BACK AT LOOS

The dead men lay on the shell-scarred plain,
Where death and the autumn held their reign—
Like banded ghosts in the heavens grey
The smoke of the conflict died away.
The boys whom I knew and loved were dead,
Where war’s grim annals were writ in red,
In the town of Loos in the morning.

THE ruined village lay wrapped in the silence of death. It was a corpse
over which the stars came out like funeral tapers. The star-shells
held the heaven behind Loos, forming into airy constellations which
vanished at a breath. The road, straight as an arrow, pitted with
shell-holes and bearing an incongruous burden of dead mules, dead men,
broken limbers, and vehicles of war, ran in front of us straight up to
and across the firing line into the France that was not France. Out
there behind the German lines were the French villagers and peasantry,
fearing any advance on our part, much more even than the Germans
feared it, even as much as the French behind our lines feared a German
advance.

The indefatigable shrapnel kills impartially; how many civilians in
Loos and Lens have fallen victims to the furious 75’s? In France
the Allies fight at a disadvantage; a few days previously a German
ammunition depot had been blown up in Lille, and upwards of a hundred
French civilians were killed. How much more effective it would have
been if the civilians had been Germans!

Our battalion was returning to the trenches after a fortnight’s rest
in H——, a village in the rear. We had handed over the trench taken
from the Germans to the 22nd London Regiment before leaving for H——.
In H—— we got a new equipment, fresh clothing, good boots and clean
shirts; now we were ready for further work in active warfare.

We were passing through Loos on the way to the trenches. What a change
since we had been there last! The adaptive French had taken the village
in hand; they had now been there for three days. Three days, and a
miracle had been accomplished. Every shell-crater in the street was
filled up with dead horses, biscuit tins, sandbags and bricks, and
the place was made easy for vehicle traffic. Barricades, behind which
machine guns lurked privily, were built at the main crossings. An old
bakery was patched up and there bread was baked for the soldiers. In
a cellar near the square a neat wine-shop displayed tempting bottles
which the thirsty might purchase for a few sous.

The ease with which the French can accommodate themselves to any change
has been a constant source of wonder to me. In Les Brebis I saw roofs
blown off the village houses at dawn, at noon I saw the natives putting
them on again; at Cuinchy I saw an ancient woman selling _café-au-lait_
at four sous a cup in the jumble of bricks which was once her home.
When the cow which supplied the milk was shot in the stomach the woman
still persisted in selling coffee, _café noir_, at three sous a cup.
When a civilian is killed at Mazingarbe the children of the place sell
the percussion cap of the death-dealing shell for half a franc. Once
when I was there an old crone was killed when washing her feet at a
street pump. A dozen or more percussion caps were sold that day; every
_garçon_ in the neighbourhood claimed that the aluminium nose-cap in
his possession was the one that did the foul deed. When I was new to
France I bought several of these ghastly relics, but in a few weeks I
was out trying to sell. There was then, however, a slump in nose-caps,
and I lost heavily.

The apt process of accommodation which these few incidents may help to
illustrate is peculiar to the French; they know how to make the best
of a bad job and a ruined village. They paved the streets with dead
horses; drew bread from the bricks and stored wine in the litter that
was Loos. That is France, the Phœnix that rises resplendent from her
ashes; France that like her Joan of Arc will live for ever because she
has suffered; France, a star, like Rabelais, which can cast aside a
million petty vices when occasion requires it and glow with eternal
splendour, the wonder of the world.

The Munster Fusiliers held a trench on the left of Loos and they had
suffered severely. They had been in there for eight days, and the big
German guns were active all the time. In one place the trench was
filled in for a distance of three hundred yards. Think of what that
means. Two hundred men manned the deep, cold alley dug in the clay.
The shells fell all round the spot, the parados swooped forward, the
parapet dropped back, they were jaws which devoured men. The soldiers
went in there, into a grave that closed like a trap. None could escape.
When we reopened the trench, we reopened a grave and took out the dead.

The night we came to relieve those who remained alive was clear and the
stars stood out cold and brilliant in the deep overhead; but a grey
haze enveloped the horizon, and probably we would have rain before
the dawn. The trenches here were dug recently, makeshift alleys they
were, insecure and muddy, lacking dug-outs, fire-places, and every
accommodation that might make a soldier’s life bearable. They were
fringed with dead; dead soldiers in khaki lay on the reverse slope of
the parapet, their feet in the grass, their heads on the sandbags;
they lay behind the parados, on the levels, in the woods, everywhere.
Upwards of eleven thousand English dead littered the streets of Loos
and the country round after the victory, and many of these were
unburied yet.

A low-lying country, wet fields, stagnant drains, shell-rent roads,
ruined houses, dead men, mangled horses. To us soldiers this was the
only apparent result of the battle of Loos, a battle in which we fought
at the start, a battle which was not yet ended. We knew nothing of the
bigger issues of the fight. We had helped to capture several miles of
trenches and a few miles of country. We brought our guns forward, built
new emplacements, to find that the enemy knew his abandoned territory
so well that he easily located the positions of our batteries. Before
the big fight our guns round Les Brebis and Maroc were practically
immune from observation; now they were shelled almost as soon as they
were placed. We thrust our salient forward like a duck’s bill, and our
trenches were subject to enfilade fire and in some sectors our men
were even shelled from the rear.

Our plan of attack was excellent, our preparations vigorous and
effective, as far as they went. Our artillery blew the barbed wire
entanglements of the first German trench to pieces, at the second
trench the wire was practically untouched.

Our regiment entered this latter trench where it runs along in front of
Loos. We followed on the heels of the retreating Germans. Our attack
might have been more effective if the real offensive began here, if
fresh troops were flung at the disorganised Germans when the second
trench was taken. Lens might easily have fallen into our hands.

The fresh divisions coming up on Sunday and Monday had to cope with the
enemy freshly but strongly entrenched on Hill 70. The Guards Division
crossed from Maroc in open order on the afternoon of Sunday, the 26th,
and was greeted by a furious artillery fire which must have worked
great havoc amongst the men. I saw the advance from a distance. I think
it was the most imposing spectacle of the fight. What struck me as very
strange at the time was the Division crossing the open when they might
have got into action by coming along through the trenches. On the level
the men were under observation all the time. The advance, like that of
the London Irish, was made at a steady pace.

What grand courage it is that enables men to face the inevitable
with untroubled front. Despite the assurance given by the Higher
Command about the easy task in front of us, the boys of our regiment,
remembering Givenchy and Richebourg, gave little credence to the
assurance; they anticipated a very strong resistance, in fact none of
them hoped to get beyond the first German trench.

It is easy to understand why men are eager “to get there,” as the
favourite phrase says, once they cross the parapet of the assembly
trench. “There,” the enemy’s line, is comparatively safe, and a man
can dodge a blow or return one. The open offers no shelter; between
the lines luck alone preserves a man; a soldier is merely a naked babe
pitted against an armed gladiator. Naturally he wants “to get there”
with the greatest possible speed; in the open he is beset with a
thousand dangers, in the foeman’s trench he is confronted with but one
or two.

I suppose “the desire to get there,” which is so often on the lips of
the military correspondent, is as often misconstrued. The desire to get
finished with the work is a truer phrase. None wish to go to a dentist,
but who would not be rid of an aching tooth?

The London Irish advance was more remarkable than many have realized.
The instinct of self-preservation is the strongest in created beings,
and here we see hundreds of men whose premier consideration was their
own personal safety moving forward to attack with the nonchalance of a
church parade. Perhaps the men who kicked the football across were the
most nervous in the affair. Football is an exciting pastime, it helped
to take the mind away from the crisis ahead, and the dread anticipation
of death was forgotten for the time being. But I do not think for a
second that the ball was brought for that purpose.

Although we captured miles of trenches, the attack in several parts
stopped on open ground where we had to dig ourselves in. This
necessitated much labour and afforded little comfort. Dug-outs there
were none, and the men who occupied the trenches after the fight had no
shelter from shell-splinters and shrapnel. From trenches such as these
we relieved all who were left of the Munster Fusiliers.

The Germans had placed some entanglements in front of their position,
and it was considered necessary to examine their labours and see what
they had done. If we found that their wire entanglement was strong and
well fastened our conclusions would be that the Germans were not ready
to strike, that their time at the moment was devoted to safeguarding
themselves from attack. If, on the other hand, their wires were light,
fragile and easily removed, we might guess that an early offensive on
our lines would take place. Lieutenant Y. and two men went across to
have a look at the enemy’s wires; we busied ourselves digging a deeper
trench; as a stretcher-bearer I had no particular work for the moment,
so I buried a few of the dead who lay on the field.

On our right was a road which crossed our trench and that of the
Germans, a straight road lined with shell-scarred poplars running true
as an arrow into the profundities of the unknown. The French occupied
the trench on our right, and a gallant Porthos (I met him later) built
a barricade of sandbags on the road, and sitting there all night with
a fixed rifle, he fired bullet after bullet down the highway. His game
was to hit cobbles near the German trenches, from there the bullet went
splattering and ricochetting, hopping and skipping along the road for
a further five hundred yards, making a sound like a pebble clattering
down the tiles of a roof. Many a Boche coming along that road must have
heartily cursed the energetic Porthos.

Suddenly the report of firearms came from the open in front, then
followed two yells, loud and agonising, and afterwards silence. What
had happened? Curiosity prompted me to rush into the trench, leaving
a dead soldier half buried, and make inquiries. All the workers had
ceased their labour, they stood on the fire-steps staring into the
void in front of them, their ears tensely strained. Something must
have happened to the patrol, probably the officer and two men had been
surprised by the enemy and killed….

As we watched, three figures suddenly emerged from the greyness in
front, rushed up to the parapet, and flung themselves hastily into the
trench. The listening patrol had returned. Breathlessly they told a
story.

They had examined the enemy’s wire and were on the way back when one
of the men stumbled into a shell-hole on the top of three Germans who
were probably asleep. The Boches scrambled to their feet and faced
the intruders. The officer fired at one and killed him instantly,
one of our boys ran another through the heart with the bayonet, the
third German got a crack on the head with a rifle-butt and collapsed,
yelling. Then the listening patrol rushed hurriedly in, told their
story and consumed extra tots of rum when the exciting narrative was
finished.

The morning country was covered with white fog; Bois Hugo, the wood on
our left, stood out an island in a sea of milk. Twenty yards away from
the trench was the thick whiteness, the unknown. Our men roamed about
the open picking up souvenirs and burying dead. Probably in the mist
the Germans were at work, too…. All was very quiet, not a sound broke
the stillness, the riot of war was choked, suffocated, in the cold,
soft fog.

All at once an eager breeze broke free and swept across the parapet,
driving the fog away. In the space of five seconds the open was bare,
the cloak which covered it was swept off. Then we saw many things.

Our boys in khaki came rushing back to their trench, flinging down
all souvenirs in their haste to reach safety; the French on our right
scampered to their burrows, casting uneasy eyes behind them as they
ran. A machine gun might open and play havoc. Porthos had a final shot
down the road, then he disappeared and became one with the field.

But the enemy raced in as we did; their indecorous haste equalled ours.
They had been out, too. One side retreated from the other, and none
showed any great gallantry in the affair. Only when the field was clear
did the rifles speak. Then there was a lively ten minutes and a few
thousand useless rounds were wasted by the combatants before they sat
down to breakfast.

“A strategic retreat,” said Pryor. “I never ran so quickly in all my
life. I suppose it is like this every night, men working between the
lines, engineers building entanglements, covering parties sleeping out
their watch, listening patrols and souvenir hunters doing their little
bit in their own particular way. It’s a funny way of conducting a war.”

“It’s strange,” I said.

“We have no particular hatred for the men across the way,” said Pryor.
“My God, the trenches tone a man’s temper. When I was at home (Pryor
had just had ten days’ furlough) our drawing-room bristled with hatred
of some being named the Hun. Good Heavens! you should hear the men past
military age revile the Hun. If they were out here we couldn’t keep
them from getting over the top to have a smack at the foe. And the
women! If they were out here, they would just simply tear the Germans
to pieces. I believe that we are the wrong men, we able-bodied youths
with even tempers. It’s the men who are past military age who should be
out here.”

Pryor was silent for a moment.

“I once read a poem, a most fiery piece of verse,” he continued; “and
it urged all men to take part in the war, get a gun and get off to
Flanders immediately. Shame on those who did not go! The fellow who
wrote that poem is a bit of a literary swell, and I looked up his name
in ‘Who’s Who,’ and find that he is a year or two above military age.
If I were a man of seventy and could pick up fury enough to write that
poem, I’d be off to the recruiting agent the moment the last line was
penned, and I’d tell the most damnable lies to get off and have a smack
at the Hun. But that literary swell hasn’t enlisted yet.”

A pause.

“And never will,” Pryor concluded, placing a mess-tin of water on a
red-hot brazier.

Breakfast would be ready shortly.

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