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Chapter Twenty-One How an Exile Returned to His Own People
Next morning I found the Army Commander on his way to Doullens.

‘Take over the division?’ he said. ‘Certainly. I’m afraid there isn’t much left of it. I’ll tell Carr to get through to the Corps Headquarters, when he can find them. You’ll have to nurse the remnants, for they can’t be pulled out yet — not for a day or two. Bless me, Hannay, there are parts of our line which we’re holding with a man and a boy. You’ve got to stick it out till the French take over. We’re not hanging on by our eyelids — it’s our eyelashes now.’

‘What about positions to fall back on, sir?’ I asked.

‘We’re doing our best, but we haven’t enough men to prepare them.’ He plucked open a map. ‘There we’re digging a line — and there. If we can hold that bit for two days we shall have a fair line resting on the river. But we mayn’t have time.’

Then I told him about Blenkiron, whom of course he had heard of. ‘He was one of the biggest engineers in the States, and he’s got a nailing fine eye for country. He’ll make good somehow if you let him help in the job.’

‘The very fellow,’ he said, and he wrote an order. ‘Take this to Jacks and he’ll fix up a temporary commission. Your man can find a uniform somewhere in Amiens.’

After that I went to the detail camp and found that Ivery had duly arrived.

‘The prisoner has given no trouble, sirr,’ Hamilton reported. ‘But he’s a wee thing peevish. They’re saying that the Gairmans is gettin’ on fine, and I was tellin’ him that he should be proud of his ain folk. But he wasn’t verra weel pleased.’

Three days had wrought a transformation in Ivery. That face, once so cool and capable, was now sharpened like a hunted beast’s. His imagination was preying on him and I could picture its torture. He, who had been always at the top directing the machine, was now only a cog in it. He had never in his life been anything but powerful; now he was impotent. He was in a hard, unfamiliar world, in the grip of something which he feared and didn’t understand, in the charge of men who were in no way amenable to his persuasiveness. It was like a proud and bullying manager suddenly forced to labour in a squad of navvies, and worse, for there was the gnawing physical fear of what was coming.

He made an appeal to me.

‘Do the English torture their prisoners?’ he asked. ‘You have beaten me. I own it, and I plead for mercy. I will go on my knees if you like. I am not afraid of death — in my own way.’

‘Few people are afraid of death — in their own way.’

‘Why do you degrade me? I am a gentleman.’

‘Not as we define the thing,’ I said.

His jaw dropped. ‘What are you going to do with me?’ he quavered.

‘You have been a soldier,’ I said. ‘You are going to see a little fighting — from the ranks. There will be no brutality, you will be armed if you want to defend yourself, you will have the same chance of survival as the men around you. You may have heard that your countrymen are doing well. It is even possible that they may win the battle. What was your forecast to me? Amiens in two days, Abbeville in three. Well, you are a little behind scheduled time, but still you are prospering. You told me that you were the chief architect of all this, and you are going to be given the chance of seeing it, perhaps of sharing in it — from the other side. Does it not appeal to your sense of justice?’

He groaned and turned away. I had no more pity for him than I would have had for a black mamba that had killed my friend and was now caught to a cleft tree. Nor, oddly enough, had Wake. If we had shot Ivery outright at St Anton, I am certain that Wake would have called us murderers. Now he was in complete agreement. His passionate hatred of war made him rejoice that a chief contriver of war should be made to share in its terrors.

‘He tried to talk me over this morning,’ he told me. ‘Claimed he was on my side and said the kind of thing I used to say last year. It made me rather ashamed of some of my past performances to hear that scoundrel imitating them . . . By the way, Hannay, what are you going to do with me?’

‘You’re coming on my staff. You’re a stout fellow and I can’t do without you.’

‘Remember I won’t fight.’

‘You won’t be asked to. We’re trying to stem the tide which wants to roll to the sea. You know how the Boche behaves in occupied country, and Mary’s in Amiens.’

At that news he shut his lips.

‘Still —’ he began.

‘Still,’ I said. ‘I don’t ask you to forfeit one of your blessed principles. You needn’t fire a shot. But I want a man to carry orders for me, for we haven’t a line any more, only a lot of blobs like quicksilver. I want a clever man for the job and a brave one, and I know that you’re not afraid.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I am — much. Well. I’m content!’

I started Blenkiron off in a car for Corps Headquarters, and in the afternoon took the road myself. I knew every inch of the country — the lift of the hill east of Amiens, the Roman highway that ran straight as an arrow to St Quentin, the marshy lagoons of the Somme, and that broad strip of land wasted by battle between Dompierre and Peronne. I had come to Amiens through it in January, for I had been up to the line before I left for Paris, and then it had been a peaceful place, with peasants tilling their fields, and new buildings going up on the old battle-field, and carpenters busy at cottage roofs, and scarcely a transport waggon on the road to remind one of war. Now the main route was choked like the Albert road when the Somme battle first began — troops going up and troops coming down, the latter in the last stage of weariness; a ceaseless traffic of ambulances one way and ammunition waggons the other; busy staff cars trying to worm a way through the mass; strings of gun horses, oddments of cavalry, and here and there blue French uniforms. All that I had seen before; but one thing was new to me. Little country carts with sad-faced women and mystified children in them and piles of household plenishing were creeping westward, or stood waiting at village doors. Beside these tramped old men and boys, mostly in their Sunday best as if they were going to church. I had never seen the sight before, for I had never seen the British Army falling back. The dam which held up the waters had broken and the dwellers in the valley were trying to save their pitiful little treasures. And over everything, horse and man, cart and wheelbarrow, road and tillage, lay the white March dust, the sky was blue as June, small birds were busy in the copses, and in the corners of abandoned gardens I had a glimpse of the first violets.

Presently as we topped a rise we came within full noise of the guns. That, too, was new to me, for it was no ordinary bombardment. There was a special quality in the sound, something ragged, straggling, intermittent, which I had never heard before. It was the sign of open warfare and a moving battle.

At Peronne, from which the newly returned inhabitants had a second time fled, the battle seemed to be at the doors. There I had news of my division. It was farther south towards St Christ. We groped our way among bad roads to where its headquarters were believed to be, while the voice of the guns grew louder. They turned out to be those of another division, which was busy getting ready to cross the river. Then the dark fell, and while airplanes flew west into the sunset there was a redder sunset in the east, where the unceasing flashes of gunfire were pale against the angry glow of burning dumps. The sight of the bonnet-badge of a Scots Fusilier made me halt, and the man turned out to belong to my division. Half an hour later I was taking over from the much-relieved Masterton in the ruins of what had once been a sugar-beet factory.

There to my surprise I found Lefroy. The Boche had held him prisoner for precisely eight hours. During that time he had been so interested in watching the way the enemy handled an attack that he had forgotten the miseries of his position. He described with blasphemous admiration the endless wheel by which supplies and reserve troops move up, the silence, the smoothness, the perfect discipline. Then he had realized that he was a captive and unwounded, and had gone mad. Being a heavy-weight boxer of note, he had sent his two guards spinning into a ditch, dodged the ensuing shots, and found shelter in the lee of a blazing ammunition dump where his pursuers hesitated to follow. Then he had spent an anxious hour trying to get through an outpost line, which he thought was Boche. Only by overhearing an exchange of oaths in the accents of Dundee did he realize that it was our own . . . It was a comfort to have Lefroy back, for he was both stout-hearted and resourceful. But I found that I had a division only on paper. It was about the strength of a brigade, the brigades battalions, and the battalions companies.

This is not the place to write the story of the week that followed. I could not write it even if I wanted to, for I don’t know it. There was a plan somewhere, which you will find in the history books, but with me it was blank chaos. Orders came, but long before they arrived the situation had changed, and I could no more obey them than fly to the moon. Often I had lost touch with the divisions on both flanks. Intelligence arrived erratically out of the void, and for the most part we worried along without it. I heard we were under the French — first it was said to be Foch, and then Fayolle, whom I had met in Paris. But the higher command seemed a million miles away, and we were left to use our mother wits. My problem was to give ground as slowly as possible and at the same time not to delay too long, for retreat we must, with the Boche sending in brand-new divisions each morning. It was a kind of war worlds distant from the old trench battles, and since I had been taught no other I had to invent rules as I went along. Looking back, it seems a miracle that any of us came out of it. Only the grace of God and the uncommon toughness of the British soldier bluffed the Hun and prevented him pouring through the breach to Abbeville and the sea. We were no better than a mosquito curtain stuck in a doorway to stop the advance of an angry bull.

The Army Commander was right; we were hanging on with our eyelashes. We must have been easily the weakest part of the whole front, for we were holding a line which was never less than two miles and was often, as I judged, nearer five, and there was nothing in reserve to us except some oddments of cavalry who chased about the whole battle-field under vague orders. Mercifully for us the Boche blundered. Perhaps he did not know our condition, for our airmen were magnificent and you never saw a Boche plane over our line by day, though they bombed us merrily by night. If he had called our bluff we should have been done, but he put his main strength to the north and the south of us. North he pressed hard on the Third Army, but he got well hammered by the Guards north of Bapaume and he could make no headway at Arras. South he drove at the Paris railway and down the Oise valley, but there Petain’s reserves had arrived, and the French made a noble stand.

Not that he didn’t fight hard in the centre where we were, but he hadn’t his best troops, and after we got west of the bend of the Somme he was outrunning his heavy guns. Still, it was a desperate enough business, for our flanks were all the time falling back, and we had to conform to movements we could only guess at. After all, we were on the direct route to Amiens, and it was up to us to yield slowly so as to give Haig and Petain time to get up supports. I was a miser about every yard of ground, for every yard and every minute were precious. We alone stood between the enemy and the city, and in the city was Mary.

If you ask me about our plans I can’t tell you. I had a new one every hour. I got instructions from the Corps, but, as I have said, they were usually out of date before they arrived, and most of my tactics I had to invent myself. I had a plain task, and to fulfil it I had to use what methods the Almighty allowed me. I hardly slept, I ate little, I was on the move day and night, but I never felt so strong in my life. It seemed as if I couldn’t tire, and, oddly enough, I was happy. If a man’s whole being is focused on one aim, he has no time to worry . . . I remember we were all very gentle and soft-spoken those days. Lefroy, whose tongue was famous for its edge, now cooed like a dove. The troops were on their uppers, but as steady as rocks. We were against the end of the world, and that stiffens a man . . .

Day after day saw the same performance. I held my wavering front with an outpost line which delayed each new attack till I could take its bearings. I had special companies for counter-attack at selected points, when I wanted time to retire the rest of the division. I think we must have fought more than a dozen of such little battles. We lost men all the time, but the enemy made no big scoop, though he was always on the edge of one. Looking back, it seems like a succession of miracles. Often I was in one end of a village when the Boche was in the other. Our batteries were always on the move, and the work of the gunners was past praising. Sometimes we faced east, sometimes north, and once at a most critical moment due south, for our front waved and blew like a flag at a masthead . . . Thank God, the enemy was getting away from his big engine, and his ordinary troops were fagged and poor in quality. It was when his fresh shock battalions came on that I held my breath . . . He had a heathenish amount of machine-guns and he used them beautifully. Oh, I take my hat off to the Boche performance. He was doing what we had tried to do at the Somme and the Aisne and Arras and Ypres, and he was more or less succeeding. And the reason was that he was going bald-headed for victory.

The men, as I have said, were wonderfully steady and patient under the fiercest trial that soldiers can endure. I had all kinds in the division — old army, new army, Territorials — and you couldn’t pick and choose between them. They fought like Trojans, and, dirty, weary, and hungry, found still some salt of humour in their sufferings. It was a proof of the rock-bottom sanity of human nature. But we had one man with us who was hardly sane. . . .

In the hustle of those days I now and then caught sight of Ivery. I had to be everywhere at all hours, and often visited that remnant of Scots Fusiliers into which the subtlest brain in Europe had been drafted. He and his keepers were never on outpost duty or in any counter-attack. They were part of the mass whose only business was to retire discreetly. This was child’s play to Hamilton, who had been out since Mons; and Amos, after taking a day to get used to it, wrapped himself in his grim philosophy and rather enjoyed it. You couldn’t surprise Amos any more than a Turk. But the man with them, whom they never left — that was another matter.

‘For the first wee bit,’ Hamilton reported, ‘we thocht he was gaun daft. Every shell that came near he jumped like a young horse. And the gas! We had to tie on his mask for him, for his hands were fushionless. There was whiles when he wadna be hindered from standin’ up and talkin’ to hisself, though the bullets was spittin’. He was what ye call demoralized . . . Syne he got as though he didna hear or see onything. He did what we tell’t him, and when we let him be he sat down and grat. He’s aye greetin’ . . . Queer thing, sirr, but the Gairmans canna hit him. I’m aye shakin’ bullets out o’ my claes, and I’ve got a hole in my shoulder, and Andra took a bash on his tin that wad hae felled onybody that hadna a heid like a stot. But, sirr, the prisoner taks no scaith. Our boys are feared of him. There was an Irishman says to me that he had the evil eye, and ye can see for yerself that he’s no canny.’

I saw that his skin had become like parchment and that his eyes were glassy. I don’t think he recognized me.

‘Does he take his meals?’ I asked.

‘He doesna eat muckle. But he has an unco thirst. Ye canna keep him off the men’s water-bottles.’

He was learning very fast the meaning of that war he had so confidently played with. I believe I am a merciful man, but as I looked at him I felt no vestige of pity. He was dreeing the weird he had prepared for others. I thought of Scudder, of the thousand friends I had lost, of the great seas of blood and the mountains of sorrow this man and his like had made for the world. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the long ridges above Combles and Longueval which the salt of the earth had fallen to win, and which were again under the hoof of the Boche. I thought of the distracted city behind us and what it meant to me, and the weak, the pitifully weak screen which was all its defence. I thought of the foul deeds which had made the German name to stink by land and sea, foulness of which he was the arch-begetter. And then I was amazed at our forbearance. He would go mad, and madness for him was more decent than sanity.

I had another man who wasn’t what you might call normal, and that was Wake. He was the opposite of shell-shocked, if you understand me. He had never been properly under fire before, but he didn’t give a straw for it. I had known the same thing with other men, and they generally ended by crumpling up, for it isn’t natural that five or six feet of human flesh shouldn’t be afraid of what can torture and destroy it. The natural thing is to be always a little scared, like me, but by an effort of the will and attention to work to contrive to forget it. But Wake apparently never gave it a thought. He wasn’t foolhardy, only indifferent. He used to go about with a smile on his face, a smile of contentment. Even the horrors — and we had plenty of them — didn’t affect him. His eyes, which used to be hot, had now a curious open innocence like Peter’s. I would have been happier if he had been a little rattled.

One night, after we had had a bad day of anxiety, I talked to him as we smoked in what had once been a French dug-out. He was an extra right arm to me, and I told him so. ‘This must be a queer experience for you,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it is very wonderful. I did not think a man could go through it and keep his reason. But I know many things I did not know before. I know that the soul can be reborn without leaving the body.’

I stared at him, and he went on without looking at me.

‘You’re not a classical scholar, Hannay? There was a strange cult in the ancient world, the worship of Magna Mater — the Great Mother. To enter into her mysteries the votary passed through a bath of blood —— I think I am passing through that bath. I think that like the initiate I shall be renatus in aeternum— reborn into the eternal.’

I advised him to have a drink, for that talk frightened me. It looked as if he were becoming what the Scots call ‘fey’. Lefroy noticed the same thing and was always speaking about it. He was as brave as a bull himself, and with very much the same kind of courage; but Wake’s gallantry perturbed him. ‘I can’t make the chap out,’ he told me. ‘He behaves as if his mind was too full of better things to give a damn for Boche guns. He doesn’t take foolish risks — I don’t mean that, but he behaves as if risks didn’t signify. It’s positively eerie to see him making notes with a steady hand when shells are dropping like hailstones and we’re all thinking every minute’s our last. You’ve got to be careful with him, sir. He’s a long sight too valuable for us to spare.’

Lefroy was right about that, for I don’t know what I should have done without him. The worst part of our job was to keep touch with our flanks, and that was what I used Wake for. He covered country like a moss-trooper, sometimes on a rusty bicycle, oftener on foot, and you couldn’t tire him. I wonder what other divisions thought of the grimy private who was our chief means of communication. He knew nothing of military affairs before, but he got the hang of this rough-and-tumble fighting as if he had been born for it. He never fired a shot; he carried no arms; the only weapons he used were his brains. And they were the best conceivable. I never met a staff officer who was so quick at getting a point or at sizing up a situation. He had put his back into the business, and first-class talent is not common anywhere. One day a G. S. O. from a neighbouring division came to see me.

‘Where on earth did you pick up that man Wake?’ he asked.

‘He’s a conscientious objector and a non-combatant,’ I said.

‘Then I wish to Heaven we had a few more conscientious objectors in this show. He’s the only fellow who seems to know anything about this blessed battle. My general’s sending you a chit about him.’

‘No need,’ I said, laughing. ‘I know his value. He’s an old friend of mine.’

I used Wake as my link with Corps Headquarters, and especially with Blenkiron. For about the sixth day of the show I was beginning to get rather desperate. This kind of thing couldn’t go on for ever. We were miles back now, behind the old line of ‘17, and, as we rested one flank on the river, the immediate situation was a little easier. But I had lost a lot of men, and those that were left were blind with fatigue. The big bulges of the enemy to north and south had added to the length of the total front, and I found I had to fan out my thin ranks. The Boche was still pressing on, though his impetus was slacker. If he knew how little there was to stop him in my section he might make a push which would carry him to Amiens. Only the magnificent work of our airmen had prevented him getting that knowledge, but we couldn’t keep the secrecy up for ever. Some day an enemy plane would get over, and it only needed the drive of a fresh storm-battalion or two to scatter us. I wanted a good prepared position, with sound trenches and decent wiring. Above all I wanted reserves — reserves. The word was on my lips all day and it haunted my dreams. I was told that the French were to relieve us, but when — when? My reports to Corps Headquarters were one long wail for more troops. I knew there was a position prepared behind us, but I needed men to hold it.

Wake brought in a message from Blenkiron. ‘We’re waiting for you, Dick,’ he wrote, ‘and we’ve gotten quite a nice little home ready for you. This old man hasn’t hustled so hard since he struck copper in Montana in ‘92. We’ve dug three lines of trenches and made a heap of pretty redoubts, and I guess they’re well laid out, for the Army staff has supervised them and they’re no slouches at this brand of engineering. You would have lau............
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