War, the Liberator, and Other Pieces/A Raid

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PARTY, ’shun! Left-turn! You will parade again at 2.15 in full equipment. Party, dis-miss!”

The fifty big men turned to their right, slapped their rifles, and broke off by twos and threes towards their billet. As they went in, one splendid-looking boy of nineteen or twenty seized a friend by the waist and brought him down after a short struggle.

“You look out, De Wet,” said his Sergeant, an English Highlander, “or you’ll be too tired to get at the Germans.”

The boy looked up, flashing a smile at him.

“Tired? I’ll no get tired,” he said, “this is chust ma trainin’,” and followed the rest into the billet.

Their two officers stood watching them as they went.

“My God, Charles,” said the Senior Subaltern, “aren’t they great? God help any Bosche that meets those lads. They’re just as fit and happy as they can be. I feel top-hole, too, don’t you? I don’t see that there’s anything can spoil it.”

The other spoke slowly, looking in front of him.

“Oh, I’m not in the least afraid of anything, if we can only get into the trench,” he said. “If the wire’s cut . . .

“Oh, damn the wire,” said the Senior Subaltern hotly, “it can’t help being cut. Anyhow, there’s very little there to start with, and if there’s any bombardment at all, it’ll go west; and there’s going to be a hell of a bombardment. Anyhow, we can’t do any more. Come on in and feed.”

For the last week the two had been down in the village with their fifty men, training hard for a raid on the German salient opposite their line. A fortnight’s hard reconnoitring night after night had let them know all that could be known about the ground, and the week had been mostly spent in bayonet fighting and bombing, and generally in making them, as the Senior Subaltern put it, “fit to waltz through hell and back again.” But all the time their two officers had before them one dread—the spectre of the uncut wire. They were both experienced soldiers and knew what it meant—and now, as they went into luncheon, each saw a vision of his splendid men struggling in the meshes, and heard the rattle of a ghostly machine-gun. At luncheon they managed to forget their fear for a little, and the Senior Subaltern, a light-hearted person, entertained the Quartermaster, Transport Officer, and Padre, with whom they messed, by a vivid and heartrending description of the painful scene which would take place as his mangled corpse was borne down the line, and their unavailing regrets that they had not been kinder to him when he was a bright, happy boy. Charles MacRae, his junior, was more serious, but both of them felt curiously as if the whole raid was just a game of unreality, and at the last moment they would hear that it was “let us pretend.” Particularly did they feel this when, after luncheon, they paid their servants the arrears. The Senior Subaltern’s batman refused to take the money; to which his officer replied: ‘‘You’ve jolly well got to. I’m not going to have you rifling my pockets for it after I’m dead.” From which it may be seen that he was a particularly cheerful pessimist.

At 2.15 the pontoon waggons, which the sappers had lent the party, arrived, and the men piled on to them laden, some with rifle and bayonet, some with spiked knobkerries, and all with bombs. Their officers climbed on to the leading waggon, and the cavalcade started, looking, as MacRae said, like a football crowd. All the troops they met looked at them with respect, guessing their mission, and everybody felt no end of a fine fellow, quite forgetting the imminent danger which caused the respect. The only thing they seemed to be nervous of was falling off the waggons. As they drove past a redoubt some way behind the reserve line, Charles MacRae spoke, ‘‘That’s fine wire,’’ he said. “‘You wouldn’t get through that easily.” “Oh,” said his Senior, “that’s back wire. You won’t get anything like that in a front line.” But the nightmare had gripped them again, and both were silent until they dismounted from their waggons and started to file up the communication trench, when the babble of talk died down among the men too, and the only sound was the heavy breathing of an apoplectic Sergeant.

“I’m sorry hurrying you, Sergeant Dunnet,” said the Senior Subaltern, “but we’ve got to be at Battalion Headquarters at 5, although I don’t suppose zero’ll be for a good time after that.”

Zero, it must be explained, is the time of the raid. In the orders it had been stated, “The artillery will barrage at X. 20. The infantry will advance at X. 25.” What time X. was, would not be given out until they reached Battalion H.Q. Hence the uncertainty of the Senior Subaltern and his hurry.

The battalion was lying in the reserve trench near Brigade H.Q. As they moved along the trench comrades came out of their dug-outs into the sunlight to wish them good luck, and from the Coy. Mess to which the two officers belonged came shouts of ‘‘Tagg!” (the Senior Subaltern’s name was MacTaggart).

“Hullo, John,” replied that perspiring individual. “Hullo, A Coy.”

“When are you going over, Tagg?” inquired his Captain.

“I don’t know. Probably not for a good while, but we’ve got to be at H.Q. at 5.”

“Well, come and have tea with us. We’ve got fresh salmon. Just come out. The Major’s coming, and David.”

“Right Ho! I will, but I must buzz along now or the C.O.’ll be wanting to know why the devil I’m late.”

At Battalion H.Q. he stopped and saluted his C.O., who was leaning against the parados with the Major and the Adjutant.

“Here he is,” said the Colonel. “How are you feeling, MacTaggart?”

“Very hot, sir,” said MacTaggart with fervour, wiping his brow, “I could do with some tea fine.”

“Come and have it with us,” said the C.O. ‘‘You’ve plenty of time. X. isn’t till 8.”

“Oh, good,” said MacTaggart. ‘‘Do you hear that, Charles? Three hours we’ve got. When shall I tell the men to fall in again, sir?”

“Seven will do,” said the C.O. “But what have you done to yourself? I’ve never seen you look so smart. Is that a new tunic?”

“Well, sir,” said MacTaggart with a grin, “I thought I might as well get killed like a gentleman.”

“You are a gruesome young devil,” said the Adjutant. “Are you coming to tea at Headquarters?”

“Well, as a matter of fact we’ve got a previous invitation coupled with a salmon from A Coy,” replied the graceless youth, “and unless you’ve anything better. . . .

“Oh, get along,” said the C.O. “Have you got a watch yet?”

“No, sir, I’m borrowing David Sutherland’s.” And the raiding party dispersed each to a dug-out to feed at other people’s expense.

During tea the fear which had possessed the two officers left them, and a pleasant tranquillity based on the reflexion that it couldn’t be helped took its place; but the sensation of unreality was very strong as they sat in the dug-out with their friends just as they had done a hundred times; only now they were going over the top in two hours’ time. At last at seven they girded on their weapons, and stumbled up the dug-out steps.

“Good-bye, old things,” said MacTaggart at the top, “no doubt I shall see you again some time to-night.”

“Good-bye, Tagg,” floated up a voice from below. “Will you have lilies or roses?”

“No flowers by request,” was the retort, and the O.C. raid proceeded to Headquarters where his party was already assembled, and their grey-haired Brigadier, himself a Highlander and veteran of three wars, was waiting to speak to them before they went out. His speech was a short and simple one characteristic of the man. “You’re going to help make the name of the regiment, and the fame of the North, to-night, men. I’ve heard that in Flanders yesterday the Bosche came up against Scotsmen again, and got the worst of it. Now, you’ll show ‘em to-day that Scotsmen can give them the worst of it here, too. Scotland for ever. Lead on, Mr MacTaggart, and good luck,” and the raiding party filed up the long communication trench to the front line.

The spring evening was quiet and still, with hardly a cloud to ruffle the sky, and birds here and there were singing as the party tramped on. Overhead came the drone of a British aeroplane, but nowhere was there a sound of shelling. It was the quietest evening any of them had seen on that battered front; only they knew that soon its tranquillity would be torn with the rushing of a thousand shells through the air, and all the imminent hell into which they must charge to meet what secret foes awaited them hidden in the deep and silent trench.

“Good luck, sir.” “Good luck, boys!” N.C.O.’s and men of their battalion stood at attention as they passed up, and a lump came into the Senior Subaltern’s throat. Suppose he had lost his nerve. Suppose that when the time came he should not have the courage to give the signal to advance. Savagely he fought his doubts, reminding himself of past risks lightly taken, heartening himself with a phrase he had heard the men use, “they cannae kill our officer,” and partially succeeded. But the abysmal doubt persisted somewhere in his brain, as it had done always before action, and probably always would.

At the support trench he parted from Charles MacRae, who was to advance from another crater. ‘‘See you in half an hour, Charlie,” he said, and went on to the front line with his half of the party. A sister battalion of the regiment was garrisoning the front line, and as he went up he passed officers he knew. He hurried his party a bit, feeling unreasonably that they would be too late into the crater, and as they went up the narrow trench leading to it there was a metallic roar from the German trench 80 yards away. The men ducked instinctively.

“Trench mortar,” said one. “Terrible short, though. There goes another,” and craned his neck up to watch the burst.

His officer turned on him savagely, “Keep down, you damned fool,” he said. ‘‘Do you want to give us away?”

Three fears began to obsess him. Perhaps the Germans would retaliate and drop one on to his close-packed party; perhaps the bloody fools had showed themselves already and given the raid away.

“Oh, God,’’ he whispered, ‘‘don’t let us get casualties before we start the show.”

The other fear was caught from the men. All along the line the whisper was running, “Short, they’re droppin’ short an’ missin’ the trench.”

“You fools,” he whispered back, “that’s going for the wire, not the trench,” and reassured them; but all the same, he felt it himself. The bursts seemed short, even for the wire.

Now they had come to the first crater from which a tunnel had been made to the second. “Fix bayonets,” he whispered, “and keep low.”

One by one they slipped into the crater while their officer cursed them softly for not keeping low, or making a row. Then through the tunnel, and lying down below the lip he looked at his watch. Ten minutes too soon.

“We’ve plenty of time, boys,” he whispered, “I’ll give you the word to get ready.”

The men composed themselves to wait in easy attitudes, but each had some nervous trick betraying his tense condition. Some licked their dry lips again and again, some felt their bayonets. One red-haired fellow took out all his bombs, one by one, and squeezed their pins pensively. The enemy trench mortars were replying on our trench now, and the usual evening bombardment was going on. A new fear took possession of the Senior Subaltern. He looked at his watch. There would be a hitch in the timing; the barrage would be late, and they would have to go over without it. He watched the seconds go by. Only one minute, only half a minute, to the start of the barrage.

Swish—bang—bang—bang. The whole earth was convulsed with a tornado of sound, as the roar of the bursting shells in the German line convinced the Senior Subaltern that all was well. The men in the crater pressed their faces to the ground that was shaking beneath them, trying to hide themselves from that terrible crashing, but their officer’s heart sang within him. It was all right. It was properly timed. He glanced at his watch, and nudged the men on each side of him.

“Pass along, ‘Three minutes to go, get ready,’” he yelled—no need to whisper now—and into his mind came a picture of his boat on the Isis on a sunny day, and the coach on the bank counting the seconds to the starting gun. He laughed at the queer similarity.

“Half a minute more,” he passed along, and watched the seconds ticking past. Then all at once he climbed up, and, for a second or two, stood alone on the crater lip. “Come along, boys,” he said quietly, and the raiding party poured after him out across the open.

As he ran across the shell-torn No Man’s Land a strange exultation came over him. It was the same ground that he had crawled through painfully night after night, but seen in the daylight it was different and very thrilling. But what a devil of a long way it was—much farther than he had thought. Where was the damned trench? Surely it wasn’t so far as all that.

Suddenly it yawned before him, and he saw at his feet a few scattered posts, and some strands of broken wire. A huge relief took possession of him, as he threw away his wire-cutters, shouting, “Come along, boys! The bloody wire’s cut,” and plunged forward to the trench.

Wide and deep and empty it lay at his feet, and he forgot all about bayonets and bombs and Germans, thinking only how he could get down without falling flat on his face. He climbed down gingerly from sandbag to sandbag, and turned to the left with his revolver ready, full of disappointment and fear that the Bosche had evacuated.

Round the traverse was one of his men looking at a hole under the parapet. He stood and stared too, wondering stupidly what the devil it could be. “It’s a dug-out,” said the man’s voice from very far away, and suddenly he was aware of a bullet hitting the side of the trench, and four Bosches stumbling up the dug-out steps, and shouting as they came. All at once his brain began to act rapidly. He yelled inarticulate curses, and pulled out a bomb from his haversack. The pin came out easily, but the Germans were too close. He dropped the lever and held the thing for a second or two; then flung it at the climbing men and leapt side-ways. There was a sharp crash as the bomb burst, and he sprang back again with his revolver ready. Writhing on the dug-out steps lay three of the Germans. The fourth leaned against the side with his hands over his face. A savage joy possessed the Senior Subaltern, and he shoved his revolver close to the man’s face and fired. Those clutching hands dropped, and the German crashed to the steps with the back of his head blown away.

“Bomb down there,” yelled MacTaggart to the men who had gathered outside, and tore on to the left to meet MacRae’s party at the point of the salient. Still there was not a German in the trench, and the M.G. emplacement at the point stood empty with the mouth of a dug-out below it. Up the trench towards him came a stream of running men, and he had nearly fired when he saw that they were kilted, and Charles MacRae was at the head. He turned to bomb the big dug-out. From below came a shout, “You bastards! You English bastards.”

“English be ———!” yelled a man behind him hoarsely, “Scotch, you ——— liars,” and a bomb shot down the stair.

Even in the midst of the shouting and the explosions, he had time to laugh at that.

As he stood watching them bombing he suddenly became aware of one of his own men from the right coming towards him at a sort of staggering run. Blood was streaming down the man’s face and neck, and then MacTaggart saw one of the most terrible sights in the world, fear in the eyes of a brave man.

“I’m wounded, sir,” the man gasped as he ran.

The words steadied MacTaggart.

“All right,” he said clearly. “That’s the way home.”

The man climbed painfully out and vanished.

Down the trench slowly came the red-haired man who had fingered his bombs in the crater. He was weaponless now, and his hands clutched at the sides of the trench as he came on, bleeding and wild-eyed.

“I’m wounded, sir, I’m wounded,” he groaned.

“All right, out you go,” said his officer. ‘‘What was it?”

“Our own ——— shells,” cried the man, his voice rising to a scream, and he, too, disappeared.

Now a great knot of wounded and panic-struck men came down, and MacTaggart thought “We’re done. They’ve properly caught us. No matter. We killed a good few in those two dug-outs anyway.” And gave the signal to retire.

From both sides the men streamed past and out, their officers watching them as they went. One wounded man came limping up, and stood feebly hesitating.

“Oh, get to hell out of this,” yelled the Senior Subaltern, and half-kicked, half-pushed him on to the parapet. Two sappers brought up land mines and laid them one in the dug-out, and one in the emplacement. Then they scrambled out, and the two officers prepared to follow.

“Sir! Sir!”

MacTaggart turned. It was his English Sergeant, Godstone, no longer immaculate, but dishevelled and wild-eyed. The Sergeant saluted.

“I’ve three men along here with their legs off,” he said.

In a flash MacTaggart saw the two possibilities before him. The men were certain to die, and it was pretty certain death for himself and the other two to go back. “Just chucking away extra lives,” he thought, and suddenly found life very desirable. For a second he hesitated. Then he remembered a score of things—his promise that he wouldn’t go back and leave one of them alive in the German trench, his pride that the men had always trusted him and followed him, his affection for the men, and, above all, the eternal principle, as old as war, “An officer can’t desert his men.” He turned to Charlie MacRae, suddenly calm, “Will you watch the left,” he said; “Sergeant Godstone and I will bring these fellows along.”

The impassive MacRae climbed on to the parapet, and sat there with his revolver in his right hand and a bomb in his left. He, too, like MacTaggart, knew that the odds were a thousand to one against them, but he made no remark. As MacTaggart turned back at the corner of the traverse he felt strangely comforted by the sight of MacRae sitting solidly there with his eyes fixed on the trench.

Along the trench the two ran past dug-outs from which came sounds of moanings, and suddenly came on the three men lying in a blood-stained bay with their rifles and bombs littering the ground. The first looked up at them as they bent over him. It was the boy who had wrestled with his chum in the morning. His legs were off below the thigh, and he looked strangely shrunken. “I’m done for, Sergeant,” he said steadily, “you take the others.”

The next man lay screaming, ‘‘Oh, my legs, my legs.” They lifted him and dragged him along the trench, cursing. The Senior Subaltern was filled with unreasonable anger against the man for being so heavy and making such a filthy row.

“Oh, come on, you silly devil,” he said, with a pull which made the man scream; then “Oh, I am sorry, Thompson. No matter. You’ll be home soon.”

As they dragged him to the point of exit they saw MacRae still sitting impassive, looking down the trench to the left. The Sergeant climbed up, and between them they lifted the groaning man up the twelve-foot parapet.

Sergeant Godstone dragged him to a shell-hole, and MacTaggart went back for the others. He was alone now, and the queer comfort which the Sergeant’s presence had given him was withdrawn. He looked fearfully at each dug-out door, expecting to see a German bayonet emerging. By the time he had got to the men again he felt weak and hopeless. He fingered his pistol, thinking, “One shot for me and one for each of the men. They won’t get any prisoners.”

At his feet a wounded man looked up piteously.

“Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off,” he cried, full of his own pain, “Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off.” MacTaggart felt that the chap would have appealed just the same to a Prussian for sympathy. A great pity flooded his mind, mixed again with wild anger at the man for giving him all this trouble.

“Oh, you silly devil,” he shouted in a high unnatural voice, “can’t you crawl on your other leg and arm?”

The man groaned. “Turn me over, sir, and I’ll try.”

There was a noise of feet and guttural voices along the trench beyond. MacTaggart tore a bomb from his bag and threw it over the traverse. Screams followed the burst and feet running rapidly away.

A man slipped down from the parapet above him. “I heard ye were left behind, sir,” he said, conversationally, and MacTaggart turned to see his own bombing Sergeant, come back for him through the No Man’s Land again. Suddenly he felt ‘‘This is all right. I’m going to get through. We’re all going to get through. And isn’t wee Macdonald a damned fine chap to come back for me like that?”

“Come on, Macdonald,” he cried, and together they dragged the man to the point, and rolled him up on to the parapet.

Once again they went back for the boy. His brown eyes were dull now, but he whispered, ‘‘You clear out, sir, I’m done.”

“Rot,” said his officer, and up to the point they dragged him and tried to lift the dead weight to the top.

All at once MacTaggart’s strength seemed to leave him, and his arms were powerless to move the heavy body.

“Oh, God! I can’t shift him,” he gasped. “Charlie, come and help.”

Charlie MacRae set his arms to the work, and his senior staggered into the open to drag MacNeil, the man with the pulped leg and arm, into an old trench, which ran down to their own line. The German guns were bursting shrapnel all along their parapet now, but he did not notice except in a curious, unthinking way, as if his mind was dulled to danger. He was filled with a hysterical rage against the Germans for hurting his men, and, as he lugged the groaning MacNeil into the slight cover of the old trench, with an artistic delight in the thing he was doing, he seemed to be regarding himself from the front stalls of a gigantic theatre and applauding a fine piece of acting. He wouldn’t get through it, and nobody would know, but he was doing the right thing, and painting a good picture. The esthetic joy of it buoyed him up as he helped Sergeant Godstone along with the other man; then went back to the parapet where Charles and Sergeant Macdonald were still struggling with the boy. He looked down at the shrunken face.

“I believe we’ll have to leave him, Charles,” he said, “‘he’s a dying man.”

Charlie MacRae looked up with his hand on the boy’s heart.

“No, he isn’t,” he said; “he’s dead.”

They rose and left him lying there on the German parapet; from the right as they ran for the old trench, came the clatter of a machine-gun.

The next few minutes seemed to MacTaggart interminable hours filled with the bursting of shells and the shrieks of the wounded men, as he pulled them along. Now he was lugging at one, now at the other, and now running back with Macdonald, screaming hysterical curses, to throw bombs into the Bosche trench. There was one moment of terror when their two land mines went up, and another, when Macdonald shouted “They’re coming, sir,” and he ran back, firing his revolver at grey figures that he fancied were looming through the smoke. One of the wounded men, a Catholic, began to confess his sins as they dragged him along. Once Sergeant Godstone prayed for strength to get them in, and MacTaggart heard himself crying, “Oh, God, let’s get these poor devils in, and give those swine hell, and I don’t care what happens.” Then there was a terrible time when only Godstone and he seemed to be left; he ran down to our line to look for stretcher-bearers, and found two men sitting in a hole.

“Come on, you bloody cowards,” he yelled, “and help us in with the wounded.

“We’re wounded ourselves, Tagg,” said Charles MacRae.

“Oh, it’s all right, Charlie,” he shouted back, “we’ll get them in all right.” But back MacRae and Macdonald came to help them in.

And now at the mouth of our sap were stretcher-bearers to give them a hand, and wire half-cut, easy to get through for whole men, but making the wounded scream with pain; while in the broken hole crouched MacTaggart telling the rest to get in and he would cover their retreat, till suddenly British shrapnel cloaked the German line, and for five minutes our own machine-guns screamed over his head. Then, all at once, the tumult stopped dead, and in the stillness there came from the German salient a single flare. The raid was over.

With the end of danger MacTaggart broke down and sobbed, crying for “My men, my beautiful men,” and then turning to the German line with a scream, “You swine. I’ll give you hell for this.” A hand fell on his arm. It was his dear Major, “Father” to the whole brigade.

“What’s up, Tagg?” said the Major.

“I’m going back to give those swine hell, Major,” he yelled, and was knocked sideways by a vigorous clout on the head.

“You young fool,” said the Major, “what you want is a drink,” and led him down to H.Q., where his men were already assembled. First of all, he went to the dressing station, and found there men lying and sitting, to hear from one that he had bayoneted two Germans, from another that he had bombed such dug-outs, and to realize that the raid had really succeeded, although it was a while before they found how well.

At H.Q. was Sergeant Godstone sitting on the steps with his head in his hands—it was from his section that the dead had come. The C.O. gave them both strong whiskies, and brought in Charles MacRae for another. Then they went to Brigade H.Q., to receive the thanks of the Brigadier, and lastly, jolted off, he and Godstone together, in a mess-cart back to the village again.

At the end of the village a waiting piper struck up “Highland Laddie.”

“Damn you, shut up,” shouted MacTaggart to him. “That’s not the way I feel.”

Stiffly he dismounted from the cart, and saying good-night to his men, walked slowly up the hill to the billet, where he and Charles had stayed together.

Their landlady came to the door crying, “Mais où est l’autre officier?”

“Il est blessé, Madame,” said MacTaggart heavily, “mais nous avons tué plus que quarante Bosches—et je suis tres fatigué.”