THE man on the extreme right of the line fidgeted uneasily. He looked round with a frown to the corporal a little behind and saw me. I wore the red cross brassard over my civilian jacket. This he saw, and wriggled uncomfortably.
"There ought to be somebody on the right here," he grumbled. "Bit too conspicuous bein' on the extreme right...."
He had never been under fire before, so his perturbation was natural. It is much easier to fight shoulder to shoulder than in extended order; it is even easier to fight in extended order, if you have a man on either side of you.
I told him to sit down—the other men of the line were sprawling at ease, waiting for the word to advance.
"How does it feel?" he asked.
"Rotten," said I truthfully, "but only for a minute or so."
"When are they going to begin?" he demanded, and scowled at the blue line of hills ahead bathed in a white hot flood of sunshine.
Far away to the right the cavalry was moving forward. They went ahead very slowly, as though uncertain of their direction.
They moved to the right, and halted—then they went on again, still slowly, reluctantly, and finally disappeared in a fold of the yellow ground.
"Waiting for the guns," I said, and looked behind.
Yes, there they were, four batteries in four straight lines stretching backward. Now they were moving left and right, and presently, when they touched suitable ground, they would deploy.
Out of the blue hills ahead, as though from some rent of a crater, drifted a long wisp of white smoke.
"Ladies and gentlemen." The voice, strident and clear, was the voice of a soldier squatting on the ground, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are just about to begin. Come-and-see-the-big-guns-of-the-enemy—"
"Fall in!" The line came to its feet.
Like a growl of thunder came the report of the gun on the hill. Over to the right, where the cavalry had disappeared, a big fountain of earth leapt straight into the air, another wisp of smoke from the hill, another and another, and even in the sunlight you saw the quick lick of flame.
"Duck, ye devils!"
A man on the left gives the warning, and as the new men obey him a roar of laughter sweeps along the line. A great joke to see the new men duck their heads as, with a roar like that of a train passing through a station, something flies overhead and buries itself in the soft earth to the rear of the line.
The man on the right wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, and looks back curiously at the place where the shell struck.
" Nice thing—ain't it?" he asks in a tone of complaint and despair, "bein' hit by a thing like that—phew."
Our guns are in action behind us—and there go the cavalry—far, far to the right—slow no longer, but sweeping swiftly forward to their invisible goal. All the sides of the blue hills are hazy with smoke now.
"Pang! Pang! Pang!"
Our guns are going furiously. Little puffs of white smoke hang over the hill ahead; you hear the echo—like the sound of exploding shrapnel.
"'S'awful, ain't it"
The man on the right is changing his attitude. His voice has lost the note of terror, and there has come a hint of admiring interest. Even in his "'S'awful," he would not have it less awful for worlds. The shock has passed, he has experienced his worst sensation, and is now blooded to war.
"How long are they going to keep us here?" he asks, and you know that if he wants to move it is forward.
The whine of shells overhead is incessant, but presently you detect a difference of sound.
The shrapnel now, high-pitched, perfectly timed, and scattering as well-behaved shrapnel should do. It patters on the ground like rain, and men edge to the left and right instinctively.
"Line will advance—keep your distance —plenty of time, my lads."
A red-faced lieutenant, obviously ablaze with excitement, nurses his platoon, walking ahead of them, now walking backward like a Salvation Army captain, now throwing his words across his shoulder. He is young and without experience, but he is obsessed with the sense of his responsibilities.
"Keep your lines—nothing to worry about—march on the centre—"
A piping voice from the ranks arrests him.
"Beg pardon, sir your bootlace is untied."
A ripple of quiet laughter, a broad grin on the face of the major commanding the company, and the red-faced officer stoops, fumbling at his lace, and the line passes him. He is back soon, running to overtake them.
The shrapnel is bursting behind them. Six—seven—eight shells; then the enemy get the range. A man slips forward and goes sprawling to the earth with outstretched hands. The man at his right hesitates, and looks down at the silent, bleeding figure.
"Leave that man!"
The major swings round and roars the order:
"Leave him, confound you—leave him!"
So they leave him on the ground for the Royal Army Medical Corps, which will be working up from the rear.
Onward, onward, slowly, slowly, but always onward. Over gentle rises of ground where men crouch low as they walk, down deep hollows, and up the slope on the other side.
The skirmishing line is under rifle fire now. It whistles and whiffles about them; it sends the dust spurting up at their feet.
"Take cover in that donga—double!"
Now they are running swiftly to the first line of cover. Men go down here and there, but the man on the right doesn't seem to care. He is full of eager excitement, swings ahead of the line, and is gruffly checked by his officer.
They make the cover and crouch, panting and chuckling.
"Six hundred yards—commence firing! "
Up till now they haven't fired a shot. But now the well-oiled bolts are clicking all along the line, and the yellow cartridges are tinkling to the chamber.
At first lazily, and then in a fury of rattling sound, the rifles are going off.
"Aim steadily! That streak of yellow ahead is the trench! Steady, now—don't waste ammunition! What the devil are you firing at, Jackson—the moon?"
The shrapnel has the range again, and is bursting accurately over the cover.
"Line will advance—double!"
Out of the donga they scramble, a thousand yellow coats, and fly as fast as legs can carry across the bare patch of ground which separates them from the enemy. A whistle shrills, and obediently the thousand sink to earth, taking what cover they can. More whistles—the extended line is closing stealthily on the centre. Another rush forward—again the whistle, then—
How they rattle, those bayonets, how they "snick" down to groove and catch!
You can see the trenches plainly, you can feel the men in them. The air is all shrill sound, and the bursting shrapnel overhead is a ceaseless clatter.
It is the wild, exultant cry of the colonel—the only man who may address the regiment by its title.
"Winchesters, follow me—charge!"
Up they leap, a savage, glittering line.
With one wild yell—a throaty and roaring yell like a harsh and sustained "Ahr-r-r!"—the line breaks into a jogtrot run. Men spin round and fall, men sink limply like tired children, men swear at their comrades who get in the way, but the line, as a coherent, terrible force, drives forward to the end of the trenches, and the bayonets rise and fall....
The colonel shakes his bleeding hand and blinks round for his man, and the corporal, with his swung tripod, fixes its three legs into the earth and adjusts his mirror.
"Heliograph to the general: 'Taken first line of the trenches. Enemy is now retiring on second line.'"
The man on the right, balancing his rifle, turns and smiles.
"I hope we're going to take the second line," he says. "How did I feel under fire? Fine! I forgot all about everything, but what I forgot first was—that I was under fire"
That is always the way.