A Legend of the Great War

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Andrew Dunbar had donned the kilt just two years after his first long trousers, and turned seventeen in the trenches of Flanders. It amazed him, sometimes, that he was there, for he had been odd man out among his four brothers. Among those feuding hoodlums in the slums of Glasgow, Andrew was timid and studious, and would as soon have spent his life in the Mitchell Library or the Art Galleries at Kelvingrove. A kindly recruiting-sergeant of the Black Watch, while people still had a peacetime idea of what kindness was, had told him he could be measured with his boots on, and cast a thoughtful eye towards the newspaper. So Andrew, whose worst enemies would never have called him slow on the uptake, got into the army with the Daily Mail for the 4th August 1914 wadded up inside his boots.

As he was so slight and unmilitary, but a very capable rifle shot, a benevolent company commander made the boy a sniper to keep him out of the violence, setting him on the path to more killing than most soldiers see. Two days in the autumn of 1915 saw all his brothers dead, three of them in a bad quarter of an hour on the Taupière redoubts, and himself sent to London to receive his Cross from the King-Emperor’s hand. When people called him lucky, he would always say he was a timid man, and that is how he learned that the naked truth can pass for modesty, if you tell it the right way.

With almost everyone he had known dead on the Taupière, Andrew’s closest friend, and usual companion in the almost umbilical partnership of sniper and observer, was a man whom most people took time to recognise as the giant he was. Staff-sergeant Colin Campbell Sime, born in Lucknow in the siege, had been a soldier two decades longer than regulations allowed. Most people wondered why an impeccable soldier, fearsome fighter, crafty wangler and staunch Army man like Ross, who should long since have made Regimental Sergeant-Major, had remained a sergeant. After all, it was only his peacetime rank, which he had held on the terrible retreat from Mons, as he carried three weaker men’s rifles for them, and the junior subaltern under his arm when he told it where drink was to be had. To casual inquirers Ross mentioned drinking and fighting, though never dishonesty, or disrespect to an officer of the crown.

Andrew knew the true story. On Prussian Guard day at Ypres, Colin Ross had scraped together a few remains of his own battalion, a few Indian Dogras and a couple of Gurkhas, and in his own words, ‘We gave the last wave the right aboot, and that Die Wacht am Rhein song, they’ll be singin’ it in Nepal yet.’ A week later Ross had politely refused an exhausted general’s order to summarily execute a deserter, because ‘There’s time for due process, sir, so it’s no’ lawful.’

Not a word went on Ross’s record, of course, for the lowliest subaltern could have told the general he had been saved from far worse trouble than the old man. The general, once in possession of his faculties again, was rumoured to know it. But Ross’s promotion and medal had evaporated, without a word admitted in principle. Andrew – and what was more important, every one of Ross’s regimental officers – thought a medal as big as a soup-plate would have met the case nicely.

On returning from leave, Andrew and Ross were told that their battalion had been moved, and they would have to remain where they were pending further orders. So they waited in Boulogne with some more men of various regiments who had returned from leave, spending their mornings doing fairly light fatigues. After lunch they would report to the Town Major’s office to have their leave passes datestamped and receive a chit for a further day’s rations and billet. This was the process by which crafty soldiers had been known to obtain an extra week’s leave, and often some travel around France into the bargain.

In the afternoons they were sent to mark targets on the rifle range, which for Andrew was not work at all. When his civilian sporting rifle was noticed, he was detailed to instruct a new draft, while Colin Ross was borrowed to teach drill to groups of colonial officers, whose experience had brought direct commissions as captains and majors while they still required a final polish in the military arts. They were planters, ivory hunters, Boer War irregulars, and on one joyous occasion a former rissaldar of Bengal cavalry who had bought his own ticket to London. Ross’s theory of discipline was strained by meeting so many old friends.

Andrew’s work at Boulogne unsettled him more than he could have explained. He could teach, all right, in the sense that he understood and could communicate all that he did. But he felt his lack of self-projection, his inability to draw the interest of people who were only marginally interested in what he had to give.

Like frustrated teachers everywhere, he blamed his students, and the system which had sent such people to war, even though blaming the system was a far less automatic response in those days illegal bahis than it has since become. But beyond all doubt, the quality of some of the battalions arriving in France was not what it used to be. When it came to shooting, they were disinclined to make an effort, and far too prone to blame their weapons. This gained little sympathy from Andrew, who had been well taught with a Japanese Arisaka rifle, of all things, and learned to like it very well. But when he took a new Lee-Enfield from its grease and put twenty-six shots into the four hundred yard target in one pounding, roaring minute, they took it for some kind of trick.

Compared with his original battalion, among the First Hundred Thousand and well leavened from the old regular army, the new men seemed resigned to horrors which Andrew in his day had hardly suspected, blind to the possibility that the man who studied his own survival might outlive those who did not. Some were the very best of good men, but without the inclination to be good soldiers. They were in the army from the highest of motives, most of them, but thought their duty discharged by being there and enduring what was to be endured. Many would die so uselessly and so soon, Andrew thought, that they were virtually stealing the labour of valued soldiers who had been detached to train them, and wasting the equipment they took to the earth with them.

Andrew was forgetting the men whom early death or wounds had weeded out of his own battalion – for bad soldiers get unlucky faster – and he was forgetting, through details like his resentment of petty discipline or his inability to keep step in drill, just how high his own standards in trench soldiering had become.

Once Andrew was witness to a quite astonishing tirade, by which a sergeant proposed to educate some new arrivals:

‘Now this ‘ere is your rifle, and the nature of your rifle is to be a man’s weapon. That is why yer fucking queer fellows, clever as they may be in musical comedies an’ that, don’t ‘ave no chance of becoming proficient in its use. Now it’s well known that your southern races an’ such are kind of suspect that way, to say it polite-like – if you want proof, look at the fuss they make about their bleedin’ masculinity, hey? Which is why good musketry is the preserve of your northern European peoples, see. Take our gallant allies the Froggies, now, I don’t deny as they can fight. Very nice field artillery they got, what you aim by doing sums an’ turning handwheels, an’ they don’t mind cold steel, just like them fucking ‘omosexualists will scratch each other’s bleedin’eyes out, see? But that don’t make ’em rifleman like what we are – or even like the Huns, for them barstards are at least northern Europeans. Now you’ll get dahn an’ fire ten rounds rapid, an’ you’ll understand why, if any of you young ladies puts a shot off the paper – she don’t need to waste no breath explaining nothing!’

Andrew stood numbed by the horror of it. It would have taken a lot to make him into a useless shot – but this, early in his military life, might have done it. For his own part, he taught his drafts that their lot was easier than it might have been, for rifle shooting was a rational science, the sole skill he knew in which achievement was precisely proportional to the amount of work put into it. But he would always remember the sergeant’s speech, as typifying the awful purpose of a man with an idea behind him. He did not think he knew any homosexualists personally, and had only the vaguest idea what they did, but for the moment at least, he was on their side. There were very credible rumours of a homosexual sergeant being killed on the Taupière, and Andrew knew the men had taken great care always to let him use the latrine alone, which was surely a mark of respect.

On the fourth morning they were sent by train to Étaples, there to be joyously reunited with their surviving comrades. Their battalion was in the process of amalgamation with another Black Watch battalion which had suffered badly at Loos, to be brought up to more or less full strength by the drafts of new men coming from Scotland.

This, above all other places, was where they realised that a great army is a society and as diverse as any other. The Bull Ring at Étaples was a training camp, which had been set up to give new arrivals their final preparation before going to the front. In theory it could have given the practical training, on war as it really was, which Andrew and his friends had lacked, but this opportunity was entirely thrown away.

The specialised courses were well-run, but they were for experienced soldiers, not the new drafts. Andrew was determined to be nothing but a sniper, so he got himself detailed for a course in demolition by explosives. Nothing, he felt, was so unlikely to find any application in France, where the problem was to get anything to stay up.

Far more than a technical school, though, the Bull Ring was a place where the function of drill and discipline illegal bahis siteleri had swelled to a monster, where merciless drill-sergeants seemed impelled to crush the last vestiges of civilian independence which any miscreant might try to smuggle up the line to the front. Andrew wondered whether the world actually needed the sort of men who became Bull Ring drill-instructors, and the presence of seasoned troops seemed only to incense them. Everybody hated them, just as everyone hated staff officers, munitions workers, or any others who had safe jobs and yet profited by war.

They did not know, of course, about Colonel Ronald Campbell, ex-O.C. Bayonets, who was to do such wonderful work on the farm which he ran as a convalescent home for shell-shocked men. There was a lot that they did not know. But disaffection hung about the place like a miasma, offending Andrew more than his ordeals at the hands of the instructors. Even the dunes along the coast were unsafe because of the sandbaggers, deserters living rough, who would murder a man for his rations or a few shillings. Two of them were court-martialled and shot while Andrew was there, and few pitied them.

Accounts of the Bull Ring mutinies, which came after Andrew’s time, have been greatly exaggerated: most men just took what was handed out to them, knowing it must come to an end. But they did not like it any the better for that, and reflected, as Andrew did, that they served in another army.

The men were not at all sorry when they entrained for all the perils of the front. They had no idea where they were going, till the train crossed the Belgian frontier and drew into Hazebrouk station, which was heavily congested with British military traffic.

‘Nae doubt aboot it,’ Ross judged. ‘We’re for Wipers again.’

‘Come on, Andy, there’s other places in Belgium.’

‘For seasoned troops, fresh frae six weeks’ rest?’

‘Aw Christ, the Bull Ring rest, he says?’

‘Naw, but the staff says. Staff work is that hard, they’d fair enjoy a wee go in the Bull Ring. If they could be spared, that is.’

They detrained in Poperinghe, just as before. But this time it was raining, on a day of unceasing light rain, which had long since soaked through the tents in which they would spend the night. It was still raining in the morning, when they tumbled out and stood shivering in their ranks for roll-call, and it still rained as they marched that dismal seven miles through Vlamertinghe and Ypres. The shell of the Cloth Hall was more mountain and less building now, the square empty, but amid all the added destruction of the last few months, some of the scattered cobble-stones still lay where he had last seen them.

He could recognise the re-entrant angle where he had once seen the tattered rags of a Belgian girl who had been selling postcards. He still had the postcard he had been buying as the salvo came in, folded in his paybook, together with the white feather which he had been handed by an English girl in Trafalgar Square, while he was illicitly wearing his first civilian suit. Perhaps the Belgian girl could have done the same, and it was only death that had made her sweet-natured and understanding forever. Or was that unjust? In Andrew’s experience, enthusiasm for slaughter seemed inversely proportional to the individual’s likelihood of ever experiencing it – which he could not call unreasonable, when he thought about it – and the Belgian girl must have lived her last months in considerable fear.

He really knew very little about girls. Once, when Andrew’s eldest brother Jimmy was alive, Andrew had forgotten someone’s advice to keep out of the barn where they were billeted, and he had heard sounds from the loft, which even the most naive of dwellers in Glasgow’s crowded tenements could hardly avoid recognising. Much later he had seen Jimmy and the bread-shop widow emerging from the building, the latter buttoning her blouse, and this worried him extremely, for they had only been there for two days, and released from duty for just over an hour. The widow had smiled so charmingly at the men as they marched past her shop, and Garn knew that it took weeks or months, at the very least, for a respectable woman to develop the kind of relationship which led to sexual feelings. He wondered if he should warn Jimmy that he was accidentally taking advantage of someone who must be feeble-minded. But he had learned that his advice was not always welcome.

Women, unless something was wrong, were undoubtedly more like Colin Ross’s niece Susan, a munitions worker and teenage suffragist in Camden Town. She and Andrew had spent some time alone together on his last leave, and yet there was a coldness about her. She seemed to relish talking about her ideas, and nothing else. Andrew knew very well that there were women who never had any ideas to talk about, and a man could do far worse than her. But he was not sure what, if anything, he wanted.

Ross’s prediction canlı bahis siteleri of the summer came true this time, for they marched straight along the Menin Road, dodging the splashing columns of G.S. wagons which had come out with the dusk, and occupied a position opposite the German stronghold of Hooge.

It was an unspeakable place. The Hooge chateau, on the right of the Menin Road, had been a British headquarters at First Ypres, until one divisional commander was killed and another wounded by shell-fire. Since then the chateau and its stables had been pounded to rubble, and several mines had been exploded by the brave men who tunnelled and laid charges in the ice-cold clay far below. The crater had each time to be taken and held against the counter-attack which always followed, sometimes to change hands several times. Meanwhile the area became saturated with drainage from the nearby Bellewarde Lake, making a morass of the kind into which the entire Salient would be pounded in two years’ time.

The triangle of craters, ruins and trenches had been fought over many times. Scarcely any excavation did not turn up its bodies, and even the mud itself was infected with the corruption of decaying flesh. Any object or garment which touched that mud became imbued with a pestilence which could kill as surely as steel, in contact with even the most trivial of wounds, and some held that the bacteria even floated on the air. It was only some civilian’s rumour that air friction rendered a bullet sterile. Many of those bodies were heavily charred from the flame-thrower attack of the 30th July, and at a certain level, buried by the shelling which had followed, everything they turned up bore the mark of fire.

The wretchedness of the Hooge trenches was indescribable. Some of them were lines of linked shell-holes, only deep enough to crouch in, and the lines were sometimes so close together that they could hear the Germans conversing in their guttural, slurred speech. Where there were continuous trench-lines, they soon became knee-deep rivers of flowing water and mud, which the eternal concussion of shellfire pounded into a more penetrating slurry than any farm-ditch back home.

There they fought a brutal war of minor attacks and counter-attacks, sometimes with tacit and ephemeral truces which were more unnerving than open hostilities, from the certainty that they would be broken by trench-raid or grenade. No Man’s Land was so dangerous, even at night, that the dead of six months lay unburied in some of the shell-holes, home and sustenance to the septic-toothed rats, which sought to augment their body warmth with the warmth of decay.

Pip the colonel’s fox-terrier, with the hair grown back white on the shrapnel-wound in his neck, would have killed rats all day if they had let him. But this Colonel Cameron would seldom allow, knowing the danger a rat-bite in that place would bring. Sentiment apart, the dog was a born sentinel, who could tell Germans from British by smell, and knew his enemy. Andrew kept his cartons of Eley 9mm. ammunition for serious practice, but when someone gave him the contents of a dead German officer’s pouches, he laid ambushes with his pistol and shot every rat he saw. In the trenches at Hooge, it was about as much as he was good for. But it was a waste of effort to shoot just one or two, he told himself, since they at once became food for other rats.

It was the worst winter of the war, and not only because the weather was the most severe in living memory. There was none of that optimism for a new offensive in the spring, which had characterised the winter of 1914-15. Even in rest areas, the troops had long since given up singing that unholy old chorus which went:

We beat them on the Marne,
We beat them on the Aisne,
And when this winter’s over,
We will beat them once again.

There would be other winters of crushed hopes. But in those, the army would be better adapted to coping with the miseries which cold and wet piled upon those of other seasons. There were a few cases of frostbite, but not many; the men failed to agree whether this was due to the anti-frostbite preparation which reached them in 2-lb. tins. It was mostly animal fat, presumably, since it was labelled ‘Not for issue to Indian troops’, and orders stated that it had to be applied by an N.C.O. Needless to say Andrew never saw that done, although he heard many a joke on the subject, and so did the N.C.O.s. It burned quite well in a crude lamp, and the whale-oil which replaced it was even better.

Far more common than frostbite was trench feet, a festering necrosis of tissues which had become swollen by putrid water and deprived of circulation by tight boots and cold. It was said that trench feet was caused by inadequate care – by low morale, ultimately, and the Black Watch had gone a long way down that accelerating spiral since April. But Andrew equated that opinion with General Harper’s assertion that no man had ever been killed by the bayonet unless he had his hands up first. While Andrew, who knew his business very well, would have backed any good firearm against cold steel, he had too often seen the latter used in desperate combat to accept a similar dismissal of trench feet.

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