason, though all furniture had been removed, the presses, which were all open, were full of beautiful bed and table linen. It was very tempting, but fortunately we resisted the temptation. The morning after we arrived, about seven o'clock, a disturbance arose below. Angry women's voices were heard in altercation with the servants, there were hurried footsteps on the stair, and a moment later our door was thrust violently open. Two strapping Belgian women strode in and demanded answers to many questions. We adopted our friend the Major's plan, and feigned to know even less French than we did. We were anxious to be very inoffensive as we lay on the floor and watched these determined individuals throwing open the presses and wardrobes. Inside the linen lay untouched, folded neatly; we felt thankful we had left it so. They stamped out again, and we heard the Colonel's voice raised in protest next door. The doctor and I looked at one another. He seemed rather pale, and I noticed for the first time that his head rested on an enormous soft pillow covered with a spotless linen pillow-slip edged with beautiful lace.

But next morning we had a different awakening. Dawn was rising wanly from the east to another day on the Salient. The broken windows were rattling and the floor trembling under the dull continuous thudding of a concentrated bombardment. We lay and listened, and for the thousandth time hated war. We knew that men, some of whom we knew and loved, were going over the parapet, many never to return.

That night, as dusk fell, the old steeple with its rent side looked down on cobbled streets thronging with ordered ranks of men standing ready to move. Here and there a few officers spoke together, or a man gave his chum a light from his fag, or straps were tightened. A rifle butt rang on the pavement, and the adjutant's horse moved his feet restlessly. These men had no illusions as to what they would probably have to face; but none guessed that there lay ahead the most dreadful test of physical endurance which the old battalion, since the great retreat, had ever known.

II. The Bluff

What had happened was this. Soon after our division had been moved back to the rest area, part of the line which it had been holding was strongly attacked and lost to the enemy. Several counter-attacks failed, and finally our own Division was brought back from rest to recapture the lost trenches. One brigade attacked with great dash and success. The lost trenches were re-occupied, and our own brigade, which had been lying in support, was ordered to take over and hold them against the expected counter-attacks. The Bluff, which was the main feature of the position and the worst part of which The Royals, as the senior battalion, were given to hold, was a low hill jutting out at the re-entrant to the Salient, south-east of Ypres. It was a strong tactical position commanding the approaches to our trenches, as the enemy well knew. Seen from our front line farther south it had the dead, bleak appearance of all ground that is much shelled. Pitted by high explosive, burned yellow by fumes of gas and shells, and stripped of every living thing, with blackened stumps of trees sparsely scattered on its summit, this muddy hillock dominated the flat lands, and, on the sunny morning when I first saw it, seemed indescribably sinister and menacing. It said to me, 'I am war, the antagonist of everything clean and comely, of everything fresh and young: misery of mind and body, torment of kindly earth and all its little growing things, lover of all that is foul and dead.'

III. 'We've keepit up the reputation o' the auld mob, onyway'

That night the weather suddenly changed. There had been a hint of spring in the air, but in an hour that was wiped out by a bitter north wind sweeping the bare fields with icy rain and snow. The transport, pitched in the filthy morass known as 'Scottish Lines,' saw its labour of three weeks thrown away in a couple of nights. For the human beings there were a few tents and huts, but in face of the searching wind canvas seemed quite porous, and the huts were badly built and had a hundred openings to the bitter air. But up at the Bluff conditions were terrible. The trenches had disappeared under repeated bombardments, and had become mere chains of shell holes in which the men stood up to their thighs in liquid mud. When the C.O. arrived to take over the headquarters' dug-out he found it blown to pieces. Within lay the bodies of the previous occupants--four officers. Another dug-out was finally found. It was deep in a bank at the end of a narrow passage twenty feet long. Within was a chamber six feet long, four broad and four high, and in this place, so horribly like a grave, the C.O., second-in-command, and adjutant lived for three days and four nights. A candle gave light, and whenever a shell burst above the flame jerked out. The sergeant-major and the orderlies and servants lived in the tunnel, squatting on their haunches in the mud. Outside there were no other dug-outs at all. The shelling was continuous, but the cold was far worse. Men sank in the mud and remained motionless for hours. Many fell into shell holes and had to be hauled out with twisted telephone wires. The wounded suffered horribly. Owing to the mud and the German barrage no supplies could be brought up, and it was impossible to light braziers. On the fourth night relief came, but it was daylight before the last company sucked itself out of its mudholes and waded back in full view of the enemy. Fortunately a blinding snowstorm swept down from the north and hid all movement just when it seemed certain that disaster would occur. Every available vehicle was sent up to meet the battalion, but there was a long walk before these could be reached. The men crept along on sodden, swollen feet--no gumboots had been obtainable. They came along in groups, now of two or three, now of six or seven, or one by one. They were bent like old men, and staggered as they walked, their faces set and grey. The most terrible thing of all was the utter silence. Snow muffled the fall of the dragging feet; it lay thick on the masses of ruins in the shattered empty villages; and when the brigade major's greeting rang out men shrank and looked fearful at the sudden sound. Yet when I spoke to any, as they staggered through the snow past the point whither I had gone to meet them, life flickered up for a moment from the depths of that final exhaustion. 'What price Charlie Chaplin now, sir!' said one man whose wavering footsteps led him hither and thither. And another in simple words summed up the heroic simple spirit of them all: 'Well, we've keepit up the reputation o' the auld mob, onyway.' Indomitable men! Who could ever vanquish you?

Rest meant tent boards under frozen canvas, but it was rest. On that weary morning even the uninviting outline of Reninghelst village seemed like home.

Chapter VIII - The Historic Triangle


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