At The Front
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
What one soldier writes, millions have experienced.
At first the waiting for orders; the wonder of how to adapt one's
nature to the conditions that lay ahead. The fear of being afraid.
Many times in that last week in London, which now seems so far away, I
did aimless, meaningless things that I had done before; wondering if I
should ever do them again. Visiting old scenes of happy days, trying,
as it were, to conjure up old associations, for fear the chance might
not come again. Strange, perhaps, but many of the things I do are
strange, and only those who know me best would understand. My good-by
to you--and the curtain rose on the first act of the drama that I have
been privileged to watch, with every now and then a walking on part.
The first act was one of absorbing interest, learning the characters of
the play, and my mind was filled with wonder at the plot as day by day
it unfolded before me. I have tried to write of all the wonders of the
Base; its organization and the mastery of an Empire to serve its ideal
in its hour of need. The second curtain rose on the trenches, and it
is my impressions of this life, rather than of its details, that I
would now write. The first and greatest is the way the average man has
surmounted the impossible, has brought, as it were, a power to strike
that word from his vocabulary. Living in conditions which in previous
years would have caused his death, he has maintained his vitality of
mind and body. Healthy amid the pestilence of decaying death, of chill
from nights spent sometimes waist deep in water; or chattering with
cold as misty morning finds him saturated with its clammy cold. Facing
death from bullet, shell, and gas, and all the ingenuity that devilish
manhood can devise, yet remaining the same cheery, lively animal,
wondering when it all will cease. A new spirit of unselfishness has
entered the race, or perchance the old selfishness bred by years of
peace has died, leaving a cleaner, nobler feeling in its place. Men
who before cheated their neighbors, grasping to themselves all that
came their way, have learned instinctively to share their little all.
The message from Mars, Halves, partner, has become the general
spirit; and yet some say that there is no finer side to war! As for
the officers, as a rule, no words for them can be too fine. For they
have learned at once to be the leaders and the servants of their men,
tiring themselves out for others' comforts. And the men know it; from
them can come no class hatred in future years. If danger lies in that
direction it must surely come from those who have stayed at home.
For myself, I am slowly learning my lesson; learning that death, which
seems so near one, seldom shakes one by the hand. Learning to look
over the top to encourage those whose duty makes them do so.
Learning to walk out with a wiring party to No Man's Land, or to set
a patrol along its way. Learning to share the risks that others run so
as to win the confidence of my men.
Now let me say a word of the demoralizing effects of dugouts: Often it
takes a conscious effort to leave its safety or to stay away from it
for the dangers of level ground, and this is what all officers must
learn; for men can have no confidence in one who, ordering them out,
stays underground himself. I am learning, but, oh! so slowly, for mine
is not a nature that is really shaped for war. A vivid imagination is
here a handicap, and it is those who have little or none who make the
best soldiers. At last the finished and finite clod has come into
his own. Stolid, in a danger he hardly realizes, he remains at his
post, while the other, perchance shaking in every limb, has double the
battle to fight. My pencil wanders on and I hardly seem to know what I
write. Confused thoughts and half-formed impressions crowd through my
brain, and from the chaos some reach the paper. What kind of reading
do they make? I wonder.
* * * * * *
I'm awfully tired, but this may well be my last undisturbed night this
week, and I know how much letters must mean to you waiting and waiting
for news in England. All afternoon I've been wandering about the front
line, exploring, and learning to find my way about that desolate waste
of devastation representing recently captured ground. One waded knee
high amid tangled undergrowth dotted with three-foot stakes, and
learned from the map that this was a wood. One looked for a railway,
where only a buried bar of twisted metal could be found. One road we
could not find at all, so battered was the countryside; and so after
five and a half hours' wandering, we returned to a dinner of soup,
steak, stewed fruit, and cocoa. Today I noticed for the first time the
wonderful variety of insect life in the trenches; flies and beetles of
gorgeous and varied color showing against the vivid white of the
fresh-cut chalk. Past a famous mining village which for two years has
been swept by shell fire, now British, now German, until nothing save
the village Crucifix remains unbattered; iron, brick, and concrete,
twisted by the awful destructive power of high explosives. Graves
dating back to October, 1915, and up to the present time, lie scattered
here and there, but each with the name of the fallen one well marked on
it, waiting to be claimed when Peace shall come. As I walked the old
lines flashed into my head--
And though you be done to the death, what then,
If you battled the best you could?
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why, the critics will call it good!
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he's slow or spry,
It isn't the fact that you're dead that counts,
But only, how did you die?
Strange! but nowhere did I see a German grave other than those with the
inscription in English, A German Soldier killed in action. Dead
Germans have I seen, but never a German grave.
There seems to be no bird life here, beyond a rare covey of partridges
well behind the line, or a solitary lark searching for summer. One
misses--oh, so much!--the cheeky chirp of the sparrow or the note of
the thrush. We found a stray terrier about yesterday and have adopted
it, but I don't think it will go into the front line: there's enough
human suffering, without adding innocent canine victims that cannot
understand. Here let me say a word for the horses and mules, exposed
to dangers and terror (for mules actually come into the trenches to
within 200 yards of the line), patiently doing their work, often
terrified, often mutilated and never understanding why they have been
taken from their peaceful life to the struggle and hardship of war.
Much has been written, much is being done, but how few realize it from
their point of view. The men are wonderful, their cheerfulness, their
ability to work is nothing short of marvelous; but for the others, the
animals, their patient slavery is more wonderful, still.
Coming over the ridge tonight I saw the distant hills against the
after-glow of sunset; the moment was quiet, as one often finds it so;
for those few seconds no guns were firing, no shells bursting, and not
even the distant ping of a rifle was to be heard. It seemed so
English, just as though we were on one of our September holidays in the
car, looking towards the north hill country that I love so much. Then
suddenly the guns started, and we were at war again. There is one of
those strange feelings of expectation in the air tonight, as though
there were great things pending, and yet all is normal as far as we
know. Who knows, perhaps the end is not as far as we believe. A few
more days of trial and we shall have earned our next rest.
I go to my so-called bed, to try and snatch a few short hours' sleep,
lulled by the music of the guns that have started their nightly hate.
My love to you. Keep smiling.
* * * * * *
Picture if you can a flight of twenty-four steps leading into the
darkness of the underground. At the foot of this a room, if room it
can be called, some thirteen feet by ten by seven high, the walls of
tree trunks and railway sleepers, the roof of corrugated iron resting
on railway lines; from this hang stalactites of rust, and large and
loathsome insects creep about; above lives a colony of rats: such is
our living-room, damp with a dampness that reaches one's bones and
makes all things clammy to the touch. A couple of tables, a chair, and
some boxes, such is our dining-room suite. From this a long, narrow,
low passage leads to the kitchen, signalers' and 'phone room, officers'
bunks and office. By day and night one stumbles among sleeping
soldiers off duty, tired enough to find sleep on the boarded floor. My
bed,--a couple of boards and some sand-bags,--is four feet from the
ground, too narrow for safety, and yet I sleep. Men who previously
grumbled at an eight-hour day, now do eighteen hours for seven days a
week--such is war, and such is the spirit in which they take it.
Outside--or rather up above--a cold drizzle adds to the general
discomfort, pineapples drop promiscuously about, but one can hear
them coming, save when barrages are about, and the roar of gun and
bursting shell drowns all else. One nearly got me this morning. I
just ducked in time as it burst on the parapet behind where I was
standing--a splinter caught my tin hat, but bounded off. In spite of
all, this has been a cheery day. One learns to laugh at Fritz's
efforts to kill one, and at the appalling waste of money he spends in
misplaced shells; one laughs still more when they fall in his own lines
from his own guns, and frantic cries of distress and protest, in the
form of colored rockets, fill the air. LIFE, even with all its letters
capitals, has its humors. Dire rumors of the postponement of our
longed-for rest--but what is rumor, after all?
Half of another weary night has passed. I took a morning in bed (five
hours, only disturbed twice) and so raised my sleep average to nearly
four hours a day.
How unreal it seems to be writing with a loaded revolver by one's
paper, and a respirator on one's chest. I bet the Huns are sorry that
they ever invented gas. You make too much of what I did on Monday, it
was nothing wonderful, and had I had time to think, I should probably
have funked it. Instinct and training and the excitement of the
moment--that is all, just my duty. I did see a brave act that morning,
and one that required real pluck, not excitement. I must see a
specialist about the injury as soon as I can get an appointment. Still
* * * * * *
A long wooden box five feet by three feet in the cold, dark
underground. Here we move and sleep and have our being, under one of
the famous battlefields of Europe, a captured German dugout, with
German shells bumping on the roof from time to time. Had I but the
ability I could paint you a word-picture that might bring to you the
wonder of last night's events in their grandeur and their grimness. As
it is I must do what little I can.
A long straying column along a road as darkness fell; turning westward
one saw the splendor of a blood-red sunset where the crimson melted to
gold, the gold to green, so often called blue. Against this the
silhouetted outlines of slag-heaps and pits and houses, now ruined, now
whole. By the roadside little huts some three feet square built by
their owners, who gathered around little blazing fires now that their
day's work was done. The low drone of homing planes filled the air as
one by one they swooped down to earth, or rose on some perilous
mission, while bursting shrapnel added golden balls of fire to the
firmament of heaven, now a deep, deep blue. To north, to east, to
south, yellow-green flashes of guns stabbed the darkness, and the
redder glare of bursting shells came ever and anon. Across an open
heath, along a road pitted with shell-holes to the skeleton of a
shell-smashed town like some ghostly sentinel to the gates of war.
Here the sweet smell of a September evening was every now and then
rendered hideous by pungent odors through the dead town, where the
smell of gas still clung to houses and issued up from cellars. Now
trenches lay along the road, and the golden harvest moon turned to
silver and flooded the scene, casting long, strange shadows on the
ground. A deepening roar, followed by the whizzing scream of shells as
hidden batteries poured death into the German lines. A whistle, a
roar, a thud, a sudden check, and on as a couple of shells spattered
the road ahead. Halt, off-load the limbers--on to a crater where our
guides awaited us. Here the chalk molds and craters of the shattered
German lines along which we walked looked like miniature snow-clad
mountains in the moonlight. Destruction everywhere, but a destruction
that was grand while it was dreadful. And so to dug-outs, and the
night-time hate and gas--a doze, and the wonderful dawn of a perfect
daybreak. Exploration of trenches, broken by pauses to look at aerial
combats far up in the blue, where planes looked like bits of silver
dust whirled about by the breeze. Interest covered and crushed every
other emotion, and though many of the things that lie about seem
loathsome in cold-blooded language, I found nothing of loathing there.
Now a human skull with matted ginger hair, but with the top bashed in,
now a hand or arm sticking up from some badly-buried body or
shell-smashed grave, and everywhere the appalling waste of war--spades,
shovels, German clothes, armor, ammunition scattered in a chaos beyond
Crash! bang! boom! and like rabbits to earth once more; we have been
spotted, and whiz-bangs fall--a dozen wasted German shells.
Packed like sardines we lie and try to snatch some moments' sleep.
With revolvers by our sides, and respirators on our chests, we live in
the perpetual night of underground, coming to the surface to work or
see a little of God's sunshine or explore, as shells permit and the
spirit moves us. Time as a measure has ceased to be and our watches
serve just as checks on our movements. I love life, and oh, how I hate
G. B. MANWARING.