BEFORE THE CHARGE

Before I joined the Army
I lived in Donegal,
Where every night the Fairies,
Would hold their carnival.

But now I’m out in Flanders,
Where men like wheat-ears fall,
And it’s Death and not the Fairies
Who is holding carnival.

I POKED my head through the upper window of our billet and looked down
the street. An ominous calm brooded over the village, the trees which
lined the streets stood immovable in the darkness, with lone shadows
clinging to the trunks. On my right, across a little rise, was the
firing line. In the near distance was the village of Bully-Grenay,
roofless and tenantless, and further off was Philosophé, the hamlet
with its dark-blue slag-heap bulking large against the horizon. Souchez
in the hills was as usual active; a heavy artillery engagement was in
progress. White and lurid splashes of flame dabbed at the sky, and the
smoke, rising from the ground, paled in the higher air; but the breeze
blowing away from me carried the tumult and thunder far from my ears. I
looked on a conflict without sound; a furious fight seen but unheard.

A coal-heap near the village stood, colossal and threatening; an engine
shunted a long row of wagons along the railway line which fringed Les
Brebis. In a pit by the mine a big gun began to speak loudly, and the
echo of its voice palpitated through the room and dislodged a tile from
the roof…. My mind was suddenly permeated by a feeling of proximity
to the enemy. He whom we were going to attack at dawn seemed to be very
close to me. I could almost feel his presence in the room. At dawn I
might deprive him of life and he might deprive me of mine. Two beings
give life to a man, but one can deprive him of it. Which is the greater
mystery? Birth or death? They who are responsible for the first may
take pleasure, but who can glory in the second?… To kill a man…. To
feel for ever after the deed that you have deprived a fellow being of
life!

“We’re beginning to strafe again,” said Pryor, coming to my side as a
second reverberation shook the house. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a
bottle of champagne and a box of cigars.”

“I’ve got a bottle as well,” I said.

“There’ll be a hell of a do to-morrow,” said Pryor.

“I suppose there will,” I replied. “The officer said that our job will
be quite an easy one.”

“H’m!” said Pryor.

I looked down at the street and saw Bill Teake.

“There’s Bill down there,” I remarked. “He’s singing a song. Listen.”

“‘I like your smile,
I like your style,
I like your soft blue dreamy eyes——'”

“There’s passion in that voice,” I said. “Has he fallen in love again?”

A cork went plunk! from a bottle behind me, and Pryor from the shadows
of the room answered, “Oh, yes! He’s in love again; the girl next door
is his fancy now.”

“Oh, so it seems,” I said. “She’s out at the pump now and Bill is
edging up to her as quietly as if he were going to loot a chicken off
its perch.”

Bill is a boy for the girls; he finds a new love at every billet. His
fresh flame was a squat stump of a Millet girl in short petticoats and
stout sabots. Her eyes were a deep black, her teeth very white. She
was a comfortable, good-natured girl, “a big ‘andful of love,” as he
said himself, but she was not very good-looking.

Bill sidled up to her side and fixed an earnest gaze on the water
falling from the pump; then he nudged the girl in the hip with a
playful hand and ran his fingers over the back of her neck.

“Allez vous en!” she cried, but otherwise made no attempt to resist
Bill’s advances.

“Allez voos ong yerself!” said Bill, and burst into song again.

“‘She’s the pretty little girl from Nowhere,
Nowhere at all.
She’s the——'”

He was unable to resist the temptation any longer, and he clasped
the girl round the waist and planted a kiss on her cheek. The maiden
did not relish this familiarity. Stooping down she placed her hand
in the pail, raised a handful of water and flung it in Bill’s face.
The Cockney retired crestfallen and spluttering, and a few minutes
afterwards he entered the room.

“Yes, I think that there are no women on earth to equal them,” said
Pryor to me, deep in a pre-arranged conversation. “They have a grace of
their own and a coyness which I admire. I don’t think that any women
are like the women of France.”

“‘Oo?” asked Bill Teake, sitting down on the floor.

“Pat and I are talking about the French girls,” said Pryor. “They’re
splendid.”

“H’m!” grunted Bill in a colourless voice.

“Not much humbug about them,” I remarked.

“I prefer English gals,” said Bill. “They can make a joke and take one.
As for the French gals, ugh!”

“But they’re not all alike,” I said. “Some may resent advances in the
street, and show a temper when they’re kissed over a pump.”

“The water from the Les Brebis pumps is very cold,” said Pryor.

We could not see Bill’s face in the darkness, but we could almost feel
our companion squirm.

“‘Ave yer got some champagne, Pryor?” he asked with studied
indifference. “My froat’s like sandpaper.”

“Plenty of champagne, matey,” said Pryor in a repentant voice. “We’re
all going to get drunk to-night. Are you?”

“‘Course I am,” said Bill. “It’s very comfy to ‘ave a drop of
champagne.”

“More comfy than a kiss even,” said Pryor.

As he spoke the door was shoved inwards and our corporal entered. For
a moment he stood there without speaking, his long, lank form darkly
outlined against the half light.

“Well, corporal?” said Pryor interrogatively.

“Why don’t you light a candle?” asked the corporal. “I thought that we
were going to get one another’s addresses.”

“So we were,” I said, as if just remembering a decision arrived at a
few hours previously. But I had it in my mind all the time.

Bill lit a candle and placed it on the floor while I covered up the
window with a ground sheet. The window looked out on the firing line
three kilometres away, and the light, if uncovered, might be seen by
the enemy. I glanced down the street and saw boys in khaki strolling
aimlessly about, their cigarettes glowing…. The star-shells rose in
the sky out behind Bully-Grenay, and again I had that feeling of the
enemy’s presence which was mine a few moments before.

Kore, another of our section, returned from a neighbouring café, a
thoughtful look in his dark eyes and a certain irresolution in his
movements. His delicate nostrils and pale lips quivered nervously,
betraying doubt and a little fear of the work ahead at dawn. Under his
arm he carried a bottle of champagne which he placed on the floor
beside the candle. Sighing a little, he lay down at full length on the
floor, not before he brushed the dust aside with a newspaper. Kore was
very neat and took great pride in his uniform, which fitted him like an
eyelid.

Felan and M’Crone came in together, arm in arm. The latter was in a
state of subdued excitement; his whole body shook as if he were in
fever; when he spoke his voice was highly pitched and unnatural, a sign
that he was under the strain of great nervous tension. Felan looked
very much at ease, though now and again he fumbled with the pockets of
his tunic, buttoning and unbuttoning the flaps and digging his hands
into his pockets as if for something which was not there. He had no
cause for alarm; he was the company cook and, according to regulations,
would not cross in the charge.

“Blimey! you’re not ‘arf a lucky dawg!” said Bill, glancing at Felan.
“I wish I was the cook to-morrow.”

“I almost wish I was myself.”

“Wot d’yer mean?”

“Do you expect an Irishman is going to cook bully-beef when his
regiment goes over the top?” asked Felan. “For shame!”

We rose, all of us, shook him solemnly by the hand, and wished him
luck.

“Now, what about the addresses?” asked Kore. “It’s time we wrote them
down.”

“It’s as well to get it over,” I said, but no one stirred. We viewed
the job with distrust. By doing it we reconciled ourselves to a dread
inevitable; the writing of these addresses seemed to be the only thing
that stood between us and death. If we could only put it off for
another little while….

“We’ll ‘ave a drink to ‘elp us,” said Bill, and a cork went plonk! The
bottle was handed round, and each of us, except the corporal, drank in
turn until the bottle was emptied. The corporal was a teetotaller.

“Now we’ll begin,” I said. The wine had given me strength. “If
I’m killed write to —— and ——, tell them that my death was
sudden—easy.”

“That’s the thing to tell them,” said the corporal. “It’s always best
to tell them at home that death was sudden and painless. It’s not much
of a consolation, but——”

He paused.

“It’s the only thing one can do,” said Felan.

“I’ve nobody to write to,” said Pryor, when his turn came. “There’s a
Miss——. But what the devil does it matter! I’ve nobody to write to,
nobody that cares a damn what becomes of me,” he concluded. “At least
I’m not like Bill,” he added.

“And who will I write to for you, Bill?” I asked.

Bill scratched his little white potato of a nose, puckered his lips,
and became thoughtful. I suddenly realised that Bill was very dear to
me.

“Not afraid, matey?” I asked.

“Naw,” he answered in a thoughtful voice.

“A man has only to die once, anyhow,” said Felan.

“Greedy! ‘Ow many times d’yer want ter die?” asked Bill. “But I s’pose
if a man ‘ad nine lives like a cat ‘e wouldn’t mind dyin’ once.”

“But suppose,” said Pryor.

“S’pose,” muttered Bill. “Well, if it ‘as got to be it can’t be
‘elped…. I’m not goin’ to give any address to anybody,” he said. “I’m
goin’ to ‘ave a drink.”

We were all seated on the floor round the candle which was stuck in
the neck of an empty champagne bottle. The candle flickered faintly,
and the light made feeble fight with the shadows in the corners. The
room was full of the aromatic flavour of Turkish cigarettes and choice
cigars, for money was spent that evening with the recklessness of men
going out to die. Teake handed round a fresh bottle of champagne and I
gulped down a mighty mouthful. My shadow, flung by the candle on the
white wall, was a grotesque caricature, my nose stretched out like a
beak, and a monstrous bottle was tilted on demoniac lips. Pryor pointed
at it with his trigger finger, laughed, and rose to give a quotation
from Omar, forgot the quotation, and sat down again. Kore was giving
his home address to the corporal, Bill’s hand trembled as he raised a
match to his cigar. Pryor was on his feet again, handsome Pryor, with a
college education.

“What does death matter?” he said. “It’s as natural to die as it is to
be born, and perhaps the former is the easier event of the two. We have
no remembrance of birth and will carry no remembrance of death across
the bourne from which there is no return. Do you know what Epictetus
said about death, Bill?”

“Wot regiment was ‘e in?” asked Bill.

“He has been dead for some eighteen hundred years.”

“Oh! blimey!”

“Epictetus said, ‘Where death is I am not, where death is not I am,'”
Pryor continued. “Death will give us all a clean sheet. If the sergeant
who issues short rum rations dies on the field of honour (don’t drink
all the champagne, Bill) we’ll talk of him when he’s gone as a damned
good fellow, but alive we’ve got to borrow epithets from Bill’s
vocabulary of vituperation to speak of the aforesaid non-commissioned
abomination.”

“Is ‘e callin’ me names, Pat?” Bill asked me.

I did not answer for the moment, for Bill was undergoing a strange
transformation. His head was increasing in size, swelling up until it
almost filled the entire room. His little potato of a nose assumed
fantastic dimensions. The other occupants of the room diminished
in bulk and receded into far distances. I tried to attract Pryor’s
attention to the phenomenon, but the youth receding with the others was
now balancing a champagne bottle on his nose, entirely oblivious of his
surroundings.

“Be quiet, Bill,” I said, speaking with difficulty. “Hold your tongue!”

I began to feel drowsy, but another mouthful of champagne renewed
vitality in my body. With this feeling came a certain indifference
towards the morrow. I must confess that up to now I had a vague
distrust of my actions in the work ahead. My normal self revolted at
the thought of the coming dawn; the experiences of my life had not
prepared me for one day of savage and ruthless butchery. To-morrow I
had to go forth prepared to do much that I disliked…. I had another
sip of wine; we were at the last bottle now.

Pryor looked out of the window, raising the blind so that little light
shone out into the darkness.

“A Scottish division are passing through the street, in silence, their
kilts swinging,” he said. “My God! it does look fine.” He arranged
the blind again and sat down. Bill was cutting a sultana cake in neat
portions and handing them round.

“Come, Felan, and sing a song,” said M’Crone.

“My voice is no good now,” said Felan, but by his way of speaking, we
knew that he would oblige.

“Now, Felan, come along!” we chorused.

Felan wiped his lips with the back of his hand, took a cigar between
his fingers and thumb and put it out by rubbing the lighted end against
his trousers. Then he placed the cigar behind his ear.

“Well, what will I sing?” he asked.

“Any damned thing,” said Bill.

“‘The Trumpeter,’ and we’ll all help,” said Kore.

Felan leant against the wall, thrust his head back, closed his eyes,
stuck the thumb of his right hand into a buttonhole of his tunic and
began his song.

His voice, rather hoarse, but very pleasant, faltered a little at
first, but was gradually permeated by a note of deepest feeling, and a
strange, unwonted passion surged through the melody. Felan was pouring
his soul into the song. A moment ago the singer was one with us; now he
gave himself up to the song, and the whole lonely romance of war, its
pity and its pain, swept through the building and held us in its spell.
Kore’s mobile nostrils quivered. M’Crone shook as if with ague. We all
listened, enraptured, our eyes shut as the singer’s were, to the voice
that quivered through the smoky room. I could not help feeling that
Felan himself listened to his own song, as something which was no part
of him, but which affected him strangely.

“‘Trumpeter, what are you sounding now?
Is it the call I’m seeking?’
‘Lucky for you if you hear it all
For my trumpet’s but faintly speaking—
I’m calling ’em home. Come home! Come home!
Tread light o’er the dead in the valley,
Who are lying around
Face down to the ground,
And they can’t hear——'”

Felan broke down suddenly, and, coming across the floor, he entered the
circle and sat down.

“‘Twas too high for me,” he muttered huskily. “My voice has gone to the
dogs…. One time——”

Then he relapsed into silence. None of us spoke, but we were aware that
Felan knew how much his song had moved us.

“Have another drink,” said Pryor suddenly, in a thick voice. “‘Look not
upon the wine when it is red,'” he quoted. “But there’ll be something
redder than wine to-morrow!”

“I wish we fought wiv bladders on sticks; it would be more to my
taste,” said Bill Teake.

“Ye’re not having a drop at all, corporal,” said M’Crone. “Have a sup;
it’s grand stuff.”

The corporal shook his head. He sat on the floor with his back against
the wall, his hands under his thighs. He had a blunt nose with wide
nostrils, and his grey, contemplative eyes kept roving slowly round the
circle as if he were puzzling over our fate in the charge to-morrow.

“I don’t drink,” he said. “If I can’t do without it now after keeping
off it so long, I’m not much good.”

“Yer don’t know wot’s good for yer,” said Bill, gazing regretfully at
the last half-bottle. “There’s nuffink like fizz. My ole man’s a devil
fer ‘is suds; so’m I.”

The conversation became riotous, questions and replies got mixed and
jumbled. “I suppose we’ll get to the front trench anyhow; maybe to
the second. But we’ll get flung back from that.” “Wish we’d another
bloomin’ bottle of fizz.” “S’pose our guns will not lift their range
quick enough when we advance. We’ll have any amount of casualties with
our own shells.” “The sergeant says that our objective is the crucifix
in Loos churchyard.” “Imagine killing men right up to the foot of the
Cross.” …

Our red-headed platoon sergeant appeared at the top of the stairs, his
hair lurid in the candle light.

“Enjoying yourselves, boys?” he asked, with paternal solicitude. The
sergeant’s heart was in his platoon.

“‘Avin’ a bit of a frisky,” said Bill. “Will yer ‘ave a drop?”

“I don’t mind,” said the sergeant. He spoke almost in a whisper, and
something seemed to be gripping at his throat.

He put the bottle to his lips and paused for a moment.

“Good luck to us all!” he said, and drank.

“We’re due to leave in fifteen minutes,” he told us. “Be ready when you
hear the whistle blown in the street. Have a smoke now, for no pipes or
cigarettes are to be lit on the march.”

He paused for a moment, then, wiping his moustache with the back of his
hand, he clattered downstairs.

The night was calm and full of enchantment. The sky hung low and was
covered with a greyish haze. We marched past Les Brebis Church up a
long street where most of the houses were levelled to the ground.
Ahead the star-shells rioted in a blaze of colour, and a few rifles
were snapping viciously out by Hohenzollern Redoubt, and a building
on fire flared lurid against the eastern sky. Apart from that silence
and suspense, the world waited breathlessly for some great event. The
big guns lurked on their emplacements, and now and again we passed a
dark-blue muzzle peeping out from its cover, sentinel, as it seemed,
over the neatly piled stack of shells which would furnish it with its
feed at dawn.

At the fringe of Bully-Grenay we left the road and followed a
straggling path across the level fields where telephone wires had
fallen down and lay in wait to trip unwary feet. Always the whispers
were coming down the line: “Mind the wires!” “Mind the shell-holes!”
“Gunpit on the left. Keep clear.” “Mind the dead mule on the right,”
etc.

Again we got to the road where it runs into the village of Maroc.
A church stood at the entrance and it was in a wonderful state of
preservation. Just as we halted for a moment on the roadway the enemy
sent a solitary shell across which struck the steeple squarely, turning
it round, but failing to overthrow it.

“A damned good shot,” said Pryor approvingly.

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