Kitchener's Mob

By James Norman Hall

Trench-mortaring was more to our liking. That is an infantryman's game, and while extremely hazardous, the men in the trenches have a sporting chance. Everyone forgot breakfast when word was passed down the line that we were going to "mortarfy" Fritzie. Our projectiles were immense balls of hollow steel, filled with high explosive. Eagerly, expectantly, the boys gathered in the first-line trenches to watch the fun. First a dull boom from the reserve trench in rear where the mortar was operated.

"There she is!" "See 'er?" "Goin' true as a die!" All the boys would be shouting at once.

Up it goes, turning over and over, rising to a height of several hundred feet. Then, if well aimed, it reaches the end of its upward journey directly over the enemy's line, and falls straight into his trench. There is a moment of silence, followed by a terrific explosion which throws dirt and débris high in the air. By this time, the Tommies all along the line are standing on the firing benches, head and shoulders above the parapet, forgetting their danger in their excitement, and shouting at the top of their voices:

"'Ow's that one, Fritzie boy?"

"Guten morgen, you Proosian sausage wallopers!"

"Tyke a bit o' that there 'ome to yer missus!"

But Fritzie kept up his end of the game, always. He gave us just as good as we sent, and often he added something for good measure. His surprise packages were sausage-shaped missiles which came wobbling toward us, slowly, almost awkwardly; but they dropped with lightning speed. The explosion was terrible, and alas for any Tommy who misjudged the place of its fall! However, everyone had a chance. Trench-mortar projectiles are so large, and they describe so leisurely an arc before they fall, that men have time to run.

I've always admired Tommy Atkins for his sense of fair play. He loved giving Fritz "a little bit of all right," but he never resented it when Fritz had his own fun at our expense. I used to believe, in the far-off days of peace, that men had lost their old primal love for dangerous sport, their native ignorance of fear. But on those trench-mortaring days, when I watched boys playing with death with right good zest, heard them shouting and laughing as they tumbled over one another in their eagerness to escape being killed, I was convinced that I was wrong. Daily I saw men going through the test of fire triumphantly, and at the last, what a fearful test it was, and how splendidly they met it! During six months, continuously in the firing line, I met less than a dozen natural-born cowards; and my experience was largely among clerks, barbers, plumbers, shopkeepers, men who had no fighting tradition to back them up, to make them heroic in spite of themselves.

The better I knew Tommy, the better I liked him. He hasn't a shred of sentimentality in his make-up. There is plenty of sentiment, sincere feeling, but it is very well concealed. I had been a soldier of the King for many months before I realized that the men with whom I was living, sharing rations and hardships, were anything other than the healthy animals they looked. They seemed to live for their food. They talked of it, anticipated it with the zest of men who were experiencing for the first time the joy of being genuinely hungry. They watched their muscles harden with the satisfaction known to every normal man when he is becoming physically fit for the first time. But they said nothing about patriotism, or the duty of Englishmen in wartime. And if I tried to start a conversation on that line, they walked right over me with their boots on.

This was a great disappointment at first. I would never have known, from anything that was said, that a man of them was stirred at the thought of fighting for old England. England was all right, but, "I ain't a-goin' balmy about the old flag and all that stuff." Many of them insisted that they were in the army for personal and selfish reasons alone. They went out of their way to ridicule any and every indication of sentiment.

There was the matter of talk about mothers, for example. I can't imagine this being the case in a volunteer army of American boys; but never, during sixteen months of British army life, did I hear a discussion of mothers. When the weekly parcels post from England arrived, and the boys were sharing their cake and chocolate and tobacco, one of them would say, "Good old mum. She ain't a bad sort," to be answered with reluctant, mouth-filled grunts, or grudging nods of approval. As for fathers, I often thought to myself, "This is certainly a tremendous army of posthumous sons!" Months before I should have been astonished at this reticence. But I had learned to understand Tommy. His silences were as eloquent as any splendid outbursts or glowing tributes could have been. It was a matter of constant wonder to me that men living in the daily and hourly presence of death could so control and conceal their feelings. Their talk was of anything but home; and yet I knew that they thought of little else.

One of our boys was killed, and there was a letter to be written to his parents. Three Tommies who knew him best were to attempt this. They made innumerable beginnings. Each of them was afraid of blundering, of causing unnecessary pain by an indelicate revelation of the facts. There was a feminine fineness about their concern which was beautiful to see. The final draft of the letter was a masterpiece, not of English, but of insight; such a letter as any one of us would have liked his own parents to receive under similar circumstances. Nothing was forgotten which could make the news in the slightest degree more endurable. Every trifling personal belonging was carefully saved up and packed in a little box to follow the letter. All this was done amid much boisterous jesting; and there was hilarious singing to the wheezing accompaniment of an old mouth-organ. But of reference to home, or mothers, or comradeship, not a word.

Rarely a night passed without its burial parties. "Digging in the garden," Tommy calls the grave-making. The bodies, wrapped in blankets or water-proof ground-sheets, are lifted over the parados and carried back a convenient twenty yards or more. The desolation of that garden was indescribable. It was strewn with wreckage, gaping with shell-holes, billowing with numberless nameless graves, a waste land speechlessly pathetic. The poplars and willow hedges had been blasted and splintered by shell-fire. Tommy calls these "Kaiser Bill's flowers." Coming from England, he feels more deeply than he would care to admit the crimes done to trees in the name of war.

Our chaplain was a devout man, but prudent to a fault. He never visited us in the trenches; therefore our burial parties proceeded without the rites of the church. This arrangement was highly satisfactory to Tommy. He liked to "get the planting done" with the least possible delay or fuss. His whispered conversations, while the graves were being scooped, were, to say the least, quite out of the spirit of the occasion. Once we were burying two boys with whom we had been having a supper a few hours before. There was an artillery duel in progress, the shells whistling high over our heads and bursting in great splotches of white fire, far in rear of the opposing lines of trenches. The grave-making went speedily on while the diggers argued in whispers as to the calibre of the guns. Some said they were six-inch, while others thought nine-inch. Discussion was momentarily suspended when trench-rockets went soaring up from the enemy's line. We crouched motionless until the welcome darkness spread again. And then, in loud whispers—

"'Ere! If they was nine-inch they would 'ave more screech."

And one of different opinion would reply:

"Don't talk so bloomin' silly! Ain't I a-tellin' you you can't always size 'em by the screech?"

Not a prayer. Not a word either of censure or praise for the boys who had gone. Not an expression of opinion as to the meaning of the great change which had come to them and which might come as suddenly to any or all of us. And yet I knew that every man was thinking of these things.

There were days when the front was really quiet. The thin trickle of rifle-fire only accentuated the stillness of an early summer morning. Far down the line many a Tommy could be heard singing to himself as he sat in the door of his dug-out, cleaning his rifle. There would be the pleasant crackle of burning pine sticks, the sizzle of frying bacon, the lazy buzzing of swarms of bluebottle flies. Occasionally, across a pool of noonday silence, we heard the birds singing; for they didn't desert us. When we gave them a hearing, they did their cheery little best to assure us that everything would come right in the end. Once we heard a skylark, an English skylark, and for a while it made the world beautiful again. It was a fine thing to watch the faces of those English lads as they listened. I was deeply touched when one of them said, "Ain't 'e a plucky little chap, singin' right in front of Fritzie's trenches fer us English blokes?"

It was a sincere and beautiful tribute.