The Glory of The Coming - Irvin S Cobb - ebook

Cobb is remembered best for his humorous stories of Kentucky and is part of the American literary regionalism school. These stories were collected first in the book Old Judge Priest (1915), whose title character was based on a prominent West Kentucky judge named William Pitman Bishop. Writer Joel Harris wrote of these tales, "Cobb created a South peopled with honorable citizens, charming eccentrics, and loyal, subservient blacks, but at their best the Judge Priest stories are dramatic and compelling, using a wealth of precisely rendered detail to evoke a powerful mood."Among his other books are the humorous Speaking of Operations (1916), and anti-prohibition ode to bourbon, Red Likker (1929).

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Irvin S Cobb

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BECAUSE SHE WAS CAMOUFLAGED WITH streaky marks and mottlings into the likeness of a painted Jezebel of the seas, because she rode high out of the water, and wallowed as she rode, because during all those days of our crossing she hugged up close to our ship, splashing through the foam of our wake as though craving the comfort of our company, we called her things no self-respecting ship should have to bear. But when that night, we stood on the afterdeck of our ship, we running away as fast as our kicking screw would take us, and saw her going down, taking American soldier boys to death with her in alien waters, we drank toasts standing up to the poor old Tuscania.

I was one of those who were in at the death of the Tuscania. Her sinking was the climax of the most memorable voyage I ever expect to take. Five days have elapsed since she was torpedoed, and even though these words are being cabled across from London to the home side of the ocean, at least three weeks more must elapse before they can see printer’s ink. So to some this will seem an old story; but the memory of what happened that night off the Irish coast is going to abide with me while I live. It was one of those big moments in a man’s life that stick in a man’s brain as long as he has a brain to think with.

Transatlantic journeys these days aren’t what they used to be before America went into the war. Ours began to be different even before our ship pulled out from port. It is forbidden me now to tell her name, and anyhow her name doesn’t in the least matter, but she was a big ship with a famous skipper, and in peacetimes her sailing would have made some small stir. There would have been crowds of relations and friends at the pier bidding farewell to departing travellers; and steamer baskets and steamer boxes would have been coming aboard in streams. Beforehand there would have been a pleasant and mildly exciting bustle, and as we drew away from the dock and headed out into midstream and down the river for our long hike overseas, the pierhead would have been alive with waving handkerchiefs, and all our decks would have been fringed with voyagers shouting back farewells to those they had left behind them. Instead we slipped away almost as if we had done something wrong. There was no waving of hands and handkerchiefs, no good-byes on the gang-planks, no rush to get back on land when the shore bell sounded. To reach the dock we passed through trochas of barbed-wire entanglements, past sentries standing with fixed bayonets at entryways. When we got inside the pier our people bade us farewell at a guarded gate. None but travellers whose passports read straight were allowed beyond that point. So alone and unescorted each one of us went soberly up the side of the ship, and then sundry hours later our journey began, as the ship, like a big grey ghost, slid away from land, as quietly as might be, into the congenial grey fog which instantly swallowed her up and left her in a little grey world of sea mist that was all her own. After this fashion, then, we started.

As for the first legs of the trip they were much like the first legs of almost any sea trip except that we travelled in a convoy with sundry other ships, with warcraft to guard us on our way. Our ship was quite full of soldiers—officers in the first cabin, and the steerage packed with khakied troopers—ninety per cent of whom had never smelled bilge water before they embarked upon their great adventure overseas. There were fewer civilians than one formerly might have found on a ship bound for Europe. In these times only those civilians who have urgent business in foreign climes venture to go abroad.

I sat at the purser’s table. His table was fairly typical of the ship’s personnel. With me there sat, of course, the purser, likewise two Canadian officers, two members of a British Commission returning from America, and an Irish brewer. There were not very many women on our passenger list. Of these women half a dozen or so were professional nurses, and two were pretty Canadian girls bound for England to be married on arrival there to young Canadian officers. There were only three children on board, and they were travelling with their parents in the second class.

Except for a touch of seriousness about the daily lifeboat drill, and except that regimental discipline went forward, with the troops drilling on the open deck spaces when the weather and the sea permitted, there was at first nothing about this voyage to distinguish it from any other midwinter voyage. Strangers got acquainted one with another and swapped views on politics, religion, symptoms and Germans; flirtations started and ripened furiously; concerts were organized and took place, proving to be what concerts at sea usually are. Twice a day the regimental band played, and once a day, up on the bridge, the second officer took the sun, squinting into his sextant with the deep absorption with which in happier times a certain type of tourist was wont to stare through an enlarging device at a certain type of Parisian photograph. At night, though, we were in a darkened ship, a gliding black shape upon black waters, with heavy shades over all the portholes and thick draperies over all the doors, and only dim lights burning in the passageways and cross halls, so that every odd corner on deck or within was as dark as a coal pocket. It took some time to get used to being in the state in which Moses was when the light went out; but then, we had time to get used to it, believe me! Ocean travel is slower these days, for obvious reasons. Personally, I retired from the ship’s society during three days of the first week of the trip. I missed only two meals, missing them, I may add, shortly after having eaten them; but at the same time I felt safer in my berth than up on deck—not happier, particularly, but safer. The man who first said that you can’t eat your cake and have it too had such cases as mine in mind, I am sure of that. I can’t and I don’t—at least not when I am taking an ocean voyage. I have been seasick on many waters, and I have never learned to care for the sensation yet.

When I emerged from semiretirement it was to learn that we had reached the so-called danger zone. The escort of warcraft for our transport had been augmented. Under orders the military men wore their life jackets, and during all their waking hours they went about with cork flaps hugging them about their necks fore and aft, so that they rather suggested Chinese malefactors with their heads incased in punishment casques. By request the civilian passengers were expected to carry their life preservers with them wherever they went; but some of them forgot the injunction. I know I did frequently. Also, a good many of them turned in at night with most of their outer clothing on their bodies; but I followed the old Southern custom and took most of mine off before going to bed.

Our captain no longer came to the saloon for his meals. He lived upon the bridge—ate there and, I think, slept there too—what sleeping he did. Standing there all muffled in his oilskins he looked even more of a squatty and unheroic figure than he had in his naval blue presiding at the head of the table; but by repute we knew him for a man who had gone through one torpedoing with great credit to himself and through numbers of narrow escapes, and we valued him accordingly and put our faith in him. It was faith well placed, as shall presently transpire.

I should not say that there was much fear aboard; at least if there was it did not manifest itself in the manner or the voice or the behaviour of a single passenger seen by me; but there was a sort of nagging, persistent sense of uneasiness betraying itself in various small ways. For one thing, all of us made more jokes about submarines, mines and other perils of the deep than was natural. There was something a little forced, artificial, about this gaiety—the laughs came from the lips, but not from points farther south.

We knew by hearsay that the Tuscania was a troopship bearing some of our soldiers over to do their share of the job of again making this world a fit place for human beings to live in. There was something pathetic in the fashion after which she so persistently and constantly strove to stick as closely under our stem as safety and the big waves would permit. It was as though her skipper placed all reliance in our skipper, looking to him to lead his ship out of peril should peril befall. Therefore, we of our little group watched her from our afterdecks, with her sharp nose forever half or wholly buried in the creaming white smother we kicked up behind us.

It was a crisp bright February day when we neared the coasts of the British Empire. At two o’clock in the afternoon we passed, some hundreds of yards to starboard, a round, dark, bobbing object which some observers thought was a floating mine. Others thought it might be the head and shoulders of a human body held upright in a life ring. Whatever it was, our ship gave it a wide berth, sheering off from the object in a sharp swing. Almost at the same moment upon our other bow, at a distance of not more than one hundred yards from the crooked course we were then pursuing, there appeared out through one of the swells a lifeboat, oarless, abandoned, empty, except for what looked like a woman’s cloak lying across the thwarts. Rising and falling to the swing of the sea it drifted down alongside of us so that we could look almost straight down into it. We did not stop to investigate but kept going, zigzagging as we went, and that old painted-up copy cat of a Tuscania came zigzagging behind us. A good many persons decided to tie on their life preservers.

Winter twilight was drawing on when we sighted land—Northern Ireland it was. The wind was going down with the sun and the sharp crests of the waves were dulling off, and blunt oily rollers began to splash with greasy sounds against our plates. Far away somewhere we saw the revolving light of a lighthouse winking across the face of the waters like a drunken eye. That little beam coming and going gave me a feeling of security. I was one of a party of six who went below to the stateroom of a member of the group for a farewell card game.

Perhaps an hour later, as we sat there each intently engaged upon the favoured indoor American sport of trying to better two pairs, we heard against our side of the ship a queer knocking sound rapidly repeated—a sound that somehow suggested a boy dragging a stick along a picket fence.

“I suppose that’s a torpedo rapping for admission,” said one of us, looking up from his cards and listening with a cheerful grin on his face.

I think it was not more than five minutes after that when an American officer opened the stateroom door and poked his head in.

“Better come along, you fellows,” he said; “but come quietly so as not to give alarm or frighten any of the women. Something has happened. It’s the Tuscania—she’s in trouble!”

Up we got and hurried aft down the decks, each one taking with him his cork jacket and adjusting it over his shoulders as he went. We came to the edge of the promenade deck aft. There were not many persons there, as well as we could tell in the thick darkness through which we felt our way, and not many more came afterward—in all I should say not more than seventy-five.

All the rest were in ignorance of what had occurred—a good many were at dinner. Accounts of the disaster which I have read since my arrival in London said that the torpedo from the U-boat thudded into the vitals of the Tuscania, disarranged her engines, and left her in utter darkness for a while until her crew could switch on the auxiliary dynamo. I think this must have been a mistake, for at the moment of our reaching the deck of our ship the Tuscania was lighted up all over. Her illumination seemed especially brilliant, but that, I suppose, was largely because we had become accustomed to seeing our fellow transports as dark bulks at night. I should say she was not more than a mile from us, almost due aft and a trifle to the left. But the distance between us visibly increased each passing moment, for we were running away from her as fast as our engines could drive us. We could feel our ship throb under our feet as she picked up speed. It made us feel like cowards. Near at hand a ship was in distress, a ship laden with a precious freightage of American soldier boys, and here were we legging it like a frightened rabbit, weaving in and out on sharp tacks.

We knew, of course, that we were under orders to get safely away if we could in case one of those sea adders, the submarines, should attack our convoy. We knew that guardian destroyers would even now be hurrying to the rescue, and we knew land was not many miles, away; but all the same, I think I never felt such an object of shame as I felt that first moment when the realisation dawned on me that we were fleeing from a stricken vessel instead of hastening back to give what succour we could.

As I stood there in the darkness, with silent, indistinct shapes all about me, it came upon me with almost the shock of a physical blow that the rows of lights I saw yonder through the murk were all slanting slightly downward toward what would be the bow of the disabled steamer. These oblique lines of light told the story. The Tuscania had been struck forward and was settling by the head.

Suddenly a little subdued “Ah! Ah!” burst like a chorus from us all A red rocket—a rocket as red as blood—sprang up high into the air above those rows of lights. It hung aloft for a moment, then burst into a score of red balls, which fell, dimming out as they descended. After a bit two more rockets followed in rapid succession. I always thought a rocket to be a beautiful thing. Probably this belief is a heritage from that time in my boyhood when first I saw Fourth-of-July fireworks. But never again will a red rocket fired at night be to me anything except a reminder of the most pitiable, the most heart-racking thing I have ever seen—that poor appeal for help from the sinking Tuscania flaming against that foreign sky.

There was silence among us as we watched. None of us, I take it, had words within him to express what he felt; so we said nothing at all, but just stared out across the Waters until our eyeballs ached in their sockets. So quiet were we that I jumped when right at my elbow a low, steady voice spoke. Turning my head I could make out that the speaker was one of the younger American officers.

“If what I heard before we sailed is true,” he said, “my brother is in the outfit on that boat yonder. Well, if they get him it will only add a little more interest to the debt I already owe those damned Germans.”

That was all he said, and to it I made no answer, for there was no answer to be made.

Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, then twenty-five. Now instead of many small lights we could make out only a few faint pin pricks of light against the blackness to mark the spot where the foundering vessel must be. Presently we could distinguish but one speck of light. Alongside this one special gleam a red glow suddenly appeared—not a rocket this time, but a flare, undoubtedly. Together the two lights—the steady white one and the spreading red one—descended and together were extinguished. Without being told we knew, all of us—landsmen and seamen alike—what we had seen. We had seen the last of that poor ship, stung to death by a Hunnish sea-asp.

Still silent, we went below. Those of us who had not yet dined went and dined. Very solemnly, like men performing a rite, we ordered wine and we drank to the Tuscania and her British crew and her living cargo of American soldiers.

Next morning, after a night during which perilous things happened about us that may not be described here and now, we came out of our perils and into safety at an English port, and there it was that we heard what made us ask God to bless that valorous, vigilant little pot-bellied skipper of ours, may he live forever! We were told that the torpedo which pierced the Tuscania was meant for us, that the U-boat rising unseen in the twilight fired it at us, and that our captain up on the bridge saw it coming when it was yet some way off, and swinging the ship hard over to one side, dodged the flittering devil-thing by a margin that can be measured literally in inches. The call was a close one. The torpedo, it was said, actually grazed the plates of our vessel—it was that we heard as we sat at cards—and passing aft struck the bow of the Tuscania as she swung along not two hundred yards behind us. We heard, too, that twice within the next hour torpedoes were fired at us, and again a fourth one early in the hours of the morning. Each time chance or poor aim or sharp seamanship or a combination of all three saved us. We were lucky. For of the twelve ships in our transport two, including the Tuscania, were destroyed and two others, making four in all, were damaged by torpedoes before morning.

Next day, in London, I read that not a man aboard the Tuscania, whether sailor or soldier, showed weakness or fright. I read how those Yankee boys, many of them at sea for the first time in their lives, stood in ranks waiting for rescue or for death while the ship listed and yawed and settled under them; how the British sang “God Save the King,” and the Americans sang to the same good Allied air, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee;” and how at last, descending over the side, some of them to be drowned but more of them to be saved, those American lads of ours sang what before then had been a meaningless, trivial jingle, but which is destined forevermore, I think, to mean a great deal to Americans. Perry said: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Lawrence said: “Don’t give up the ship!” Farragut said: “Damn the torpedoes, go ahead.” Dewey said: “You may fire, Gridley, when you are ready.” Our history is full of splendid sea slogans, but I think there can never be a more splendid one that we Americans will cherish than the first line, which is also the title of the song now suddenly freighted with a meaning and a message to American hearts, which our boys sang that black February night in the Irish Sea when two hundred of them, first fruits of our national sacrifice in this war, went over the sides of the Tuscania to death: “Where do we go from here, boys; where do we go from here?”




HE WAS CURLED UP IN a moist-mud cozy corner. His curved back fitted into a depression in the clay. His feet rested comfortably in an ankle-deep solution, very puttylike in its consistency, and compounded of the rains of heaven and the alluvials of France. His face was incredibly dirty, and the same might have been said for his hands. He had big buck teeth and sandy hair and a nice round inquisitive blue eye. His rifle, in good order, was balanced across his hunched knees. One end of a cigarette was pasted fast to his lower lip; the other end spilled tiny sparks down the front of his blouse.

Offhand you would figure his age to be halfpast nineteen. Just round the corner from him a machine gun at intervals spoke in stuttering accents. At more frequent intervals from somewhere up or down the line a rifle whanged where an ambitious amateur Yankee sniper tried for a professional and doubtlessly a bored German sniper across the way; or where the German tried back.

The youth in the cozy corner paid small heed. He was supposed to be getting his baptism of fire. In reality he was reading a two-months-old copy of a certain daily paper printed in a certain small city in a certain Middle Western state—to wit, the sovereign state of Ohio. He belonged to a volunteer regiment, and in a larger sense to the Rainbow Division. This was his first day in the front-line trenches and already he was as much at home there as though he had been cradled to the lullaby of those big guns grunting away in the distance. For a fact he was at home—reading home news out of the home paper and, as one might say, not caring a single dern whatsoever.

“Say, Tobe,” he called in the husky half voice which is the prescribed and conventional conversational tone on the forward edges of No Man’s Land; “Tobe, lissen!”

His mate, leaning against the slanted side of the trench ten feet away, blowing little smoke wisps up toward the pale-blue sky above him, half turned his head to answer.

“Well, what?”

“Whatter you know about this? It says here the New York Yanks is liable to buy Ty Cobb off of Detroit. Say, what’ll them Detroits do without old Ty in there bustin’ the fast ones on the nose, huh?”

“With all the money they’ll get for that guy they should worry!”

The emphatic ker-blim of a rifle a hundred yards off furnished a vocal exclamation point to further accent the comment.

The reader shifted himself slightly in his scooped niche and turned over to another page. He was just the average kid private, but to me he was as typical as type can be. I figured him as a somewhat primitive, highly elemental creature, adaptable and simple-minded; appallingly green yet at this present trade, capable though of becoming amazingly competent at it if given experience and a chance; temperamentally gaited to do heroic things without any of the theatricalism of planned heroics—in short and in fine, the incarnated youthful spirit of the youthful land which bore him.

I came upon him with his cigarette and his favourite daily and his mud-boltered feet at the tail end of a trip along the front line of a segment of a sector held by our troops, and before I made his acquaintance sundry things befel. I had been in trenches before, but they were German trenches along the Aisne in the fall of the first year of this war business, and these trenches of our own people were quite different from those of 1914. French minds had devised them, with their queer twists, and windings, which seem so crazy and yet are so sanely ordained; and French hands had dug them out of the chalky soil and shored them up with timbers, but now Americans had taken them over and, in common with all things that Americans take over, they had become as much and as thoroughly American as though they had been Subway diggings in New York City, which indeed they rather resembled; or excavations for the foundations of the new Carnegie Library in Gallipolis. ‘Tis a way our folks have. It may be a good way or a bad way—since I came over here I think the French neither understand it nor care deeply for it—but all the same it is our way.

At the beginning we quit a wrecked town that was a regimental headquarters. Its present population was all military, French and American. The villagers who had once lived there were gone to the last one of them, and had been gone for years probably. But more than by the shattered stone walls, or by the breached and empty church with its spire shorn away, or by the tiled roofs which were roofs no longer but sieves and colanders, its altered character was set forth and proved by the absence of any manure heaps against the house fronts. In this part of the world communal prosperity is measured, I think, by the size and richness of the manure heap. It is kept alongside the homes and daily it is turned over with spades and tormented with pitchforks, against the time when it is carried forth to be spread upon the tiny farm a mile or so away. The rank ammoniacal smell of the precious fertilizer which keeps the land rich is the surest information to the nose of the approaching traveller that thrifty folk abide in the hamlet he is about entering.

But this town smelled only of dust and decay and the peculiar odour of rough-cast plastering which has been churned by wheels and hoofs and feet into a fine white silt like powdered pumice, coating everything and everybody in sight when the weather is dry, and when the weather is wet turning into a slick and slimy paste underfoot.

We came out of a colonel’s billet in a narrowshouldered old two-story house, my companion and I; and crossing the little square we passed through what once upon a time had been the front wall of the principal building in the place. The front wall still stood and the doorway was unscarred, but both were like parts of stage settings, for beyond them was nothing at all save nothingness—messed-about heaps of crumbled masonry and broken shards of tiling. From the inner side one might look through the doorway, as though it had been a frame for a picture, and see a fine scape beyond of marshland and winding road and mounting hills with pine trees growing in isolated groups like the dumpings in a gentleman’s park.

In what had been the garden behind the principal house the colonel’s automobile was waiting. We climbed into it and rode for upward of a mile along a seamed and rutted highway that wound up and over the abbreviated mountain of which we held one side and the Germans the other. For the preceding three days there had been a faint smell of spring in the air; now there was a taste of it. One might say that spring no longer was coming but had actually come. The rushes which grew in low places were showing green near their roots and the switchy limbs of the pollard willows bore successions of tiny green buds along their lengths. Also many birds were about. There were flocks of big corbie crows in their prim notarial black. Piebald French magpies were flickering along ahead of us, always in pairs, and numbers of a small starlinglike bird, very much like our field lark in look and habit, whose throat is yellowish and tawny without and lined with pure gold within, were singing their mating songs. Bursts of amorous pipings came from every side, and as the male birds mounted in the air their breast feathers shone in the clear soft afternoon sunshine like patches of burnished copper.

Undoubtedly spring was at hand—the spring which elsewhere, in the more favoured parts of this planet, meant reawakening life and fecundity, but which here meant only opportunity for renewed offensives and for more massacres, more suffering, more wastings of life and wealth and of all the manifold gifts of Nature. The constant sound of guns on ahead of us somewhere made one think of a half-dormant giant grunting as he roused. Indeed it was what it seemed—War emerging from his hibernation and waking up to kill again. But little more than a year before it had been their war; now it was our war too, and the realisation of this difference invested the whole thing for us with a deeper meaning. No longer were we onlookers but part proprietors in the grimmest, ghastliest proceeding that ever was since conscious time began.

We whizzed along the road for the better part of a mile, part of the time through dips, the contour of which kept us hidden from spying eyes in the hostile observation pits across the ridge to the eastward, and part of the time upon the backbone of this Vosges foothill. These latter places were shielded on their dangerous side by screens of marsh grasses woven in huge sheets ten feet high and swinging between tall poles set at six-yard intervals. There were rips and tears in these rude valances to show where chance shots from German guns had registered during the preceding few days of desultory artillery fire.

On the way we passed one full company of French infantry coming out of the front line for rest, and one contingent of our own soldiers. The Frenchmen were hampered, as French foot soldiers on the move always are, by enormous burdens draped upon them, back, flank and front; and under the dirt and dust their faces wore weary drawn lines. Laden like sumpter mules, they went by us at the heavy plodding gait of their kind, which is so different from the swaggering, swinging route step of the Yankee, and so different from the brisk clip at which the Britisher travels, even in heavy-marching order, but which all the same eats up the furlongs mighty fast.

The Americans were grouped on a little green breast of sod. At the peak of the small rounded elevation was a smaller terrace like a nipple, and from this rose one of those stone shrines so common in this corner of Europe—a stone base with a rusted iron cross bearing a figure of the Christ above it. There were a dozen or more of our boys lying or squatted here resting.

We came to a battalion headquarters, which seemed rather a high-sounding name for a collection of thatched dugouts under a bank. Here leaving the car we were turned over to a young intelligence officer, who agreed to pilot us through certain front-line defences, which our people only two days before had taken over from the French. But before we started each of us put on his iron helmet, which, next only to the derby hat of commerce, is the homeliest and the most uncomfortable design ever fashioned for wear in connection with the human head; and each one of us hung upon his breast, like a palmer’s packet, his gas mask, inclosed in its square canvas case.

Single file then the three of us proceeded along a footpath that was dry where the sun had reached it and slimy with mud where it had lain in shadow, until we passed under an arbour of withered boughs and found ourselves in the mouth of the communication trench. It was wide enough in some places for two men to pass each other by scrouging, and in other places so narrow that a full-sized man bearing his accoutrements could barely wriggle his way through. Its sides were formed sometimes of shored planking set on end, but more often of withes cunningly wattled together. It is wonderful what a smooth fabric a French peasant can make with no material save bundles of pliant twigs and no tools save his two hands. Countless miles of trenches are lined with this osier work. Some of it has been there for years, but except where a shell strikes it stays put.

In depth the trench ranged from eight feet to less than six. In the deeper places we marched at ease, but in the shallow ones we went forward at a crouch, for if we had stood erect here our heads would have made fair targets for the enemy, who nowhere was more than a mile distant, and who generally was very much closer. Sometimes we trod on “duck boards” as the Americans call them, or “bath mats” in the Britisher’s vernacular, laid end to end. A duck board is fabricated by putting down two scantlings parallel and eighteen inches apart and effecting a permanent union between them by means of many cross strips of wood securely nailed on, with narrow spaces between the strips so that the foothold is securer upon these corrugations than it would be on an uninterrupted expanse. It somewhat resembles the runway by which ducks advance from their duck pond up a steep bank; hence one of its names. It looks rather less the other thing for which it is named.

The duck board makes the going easier in miry places but it is a treacherous friend. Where it is not firmly imbedded fore and aft in the mud the far end of it has an unpleasant habit, when you tread with all your weight on the near end, of rising up and grievously smiting you as you pitch forward on your face. Likewise when you are in a hurry it dearly loves to teeter and slip and slosh round. However, to date no substitute for it has been found. Probably enough duck boards are in use on all the Fronts, in trenches and out of them, to make a board walk clear across our own continent. Beyond Ypres, where the British and Belgians are, I saw miles and miles of them the other day.

Here in Eastern France we sometimes footed it along these duck boards, but more often we dragged our feet in mud—sticky, clinging, affectionate yellowish-grey mud—which came up to the latchets of our boots and made each rod of progress a succession of violent struggles. It was through this muck, along the narrow twistywise passage, that food and munitions must be carried up to the front lines and the wounded must be carried back. Traversing it, men, as we saw, speedily became mired to the hair roots, and wearied beyond description. Now then, magnify and multiply by ten the conditions as we found them on this day after nearly a week of fair weather and you begin to have a faint and shadowy conception of trench conditions in the height of the rainy season in midwinter, when strong men grow so tired that they drop down and drown in the semiliquid streams.

The duck board is hard on human shins and human patience but it saves life and it saves time, which in war very frequently is more valuable than lives. It was the duck board, as much as the rifle and the big gun, which enabled the Canadians to win at Passchendaele last November. With its aid they laid a wooden pathway to victory across one of the most hideous loblollies in the flooded quagmires of Flanders. Somebody will yet write a tribute to the duck board, which now gets only curses and abuse.

We had come almost to the cross trench, meeting few soldiers on the way, when a sudden commotion overhead made us squat low and crane our necks. Almost above us a boche aëroplane was circling about droning like all the bees in the world. As we looked the antiaircraft guns, concealed all about us, began firing at it. Downy dainty pompons of smoke burst out in the heavens below it and above it and all about it.

As it fled back, seemingly uninjured, out of the danger zone I was reminded of the last time before this when I had seen such a sight from just such a vantage place. But then the scene had been the plateau before Laon in the fall of 1914, and then the sky spy had been a Frenchman and then the guns which chased him away had been German guns and for companion I had a German Staff-officer.

We went on, and round the next turn encountered half a dozen youngsters in khaki, faced with mud stripings, who barely had paused in whatever they were doing to watch the brief aerial bombardment. New as they were to this game they already were accustomed to the sight of air fighting. Half a dozen times a day or oftener merely by turning their faces upward they might see the hostile raider being harried back to its hangar by defending cannon or by French planes or by both at once. Later that same day we were to see a German plane stricken in its flight by a well-placed shot from an American battery. We saw how on the instant, like a duck shot on the wing, it changed from a living, sentient, perfectly controlled mechanism into a dishevelled, wounded thing, and how it went swirling in crazy disorganised spirals down inside its own lines.

For the trip through the cross trenches which marked the forward angle of our defences we were joined by a second chaperon in the person of an infantry captain—a man of German birth and German name, born in Cologne and brought to America as a child, who at the age of forty-three had given up a paying business and left a family to volunteer for this business, and who in all respects was just as good an American as you or I, reader, can ever hope to be. It was his company that held the trenches for the time, and he volunteered to let us see what they were doing.

The physical things he showed us are by now old stories to Americans. Reading descriptions of them would be stale business for people at home who read magazines—the little dirt burrows roofed with withes and leaves, where machine guns’ crews squatted behind guns whose muzzles aimed out across the debatable territory; the observation posts, where the lads on duty grumbled at the narrow range of vision provided by the periscopes and much preferred to risk their lives peeping over the parapets; the tiny rifle pits, each harbouring a couple of youngsters; the gun steps, or scarps, on which men squatted to do sniper work and to try for hostile snipers across the way; the niches in the trench sides, where hand grenades—French and British models—lay in handy reach in case of a surprise attack; the stacks of rifle and machine-gun cartridges in their appointed places all along the inner sides of the low dirt parapets; the burrows, like the overgrown nests of bank martins, into which tired men might crawl to steal a bit of rest; the panels of thickly meshed barbed wire on light but strong metal frames so disposed that they might with instantaneous dispatch be thrust into place to block the way of invading raiders following along behind retreating defenders; the wire snares for the foes’ feet, which might be dropped in the narrow footway after the retiring force had passed; and all the rest of the paraphernalia of trench warfare which the last three years and a half have produced.

Anyhow it was not these things that interested us; rather was it the bearing of our men, accustoming themselves to new duties in new surroundings; facing greater responsibilities than any of them perhaps had ever faced before in his days, amid an environment fraught with acute personal peril. And studying them I was prouder than ever of the land that bore them and sundry millions of others like unto them.

We halted at a spot where the trench was broken in somewhat and where the fresh new clods upon the dirt shelf halfway up it were all stained a strange, poisonous green colour. The afternoon before a shell had dropped there, killing one American and wounding four others. It was the fumes of the explosive which had corroded the earth to make it bear so curious a tint. This company then had had its first fatality under fire; its men had undergone the shock of seeing one of their comrades converted into a mangled fragment of a man, but they bore themselves as though they had been veterans.

In but one thing did they betray themselves as green hands, and this was in a common desire to expose themselves unnecessarily. As we went along their captain was constantly chiding them for poking their tin-hatted heads over the top, in the hope of spying out the German sharpshooters who continually shot in their direction from the coverts of a pine thicket, when they might have seen just as well through cunningly devised peepholes in the rifle pits.

“I know you aren’t afraid,” he said to two especially daring youngsters, “but the man who gets himself killed in this war without a reason for it is not a hero; he’s just a plain damned fool, remember that.”

Passing the spot where the soft damp loam was harried and the crumbs of it all dyed that diabolical greenish hue, I thought of a tale I had heard only the day before from a young Englishman who, having won his captaincy by two years of hard service, had then promptly secured a tranfer to the flying corps, where, as he innocently put it, “there was a chance o’ having a bit of real fun,” and who now wore the single wing of an observer upon the left breast of his tunic. I had asked him what was the most dramatic thing he personally had witnessed in this war, thinking to hear some tales of air craftsmanship. He considered for a moment with his brow puckered in a conscientious effort to remember, and then he said:

“I think perhaps ‘twas something that happened last spring, just before I got out of the infantry into this bally outfit. My company had been in the trenches two days and nights, and had been rather knocked about. Really the place we were in was quite a bit exposed, you know, and after we had had rather an unhappy time of it we got orders to pull out. Just as the order reached us along came a whiz-bang and burst. It killed one of my chaps dead, and half a minute later another shell dropped in the same place and covered him under tons and tons of earth, all except his right hand, which stuck out of the dirt. Quite a decent sort he was too—a good fighter and cheerful and all that sort of thing; very well liked, he was. There was no time to dig him out even if we had been able to carry his body away with us; we had to leave him right there. So as the first man passed by where he was buried he bent over and took the dead hand in his hand and shook it and said ‘Goodbye, old one!’ like that. All the men followed the example. Each one of us, officers included, shook the dead hand and said good-bye to the dead man; and this was the last we ever saw of him, or of that rotten old trench, either.”

As nonchalantly as though he had been a paid postman going through a quiet street a volunteer mail distributor came along putting letters, papers and small mail parcels from the States into soiled eager hands. Each man, taking over what was given him, would promptly hunker down in some convenient cranny to read the news from home; news which was months old already. I saw one, a broad-faced, pale-haired youth, reading a Slavic paper; and another, a corporal, reading one that was printed in Italian. The other papers I noted were all printed in English.

It was from a begrimed and bespattered youngster who had got a paper printed in English that I heard the news about Ty Cobb; and when you appraised the character of the boy and his comrades a mud-lined hole in the ground in Eastern France, where a machine gun stammered round the corner and the snipers sniped away to the right of him and the left of him, seemed a perfectly natural place for the discussion of great tidings in baseball. If he had undertaken to discourse upon war or Germans I should have felt disappointed in him, because on his part it would not have been natural; and if he was anything at all he was natural.

At the end of perhaps a mile of windings about in torturous going we, following after our guides, turned into a shallower side trench which debouched off the main workings. Going almost upon all fours for about sixty or seventy yards we found ourselves in a blind ending. Here was a tiny ambuscade roofed over with sod and camouflaged on its one side with dead herbage, wherein two soldiers crouched. By a husky whisper floating back to us over the shoulder of the captain we learned that this was the most advanced of our listening posts. Having told us this he extended an invitation, which I accepted; and as he flattened back against the earth making himself small I wriggled past him and crawled into place to join its two silent occupants.

One of them nudging me in the side raised a finger and aimed it through a tiny peephole in the screening of dead bough and grasses. I looked where he pointed and this was what I saw:

At the level of my eyes the earth ran away at a gentle slope for a bit and then just as it reached a thicket of scrub pines, possibly two hundred feet away, rose sharply. Directly in front of me was our own tangle of rusted barbed wire. On beyond it, perhaps a hundred and sixty feet distant, where the rise began, was a second line of wire, and that was German wire, as I guessed without being told. In between, the soil was all harrowed and upturned into great cusps as though many swine had been rooting there for mast. A few straggly bushes still adhered to the sides of the shell holes, and the patches of grass upon the tortured sward displayed a greenish tinge where the saps of spring were beginning to rise from the roots.

Not far away and almost directly in front of me one of those yellow-breasted starling birds was trying his song with considerable success.

“How far away are they?” I inquired in the softest possible of whispers of the nearer-most of the hole’s tenants.

“Right there in those little trees,” he answered. “I ain’t never been able to see any of them—they’re purty smart about keepin’ themselves out of sight—but there’s times, ‘specially toward night, when we kin hear ‘em plain enough talking amongst themselves and movin’ round over there. It’s quiet as a graveyard now, but for a while this mornin’ one of their sharpshooters got busy right over there in front of where you’re lookin’ now.”

Involuntarily I drew my head down into my shoulders. The youth alongside laughed a noiseless laugh.

“Oh, you needn’t worry,” he said in my ear; “there ain’t a chancet for him to see us; we’re too well hid. At that, I think he must’ve suspected that this here lump of dirt was a shelter for our folks because twicet this mornin’ he took a shot this way. One of his bullets lodged somewhere in the sods over your head but the other one hit that bush there. See where it cut the little twig off.”

I peered where he indicated and made out a ragged stump almost within arm’s reach of me, where a willow sprout had been shorn away. The sap was oozing from the top like blood from a fresh wound. My instructor went on:

“But after the second shot he quit. One of our fellers back behind us a piece took a crack at him and either he got him or else the Heinie found things gettin’ too warm for him and pulled his freight back into them deep woods further up the hill. So it’s been nice and quiet ever since.”

The captain wormed into the burrow, filling it until it would hold no more.

“Is this your first close-up peep at No Man’s Land?” he inquired in as small a voice as his vocal cords could make.

Before I could answer the private put in:

“It might a-been No Man’s Land oncet, cap’n, but frum now on it’s goin’ to be all Amurikin clear out to them furtherest wires yonder.”

So that was how and when I found the title for this chapter. Everything considered I think it makes a very good title, too. I only wish I had the power to put as much of the manifest spirit of our soldiers into what I have here written as is compassed in the caption I have borrowed.

What happened thereafter was largely personal so far as it related to my companion and me, but highly interesting from our viewpoint. We had emerged from the front-line trench on our way back. In order to avoid a particularly nasty bit of footing in the nearermost end of the communication work we climbed out of the trench and took a short cut across a stretch of long-abandoned meadowland. We thought we were well out of sight of the Germans, who at that point were probably half a mile away.

A cup of land formed a natural shield from any eyes except eyes in an aëroplane—so we thought—and besides there were no aëroplanes about. Once over the edge of the trench and down into the depression we felt quite safe; anyway the firing that was going on seemed very far away. We slowed up our gait. From dragging our feet through the mire we were dripping wet with sweat, so I hauled off my coat. This necessitated a readjustment of belt and gasmask straps. Accordingly all three of us—the young intelligence officer, my comrade and I—took advantage of the halt to smoke. The two others lit cigarettes but I preferred something stronger.

I was trying to light a practical cigar with a property match—which is a very common performance on the part of my countrymen in this part of the world—when a noise like the end of everything—a nasty, whiplike crash—sounded at the right of us, and simultaneously a German shell struck within a hundred feet of us, right on the rim of the little hollow in which we had stopped, throwing a yellow geyser of earth away up into the air and peppering our feet and legs with bits of gravel.

So then we came on away from there. I chucked away my box of matches, which were French and therefore futile, and I must have mislaid my cigar, which was American and therefore priceless, for I have never seen it since. Anyway I had for the time lost the desire for tobacco. There are times when one cares to smoke and times when one does not care to smoke. As we scuttled for the shelter of the trench four more shells fell in rapid succession and burst within a short distance of where the first one had gone off, and each time we felt the earth shake under our feet and out of the tails of our eyes saw the soil rising in a column to spread out mushroom fashion and descend in pattering showers.

So, using the trench as an avenue, we continued to go away from there; and as we went guns continued to bay behind us. An hour later, back at battalion headquarters, we learned that the enemy dropped seventy shells—five-inch shells—in the area that we had traversed. But unless one of them destroyed the cigar I left behind me it was all clear waste of powder and shrapnel, as I am pleased to be able to report.

That night just after dusk forty-five of our boys, with twice as many Frenchmen, went over the top at the very point we had visited, and next morning, true enough, and for quite a while after that, No Man’s Land was “All Amurikin clear out to them furtherest wires.”




THE SURROUNDINGS WERE AS FRENCH as French could be, but the supper tasted of home. We sat at table, two of us being correspondents and the rest of us staff officers of a regiment of the Rainbow Division; and the orderlies brought us Hamburger steak richly perfumed with onion, and good hot soda biscuit, and canned tomatoes cooked with cracker crumbs and New Orleans molasses, and coffee, and fried potatoes; and to end up with there were genuine old-fashioned doughnuts—"fried holes,” the Far Westerners call them.

The mingled aromas of these rose like familiar incense from strange altars, for the room wherein all of us, stout and willing trenchermen, sat and supped was the chief room of what once upon a time, before the war came along and cracked down upon the land, had been some prosperous burgher’s home on the main street of a drowsy village cuddled up in a sweet and fertile valley under the shoulders of the Vosges Mountains.

From a niche in the corner a plaster saint, finished off in glaring Easter-egg colours, regarded us with one of his painted eyes, the other being gone. The stove had been carried away, either by the owner when he fled, away back in 1914, or by the invading Hun before he retreated to his present lines a few miles distant; but a segment of forgotten stovepipe protruded like a waterspout gone dry, from its hole above the mantelpiece. On the plastered wall of battered, broken blue cast, behind the seat where the colonel ruled the board, hung a family portrait of an elderly gentleman with placid features but fierce and indomitable whiskers. The picture was skewed at such an angle the whiskers appeared to be growing out into space sidewise. Generations of feet had worn grooves in the broad boards of the floor, which these times was never free of mud stains, no matter how often the orderlies might rid up the place. So far and so much the setting was French.

But stained trench coats of American workmanship dangled from pegs set in the plastering, each limply suggestive in its bulges and its curves of the shape of the man who wore it through most of his waking hours. The mantelshelf was burdened with gas masks and saucepan hats of pressed steel. A small trestle that was shoved up under one of the two grimed front windows bore a litter of American newspapers and American magazines. As for the doughnuts, they were very crisp and spicy, as good Yankee doughnuts should be. I had finished my second one and was reaching for my third one when, without warning, a very creditable and realistic imitation of the crack o’ doom transpired. Seemingly from within fifty yards of the building which sheltered us Gabriel’s trumpet sounded forth in an ear-cracking, earth-racking,’ hair-lifting blare calculated to raise goose flesh on iron statuary. The dishes danced upon the table; the coffee slopped out of the cups; and the stovepipe over the chimneypiece slobbered down a trickle of ancient soot that was, with age, turned brown and caky. Beneath our feet we could feel the old house rocking.

Through the valley and across to the foothill beyond, the obscenity of sound went ringing and screeching, vilely profaning the calm that had descended upon the country with the going-down of the sun.

As its last blasphemous echoes came back to us in a diminishing cadence one of our hosts, a major, leaned forward with a cheerful smile on his face and remarked as he glanced at the dial of his wrist watch: “There she goes—right on the minute!”

Sure enough, there she went. Right and left, before us and behind us, from the north of us and from the south of us, and from the east and the west of us, big guns and small ones, field pieces, howitzers, mortars and light batteries, both French and American but mostly French, joined in, like the wind, the wood and the brass of an orchestra obeying the baton of the leader. The coffee could not stay in the dancing cups at all. The venerable house was beset by an ague which ran up its shaken sides from the foundation stones to the roof rafters, where the loosened tiles clicked together like chattering teeth, and back down again to the foundations.

The thing which we had travelled upward of a hundred miles in one of Uncle Sam’s automobiles to witness and afterward to write about was starting. The overture was on; the show would follow. And it was high time we claimed our reserved seats in the front row.