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Bullets & Billets Part 9

I now started my fresco act on the walls of the Douve farm.

I spent most of the day on the job, and discovered how some startling effects could be produced.

Materials were: A bottle of Indian ink, a couple of brushes, about a hundredweight of useless charcoal, and a G.S. blue and red pencil.

Amongst the rough sketches that I did that day were the original drawings for two subsequent "Fragments" of mine.

One was the rough idea for "They've evidently seen me," and the other was "My dream for years to come." The idea for "They've evidently seen me" came whilst carrying back that table to St. Yvon, as I mentioned in a previous chapter, but the scenario for the idea was not provided for until I went to this farm some time later. In intervals of working at the walls I rambled about the farm building, and went up into a loft over a barn at the end of the farm nearest the trenches. I looked out through a hole in the tiles just in time to hear a shell come over from away back amongst the Germans somewhere, and land about five hundred yards to the left. The sentence, "They've evidently seen me," came flashing across my mind again, and I now saw the correct setting in my mind: _i.e._, the enthusiastic observer looking out of the top of a narrow chimney, whilst a remarkably well-aimed shell leads "him of the binoculars" to suppose that they _have_ seen him.

I came downstairs and made a pencil sketch of my idea, and before I left the trenches that time I had done a wash drawing and sent it to England.

This was my second "Fragment."

The other sketch, "My dream for years to come," was drawn on one wall of a small apple or potato room, opening off our big room, and the drawing occupied the whole wall.

[Illustration: porters]

I knocked off drawing about four o'clock, and did a little of the alternative occupation, that of looking out through the cracked windows on to the mutilated courtyard in front. It was getting darker now, and nearing the time when I had to put on all my tackle, and gird myself up for my round of the trenches. As soon as it was nearly dark I started out. The other officers generally left a bit later, but as I had such a long way to go, and as I wanted to examine the country while there was yet a little light, I started at dusk. Not yet knowing exactly how much the enemy could see on the open mud flat, I determined to go along by the river bank, and by keeping among the trees I hoped to escape observation. I made for the Douve, and soon got along as far as the row of farms. I explored all these, and a shocking sight they were. All charred and ruined, and the skeleton remains slowly decomposing away into the unwholesome ground about them. I went inside several of the dismantled rooms. Nearly all contained old and battered bits of soldiers' equipment, empty tins, and remnants of Belgian property. Sad relics of former billeting: a living reminder of the rough times that had preceded our arrival in this locality. I passed on to another farm, and entered the yard near the river. It was nearly full of black wooden crosses, roughly made and painted over with tar. All that was left to mark the graves of those who had died to get our trenches where they were--at the bottom of the Messines ridge. A bleak and sombre winter's night, that courtyard of the ruined farm, the rows of crosses--I often think of it all now.

As the darkness came on I proceeded towards the trenches, and when it had become sufficiently dark I entered the old farm by the reserve trench and crossed the yard to enter the field which led to the first of our trenches. At St. Yvon it was pretty airy work, going the rounds at night, but this was a jolly sight more so. The country was far more open, and although the Boches couldn't see us, yet they kept up an incessant sniping demonstration. Picking up my sergeant at Number 1 trench, he and I started on our tour.

We made a long and exhaustive examination that night, both of the existing machine-gun emplacements and of the entire ground, with a view to changing our positions. It was a long time before I finally left the trenches and started off across the desolate expanse to the Douve farm, and I was dead beat when I arrived there. On getting into the big room I found the Colonel, who had just come in. "Where's that right-hand gun of yours, Bairnsfather?" he asked. "Down on the right of Number 2 trench, sir," I answered; "just by the two willows near the sap which runs out towards Number 1." "It's not much of a place for it," he said; "where we ought to have it is to the right of the sap, so that it enfilades the whole front of that trench." "When do you want it moved, sir?" I asked.

"Well, it ought to be done at once; it's no good where it is."

That fixed it. I knew what he wanted; so I started out again, back over the mile and a half to alter the gun. It was a weary job; but I would have gone on going back and altering the whole lot for our Colonel, who was the best line in commanding officers I ever struck. Every one had the most perfect confidence in him. He was the most shell, bullet, and bomb defying person I have ever seen. When I got back for the second time that night I was quite ready to roll up in the straw, and be lulled off to sleep by the cracking rifle fire outside.

CHAPTER XIX

VISIONS OF LEAVE--DICK TURPIN--LEAVE!

Our first time in the Douve trenches was mainly uneventful, but we all decided it was not as pleasant as St. Yvon. For my part, it was fifty per cent. worse than St. Yvon; but I was now buoyed up by a new light in the sky, which made the first time in more tolerable than it might otherwise have been. It was getting near my turn for leave! I had been looking forward to this for a long time, but there were many who had to take their turn in front of me, so I had dismissed the case for a bit.

Recently, however, the powers that be had been sending more than one officer away at a time; consequently my turn was rapidly approaching. We came away back to billets in the usual way after our first dose of the Douve, and all wallowed off to our various billeting quarters. I was hot and strong on the leave idea now. It was really getting close and I felt disposed to find everything _couleur de rose_. Even the manure heap in the billeting farm yard looked covered with roses. I could have thrown a bag of confetti at the farmer's wife--it's most exhilarating to think of the coming of one's first leave. One maps out what one will do with the time in a hundred different ways. I was wondering how I could manage to transport my souvenirs home, as I had collected a pretty good supply by this time--shell cases, fuse tops, clogs, and that Boche rifle I got on Christmas Day.

One morning (we had been about two days out) I got a note from the Adjutant to say I could put in my application. I put it in all right and then sat down and hoped for the best.

My spirits were now raised to such a pitch that I again decided to ride to Nieppe--just for fun.

I rode away down the long winding line, smiling at everything on either side--the three-sailed windmill with the top off; the estaminet with the hole through the gable end--all objects seemed to radiate peace and goodwill. There was a very bright sun in the sky that day. I rode down to the high road, and cantered along the grass at the side into Nieppe.

Just as I entered the town I met a friend riding out. He shouted something at me. I couldn't hear what he said. "What?" I yelled.

"All leave's cancelled!"

That was enough for me. I rode into Nieppe like an infuriated cowboy. I went straight for the divisional headquarters, flung away the horse and dashed up into the building. I knew one or two of the officers there.

"What's this about leave?" I asked. "All about to be cancelled," was the reply. "If you're quick, you may get yours through, as you've been out here long enough, and you're next to go." "What have I got to do?" I screamed. "Go to your Colonel, and ask him to wire the Corps headquarters and ask them to let you go; only you'll have to look sharp about it."

He needn't have told me that. He had hardly finished before I was outside and making for my horse. I got out of Nieppe as quickly as I could, and lit out for our battalion headquarters. About four miles to go, but I lost no time about it. "Leave cancelled!" I hissed through the triangular gap in my front tooth, as I galloped along the road; "leave cancelled!"

I should have made a good film actor that day: "Dick Turpin's ride to York" in two reels. I reached the turning off the high road all right, and pursued my wild career down the lanes which led to the Colonel's headquarters. The road wound about in a most ridiculous way, making salients out of ploughed fields on either side. I decided to throw all prudence to the winds, and cut across these. My horse evidently thought this an excellent idea, for as soon as he got on the fields he was off like a trout up stream. Most successful across the first salient, then, suddenly, I saw we were approaching a wide ditch. Leave _would_ be cancelled as far as I was concerned if I tried to jump that, I felt certain. I saw a sort of a narrow bridge about fifty yards to the right.

Tried to persuade the horse to make for it. No, he believed in the ditch idea, and put on a sprint to jump it. Terrific battle between Dick Turpin and Black Bess!

A foaming pause on the brink of the abyss. Dick Turpin wins the argument, and after a few prancing circles described in the field manages to cross the bridge with his fiery steed. I then rode down the road into the little village. The village school had been turned into a battalion stores, and the quartermaster-sergeant was invariably to be found there. I dismounted and pulled my horse up a couple of steps into the large schoolroom. Tied him up here, and last saw him blowing clouds of steam out of his nose on to one of those maps which show interesting forms of vegetable life with their Latin names underneath. Now for the Colonel. I clattered off down the street to his temporary orderly room.

Thank heaven, he was in! I explained the case to him. He said he would do his best, and there and then sent off a wire. I could do no more now, so after fixing up that a message should be sent me, I slowly retraced my steps to the school, extracted the horse, and wended my way slowly back to the Transport Farm. Here I languished for the rest of the day, feeling convinced that "all leave was cancelled." I sat down to do some sketching after tea, full of marmalade and depression. About 6 p.m. I chucked it, and went and sat by the stove, smoking a pipe. Suddenly the door opened and a bicycle orderly came in: "There's a note from the Adjutant for you, sir."

I tore it open. "Your leave granted; you leave to-morrow. If you call here in the morning, I'll give you your pass."

LEAVE!!

CHAPTER XX

THAT LEAVE TRAIN--MY OLD PAL--LONDON AND HOME--THE CALL OF THE WILD

One wants to have been at the front, in the nasty parts, to appreciate fully what getting seven days' leave feels like. We used to have to be out at the front for three consecutive months before being entitled to this privilege. I had passed this necessary apprenticeship, and now had actually got my leave.

[Illustration: Leave!!!]

The morning after getting my instructions I rose early, and packed the few things I was going to take with me. Very few things they were, too.

Only a pack and a haversack, and both contained nothing but souvenirs. I decided to go to the station via the orderly room, so that I could do both in one journey. I had about two miles to go from my billets to the orderly room in the village, and about a mile on from there to the station. Some one suggested my riding--no fear; I was running no risks now. I started off early with my servant. We took it in shifts with my heavy bags of souvenirs. One package (the pack) had four "Little Willie"

cases inside, in other words, the cast-iron shell cases for the German equivalent of our 18-pounders. The haversack was filled with aluminium fuse tops and one large piece of a "Jack Johnson" shell case. My pockets--and I had a good number, as I was wearing my greatcoat--were filled with a variety of objects. A pair of little clogs found in a roof at St. Yvon, several clips of German bullets removed from equipment found on Christmas Day, and a collection of bullets which I had picked out with my pocket knife from the walls of our house in St. Yvon. The only additional luggage to this inventory I have given was my usual copious supply of Gold Flake cigarettes, of which, during my life in France, I must have consumed several army corps.

It was a glorious day--bright, sunny, and a faint fresh wind. Everything seemed bright and rosy. I felt I should have liked to skip along the road like a young bay tree--no, that's wrong--like a ram, only I didn't think it would be quite the thing with my servant there (King's Regulations: Chapter 158, paragraph 96, line 4); besides, he wasn't going on leave, so it would have been rather a dirty trick after all.

[Illustration]

We got to the village with aching arms and souvenirs intact. I got my pass, and together with another officer we set out for the station. It was a leave train. Officers from all sorts of different battalions were either in it or going to get in, either here or at the next stop.

Having no wish to get that station into trouble, or myself either, by mentioning its name, I will call it Creme de Menthe. It was the same rotten little place I had arrived at. It is only because I am trying to sell the "station-master" a copy of this book that I call the place a station at all. It really is a decomposing collection of half-hearted buildings and moss-grown rails, with an apology for a platform at one side.

We caught the train with an hour to spare. You can't miss trains in France: there's too much margin allowed on the time-table. The 10.15 leaves at 11.30, the 11.45 at 2.20, and so on; besides, if you did miss your train, you could always catch it up about two fields away, so there's nothing to worry about.

We started. I don't know what time it was.

If you turn up the word "locomotion" in a dictionary, you will find it means "the act or power of moving from place to place"; from _locus_, a place, and _motion_, the act of moving. Our engine had got the _locus_ part all right, but was rather weak about the _motion_. We creaked and squeaked about up the moss-grown track, and groaned our way back into the station time after time, in order to tie on something else behind the train, or to get on to a siding to let a trainload of trench floorboards and plum and apple jangle past up the line. When at last we really started, it was about at the speed of the "Rocket" on its trial trip.

Our enthusiastic "going on leave" ardour was severely tested, and nearly broke down before we reached Boulogne, which we did late that night. But getting there, and mingling with the leave-going crowd which thronged the buffet, made up for all travelling shortcomings. Every variety of officer and army official was represented there. There were colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants, quantities of private soldiers, sergeants and corporals, hospital nurses and various other people employed in some war capacity or other. Representatives from every branch of the Army, in fact, whose turn for leave had come.

I left the buffet for a moment to go across to the Transport Office, and walking along through the throng ran into my greatest friend. A most extraordinary chance this! I had not the least idea whereabouts in France he was, or when he might be likely to get leave. His job was in quite a different part, many miles from the Douve. I have known him for many years; we were at school together, and have always seemed to have the lucky knack of bobbing up to the surface simultaneously without prior arrangement. This meeting sent my spirits up higher than ever. We both adjourned to the buffet, and talked away about our various experiences to the accompaniment of cold chicken and ham. A merry scene truly, that buffet--every one filled with thoughts of England. Nearly every one there must have stepped out of the same sort of mud and danger bath that I had. And, my word! it is a first-class feeling: sitting about waiting for the boat when you feel you've earned this seven days'

leave. You hear men on all sides getting the last ounce of appreciation out of the unique sensation by saying such things as, "Fancy those poor blighters, sitting in the mud up there; they'll be just about getting near 'Stand to' now."

You rapidly dismiss a momentary flash in your mind of what it's going to be like in that buffet on the return journey.

Early in the morning, and while it was still dark, we left the harbour and ploughed out into the darkness and the sea towards England.

Chapter end

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