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Criterion Miscellany - No 16. Ambush, Herbert Read, Faber & Faber
Snow falling all night: in the morning the world will be white. The earth will be covered with a nice new coat of paint, to hide the scars and pockmarks. For the earth is in a bad way-a battered old scarecrow, blackened, ragged, her fingers and toes all splintered. Oh such a mess!
Sanctuary Wood: the god of this sacred place is Moloch, and he is a very fierce old god, and people say that to seek sanctuary in his arms is to say goodbye to your beloved's. His sanctuary a wood, a dark gloomy glade, full of caves and ditches. If you wait till daylight you will find that the trees have no branches, but are whiskered with splinters. Tatterdemalion trees, you might say; all higgledy-piggledy, like darts in a target. An acre of frenzied brushwood. It is the worst place in the Salient (the Salient, not a salient: just as we say the Cross when we mean a cross on which mankind is crucified).
A salient is a secret symbol. As the war stiffened its hold on men's imaginations and became, not a controllable event but a ravage that must mount the scale of fever and slowly fall, the Salient became a fixed idea. To maintain this thrust in the enemy's side was the insane will of a whole army. It was not justified in a strategic sense. It was a blind impulse, to which hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed.
If you are established at the point of a salient, it means that you can be fired on from almost every direction. On both flanks the enemy stretches behind you, and from rising ground can shoot into your back. The ordinary defenses of trench warfare are useless: there is no distinction between parados and parapet; none between front and flank. You must make the best of a circle. The circle will in effect become a moated mound, with deepset caves in its sides. But it is futile to dig down into this flat spongey earth; that is only worth while if you want wells to drown rats in. The water is everywhere.
The mound is therefore pierced with low caverns just above the level of the ground. These caverns are about three feet high: it is impossible to sit up in them. You can crawl in to sleep and to suffocate, but when your lungs are bursting, or the desire for food or the needs of nature draw you out, then you must walk into an ambush of snipers. Naturally whatever possible is done by night; in the day the sentries crawl out like snakes over the duckboards to relieve one another. And now and then an officer slides out on his rounds to see that all is well and to make observations.
But naturally the enemy has concentrated his best snipers in this area. It offers the best sport on the Western Front, and it is a poor day on which each rifle cannot be credited with a couple of men.
When the earth is white, the dugout entrances show up like black holes, and when a man crawls out over the white duckboards, he is as clearly visible as a hare in the snow. White overalls are requisitioned: they will make the chances more even.
But it is nervy business for a raw subaltern. The first time he goes out in the daylight, a shot from the front cracks like a whip in his ear. He draws in his breath and the blood deserts his face. Immediately the air cracks behind him and a bullet ricochets from the bank he faces.
Terror melts his limbs. He falls to the ground grasps the rungs of the duckboard.
He had forgotten. He had not realized that death could be so imminent, waiting for him round the corner, his first day in the front line. They had said to him: You must crawl. But it is not easy to remember to crawl; it is not an attitude that comes natural to a man.
He had reconnoitreed the post with the Company
Commander during, the night. It was not complicated: an incomplete circle with four posts at intervals sheltered coigns from which two men would be watching through a narrow slit in an armored plate. Every three hours they must be visited and reports collected.
He crawled to the first one, and from the first to the second, and then from the second to the third. 'If you keep your head down you can walk along to the next post,' they told him at the third post. He would be glad to crouch for a change. Already his knees and arms were sodden with the snow. He paused and leaned against the walls of the trench. The sky was gray above him; a few black shattered boles shone out of the white scene with negative intensity. The duckboards stretched in front of him in the wide shallow trench, leading to a dugout whose mounded roof made an almost perfect dome.
A tall figure emerged from the dugout.
Perhaps twenty yards away.
It was Corporal Costello. He recognized his red hatchet face and dark sloe eyes. He came from Cleveland and had been in the same company in the early days at the training camp.
He was holding a mess-tin in his hand and intent on some purpose or other. He looked up. Again that infernal crack in the still air. A cry. Corporal Costello lay on the duckboards.
He was shot through the neck. He was full-blooded and the blood sprang out in jets and stained the snow.
Tourniquet, tourniquet. The word went singing 'through the subaltern's head. Tourniquet, tourniquet. That's how you stop the flow of blood. Other men had emerged from the dugout and they were dragging the Corporal into the shelter of the parapet. One of them pressed his thumb below the bleeding wound. It was no use. The blood would flow. They bandaged his neck, but whilst they worked the Corporal's face turned purple and the death rattle issued from his torn throat.
The subaltern could not stir. He was fascinated and sick. He stayed rooted there until the men had laid their comrade softly in the snow, and covered his stiffening body with a waterproof sheet. Then he let his numb hands fall from the side of the frozen trench. His stomach retched. Opposite he noticed a piece of raw board, roughly lettered with the word 'Latrine'. He stumbled down the shallow trench and held his face over a bucket. The sickness passed. Perhaps one nausea cures another. Everywhere there was the stink of chloride of lime: they put it on excrement and dead alike.
Back in the line again he glanced down to where the dead Corporal lay. There was such a wide red stain on the white earth, and nothing merciful to cover it from the eyes of the Corporal's friends. His body lay stiff all that day under a waterproof sheet by the side of the trench. At night they would take it down the line to bury.
These were quiet days in the Salient. 'You are lucky,' said the Company Commander, later in the day, 'not to come in for a strafe. It is the quietest turn we've had for months.'
Snow fell again in the night. Will it cover all that blood? wondered the subaltern. Or will the stain spread?
You could tell, from the nervous lines that were now -etched round his eyes, that youth had lost its innocence.
The snow fell all night and the following day. On his round, the new subaltern came to the spot where Costello had been killed. They had taken his body away in the night. But the blood was still there, staining the snow.
The subaltern was unreasonably angry. He went to
the dugout entrance and shouted: 'You there!' A tousled head appeared. 'Why the hell can't you put some chloride of lime on this bloody mess?'
Man, Melodion, Snowflakes
LINEN dries on the hedgerow, white linen white as snow. I stand among the still, the listening trees, my eyes wide as the white clematis. This garden is a green well, ragged with the drooping stillness. Slowly the weights of my body lift and leave me: the weight of my legs is in the trunks of trees, and of my arms in the branches of trees; the weight of my entrails flows on the lawn, and the shell of my body is among the crinkled leaves. My thinking self, aerie and weightless, fills the old green well of trees. Overflows into the space beyond.
In the same sector of time a thousand and a thousand and many a thousand bodies were dissolving in the salt wetness of earth. They had all been killed, warring against one another; and within the boundaries of time all their woes will never be told.
Some of these poor souls, still alive, were marching through a village, at winter-time, towards dusk. Breath issued from their nostrils in angry plumes; while the soil exhaled wreaths of blue mushroom mist that coveted the hollows of the fields and the edge of woods. The men moved in the moist steamy smell of wet worsted, as once the child Jesus lay in the warm breath of an ox and an ass.
But that is only my way of beginning. Now listen to the real tale. A battalion of soldiers was marching through a village. They straggled. It was winter-time, towards dusk, and somewhere outside the village the head of the column halted. The colonel had calculated that by the time the battalion had contracted to its proper length, they would be clear of all the houses. He. could then send a messenger back to fetch cigarettes and chewing-gum. But when the column had given its last spasmodic jerk, the tail was still in the village. So it came about that some men halted in the shelter of the narrow street, with the yellow lights beginning to shine from windows.
Men shuffled their packs off, and fell out on the side of the road. They peered into the warm interiors and saw-perhaps a woman bent over the ironing-board, beneath the drying sage; perhaps an old man winding up the clock.
But one man had stayed in isolation on the road. He was tall, with a small and round red face, protruding white eyes, and a pinched little snout. He was carrying a melodion about with him.
A cloud was gathering in the sky ahead. The cold frosty air thickened with fog as the evening fell.
The man with the melodion listened with an ear to his instrument. He was playing very softly, with an occasional burst of louder notes.
A group of women and children had gathered round the resting men. They watched the man with the melodion. Suddenly the music broke into loud wailing. The man had long), legs, and danced like an elf, pointing his toes at the trees and the stars and the stones and the glistening pools on the road.
The women talked among themselves. Some giggled, some tittered. 'Well, I never!' they said, again and again.
'To think they can be so gay and feckless, and death round the corner, so to say,' said an old dame with a shawl round her white head.
The other men sat on the pavement, their backs against the house-walls. They were used to the antics of the man, and only smiled. 'Oh, he's a one, he is,' they
explained to the women.
The cloud ahead grew darker. The Colonel looked up anxiously. Better be getting on, he thought.
The men at the head of the column suddenly sprang up and began to saddle on their packs. The movement spread down the road; reached the melodion which gave a wild cry and died away.
'They're off,' said the women.
The men in front were moving already. The rest scrambled up and lurched in their track.
The man with the melodion was left a few paces behind. He pulled himself together, and with his hands in the straps of his instrument, stole forward with long elastic steps. Quietly, gaily, to himself, he played a tune.
The cloud stretched forward across the column. A wreath of it seemed to swing across the sky. Then snowflakes began to fall into the mist, and into the golden window-lights which shot across the street.
The women watched the battalion making its way along the road, lurching and swaying like a melodion.
They shuddered, and cried at the falling snowflakes. 'Come in,' they cried, 'before you get your deaths of cold.'
A MAN dwells in a security of darkness-the inner darness of sleep and the outer darkness of the dugout. But not for long. At 7.20 a.m. the earth he dwelt in began to throb with a dull incessant tremor, like the piston-pounding of some infernal engine in the black bowels of Earth. Hammers of Vulcan. Piston-throbs of the revolving world.
Louder were the intermittent kraoump, kraoump of nearer shells falling, marking the time of this infernal symphony.
Kraoush! Danvers hurtled into darkness like a diver from a height into a wet dark sea. That one was near! He could hear the debris falling in a shower at the dug,out entrance. Then he felt the tremor of the ground and heard the kraoump-kraoump. Hell! A barrage. He must get up. His limbs were cold and numb, and his clothes were clammy cold: he had had them on for goodness knows how long. The stink of that shell penetrated into the dugout. He fumbled for a match, and whilst he fumbled the sergeant-major came in with a light. His face was shiny and excited and his contracted pupils rolled about like beads on a white saucer.
'We're for it,' he cried, as he stuck the candle on the -shelf. 'The buggers are pelting us like hell. S.O.S. on right and left. Shall I put ours up?'
'Yes.' Danvers lurched off the wire bed-frame. His teeth chattered and he couldn't stop them. Involuntary shivers passed down his body. He must control himself: he must go out and see his men. Set an example. Duty He sipped a tot of rum and felt its flame within his belly: He reached for his tin-hat and his revolver.
This damned Salient! But you can't expect a soft time always, and they had had six months down Arras way. They knew they were for it when they came north. Now evidently they had got it. The previous night they had relieved the remnants of a battalion which had attacked and taken the ridge they now held. And this was the not unexpected counter-attack.
His battalion was the right battalion of the division. His right rested on a sunken road which pierced the line at right-angles. On his left was 'C' Company. Then the next battalion held the scarred stumps of a wood: Devil's Wood. 'D' Company, with Flint in command, held a position seven hundred yards behind at the foot of the ridge.
Danvers emerged into the riotous open. The earth was in eruption. An almost uniform din, compounded of separate heavy detonations, quivered in the air. The earth gushed up in sudden sprays. Bitter smoke clouds drifted down into the valley, obscuring all but the immediate environment. Ah I The shell that had awakened him fell there. Three untidy inert corpses. There was no regular trench to proceed along; just a ragged joining of shell-holes. He stumbled towards the right. Baistow would be there with his platoon. A reliable fellow, Baistow. Liked by the men. There was an infernal babbling of machine-guns on the right. The Boche must be in sight there. If so, the barrage would be lifting. Our barrage was damned poor. Eugh! Dudd! A great heavy ball of blood shot to his gullet as he drew his body taut to receive the expected detonation. The thing furrowed the ground not two yards from his feet.
Did he Harmless enough. But God! What a fright. Did heduck? Well, it was only natural. He looked at his men. They lay cowering on their bellies, their throbbing hearts pressed to the slimy soil. A shell burst fifty yards further on. It must be in the trench. Might as well go on. Next one might drop where I stand now. All a matter of chance.
He came to the crater of that last shell. Yes, poor fellows, two or three lay bleeding, debris among debris. And God, yes! Baistow. Rolled up like a kitten, but dead, most evidently dead.
A sudden cry on the right. Fierce fusillade. A hatless, bleeding man running towards him. Yes? 'Fritz coming down the road behind us': that was intelligible above the din. The division on the right had given way. Now they were outflanked. God, the case looked hopeless! He drew his revolver. No good leaving all these men where they were. He detailed a Lewis-gun team to cover the road. They wouldn't be seen again, but that couldn't be helped. Good death-saving their mates. They might get captured. He gave orders for the rest to withdraw to the left. There was a bank further down that switched off behind them. They might make a protecting flank there. The barrage had now ceased on the front line. They were pounding the supports. Poor Flint.
They got back to the bank, about 20 of them. The two platoons on the left seemed to be all right so far. No sign of any Boches in front. The thought had hardly completed itself when a flight of machine-gun bullets came whistling overhead from the left rear. Devil's Wood had gone! The plan was clear now. Their front was to be taken by outflanking tactics. They were almost surrounded. They must hold on until the counter attack was launched. He sent a runner back to Headquarters with a message: they couldn't hold out for long: the counter-attack must be immediate.
They crouched on the trembling earth, waiting. The barrage had died down considerably on the right. All objectives gained, no doubt. On the left it was as riotous as ever. He looked at his watch. Ten o'clock. For two hours and forty minutes he had been unconscious of time: he had existed in a different duration, a duration measured in agonies.
A sudden uproar of machine-guns and rifles. After all, they were making a frontal attack. There on the left, hundreds of them, their advance covered by the machine-guns in Devils Wood. No shells. Mulitudinous crackling and burr of rifle-fire. There! Half-left, over the crest, they came. Hundreds. His Lewis-gun on the left opened on them. He could see them failing; now one, then two or three in a heap. The Lewis-gun suddenly stopped. Stoppage? Or the team knocked out? He couldn't tell. The guns in Devil's Wood were sweeping along the line. They tremblingly crouched into their shallow shelters. The enemy came on. On the left they were in the line. He could see a few men running back. Others surrendering, overwhelmed. It was bloody. There was no movement on the right. On the left by now the Boches were in possession as far as the junction of Danvers' switch line with the main line. He could see a Boche helmet, not two hundred yards away.
The rifle fire had died away. Then our barrage opened on the old line. Damnably near to them. The shells were falling as near as twenty yards in front of Danvers. They must be right on the fellows further on the left.
There was only one thing to be done. The bank they held made the dip of the slope behind pretty steep and hollow. Ten yards further down and they would be in 'dead' ground. It was worth chancing. And as they were they would only be captured or blown to hell by their own artillery. But they must not go in a body: they must trickle down one by one. He made his intention known to a corporal who was sharing a shell-hole with him. There were a few men nearer the line who wouldn't get down. Still, the enemy were crouching in terror of the descending shells. The corporal crept out to the right: Danvers went to the left. There was no difficulty in getting his intention known. The men were very uneasy at the nearness of the shells, and most of them had already formed the intention: they were only waiting for the lead.
Danvers reckoned there were about fifteen got safety down. There could not have been many more to come.
From the hollow of the slope it was about 150 yards -to the line held by the support companies. They paused to get their breath and nerve. Then they trickled across.
Danvers stumbled right on to Flint. They clasped hands, but didn't say anything. Danvers lay back exhausted.
Shortly afterwards they received orders to make a counter-attack at 5 p.m. in conjunction with the troops on the left and right. The ----th Brigade had been ordered up to reinforce the counter-attack, but it was doubtful if it would be in position by that time. At any rate, at five o'clock they must go forward with the remainder of the line.
A strange but blessed stillness came over the scene, as though the guns had vomited themselves to death. The men lay on the wet earth, some of them listlessly eating food they happened to possess.
Danvers had sunk into a dazed reverie, sleepless and bitter. The day's riot still tingled in his brain: his tingling brain lurched like a pendulum, but without forcing into action his volitional machinery. An image would present itself without, however, getting gripped in any process of thought. The past was a remote elusive mirage, The present was mechanical. He chewed some tinned beef, but without sensation or appetite. He answered Flint's questions monosyllabically.
He gradually sank into a stupor, a tense unconsciousness. Then suddenly he awoke. Flint was there with him, writing out a message. The sky was uniformly gray and dull. He arose and stretched his numb limbs.
From his position he could see the whole of the shallow valley stretching to Devil's Wood on the left horizon. All was black and upriven. In the valley the shell-holes were full of water and reflected the harsh cold sky. Devil's Wood was a naked congregation of shattered trunks, like an old broken comb against the skyline. An emotion-a sudden realization and anger-flushed his brain. This was his earth, earth of green slopes, earth of lithe green trees, earth of vigorous sap and delicate growth.
Now riven and violated; a wide glabrous desolation; a black diseased scab, erupted and pustulous. The black shell-holes were like earthy lips puckered to kiss-lips of Mother Earth, incestuously desirous-parched sucking lips eager for his wet red blood.
He looked at his watch, 4-30. The reinforcements ought to be here if they were going to be any good. No time to get into position. They would have to attack without them. Flint was getting the men ready. He must help Flint.
4.45-Our barrage was to come down at 4,50. No reinforcements. If the people on the right were strong enough, perhaps all would be right.
He joined Flint. 'We'll stick together, old man.' 'Rather.'
The guns opened. The first salvo hurtled and screamed above their heads, followed immediately by the rolling detonations.
'They're dropping short!' The majority of the shells were falling half-way between their position and the enemy's.
'Not thick enough,' shouted Flint.
'No damned good at all.'
The retaliation opened. The arched trajectories crossed. Explosive babel.
'Three more minutes,' shrieked Flint, showing his watch.
Time. The barrage would be lifting.
They left their shallow defenses. Danvers looked ,over the valley. All the way across men were walking forward, rather scattered, like flies crawling across a side of bacon in a grocer's shop.
They were all right for two hundred yards: dead ground of the hollow slope.
On the crest they would meet the machine-guns. Doesn't matter. Clench your teeth.
God! how forlorn they looked. Flies on bacon.
The crest now. They would take it walking. Bodies -pitched forward as in a hailstorm.
They had got it on the left. An infernal racket of
The night, hitherto secretly stealing towards him -made a sudden leap to devour his life with blackness and annihilation.
quid membra imania prosunt of quid geminae viers et quod fortissima rerum in nobis duplex natura animalia junxit ?
Ovid: Metam xii, 501-3
SHE stood with one arm raised to the lintel of the. porch. A honeysuckle twisted its ropy trunk against the wall and overhead broke into a green tangle, sending down a swaying fringe of leaves and waxen flowers. The children surged out of the schoolroom like bees, hesitating on the threshold to look up and bid her a shy 'Good afternoon, Teacher', and then darting swiftly away across the village street. The almsfolk dozing on the benches under the chestnut trees stirred and muttered; cries and screams and laughter had shattered their quiet afternoon. The children skipped and scurried; and gradually melted away, gathered to the sleeping houses The old folks watched the flies hovering in a silent fury against the sheer sun-fall at the edge of the trees. And then dozed again.
The schoolmistress waited till her last scholars had disappeared. She then walked rapidly towards her lodgings; but at the comer of the village street, entranced by the very still warm sunlight, she turned more pensively down a lane that led into the open country, past a few scattered cottages, past the mill, and then along a woodside, separated from the mill-stream by a sloping meadow, very bright with wild flowers. As she reached the shade of the wood, her steps slackened; her attention was given to the mill below-a block of red-tiled buildings with bushy gardens and one immense copperbeech tree set on an island between the mill-dam and the stream. But she was not thinking entirely of the scene; she did not hear the few sounds that came up to the wood: the cries of the guinea-fowl, the subdued roar of ,the mill-race, a man's voice shouting to horses. A deeper feeling preoccupied her; she held one unconscious hand against a letter, slipped into her bodice earlier in the day.
She was glad to enter the shade of the woodside track, where the sun filtered through the branches in splashes .of aqueous gold. She was listless after a day in the hot schoolroom--oppressed by her sorrow, her complete loneliness and the tiresome children under her care. She wanted to find a peace even within this peace-a place where she could come to terms with her immense sorrow.
She stopped by a gateway that led into one of the meadows between the wood and the stream; a sheet of yellow buttercups stretched away on each side; but through the gate by the hedgeside the grass was crisp and dry. If she went and rested on this inviting bank she would not be seen from the mill. She had a great desire to rest, unseen; but the track and the open wood were not inviting.
She lay down, leaning at first on one elbow; and then took out the letter again. She read it calmly, then slipped it back into her bodice. She looked across the meadow, at the cows standing in the sedge, under the willows, flicking their tails. The yellow of the meadow was fierce, seen at this narrow angle. The grasses scarcely stirred round her. She dropped her head back ,on an outstretched arm and looked up into the sky, very 'blue, and at an intensely white cloud motionless there.
The faint fragrance of the meadow, the crepitations of a few insects, a bird in the wood behind-scarcely invaded her senses in this stillness and space. Soon everything was gone, except the cloud. This lambent whiteness seemed to fall till it hovered in the immediate space above her. And then slowly it began to penetrate her. The warmth and the glory and the whiteness possessed all the channels of her flesh and animated them with an unknown life. The ecstasy seized her limbs and in a tremor she awoke. Her senses were for a moment astray. She thought she heard some fleet thing scurry across the fallen cones and twigs of the wood behind her, but when she leaped up in her terror she could distinguish nothing, nothing alive in the depths of the wood or along the reaches of the woodland track.
1. The Coward
It was early summer and the warm sun seemed to reanimate the desolate land. Before one of a group of huts a young subaltern was seated at a table. He was bareheaded and the sun played on the bright yellow strands of his hair. He played nervously with a matchstalk, splintering it with his fingernails, scraping it aimlessly about the table. The sun played on the white bleached wood of the twirling match-stalk and on the dark blistered polish of the table. Nervous fingers rolled the hard stalk between soft plastic flesh. At times everything was very still. The dreamer wandered. The shreds of match-stalk seemed far away, brittle legs of birds, pattering on the hard brown table. The sun was buoyed in some kind of space, hard to conceive; where, too, the mind swayed in utter helplessness.
Why had all the horror suddenly become potent? Lieutenant P- had been in France four months now, and all the time, in some degree, his life had been threatened. He had been sick, sick all the time-but the hunted life had each day sunk into renewing sleep; and day had succeeded day, and somehow the faith had been born that the days would pass in such a succession until the long terror was ended. But the present eventuality had made a difference. He had been selected to lead a raid, along with me, and a volunteer party of about thirty men. This sudden actualization of the diffused terror of our existence had made a difference to my friend. I -could divine it as he sat there in his restless abstraction.
I was lying within the hut, beneath the corrugated -vault of iron. My body was listless, my mind content. I saw P-, crumpled in his chair-his boots drawn under, his untidy puttees, his rounded shoulders and over-big flaxen head. I saw men walking about the ,grassy plot in front of us, and in the sky, an easier reach for my recumbent eyes, a lark, a dot, a lark that was always singing in this region at the time of our stay there. The lark, and the men walking very near on an horizon, were more real to me than the vague wonder about my fate in the raid. I was afraid, but more interested in P-'s fear. I decided that he must in some way be imprisoned in his flesh-despite that mind, floating vacantly in the ether. He was an undersized but thick-set man of about twenty-three. He had a pale fleshy face .and china-blue eyes, a coarse voice and a tendency to blush. He had been a teacher. He had a mother and a .sweetheart, and he spent a lot of time writing letters. He never got free from his home thoughts; he was still bound -.in some sort of personal dependence to these ties. His mind, at any rate, was not free to lead its own existence, or to create the conditions of its existence. I think that is why he was a coward.
For he was a coward, in the only concise sense that can -be given to that word. A coward is not merely a man who feels fear. We all experience fear; it is a physical reaction to the unknown extent of danger.. But it is only -cowardice when it becomes a mental reaction-when the mind, reacting to the flesh, submits to the instincts of the flesh.
As the time appointed for the raid drew nearer, P-'s :manner began to change. We had always been thrown together a good deal: we were the only officers in the Company with tastes in common. But we were scarcely friends; there was something physical in his nature which repelled me. But now he began to make up to me more insistently. Presently the remainder of the battalion went into the trenches and we were left to rest and train for our enterprise. P- then grew more confidential and spoke often of his home affairs. He seemed afraid to be out of my presence. He began to confess to me; to bemoan his fate; to picture the odds against us-the utter unlikelihood that we should ever come out of the business alive..
And then I asked him if he was afraid. He blushed and said: 'Yes, damnably.' He was obviously in an agony of mind, and then I began to have my own fear: that he would bitch the show and bring disgrace on us all.. I put this to him. We had left camp and were on a visit to battalion headquarters, a mile or two behind the line. There was some sort of gun emplacement or old trench line into which we had climbed to look out over the sunsoaked plain: the larks were singing as always in the still. clear sky. But P-'s face looked aqueous and blotchy.. His eyes were uneasy, reflecting all his anguish. After a while I asked him to make a clean breast of it all to the Colonel. But I saw that he would never do that. He. just hung his head and looked stupid.
When we reached the battalion I left P- outside and went into the Colonel's chanty or dugout. I told about P-; deliberately. He was immediately taken off the raid and S-, an elderly subaltern who had already taken part in a previous raid, was asked to take his place. This he did with a bad grace.
P- was killed in the end in a bombardment some months later. A night of confused darkness and suddenriot.
We greased our hands and faces and then blackened them with burnt cork so that they would not shine out in the dark night. We muffled our rifle slings and accouterments so that no little noise should betray us. Then we made our way into the trenches to the point selected for our sally. A terrace such as is often found in French fields ran across No Man's Land, at right angles to the trenches. It led to an elbow in the enemy's line, and the concerted plan was that at midnight exactly the artillery and trench mortars should isolate this elbow with a barrage of fire, whilst we penetrated into the trenches and secured some of the enemy, dead or alive. We raiders were to creep along the guiding line of the bank in Indian file until within thirty yards or so of the enemy's position, then to creep round into a compact line facing the trench: this movement to be achieved by midnight. Then, immediately the barrage fell, we were to rush forward and do our best.
It was agreed that I should head the Indian file, and that S~ should bring up the rear. He was to prevent straggling and to see that the line swung round into position when I sent back the signal. The last thing we did before going out was to give each man a stiff dose of rum: then there were a few whispered farewells and a handshake or two. The night was moonless, but fair, and not quite pitch dark. You could distinguish a silhouette against the skyline. As soon as we passed our own wire entanglements we got down on our bellies and began to crawl. I had already explored the ground in two or three special night patrols, and had no difficulty in finding the bank and getting the right direction. I advanced a step at a time, the sergeant close behind me.
I feel that I ought not to neglect a single aspect of that slow advance to the enemy's line, for -in those few minutes I experienced a prolonged state of consciousness during which I hung over a pit of fear, weighted down by a long and vivid anticipation of its nature, and now brought to the last tension by this silent agony of deliberate approach. Fear is more powerful in silence and loneliness, for then the mind is more open to the electric uprush of the animal. There is safety in action and unanimity and all the noisy riot of strife-until even that safety is beaten down by the pitiless continuance of physical shock, and then there is only safety in the mind again, if it rise like a holy ghost out of the raw stumps of the body.
I remember for a time feeling my heart unrulily beating in my breast, and a tight constriction at the throat. That was perhaps only excitement, or tense expectation of activity. It was not the shuddering groveling impulse, the sudden jet of pus into the thrilling blood stream, that would sometimes, on the sudden near detonation of a shell, poison one's humanity. That, as I have said, is the only real kind of fear-the purely physical reaction. From that state a few men can recover because they have minds that can surmount a physical state: an imaginative sense of equilibrium. Imaginative-it was the men of imagination that were, if any, the men of courage. The men of mere brute strength, the footballers and school captains, found no way out of the inevitable physical reaction. Their bodies broke in fear because the wild energy of the instinct was impingeing on a brittle red wall of physical being. That was the feel of it, that was the reality. And P-? Pwas in another state of being. Because he had imagination he could visualize and thus anticipate this physical nature of fear. He could immerse himselfin the imaginative embodiment of that animalistic impulse, and because he had no faith he had to succumb to that imaginative condition. Faith was the deepest reality we tested as we crawled for a few minutes along that bank -a few minutes that actually seemed an age. Faith was of many kinds. But essentially it was simply a level condition of the mind. It might be Christian-sometimes was, I observed. But more often it was just fatalistic, and by fatalism I mean a resolve to live in peace of mind, in possession of mind, despite any physical environment.. Such was the faith, or philosophy, that belonged to a great body of men, and was held in very different degrees. of intellectuality and passion. In some-they were the majority-it was a reversion to a primitive state of belief. Every bullet has its billet. What's the use of worryin'? But in others it was a subtler state of consciousness. The war seemed to annihilate all sense of individuality. The mass of it was so immense that oneself as a separate unit could not rationally exist. But there is a sense in which the death of individuality means the birth of personality. This truth is the basis of all sacrifice and martyrdom. A saint may die for his faith, but only because that faith is an expression of his personality. And so in the presence of danger, and in the immediate expectation of death, one can forget the body and its fears and exist wholly as a mind.
III. THE PRISONER
We had gone perhaps three parts of our way, when we heard the sound of men working. Muffled coughs, thuds, indefinite clinks. I was nonplused. The explanation did not immediately occur tome. It hadn't time. I had a sudden sick fear that we must return, empty-handed shameful fools. I think this thought and image lastedthe brief interval I had for reflection. For immediately the sergeant tugged my leg and crept close to my ear. He indicated somehow the right. I turned my head. Two figures loomed indistinctly in the dark. Approaching us. 'We must rush them,' I whispered. The sergeant said: 'Right; you give the tip'. The two figures. blundered nearer. I could see them hesitate across on the other side of the rim of a shell-hole. My heart had suddenly become calm. I was filled with a great exaltation. My body didn't exist, save as a wonderfully unconscious mechanism. I gave a great inhuman cry and dashed forward, barking with my Colt at the shadowy figures not ten yards away. One gave a wild bestial shriek and fell into the darkness. The other fired. We dueled, there in the dark. But I ran on, impelled by an unknown energy, the sergeant by my side. Just then the concerted moment arrived. A dark rainbow of shells hissed through the sky. The flash and detonation of heavy shells. The pale wavering rockets of the star-shells, they curved round us, fell among us. In that incessant theatrical light I saw my enemy dash into the shell-hole .at his feet and fall down crying for mercy. I had my foot on his squirming body, sergeant his bayonet. It was an officer. I perceived that quickly, clearly. It was enough. I gave the order: 'Back to the lines'. We turned. The barrage was over now. Only a blind hiss of bullets from the German line. We walked back to the trenches. My men came chattering round, peering with black faces at the prisoner. Prodding him with their bayonets. Crying happily. Lusting to kill him. I tried to keep them off. The prisoner was talking tome, wildly ,excited. At last he found his French. I understood. He was so pleased! Explained that he was married and .had children. He wanted to live. I tried to calm him.He was a professor of philology and lived at Spandau. I took away his revolver; the sergeant took his bright dagger. And thus we reached our own line. As the German hesitated on the parapet someone kicked him violently on the backside, so that he fell down. I cursed the fellow, but didn't stop to identify him. S- was there, waiting for me, very much mystified by the turn of events, but jubilant at the sight of a prisoner. We made our way to the headquarters' dugout and descended with our charge.
IV. THE COLONEL
We blinked in the brilliant light of several candles. It was a square dugout with a fixed table served by benches from the walls. To get to the benches we had to crawl under the table. Our Colonel was a Welshman, temporarily attached from another regiment. When away from the trenches he was pleasant enough, though at bottom a weak and emotional nature. We did not trust him, for he was known to be a white-livered 'funk'. A bottle of whiskey was by him on the table, as he sat facing the stairway. He had drunk a great deal, for he was highly nervous about the result of the raid, which would reflect on his reputation. He welcomed us effusively. I don't remember all the chatter and confusion in that confined space, but eventually some kind of order did emerge. D-, our signaling officer, who knew German, began to question the prisoner. The poor fellow was docile enough. He gave up his letters, papers and maps, but asked to keep a photograph of his wife, which we allowed. But a more disgusting scene followed. He had on his finger a signet-ring, perhaps rather a pretty one. The Colonel insisted on having it, and because it would not pass the knuckle, urged us to cut it off. The man was ina delirium and of course we disregarded him. But he made efforts to reach the prisoner himself and in the effort fell drunkenly over and rolled under the table. He lay stupidly there and fell to sleep. I watched the prisoner. He was terribly excited, but self-possessed.. He was standing against the dark entrance, speaking forcefully and at length. D- explained to us at intervals. He was passionately defending the German cause, arguing persuasively that we, the English, had been faithless to our common Teutonic stock. The future of Europe was with the Germanic nations; they alone had the energy, the fresh spirit, the nascent culture, for the creation of a world polity.
V. THE WAY DOWN
S- left at about two o'clock to report particulars to the Brigade Headquarters, and at dawn I set out with the prisoner and the happy raiders. We had lost only one man, and there were no serious wounds. We filed down the communication trenches, leisurely enough, for we were tired. Our faces were still black with the charred cork. The sun rose up to greet us, and when finally we got out into the open country the day was warm and beneficent. The larks were singing again, as on my journey up with P-. But now the sky was pulsing with their shrill notes. On the way I talked to the prisoner, and once we rested for a while, sitting side by side on a fallen tree. He explained that when we first surprised them (he was a company officer with his orderly, visiting parties out at work on the battered wire entanglements) they had taken us for Senegalese troops, and his orderly's terror was perhaps largely due to this mistake. But we talked mostly of other things. I was eager to learn anything about their side-their state of mind, their public opinion, the possibility of revolution and an end of all this meaningless strife. Nietzsche was at that time still fresh in my awakening mind, and I stammered in broken enthusiasm about his books, but got no response. But he was too aware of his liberty, his safety, his bodily emancipation, to think of such things now. He was happy to be safe at last, but perhaps he was also a little chagrined. He was amazed at my youth and perhaps a little ashamed of being captured by what looked like a boyish prank. We strolled on again. I only recall his features with difficulty. He was fair and rather short. But I should not know him if I met him again.
I When we reached the Brigade Headquarters I handed him over and stayed to watch him questioned. He stood at attention before a table in the open. And when this was done, he was given into the charge of a guard to be taken down to the Divisional camp. I last saw him standing at a distance from me, waiting to move. I gazed at him eagerly, tenderly, for I had conceived some sort of vicarious affection for this man. I had done my best to kill him a few hours before. I waved my hand as he left, but he only answered with a vague smile.
I then made for my battalion reserve and found a tent and a bed. I slept for more than twelve hours and in my sleep, perhaps from weariness, or because of some relaxation in my nerves, my heart seemed to stop and my blood to sweep round in a dark red whirlpool. In my dream I wondered if this was death. But when I awoke I was fresh and content. I was alive. There was light streaming in through the windows, and friendly voices.
CUPID'S EVERLASTING HONEYMOON
THROUGH the air they passed in rhythmic flight, their level languorous approach to Earth interrupted by amorous (alone by amorous) curvettings of mutual love. For a while they lingered on the phosphorescent edge of a shelly cloud; a swarm of cherubs their mica wings glittering in the sunrays shed silvery laughter wet limpid lilting in the aerial cloud-caverns. Away on a rocky thunder-cloud the aventurine cock of holy Peter opened his beak and screamed. The lark that had caroled evenly now rested beneath arched grasses.
Through space-devouring time the lovers flew. The ghosts of flowers plumes of steam the wings of fishes Balthasar's frankincense the fire of Etna the flesh of Icarus: bedded their imperceptible path. Above the city of Amiens they hovered and descended into a bar. At the dispensary of cocktails a woman was seated reading a mystic page of Hermas and waiting for the other end of a bracket which somewhere she had missed. She wore a rich brocaded robe straightly sloping over her featureless body: only her pale arms emerged: wavered: like birch saplings in a winter landscape.
She was seated beneath a crystal chandelier lit with a few candles that ran their merry light among the clustered drops. Her curious rings repeated these reflections drawing into prominence thin yellow hands: hands like an ivory Madonna's you might think: hands yellow with tobacco stain.
I At the round porphyry tables a few soldiers. One with a shaking finger drew a system of trenches in the beer slops. A weary hubhub of voices drifted about with the tobacco smoke. Did I ever tell you (the finger's voice was heard above the rest) what prodigious armies we had in Flanders.... Someone rattled dominoes: a frightened subaltern mistaking the noise for machine-gun fire blanched and momentarily trembled.
Psyche would like a cherry cocktail. How unnecessary! (snorted the barmaid tossing, her locks). Cherries in wartime: the very idea! Cupid rebuked her for her impertinence and led Psyche across to the frightened subaltern, who was combing his hair with his fingers and muttering into his breast: Futile. Futile. Poor lad: Psyche yearned with an almost human sympathy. Two bloody years (he looked up and went on). Can't you understand? I'm sick of it all. I want it all to end: at any price. I want to get back. There is so much I want to dot
A messcart clattered through the cobbled streets outside: muffled: the bottles behind the bar clinked sullenly; but near.
And the subaltern noticing Psyche's discomfiture said of the barmaid: She is Isaiah's harlot, the virgin daughter of Babylon, that shall no more be called tender and delicate. Europe is fallen, fallen and is become a habitation of devils and the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. But I must go: if I talk scriptures I shall be shot.
He made as if to leave but Psyche restrained him: she would pour balm on his spirit and shelter him in her everlasting liberty. Let the devils rage (she said) and let every foulness flourish till the land is a land of ashes. Then a river of clear water shall flow and wash away the black crust of ashes: it shall germinate the buried seed and the tree of life shall flourish again.
And Cupid said: Your abominations are born of the flesh: we alone who are children of the sun are free. Seek to be born again and to become like us.
A common soldier was writing with his tongue and a pencil: Dear Old Pal-I hope you are in the pink as this leaves me at present I am having a quiet half hour in one of these estaminets as they call them You should see the tart what serves the grenadines You wouldn't half be jealous not half! But don't be frighted deary I wouldn't touch her with a bargepole There is no glass in these here windows just old bags Remember me to Jinnie and don't forget when I come home....
It was then that Cupid and Psyche (existing in their own sphere of time) heard a distant slow advancing whimper of sound. It might be the cry of a falling angel. When I looked up Cupid had risen into the yellow gloom that radiated above the massed sparkles of the chandelier. He hung there horizontally like an amorino, of the Renaissance; there he waited for the climax of that sound.
There were so many events in that little cubicle of space. Can I ever be sure that I saw them all? In our sorry scheme of time the gamut of that sound was short and shrill: the detonation sickening frame shuddering. So many events: but really I only remember one. I think I saw those pale sapling arms raised to meet the uprush of death: I think I saw the flesh bloodless against the explosive blast break like a clown's hoop to reveal the white incandescent bone. Then I too bent before the agony. . . .
. . . and only heard the crystal drops of the chandelier raining down to make a cairn for the barmaid's body. Theouter ruins rumbled about us: a disconnected racket: a roll of thunder like Nietzsche's mustache.
I alone of the living was alive. When the last wraith of acrid smoke cleared above the crystal mound gone were the non-substantial bodies of our heavenly guests: in that wraith the shadowy limbs of Psyche were involved.