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A fine, brisk morning; a long, tree-bordered road dappled with fugitive sun-beams, making a glory of puddles that leapt in shimmering spray beneath our flying wheels. A long, straight road that ran on and on unswerving, uphill and down, beneath tall, straight trees that flitted past in never-ending procession, and beyond these a rolling, desolate countryside of blue hills and dusky woods; and in the air from beyond this wide horizon a sound that rose above the wind gusts and the noise of our going, a faint whisper that seemed in the air close about us and yet to be of the vague distances, a whisper of sound, a stammering murmur, now rising, now falling, but never quite lost.
In rain-sodden fields to right and left were many figures bent in diligent labour, men in weatherworn, grey-blue uniforms and knee-boots, while on the roadside were men who lounged, or sat smoking cigarettes, rifle across knees and wicked-looking bayonets agleam, wherefore these many German prisoners toiled with the unremitting diligence aforesaid.
The road surface improving somewhat we went at speed and, as we lurched and swayed, the long, straight road grew less deserted. Here and there transport lorries by ones and twos, then whole convoys drawn up beside the road, often axle deep in mud, or lumbering heavily onwards; and ever as we went that ominous, stammering murmur beyond the horizon grew louder and more distinct.
On we went, through scattered villages alive with khaki-clad figures with morions cocked at every conceivable angle, past leafy lanes bright with the wink of long bayonets; through country towns, whose wide squares and narrow, old-world streets rang with the ordered tramp of feet, the stamp of horses and rumble of gun wheels, where ruddy English faces turned to stare and broad khaki backs swung easily beneath their many accoutrements. And in street and square and by-street, always and ever was that murmurous stammer of sound more ominous and threatening, yet which nobody seemed to heed—not even K., my companion, who puffed his cigarette and “was glad it had stopped raining.”
So, picking our way through streets a-throng with British faces, dodging guns and limbers, wagons and carts of all descriptions, we came out upon the open road again. And now, there being no surface at all to speak of, we perforce went slow, and I watched where, just in front, a string of lorries lumbered heavily along, pitching and rolling very much like boats in a choppy sea.
Presently we halted to let a column go by, officers a-horse and a-foot with the long files behind, but all alike splashed and spattered with mud. Men, these, who carried their rifles anyhow, who tramped along, rank upon rank, weary men, who showed among them here and there grim evidence of battle—rain-sodden men with hair that clung to muddy brows beneath the sloping brims of muddy helmets; men who tramped ankle-deep in mud and who sang and whistled blithe as birds. So they splashed wearily through the mud, upborne in their fatigue by that indomitable spirit that has always made the Briton the fighting man he is.
At second speed we toiled along again behind the lorries who were making as bad weather of it as ever, when all at once I caught my breath, hearkening to the far, faint skirling of Highland bagpipes, and, leaning from the car, saw before us a company of Highlanders, their mud-splashed knees a-swing together, their khaki kilts swaying in rhythm, their long bayonets a-twinkle, while down the wind came the regular tramp of their feet and the wild, frenzied wailing of their pipes. Soon we were up with them, bronzed, stalwart figures, grim fighters from muddy spatter-dashes to steel helmets, beneath which eyes turned to stare at us—eyes blue and merry, eyes dark and sombre—as they swung along to the lilting music of the pipes.
At the rear the stretcher-bearers marched, the rolled-up stretchers upon their shoulders; but even so, by various dark stains and marks upon that dingy canvas, I knew that here was a company that had done and endured much. Close by me was a man whose hairy knee was black with dried blood—to him I tentatively proffered my cigarette case.
“Wull ye hae one the noo?” I questioned. For a moment he eyed me a trifle dour and askance, then he smiled (a grave Scots smile).
“Thank ye, I wull that!” said he, and extracted the cigarette with muddy fingers.
“Ye’ll hae a sore leg, I’m thinking!” said I.
“Ou aye,” he admitted with the same grave smile, “but it’s no sae muckle as a’ that—juist a wee bit skelpit I—”
Our car moved forward, gathered speed, and we bumped and swayed on our way; the bagpipes shrieked and wailed, grew plaintively soft, and were drowned and lost in that other sound which was a murmur no longer, but a rolling, distant thunder, with occasional moments of silence.
“Ah, the guns at last!” said I.
“Yes,” nodded K., lighting another cigarette, “I’ve been listening to them for the last hour.”
Here my friend F., who happened to be the Intelligence Officer in charge, leaned forward to say:
“I’m afraid we can’t get into Beaumont Hamel, the Boches are strafing it rather, this morning, but we’ll go as near as we can get, and then on to what was La Boiselle. We shall leave the car soon, so better get into your tin hats.” Forthwith I buckled on one of the morions we had brought for the purpose and very uncomfortable I found it. Having made it fairly secure, I turned, grinning furtively, to behold K.’s classic features crowned with his outlandish-seeming headgear, and presently caught him grinning furtively at mine.
“They’re not so heavy as I expected,” said I.
“About half a pound,” he suggested.
Pulling up at a shell-shattered village we left the car and trudged along a shell-torn road, along a battered and rusty railway line, and presently struck into a desolate waste intersected by sparse hedgerows and with here and there desolate, leafless trees, many of which, in shattered trunk and broken bough, showed grim traces of what had been; and ever as we advanced these ugly scars grew more frequent, and we were continually dodging sullen pools that were the work of bursting shells. And then it began to rain again.
On we went, splashing through puddles, slipping in mud, and ever as we went my boots and my uncomfortable helmet grew heavier and heavier, while in the heaven above, in the earth below and in the air about us was the quiver and thunder of unseen guns. As we stumbled through the muddy desolation I beheld wretched hovels wherein khaki-clad forms moved, and from one of these damp and dismal structures a merry whistling issued, with hoarse laughter.
On we tramped, through rain and mud, which, like my helmet, seemed to grow momentarily heavier.
“K.,” said I, as he floundered into a shell hole, “about how heavy did you say these helmets were?”
“About a pound!” said he, fierce-eyed. “Confound the mud!”
Away to our left and high in air a puff of smoke appeared, a pearl-grey, fleecy cloud, and as I, unsuspecting, watched it writhe into fantastic shapes, my ears were smitten with a deafening report, and instinctively I ducked.
“Shrapnel!” said F., waving his hand in airy introduction. “They’re searching the road yonder I expect—ah, there goes another! Yes, they’re trying the road yonder—but here’s the trench—in with you!”
I am free to confess that I entered that trench precipitately—so hurriedly, in fact, that my helmet fell off, and, as I replaced it, I was not sorry to see that this trench was very deep and narrow. As we progressed, very slowly by reason of clinging mud, F. informed us that this trench had been our old front line before we took Beaumont Hamel; and I noticed many things, as, clips of cartridges, unexploded bombs, Lewis-gun magazines, parts of a broken machine gun, and various odds and ends of accoutrements. In some places this trench had fallen in because of rain and other things and was almost impassable, wherefore, after much floundering and splashing, F. suggested we should climb out again, which we did forthwith, very moist and muddy.
And thus at last I looked at that wide stretch of country across which our men had advanced unshaken and undismayed, through a hell the like of which the world had never known before; and, as I stood there, I could almost see those long, advancing waves of khaki-clad figures, their ranks swept by the fire of countless rifles and machine guns, pounded by high explosives, blasted by withering shrapnel, lost in the swirling death-mist of poison gas—heroic ranks which, rent asunder, shattered, torn, yet swung steadily on through smoke and flame, unflinching and unafraid. As if to make the picture more real, came the thunderous crash of a shell behind us, but this time I forgot to duck.
Far in front of us I saw a huge puff of smoke, and as it thinned out beheld clouds of earth and broken beams that seemed to hang suspended a moment ere they fell and vanished. After a moment came another puff of smoke further to our right, and beyond this another, and again, beyond this, another.
“A battery of heavies,” said F.
Even as he spoke the four puffs burst forth again and upon exactly the same ground.
At this juncture a head appeared over the parapet behind us and after some talk with F., came one who tendered us a pair of binoculars, by whose aid I made out the British new line of trenches which had once been German. So I stood, dry-mouthed, to watch the burst of those huge shells exploding upon our British line. Fascinated, I stared until F.’s hand on my arm aroused me, and returning the glasses with a hazy word of thanks I followed my companions, though often turning to watch the shooting which now I thought much too good.
And now we were traversing the great battlefield where, not long since, so many of our bravest had fallen that Britain might still be Britain. Even yet, upon its torn and trampled surface I could read something of the fight—here a broken shoulder belt, there a cartridge pouch, yonder a stained and tattered coat, while everywhere lay bombs, English and German.
“If you want to see La Boiselle properly we must hurry!” said F., and off he went at the double with K.’s long legs striding beside him, but, as for me, I must needs turn for one last look where those deadly smoke puffs came and went with such awful regularity.
The rain had stopped, but it was three damp and mud-spattered wretches who clambered back into the waiting car.
“K.,” said I, as we removed our cumbrous headgear, “about how much do you suppose these things weigh?”
“Fully a ton!” he answered, jerking his cap over his eyes and scowlingly accepting a cigarette.
Very soon the shattered village was far behind and we were threading a devious course between huge steam-tractors, guns, motor-lorries and more guns. We passed soldiers a-horse and a-foot and long strings of ambulance cars; to right and left of the road were artillery parks and great camps, that stretched away into the distance. Here also were vast numbers of the ubiquitous motor-lorry with many three-wheeled tractors for the big guns. We sped past hundreds of horses picketed in long lines; past countless tents smeared crazily in various coloured paints; past huts little and huts big; past swamps knee-deep in mud where muddy men were taking down or setting up other tents. On we sped through all the confused order of a mighty army, until, chancing to raise my eyes aloft, I beheld a huge balloon, which, as I watched, mounted up and up into the air.
“One of our sausages!” said F., gloved hand waving. “Plenty of ’em round here; see, there’s another in that cloud, and beyond it another.”
So for a while I rode with my eyes turned upwards, and thus I presently saw far ahead many aeroplanes that flew in strange, zigzag fashion, now swooping low, now climbing high, now twisting and turning giddily.
“Some of our ’planes under fire!” said F., “you can see the shrapnel bursting all around ’em—there’s the smoke—we call ’em woolly bears. Won’t see any Boche ’planes, though—rather not!”
Amidst all these wonders and marvels our fleet car sped on, jolting and lurching violently over ruts, pot-holes and the like until we came to a part of the road where many men were engaged with pick and shovel; and here, on either side of the highway, I noticed many grim-looking heaps and mounds—ugly, shapeless dumps, depressing in their very hideousness. Beside one such unlovely dump our car pulled up, and F., gloved finger pointing, announced:
“The Church of La Boiselle. That heap you see yonder was once the Mairie, and beyond, the schoolhouse. The others were houses and cottages. Oh, La Boiselle was quite a pretty place once. We get out here to visit the guns—this way.”
Obediently I followed whither he led, nothing speaking, for surely here was matter beyond words. Leaving the road, we floundered over what seemed like ash heaps, but which had once been German trenches faced and reinforced by concrete and steel plates. Many of these last lay here and there, awfully bent and twisted, but of trenches I saw none save a few yards here and there half filled with indescribable débris. It was, indeed, a place of horror—a frightful desolation beyond all words. Everywhere about us were signs of dreadful death—they came to one in the very air, in lowering heaven and tortured earth. Far as the eye could reach the ground was pitted with great shell holes, so close that they broke into one another and formed horrid pools full of shapeless things within the slime.
Across this hellish waste I went cautiously by reason of torn and twisted tangles of German barbed wire, of hand grenades and huge shells, of broken and rusty iron and steel that once were deadly machine guns. As I picked my way among all this flotsam, I turned to take up a bayonet, slipped in the slime and sank to my waist in a shell hole—even then I didn’t touch bottom, but scrambled out, all grey mud from waist down—but I had the bayonet.
It was in this woeful state that I shook hands with the Major of the battery. And as we stood upon that awful waste, he chattered, I remember, of books. Then, side by side, we came to the battery—four mighty howitzers, that crashed and roared and shook the very earth with each discharge, and whose shells roared through the air with the rush of a dozen express trains.
Following the Major’s directing finger, I fixed my gaze some distance above the muzzle of the nearest gun and, marvel of marvels, beheld that dire messenger of death and destruction rush forth, soaring, upon its way, up and up, until it was lost in cloud. Time after time I saw the huge shells leap skywards and vanish on their long journey, and stood thus lost in wonder, and as I watched I could not but remark on the speed and dexterity with which the crews handled these monstrous engines.
“Yes,” nodded the Major, “strange thing is that a year ago they weren’t, you know—guns weren’t in existence and the men weren’t gunners—clerks an’ all that sort of thing, you know—civilians, what?”
“They’re pretty good gunners now—judging by effect!” said I, nodding towards the abomination of desolation that had once been a village.
“Rather!” nodded the Major, cheerily, “used to think it took three long years to make a gunner once—do it in six short months now! Pretty good going for old England, what? How about a cup of tea in my dugout?”
But evening was approaching, and having far to go we had perforce to refuse his hospitality and bid him a reluctant good-by.
“Don’t forget to take a peep at the mine craters,” said he, and waving a cheery adieu, vanished into his dugout.
Ten minutes’ walk, along the road, and before us rose a jagged mount, and beyond it another, uncanny hills, seared and cracked and sinister, up whose steep slopes I scrambled and into whose yawning depths I gazed in awestruck wonder; so deep, so wide and huge of circumference, it seemed rather the result of some titanic convulsion of nature than the handiwork of man.
I could imagine the cataclysmic roar of the explosion, the smoke and flame of the mighty upheaval and war found for me yet another horror as I turned and descended the precipitous slope. Now, as I went, I stumbled over a small mound, then halted all at once, for at one end of this was a very small cross, rudely constructed and painted white, and tacked to this a strip of lettered tin, bearing a name and number, and beneath these the words, “One of the best.” So I took off my hat and stood awhile beside that lonely mound of muddy earth ere I went my way.
Slowly our car lurched onward through the waste, and presently on either side the way I saw other such mounds and crosses, by twos and threes, by fifties, by hundreds, in long rows beyond count. And looking around me on this dreary desolation I knew that one day (since nothing dies) upon this place of horror grass would grow and flowers bloom again; along this now desolate and deserted road people would come by the thousand; these humble crosses and mounds of muddy earth would become to all Britons a holy place where so many of our best and bravest lie, who, undismayed, have passed through the portals of Death into the fuller, greater, nobler living.
Full of such thoughts I turned for one last look, and then I saw that the setting sun had turned each one of these humble little crosses into things of shining glory.
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