Pushed and the Return Push
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The Australian Handover
In the morning I went with the colonel through the village, and a mile and a half along a road leading east that for half a mile was lined with camouflage screens. "The Boche holds the ridge over there," remarked the colonel, stretching an arm towards high ground swathed in a blue haze five miles away. A painted notice-board told all and sundry that horse traffic was not permitted on the road until after dusk. We struck off to the left, dropped into a trench where we saw a red triangular flag flying, and said "Good-day" to the brigade-major of the Infantry brigade who had made their headquarters at this spot. Then we got out of the trench again, and walked along the top until we came to what was to be our future home—the headquarters of the Australian Field Artillery Brigade that we were to relieve by 10 P.M. We received a cheery welcome from a plump, youngish Australian colonel, and a fair-haired adjutant with blue sparkling eyes.
When a brigade of artillery relieves another brigade of artillery, there is a ceremony, known as "handing-over," to be gone through. The outgoing brigade presents to the in-coming brigade maps and documents showing the positions of the batteries, the O.P.'s, the liaison duties with the infantry, the amount of ammunition to be kept at the gun positions, the zones covered, the S.O.S. arrangements, and similar information detailing daily work and responsibilities. I can recall no "hand-over" so perfect in its way as this one. The Australian Brigade's defence file was a beautifully arranged, typed document, and a child could have understood the indexing. True, the extent and number of their headquarters staff was astonishing. Against our two clerks they had three clerks, and a skilled draughtsman for map-making; also an N.C.O. whose
sole magnum opus was the weekly compiling of Army Form B. 213. But there could be no doubt that they carried on war in a most business-like way.
The colonel went off with the Australian colonel to inspect the battery positions and view the front line from the O.P.'s, and sent me back to bring up our mess cart and to arrange for the fetching of our kit. By tea-time we were properly installed; and indeed the Australian colonel and his adjutant remained as our guests at dinner.
The mess, cut out of the side of the trench and lined with corrugated iron, possessed an ingeniously manufactured door—part of a drum-tight wing of a French aeroplane. The officers' sleeping quarters were thirty feet below ground, in an old French dug-out, with steps so unequal in height that it was the prudent course to descend backwards with your hands grasping the steps nearest your chin.
The Australian colonel dipped his hand for the fifth time into the box of canteen chocolates that Manning had placed on the table with the port. "That's a nice Sam Browne of yours," he observed, noticing the gloss on our adjutant's belt.
"I hope you don't take a fancy to it, sir," replied our adjutant quickly. "We're all afraid of you, you know. I've put a double piquet on our waggon lines for fear some of your fellows take a liking to our horses."
The Australian colonel and his adjutant laughed good-naturedly, and the colonel told us a story of a captain and a sergeant-major in another Australian brigade who were accomplished "looters."
One night the pair were hauling down a tent which they thought was empty, when a yell made them aware that an officer was sleeping in it. The captain took to his heels, but the sergeant-major was captured.
"The next day," concluded the Australian colonel, "the captain had to go and make all sorts of apologies to get his sergeant-major off. The other people agreed, provided the officer ransomed him with half a dozen pit-props and ten sheets of corrugated iron. For a long time afterwards we used to chaff the captain, and tell him that he valued his sergeant-major at six pit-props and ten sheets of iron."
Hot sweltering days followed. Most mornings I spent at the O.P. watching our batteries' efforts to knock out suspected enemy trench mortars, or staring through my binoculars trying to pick out Boche transport, or fresh digging operations. The tramp back at midday along the communication trenches was boiling-hot going. I used to think "People working in London will be pining just now for green fields and country air. For myself, I'd give anything for a cool ride on a London bus." In the afternoons there were reserve battery positions—in case of a swift Hun advance—to be reconnoitred, gaps in the barbed-wire systems to be located, and bits of trenches that would have to be filled in to allow our waggons to cross. Divisional Artillery were insistent upon timed reports of hostile shelling, particularly gas shelling, and this formed another portion of my special work. One day intimation came from Division that Fentiman and Robson had been accepted for the Air Service. "It's the only way to get leave to England," said Robson jocularly. Fentiman's chief regret was that he would have to leave behind a mare that he had got from the Tank Corps. "She pulls so," he told me one afternoon when I met him jogging along the road, "that if I turned on to the grass at this moment and put spurs into her, she wouldn't stop
till she got to Amiens.... No one in the Tank Corps has been able to pull her up under four miles, and only then when she came to a seven-foot hedge.... But I was beginning to understand her."
When I accompanied the colonel on his visits to the Infantry brigades all the talk was of the training of the youngsters, who now formed so considerable a portion of the battalion strengths. "They are good stuff," I heard one of the brigadiers say, "and I keep drumming into them that they are fighting for England, and that the Boche mustn't gain another yard of ground." He was a fighter, this brigadier—although I have never yet met another officer who took it as a matter of course that his camp-bed should be equipped with linen sheets when he was living in the firing line.
About three-quarters of a mile from our headquarters was a tiny cemetery, set in a grove of trees on a bare hillside, sequestered, beautiful in its peacefulness and quiet. One morning, very early, I walked out to view it more closely. It had escaped severe shelling, although chipped tombstones and broken railings and scattered pieces of painted wire wreaths showed that the hell-blast of destruction had not altogether passed it by. I went softly into the little chapel. On the floor, muddy, noisy-sleeping soldiers lay sprawled in ungainly attitudes. Rifles were piled against the wall; mess-tins and water-bottles lay even upon the altar. And somehow there seemed nothing incongruous about the spectacle, nothing that would hurt a profoundly religious mind. It was all part of the war.
And one night when I was restless, and even the heavy drugging warmth of the dug-out did not dull me to sleep, I climbed up into the open air. It was a lovely night.
The long dark wood stood out black and distinct in the clear moonlight; the stars twinkled in their calm abode. Suddenly a near-by battery of long-range guns cracked out an ear-splitting salvo. And before the desolating rush of the shells had faded from the ear a nightingale hidden among the trees burst into song. That also was part of the war.