The Night Attack

by Arthur Stanwood Pier

When B Company marched out of the camp for the morning skirmish practice, Tom Kennedy of squad five was feeling depressed. His corporal, John Wheeler, had just given him a scolding, and now wore a stern expression on his youthful yet somehow granite-like countenance. Kennedy, glancing out of the corner of his eye, saw and interpreted the expression.

He was a thin, pale youth, who had gone from high school into the bank, where he was employed in a humble capacity as clerk. His lack of physical strength had prevented him from taking part in school athletics; the impecuniosity of his family had kept him from a share in many healthful, boyish activities. He had been a bookish boy and had shown himself quick at figures; many of his classmates envied him when, after graduation, a subordinate place in the First National Bank had been given him. In his second year of service there he was promoted to a clerkship; and when the bank announced its willingness to let some of its employees attend the military training camp, Kennedy had presented himself as a volunteer.

Without experience in the handling of arms, without natural dexterity and without the self-confidence that a boy derives from participation in sports or from a  life outdoors, Kennedy was not the most promising of “rookies.” He would have made a better showing in the early drills perhaps had he been less concerned with the dread of being regarded as a “dub.” What made him especially self-conscious was the fact that his corporal was the son of the president of the First National Bank. It seemed to Kennedy, inexperienced youth that he was, that his whole future might depend on the impression he made on the president’s son.

He had long known John Wheeler by reputation. Wheeler had been halfback on his college football team; he was a yachtsman of more than local renown. As corporal, he was alert, industrious and energetic; his efficiency caused Kennedy to be only the more keenly aware of his own incompetence. The other men in the tent were all older than he, all better educated than he, and without in the least intending to make him feel inferior they did make him feel so. As a matter of fact, they thought he was an unassuming and obliging person, who had, as one of them expressed it, not much small change in conversation.

Now, after a week at the camp, Kennedy had begun to make himself a nuisance to his companions—the thing that he had most dreaded being. He had caught cold, and had coughed at frequent intervals throughout the night; he had buried his head under his blankets and tried to suppress the coughs, and he had blown his nose with as little reverberation as possible, but he had, nevertheless, received intimations that he was disturbing the sleep of his tent mates. In the morning one of them, Morrison, a student in a medical school,  offered him some quinine pills and advised him to report at sick call. But Kennedy had resolved not to be knocked out by sickness; he thanked Morrison for the pills and said he thought he should get through all right. His feelings were hurt, however, when after breakfast Wheeler said:

“Come, fellows, let’s roll up the tent; if we don’t give the sun and air a chance in here, we’ll all of us be sniffling.”

The corporal started in to undo the guy ropes and then exclaimed wrathfully. “Who’s the man that tied these ropes in hard knots? He’s a landlubber, all right.”

“I should say!” remarked Morrison, who was at work on the other side of the tent. “I’m not guilty.”

“I’m afraid I am.” Kennedy’s admission was the more rueful because so croaking.

“A man who can only tie a hard knot or a granny has no business ever to touch a rope.” Wheeler snapped out the words while his fingers worked busily. “I should think before coming to a camp a fellow would learn to tie a few knots.”

Kennedy accepted the reproof in silence—if a sudden access of coughing can be termed silence. He was finding it hard work to disengage one of the knots of his own making; presently Wheeler, having freed the other ropes, came up and unceremoniously took possession of that at which Kennedy was picking.

“Undo your pack, take the rope that’s fastened to your shelter half and I’ll give you a lesson,” commanded Wheeler. 

To the object lesson in tying hitches, half hitches, slipknots and other useful knots Kennedy gave close attention; but when he tried to do what he had just seen his instructor do he became confused.

“Are you as slow as that counting bills in the bank?” Wheeler asked. “I wonder that they keep you. You don’t seem to have learned to use your hands.”

He snatched the rope and then began another demonstration for the mortified youth; Kennedy could not have been more hurt if he had been lashed with it. The whistle blew; the order, “Fall in!” was shouted at the head of the street.

“Quick, now! Do up your pack!” Wheeler tossed back the rope, and Kennedy made a dive into the tent where his equipment lay scattered. Hastily cramming things together, he discovered when he had his pack rolled up and fastened that he had left out the rubber poncho. In the street the men were all lined up at attention; he alone was unready. The first sergeant was calling the roll; the corporals were reporting: “Squad one?” “All present.” “Squad two?” “All present.” Kennedy flung on his pack and crammed his poncho under his mattress, where it would not be visible. “Squad five?” “Private Kennedy absent.” “Squad six?” “All present.”

Kennedy fastened his canteen to his belt, caught up his rifle and took his place in the rear rank.

He heard the corporals far down the line reporting, “All present.” He alone had been delinquent. Wheeler’s face seemed more forbidding than ever.

And that was why, as the company marched out  for the day’s work, Kennedy felt depressed. He was making a poor showing; he had won the outspoken disapproval of the man whose good opinion he most heartily desired. Besides, he was miserable in body; nose, eyes and throat were all inflamed, the pack seemed heavier than it ought to be, and there was no early-morning enthusiasm in his legs. A glance at Wheeler’s face still further depressed his spirits. He had never seen the corporal look so black, and he knew it was all on account of having such a “dub” in the squad!

It was really not on that account at all. What was troubling the corporal was a sense of his severity toward a subordinate who seemed to be doing the best he could. He was chagrined that he had been so sharp-tongued with the little fellow; he had got into the habit of thinking of Kennedy rather pityingly as “the little fellow.”

All the long morning B Company was put through skirmish drill; the sun was hot, the air heavy; with all too brief intermissions the men were kept at work; running, leaping, casting themselves on their faces, and pulling the trigger and throwing the bolt of their rifles. Lying prone, with neck and shoulder muscles aching under the weight of the pack, Kennedy experienced the greatest discomfort, for then his nose became an abomination to him. And at those times, snuffling, coughing and gasping, he was painfully aware that to the other members of the squad, and particularly to the corporal, he must seem nothing less than a curse.

The luncheon hour afforded him a little rest. But all the afternoon there was drill on the parade ground;  and at supper Kennedy was almost too tired to eat. His cold was no better, his cough was more frequent and racking, and he feared that he should be a greater nuisance to his tent mates than on the preceding night. After supper he thought he should go into the town and get some cough drops; but that was a mile walk, and before undertaking it he decided to stretch himself out on his bed for a few minutes’ rest. Wheeler came up and asked him how he was feeling.

“All right, if only I don’t keep you fellows awake,” Kennedy croaked, grateful for the question.

“You don’t sound all right. I should think you’d better see the doctor.”

“Oh, I sound worse than I am.”

Wheeler walked away, with a good-natured laugh that made Kennedy feel better than a cough drop could have done. It showed him that the corporal did not have an unfriendly attitude toward him, and it stimulated his resolve to let the corporal see that he did not lack staying power.

For a few minutes he had been reclining on his bed, when he was horrified to hear the B Company whistle, followed by the shout, “Fall in, B Company!” When he emerged from the tent, he heard the second order that was being relayed down the street, “Fall in with the rifle and the full pack!” For a dismal moment Kennedy thought of going up to the captain and pleading unfitness for further duty. Then he gritted his teeth, slung his pack, which he had not yet unrolled, on his aching shoulders and took up his rifle. The other occupants of the tent made their appearance on  the run, uttering maledictions and cries of grief and wonderment. Had not they been worked hard enough for one day! This kind of thing was an outrage!

When the company was lined up, Captain Hughes said, “B Company is ordered out to hold a section of trench against an expected night attack. Squads right!”

While the men proceeded at route step, they lamented facetiously the ordeal ahead of them. Kennedy snuffled and shuffled along, trying to keep his head up and his shoulders from drooping. He looked apprehensively at the western sky; the sun had gone down in a black cloud wrack, which was swarming higher and heavier. The sultry air was suddenly fanned by a cool wind, lightning flashed in the mass of clouds, and thunder pealed.

“Going to have a little real war this evening, I guess,” observed Morrison.

“The storm may not hit us,” said Wheeler.

“Everything that can will hit us to-day,” replied Morrison.

By the time the company had reached the trenches, which were dug on the edge of a wide field, it was growing dark. The wind was blowing hard and flung splashes of rain into the men’s faces.

Captain Hughes halted his command and called the members round him.

“This is the section that you are to defend,” he said. “You see it consists of four separate front-line trenches, each just long enough and wide enough to accommodate eight men. Each front trench is connected  with the second line of trenches by a short runway. Behind the second line is the shelter, or dugout, for those who are not on duty in the trenches. You will take turns in holding the front line; each squad will be relieved every fifteen minutes. The rest of you will keep under cover in the shelter—under cover from the enemy, that is.” There was an uncertain ripple of laughter; the rain was beginning now to pour down. “At what hour the attack may develop I can’t tell you,” continued the captain, “but it will no doubt be sometime between now and sunrise.”

In the shelter, which was a large rectangular pit six feet deep, the men opened their packs and got out their ponchos—all except Kennedy, who stood looking on while his comrades proceeded to protect themselves against the now pelting rain.

Wheeler, poking his head through the opening in his poncho, saw Kennedy standing thus.

“Why don’t you get out your poncho?” he asked.

“I forgot to put it in my pack.”

“That’s the limit, a night like this. You’ve got a frightful cold, too.” Wheeler pulled off the poncho that he had just put on. “Get into this and keep yourself as dry as you can.”

“No, I wouldn’t think of taking your——”

“You’re under orders now, and you’ll take what your corporal tells you.” Wheeler thrust the rubber garment over his subordinate’s head. “There you are; I don’t want to feel responsible for your having pneumonia.”

Then, as Captain Hughes called, “Squad leaders,  gather round!” Wheeler moved away to receive instructions.

Seating himself cross-legged, Kennedy arranged the poncho as well as he could over his rifle. The rain came down in sheets, poured from the brims of hats, formed puddles on the ground, oozed through trousers and boots and leggings. By the occasional lightning flashes Kennedy could see the group of corporals holding conference with the captain near by; he could see the huddled forms of the privates like himself, the ponchos shining on their shoulders, the pools glistening at their feet.

In a few moments the conference broke up; then Captain Hughes raised his voice sharply.

“Mr. Wheeler, where is your poncho?”

“I haven’t got it, sir.”

“A man who is careless about himself is not likely to look after his men, and that is an officer’s first duty. You set a bad example to the members of your squad, Mr. Wheeler.”

“Yes, sir.”

Wheeler saluted and the captain turned away just as Kennedy came forward. The corporal gripped Kennedy’s wrist and held him fast, then led him in silence back to his place.

“That’s all right,” he whispered in Kennedy’s ear. “Don’t you butt in. You’d only get it in the neck if you did.”

Kennedy, believing that a soldier’s first duty is to obey, did not persist; he saw the captain leave the shelter and join a group of officers on the bank. 

“It isn’t fair, though, for you to take the blame,” he began.

“It’s of no importance,” Wheeler answered.

A few moments later Kennedy was convinced that the corporal was mistaken. While Wheeler was talking to another member of the squad, Morrison said to Kennedy in a low voice:

“I guess Wheeler’s chance for promotion is gone now. They’re going to make some new sergeants tomorrow, and I thought Wheeler would surely be one; but I guess that forgetting his poncho has queered him with the captain. He’s a stickler about little things.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” repeated Kennedy, as if speaking to himself.

Night had settled down, the blackest kind of night, when the first platoon was ordered into the advance trenches. From ambush among the trees behind the shelter searchlights began to play against the woods five hundred yards away, out of which the attack was expected to come. The watchers in the shelter and the trenches remained in utter darkness while the streaming lines of rain and the distant trees emerged into view under the sweeping rays. Back and forth the searchlights plied, raking the whole sector of forest that bounded the field. The men in the shelter, who had stood up to see what the searchlights might disclose, soon sat down again and wrapped their ponchos about themselves more snugly. The minutes passed; there was no sound except that made by the determined, trampling rain.

Wheeler, who had been peering over the top of the  embankment, came and seated himself between Kennedy and Morrison.

“There’s one thing,” he murmured. “The enemy are getting it same as we are.”

Morrison grunted. “How do you know? They’re regulars, and maybe they haven’t left their barracks yet. Maybe they won’t till about 2 A. M.”

“Don’t be always taking the joy out of life,” Wheeler entreated.

At last came the turn of the second platoon. They filed out through the runways into the second-line trench, where they waited until the squads of the first platoon returned from the sections that they had been holding.

“Second platoon, load!”

In the pitch blackness it was not an easy thing to do. Kennedy got his clip jammed in the magazine and for a few moments could not shove it down or pull it out. Then, when he gave a final desperate wrench, out it came with a jump, slipped through his fingers and fell somewhere in the mud.

“Lock your pieces. Forward!”

Kennedy had to straighten up and move on without having found his cartridges. When he was in his place between Wheeler and Morrison, he took another clip out of his belt and, working carefully and slowly, inserted it in the magazine. The sound of others working with their rifles let him know that he had not been the only one to get into difficulty.

From somewhere behind, Captain Hughes gave instructions:

“Keep your eyes on that strip of woods. Squad on  the right, take the sector from the ravine to the top of the knoll. Next squad, the sector from the top of the knoll to that tree that stands out in front of the woods. Next squad, the sector from that tree to the big rock. Fourth squad, the sector from the big rock to the road. If anyone comes out of the woods in your sector, fire on him.”

“No one will come,” murmured Morrison. “Not for five or six hours yet.”

But they all stood peering intently over the low ridge of earth that protected the top of the trench and on which their rifles rested. Without cessation the searchlights swept back and forth along the belt of woods; for only the briefest interval was any section left in darkness. Time passed, and still the only sound was the steady drumming of the rain.

Then suddenly out of the belt of woods broke a line of men and charged forward. Instantly all along the advance trenches burst jets of flame and the vicious crackle and bang of the rifles. After the wearisome and uncomfortable vigil, Kennedy felt warmed into excitement; he got off three shots before the enemy dropped to the ground and began shooting in their turn. Then an enemy platoon on the right made a short rush forward and dropped, and immediately resumed firing. By platoon rushes the line advanced, and its fire seemed to grow steadier and stronger as it drew nearer. In contrast, the fire of the defenders of the trenches weakened. Only three men in Wheeler’s squad were maintaining a steady fire; the other squads displayed a corresponding feebleness of resistance. 

“Fire faster, men!” cried Captain Hughes.

But fire faster they did not—and could not. More than half of them were now having the trouble in loading their rifles that Kennedy had experienced—and was having again. Fumbling in the darkness with the wet, slippery mechanism, trying hurriedly to slide the cartridge clips into place, man after man had jammed his magazine, and with clumsy fingers was frantically trying to adjust it. Meanwhile, the fire of the enemy became more intense; they drew nearer and nearer by platoon rushes; and at last Captain Hughes gave the order to the defenders of the trenches, “Cease firing!”

Then, a few yards away, up sprang the enemy and, with bayonets fixed and a wild yell that at the last fizzled out into laughter, charged down on the trenches. They stopped on the edge and greeted the defenders derisively: “Well, boys, all dead, ain’t you?” “Fired as if you were, anyway.” “How’d you have liked it if this had been a real attack?” “Any of you boys want to have a little bayonet practice?”

Captain Hughes gave the command to unload. After “inspection arms” had been ordered, the captain pointed the moral of the evening’s experience: “You see, it’s not enough to be good daylight soldiers—important though that is. You have got to be able to use your rifles as well in the dark.”

B Company marched back to camp; Kennedy sought an audience with Captain Hughes. He could only say in a husky whisper:

“I want to explain about Corporal Wheeler’s poncho.” He had to stop for a fit of coughing; the captain bent  down and looked at him sharply. “He took off his poncho and made me put it on—I’d forgotten mine. I hope it won’t count against him.”

“What do you mean by staying on duty in this condition?” demanded the captain.

“I sound worse than I am.”

The captain grunted. “Report at sick call tomorrow. I’ll remember what you say about Wheeler. Goodnight!”

The next morning, when Kennedy returned from the hospital tent, having been pronounced fit to continue on active duty, he found the members of squad five congratulating Wheeler on his promotion to the rank of sergeant.

“Here’s the fellow that saved the job for me.” Wheeler clapped Kennedy’s shoulder. “Captain Hughes said you went to him and told tales out of school.”

Kennedy looked pleased. “I heard the captain tell you that you mightn’t be good at looking after your men,” he answered. “I thought I’d show him.”

“Business, just business,” said Wheeler with a twinkle in his eyes. “Dad would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you. I feel just as responsible for the bank, having you up here, as he does. Now come and I’ll give you another lesson in how to tie a knot.”

Arthur Stanwood Pier.