Ian Hay.

The First Hundred Thousand online

. (page 7 of 18)
Online LibraryIan HayThe First Hundred Thousand → online text (page 7 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

at the back of the supporting trench, and partook of provender from
their haversacks.

"I don't suppose they'll attack much before nine," said the voice of
a stout major named Kemp. "My word, it is dark in here! _And_ dull!
Curse the Kaiser!"

"I don't know," said Wagstaffe thoughtfully. "War is hell, and all
that, but it has a good deal to recommend it. It wipes out all the
small nuisances of peace-time."

"Such as - !"

"Well, Suffragettes, and Futurism, and - and - "

"Bernard Shaw," suggested another voice. "Hall Caine - "

"Yes, and the Tango, and party politics, and golf-maniacs. Life and
Death, and the things that really are big, get viewed in their proper
perspective for once in a way."

"And look how the War has bucked up the nation," said Bobby Little,
all on fire at once. "Look at the way girls have given up fussing over
clothes and things, and taken to nursing."

"My poor young friend," said the voice of the middle-aged Kemp, "tell
me honestly, would you like to be attended to by some of the young
women who have recently taken up the nursing profession?"

"Rather!" said Bobby, with thoughtless fervour.

"I didn't say _one_," Kemp pointed out, amid laughter, "but _some_.
Of course we all know of one. Even I do. It's the rule, not the
exception, that we are dealing with just now."

Bobby, realising that he had been unfairly surprised in a secret, felt
glad that the darkness covered his blushes.

"Well, take my tip," continued Kemp, "and avoid amateur ministering
angels, my son. I studied the species in South Africa. For twenty-four
hours they nurse you to death, and after that they leave you to perish
of starvation. Women in war-time are best left at home."

A youthful paladin in the gloom timidly mentioned the name of Florence

"One Nightingale doesn't make a base hospital," replied Kemp. "I
take off my hat - we all do - to women who are willing to undergo the
drudgery and discomfort which hospital training involves. But I'm
not talking about Florence Nightingales. The young person whom I am
referring to is just intelligent enough to understand that the only
possible thing to do this season is to nurse. She qualifies herself
for her new profession by dressing up like one of the chorus of
'The Quaker Girl,' and getting her portrait, thus attired, into the
'Tatler.' Having achieved this, she has graduated. She then proceeds
to invade any hospital that is available, where she flirts with
everything in pyjamas, and freezes you with a look if you ask her to
empty a basin or change your sheets. I know her! I've had some, and I
know her! She is one of the minor horrors of war. In peace-time she
goes out on Alexandra Day, and stands on the steps of men's clubs and
pesters the members to let her put a rose in their button-holes. What
such a girl wants is a good old-fashioned mother who knows how to put
a slipper to its right use!"

"I don't think," observed Wagstaffe, since Kemp had apparently
concluded his philippic, "that young girls are the only people who
lose their heads. Consider all the poisonous young blighters that one
sees about town just now. Their uplift is enormous, and their manners
in public horrid; and they hardly know enough about their new job to
stand at attention when they hear 'God Save the King.' In fact, they
deserve to be nursed by your little friends, Bobby!"

"They are all that you say," conceded Kemp. "But after all, they do
have a fairly stiff time of it on duty, and they are going to have a
much stiffer time later on. And they are not going to back out when
the romance of the new uniform wears off, remember. Now these girls
will play the angel-of-mercy game for a week or two, and then jack up
and confine their efforts to getting hold of a wounded officer and
taking him to the theatre. It is _dernier cri_ to take a wounded
officer about with you at present. Wounded officers have quite
superseded Pekinese, I am told."

"Women certainly are the most extraordinary creatures," mused Ayling,
a platoon commander of "B." "In private life I am a beak at a public
school - "

"What school?" inquired several voices. Ayling gave the name, found
that there were two of the school's old boys present, and continued -

"Just as I was leaving to join this battalion, the Head received
a letter from a boy's mother intimating that she was obliged to
withdraw her son, as he had received a commission in the army for the
duration of the war. She wanted to know if the Head would keep her
son's place open for him until he came back! What do you think of

"Sense of proportion wasn't invented when women were made," commented
Kemp. "But we are wandering from the subject, which is: what
advantages are we, personally, deriving from the war? Wagger, what are
you getting out of it?"

"Half-a-crown a day extra pay as Assistant Adjutant," replied
Wagstaffe laconically. "Ainslie, wake up and tell us what the war
has done for you, since you abandoned the Stock Exchange and took to

"Certainly," replied Ainslie. "A year ago I spent my days trying to
digest my food, and my nights trying to sleep. I was not at all
successful in either enterprise. I can now sit down to a supper of
roast pork and bottled stout, go to bed directly afterwards, sleep all
night, and wake up in the morning without thinking unkind things
of anybody - not even my relations-in-law! Bless the Kaiser, say I!
Borrodaile, what about you? Any complaints?"

"Thank you," replied Borrodaile's dry voice; "there are no complaints.
In civil life I am what is known as a 'prospective candidate.' For
several years I have been exercising this, the only, method of
advertising permitted to a barrister, by nursing a constituency. That
is, I go down to the country once a week, and there reduce myself to
speechlessness soliciting the votes of the people who put my opponent
in twenty years ago, and will keep him in by a two thousand majority
as long as he cares to stand. I have been at it five years, but so far
the old gentleman has never so much as betrayed any knowledge of my

"That must be rather galling," said Wagstaffe.

"Ah! but listen! Of course party politics have now been merged in the
common cause - see local organs, _passim_ - and both sides are working
shoulder to shoulder for the maintenance of our national existence."

"_Applause!_" murmured Kemp.

"That is to say," continued Borrodaile with calm relish, "my opponent,
whose strong suit for the last twenty years has been to cry down the
horrors of militarism, and the madness of national service, and the
unwieldy size of the British Empire, is now compelled to spend his
evenings taking the chair at mass meetings for the encouragement of
recruiting. I believe the way in which he eats up his own previous
utterances on the subject is quite superb. On these occasions I always
send him a telegram, containing a kindly pat on the back for him and
a sort of semi-official message for the audience. He has to read this
out on the platform!"

"What sort of message?" asked a delighted voice.

"Oh - _Send along some more of our boys. Lord Kitchener says there
are none to touch them. Borrodaile, Bruce and Wallace Highlanders_.
Or - _All success to the meeting, and best thanks to you personally for
carrying on in my absence. Borrodaile, Bruce and Wallace Highlanders_.
I have a lot of quiet fun," said Borrodaile meditatively, "composing
those telegrams. I rather fancy" - he examined the luminous watch on
his wrist - "it's five minutes past eight: I rather fancy the old thing
is reading one now!"

The prospective candidate leaned back against the damp wall of the
dug-out with a happy sigh. "What have you got out of the war, Ayling?"
he inquired.

"Change," said Ayling.

"For better or worse?"

"If you had spent seven years in a big public school," said Ayling,
"teaching exactly the same thing, at exactly the same hour, to exactly
the same kind of boy, for weeks on end, what sort of change would you
welcome most?"

"Death," said several voices.

"Nothing of the kind!" said Ayling warmly. "It's a great life, if you
are cut out for it. But there is no doubt that the regularity of the
hours, and the absolute certainty of the future, make a man a bit
groovy. Now in this life we are living we have to do lots of dull or
unpleasant things, but they are never quite the same things. They
are progressive, and not circular, if you know what I mean; and the
immediate future is absolutely unknown, which is an untold blessing.
What about you, Sketchley?"

A fat voice replied -

"War is good for adipose Special Reservists. I have decreased four
inches round the waist since October. Next?"

So the talk ran on. Young Lochgair, heir to untold acres in the far
north and master of unlimited pocket-money, admitted frankly that the
sum of eight-and-sixpence per day, which he was now earning by the
sweat of his brow and the expenditure of shoe-leather, was sweeter to
him than honey in the honeycomb. Hattrick, who had recently put up a
plate in Harley Street, said it was good to be earning a living wage
at last. Mr. Waddell, pressed to say a few words of encouragement of
the present campaign, delivered himself of a guarded but illuminating
eulogy of war as a cure for indecision of mind; from which, coupled
with a coy reference to "some one" in distant St. Andrews, the company
were enabled to gather that Mr. Waddell had carried a position with
his new sword which had proved impregnable to civilian assault.

Only Bobby Little was silent. In all this genial symposium there had
been no word of the spur which was inciting him - and doubtless the
others - along the present weary and monotonous path; and on the whole
he was glad that it should be so. None of us care to talk, even
privately, about the Dream of Honour and the Hope of Glory. The only
difference between Bobby and the others was that while they could
cover up their aspirations with a jest, Bobby must say all that was in
his heart, or keep silent. So he held his peace.

A tall figure loomed against the starlit sky, and Captain Wagstaffe,
who had been out in the trench, spoke quickly to Major Kemp: -

"I think we had better get to our places, sir. Some criminal has cut
my alarm-cord!"


Five minutes previously, Private Bain, lulled to a sense of false
security by the stillness of the night, had opened his eyes, which had
been closed for purposes of philosophic reflection, to find himself
surrounded by four ghostly figures in greatcoats. With creditable
presence of mind he jerked his alarm-cord. But, alas! the cord came
with his hand.

He was now a prisoner, and his place in the scout-line was being used
as a point of deployment for the attacking force.

"We're extended right along the line now," said Captain Mackintosh
to Simson. "I can't wait any longer for Shand: he has probably lost
himself. The sentries are all behind us. Pass the word along to crawl
forward. Every man to keep as low as he can, and dress by the right.
No one to charge unless he hears my whistle, or is fired on."

The whispered word - Captain Mackintosh knows when to whisper quite as
well as Captain Shand - runs down the line, and presently we begin to
creep forward, stooping low. Sometimes we halt; sometimes we swing
back a little; but on the whole we progress. Once there is a sudden
exclamation. A highly-strung youth, crouching in a field drain, has
laid his hand upon what looks and feels like a clammy human face,
lying recumbent and staring heavenward. Too late, he recognises a
derelict scarecrow with a turnip head. Again, there is a pause while
the extreme right of the line negotiates an unexpected barbed-wire
fence. Still, we move on, with enormous caution. We are not certain
where the trenches are, but they must be near. At any moment a
crackling volley may leap out upon us. Pulses begin to beat.

In the trench itself eyes are strained and ears cocked. It is an eerie
sensation to know that men are near you, and creeping nearer, yet
remain inaudible and invisible. It is a very dark night. The moon
appears to have gone to bed for good, and the stars are mostly
covered. Men unconsciously endeavour to fan the darkness away with
their hands, like mist. The broken ground in front, with the black
woods beyond, might be concealing an army corps for all the watchers
in the trenches can tell. Far away to the south a bright finger of
light occasionally stabs the murky heavens. It is the searchlight of
a British cruiser, keeping ceaseless vigil in the English Channel,
fifteen miles away. If she were not there we should not be
making-believe here with such comfortable deliberation. It would be
the real thing.

Bobby Little, who by this time can almost discern spiked German
helmets in the gloom, stands tingling. On either side of him are
ranged the men of his platoon - some eager, some sleepy, but all
silent. For the first time he notices that in the distant woods ahead
of him there is a small break - a mere gap - through which one or two
stars are twinkling. If only he could contrive to get a line of sight
direct to that patch of sky -

He moves a few yards along the trench, and brings his eye to the
ground-level. No good: a bush intervenes, fifteen yards away. He moves
further and tries again.

Suddenly, for a brief moment, against the dimly illuminated scrap
of horizon, he descries a human form, clad in a kilt, advancing

"_Number one Platoon_ - _at the enemy in front_ - _rapid fire_!"

He is just in time. There comes an overwrought roar of musketry all
down the line of trenches. Simultaneously, a solid wall of men rises
out of the earth not fifty yards away, and makes for the trenches with
a long-drawn battle yell.

Make-believe has its thrills as well as the genuine article.

And so home to bed. M'Snape duly became a lance-corporal, while
Dunshie resigned his post as a scout and returned to duty with the



Under this designation it is convenient to lump the whole heavenly
host which at present orders our goings and shapes our ends. It
includes -

(1) The War Office;

(2) The Treasury;

(3) The Army Ordnance Office;

(4) Our Divisional Office;

- and other more local and immediate homes of mystery.

The Olympus which controls the destinies of "K(1)" differs in many
respects from the Olympus of antiquity, but its celestial inhabitants
appear to have at least two points in common with the original
body - namely, a childish delight in upsetting one another's
arrangements, and an untimely sense of humour when dealing with

So far as our researches have gone, we have been able to classify
Olympus, roughly, into three departments -

(1) Round Game Department (including Dockets, Indents, and all
official correspondence).

(2) Fairy Godmother Department.

(3) Practical Joke Department.

The outstanding feature of the Round Game Department is its craving
for irrelevant information and its passion for detail. "Open your
hearts to us," say the officials of the Department; "unburden your
souls; keep nothing from us - and you will find us most accommodating.
But stand on your dignity; decline to particularise; hold back one
irrelevant detail - and it will go hard with you! Listen, and we
will explain the rules of the game. Think of something you want
immediately - say the command of a brigade, or a couple of washers for
the lock of a machine-gun - and apply to us. The application must be
made in writing, upon the Army Form provided for the purpose, and in
triplicate. _And_ - you must put in all the details you can possibly
think of."

For instance, in the case of the machine-gun washers - by the way, in
applying for them, you must call them _Gun, Machine, Light Vickers,
Washers for lock of, two_. That is the way we always talk at the
Ordnance Office. An Ordnance officer refers to his wife's mother as
_Law, Mother-in-, one_ - you should state when the old washers were
lost, and by whom; also why they were lost, and where they are now.
Then write a short history of the machine-gun from which they were
lost, giving date and place of birth, together with, a statement of
the exact number of rounds which it has fired - a machine-gun fires
about five hundred rounds a minute - adding the name and military
record of the pack-animal which usually carries it. When you have
filled up this document you forward it to the proper quarter and await

The game then proceeds on simple and automatic lines. If your
application is referred back to you not more than five times, and if
you get your washers within three months of the date of application,
you are the winner. If you get something else instead - say an
aeroplane, or a hundred wash-hand basins - it is a draw. But the
chances are that you lose.

Consider. By the rules of the game, if Olympus can think of a single
detail which has not been thought of by you - for instance, if you omit
to mention that the lost washers were circular in shape and had holes
through the middle - you are _ipso facto_ disqualified, under Rule
One. Rule Two, also, is liable to trip you up. Possibly you may have
written the pack-mule's name in small block capitals, instead of
ordinary italics underlined in red ink, or put the date in Roman
figures instead of Arabic numerals. If you do this, your application
is referred back to you, and you lose a life. And even if you survive
Rules One and Two, Rule Three will probably get you in the end. Under
its provision your application must be framed in such language and
addressed in such a manner that it passes through every department and
sub-department of Olympus before it reaches the right one. The rule
has its origin in the principle which governs the passing of wine at
well-regulated British dinner-tables. That is, if you wish to offer a
glass of port to your neighbour on your right, you hand the decanter
to the neighbour on your left, so that the original object of your
hospitality receives it, probably empty, only after a complete circuit
of the table. In the present instance, the gentleman upon your right
is the President of the Washer Department, situated somewhere in the
Army Ordnance Office, the remaining guests representing the other
centres of Olympian activity. For every department your
application misses, you lose a life, three lost lives amounting to

When the washers are issued, however, the port-wine rule is abandoned;
and the washers are despatched to you, in defiance of all the laws of
superstition and tradition, "widdershins," or counter-clockwise.
No wonder articles thus jeopardised often fail to reach their

Your last fence comes when you receive a document from Olympus
announcing that your washers are now prepared for you, and that if you
will sign and return the enclosed receipt they will be sent off upon
their last journey. You are now in the worst dilemma of all. Olympus
will not disgorge your washers until it has your receipt. On the other
hand, if you send the receipt, Olympus can always win the game by
losing the washers, and saying that _you_ have got them. In the face
of your own receipt you cannot very well deny this. So you lose
your washers, and the game, and are also made liable for the
misappropriation of two washers, for which Olympus holds your receipt.

Truly, the gods play with loaded dice.

On the whole, the simplest (and almost universal) plan is to convey a
couple of washers from some one else's gun.

The game just described is played chiefly by officers; but this is a
democratic age, and the rank and file are now occasionally permitted
to take part.

For example, boots. Private M'Splae is the possessor, we will say,
of a pair of flat feet, or arched insteps, or other military
incommodities, and his regulation boots do not fit him. More than
that, they hurt him exceedingly, and as he is compelled to wear them
through daily marches of several miles, they gradually wear a hole in
his heel, or a groove in his instep, or a gathering on his great toe.
So he makes the first move in the game, and reports sick - "sair feet."

The Medical Officer, a terribly efficient individual,
keenly - sometimes too keenly - alert for signs of malingering, takes a
cursory glance at M'Splae's feet, and directs the patient's attention
to the healing properties of soap and water. M'Splae departs,
grumbling, and reappears on sick parade a few days later, palpably
worse. This time, the M.O. being a little less pressed with
work, M'Splae is given a dressing for his feet, coupled with a
recommendation to procure a new pair of boots without delay. If
M'Splae is a novice in regimental diplomacy, he will thereupon address
himself to his platoon sergeant, who will consign him, eloquently, to
a destination where only boots with asbestos soles will be of any use.
If he is an old hand, he will simply cut his next parade, and will
thus, rather ingeniously, obtain access to his company commander,
being brought up before him at orderly-room next morning as a
defaulter. To his captain he explains, with simple dignity, that he
absented himself from parade because he found himself unable to "rise
up" from his bed. He then endeavours, by hurriedly unlacing his boots,
to produce his feet as evidence; but is frustrated, and awarded three
extra fatigues for not formally reporting himself sick to the orderly
sergeant. The real point of issue, namely, the unsuitability of
M'Splae's boots, again escapes attention.

There the matter rests until, a few days later, M'Splae falls out on
a long regimental route-march, and hobbles home, chaperoned by a not
ungrateful lance-corporal, in a state of semi-collapse. This time the
M.O. reports to the captain that Private M'Splae will be unfit for
further duty until he is provided with a proper pair of boots. Are
there no boots in the quartermaster's store?

The captain explains that there are plenty of boots, but that under
the rules of the present round game no one has any power to issue
them. (This rule was put in to prevent the game from becoming too
easy, like the spot-barred rule in billiards.) It is a fact well known
to Olympus that no regimental officer can be trusted with boots. Not
even the colonel can gain access to the regimental boot store. For all
Olympus can tell, he might draw a pair of boots and wear them himself,
or dress his children up in them, or bribe the brigadier with them,
instead of issuing them to Private M'Splae. No, Olympus thinks it
wiser not to put temptation in the way of underpaid officers. So the
boots remain locked up, and the taxpayer is protected.

But to be just, there is always a solution to an Olympian enigma, if
you have the patience to go on looking for it. In this case the proper
proceeding is for all concerned, including the prostrate M'Splae, to
wait patiently for a Board to sit. No date is assigned for this event,
but it is bound to occur sooner or later, like a railway accident or
an eclipse of the moon. So one day, out of a cloudless sky, a Board
materialises, and sits on M'Splae's boots. If M'Splae's company
commander happens to be president of the Board the boots are
condemned, and the portals of the quarter-master's store swing open
for a brief moment to emit a new pair.

When M'Splae comes out of hospital, the boots, provided no one has
appropriated them during the term, of his indisposition, are his. He
puts them on, to find that they pinch him in the same place as the old

* * * * *

Then there is the Fairy Godmother Department, which supplies us with
unexpected treats. It is the smallest department on Olympus, and, like
most philanthropic institutions, is rather unaccountable in the manner
in which it distributes its favours. It is somewhat hampered in its
efforts, too, by the Practical Joke Department, which appears to
exercise a sort of general right of interference all over Olympus. For
instance, the Fairy Godmother Department decrees that officers from
Indian regiments, who were home on leave when the War broke out and
were commandeered for service with the Expeditionary Force, shall
continue to draw pay on the Indian scale, which is considerably higher
than that which prevails at home. So far, so good. But the Practical
Joke Department hears of this, and scents an opportunity, in the form
of "deductions." It promptly bleeds the beneficiaire of certain sums
per day, for quarters, horse allowance, forage, and the like. It is
credibly reported that one of these warriors, on emerging from a
week's purgatory in a Belgian trench, found that his accommodation

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryIan HayThe First Hundred Thousand → online text (page 7 of 18)