PREPARATIONS FOR LOOS

“Death will give us all a clean sheet.”—DUDLEY PRYOR.

WE, the London Irish Rifles, know Les Brebis well, know every café and
_estaminet_, every street and corner, every house, broken or sound,
every washerwoman, wine-shop matron, handy cook, and pretty girl. Time
after time we have returned from the trenches to our old billet to find
the good housewife up and waiting for us. She was a lank woman, made
and clothed anyhow. Her garments looked as if they had been put on with
a pitchfork. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, and one felt that
if her tightly strained eyelids relaxed their grip for a moment the
eyes would roll out on the floor. Her upper teeth protruded, and the
point of her receding chin had lost itself somewhere in the hollow of
her neck. Her pendant breasts hung flabbily, and it was a miracle how
her youngest child, Gustave, a tot of seven months, could find any
sustenance there. She had three children, who prattled all through
the peaceful hours of the day. When the enemy shelled Les Brebis the
children were bundled down into the cellar, and the mother went out to
pick percussion caps from the streets. These she sold to officers going
home on leave. The value of the percussion cap was fixed by the damage
which the shell had done. A shell which fell on Les Brebis school and
killed many men was picked up by this good woman, and at the present
moment it is in my possession. We nicknamed this woman “Joan of Arc.”

We had a delightful billet in this woman’s house. We came in from
war to find a big fire in the stove and basins of hot, steaming
_café-au-lait_ on the table. If we returned from duty dripping wet
through the rain, lines were hung across from wall to wall, and we knew
that morning would find our muddy clothes warm and dry. The woman would
count our number as we entered. One less than when we left! The missing
man wore spectacles. She remembered him and all his mannerisms. He used
to nurse her little baby boy, Gustave, and play games with the mite’s
toes. What had happened to him? He was killed by a shell, we told
her. On the road to the trenches he was hit. Then a mist gathered in
the woman’s eyes, and two tears rolled down her cheeks. We drank our
_café-au-lait_.

“Combien, madam?”

“Souvenir,” was the reply through sobs, and we thanked her for the
kindness. Upstairs we bundled into our room, and threw our equipment
down on the clean wooden floor, lit a candle and undressed. All wet
clothes were flung downstairs, where the woman would hang them up to
dry. Everything was the same here as when we left; save where the last
regiment had, in a moment of inspiration, chronicled its deeds in verse
on the wall. Pryor, the lance-corporal, read the poem aloud to us:

“Gentlemen, the Guards,
When the brick fields they took
The Germans took the hook
And left the Gentlemen in charge.”

The soldiers who came and went voiced their griefs on this wall, but
in latrine language and Rabelaisian humour. Here were three proverbs
written in a shaky hand:

“The Army pays good money, but little of it.”

“In the Army you are sertin to receive what you get.”

“The wages of sin and a soldir is death.”

Under these was a couplet written by a fatalist:

“I don’t care if the Germans come,
If I have an extra tot of rum.”

Names of men were scrawled everywhere on the wall, from roof to floor.
Why have some men this desire to scrawl their names on every white
surface they see, I often wonder? One of my mates, who wondered as I
did, finally found expression in verse, which glared forth accusingly
from the midst of the riot of names in the room:

“A man’s ambition must be small
Who writes his name upon this wall,
And well he does deserve his pay
A measly, mucky bob a day.”

The woman never seemed to mind this scribbling on the wall; in Les
Brebis they have to put up with worse than this. The house of which
I speak is the nearest inhabited one to the firing line. Half the
houses in the street are blown down, and every ruin has its tragedy.
The natives are gradually getting thinned out by the weapons of war.
The people refuse to quit their homes. This woman has a sister in
Nouex-les-Mines, a town five kilometres further away from the firing
line, but she refused to go there. “The people of Nouex-les-Mines are
no good,” she told us. “I would not be where they are. Nobody can trust
them.”

The history of Les Brebis must, if written, be written in blood. The
washerwoman who washed our shirts could tell stories of adventure that
would eclipse tales of romance as the sun eclipses a brazier. Honesty
and fortitude are the predominant traits of the Frenchwoman.

Once I gave the washerwoman my cardigan jacket to wash, and immediately
afterwards we were ordered off to the trenches. When we left the
firing line we went back to Nouex-les-Mines. A month passed before the
regiment got to Les Brebis again. The washerwoman called at my billet
and brought back the cardigan jacket, also a franc piece which she had
found in the pocket. On the day following the woman was washing her
baby at a pump in the street and a shell blew her head off. Pieces
of the child were picked up a hundred yards away. The washerwoman’s
second husband (she had been married twice) was away at the war; all
that remained in the household now was a daughter whom Pryor, with his
nicknaming craze, dubbed “Mercédès.”

But here in Les Brebis, amidst death and desolation, wont and use held
their sway. The cataclysm of a continent had not changed the ways
and manners of the villagers, they took things phlegmatically, with
fatalistic calm. The children played in the gutters of the streets,
lovers met beneath the stars and told the story of ancient passion, the
miser hoarded his money, the preacher spoke to his Sunday congregation,
and the plate was handed round for the worshippers’ sous, men and
women died natural deaths, children were born, females chattered at
the street pumps and circulated rumours about their neighbours…. All
this when wagons of shells passed through the streets all day and big
guns travelled up nearer the lines every night. Never had Les Brebis
known such traffic. Horses, limbers and guns, guns, limbers and horses
going and coming from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn. From their
emplacements in every spinney and every hollow in the fields the guns
spoke earnestly and continuously. Never had guns voiced such a threat
before. They were everywhere; could there be room for another in all
the spaces of Les Brebis and our front line? It was impossible to
believe it, but still they came up, monsters with a mysterious air of
detachment perched on limbers with caterpillar wheels, little field
guns that flashed metallic glints to the café lamps, squat trench
howitzers on steel platforms impassive as toads….

The coming and passing was a grand poem, and the poem found expression
in clanging and rattle in the streets of Les Brebis through the days
and nights of August and September, 1915. For us, we worked in our
little ways, dug advanced trenches under shell fire in a field where
four thousand dead Frenchmen were wasting to clay. These men had
charged last winter and fell to maxim and rifle fire; over their bodies
we were to charge presently and take Loos and the trenches behind. The
London Irish were to cross the top in the first line of attack, so the
rumour said.

One evening, when dusk was settling in the streets, when ruined houses
assumed fantastic shapes, and spirits seemed to be lurking in the
shattered piles, we went up the streets of Les Brebis on our way to
the trenches. Over by the church of Les Brebis, the spire of which was
sharply defined in the clear air, the shells were bursting and the
smoke of the explosions curled above the red roofs of the houses. The
enemy was bombarding the road ahead, and the wounded were being carried
back to the dressing stations. We met many stretchers on the road. The
church of Bully-Grenay had been hit, and a barn near the church had
been blown in on top of a platoon of soldiers which occupied it. We
had to pass the church. The whole battalion seemed to be very nervous,
and a presentiment of something evil seemed to fill the minds of the
men. The mood was not of common occurrence, but this unaccountable
depression permeates whole bodies of men at times.

We marched in silence, hardly daring to breathe. Ahead, under a
hurricane of shell, Bully-Grenay was withering to earth. The night
itself was dark and subdued, not a breeze stirred in the poplars which
lined the long, straight road. Now and again, when a star-shell flamed
over the firing line, we caught a glimpse of Bully-Grenay, huddled and
helpless, its houses battered, its church riven, its chimneys fractured
and lacerated. We dreaded passing the church; the cobbles on the
roadway there were red with the blood of men.

We got into the village, which was deserted even by the soldiery;
the civil population had left the place weeks ago. We reached the
church, and there, arm in arm, we encountered a French soldier and
a young girl. They took very little notice of us, they were deep in
sweet confidences which only the young can exchange. The maiden was
“Mercédès.” The sight was good; it was as a tonic to us. A load seemed
to have been lifted off our shoulders, and we experienced a light and
airy sensation of heart. We reached the trenches without mishap, and
set about our work. The enemy spotted us digging a new sap, and he
began to shell with more than usual vigour. We were rather unlucky, for
four of our men were killed and nine or ten got wounded.

Night after night we went up to the trenches and performed our various
duties. Keeps and redoubts were strengthened and four machine guns
were placed where only one stood before. Always while we worked the
artillery on both sides conducted a loud-voiced argument; concussion
shells played havoc with masonry, and shrapnel shells flung their
deadly freight on roads where the transports hurried, and where
the long-eared mules sweated in the traces of the limbers of war.
We spoke of the big work ahead, but up till the evening preceding
Saturday, September 25th, we were not aware of the part which we had
to play in the forthcoming event. An hour before dusk our officer read
instructions, and outlined the plan of the main attack, which would
start at dawn on the following day, September 25th, 1915.

In co-operation with an offensive movement by the 10th French Army on
our right, the 1st and 4th Army Corps were to attack the enemy from
a point opposite Bully-Grenay on the south to the La Bassée Canal on
the north. We had dug the assembly trenches on our right opposite
Bully-Grenay; that was to be the starting point for the 4th Corps—our
Corps. Our Division, the 47th London, would lead the attack of the
4th Army Corps, and the London Irish would be the first in the fight.
Our objective was the second German trench which lay just in front
of Loos village and a mile away from our own first line trench. Every
movement of the operations had been carefully planned, and nothing
was left to chance. Never had we as many guns as now, and these guns
had been bombarding the enemy’s positions almost incessantly for ten
days. Smoke bombs would be used. The thick fumes resulting from their
explosion between the lines would cover our advance. At five o’clock
all our guns, great and small, would open up a heavy fire. Our aircraft
had located most of the enemy’s batteries, and our heavy guns would be
trained on these until they put them out of action. Five minutes past
six our guns would lengthen their range and shell the enemy’s reserves,
and at the same moment our regiment would get clear of the trenches
and advance in four lines in extended order with a second’s interval
between the lines. The advance must be made in silence at a steady pace.

Stretcher-bearers had to cross with their companies; none of the
attacking party must deal with the men who fell out on the way across.
A party would be detailed out to attend to the wounded who fell near
the assembly trenches…. The attack had been planned with such
intelligent foresight that our casualties would be very few. The job
before us was quite easy and simple.

“What do you think of it?” I asked my mate, Bill Teake. “I think a
bottle of champagne would be very nice.”

“Just what I thought myself,” said Bill. “I see Dudley Pryor is off to
the café already. I’ve no money. I’m pore as a mummy.”

“You got paid yesterday,” I said with a laugh. “You get poor very
quickly.”

An embarrassed smile fluttered around his lips.

“A man gets pore ‘cordin’ to no rule,” he replied. “Leastways, I do.”

“Well, I’ve got a lot of francs,” I said. “We may as well spend it.”

“You’re damned right,” he answered. “Maybe, we’ll not ‘ave a chance
to——”

“It doesn’t matter a damn whether——”

“The officer says it will be an easy job. I don’t know the——”

He paused. We understood things half spoken.

“Champagne?” I hinted.

“Nothing like champagne,” said Bill.

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