The Coward by Arthur Guy Empey

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 there.

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 cowardly.

The smallest recruit in the barracks looked on him with contempt, and was not slow to show it in many ways.

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 despised him.

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 bored tone:

“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 sneer.

They marched ten kilos, full pack, to a little dilapidated village, and the sound of the guns grew louder, constantly 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 drawn face.

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 second lines.

One of the older men on guard, turning to his mate, said:

“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’ his post.”

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 water.

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 fixed bayonets. 

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 him.

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 to him:

“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 prayer:

“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 them.

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 with them.

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 principles.

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 of time.

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 eyes.

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 bare knees.

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 Company——”

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 handle——”

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 out.”

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 might live.”

Arthur Guy Empey.