Boyd Cable.

Action Front online

. (page 14 of 15)
Online LibraryBoyd CableAction Front → online text (page 14 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


could miss, and surely no gun missed. What the scene in that wood must
have been is beyond imagining and beyond telling. It was quickly
shrouded in a pall of drifting smoke, and dimly through this the
observing officers directing the fire of their guns could see clouds of
leaves and twigs whirling and leaping under the lashing shrapnel, could
see branches and smashed tree-trunks and great clods of earth and stone
flying upward and outward from the blast of the lyddite shells. The
wood was slashed to ribbons, rent and riddled to tatters, deluged from
above with tearing blizzards of shrapnel bullets, scorched and riven
with high-explosive shells. In the trenches our men cowered at first,
listening in awe to the rushing whirlwinds of the shells' passage over
their heads, the roar of the cannonade behind them, the crash and boom
of the bursting shells in front, the shriek and whirr of flying
splinters, the splintering crash of the shattering trees.

The German artillery strove to pick up the plan of the attack, to beat
down the torrent of our batteries' fire, to smash in the forward
trenches, shake the defense, open the way for the massed attack. But
the contest was too unequal, the devastation amongst the crowded mass
of German infantry too awful to be allowed to continue. Plainly the
attack, ready or not ready, had to be launched at speed, or perish
where it stood.

And so it was that our New Armies had a glimpse of what the old
"Contemptible Little Army" has seen and faced so often, the huge gray
bulk looming through the drifting smoke, the packed mass of the old
German infantry attack. There were some of these "Old Contemptibles,"
as they proudly style themselves now, who said when it was all over,
and they had time to think of anything but loading and firing a red-hot
rifle, that this attack did not compare favorably with the German
attacks of the Mons-Marne days, that it lacked something of the
steadiness, the rolling majesty of power, the swinging stride of the
old attacks; that it did not come so far or so fast, that beaten back
it took longer to rally and come again, that coming again it was easier
than ever to bring to a stand. But against that these "Old
Contemptibles" admit that they never in the old days fought under such
favorable conditions, that here in this fight they were in better
constructed and deeper trenches, that they were far better provided
with machine-guns, and, above all, that they had never, never, never
had such a magnificent backing from our guns, such a tremendous stream
of shells helping to smash the attack.

And smashed, hopelessly and horribly smashed, the attack assuredly was.
The woods in and behind which the German hordes were massed lay from
three to four hundred yards from the muzzles of our rifles. Imagine it,
you men who were not there, you men of the New Armies still training at
home, you riflemen practicing and striving to work up the number of
aimed rounds fired in "the mad minute," you machine-gunners riddling
holes in a target or a row of posts. Imagine it, oh you Artillery,
imagine the target lavishly displayed in solid blocks in the open, with
a good four hundred yards of ground to go under your streaming
gun-muzzles. The gunners who were there that day will tell you how they
used that target, will tell you how they stretched themselves to the
call for "gun-fire" (which is an order for each gun to act
independently, to fire and keep on firing as fast as it can be served),
how the guns grew hotter and hotter, till the paint bubbled and
blistered and flaked off them in patches, till the breech burned the
incautious hand laid on it, till spurts of oil had to be sluiced into
the breech from a can between rounds and sizzled and boiled like fat in
a frying-pan as it fell on the hot steel, how the whole gun smoked and
reeked with heated oil, and how the gun-detachments were half-deaf for
days after.

It was such a target as gunners in their fondest dreams dare hardly
hope for; and such a target as war may never see again, for surely the
fate of such massed attacks will be a warning to all infantry
commanders for all time.

The guns took their toll, and where death from above missed, death from
the level came in an unbroken torrent of bullets sleeting across the
open from rifles and machine-guns. On our trenches shells were still
bursting, maxim and rifle bullets were still pelting from somewhere in
half enfilade at long range. But our men had no time to pay heed to
these. They hitched themselves well up on the parapet to get the fuller
view of their mark; their officers for the most part had no need to
bother about directing or controlling the fire - what need, indeed, to
direct with such a target bulking big before the sights? What need to
control when the only speed limit was a man's capacity to aim and fire?
So the officers, for the most part, took rifle themselves and helped
pelt lead into the slaughter-pit.

There are few, if any, who can give details of how or when the attack
perished. A thick haze of smoke from the bursting shells blurred the
picture. To the eyes of the defenders there was only a picture of that
smoke-fog, with a gray wall of men looming through it, moving, walking,
running towards them, falling and rolling, and looming up again and
coming on, melting away into tangled heaps that disappeared again
behind advancing men, who in turn became more falling and fallen piles.
It was like watching those chariot races in a theater where the horses
gallop on a stage revolving under their feet, and for all their fury of
motion always remain in the same place. So it was with the German
line - it was pressing furiously forward, but always appeared to remain
stationary or to advance so slowly that it gave no impression of
advancing, but merely of growing bigger. Once, or perhaps twice, the
advancing line disappeared altogether, melted away behind the drifting
smoke, leaving only the mass of dark blotches sprawled on the grass. At
these times the fire died away along a part of our front, and the men
paused to gulp a drink from a water-bottle, to look round and tilt
their caps back and wipe the sweat from their brows, to gasp joyful
remarks to one another about "gettin' a bit of our own back," and "this
pays for the ninth o' May," and then listen to the full, deep roar of
rifle-fire that rolled out from further down the line, and try to peer
through the shifting smoke to see how "the lot next door" was faring.
But these respites were short. A call and a crackle of fire at their
elbows brought them back to business, to the grim business of
purposeful and methodical killing, of wiping out that moving wall that
was coming steadily at them again through the smoke and flame of the
bursting shells. The great bulk of the line came no nearer than a
hundred yards from our line; part pressed in another twenty or thirty
yards, and odd bunches of the dead were found still closer. But none
came to grips - none, indeed, were found within forty yards of our
rifles' wall of fire. A scattered remnant of the attackers ran back,
some whole and some hurt, thousands crawled away wounded, to reach the
safe shelter of their support trenches, some to be struck down by the
shells that still kept pounding down upon the death-swept field. The
counter-attack was smashed - hopelessly and horribly smashed.



A GENERAL ACTION


"_At some points our lines have been slightly advanced and their
position improved_." - EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH


It has to be admitted by all who know him that the average British
soldier has a deep-rooted and emphatic objection to "fatigues," all
trench-digging and pick-and-shovel work being included under that
title. This applies to the New Armies as well as the Old, and when one
remembers the safety conferred by a good deep trench and the fact that
few men are anxious to be killed sooner than is strictly necessary, the
objection is regrettable and very surprising. Still there it is, and
any officer will tell you that his men look on trench-digging with
distaste, have to be constantly persuaded and chivvied into doing
anything like their best at it, and on the whole would apparently much
rather take their chance in a shallow or poorly-constructed trench than
be at the labor of making it deep and safe.

But one piece of trench-digging performed by the Tearaway Rifles must
come pretty near a record for speed.

When the Rifles moved in for their regular spell in the forward line,
their O.C. was instructed that his battalion had to construct a section
of new trench in ground in front of the forward trench.

It was particularly unfortunate that just about this time the winter
issue of a regular rum ration had ceased, and that, immediately before
they moved in, a number of the Tearaways had been put under stoppages
of pay for an escapade with which this story need have no concern.

Without pay the men, of course, were cut off from even the sour and
watery delights of the beer sold in the local estaminets, which abound
in the villages where the troops are billeted in reserve some miles
behind the firing line. As Sergeant Clancy feelingly remarked:

"They stopped the pay, and that stops the beer; and then they stopped
the rum. It's no pleasure in life they leave us at all, at all. They'll
be afther stopping the fighting next."

Of that last, however, there was comparatively little fear at the
moment. A brisk action had opened some days before the Tearaways were
brought up from the reserve, and the forward line which they were now
sent in to occupy had been a German trench less than a week before.

The main fighting had died down, but because the British were
suspicious of counter-attacks, and the Germans afraid of a continued
British movement, the opposing lines were very fully on the alert; the
artillery on both sides were indulging in constant dueling, and the
infantry were doing everything possible to prevent any sudden advantage
being snatched by the other side.

As soon as the Tearaways were established in the new position, the O.C.
and the adjutant made a tour of their lines, carefully reconnoitering
through their periscopes the open ground which had been pointed out to
them on the map as the line of the new trench which they were to
commence digging. At this point the forward trench was curved sharply
inward, and the new trench was designed to run across and outwards from
the ends of the curve, meeting in a wide angle at a point where a hole
had been dug and a listening-post established.

It was only possible to reach this listening-post by night, and the
half-dozen men in it had to remain there throughout the day, since it
was impossible to move across the open between the post and the
trenches by daylight. The right-hand portion of the new trench running
from the listening-post back to the forward trench had already been
sketched out with entrenching tools, but it formed no cover because it
was enfiladed by a portion of the German trench.

It was the day when the Tearaways moved into the new position, and the
O.C. had been instructed that he was expected to commence digging
operations as soon as it was dark that night, the method and manner of
digging being left entirely in his own hand. The Major, the Adjutant,
and a couple of Captains conferred gloomily over the prospective task.
That reputation of a dislike for digging stood in the way of a quick
job being made. The stoppage of the rum ration prevented even an
inducement in the shape of an "extra tot" being promised for extra good
work, and it was well known to all the officers that the stoppage of
pay had put the men in a sulky humor, which made them a little hard to
handle, and harder to drive than the proverbial pigs. It was decided
that nothing should be said to the men of the task ahead of them until
it was time to tell off the fatigue party and start them on the work.

"It's no good," said the Captain, "leaving them all the afternoon to
chew it over. They'd only be talking themselves into a state that is
first cousin to insubordination."

"I wish," said the other Captain, "they had asked us to go across and
take another slice of the German trench. The men would do it a lot
quicker and surer, and a lot more willing, than they'd dig a new one."

"The men," said the Colonel tartly, "are not going to be asked what
they'd like any more than I've been. I want you each to go down quietly
and have a look over at the new ground, tell the company commanders
what the job is, and have a talk with me after as to what you think is
the best way of setting about it."

That afternoon Lieutenant Riley and Lieutenant Brock took turns in
peering through a periscope at the line of the new trench, and
discussed the problem presented.

"It's all very fine," grumbled Riley, "for the O.C. to say the men must
dig because he says so. You can take a horse to the water where you
can't make it drink, and by the same token you can put a spade in a
man's hand where you can't make him dig, or if he does dig he'll only
do it as slow and gingerly as if it were his own grave and he was to be
buried in it as soon as it was ready."

"Don't talk about burying," retorted Brock. "It isn't a pleasant
subject with so many candidates for a funeral scattered around the
front door."

He sniffed the air, and made an exclamation of disgust:

"They haven't even been chloride-of-limed," he said. "A lot of lazy,
untidy brutes that battalion must have been we have just relieved."

Riley stared again into the periscope: "It's German the most of them
are, anyway," he said, "that's one consolation, although it's small
comfort to a sense of smell. I say, have a look at that man lying over
there, out to the left of the listening-post. His head is towards us,
and his hair is white as driven snow. They must be getting hard up for
men to be using up the grandfathers of that age."

Brock examined the white head carefully. "He's a pretty old stager," he
said, "unless he's a young 'un whose hair has turned white in a night
like they do in novels; or, maybe he's a General."

"A General!" said Riley, and stopped abruptly. "Man, now, wait a
minute. A General!" he continued musingly, and then suddenly burst into
chuckles, and nudged Brock in the ribs. "I have a great notion," he
said, "gr-r-reat notion, Brockie. What'll you bet I don't get the men
coming to us before night with a petition to be allowed to do some
digging?"

Brock stared at him. "You're out of your senses," he said. "I'd as soon
expect them to come with a petition to be allowed to sign the pledge."

"Well, now listen," said Riley, "and we'll try it, anyway."

He explained swiftly, while over Brock's face a gentle smile beamed and
widened into subdued chucklings.

"Here's Sergeant Clancy coming along the trench," said Riley. "You have
the notion now, so play up to me, and make sure Clancy hears every word
you say."

"I want to see that General of theirs the Bosche prisoner spoke about,"
said Riley, as Clancy came well within earshot. "An old man, the Bosche
said he was, with a head of hair as white and shining as a gull's
wing."

"I'm not so interested in his shining head," said Brock, "as I am in
the shining gold he carries on him. Doesn't it seem sinful waste for
all that good money to be lying out there?"

Out of the tail of his eye Riley saw the sergeant halt and stiffen into
an attitude of listening. He turned round.

"Was it me you wanted to see, Clancy?" he said.

"No, sorr - yes, sorr," said Clancy hurriedly, and then more slowly, in
neat adoption of the remarks he had just heard: "Leastways, sorr, I was
just afther wondering if you had heard anything of this tale of a
German Gineral lying out there on the ground beyanst."

"You mean the one that was shot last week?" said Riley.

"Him with the five thousand francs in his breeches pocket, and the
diamond-studded gold watch on his wrist?" said Brock.

"The same, sorr, the same!" said Clancy eagerly, and with his eyes
glistening. "And have you made out which of them he is, sorr?"

"No," said Riley shortly. "And remember, Sergeant, there are to be no
men going over the parapet this night without orders. The last
battalion in here lost a big handful of men trying to get hold of that
General, but the Germans were watching too close, and they've got a
machine-gun trained to cover him. See to it, Clancy! That's all now."

Sergeant Clancy moved off, but he went reluctantly.

"Why didn't you give him a bit more?" asked Brock.

"Because I know Clancy," said Riley, whispering. "If we had said more
now, he might have suspected a plant. As it is, he's got enough to
tickle his curiosity, and you can be sure it won't be long before a
gentle pumping performance is in operation."

Sergeant Clancy came in sight round the traverse again, moving briskly,
but obviously slowing down as he passed them, and very obviously
straining to hear anything they were saying. But they both kept silent,
and when he had disappeared round the next traverse, Riley grinned and
winked at his companion.

"He's hooked, Brockie," he said exultantly.

"Now you wait and - " He stopped as a rifle-man moved round the corner
and took up a position on the firing step near them.

"I'll bet," said Riley delightedly, "Clancy has put him there to listen
to anything he can catch us saying."

He turned to the man, who was clipping a tiny mirror on to his bayonet
and hoisting it to use as a periscope.

"Are you on the look-out?" he asked. "And who posted you there?"

"It was Sergeant Clancy, sir," answered the man. "He said I could hear
better - I mean, see better," he corrected himself, "from here."

Riley abruptly turned to their own periscope and apparently resumed the
conversation.

"I'm almost sure that's him with the white head," said Riley. "Out
there, about forty or fifty yards from the German parapet, and about a
hundred yards ten o'clock from our listening-post. Have a look."

He handed the periscope over to Brock, and at the same time noticed how
eagerly the sentry was also having a look into his own periscope.

"I've got him," said Brock. "Yes, I believe that's the man."

"What makes it more certain," said Riley, "is that hen's scratch of a
trench the other battalion started to dig out to the listening-post.
They couldn't crawl out in the open to get to the General, and it's my
belief they meant to drive a sap out to the listening-post, and then
out to the General, and yank him in, so they could go through his
pockets."

"It's a good bit of work to get at a dead man," said Brock
reflectively.

"It is," said Riley, "but it isn't often you can drive a sap with five
thousand francs at the end of it."

"To say nothing of a diamond-studded gold watch," said Brock.

"Well, well," said Riley, "I suppose the Germans won't be leaving him
lying out there much longer. I hear the last battalion bagged quite a
bunch that tried to creep out at night to get him in; but I suppose our
fellows, not knowing about it, won't watch him so carefully."

They turned the conversation to other and more casual things, and
shortly afterwards moved off.

The first-fruits of their sowing showed within the hour, when some of
the officers were having tea together in a corner of a ruined cottage,
which had been converted into a keep.

The servant who was preparing tea had placed a battered pot on the half
of a broken door, which served for a mess table; had laid out a loaf of
bread, tin pots of jam, a cake, and a flattened box of flattened
chocolates, and these offices having been fully performed he should
have retired. Instead, however, he fidgeted to and fro, offered to pour
the tea from the dented coffee-pot, asked if anything more was wanted,
pushed the loaf over to the Captain, apologizing at length for the
impossibility of getting a scrape of butter these days; hovered round
the table, and generally made it plain that he had something he wished
to say, or that he supposed they had something to say he wished to
hear.

"What are you dodging about there for, man?" the Captain asked
irritably at last. "Is it anything you want?"

"Nothing, sorr," said the man, "only I was just wondering if you had
heard annything of a Gineral with fifty thousand francs in his pocket,
lying out there beyond the trench."

"Five thousand francs," corrected Riley gently.

"'Twas fifty thousand I heard, sorr," said the man eagerly; "but ye
have heard, then, sorr?"

"What's this about a General?" demanded the Captain.

"Yes!" said Riley quickly. "What is it? We have heard nothing of the
General."

"Ah!" said the messman, eyeing him thoughtfully, "I thought maybe ye
had heard."

"We have heard nothing," said Riley. "What is it you are talking
about?"

"About them fifty thousand francs, sorr," said the messman, cunningly,
"or five thousand, was it?"

"What's this?" said the Captain, and the others making no attempt to
answer his question, left the messman to tell a voluble tale of a
German General ("though 'twas a Field-Marshal some said it was, and
others went the length of Von Kluck himself") who had been killed some
days before, and lay out in the open with five thousand, or fifty
thousand, francs in his breeches pocket, a diamond-studded gold watch
on his wrist, diamond rings on his fingers, and his breast covered with
Iron Crosses and jeweled Orders.

That both Riley and Brock, as well as the Captain, professed their
profound ignorance of the tale only served, as they well knew, to
strengthen the Tearaways Rifles' belief in it, and after the man had
gone they imparted their plan with huge delight and joyful anticipation
to the Captain.

When they had finished tea and left the keep to return to their own
posts, they were met by Sergeant Clancy.

"I just wanted to speak wid you a moment, sorr," he said. "I have been
looking at that listening-post, and thinking to myself wouldn't it be
as well if we ran a sap out to it; it would save the crawling out
across the open at night, and keeping the men - and some wounded among
them maybe - cooped up the whole day."

"There's something in that," said the Captain, pretending to reflect.
"And I see the last battalion had made something of a beginning to dig
a trench out to the post."

"And they must have been thinking with their boots when they dug it
there," said Riley. "A trench on that side is open to enfilade fire. It
should have been dug out from the left corner of that curve instead of
the right."

"If you would speak to the O.C. about it, sorr," said Clancy, "he might
be willing to let us dig it. The men is fresh, too, and won't harm for
a bit of exercise."

"Very well," said the Captain carelessly, "we'll see about it
to-morrow."

"Begging your pardon, sorr," said Clancy, "I was thinking it would be a
good night tonight, seein' there's a strong wind blowing that would
deaden the sound of the digging."

"That's true enough," the Captain said slowly. "I think it's an
excellent idea, Clancy, and I'll speak to the O.C., and tell him you
suggested it."

A few minutes after, an orderly brought a message that the O.C. was
coming round the trenches to see the company commanders. The company
commanders found him with rather a sharp edge to his temper, and
Captain Conroy, to whom Riley and Brock had confided the secret of
their plans, concluded the moment was not a happy one for explaining
the ruse to the O.C. He, therefore, merely took his instructions for
the detailing of a working party from his company, and the hour at
which they were to commence.

"And remember," said the O.C. sharply, "you will stand no nonsense over
this work. If you think any man is loafing or not doing his full share,
make him a prisoner, or do anything else you think fit. I'll back you
in it, whatever it is."

Conroy murmured a "Very good, sir," and left it at that. When he
returned to his company he made arrangements for the working party,
implying subtly to Sergeant Clancy that the trench was to be started as
the result of his, the sergeant's, arguments.

Clancy went back to the men in high feather:

"I suppose now," he said complacently, "there's some would be like to
laugh if they were told that a blessed sergeant could be saying where
and when he'd be having this trench or that trench dug or not dug; but
there's more ways of killing a cat than choking it with butter, and
Ould Prickles can take a hint as good as the next man when it's put to
him right."

"Prickles," be it noted, being the fitting, if somewhat disrespectful,
name which the O.C. carried in the Rifles.

"It's yourself has the tongue on ye," admitted Rifleman McRory


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14

Online LibraryBoyd CableAction Front → online text (page 14 of 15)