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
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
“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
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
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,”
“The storm may not hit us,” said Wheeler.
“Everything that can will hit us to-day,” replied
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
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,
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
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
“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,
Wheeler, who had been peering over the top of the
embankment, came and seated himself between Kennedy
“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
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.
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
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
—Arthur Stanwood Pier.