What Fatty Earle's toothache did to some fighting Yanks in France
DOWN there on the front between Mézigny and Gasquet everything was quiet except the right upper canine tooth of Private James (Fatty) Earle, which was aching so hard that it sometimes made him lift his right foot knee-high and set him hopping in a circle.
Except for Private Fatty Earle nothing had happened in this sector since the first murder days of 1914. After that the Germans dug in on one side and the French on the other and neither stirred for years. Generals and battalions in need of rest were slipped into this dull backwater for relaxation. A ticket to Gasquet was almost like home leave; and it certainly was a mistake that set the whole French army sighing when this halcyon spot was assigned to the Americans. Generally the Yankees took over with a savage enthusiasm to do or die and a naïve belief that the Old World, like its pugilists, knew how to start a fight but not how to finish one; but down there in Gasquet even Americans could see that it was a place where enthusiasm should be bated. Everyone who glanced at those entrenchments could understand why. For the French lines, now occupied by Americans, lay across a marsh, the little concrete walls standing up and fairly asking to be knocked over by shellfire onto the heads of unfortunate soldiers. But the Germans opposite them were in just as bad a case, for their entrenchments were dug around the shoulders of the steep hill of Gasquet, with the bright village standing at the top, a little rat-eaten at the corners by the bombardments of 1914 but gradually healing its wounds with time. This to a layman's eye would seem an ideal position from which to pour forth a plunging fire, but as a matter of fact Gasquet stood up like the apple on the head of young Tell and any William with six-inch guns could not fail to knock it to smithereens. As for the trenches across the round of the slope, they were in even worse case, for the Hill of Gasquet is composed of loose rock and shale, and a small shell, exploding in this material, sent bursting, ruinous landslides down the pitch. A single explosion launched a thousand deadly flying rocks, a sort of natural shrapnel with gravity taking the place of gunpowder.
FOR these double reasons the Germans in Gasquet treated the hostile lines with the utmost consideration, and the Americans were to the Germans as second cousins, at least. A friendly traffic sprang up in wine and beer, cigarettes. coffee, bread, sausages, phonograph records, newspapers, and other odds and ends. The atmosphere of Gasquet was such that a regiment of shock troops in a single day lost its war rage and settled down to the smoking of pipes.
In Gasquet such strange things were to be seen as laundry drying on barbed-wire entanglements, and in No Man's Land a little wilderness of shrubbery was growing up around the edges of the shell-holes of 1914. Rabbits, which grow up almost like grass everywhere, yearning to be stewed in France or pickled in Germany, appeared in this miniature wilderness and both sides set snares fur them. These mild combatants gave certain face to the state of war by not walking insolently forth in the middle of the day. Instead, they would set their traps in the dimness of twilight and make the rounds of their snares in the dawn.
And it was just at dawn that Private Fatty Earle, his eyes sharpened by the torment of his toothache, saw a figure in the field-gray of Germany plundering a trap which he, Fatty Earle, had set with his own hands the evening before. He stared, incredulous for a moment, but gradually it swept over his spirit—a savage anger, a blood-lust, which made him lift the rifle to his shoulder and follow the retreat of the German to the mound of the first trench. There Fatty observed two things. In the first place he saw that the rabbit was in fact a huge, fat, sleek beast, a real Santa Claus among rabbits; in the second place he was aware that the German had turned and was thumbing his nose at the entire Western World. At that moment also the tooth gave to Fatty a pain that thrust deeper than a plunging bayonet, and his soft forefinger closed on the trigger of the rifle.
THE German, at the report, jumped a foot into the air. He landed with his left hand clasping his right shoulder, then slipped down into the trench, from which a long, pealing yell of rage and astonishment rang across the lowlands and over the trenches of the Americans. An instant later a machine gun began to stammer like a drunken mistress; and the whole American camp roused from a dream of peace to find itself in a nightmare of war with the three-inch shells already singing soprano notes at their ears and the five-inch guns knocking the tar out of those silly, upstanding concrete entrenchments as though they were the walls of so many sheepcotes.
The Brigadier said: "Who the blankety-blank has started this blankety-blank business? These blankety-blank trenches are going to be blankety-blank slaughter pens. Who started it?''
When a general speaks there is always an aide-de-camp capable of giving an answer. It was an aide of the Brigadier who now said: "Company K, sir. Commanding officer, Captain Ellis."
"I hope that blankety-blank Ellis has his blankety-blank head knocked off," said the Brigadier. "But if we both live through it I'm going to make him think that hell is cooler than Coney Island. What are we going to do in these blankety-blank trenches now?"
One of his aides saluted and said: "We must leave them, sir."
"We must," said the Brigadier. "Give me that blankety-blank telephone."
But before he could issue orders effectively the battle was taking its own course. Rifle bullets were whistling like sharp little bird notes everywhere; machine guns were sweeping the trenches with invisible scythes; and the big guns commenced to bark like hungry, roaring dogs in the distance.
In fact, it was obvious to every private, every noncom, every officer in the American lines, that the trenches were not tenable for a moment. They had to leave the crumbling concrete walls which were tumbling in upon them, and leave them they did, with a rush. Being Americans, not yet taught sufficient caution by bashing their heads against four years of trench warfare, they followed their impertinent Yankee natures and went forward. And as they crossed No Man's Land they caught hell.
In some places they carried the trenches immediately before them. But in many other places they were stopped, and the reason they stopped was that they were dead. They were dead in scatterings, where big shells tossed them; they were dead in heaps where rifle fire snagged them at converging angles; they were dead in beautiful, even lines where the invisible scythes caught them and mowed them down in regular swaths.
THE Brigadier saw part of this, heard part of it, and got the rest over the telephone wires before they were cut to bits. The General was a large man who played a strong hand at poker and who knew how to add up the values of chance; but just at that moment he was thinking of his battalions as he last had seen them on a parade ground, the companies marching in long lines in review, the men dressing anxiously to the right, the little fellows lengthening their legs, the big men bending their knees to make shorter steps, and every chin drawn in until neck and shoulders were numb with rigidity. The Brigadier thought of that picture and a great stroke of sorrow fell upon his heart and rang a booming bell in his mind, and it seemed to that profane old man, for the moment, that all these lanky boys were older brothers of his boy Sammy, back there at home reading baseball dope and sneaking cigarettes and learning how to box, and in general brightening the whole blankety-blank world with his smile. When the Brigadier thought of these things, all in that thunderstroke of grief, he completely lost his head and threw in all his reserves at a single wallop.
That was not the way to play the game. It was crazy. Suppose the attack failed—and it was failing now—he would be all used up and the Germans would march through him as fast as their boots could trudge across the marsh. And then the High Command would sit in a stiff-necked inquiry, and the Brigadier would be washed up for life. His resignation might be accepted, or worse things than this might happen. And the Brigadier, as a matter of fact, even had time to think about this, also; but being a poker player he felt that this might be the moment to bluff. So he threw in everything and smashed the rules of the game to a thousand bits by doing so. And as long as he was smashing precedent, he went ahead and did a complete job of it. For he not only threw in the reserves in one solid lump, but he threw himself in with them.
THE truth is that the Brigadier, if this stroke failed, did not care a blankety-blank about living. So many of those beautiful battalions already were being chewed up into forcemeat that he hardly cared to live anyway, to review some day the skimped ranks and the broken companies.
Of course he should have remained in the rear, because everybody knows that in modern war the general must fight with his brains and keep to the rear of the action; but the Brigadier started forward on a run, with a big service automatic in his fist and terrible language on his lips.
The truth is that the Brigadier was a good deal of a joke. He had no real talent for battle. All his aides-de-camp laughed at his various follies. His colonels looked at one another behind his back, and their lips often twitched with amusement. And the majors simply had no time for him. But when it came down to the captains and lieutenants, who always are great geniuses of war, they seriously felt that such a silly old fool ought to be left behind in Washington but not sent out where he could ruin the name and honor of a great nation with his blankety-blank foolishness.
But now, in spite of the smashed telephone lines, in spite of the hell-brew of noise that was rocketing out of the marshes and up the slope toward Gasquet, which a battery of big American guns had hold of and was knocking the frosting off of... in spite of all the sweating and straining and confusion, in spite of the wounded men who sat down and stared at their own blood, and those who ran forward faster than ever, driven by pain; in spite of the dead men they stumbled over and the wounded who kicked and screamed on the ground; in spite of the whole ruction of the battle, a murmur strangely lived in the air and reached those fighting men, and the murmur said: "The damned old fool of a general is leading us... there he is, now... no, that's not him... that's not fast enough... why the hell don't he stay back where he belongs? What kind of a man's war is this, anyway?... There he is, the damned old fool!... He's down!... No, he's up!... He's up and still going!... Oh my God, he's gunna go and get himself done in... Hey, Bill, Jim, Mike!... Come on and get going before the dirty Boches do in that damned old fat-faced fool."
In the books they say, "The cheering troops, inspired by the example of their beloved commander..." but the Yankees of those battalions spat white as they cursed and toiled up the slope to Gasquet with the barrage eating the hill before them the way a stream of water eats a sand-pile.
The Germans, playing the game with scientific care, waited until the last moment, wisely sacrificing the advance trenches and their occupants and preparing the counterstroke which would roll the silly Yankees back down the hill. And when the exactly proper moment came, that reserve streamed out of the ruins of Gasquet and moved in a solid mass over the brow of the hill.
It was a beautiful maneuver, beautifully timed, beautifully executed, theoretically correct and admirable in every imaginable way. But just as that solid wave started moving the heavy artillery spotted it, and the three-inch guns joined in, and together they stamped on the top of Gasquet Hill, and when the dust settled the German reserve was no more.
The Brigadier, in the meantime, went down once on his knees with a bullet through his left shoulder; but when they tried to take him away he knocked their blankety-blank hands away and staggered on, saying: "There's fifty pounds too much of me, anyway. This'll thin me down. I've got to take up that blankety-blank golf. I've got to cut out the starches... O'Leary, I don't need your help. I can carry my own blankety-blank fat belly."
THEN he went down again, flat on his face, and hundreds of gasping, sweating, spent doughboys saw that fall and halted as though they had run against a wall.
But it was only a bit of a fragment of a shell that had scraped the Brigadier's head and he got up to his feet again and said: "Blankety-blank good shots, those German blankety-blanks; but they can't ring this old bell!"
The running blood blinded him in one eye so that he hardly knew where he was until he found himself stumbling over the ruins of a village, the wind still blowing the powdered stone away.
Then the Brigadier stopped. He said: "Well, boys, here we are. I guess this is a blankety-blank victory!"
When they got some bandages on. Him, and after he had knocked the spots out of the counterattack, he said: ''Get Company K's commander. Get that blankety-blank Ellis up here."
Captain Ellis said: "A certain Private Earle fired the shot which..."
"Get Private Earle." said the Brigadier. "He's got to be decorated on the field of battle... but I hope he's dead when you find him... What's left of your company. Ellis?"
"About half, sir," said Ellis.
"Company K was the best blankety-blank company in your battalion," said the Brigadier,
Captain Ellis was not able to speak. The dust of the battle, perhaps, had choked him.
The Brigadier thundered: "It's the best blankety-blank company in the whole blankety-blank army."
"Yes, sir," whispered the captain.
"Get Earle and bring him here," said the General.
They led Captain Ellis away.
When Ellis got back to his men, as they lay on their backs with their arms thrown out crosswise, he said to his remaining lieutenant: "What happened to Private Earle?"
"The blankety-blank-blank-blank sprained an ankle, and couldn't keep up. He's back there," said the lieutenant. "But how's old Fat-face? How's the Brigadier?"
"He's going to take up golf and give up starches." said the captain, and tried to laugh: so did the lieutenant, but neither of them succeeded. "Get Earle. The General is going to decorate him on the spot," said the captain.
The lieutenant said to a sergeant: "Get Earle. The General is going to decorate him on the spot."
The sergeant said to a corporal: "Get Earle. The General wants to decorate him on the spot."
"The blankety-blank old fool!" said the corporal.
He took his squad and they went back and found Private Fatty Earle.
"Get up," said the corporal. "The General wants to decorate you on the spot."
Fatty Earle stood up. He did not limp very badly on his sprained ankle. The corporal looked at him and at the lame foot for a long time.
"It seems to me, boys," said the corporal, "that Fatty don't look dressed up enough to be showed to the General. It seems to me that if I was to leave you alone with him here, down in this hollow, you might be able to do something about it. You might improve his looks, a lot. I leave it to you. You've got five minutes to work in."
Fatty Earle was saying: "I'll tell you how it was. I saw him grab that rabbit right out of a trap I'd set myself, and then I said to myself. 'No German blankety-blank is gunna put one over on me like that,' so I took and drew a bead on him, and I got him right in the sights, and I held him there, and then..."
The corporal had turned his back and taken three steps. He heard the sound of a blow. The voice of Private Earle stopped bragging. A loud yell started, and was knocked back down the throat of the screamer. There were confused sounds. For five minutes the corporal stood and looked at his wrist watch. For five minutes the confused sounds continued.
Then the corporal turned and saw what had been Fatty Earle dripping from the hands of the sweating squad members. But in spite of their labors, they seemed refreshed.
"That's better." said the corporal. "He looks a lot more like a hero, now. Anybody would know that he's been through a battle. Anybody could guess that he's a hero... It's a fact that he can't walk now. So carry him up the hill to the General and let him get his blankety-blank medal."
THE Brigadier recuperated in Paris, drinking the wine of the country and reading newspaper clippings and excerpts from speeches made by sagacious senators and revered representatives in Washington about the battle of Gasquet Hill.
One day he got his official commendation and his step-up in rank. He read the thing aloud to O'Leary until he came to the part which said: "The profound care with which the stroke was planned was equalled and surpassed by the manner in which you delivered the attack, and the perfect timing of the secondary attack with the reserve, to say nothing of the personal heroism with which you executed..."
The General dropped the letter to his knee. It slid off his knee to the floor and lay there unregarded.
"Profound plan—perfect timing..." said the Brigadier, dreamily.
"Yes, sir," said O'Leary.
"O'Leary don't be that way," said the Brigadier.
"No, sir," said O'Leary.
"Anyway, let's have another drink," said the Brigadier.
They had another drink.
"What are you now, anyway?" said the Brigadier. "A captain or what?"
"A major, sir," said O'Leary.
"The hell you are!'' said the Brigadier.
"You laid it on rather thick in your report, you know," said O'Leary.
"Did I?" said the Brigadier. "Well, I want to tell you something."
"What is it?" asked O'Leary.
"That was a blankety-blank steep hill," said the General.