The Coward by Arthur
We will call him Albert Lloyd. That wasn’t his name,
but it will do:
Albert Lloyd was what the world terms a coward.
In London they called him a slacker.
His country had been at war nearly eighteen months,
and still he was not in khaki.
He had no good reason for not enlisting, being alone
in the world, having been educated in an Orphan
Asylum, and there being no one dependent upon him
for support. He had no good position to lose, and
there was no sweetheart to tell him with her lips to go,
while her eyes pleaded for him to stay.
Every time he saw a recruiting sergeant, he’d slink
around the corner out of sight, with a terrible fear
gnawing at his heart. When passing the big recruiting
posters, and on his way to business and back he passed
many, he would pull down his cap and look the other
way, to get away from that awful finger pointing at
him, under the caption, “Your King and Country
Need You”; or the boring eyes of Kitchener, which
burned into his very soul, causing him to shudder.
Then the Zeppelin raids—during them, he used to
crouch in a corner of his boarding-house cellar, whimpering
like a whipped puppy and calling upon the
Lord to protect him.
Even his landlady despised him, although she had
to admit that he was “good pay.”
He very seldom read the papers, but one momentous
morning, the landlady put the morning paper at his
place before he came down to breakfast. Taking his
seat, he read the flaring headline, “Conscription Bill
Passed,” and nearly fainted. Excusing himself, he
stumbled upstairs to his bedroom, with the horror of
it gnawing into his vitals.
Having saved up a few pounds, he decided not to
leave the house, and to sham sickness, so he stayed
in his room and had the landlady serve his meals
Every time there was a knock at the door, he trembled
all over, imagining it was a policeman who had
come to take him away to the army.
One morning his fears were realized. Sure enough
there stood a policeman with the fatal paper. Taking
it in his trembling hand, he read that he, Albert Lloyd,
was ordered to report himself to the nearest recruiting
station for physical examination. He reported immediately,
because he was afraid to disobey.
The doctor looked with approval upon Lloyd’s six
feet of physical perfection, and thought what a fine
guardsman he would make, but examined his heart
twice before he passed him as “physically fit”; it was
beating so fast.
From the recruiting depot Lloyd was taken, with
many others, in charge of a sergeant, to the training
depot at Aldershot, where he was given an outfit of
khaki, and drew his other equipment. He made a
fine-looking soldier, except for the slight shrinking in
his shoulders, and the hunted look in his eyes.
At the training depot it does not take long to find
out a man’s character, and Lloyd was promptly dubbed
“Windy.” In the English Army, “windy” means
The smallest recruit in the barracks looked on him
with contempt, and was not slow to show it in many
Lloyd was a good soldier, learned quickly, obeyed
every order promptly, never groused at the hardest
fatigues. He was afraid to. He lived in deadly fear
of the officers and “Non-Coms” over him. They also
One morning about three months after his enlistment,
Lloyd’s company was paraded, and the names
picked for the next draft to France were read. When
his name was called, he did not step out smartly, two
paces to the front, and answer cheerfully, “Here, sir,”
as the others did. He just fainted in ranks, and was
carried to barracks amid the sneers of the rest.
That night was an agony of misery to him. He
could not sleep. Just cried and whimpered in his bunk,
because on the morrow the draft was to sail for France,
where he would see death on all sides, and perhaps be
killed himself. On the steamer, crossing the Channel,
he would have jumped overboard to escape, but was
afraid of drowning.
Arriving in France, he and the rest were huddled
into cattle cars. On the side of each appeared in white
letters, “Chevaux 8, Hommes 40.” After hours of
bumping over the uneven French roadbeds they arrived
at the training base of Rouen.
At this place they were put through a week’s rigid
training in trench warfare. On the morning of the
eighth day, they paraded at ten o’clock, and were
inspected and passed by General H——, then were
marched to the Quartermaster’s, to draw their gas
helmets and trench equipment.
At four in the afternoon, they were again hustled
into cattle cars. This time, the journey lasted two
days. They disembarked at the town of Frévent, and
could hear a distant dull booming. With knees shaking,
Lloyd asked the Sergeant what the noise was, and
nearly dropped when the Sergeant replied in a somewhat
“Oh, them’s the guns up the line. We’ll be up there
in a couple o’ days or so. Don’t worry, my laddie,
you’ll see more of ’em than you want before you
get ’ome to Blighty again, that is, if you’re lucky
enough to get back. Now lend a hand there unloadin’
them cars, and quit that everlastin’ shakin’. I believe
yer scared.” The last with a contemptuous
They marched ten kilos, full pack, to a little dilapidated
village, and the sound of the guns grew louder,
The village was full of soldiers who turned out to
inspect the new draft, the men who were shortly to be
their mates in the trenches, for they were going “up
the line” on the morrow, to “take over” their certain
sector of trenches.
The draft was paraded in front of Battalion Headquarters,
and the men were assigned to companies.
Lloyd was the only man assigned to “D” Company.
Perhaps the officer in charge of the draft had something
to do with it, for he called Lloyd aside, and said:
“Lloyd, you are going to a new company. No one
knows you. Your bed will be as you make it, so for
God’s sake, brace up and be a man. I think you have
the stuff in you, my boy, so good-bye, and the best of
luck to you.”
The next day the battalion took over their part of
the trenches. It happened to be a very quiet day.
The artillery behind the lines was still, except for an
occasional shell sent over to let the Germans know the
gunners were not asleep.
In the darkness, in single file, the Company slowly
wended their way down the communication trench
to the front line. No one noticed Lloyd’s white and
After they had relieved the Company in the trenches,
Lloyd, with two of the old company men, was put on
guard in one of the traverses. Not a shot was fired
from the German lines, and no one paid any attention
to him crouched on the firing step.
On the first time in, a new recruit is not required to
stand with his head “over the top.” He only “sits it
out,” while the older men keep watch.
At about ten o’clock, all of a sudden, he thought
hell had broken loose, and crouched and shivered up
against the parapet. Shells started bursting, as he
imagined, right in their trench, when in fact they were
landing about a hundred yards in rear of them, in the
One of the older men on guard, turning to his mate,
“There goes Fritz with those trench mortars again.
It’s about time our artillery ‘taped’ them, and sent
over a few. Where’s that blighter of a draft man
gone to? There’s his rifle leaning against the parapet.
He must have legged it. Just keep your eye peeled,
Dick, while I report it to the Sergeant. I wonder if
the fool knows he can be shot for such tricks as leavin’
Lloyd had gone. When the trench mortars opened
up, a maddening terror seized him and he wanted to
run, to get away from that horrible din, anywhere to
safety. So quietly sneaking around the traverse, he
came to the entrance of a communication trench, and
ran madly and blindly down it, running into traverses,
stumbling into muddy holes, and falling full length
over trench grids.
Groping blindly, with his arms stretched out in
front of him, he at last came out of the trench into the
village, or what used to be a village, before the German
artillery razed it.
Mixed with his fear, he had a peculiar sort of cunning,
which whispered to him to avoid all sentries,
because if they saw him he would be sent back to that
awful destruction in the front line, and perhaps be
killed or maimed. The thought made him shudder,
the cold sweat coming out in beads on his face.
On his left, in the darkness, he could make out the
shadowy forms of trees; crawling on his hands and
knees, stopping and crouching with fear at each shell-burst,
he finally reached an old orchard, and cowered
at the base of a shot-scarred apple-tree.
He remained there all night, listening to the sound
of the guns and ever praying, praying that his useless
life would be spared.
As dawn began to break, he could discern little dark
objects protruding from the ground all about him.
Curiosity mastered his fear and he crawled to one of
the objects, and there, in the uncertain light, he read
on a little wooden cross:
“Pte. H.S. Wheaton, No. 1670, 1st London Regt.
R.F. Killed in action, April 25, 1916. R.I.P.”
(Rest in Peace).
When it dawned on him that he had been hiding all
night in a cemetery, his reason seemed to leave him,
and a mad desire to be free from it all made him rush
madly away, falling over little wooden crosses, smashing
some and trampling others under his feet.
In his flight, he came to an old French dugout, half
caved in, and partially filled with slimy and filthy
Like a fox being chased by the hounds, he ducked
into this hole, and threw himself on a pile of old empty
sandbags, wet and mildewed. Then—unconsciousness.
On the next day, he came to; far distant voices
sounded in his ears. Opening his eyes, in the entrance
of the dugout he saw a Corporal and two men with
The Corporal was addressing him:
“Get up, you white-livered blighter! Curse you
and the day you ever joined ‘D’ Company, spoiling
their fine record! It’ll be you up against the wall, and
a good job too. Get a hold of him, men, and if he
makes a break, give him the bayonet, and send it home,
the cowardly sneak. Come on, you, move, we’ve
been looking for you long enough.”
Lloyd, trembling and weakened by his long fast,
tottered out, assisted by a soldier on each side of
They took him before the Captain, but could get
nothing out of him but:
“For God’s sake, sir, don’t have me shot, don’t
have me shot!”
The Captain, utterly disgusted with him, sent him
under escort to Division Headquarters for trial by
court-martial, charged with desertion under fire.
They shoot deserters in France.
During his trial, Lloyd sat as one dazed, and could
put nothing forward in his defense, only an occasional
“Don’t have me shot!”
His sentence was passed: “To be shot at 3:38 o’clock
on the morning of May 18, 1916.” This meant that
he had only one more day to live.
He did not realize the awfulness of his sentence, his
brain seemed paralyzed. He knew nothing of his trip,
under guard, in a motor lorry to the sand-bagged
guardroom in the village, where he was dumped on the
floor and left, while a sentry with a fixed bayonet
paced up and down in front of the entrance.
Bully beef, water, and biscuits were left beside him
for his supper.
The sentry, seeing that he ate nothing, came inside
and shook him by the shoulder, saying in a kind voice:
“Cheero, laddie, better eat something. You’ll feel
better. Don’t give up hope. You’ll be pardoned
before morning. I know the way they run these things.
They’re only trying to scare you, that’s all. Come
now, that’s a good lad, eat something. It’ll make the
world look different to you.”
The good-hearted sentry knew he was lying about
the pardon. He knew nothing short of a miracle could
save the poor lad.
Lloyd listened eagerly to his sentry’s words, and
believed them. A look of hope came into his eyes, and
he ravenously ate the meal beside him.
In about an hour’s time, the Chaplain came to see
him, but Lloyd would have none of him. He wanted
no parson; he was to be pardoned.
The artillery behind the lines suddenly opened up
with everything they had. An intense bombardment
of the enemy’s lines had commenced. The roar of the
guns was deafening. Lloyd’s fears came back with a
rush, and he cowered on the earthen floor with his
hands over his face.
The sentry, seeing his position, came in and tried
to cheer him by talking to him:
“Never mind them guns, boy, they won’t hurt you.
They are ours. We are giving the ‘Boches’ a dose of
their own medicine. Our boys are going over the top
at dawn of the morning to take their trenches. We’ll
give ’em a taste of cold steel with their sausages and
beer. You just sit tight now until they relieve you.
I’ll have to go now, lad, as it’s nearly time for my
relief, and I don’t want them to see me a-talkin’ with
you. So long, laddie, cheero.”
With this, the sentry resumed the pacing of his
post. In about ten minutes’ time he was relieved, and
a “D” Company man took his place.
Looking into the guardhouse, the sentry noticed the
cowering attitude of Lloyd, and, with a sneer, said
“Instead of whimpering in that corner, you ought
to be saying your prayers. It’s bally conscripts like
you what’s spoilin’ our record. We’ve been out here
nigh onto eighteen months, and you’re the first man
to desert his post. The whole Battalion is laughin’
and pokin’ fun at ‘D’ Company, bad luck to you!
but you won’t get another chance to disgrace us.
They’ll put your lights out in the mornin’.”
After listening to this tirade, Lloyd, in a faltering
voice, asked: “They are not going to shoot me, are
they? Why, the other sentry said they’d pardon me.
For God’s sake—don’t tell me I’m to be shot!” and
his voice died away in a sob.
“Of course, they’re going to shoot you. The other
sentry was jest a-kiddin’ you. Jest like old Smith.
Always a-tryin’ to cheer some one. You ain’t got no
more chance o’ bein’ pardoned than I have of gettin’
to be Colonel of my ‘Batt.’”
When the fact that all hope was gone finally entered
Lloyd’s brain, a calm seemed to settle over him, and
rising to his knees, with his arms stretched out to
heaven, he prayed, and all of his soul entered into the
“Oh, good and merciful God, give me strength to
die like a man! Deliver me from this coward’s death.
Give me a chance to die like my mates in the fighting
line, to die fighting for my country. I ask this of thee.”
A peace, hitherto unknown, came to him, and he
crouched and cowered no more, but calmly waited the
dawn, ready to go to his death. The shells were bursting
all around the guardroom, but he hardly noticed
While waiting there, the voice of the sentry, singing
in a low tone, came to him. He was singing the chorus
of the popular trench ditty:
“I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don’t want to go to the trenches no more.
Where the ‘whizzbangs’ and ‘sausages’ roar galore.
Take me over the sea, where the Allemand can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die! I want to go home.”
Lloyd listened to the words with a strange interest,
and wondered what kind of a home he would go to
across the Great Divide. It would be the only home
he had ever known.
Suddenly there came a great rushing through the
air, a blinding flash, a deafening report, and the sand-bag
walls of the guardroom toppled over, and then—blackness.
When Lloyd recovered consciousness, he was lying
on his right side, facing what used to be the entrance
of the guardroom. Now, it was only a jumble of rent
and torn sandbags. His head seemed bursting. He
slowly rose on his elbow, and there in the east the
dawn was breaking. But what was that mangled
shape lying over there among the sandbags? Slowly
dragging himself to it, he saw the body of the sentry.
One look was enough to know that he was dead. The
sentry had had his wish gratified. He had “gone
home.” He was safe at last from the “whizzbangs”
and the Allemand.
Like a flash it came to Lloyd that he was free. Free
to go “over the top” with his Company. Free to die
like a true Briton fighting for his King and Country.
A great gladness and warmth came over him. Carefully
stepping over the body of the sentry, he started
on a mad race down the ruined street of the village,
amid the bursting shells, minding them not, dodging
through or around hurrying platoons on their way to
also go “over the top.” Coming to a communication
trench he could not get through. It was blocked with
laughing, cheering, and cursing soldiers. Climbing
out of the trench, he ran wildly along the top, never
heeding the rain of machine-gun bullets and shells, not
even hearing the shouts of the officers, telling him to
get back into the trench. He was going to join his
Company who were in the front line. He was going
to fight with them. He, the despised coward, had
come into his own.
While he was racing along, jumping over trenches
crowded with soldiers, a ringing cheer broke out all
along the front line, and his heart sank. He knew he
was too late. His Company had gone over. But still
he ran madly. He would catch them. He would die
Meanwhile his Company had gone “over.” They,
with the other companies had taken the first and
second German trenches, and had pushed steadily on
to the third line. “D” Company, led by their Captain,
the one who had sent Lloyd to Division Headquarters
for trial, charged with desertion, had pushed
steadily forward until they found themselves far in
advance of the rest of the attacking force. “Bombing
out” trench after trench, and using their bayonets,
they came to a German communication trench, which
ended in a blindsap, and then the Captain, and what
was left of his men, knew they were in a trap. They
would not retire. “D” Company never retired, and
they were “D” Company. Right in front of them
they could see hundreds of Germans preparing to rush
them with bomb and bayonet. They would have
some chance if ammunition and bombs could reach
them from the rear. Their supply was exhausted, and
the men realized it would be a case of dying as bravely
as possible, or making a run for it. But “D” Company
would not run. It was against their traditions and
The Germans would have to advance across an open
space of three to four hundred yards before they could
get within bombing distance of the trench, and then
it would be all their own way.
Turning to his Company, the Captain said:
“Men, it’s a case of going West for us. We are out
of ammunition and bombs, and the ‘Boches’ have us
in a trap. They will bomb us out. Our bayonets are
useless here. We will have to go over and meet them,
and it’s a case of thirty to one, so send every thrust
home, and die like the men of ‘D’ Company should.
When I give the word, follow me, and up and at them.
If we only had a machine gun, we could wipe them
out! Here they come, get ready, men.”
Just as he finished speaking, the welcome “pup-pup”
of a machine gun in their rear rang out, and the
front line of the onrushing Germans seemed to melt
away. They wavered, but once again came rushing
onward. Down went their second line. The machine
gun was taking an awful toll of lives. Then again
they tried to advance, but the machine gun mowed
them down. Dropping their rifles and bombs, they
broke and fled in a wild rush back to their trench,
amid the cheers of “D” Company. They were forming
again for another attempt, when in the rear of
“D” Company came a mighty cheer. The ammunition
had arrived and with it a battalion of Scotch to
reinforce them. They were saved. The unknown
machine gunner had come to the rescue in the nick
With the reinforcements, it was an easy task to take
the third German line.
After the attack was over, the Captain and three of
his non-commissioned officers, wended their way back
to the position where the machine gun had done its
deadly work. He wanted to thank the gunner in the
name of “D” Company for his magnificent deed.
They arrived at the gun, and an awful sight met their
Lloyd had reached the front line trench, after his
Company had left it. A strange company was nimbly
crawling up the trench ladders. They were reinforcements
going over. They were Scotties, and they made
a magnificent sight in their brightly colored kilts and
Jumping over the trench, Lloyd raced across “No
Man’s Land,” unheeding the rain of bullets, leaping
over dark forms on the ground, some of which lay still,
while others called out to him as he speeded past.
He came to the German front line, but it was deserted,
except for heaps of dead and wounded—a grim
tribute to the work of his Company, good old “D”
Company. Leaping trenches, and gasping for breath,
Lloyd could see right ahead of him his Company in a
dead-ended sap of a communication trench, and across
the open, away in front of them, a mass of Germans
preparing for a charge. Why didn’t “D” Company
fire on them? Why were they so strangely silent?
What were they waiting for? Then he knew—their
ammunition was exhausted.
But what was that on his right? A machine gun.
Why didn’t it open fire and save them? He would make
that gun’s crew do their duty. Rushing over to the gun,
he saw why it had not opened fire. Scattered around
its base lay six still forms. They had brought their
gun to consolidate the captured position, but a German
machine gun had decreed they would never fire again.
Lloyd rushed to the gun, and grasping the traversing
handles, trained it on the Germans. He pressed
the thumb piece, but only a sharp click was the result.
The gun was unloaded. Then he realized his helplessness.
He did not know how to load the gun. Oh, why
hadn’t he attended the machine-gun course in England?
He’d been offered the chance, but with a blush of
shame he remembered that he had been afraid. The
nickname of the machine gunners had frightened him.
They were called the “Suicide Club.” Now, because
of this fear, his Company would be destroyed, the men
of “D” Company would have to die, because he,
Albert Lloyd, had been afraid of a name. In his shame
he cried like a baby. Anyway he could die with them,
and, rising to his feet, he stumbled over the body of
one of the gunners, who emitted a faint moan. A
gleam of hope flashed through him. Perhaps this man
could tell him how to load the gun. Stooping over the
body, he gently shook it, and the soldier opened his
eyes. Seeing Lloyd, he closed them again, and in a
faint voice said:
“Get away, you blighter, leave me alone. I don’t
want any coward around me.”
The words cut Lloyd like a knife, but he was desperate.
Taking the revolver out of the holster of the
dying man, he pressed the cold muzzle to the soldier’s
head, and replied:
“Yes, it is Lloyd, the coward of Company ‘D,’ but
if you don’t tell me how to load that gun, I’ll put a
bullet through your brain!”
A sunny smile came over the countenance of the
dying man, and he said in a faint whisper:
“Good old boy! I knew you wouldn’t disgrace our
Lloyd interposed, “For God’s sake, if you want to
save that Company you are so proud of, tell me how
to load that gun!”
As if reciting a lesson in school, the soldier replied
in a weak, singsong voice: “Insert tag end of belt in
feed block, with left hand pull belt left front. Pull
crank handle back on roller, let go, and repeat
motion. Gun is now loaded. To fire, raise automatic
safety latch, and press thumb piece. Gun is
now firing. If gun stops, ascertain position of crank
But Lloyd waited for no more. With wild joy at
his heart, he took a belt from one of the ammunition
boxes lying beside the gun, and followed the dying
man’s instructions. Then he pressed the thumb
piece, and a burst of fire rewarded his efforts. The
gun was working.
Training it on the Germans, he shouted for joy as
their front rank went down.
Traversing the gun back and forth along the mass
of Germans, he saw them break and run back to the
cover of their trench, leaving their dead and wounded
behind. He had saved his Company, he, Lloyd, the
coward, had “done his bit.” Releasing the thumb
piece, he looked at the watch on his wrist. He was
still alive, and the hands pointed to “3:38,” the time
set for his death by the court.
“Ping!”—a bullet sang through the air, and Lloyd
fell forward across the gun.
The sentence of the court had been “duly carried
The Captain slowly raised the limp form drooping
over the gun, and, wiping the blood from the white
face, recognized it as Lloyd, the coward of “D” Company.
Reverently covering the face with his handkerchief,
he turned to his “non-coms,” and in a voice
husky with emotion, addressed them:
“Boys, it’s Lloyd the deserter. He has redeemed
himself, died the death of a hero. Died that his mates
—Arthur Guy Empey.