FIRST SIGHT OF THE TANKS
Late in the summer I accumulated a nice little case of trench fever.
This disease is due to remaining for long periods in the wet and mud, to racked nerves, and, I am inclined to think, to sleeping in the foul air of the dug-outs. The chief symptom is high temperature, and the patient aches a good deal. I was sent back to a place in the neighborhood of Arras and was there a week recuperating.
While I was there a woman spy whom I had known in Abalaine was brought to the village and shot. The frequency with which the duck walk at Abalaine had been shelled, especially when ration parties or troops were going over it, had attracted a good deal of attention.
There was a single house not far from the end of that duck walk west of Abalaine, occupied by a woman and two or three children. She had lived there for years and was, so far as anybody knew, a Frenchwoman in breeding and sympathies. She was in the habit of selling coffee to the soldiers, and, of course, gossiped with them and thus gained a good deal of information about troop movements.
She was not suspected for a long time. Then a gunner of a battery which was stationed near by noticed that certain children's garments, a red shirt and a blue one and several white garments, were on the clothesline in certain arrangement on the days when troops were to be moved along the duck walk the following night. This soldier notified his officers, and evidence was accumulated that the woman was signalling to the Boche airplanes.
She was arrested, taken to the rear, and shot. I don't like to think that this woman was really French. She was, no doubt, one of the myriad of spies who were planted in France by the Germans long before the war.
After getting over the fever, I rejoined my battalion in the early part of September in the Somme district at a place called Mill Street. This was in reality a series of dug-outs along a road some little distance behind our second lines, but in the range of the German guns, which persistently tried for our artillery just beside us.
Within an hour of my arrival I was treated to a taste of one of the forms of German kultur which was new at the time. At least it was new to me--tear gas. This delectable vapor came over in shells, comparatively harmless in themselves, but which loosed a gas, smelling at first a little like pineapple. When you got a good inhale you choked, and the eyes began to run. There was no controlling the tears, and the victim would fairly drip for a long time, leaving him wholly incapacitated.
Goggles provided for this gas were nearly useless, and we all resorted to the regular gas helmet. In this way we were able to stand the stuff.
The gas mask, by the way, was the bane of my existence in the trenches--one of the banes. I found that almost invariably after I had had mine on for a few minutes I got faint. Very often I would keel over entirely. A good many of the men were affected the same way, either from the lack of air inside the mask or by the influence of the chemicals with which the protector is impregnated.
One of the closest calls I had in all my war experience was at Mills Street. And Fritz was not to blame.
Several of the men, including myself, were squatted around a brazier cooking char and getting warm, for the nights were cold, when there was a terrific explosion. Investigation proved that an unexploded bomb had been buried under the brazier, and that it had gone off as the heat penetrated the ground. It is a wonder there weren't more of these accidents, as Tommy was forever throwing away his Millses.
The Mills bomb fires by pulling out a pin which releases a lever which explodes the bomb after four seconds. Lots of men never really trust a bomb. If you have one in your pocket, you feel that the pin may somehow get out, and if it does you know that you'll go to glory in small bits. I always had that feeling myself and used to throw away my Millses and scoop a hatful of dirt over them with my foot.
This particular bomb killed one man, wounded several, and shocked all of us. Two of the men managed to "swing" a "blighty" case out of it. I could have done the same if I had been wise enough.
I think I ought to say a word right here about the psychology of the Tommy in swinging a "blighty" case.
It is the one first, last, and always ambition of the Tommy to get back to Blighty. Usually he isn't "out there" because he wants to be but because he has to be. He is a patriot all right. His love of Blighty shows that. He will fight like a bag of wildcats when he gets where the fighting is, but he isn't going around looking for trouble. He knows that his officers will find that for him a-plenty.
When he gets letters from home and knows that the wife or the "nippers" or the old mother is sick, he wants to go home. And so he puts in his time hoping for a wound that will be "cushy" enough not to discommode him much and that will be bad enough to swing Blighty on. Sometimes when he wants very much to get back he stretches his conscience to the limit--and it is pretty elastic anyhow--and he fakes all sorts of illness. The M.O. is usually a bit too clever for Tommy, however, and out and out fakes seldom get by. Sometimes they do, and in the most unexpected cases.
I had a man named Isadore Epstein in my section who was instrumental in getting Blighty for himself and one other. Issy was a tailor by trade. He was no fighting man and didn't pretend to be, and he didn't care who knew it. He was wild to get a "blighty one" or shell shock, or anything that would take him home.
One morning as we were preparing to go over the top, and the men were a little jumpy and nervous, I heard a shot behind me, and a bullet chugged into the sandbags beside my head. I whirled around, my first thought being that some one of our own men was trying to do me in. This is a thing that sometimes happens to unpopular officers and less frequently to the men. But not in this case.
It was Issy Epstein. He had been monkeying with his rifle and had shot himself in the hand. Of course, Issy was at once under suspicion of a self-inflicted wound, which is one of the worst crimes in the calendar. But the suspicion was removed instantly. Issy was hopping around, raising a terrific row.
"Oi, oi," he wailed. "I'm ruint. I'm ruint. My thimble finger is gone. My thimble finger! I'm ruint. Oi, oi, oi, oi."
The poor fellow was so sincerely desolated over the loss of his necessary finger that I couldn't accuse him of shooting himself intentionally. I detailed a man named Bealer to take Issy back to a dressing station. Well, Bealer never came back.
Months later in England I met up with Epstein and asked about Bealer. It seems that after Issy had been fixed up, the surgeon turned to Bealer and said:
"What's the matter with you?"
Bealer happened to be dreaming of something else and didn't answer.
"I say," barked the doctor, "speak up. What's wrong?"
Bealer was startled and jumped and begun to stutter.
"Oh, I see," said the surgeon. "Shell shock."
Bealer was bright enough and quick enough after that to play it up and was tagged for Blighty. He had it thrust upon him. And you can bet he grabbed it and thanked his lucky stars.
We had been on Mill Street a day and a night when an order came for our company to move up to the second line and to be ready to go over the top the next day. At first there was the usual grousing, as there seemed to be no reason why our company should be picked from the whole battalion. We soon learned that all hands were going over, and after that we felt better.
We got our equipment on and started up to the second line. It was right here that I got my first dose of real honest-to-goodness modern war. The big push had been on all summer, and the whole of the Somme district was battered and smashed.
Going up from Mill Street there were no communication trenches. We were right out in the open, exposed to rifle and machine-gun fire and to shrapnel, and the Boches were fairly raining it in on the territory they had been pushed back from and of which they had the range to an inch. We went up under that steady fire for a full hour. The casualties were heavy, and the galling part of it was that we couldn't hurry, it was so dark. Every time a shell burst overhead and the shrapnel pattered in the dirt all about, I kissed myself good-by and thought of the baked beans at home. Men kept falling, and I wished I hadn't enlisted.
When we finally got up to the trench, believe me, we didn't need any orders to get in. We relieved the Black Watch, and they encouraged us by telling us they had lost over half their men in that trench, and that Fritz kept a constant fire on it. They didn't need to tell us. The big boys were coming over all the time.
The dead here were enough to give you the horrors. I had never seen so many before and never saw so many afterwards in one place. They were all over the place, both Germans and our own men. And in all states of mutilation and decomposition.
There were arms and legs sticking out of the trench sides. You could tell their nationality by the uniforms. The Scotch predominated. And their dead lay in the trenches and outside and hanging over the edges. I think it was here that I first got the real meaning of that old quotation about the curse of a dead man's eye. With so many lying about, there were always eyes staring at you.
Sometimes a particularly wide-staring corpse would seem to follow you with his gaze, like one of these posters with the pointing finger that they use to advertise Liberty Bonds. We would cover them up or turn them over. Here and there one would have a scornful death smile on his lips, as though he were laughing at the folly of the whole thing.
The stench here was appalling. That frightful, sickening smell that strikes one in the face like something tangible. Ugh! I immediately grew dizzy and faint and had a mad desire to run. I think if I hadn't been a non-com with a certain small amount of responsibility to live up to, I should have gone crazy.
I managed to pull myself together and placed my men as comfortably as possible. The Germans were five hundred yards away, and there was but little danger of an attack, so comparatively few had to "stand to." The rest took to the shelters.
I found a little two-man shelter that everybody else had avoided and crawled in. I crowded up against a man in there and spoke to him. He didn't answer and then suddenly I became aware of a stench more powerful than ordinary. I put out my hand and thrust it into a slimy, cold mess. I had found a dead German with a gaping, putrefying wound in his abdomen. I crawled out of that shelter, gagging and retching. This time I simply couldn't smother my impulse to run, and run I did, into the next traverse, where I sank weak and faint on the fire step. I sat there the rest of the night, regardless of shells, my mind milling wildly on the problem of war and the reason thereof and cursing myself for a fool.
[Illustration: HEAD-ON VIEW OF A BRITISH TANK.]
It was very early in the morning when Wells shook me up with, "Hi sye, Darby, wot the blinkin' blazes is that noise?"
We listened, and away from the rear came a tremendous whirring, burring, rumbling buzz, like a swarm of giant bees. I thought of everything from a Zeppelin to a donkey engine but couldn't make it out. Blofeld ran around the corner of a traverse and told us to get the men out. He didn't know what was coming and wasn't taking any chances.
It was getting a little light though heavily misty. We waited, and then out of the gray blanket of fog waddled the great steel monsters that we were to know afterwards as the "tanks." I shall never forget it.
In the half darkness they looked twice as big as they really were. They lurched forward, slow, clumsy but irresistible, nosing down into shell holes and out, crushing the unburied dead, sliding over mere trenches as though they did not exist.
There were five in all. One passed directly over us. We scuttled out of the way, and the men let go a cheer. For we knew that here was something that could and would win battles.
The tanks were an absolutely new thing to us. Their secret had been guarded so carefully even in our own army that our battalion had heard nothing of them.
But we didn't need to be told that they would be effective. One look was enough to convince us. Later it convinced Fritzie.