ON Christmas night the pipers
came into the mess. They had piped the regiment across many a hot place
in France and escorted bombing parties down many a German trench. In one
action four out of the eight were hit and two killed. They touch a chord
deep down somewhere which no doubt has its proper scientific name. The
eye of the piper which conceals his gladness, denying all rapture, is a
key to the undemonstrative temper of the men who would rather die than
throw up their bonnets and shout.
A subaltern of nineteen years put the case for the
pipes to me in his own eloquent slang.
course I get cold feet sometimes" he said, "like everyone else. But the
pipes soon warm one. MacFarlane, the Company Piper, piped us across on
the 25th, the regimental slogan, you know. By Jove, it was top- hole."
We called him the Chicken. Being bigger in the
beam than in the shoulders and having a slightly forward stoop he looked
in his kilt like a preternaturally large nestling just emerged from the
egg, To see him walking reminded one of a determined young chicken. He
had an assurance unnatural in the new-born which set off his callowness
and puzzled one. It was not side. To hear him talk made one smile. You
would think he had plumbed experience and was already convinced about
the main issues of life, celibacy or marriage, the rights and wrongs of
Demos, peace and war, and the like. One smiled in sympathy, not in
derision, accepting the indisputable explanation that the Chicken had
had special privileges in the egg. And one thanked the war for an
ingenuousness of speech, the bloom of which would have been rubbed off
in a week of peace-time conditions in a mess.
"MacFarlane was killed with a bombing party," the
subaltern went on. They let hell loose,—all their machine guns, rifle
grenades, trench mortars, and every rifle thirty rounds at least. Our
fellows came in half an hour afterwards, having been snug in a
shell-hope through the whole show. Only two of our men were hit—by a
trench mortar. One was MacFarlane. It was a horrid sight—made me feel a
bit green. Nothing was left of them, and you couldn't tell who they were
save by their identity discs. I put a sentry by the traverse on both
sides and gave orders that no one was to pass. It wouldn't have done for
these young recruits to see the mess," this pink- faced subaltern of
nineteen explained with paternal solicitude.
His tenderness for the recruits amused me, for the
absence of down on his chin made the Chicken look younger than his
years. But I marvelled more at the complacency with which he found
himself in command. He spoke of his blooded veterans—Perthshires, if you
please, the salt of the British Army, as if he were a huntsman holding
them in the leash ; yet it was only in spirit that he had attained to
man's estate. One phrase struck me. He was describing the capture of Hun
murderers, or if not actual murderers the comrades and accomplices of
murderers, men whom his Highlanders wanted to kill.
They were all holding up their hands," the boy
told me," and trembling with funk and holding out pictures of their
Fraus and kids, and calling out Don't shoot, Kamarade! Don't shoot!' and
my men wanted to shoot them. The Perthshires had been out for blood
since the 9th of May when the Huns had burnt their wounded comrades,
shooting them with petrol bullets so that their clothes burst into flame
and they died in agony, and men who couldn't stick the sight of it any
longer crept out of their trenches, in spite of orders, to drag them in
and were burnt alive too. That day my company swore that they would take
no more Prussian prisoners, and now word had been passed round by the
Brigade, 'The 15th Prussians are in front of you, who burnt the men of
your regiment. You will know how to behave.' My men wanted to shoot them
all down, make the place a shambles; but, of course, I wouldn't have it.
I told them they had to take the men prisoners."
"Did they obey you? " I asked.
The Nestling looked at
me in surprise as if I were a very ignorant person. "Obey They knew very
well that the first man who fired I'd blow out his brains with my
After all, the Chicken's assurance was a
compliment to the regiment, where discipline is an elemental fact. And
it spoke well for the boy too, that he realized what admission into that
Kingdom, or corporation, meant, —all self and chickenhood being merged
in the subaltern of the Perthshires, whose powers were as natural and
inalienable as the properties of carbon or oxygen.
this callow youth on whom authority sat so lightly spurned his
profession. It appeared that he had ambitions. He scoffed at the idea of
sticking in the army after the war. He wanted "to do something," he
said. I could not understand how he could resist the glamour of it all.
His Colonel thought well of him and he knew it. The O.C., a reserved
man, and sparing of praise, had been talking to me about the Chicken
before dinner he told me that the boy had the right spirit and no fear
in him. " I sent him on a patrol," he said, a day or two after he
arrived at the front, to a building between the lines which was supposed
to be occupied by Germans. My orders were, Find out if the house is
held. Find out for yourself, remember, and don't take your men's word
for it. They'll always see Germans, especially on a wet night when they
want to be snug in the trenches.'
The Subaltern had
the sight of an owl, but he was determined not to come back until he had
seen Germans. So far he had seen none, having arrived at the trenches
straight from Winchester, where he held a commission in the O.T.C. and
had just won a scholarship for New College. He swore he would see
Germans that night or promenade the empty house between the lines.
A slip of a moon showed above the clouds and the rain ceased when they
were within fifty yards of the building. The Corporal touched the
Subaltern's sleeve and said, "They're there, Sir. I can see about a
dozen of them."
"Where? I don't see."
"Straight ahead, Sir, by the wall."
approached nearer. Within forty—thirty yards. The Corporal warned him
again in a throaty whisper:- "There's 'arf a company, Sir, lining the
side of the house. We're almost agin them."
Chicken could not see. Be gave the order to move forward.
At fifteen yards the Germans opened fire. A quick volley. The patrol
threw themselves flat. Luckily they were concealed in a slight
depression, and in a few seconds the moon went under a dark cloud.
The Subaltern whispered the order to return the enemy's fire, and his
four men blazed away into the shadow under the house. The Germans
replied vigorously by a miracle none of the little party were hit. Then
the Huns turned the machine gun on to them from somewhere farther back.
The Subaltern heard the spray of bullets coming nearer, spattering the
earth, searching every inch of soil, passing with a thirsty sucking
noise overhead. He was the most exposed of his party, but he felt for
the body of the dead man he had stumbled against, and drew it into a
close embrace. The current of lead passed an inch over them where they
lay interlaced, the live man clinging for life to the dead. The fire
dropped. The body received a bullet and shook as if it were wrestling
with him. It's head butted his own. A faint smell of cigar fume clung to
its moustache. The boy had let the situation go for a moment, and was
wondering, with a detachment at which he was surprised, whether all
Germans smoked Havanas in the trenches, when a new kind of explosion
added to the din. It was "A" Company's patrol bombing the house. The
little scouting party received their first casualty from them. The man
behind the Chicken uttered a cry of pain. A splinter from a bomb had
taken away part of his right ear.
This extended attack
was too much for the Huns, who thought the whole line was advancing and
decamped. The moon peeped out again as they were going off, and the
Subaltern, Corporal and the two men accounted for at least half a dozen
of them. These dark figures which rolled up like rabbits were the first
Germans the Chicken had seen.
The Subaltern entered
the house with the two privates and sent the Corporal back to tell the
Colonel that we were in possession. He had taken a rather important
Observation Post marked 2.22 on the map.
I had some of the story from
the boy and some from the Colonel, but I will let the boy finish it.
The next day we had some burying," he said. " From the new post we could
send out patrols to bring in our fellows who had been knocked out on the
12th. You won't mind me talking about things which make you feel a bit
squeamish, will you, Sir?"—the boy called everybody above the age of
forty "Sir "-"Tell me to shut up if it is too beastly but, you see, most
of these bodies had been out for six weeks and were more or less
decomposed. We dug a shallow trench towards them, threw out a hook on a
bit of rope and drew them in. We had to find their identification discs.
It was not a pleasant business taking off a man's shirt and not always
easy, and my Corporal being sick every minute didn't help things either.
I generally went for their pockets for letters ; that was easier, but
.omit here some details which are too unpleasant to print. "The Corporal
with his weak stomach was a bit of a nuisance, especially at night, for
if the Germans heard him they would send up a flare."
Then he told me about a frontal attack at Loos. The Chicken had seen and
suffered more and lived more in six months in France, and done more for
England than I had in two score odd years. He was clearly a born
soldier. He was happy in the regiment and quite one of them —one of the
new incarnation at least who approximate in some ways to the old. I
could not see what more he desired.
"You really think
of throwing up the army after the war?" I asked. The Chicken turned on
me the wistful smile that talk of "after the war" evoked among the
sanguine at the time. "In war time of course everybody has got to be a
soldier," he said, "but in peace time—no thank you!"
"But what are you going to do?"
"Anything, but inspect
meat and tunic buttons. Something that counts. I suppose I shall go into
the Bar or Parliament."
I would have asked him if he
really thought these talking shops counted more than the Perthshircs;
but the pipes were coming in again and they were playing the regimental
slogan. It gave one the most extraordinary feeling in the pit of one's
stomach and all down one's back.
"I'm not sure,
though," the boy said ingenuously when they had gone out, "I may stick
to the regiment on the chance of another show."
understood, I had passed through the two moods myself in a long route
march when the pipes took over charge from the brass band.