Thursday 28 August 2014

Tales from the Huts (part 1)

What it is Like at the Front Just Now

By Sir Robert Baden-Powell

THE country in which I now am, near Albert, consists of wide, open, rolling uplands, not a hedge to be seen, and trees only along the great high-roads or down in the hollows. The whole land is cultivated, and covered with a rime of frozen snow, across which a cutting wind is always sweeping.

Never a farm or cottage in sight; these are all clustered together in villages down in the valleys alongside the chalk streams. Barns and hay-lofts, stables and cart-sheds, form convenient billets for the men fresh from those white zig-zag lines across the hillsides -- the trenches.

Here and there a smashed-up pie of a house shows that we are still within the reach of shells, but in this district every cottage has its cellars, which act as ready-made "bomb- proofs," and chalked on the wall outside one sees the legend, "Cave pour 30 hommes."

Clustered under the lee-side of the houses one sees these "hommes" very different from the smart Tommies as we know them at home.

Workmanlike and picturesque one finds them at the Front. Muffled as they are in sheepskin woolly coats, stocking caps and mufflers, and splashed and caked with mud right up to their shoulders, one would scarcely recognise them as British soldiers were it not for the cheery though grimy faces and the remarks and songs that they keep dealing out.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"Rats? Plenty of them, sir! Why, they just swarm through these barns."

While he speaks of it a rat comes swanking between our feet. An officer catches him in the ribs with his stick; the dying rat turns round and looks at him with an injured expression, as though to say: "What did you do that for?" as he dies in a puddle.

"Tame? Why, only this morning my mate was lying there asleep, snoring, when I got up, and there was a rat sitting on his chest washing its face within three inches of his snore! . . . No, sir, they may have eaten others, but they are not likely to eat my face at any rate, though they often take a bite out of my hair!

The woodwork, the straw, and the ground itself are swarming with lice, so that between the various plagues of rats, lice and shells it is not surprising that the men get little rest.

Hot baths are arranged for in holes dug out and lined with tarpaulin, and shirts are washed in chemicals, but the results are not very permanent; just a few hours and the men are infested again.

"What do we do in the evenings? Well, there is no light after five, and fires are dangerous in the barns; the wind whistles through the walls and the sleet drives through the roof. There is only one thing to do, and that is to roll up in your blankets, and if you have any tobacco to smoke it, and to try and make the best of things with the rats outside and the lice inside. But concrete floors are not what you might call hot-beds, and are mighty hard."

Close by a pigsty with brick walls and tiled roof had been cleaned out, and within were two stretchers made of sacking and poles supported on bricks. A little brazier made out of an old tin biscuit box, and a candle stuck in a bottle, gave by contrast a comfortable atmosphere.

"You are snug enough here at any rate?"

"Yes, sir. Learnt it scouting. We were Boy Scouts." But this was the exception.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"A club, sir? If it were only a room with a dry floor and light and warmth, where one could get a cup of coffee and meet the other chaps, if would be just a godsend. We should not then be lying in our blankets in the dark, thinking of the pals that have gone, and wondering how long this fun has got to last. Why, I often feel I would rather be back in the frozen slush of the trenches. There, at any rate, you have got something doing!"

The value of the Y.M.C.A. Huts at the front does not lie merely in their supplying the creature comforts to the soldiers; a still greater value lies behind, since they tend to keep bright in the men that splendid spirit which is just now so conspicuous at the front. It is that spirit which, I believe, is going to pull us through to victory in the end.

Napoleon long ago said that in war the moral is as three to one more powerful than the material force. Under the terrible strain on mind as well as on body, which has to be endured in the present-day warfare in the trenches, it is only reasonable to expect that the cheery spirit of our men must go down unless they can get a good change of surroundings in their rest billets.

As I have said, these rest billets are not such gaudily cheerful places as they might be. I feel, therefore, that by setting up bright, warm clubs, where the men can meet and have their fun and get their good feeding, a great step will have been taken towards keeping up their spirits, and so towards tuning them up for the tremendous task which lies before them.

For this reason no effort is too great, no money ill-expended, where it is devoted to providing Recreation Huts for the Front.

[SIR ROBERT BADEN-POWELL entered his sixtieth year last February. It is forty years since he joined the Army. His active service was varied, for he served in India, Afghanistan, South Africa, Zululand, and Matabeleland. For his splendid defence of Mafeking, the close of which added a new word to the English language, he was promoted Major-General. All his life he has been fond of art, and his black-and-white work has often appeared in the illustrated papers. ED.]

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

True Till Death.

"YES," said my blue-clad companion, as he shook his head, "'True till Death' would be a suitable epitaph to place upon many a cross that marks the last resting-place of the heroes who have fallen abroad. All of them have not secured the Victoria Cross, but more lads have earned it than the few whose names are in the daily papers and who have been decorated by our King.

"I will tell you of one sight I saw, and the memory of it will always make me proud to be a Britisher -- though a lump may rise in my throat as I recall the splendid heroism of that boy who was so true till death. He was only a lad, and the early years of his manhood had been spent behind the counter of a draper's shop in a small provincial town. But his yard measure was no index to the length he could go for the sake of his King and Country.

"He was a despatch runner -- which is always a dangerous job to take on -- and he worked between our lines and those of our gallant French allies who joined us upon our left. Our first line of trenches had been gassed by the Germans upon the previous night, and was then in their hands. The ground he had to cover was a death-trap to him each time he ventured out to carry his messages. What those despatches contained, none of us knew, but they did mean either victory or defeat to ourselves and our French comrades.

"I did not know the boy to speak to, though he was well-known to me by sight. I had watched him, three or four times a day, crawling up and down the near side of the hedge that fringed the road between our lines. He was as game as they make them, with the instinct of a wild animal, and as reckless of danger as -- well, as a Tommy.

"It was upon the third day after I had first noticed him, and early in the morning, that I saw him come creeping down towards us. He was upon his stomach, and nosing the ground like a setter. But I observed that, at quick intervals, he kept stopping and resting, with his face turned eagerly towards us, and his throat gasping for breath. The bullets were splashing up the mud all round him, as I had seen them do upon many a similar trip, but he only tightened the grip of his hand upon his side where the papers lay, and struggled a few feet nearer to us.

"It was then that the Turcos (the French colonial troops) were advancing across the near fields to reinforce us, and we were eagerly expecting the order to advance.

"But, before the boy could reach our trenches, he had to cross the road, where he lost the meagre shelter of the hedge, and was fully exposed to the open fire of the snipers. I could see that he was wounded, and that each movement of his body was an agony to him, but he struggled bravely on. I could almost hear his gasps as he reached the road. Then he stopped, and his hand fell limp against his side.

"His last word was a cry for help, for he knew that his time had come. But one of our lads was already on his way to the spot, and there was not a man who watched him but whose heart did not thrill with pride at knowing that he came of the same stock as those two grand men. The dying boy had only strength to feebly draw out his papers, and I could see the cruel red stain upon his hand. Then he kissed them as lovingly as a mother would kiss the babe at her breast, and gave them to his mate almost grudgingly.

"As he fell back into the mud, many an eye was dim at the sight, but a mighty cheer went up from our boys as the papers were brought safely into our trench.

"I think it was the sight of those two glorious deeds that inspired us to do what followed. For the orders contained in that despatch were the very ones we were so anxiously longing for. We were to advance at once and storm the enemy's lines. Each one of us now felt that he had another crime to avenge -- another deed of imperishable heroism to prove worthy of, for the sake of that boy who lay lifeless upon the road.

"The officer who led us fell dead within the first twenty yards, but, with a leader or without one, nothing could stop us then. We were like hungry, wild beasts set loose in a butcher's shop, and we not only took back the trench that had been lost to us, but we captured the German first line as well, and neither of them has gone out of our possession since that day.

"We left many of our poor lads dead behind us, but the figure that will always remain in my memory is that of the dying despatch runner, whose last breath was a kiss that brought us victory."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The End of the Dream


ALL night long a terrific cannonade shook the very earth, and the sickly fumes of lyddite were wafted into the trenches by a damp March wind. A few star shells dropped their blue lights into the black vault of heaven, and the ubiquitous searchlight played in ghostly fashion over the devastated country. In the morning it was quiet again ; hardly a sound broke the stillness save the deep rumble of artillery far to the west. The same programme, exact in every detail, was repeated day after day until men spat with exasperation at the enforced inactivity, and performed the most foolhardy tricks on the trench parapet in full view of the enemy.

"Spragge," said the corporal one evening, "did you ever think you could kill a man, deliberately and calmly?"


"How did it come, then, the first experience?"

There was a brief silence, then the answer came slowly and softly.

"There has been no first experience for me."

The corporal started with surprise. "How can you know that?"

"I never shoot to hit a man."

The corporal shrank back, almost speechless with amazement.

"My God! You tell me that!" he muttered. It was inexplicable and withal terrible. He felt a sensation akin to that a man feels in the presence of any abnormal being. He considered well every aspect of the question. Here were brave men filled with a common ideal, fighting for the very existence of their nation, and yet one among them, from motives which were utterly unfathomable to any ordinary being, shrunk from the duty necessity imposed upon him. He strove honestly to see things from the other's point of view. Argued from the stand-point of humanitarianism and idealism, perhaps even Christianity itself, it was unmeet to take human life coldly and deliberately, yet, he argued, there were extenuations. The enemy constituted an ever-present menace, and self-defence was always warrantable. The problem grew on his mind and tortured his few sleeping hours, yet he could not harbour the spirit of repulsion which he felt was consistent with the occasion. The quiet, big man with his massive head and delightful eloquence had impressed him in a way he had never imagined. Could such a being really be but a husk, a poor, spiritless, lifeless thing, cankered by a damning ideal? It was all too horrible. For three days he spoke not a word to Spragge.

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn broke with a magnificence unusual for the time of the year. Spragge, on his pile of bricks, watched the far horizon change from a river of red to a flood of gold, then, seeing the corporal near him, quoted:

"But forth one wavelet, then another, curled,
Till the whole sunrise, not to be supprest
Rose-reddened, and its seething breast
Flickered in bounds, grew gold, then overflowed the world."

The corporal pretended not to hear, and commenced vigorously to clean his rifle, but a mere glance at his half-averted face was sufficient to make clear the deception. 

"What's the matter?" asked Spragge.

"Oh, nothing."

"Is it nothing that makes you shun me like the leper?"

"Have I shunned you?"

"I think it has been fairly obvious."

"Spragge!" -- after a brief silence. "Why did you tell me that?"

"Tell you what?"

"You know -- the other night."

"You asked me."

"Yes, yes, I know; but there were ways of evasion. Why did you make me lose my respect for you?"

Spragge looked at him curiously, then half closed his eyes in his dreamy manner.

"So you despise me for that? Despise me because I dared tell you my heart's truth. Is it so very terrible that I cannot kill in cold blood? Do you tell me that you do not hate yourself every time when you speed the bullet that takes a man's life? If I thought that you could kill and kill and be happy -- knowing that you had robbed a mother of her son, a wife maybe of her husband, I would never look at you again."

"My God!" cried the other hotly. "You talk like a madman! Where is your honour -- your patriotism, your ------"

"Honour! Patriotism!" interrupted Spragge. "So, to save my honour I must wreck my ideals, submerge my soul in a ghastly ocean of torment and iniquity! When some poor wretch writhes in pain and agony, I must praise God because thereby my honour is upheld!"

Then he changed his tone of bitterness, and, catching hold of the corporal's sleeve, whispered, rather than spoke. "Don't judge me too harshly, Annesley, we are all God's creatures, and are cast in a mould ordained for us. You don't know how it hurts. If I could act as they act" (inclining his head towards the other men), "I should save myself the acutest mental torment; but I can't, simply can't. Do you believe that?"

"Then why did you come here, where men must fight and kill and slaughter? There's a duty to be done, no matter its sternness."

"There were strange reasons. I watched day by day the stream of khaki figures streaming through the village. Each day they came and went, and each day I envied them the more. Then my mother's eyes -- very soft and very grave. I could not stand their eloquent reprovals. Half the night I thought on it. Sacrifice -- that is a great thing, for no evolution of ego can be perfected without it. It seemed to me that half the world was mad, and yet out of its madness grew the white flower of sacrifice, the symbol of the Cross.

"What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England, my own?"

Oh, it was all so clear and distinct -- my duty -- and so I came. But to kill ------"

He sat down, resting his head on his hands, and the corporal, unable to control his emotion, left him.

The news crept with amazing speed through the trenches. An assault was about to begin. Men whispered to each other gleefully and yet a little nervously, and each clutched his rifle with more than usual fondness. At the back of them the roar of the massed guns was ear-splitting. The fussy sergeant-major bustled about very excitedly. "Now then, you fellows, out you come, and when you hear the whistle go, hook it 'hell for leather.' Make good the trenches by the trees yonder, near the brickworks."

They scrambled out of the filthy pits they had occupied for three weary weeks, and experienced the magic sensation of treading good terra firma, covered by the terrible fire of a wonderful artillery. Spragge stood with the rest, very pale, but very upright. The corporal walked up to him and looked at him queerly.

"I just wanted to thank you -- in case -- One never knows."

They gripped hands for a second, and then the whistle blew.

Off they went like hounds from the leash, whooping like wild beings, skirting shell-holes and leaping over tree-trunks which, broken and scarred, were strewn over the lacerated ground. They reached the first line of trenches, which were nothing more than an unrecognisable pit of death with dismembered corpses half hidden in the smashed soil. Hardly a soul lived to dispute the advance. At the next line of trenches it was the same death and desolation. The havoc wrought by the massed artillery was immense, incredible. Near the village the resistance began. A dozen machine guns close by, masked in an orchard, rained a perfect hail of lead, and men dropped like ninepins. To the right a Scottish regiment were decimated by a pitiless fire which they were utterly unable to locate; yet they came on, sternly and doggedly, heads down and bayonets flashing, literally climbing over their dead in their dreadful determination. It was all very terrible, yet wonderful, and the little corporal, with a painful flesh wound, wondered where Spragge was, and forgot his own hurt and the hell in which he moved in an effort to imagine the other's feelings and sensations. Could he keep those ideals in the face of present events?

How long it lasted the corporal never knew. All the time he dwelt in a world far removed from that in which he ordinarily moved. Though men dropped in thousands, he experienced not one pang of remorse; it all seemed to be quite right and proper, and his mind had adapted itself to the situation with a readiness which was alarming but comforting. When eventually the whistle sounded and the fighting was over, he came to his proper state of mind in a series of connected transitions.

He moved painfully and slowly among the stretcher-bearers and ambulance wagons, and eventually found Spragge resting on a pile of sand-bags.

The latter looked at him wistfully.

"It's all over," he remarked.

"Yes. Thank God!"

Spragge wrinkled his brows and sat for a moment silent and pensive.

"It was terrible -- horrible," he remarked.

"What, the fighting?"

"No. What we found in a house at the back of the church."

The corporal looked at him interrogatively. The other resumed slowly and painfully.

"She was only twenty, and she showed us what they had done to her. Oh, I can't tell you -- it's too -- too terrible even to relate. Her husband and child too butchered and mutilated. If -- if --"

Phut! A bullet struck a sand-bag within a few inches of the corporal's chest. He started in surprise. They stepped into the shelter of a doorway and waited a few minutes. Then Spragge climbed on a heap of debris and thrust his rifle through the shell-hole. There was a loud report, and the corporal, peering round the doorway, saw in the distance a grey-clad figure drop from a tree. He turned towards Spragge.

"Eighteen!" said the latter, laconically.

To be continued...

These stories appeared in Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift Book published in 1916.

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