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Chapter Twelve I Become a Combatant Once More
I returned to France on 13 September, and took over my old brigade on the 19th of the same month. We were shoved in at the Polygon Wood on the 26th, and after four days got so badly mauled that we were brought out to refit. On 7 October, very much to my surprise, I was given command of a division and was on the fringes of the Ypres fighting during the first days of November. From that front we were hurried down to Cambrai in support, but came in only for the last backwash of that singular battle. We held a bit of the St Quentin sector till just before Christmas, when we had a spell of rest in billets, which endured, so far as I was concerned, till the beginning of January, when I was sent off on the errand which I shall presently relate.

That is a brief summary of my military record in the latter part of 1917. I am not going to enlarge on the fighting. Except for the days of the Polygon Wood it was neither very severe nor very distinguished, and you will find it in the history books. What I have to tell of here is my own personal quest, for all the time I was living with my mind turned two ways. In the morasses of the Haanebeek flats, in the slimy support lines at Zonnebeke, in the tortured uplands about Flesquieres, and in many other odd places I kept worrying at my private conundrum. At night I would lie awake thinking of it, and many a toss I took into shell-holes and many a time I stepped off the duckboards, because my eyes were on a different landscape. Nobody ever chewed a few wretched clues into such a pulp as I did during those bleak months in Flanders and Picardy.

For I had an instinct that the thing was desperately grave, graver even than the battle before me. Russia had gone headlong to the devil, Italy had taken it between the eyes and was still dizzy, and our own prospects were none too bright. The Boche was getting uppish and with some cause, and I foresaw a rocky time ahead till America could line up with us in the field. It was the chance for the Wild Birds, and I used to wake in a sweat to think what devilry Ivery might be engineering. I believe I did my proper job reasonably well, but I put in my most savage thinking over the other. I remember how I used to go over every hour of every day from that June night in the Cotswolds till my last meeting with Bullivant in London, trying to find a new bearing. I should probably have got brain-fever, if I hadn’t had to spend most of my days and nights fighting a stiffish battle with a very watchful Hun. That kept my mind balanced, and I dare say it gave an edge to it; for during those months I was lucky enough to hit on a better scent than Bullivant and Macgillivray and Blenkiron, pulling a thousand wires in their London offices.

I will set down in order of time the various incidents in this private quest of mine. The first was my meeting with Geordie Hamilton. It happened just after I rejoined the brigade, when I went down to have a look at our Scots Fusilier battalion. The old brigade had been roughly handled on 31st July, and had had to get heavy drafts to come anywhere near strength. The Fusiliers especially were almost a new lot, formed by joining our remnants to the remains of a battalion in another division and bringing about a dozen officers from the training unit at home.

I inspected the men and my eyes caught sight of a familiar face. I asked his name and the colonel got it from the sergeant-major. It was Lance–Corporal George Hamilton.

Now I wanted a new batman, and I resolved then and there to have my old antagonist. That afternoon he reported to me at brigade headquarters. As I looked at that solid bandy-legged figure, standing as stiff to attention as a tobacconist’s sign, his ugly face hewn out of brown oak, his honest, sullen mouth, and his blue eyes staring into vacancy, I knew I had got the man I wanted.

‘Hamilton,’ I said, ‘you and I have met before.’

‘Sirr?’ came the mystified answer.

‘Look at me, man, and tell me if you don’t recognize me.’

He moved his eyes a fraction, in a respectful glance.

‘Sirr, I don’t mind of you.’

‘Well, I’ll refresh your memory. Do you remember the hall in Newmilns Street and the meeting there? You had a fight with a man outside, and got knocked down.’

He made no answer, but his colour deepened.

‘And a fortnight later in a public-house in Muirtown you saw the same man, and gave him the chase of his life.’

I could see his mouth set, for visions of the penalties laid down by the King’s Regulations for striking an officer must have crossed his mind. But he never budged.

‘Look me in the face, man,’ I said. ‘Do you remember me now?’

He did as he was bid.

‘Sirr, I mind of you.’

‘Have you nothing more to say?’

He cleared his throat. ‘Sirr, I did not ken I was hittin’ an officer.’

‘Of course you didn’t. You did perfectly right, and if the war was over and we were both free men, I would give you a chance of knocking me down here and now. That’s got to wait. When you saw me last I was serving my country, though you didn’t know it. We’re serving together now, and you must get your revenge out of the Boche. I’m going to make you my servant, for you and I have a pretty close bond between us. What do you say to that?’

This time he looked me full in the face. His troubled eye appraised me and was satisfied. ‘I’m proud to be servant to ye, sirr,’ he said. Then out of his chest came a strangled chuckle, and he forgot his discipline. ‘Losh, but ye’re the great lad!’ He recovered himself promptly, saluted, and marched off.

The second episode befell during our brief rest after the Polygon Wood, when I had ridden down the line one afternoon to see a friend in the Heavy Artillery. I was returning in the drizzle of evening, clanking along the greasy path between the sad poplars, when I struck a Labour company repairing the ravages of a Boche strafe that morning. I wasn’t very certain of my road and asked one of the workers. He straightened himself and saluted, and I saw beneath a disreputable cap the features of the man who had been with me in the Coolin crevice.

I spoke a word to his sergeant, who fell him out, and he walked a bit of the way with me.

‘Great Scot, Wake, what brought you here?’ I asked.

‘Same thing as brought you. This rotten war.’

I had dismounted and was walking beside him, and I noticed that his lean face had lost its pallor and that his eyes were less hot than they used to be.

‘You seem to thrive on it,’ I said, for I did not know what to say. A sudden shyness possessed me. Wake must have gone through some violent cyclones of feeling before it came to this. He saw what I was thinking and laughed in his sharp, ironical way.

‘Don’t flatter yourself you’ve made a convert. I think as I always thought. But I came to the conclusion that since the fates had made me a Government servant I might as well do my work somewhere less cushioned than a chair in the Home Office . . . Oh, no, it wasn’t a matter of principle. One kind of work’s as good as another, and I’m a better clerk than a navvy. With me it was self-indulgence: I wanted fresh air and exercise.’

I looked at him — mud to the waist, and his hands all blistered and cut with unaccustomed labour. I could realize what his associates must mean to him, and how he would relish the rough tonguing of non-coms.

‘You’re a confounded humbug,’ I said. ‘Why on earth didn’t you go into an O.T.C. and come out with a commission? They’re easy enough to get.’

‘You mistake my case,’ he said bitterly. ‘I experienced no sudden conviction about the justice of the war. I stand where I always stood. I’m a non-combatant, and I wanted a change of civilian work . . . No, it wasn’t any idiotic tribunal sent me here. I came of my own free will, and I’m really rather enjoying myself.’

‘It’s a rough job for a man like you,’ I said.

‘Not so rough as the fellows get in the trenches. I watched a battalion marching back today and they looked like ghosts who had been years in muddy graves. White faces and dazed eyes and leaden feet. Mine’s a cushy job. I like it best when the weather’s foul. It cheats me into thinking I’m doing my duty.’

I nodded towards a recent shell-hole. ‘Much of that sort of thing?’

‘Now and then. We had a good dusting this morning. I can’t say I liked it at the time, but I like to look back on it. A sort of moral anodyne.’

‘I wonder what on earth the rest of your lot make of you?’

‘They don’t make anything. I’m not remarkable for my bonhomie. They think I’m a prig — which I am. It doesn’t amuse me to talk about beer and women or listen to a gramophone or grouse about my last meal. But I’m quite content, thank you. Sometimes I get a seat in a corner of a Y.M.C.A. hut, and I’ve a book or two. My chief affliction is the padre. He was up at Keble in my time, and, as one of my colleagues puts it, wants to be “too bloody helpful”. . . . What are you doing, Hannay? I see you’re some kind of general. They’re pretty thick on the ground here.’

‘I’m a sort of general. Soldiering in the Salient isn’t the softest of jobs, but I don’t believe it’s as tough as yours is for you. D’you know, Wake, I wish I had you in my brigade. Trained or untrained, you’re a dashed stout-hearted fellow.’

He laughed with a trifle less acidity than usual. ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be combatant. No, thank you. I haven’t the courage, and besides there’s my jolly old principles. All the same I’d like to be near you. You’re a good chap, and I’ve had the honour to assist in your education . . . I must be getting back, or the sergeant will think I’ve bolted.’

We shook hands, and the last I saw of him was a figure saluting stiffly in the wet twilight.

The third incident was trivial enough, though momentous in its results. Just before I got the division I had a bout of malaria. We were in support in the Salient, in very uncomfortable trenches behind Wieltje, and I spent three days on my back in a dug-out. Outside was a blizzard of rain, and the water now and then came down the stairs through the gas curtain and stood in pools at my bed foot. It wasn’t the merriest place to convalesce in, but I was as hard as nails at the time and by the third day I was beginning to sit up and be bored.

I read all my English papers twice and a big stack of German ones which I used to have sent up by a friend in the G.H.Q. Intelligence, who knew I liked to follow what the Boche was saying. As I dozed and ruminated in the way a man does after fever, I was struck by the tremendous display of one advertisement in the English press. It was a thing called ‘Gussiter’s Deep-breathing System,’ which, according to its promoter, was a cure for every ill, mental, moral, or physical, that man can suffer. Politicians, generals, admirals, and music-hall artists all testified to the new life it had opened up for them. I remember wondering what these sportsmen got for their testimonies, and thinking I would write a spoof letter myself to old Gussiter.

Then I picked up the German papers, and suddenly my eye caught an advertisement of the same kind in the Frankfurter Zeitung. It was not Gussiter this time, but one Weissmann, but his game was identical —‘deep breathing’. The Hun style was different from the English — all about the Goddess of Health, and the Nymphs of the Mountains, and two quotations from Schiller. But the principle was the same.

That made me ponder a little, and I went carefully through the whole batch. I found the advertisement in the Frankfurter and in one or two rather obscure Volkstimmes and Volkszeitungs. I found it too in Der Grosse Krieg, the official German propagandist picture-paper. They were the same all but one, and that one had a bold variation, for it contained four of the sentences used in the ordinary English advertisement.

This struck me as fishy, and I started to write a letter to Macgillivray pointing out what seemed to be a case of trading with the enemy, and advising him to get on to Mr Gussiter’s financial backing. I thought he might find a Hun syndicate behind him. And then I had another notion, which made me rewrite my letter.

I went through the papers again. The English ones which contained the advertisement were all good, solid, bellicose organs; the kind of thing no censorship would object to leaving the country. I had before me a small sheaf of pacifist prints, and they had not the advertisement. That might be for reasons of circulation, or it might not. The German papers were either Radical or Socialist publications, just the opposite of the English lot, except the Grosse Krieg. Now we have a free press, and Germany has, strictly speaking, none. All her journalistic indiscretions are calculated. Therefore the Boche has no objection to his rags getting to enemy countries. He wants it. He likes to see them quoted in columns headed ‘Through German Glasses’, and made the text of articles showing what a good democrat he is becoming.

As I puzzled over the subject, certain conclusions began to form in my mind. The four identical sentences seemed to hint that ‘Deep Breathing’ had Boche affiliations. Here was a chance of communicating with the enemy which would defy the argus-eyed gentlemen who examine the mails. What was to hinder Mr A at one end writing an advertisement with a good cipher in it, and the paper containing it getting into Germany by Holland in three days? Herr B at the other end replied in the Frankfurter, and a few days later shrewd editors and acute Intelligence officers — and Mr A— were reading it in London, though only Mr A knew what it really meant.

It struck me as a bright idea, the sort of simple thing that doesn’t occur to clever people, and very rarely to the Boche. I wished I was not in the middle of a battle, for I would have had a try at investigating the cipher myself. I wrote a long letter to Macgillivray putting my case, and then went to sleep. When I awoke I reflected that it was a pretty thin argument, and would have stopped the letter, if it hadn’t gone off early by a ration party.

After that things began very slowly to happen. The first was when Hamilton, having gone to Boulogne to fetch some mess-stores, returned with the startling news that he had seen Gresson. He had not heard his name, but described him dramatically to me as the wee red-headed devil that kicked Ecky Brockie’s knee yon time in Glesca, sirr,’ I recognized the description.

Gresson, it appeared, was joy-riding. He was with a party of Labour delegates who had been met by two officers and carried off in chars-a-bancs. Hamilton reported from inquiries among his friends that this kind of visitor came weekly. I thought it a very sensible notion on the Government’s part, but I wondered how Gresson had been selected. I had hoped that Macgillivray had weeks ago made a long arm and quodded him. Perhaps they had too little evidence to hang him, but he was the blackest sort of suspect and should have been interned.

A week later I had occasion to be at G.H.Q. on business connected with my new division. My friends in the Intelligence allowed me to use the direct line to London, and I called up Macgillivray. For ten minutes I had an exciting talk, for I had had no news from that quarter since I left England. I heard that the Portuguese Jew had escaped — had vanished from his native heather when they went to get him. They had identified him as a German professor of Celtic languages, who had held a chair in a Welsh college — a dangerous fellow, for he was an upright, high-minded, raging fanatic. Against Gresson they had no evidence at all, but he was kept under strict observation. When I asked about his crossing to France, Macgillivray replied that that was............
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