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
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
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.