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THE GREAT PUSH
An Episode During The Great War
Originally printed by
HERBERT JENKINS LIMITEDLONDON S.W. MCMXVI
The Great Push
Typographical arrangement of this edition
© Abela Publishing 2017
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If we forget the Fairies,
And tread upon their rings,
God will perchance forget us,
And think of other things.
When we forget you, Fairies,
Who guard our spirits' light:
God will forget the morrow,
And Day forget the Night.
The justice of the cause which endeavours to achieve its object by the murdering and maiming of mankind is apt to be doubted by a man who has come through a bayonet charge. The dead lying on the fields seem to ask, "Why has this been done to us? Why have you done it, brothers? What purpose has it served?" The battle-line is a secret world, a world of curses. The guilty secrecy of war is shrouded in lies, and shielded by bloodstained swords; to know it you must be one of those who wage it, a party to dark and mysterious orgies of carnage. War is the purge of repleted kingdoms, needing a close place for its operations.
I have tried in this book to give, as far as I am allowed, an account of an attack in which I took part. Practically the whole book was written in the scene of action, and the chapter dealing with our night at Les Brebis, prior to the Big Push, was written in the trench between midnight and dawn of September the 25th; the concluding chapter in the hospital at Versailles two days after I had been wounded at Loos.
THE GREAT PUSH
CHAPTER I In the Advance Trenches
CHAPTER II Out from Nouex-les-Mines
CHAPTER III Preparations for Loos
CHAPTER IV Before the Charge
CHAPTER V Over the Top
CHAPTER VI Across the Open
CHAPTER VII Germans at Loos
CHAPTER VIII How my Comrades Fared
CHAPTER IX At Loos
CHAPTER X A Night in Loos
CHAPTER XI Loos
CHAPTER XII Retreat
CHAPTER XIII A Prisoner of War
CHAPTER XIV The Chaplain
CHAPTER XV A Lover at Loos
CHAPTER XVI The Ration Party
CHAPTER XVII Michaelmas Eve
CHAPTER XVIII Back at Loos
CHAPTER XIX Wounded
CHAPTER XX For Blighty
Now when we take the cobbled road
We often took before,
Our thoughts are with the hearty lads
Who tread that way no more.
Oh! boys upon the level fields,
If you could call to mind
The wine of Café Pierre le Blanc
You wouldn't stay behind.
But when we leave the trench at night,
And stagger neath our load,
Grey, silent ghosts as light as air
Come with us down the road.
And when we sit us down to drink
You sit beside us too,
And drink at Café Pierre le Blanc
As once you used to do.
The Company marched from the village of Les Brebis at nightfall; the moon, waning a little at one of its corners, shone brightly amidst the stars in the east, and under it, behind the German lines, a burning mine threw a flame, salmon pink and wreathed in smoke, into the air. Our Company was sadly thinned now, it had cast off many—so many of its men at Cuinchy, Givenchy, and Vermelles. At each of these places there are graves of the London Irish boys who have been killed in action.
We marched through a world of slag heaps and chimney stacks, the moonlight flowing down the sides of the former like mist, the smoke stood up from the latter straight as the chimneys themselves. The whirr of machinery in the mine could be heard, and the creaking wagon wheels on an adjoining railway spoke out in a low, monotonous clank the half strangled message of labour.
Our way lay up a hill, at the top we came into full view of the night of battle, the bursting shells up by Souchez, the flash of rifles by the village of Vermelles, the long white searchlights near Lens, and the star-shells, red, green and electric-white, rioting in a splendid blaze of colour over the decay, death and pity of the firing line. We could hear the dull thud of shells bursting in the fields and the sharp explosion they made amidst the masonry of deserted homes; you feel glad that the homes are deserted, and you hope that if any soldiers are billeted there they are in the safe protection of the cellars.
The road by which we marched was lined with houses all in various stages of collapse, some with merely a few tiles shot out of the roofs, others levelled to the ground. Some of the buildings were still peopled; at one home a woman was putting up the shutters and we could see some children drinking coffee from little tin mugs inside near the door; the garret of the house was blown in, the rafters stuck up over the tiles like long, accusing fingers, charging all who passed by with the mischief which had happened. The cats were crooning love songs on the roofs, and stray dogs slunk from the roadway as we approached. In the villages, with the natives gone and the laughter dead, there are always to be found stray dogs and love-making cats. The cats raise their primordial, instinctive yowl in villages raked with artillery fire, and poor lone dogs often cry at night to the moon, and their plaint is full of longing.
We marched down the reverse slope of the hill in silence. At the end of the road was the village; our firing trench fringed the outer row of houses. Two months before an impudent red chimney stack stood high in air here; but humbled now, it had fallen upon itself, and its own bricks lay still as sandbags at its base, a forgotten ghost with blurred outlines, it brooded, a stricken giant.
The long road down the hill was a tedious, deceptive way; it took a deal of marching to make the village. Bill Teake growled. "One would think the place was tied to a string," he grumbled, "and some one pullin' it away!"
We were going to dig a sap out from the front trench towards the German lines; we drew our spades and shovels for the work from the Engineers' store at the rear and made our way into the labyrinth of trenches. Men were at their posts on the fire positions, their Balaclava helmets resting on their ears, their bayonets gleaming bright in the moonshine, their hands close to their rifle barrels. Sleepers lay stretched out on the banquette with their overcoats over their heads and bodies. Out on the front the Engineers had already taped out the night's work; our battalion had to dig some two hundred and fifty yards of trench 3 ft. wide and 6 ft. deep before dawn, and the work had to be performed with all possible dispatch. Rumour spoke of thrilling days ahead; and men spoke of a big push which was shortly to take place. Between the lines there are no slackers; the safety of a man so often depends upon the dexterous handling of his spade; the deeper a man digs, the better is his shelter from bullet and bomb; the spade is the key to safety.
The men set to work eagerly, one picked up the earth with a spade and a mate shovelled the loose stuff out over the meadow. The grass, very long now and tapering tall as the props that held the web of wire entanglements in air, shook gently backwards and forwards as the slight breezes caught it. The night was wonderfully calm and peaceful; it seemed as if heaven and earth held no threat for the men who delved in the alleys of war.
Out ahead lay the German trenches. I could discern their line of sandbags winding over the meadows and losing itself for a moment when it disappeared behind the ruins of a farm-house—a favourite resort of the enemy snipers, until our artillery blew the place to atoms. Silent and full of mystery as it lay there in the moonlight, the place had a strange fascination for me. How interesting it would be to go out there beyond our most advanced outpost and have a peep at the place all by myself. Being a stretcher-bearer there was no necessity for me to dig; my work began when my mates ceased their labours and fell wounded.
Out in front of me lay a line of barbed wire entanglements.
"Our wire?" I asked the Engineer.
"No—the Germans'," he answered.
I noticed a path through it, and I took my way to the other side. Behind me I could heard the thud of picks and the sharp, rasping sound of shovels digging into the earth, and now and again the whispered words of command passing from lip to lip. The long grass impeded my movements, tripping me as I walked, and lurking shell-holes caught me twice by the foot and flung me to the ground. Twenty yards out from the wire I noticed in front of me something moving on the ground, wriggling, as I thought, towards the enemy's line. I threw myself flat and watched. There was no mistaking it now; it was a man, belly flat on the ground, moving off from our lines. Being a non-combatant I had no rifle, no weapon to defend myself with if attacked. I wriggled back a few yards, then got to my feet, recrossed the line of wires and found a company-sergeant-major speaking to an officer.
"There's somebody out there lying on the ground," I said. "A man moving off towards the German trenches."
The three of us went off together and approached the figure on the ground, which had hardly changed its position since I last saw it. It was dressed in khaki, the dark barrel of a rifle stretched out in front. I saw stripes on a khaki sleeve....
"One of a covering-party?" asked the sergeant-major.
"That's right," came the answer from the grass, and a white face looked up at us.
"Quiet?" asked the S.-M.
"Nothing doing," said the voice from the ground. "It's cold lying here, though. We've been out for four hours."
"I did not think that the covering-party was so far out," said the officer, and the two men returned to their company.
I sat in the long grass with the watcher; he was the sergeant in command of the covering party.
"Are your party out digging?" he asked.
"Yes, out behind us," I answered. "Is the covering-party a large one?"
"About fifty of us," said the sergeant. "They've all got orders to shoot on sight when they see anything suspicious. Do you hear the Germans at work out there?"
I listened; from the right front came the sound of hammering.
"They're putting up barbed wire entanglements and digging a sap," said the sergeant. "Both sides are working and none are fighting. I must have another smoke," said the sergeant.
"But it's dangerous to strike a light here," I said.
"Not in this way," said the sergeant, drawing a cigarette and a patent flint tinder-lighter from his pocket. Over a hole newly dug in the earth, as if with a bayonet, the sergeant leant, lit the cigarette in its little dug-out, hiding the glow with his hand.
"Do you smoke?" he asked.
"Yes, I smoke," and the man gave me a cigarette.
It was so very quiet lying there. The grasses nodded together, whispering to one another. To speak of the grasses whispering during the day is merely a sweet idea; but God! they do whisper at night. The ancients called the winds the Unseen Multitude; the grasses are long, tapering fingers laid on the lips of the winds. "Hush!" the night whispers. "Hush!" breathes the world. The grasses touch your ears, saying sleepily, "Hush! be quiet!"
At the end of half an hour I ventured to go nearer the German lines. The sergeant told me to be careful and not to go too close to the enemy's trenches or working parties. "And mind your own covering-party when you're coming in," said the sergeant. "They may slip you a bullet or two if you're unlucky."
Absurd silvery shadows chased one another up and down the entanglement props. In front, behind the German lines, I could hear sounds of railway wagons being shunted, and the clank of rails being unloaded. The enemy's transports were busy; they clattered along the roads, and now and again the neighing of horses came to my ears. On my right a working party was out; the clank of hammers filled the air. The Germans were strengthening their wire entanglements; the barbs stuck out, I could see them in front of me, waiting to rip our men if ever we dared to charge. I had a feeling of horror for a moment. Then, having one more look round, I went back, got through the line of outposts, and came up to our working party, which was deep in the earth already. Shovels and picks were rising and falling, and long lines of black clay bulked up on either side of the trench.
I took off my coat, got hold of a mate's idle shovel, and began to work.
"That my shovel?" said Bill Teake.
"Yes, I'm going to do a little," I answered. "It would never do much lying on the slope."
"I suppose it wouldn't," he answered. "Will you keep it goin' for a spell?"
"I'll do a little bit with it," I answered. "You've got to go to the back of the trenches if you're wanting to smoke."
"That's where I'm goin'," Bill replied. "'Ave yer got any matches?"
I handed him a box and bent to my work. It was quite easy to make headway; the clay was crisp and brittle, and the pick went in easily, making very little sound. M'Crone, one of our section, was working three paces ahead, shattering a square foot of earth at every blow of his instrument.
"It's very quiet here," he said. "I suppose they won't fire on us, having their own party out. By Jove, I'm sweating at this."
"When does the shift come to an end?" I asked.
"At dawn," came the reply. He rubbed the perspiration from his brow as he spoke. "The nights are growing longer," he said, "and it will soon be winter again. It will be cold then."
As he spoke we heard the sound of rifle firing out by the German wires. Half a dozen shots were fired, then followed a long moment of silent suspense.
"There's something doing," said Pryor, leaning on his pick. "I wonder what it is."
Five minutes afterwards a sergeant and two men came in from listening patrol and reported to our officer.
"We've just encountered a strong German patrol between the lines," said the sergeant. "We exchanged shots with them and then withdrew. We have no casualties, but the Germans have one man out of action, shot through the stomach."
"How do you know it went through his stomach?" asked the officer.
"In this way," said the sergeant. "When we fired one of the Germans (we were quite close to them) put his hands across his stomach and fell to the ground yellin' 'Mein Gutt! Mein Gutt!'"
"So it did get 'im in the guts then," said Bill Teake, when he heard of the incident.
"You fool!" exclaimed Pryor. "It was 'My God' that the German said."
"But Pat 'as just told me that the German said 'Mine Gut,'" Bill protested.
"Well, 'Mein Gott' (the Germans pronounce 'Gott' like 'Gutt' on a dark night) is the same as 'My God,'" said Pryor.
"Well, any'ow, that's just wot the Allymongs would say," Bill muttered. "It's just like them to call God Almighty nick names."
When dawn showed pale yellow in a cold sky, and stars were fading in the west, we packed up and took our way out and marched back to Nouex-les-Mines, there to rest for a day or two.
Every soldier to his trade—
Trigger sure and bayonet keen—
But we go forth to use a spade
Marching out from Nouex-les-Mines.
As I was sitting in the Café Pierre le Blanc helping Bill Teake, my Cockney mate, to finish a bottle of vin rouge, a snub-nosed soldier with thin lips who sat at a table opposite leant towards me and asked:
"Are you MacGill, the feller that writes?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Thought I twigged yer from the photo of yer phiz in the papers," said the man with the snub nose, as he turned to his mates who were illustrating a previous fight in lines of beer representing trenches on the table.
"See!" he said to them, "I knew 'im the moment I clapped my eyes on 'im."
"Hold your tongue," one of the men, a ginger-headed fellow, who had his trigger finger deep in beer, made answer. Then the dripping finger rose slowly and was placed carefully on the table.
"This," said Carrots, "is Richebourg, this drop of beer is the German trench, and these are our lines. Our regiment crossed at this point and made for this one, but somehow or another we missed our objective. Just another drop of beer and I'll show you where we got to; it was—Blimey! where's that bloomin' beer? 'Oo the 'ell!—Oh! it's Gilhooley!"
I had never seen Gilhooley before, but I had often heard talk of him. Gilhooley was an Irishman and fought in an English regiment; he was notorious for his mad escapades, his dare-devil pranks, and his wild fearlessness. Now he was opposite to me, drinking a mate's beer, big, broad-shouldered, ungainly Gilhooley.
The first impression the sight of him gave me was one of almost irresistible strength; I felt that if he caught a man around the waist with his hand he could, if he wished it, squeeze him to death. He was clumsily built, but an air of placid confidence in his own strength gave his figure a certain grace of its own. His eyes glowed brightly under heavy brows, his jowl thrust forward aggressively seemed to challenge all upon whom he fixed his gaze. It looked as if vast passions hidden in the man were thirsting to break free and rout everything. Gilhooley was a dangerous man to cross. Report had it that he was a bomber, and a master in this branch of warfare. Stories were told about him how he went over to the German trenches near Vermelles at dusk every day for a fortnight, and on each visit flung half a dozen bombs into the enemy's midst. Then he sauntered back to his own lines and reported to an officer, saying, "By Jasus! I got them out of it!"
Once, when a German sniper potting at our trenches in Vermelles picked off a few of our men, an exasperated English subaltern gripped a Webley revolver and clambered over the parapet.
"I'm going to stop that damned sniper," said the young officer. "I'm going to earn the V.C. Who's coming along with me?"
"I'm with you," said Gilhooley, scrambling lazily out into the open with a couple of pet bombs in his hand. "By Jasus! we'll get him out of it!"
The two men went forward for about twenty yards, when the officer fell with a bullet through his head. Gilhooley turned round and called back, "Any other officer wantin' to earn the V.C.?"
There was no reply: Gilhooley sauntered back, waited in the trench till dusk, when he went across to the sniper's abode with a bomb and "got him out of it."
A calamity occurred a few days later. The irrepressible Irishman was fooling with a bomb in the trench when it fell and exploded. Two soldiers were wounded, and Gilhooley went off to the Hospital at X. with a metal reminder of his discrepancy wedged in the soft of his thigh. There he saw Colonel Z., or "Up-you-go-and-the-best-of-luck," as Colonel Z. is known to the rank and file of the B.E.F.
The hospital at X. is a comfortable place, and the men are in no hurry to leave there for the trenches; but when Colonel Z. pronounces them fit they must hasten to the fighting line again.
Four men accompanied Gilhooley when he was considered fit for further fight. The five appeared before the Colonel.
"How do you feel?" the Colonel asked the first man.
"Not well at all," was the answer. "I can't eat 'ardly nuffink."
"That's the sort of man required up there," Colonel Z. answered. "So up you go and the best of luck."
"How far can you see?" the Colonel asked the next man, who had complained that his eyesight was bad.
"Only about fifty yards," was the answer.
"Your regiment is in trenches barely twenty-five yards from those of the enemy," the Colonel told him. "So up you go, and the best of luck."
"Off you go and find the man who wounded you," the third soldier was told; the fourth man confessed that he had never killed a German.
"You had better double up," said the Colonel. "It's time you killed one."
It came to Gilhooley's turn.
"How many men have you killed?" he was asked.
"In and out about fifty," was Gilhooley's answer.
"Make it a hundred then," said the Colonel; "and up you go, and the best of luck."
"By Jasus! I'll get fifty more out of it in no time," said Gilhooley, and on the following day he sauntered into the Café Pierre le Blanc in Nouex-les-Mines, drank another man's beer, and sat down on a chair at the table where four glasses filled to the brim stood sparkling in the lamplight.
Gilhooley, penniless and thirsty, had an unrivalled capacity for storing beer in his person.
"Back again, Gilhooley?" someone remarked in a diffident voice.
"Back again!" said Gilhooley wearily, putting his hand in the pocket of his tunic and taking out a little round object about the size of a penny inkpot.
"I hear there's going to be a big push shortly," he muttered. "This," he said, holding the bomb between trigger finger and thumb, "will go bang into the enemy's trenches next charge."
A dozen horror-stricken eyes gazed at the bomb for a second, and the soldiers in the café remembered how Gilhooley once, in a moment of distraction, forgot that a fuse was lighted, then followed a hurried rush, and the café was almost deserted by the occupants. Gilhooley smiled wearily, replaced the bomb in his pocket, and set himself the task of draining the beer glasses.
My momentary thrill of terror died away when the bomb disappeared, and, leaving Bill, I approached the Wild Man's table and sat down.
"Gilhooley?" I said.
"Eh, what is it?" he interjected.
"Will you have a drink with me?" I hurried to inquire. "Something better than this beer for a change. Shall we try champagne?"
"Yes, we'll try it," he said sarcastically, and a queer smile hovered about his eyes. Somehow I had a guilty sense of doing a mean action.... I called to Bill.
"Come on, matey," I said.
Bill approached the table and sat down. I called for a bottle of champagne.
"This is Gilhooley, Bill," I said to my mate. "He's the bomber we've heard so much about."
"I suppose ye'll want to know everythin' about me now, seein' ye've asked me to take a drop of champagne," said Gilhooley, his voice rising. "Damn yer champagne. You think I'm a bloomin' alligator in the Zoo, d'ye? Give me a bun and I'll do anythin' ye want me to."
"That men should want to speak to you is merely due to your fame," I said. "In the dim recesses of the trenches men speak of your exploits with bated breath——"
"What the devil are ye talkin' about?" asked Gilhooley.
"About you," I said.
He burst out laughing at this and clinked glasses with me when we drank, but he seemed to forget Bill.
For the rest of the evening he was in high good humour, and before leaving he brought out his bomb and showed that it was only a dummy one, harmless as an egg-shell.
"But let me get half a dozen sergeants round a rum jar and out comes this bomb!" said Gilhooley. "Then they fly like hell and I get a double tot of rum."
"It's a damned good idea," I said. "What is he wanting?"
I pointed at the military policeman who had just poked his head through the café door. He looked round the room, taking stock of the occupants.
"All men of the London Irish must report to their companies at once," he shouted.
"There's somethin' on the blurry boards again," said Bill Teake. "I suppose we've got to get up to the trenches to-night. We were up last night diggin'," he said to Gilhooley.
Gilhooley shrugged his shoulders, took a stump of a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.
"Take care of yourselves," he said as he went out.
At half-past nine we marched out of Nouex-les-Mines bound for the trenches where we had to continue the digging which we had started the night before.
The brigade holding the firing line told us that the enemy were registering their range during the day, and the objective was the trench which we had dug on the previous night.... Then we knew that the work before us was fraught with danger; we would certainly be shelled when operations started. In single file, with rifles and picks over their shoulders, the boys went out into the perilous space between the lines. The night was grey with rain; not a star was visible in the drab expanse of cloudy sky, and the wet oozed from sandbag and dug-out; the trench itself was sodden, and slush squirted about the boots that shuffled along; it was a miserable night. One of our men returned to the post occupied by the stretcher-bearers; he had become suddenly unwell with a violent pain in his stomach. We took him back to the nearest dressing-station and there he was put into an Engineers' wagon which was returning to the village in which our regiment was quartered.
Returning, I went out into the open between the lines. Our men were working across the front, little dark, blurred figures in the rainy greyness, picks and shovels were rising and falling, and lumps of earth were being flung out on to the grass. The enemy were already shelling on the left, the white flash of shrapnel and the red, lurid flames of bursting concussion shells lit up the night. So far the missiles were either falling short or overshooting their mark, and nobody had been touched. I just got to our company when the enemy began to shell it. There was a hurried flop to earth in the newly-dug holes, and I was immediately down flat on my face on top of several prostrate figures, a shrapnel burst in front, and a hail of singing bullets dug into the earth all round. A concussion shell raced past overhead and broke into splinters by the fire trench, several of the pieces whizzing back as far as the working party.
There followed a hail of shells, flash on flash, and explosion after explosion over our heads; the moment was a ticklish one, and I longed for the comparative safety of the fire trench. Why had I come out? I should have stopped with the other stretcher-bearers. But what did it matter. I was in no greater danger than any of my mates; what they had to stick I could stick, for the moment at least.
The shelling subsided as suddenly as it had begun. I got up again to find my attention directed towards something in front; a dark figure kneeling on the ground. I went forward and found a dead soldier, a Frenchman, a mere skeleton with the flesh eaten away from his face, leaning forward on his entrenching tool over a little hole that he had dug in the ground months before.
A tragedy was there, one of the sorrowful sights of war. The man, no doubt, had been in a charge—the French made a bayonet attack across this ground in the early part of last winter—and had been wounded. Immediately he was struck he got out his entrenching tool and endeavoured to dig himself in. A few shovelsful of earth were scooped out when a bullet struck him, and he leaned forward on his entrenching tool, dead. Thus I found him; and the picture in the grey night was one of a dead man resting for a moment as he dug his own grave.
"See that dead man?" I said to one of the digging party.
"H'm! there are hundreds of them lying here," was the answer, given almost indifferently. "I had to throw four to one side before I could start digging!"
I went back to the stretcher-bearers again; the men of my own company were standing under a shrapnel-proof bomb store, smoking and humming ragtime in low, monotonous voices. Music-hall melodies are so melancholy at times, so full of pathos, especially on a wet night under shell fire.
"Where are the other stretcher-bearers?" I asked.
"They've gone out to the front to their companies," I was told. "Some of their men have been hit."
"No one knows," was the answer. "Are our boys all right?"
"As far as I could see they're safe; but they're getting shelled in an unhealthy manner."
"They've left off firing now," said one of my mates. "You should've seen the splinters coming in here a minute ago, pit! pit! plop! on the sandbags. It's beastly out in the open."
A man came running along the trench, stumbled into our shelter, and sat down on a sandbag.
"You're the London Irish?" he asked.
"Stretcher-bearers," I said. "Have you been out?"
"My God! I have," he answered. "'Tisn't half a do, either. A shell comes over and down I flops in the trench. My mate was standing on the parapet and down he fell atop of me. God! 'twasn't half a squeeze; I thought I was burst like a bubble.
"'Git off, matey,' I yells, 'I'm squeezed to death!'
"'Squeezed to death,' them was my words. But he didn't move, and something warm and sloppy ran down my face. It turned me sick.... I wriggled out from under and had a look.... He was dead, with half his head blown away.... Your boys are sticking to the work out there; just going on with the job as if nothing was amiss. When is the whole damned thing to come to a finish?"
A momentary lull followed, and a million sparks fluttered earthwards from a galaxy of searching star-shells.
"Why are such beautiful lights used in the killing of men?" I asked myself. Above in the quiet the gods were meditating, then, losing patience, they again burst into irrevocable rage, seeking, as it seemed, some obscure and fierce retribution.