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Bullets & Billets Part 7

ROBINSON CRUSOE--THAT TURBULENT TABLE

By this time we had really got our little house quite snug. A hole in the floor, a three-legged chair, and brown paper pushed into the largest of the holes in the walls--what more could a man want? However, we did want something more, and that was a table. One gets tired of balancing tins of pl--(nearly said it again)--marmalade on one's knee and holding an enamel cup in one hand and a pocket-knife in the other. So we all said how nice a table would be. I determined to say no more, but to show by deeds, not by words, that I would find a table and have one there by the next day, like a fairy in a pantomime. I started off on my search one night. Take it from me--a fairy's is a poor job out there, and when you've read the next bit you'll agree.

Behind our position stood the old ruined chateau, and beyond it one or two scattered cottages. I had never really had a good look at all at that part, and as I knew some of our reserve trenches ran around there, and that it would be a good thing to know all about them, I decided to ask the Colonel for permission to creep off one afternoon and explore the whole thing; incidentally I might by good luck find a table. It was possible, by wriggling up a mud valley and crawling over a few scattered remnants of houses and bygone trenches to reach the Colonel's headquarter dug-out in daytime. So I did it, and asked leave to go off back to have a look at the chateau and the land about it. He gave me permission, so armed with my long walking-stick (a billiard cue with the thin part cut off, which I found on passing another chateau one night) I started off to explore.

I reached the chateau. An interesting sight it was. How many shells had hit it one couldn't even guess, but the results indicated a good few.

What once had been well-kept lawns were now covered with articles which would have been much better left in their proper places. One suddenly came upon half a statue of Minerva or Venus wrapped in three-quarters of a stair carpet in the middle of one of the greenhouses. Passing on, one would find the lightning conductor projecting out through the tapestried seat of a Louis Quinze chair. I never saw such a mess.

Inside, the upstairs rooms were competing with the ground-floor ones, as to which should get into the cellars first. It was really too terrible to contemplate the fearful destruction.

I found it impossible to examine much of the interior of the chateau, as blocks of masonry and twisted iron girders closed up most of the doors and passages. I left this melancholy ruin, full of thought, and proceeded across the shell-pitted gardens towards the few little cottages beyond. These were in a better state of preservation, and were well worth a visit. In the first one I entered I found a table! the very thing I wanted. It was stuck away in a small lean-to at the back. A nice little green one, just the size to suit us.

I determined to get it back to our shack somehow, but before doing so went on rummaging about these cottages. In the second cottage I made an enormously lucky find for us. Under a heap of firewood in an outhouse I found a large pile of coal. This was splendid, and would be invaluable to us and our fire-bucket. Nothing pleased me more than this, as the cold was very severe, and a fire meant so much to us. When I had completed my investigations and turned over all the oddments lying about to see if there was anything else of use to us, I started off on the return journey. It was now dark, and I was able to walk along without fear of being seen. Of course, I was taking the table with me. I decided to come back later for the coal, with a few sandbags for filling, so I covered it over and hid it as much as possible. (Sensation: Ali Baba returns from the forest.) I started off with the table. I had about three-quarters of a mile to go. Every hundred yards I had to sit down and rest. A table is a horrible thing to accompany one on a mile walk.

I reached the chateau again, and out into the fields beyond, resting with my burden about three times before I got to the road which led straight on to our trenches. My task was a bit harder now, as I was in full view of the German trenches. Had it been daylight they could have seen me quite easily.

Fortunately it was dark, but, of course, star shells would show one up quite distinctly. I staggered on down the road with the green table on my back, pausing as little as possible, but a rest had to be taken, and this at a very exposed part of the road. I put the table down and sat panting on the top. A white streak shot into the air--a star shell.

Curse! I sprang off the green top and waltzed with my four-legged wooden octopus into the ditch at the side, where I lay still, waiting for the light to die out. Suspense over. I went on again.

At last I got back with that table and pushed it into our hovel under the sack doorway.

Immense success! "Just the thing we wanted!"

We all sat down to dinner that night in the approved fashion, whilst I, with the air of a conspirator, narrated the incredible story of the vast Eldorado of coal which I had discovered, and, over our shrimp paste and biscuits we discussed plans for its removal.

[Illustration: "Take away me rank and honour, but give me a bag of coke."]

CHAPTER XIV

THE AMPHIBIANS--FED UP, BUT DETERMINED --THE GUN PARAPET

So you see, life in our cottage was quite interesting and adventurous in its way. At night our existence was just the same as before; all the normal work of trench life. Making improvements to our trenches led to endless work with sandbags, planks, dug-outs, etc. My particular job was mostly improving machine-gun positions, or selecting new sites and carrying out removals,

"BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER.

MACHINE GUNS REMOVED AT SHORTEST NOTICE.

ATTACKS QUOTED FOR."

And so the long dark dreary nights went on. The men garrisoning the little cracked-up village lived mostly in cellars. Often on my rounds, during a rainy, windy, mournful night, I would look into a cellar and see a congested mass of men playing cards by the light of a candle stuck on a tin lid. A favourite form of illumination I came across was a lamp made out of an empty tobacco tin, rifle oil for the illuminant, and a bit of a shirt for a wick!

People who read all these yarns of mine, and who have known the war in later days, will say, "Ah, how very different it was then to now." In my last experiences in the war I have watched the enormous changes creeping in. They began about July, 1915. My experiences since that date were very interesting; but I found that much of the romance had left the trenches. The old days, from the beginning to July, 1915, were all so delightfully precarious and primitive. Amateurish trenches and rough and ready life, which to my mind gave this war what it sadly needs--a touch of romance.

Way back there, in about January, 1915, our soldiers had a perfectly unique test of human endurance against appalling climatic conditions.

They lived in a vast bog, without being able to utilize modern contrivances for making the tight against adverse conditions anything like an equal contest. And yet I wouldn't have missed that time for anything, and I'm sure they wouldn't either.

Those who have not actually had to experience it, or have not had the opportunity to see what our men "stuck out" in those days, will never fully grasp the reality.

One night a company commander came to me in the village and told me he had got a bit of trench under his control which was altogether impossible to hold, and he wanted me to come along with him to look at it, and see if I could do anything in the way of holding the position by machine guns. His idea was that possibly a gun might be fixed in such a place behind so as to cover the frontage occupied by this trench. I came along with him to have a look and see what could be done. He and I went up the rain-soaked village street and out on to the field beyond. It was as dark as pitch, and about 11 p.m. Occasional shots cracked out of the darkness ahead from the German trenches, and I remember one in particular that woke us up a bit. A kind of derelict road-roller stood at one side of the field, and as we passed this, walking pretty close together, a bullet whizzed between us. I don't know which head it was nearest to, but it was quite near enough for both of us. We went on across the field for about two hundred yards, out towards a pile of ruins which had once been a barn, and which stood between our lines and the Germans.

Near this lay the trench which he had been telling me about. It was quite the worst I have ever seen. A number of men were in it, standing and leaning, silently enduring the following conditions. It was quite dark. The enemy was about two hundred yards away, or rather less. It was raining, and the trench contained over three feet of water. The men, therefore, were standing up to the waist in water. The front parapet was nothing but a rough earth mound which, owing to the water about, was practically non-existent. Their rifles lay on the saturated mound in front. They were all wet through and through, with a great deal of their equipment below the water at the bottom of the trench. There they were, taking it all as a necessary part of the great game; not a grumble nor a comment.

The company commander and I at once set about scheming out an alternative plan. Some little distance back we found a cellar which had once been below a house. Now there was no house, so by standing in the cellar one got a view along the ground and level with it. This was the very place for a machine gun. So we decided on fixing one there and making a sort of roof over a portion of the cellar for the gunners to live in. After about a couple of hours' work we completed this arrangement, and then removed the men, who, it was arranged, should leave the trenches that night and go back to our billets for a rest, till the next time up. We weren't quite content with the total safety of our one gun in that cellar, so we started off on a further idea.

Our trenches bulged out in a bit of a salient to the right of the rotten trench, and we decided to mount another gun at a certain projection in our lines so as to enfilade the land across which the other gun would fire.

On inspecting the projected site we found it was necessary to make rather an abnormally high parapet to stand the gun on. No sandbags to spare, of course, so the question was, "What shall we make a parapet of?"

We plodded off back to the village and groped around the ruins for something solid and high enough to carry the gun. After about an hour's climbing about amongst debris in the dark, and hauling ourselves up into remnants of attics, etc., we came upon a sewing machine. It was one of that sort that's stuck on a wooden table with a treadle arrangement underneath. We saw an idea at a glance. Pull off the sewing machine, and use the table. It was nearly high enough, and with just three or four sandbags we felt certain it would do. We performed the necessary surgical operation on the machine, and taking it in turns, padded off down to the front line trench. We had a bit of a job with that table.

The parapet was a jumbled assortment of sandbags, clay, and old bricks from the neighbouring barn: but we finally got a good sound parapet made, and in about another hour's time had fixed a machine gun, with plenty of ammunition, in a very unattractive position from the Boche point of view. We all now felt better, and I'm certain that the men who held that trench felt better too. But I am equally certain that they would have stayed there _ad lib_ even if we hadn't thought of and carried out an alternative arrangement. A few more nights of rain, danger and discomfort, then the time would come for us to be relieved, and those same men would be back at billets, laughing, talking and smoking, buoyant as ever.

CHAPTER XV

ARRIVAL OF THE "JOHNSONS"--"WHERE DID THAT ONE GO?"--THE FIRST FRAGMENT DISPATCHED--THE EXODUS--WHERE?

Shortly after these events we experienced rather a nasty time in the village. It had been decided, way back somewhere at headquarters, that it was essential to hold the village in a stronger way than we had been doing. More men were to be kept there, and a series of trenches dug in and around it, thus forming means for an adequate defence should disaster befall our front line trenches, which lay out on a radius of about five hundred yards from the centre of the village. This meant working parties at night, and a pretty considerable collection of soldiers lurking in cavities in various ruined buildings by day.

Anyone will know that when a lot of soldiers congregate in a place it is almost impossible to prevent someone or other being seen, or smoke from some fire showing, or, even worse, a light visible at night from some imperfectly shuttered house.

At all events, something or other gave the Boches the tip, and we soon knew they had got their attention on our village.

Each morning as we clustered round our little green table and had our breakfast, we invariably had about half a dozen rounds of 18-pounders crash around us with varying results, but one day, as we'd finished our meal and all sat staring into the future, we suddenly caught the sound of something on more corpulent lines arriving. That ponderous, slow rotating whistle of a "Johnson" caught our well-trained ears; a pause!

then a reverberating, hollow-sounding "crumph!" We looked at each other.

"Heavies!" we all exclaimed.

"Look out! here comes another!" and sure enough there it was, that gargling crescendo of a whistle followed by a mighty crash, considerably nearer.

We soon decided that our best plan was to get out of the house, and stay in the ditch twenty yards away until it was over.

A house is an unwholesome spot to be in when there's shelling about. Our funk hole was all right for whizz-bangs and other fireworks of that sort, but no use against these portmanteaux they were now sending along.

Well, to resume; they put thirteen heavies into that village in pretty quick time. One old ruin was set on fire, and I felt the consequent results would be worse than just losing the building; as all the men in it had to rush outside and keep darting in and out through the flames and smoke, trying to save their rifles and equipment.

After a bit we returned into the house--a trifle prematurely, I'm afraid--as presently a pretty large line in explosive drainpipes landed close outside, and, as we afterwards discovered, blew out a fair-sized duck pond in the road. We were all inside, and I think nearly every one said a sentence which gave me my first idea for a _Fragment from France_. A sentence which must have been said countless times in this war, _i.e._, "Where did that one go?"

We were all inside the cottage now, with intent, staring faces, looking outside through the battered doorway. There was something in the whole situation which struck me as so pathetically amusing, that when the ardour of the Boches had calmed down a bit, I proceeded to make a pencil sketch of the situation. When I got back to billets the next time I determined to make a finished wash drawing of the scene, and send it to some paper or other in England. In due course we got back to billets, and the next morning I fished out my scanty drawing materials from my valise, and sitting at a circular table in one of the rooms at the farm, I did a finished drawing of "Where did that one go," occasionally looking through the window on to a mountain of manure outside for inspiration.

The next thing was to send it off. What paper should I send it to? I had had a collection of papers sent out to me at Christmas time from some one or other. A few of these were still lying about. A _Bystander_ was amongst them. I turned over the pages and considered for a bit whether my illustrated joke might be in their line. I thought of several other papers, but on the whole concluded that the _Bystander_ would suit for the purpose, and so, having got the address off the cover, I packed up my drawing round a roll of old paper, enclosed it in brown paper, and put it out to be posted at the next opportunity. In due course it went to the post, and I went to the trenches again, forgetting all about the incident.

Next time in the trenches was full of excitement. We had done a couple of days of the endless mud, rain, and bullet-dodging work when suddenly one night we heard we were to be relieved and go elsewhere. Every one then thought of only one thing--where were we going? We all had different ideas. Some said we were bound for Ypres, which we heard at that time was a pretty "warm" spot; some said La Bassee was our destination--"warm," but not quite as much so as Ypres. Wild rumours that we were going to Egypt were of course around; they always are.

Chapter end

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