A LOVER AT LOOS

The turrets twain that stood in air
Sheltered a foeman sniper there;
They found who fell to the sniper’s aim,
A field of death on the field of fame—
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid,
To the rifle’s toll at the barricade;
But the quick went clattering through the town,
Shot at the sniper and brought him down,
In the town of Loos in the morning.

THE night was wet, the rain dripped from the sandbags and lay in
little pools on the floor of the trench. Snug in the shelter of its
keep a machine gun lurked privily, waiting for blood. The weapon
had an absolutely impersonal air; it had nothing to do with war and
the maiming of men. Two men were asleep in the bay, sitting on the
fire-step and snoring loudly. A third man leant over the parapet, his
eyes (if they were open) fixed on the enemy’s trench in front. Probably
he was asleep; he stood fixed to his post motionless as a statue. I
wrapped my overcoat tightly round my body and lay down in the slush
by a dug-out door. The dug-out, a German construction that burrowed
deep in the chalky clay of Loos, was crowded with queer, distorted
figures. It looked as if the dead on the field had been collected and
shovelled into the place pell-mell. Bill Teake lay with his feet inside
the shelter, his head and shoulders out in the rain. “I couldn’t get in
nohow,” he grumbled as I lay down; “so I arst them inside to throw me
a ‘andful of fleas an’ I’d kip on the doorstep. Blimey! ’tain’t arf a
barney; mud feathers, and no blurry blanket. There’s one thing certain,
anyhow, that is, in the Army you’re certain to receive what you get.”

I was asleep immediately, my head on Bill’s breast, my body in the mud,
my clothes sodden with rain. In the nights that followed Loos we slept
anywhere and anyhow. Men lay in the mud in the trenches, in the fields,
by the roadside, on sentry, and out on listening patrols between the
lines. I was asleep for about five minutes when someone woke me up. I
got to my feet, shivering with cold.

“What’s up?” I asked the soldier who had shaken me from my slumber. He
was standing opposite, leaning against the parados and yawning.

“There’s a bloke in the next dug-out as ‘as got wounded,” said the
man. “‘E needs someone to dress ‘is wound an’ take ‘im to the
dressin’-station. ‘E ‘as just crawled in from the fields.”

“All right,” I replied. “I’ll go along and see him.”

A stairway led down to the dug-out; an officer lay asleep at the
entrance, and a lone cat lay curled up on the second step. At the
bottom of the stair was a bundle of khaki, moaning feebly.

“Much hurt?” I asked.

“Feelin’ a bit rotten,” replied a smothered voice.

“Where’s your wound?”

“On my left arm.”

“What is your regiment?” I asked, fumbling at the man’s sleeve.

“The East Yorks,” was the reply to my question. “I was comin’ up the
trench that’s piled with dead Germans. I couldn’t crawl over them all
the way, they smelt so bad. I got up and tried to walk; then a sniper
got me.”

“Where’s your regiment?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” was the answer. “I got lost and I went lookin’ for my
mates. I came into a trench that was crowded with Germans.”

“There’s where you got hit,” I said.

“No; they were Germans that wasn’t dead,” came the surprising reply.
“They were cooking food.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Yesterday, just as it was growin’ dusk,” said the wounded man in a
weary voice. “Then the Germans saw me and they began to shout and they
caught hold of their rifles. I jumped over the trench and made off with
bullets whizzin’ all round me. I tripped and fell into a shell-hole
and I lay there until it was very dark. Then I got into the English
trenches. I ‘ad a sleep till mornin’, then I set off to look for my
regiment.”

While he was speaking I had lit the candle which I always carried in
my pocket and placed it on the floor of the dug-out. I examined his
wound. A bullet had gone through the left forearm, cutting the artery
and fracturing the bone; the blood was running down to his finger tips
in little rivulets. I looked at the face of the patient. He was a mere
boy, with thoughtful dark eyes, a snub nose, high cheekbones; a line of
down showed on a long upper lip, and a fringe of innocent curling hairs
straggled down his cheeks and curved round his chin. He had never used
a razor.

I bound up the wound, found a piece of bread in my pocket and gave it
to him. He ate ravenously.

“Hungry?” I said.

“As a ‘awk,” he answered. “I didn’t ‘ave nothin’ to-day and not much
yesterday.”

“How long have you been out here?” I asked.

“Only a week,” he said. “The regiment marched from —— to here.
‘Twasn’t ‘arf a bloomin’ sweat. We came up and got into action at once.”

“You’ll be going home with this wound,” I said.

“Will I?” he asked eagerly.

“Yes,” I replied. “A fracture of the forearm. It will keep you in
England for six months. How do you like that?”

“I’ll be pleased,” he said.

“Have you a mother?” I asked.

“No, but I’ve a girl.”

“Oh!”

“Not ‘arf I aven’t,” said the youth. “I’ve only one, too. I don’t ‘old
with foolin’ about with women. One’s enough to be gone on, and often
one is one too many.”

“Very sound reasoning,” I remarked sleepily. I had sat down on the
floor and was dozing off.

The officer at the top of the stair stirred, shook himself and glanced
down.

“Put out that light,” he growled. “It’s showing out of the door. The
Germans will see it and send a shell across.”

I put the candle out and stuck it in my pocket.

“Are you in pain now?” I asked the wounded boy.

“There’s no pain now,” was the answer. “It went away when you put the
dressing on.”

“Then we’ll get along to the dressing-station,” I said, and we
clambered up the stairs into the open trench.

The sky, which was covered with dark grey clouds when I came in, had
cleared in parts, and from time to time the moon appeared like a soft
beautiful eye. The breezes held converse on the sandbags. I could hear
the subdued whispering of their prolonged consultation. We walked along
the peopled alley of war, where the quick stood on the banquettes,
their bayonets reflecting the brilliance of the moon. When we should
get as far as the trench where the dead Germans were lying we would
venture into the open and take the high road to Maroc.

“So you’ve got a girl,” I said to my companion.

“I have,” he answered. “And she’s not ‘arf a one either. She’s a
servant in a gentleman’s ‘ouse at Y——. I was workin’ for a baker and
I used to drive the van. What d’ye work at?”

“I’m a navvy,” I said. “I dig drains and things like that.”

“Not much class that sort of work,” said the baker’s boy. “If you come
to Y—— after the war I’ll try and get yer a job at the baker’s….
Well, I saw this ‘ere girl at the big ‘ouse and I took a fancy to ‘er.
Are yer much gone on girls? No, neither am I gone on any, only this
one. She’s a sweet thing. I’d read you the last letter she sent me only
it’s too dark. Maybe I could read it if the moon comes out. Can you
read a letter by the light of the moon? No…. Well, I took a fancy to
the girl and she fell in love with me. ‘Er name was Polly Pundy. What’s
your name?”

“Socrates,” I said.

“My name is plain Brown,” the boy said. “Jimmy Brown. My mates used to
call me Tubby because I was stout. Have you got a nickname? No…. I
don’t like a nickname. Neither does Polly.”

“How does your love affair progress?” I asked.

“It’s not all ‘oney,” said the youth, trying to evade a projecting
sandbag that wanted to nudge his wounded arm. “It makes one think.
Somehow, I like that ‘ere girl too well to be ‘appy with ‘er. She’s too
good for me, she is. I used to be jealous sometimes; I would strike a
man as would look at ‘er as quick as I’d think of it. Sometimes when a
young feller passed by and didn’t look at my Polly I’d be angry too.
‘Wasn’t she good enough for ‘im?’ I’d say to myself; usin’ ‘is eyes to
look at somethin’ else when Polly is about——”

“We’ll get over the top now,” I said, interrupting Brown. We had come
to the trench of the dead Germans. In front of us lay a dark lump
coiled up in the trench; a hand stretched out towards us, a wan face
looked up at the grey sky…. “We’ll speak of Polly Pundy out in the
open.”

We crossed the sandbagged parados. The level lay in front—grey,
solitary, formless. It was very quiet, and in the silence of the fields
where the whirlwind of war had spent its fury a few days ago there
was a sense of eternal loneliness and sadness. The grey calm night
toned the moods of my soul into one of voiceless sorrow, containing no
element of unrest. My mood was well in keeping with my surroundings. In
the distance I could see the broken chimney of Maroc coal-mine standing
forlorn in the air. Behind, the Twin Towers of Loos quivered, grimly
spectral.

“We’ll walk slowly, Brown,” I said to the wounded boy. “We’ll fall
over the dead if we’re not careful…. Is Polly Pundy still in the
gentleman’s house?” I asked.

“She’s still there,” said the boy. “When we get married we’re goin’ to
open a little shop.”

“A baker’s shop?” I asked.

“I s’pose so. It’s what I know more about than anythink else. D’you
know anything about baking…. Nothing? It’s not a bad thing to turn
your ‘and to, take my tip for it…. Ugh! I almost fell over a dead
bloke that time…. I’m sleepy, aren’t you?”

“By God! I am sleepy, Jimmy Brown,” I muttered. “I’ll try and find a
cellar in Maroc when I get there and have a good sleep.”

The dressing-station in the ruined village was warm and comfortable. An
R.A.M.C. orderly was busily engaged in making tea for the wounded who
lay crowded in the cellar waiting until the motor ambulances came up.
Some had waited for twenty-four hours. Two doctors were busy with the
wounded, a German officer with an arm gone lay on a stretcher on the
floor; a cat was asleep near the stove, I could hear it purring.




Mick Garney, one of our boys, was lying on the stretcher near the
stove. He was wounded in the upper part of the thigh, and was
recounting his adventures in the charge. He had a queer puckered little
face, high cheekbones, and a little black clay pipe, which he always
carried inside his cap on parade and in his haversack on the march,
that was of course when he was not carrying it between his teeth with
its bowl turned down. Going across in the charge, Micky observed some
half a dozen Germans rushing out from a spinney near Hill 70, and
placing a machine gun on the Vermelles-Hulluch road along which several
kilted Highlanders were coming at the double. Garney took his pipe out
of his mouth and looked on. They were daring fellows, those Germans,
coming out into the open in the face of a charge and placing their gun
in position. “I must stop their game,” said Mick.

He lit his pipe, turned the bowl down, then lay on the damp earth and,
using a dead German for a rifle-rest, he took careful aim. At the pull
of the trigger, one of the Germans fell headlong, a second dropped
and a third. The three who remained lugged the gun back into Loos
churchyard and placed it behind a tombstone on which was the figure of
two angels kneeling in front of “The Sacred Heart.” Accompanied by two
bombers, Mick Garney found the Germans there.

“God forgive me!” said Mick, recounting the incident to the M.O., “I
threw a bomb that blew the two angels clean off the tombstone.”

“And the Germans?” asked the M.O.

“Begorra! they went with the angels.”

… A doctor, a pot-bellied man with a kindly face and an innocent
moustache, took off Brown’s bandage and looked at me.

“How are things going on up there?” he asked.

“As well as might be expected,” I replied.

“You look worn out,” said the doctor.

“I feel worn out,” I answered.

“Is it a fact that the German Crown Prince has been captured?” asked
the doctor.

“Who?”

“The German Crown Prince,” said the man. “A soldier who has just gone
away from here vows that he saw Little Willie under escort in Loos.”

“Oh, it’s all bunkum,” I replied. “I suppose the man has had too much
rum.”

The doctor laughed.

“Well, sit down and I’ll see if I can get you a cup of tea,” he said
in a kindly voice, and at his word I sat down on the floor. I was
conscious of nothing further until the following noon. I awoke to find
myself in a cellar, wrapped in blankets and lying on a stretcher.
I went upstairs and out into the street and found that I had been
sleeping in the cellar of the house adjoining the dressing-station.

I called to mind Jimmy Brown, his story of Polly Pundy; his tale of
passion told on the field of death, his wound and his luck. A week in
France only, and now going back again to England, to Polly Pundy,
servant in a gentleman’s house. He was on his way home now probably, a
wound in his arm and dreams of love in his head. You lucky devil, Jimmy
Brown!… Anyhow, good fortune to you…. But meanwhile it was raining
and I had to get back to the trenches.

You may also like