|THE AIRSHIP "GOLDEN HIND"|
|TO THE FORE WITH THE TANKS|
|THE SECRET BATTLEPLANE|
|WILMSHURST OF THE FRONTIER FORCE|
|THE EXPLOITS OF THE MYSTERY|
|BLAKE OF THE MERCHANT SERVICE|
|BUCKLE OF SUBMARINE V2|
|OSCAR DANBY, V.C.|
|DASTRAL OF THE FLYING CORPS|
|THE PHANTOM AIRMAN|
= TO THE FORE
WITH THE TANKS! =
PERCY F. WESTERMAN Edit
====== AUTHOR OF
"A WATCHDOG OF THE NORTH SEA"; "A SUB. OF THE R.N.R."
"THE RIVAL SUBMARINES," ETC., ETC. ======
CHAPTER I Edit
TO THE FRONT Edit
"The jolting cattle-trucks pulled up with a disconcerting jerk at the termination of a fifty-mile railway journey, performed in the remarkably record time of fifteen hours.
From a springless truck, on which was painted the legend, "40 hommes ou 8 chevaux," descended fifty-two tired but elated Tommies, thirsty, ravenously hungry, but quite able to keep up a bantering conversation with the peasants who had gathered by the side of the temporary line.
It was a miserable night, even for the Somme district in early March. Rain was falling solidly. The ground was churned into deep mud of the consistency of treacle. The gaunt gables of a dozen roofless houses, silhouetted against the constant glare in the sky, betokened ruined homes and uncomfortable billets; while the loud rumble of distant artillery was in itself ample proof that at last the Second Wheatshires had arrived somewhere on the Western Front—the goal of six months' constant and arduous training.
Into the squelching mud the men stepped blithely. They were used to it by this time. The double line of khaki-clad figures, showing dimly through the darkness, shuffled impatiently. Here and there a man would "hike" his pack to relieve the weight of the webbing equipment over his shoulders, or sling his rifle while he lighted the almost inseparable "fag." The distant flashes of the heavy guns glinted from the wet "tin-hats" of the Tommies, as the unaccustomed head-gear wobbled with every movement of the wearer's head. The issue of steel trench helmets given before the commencement of the railway journey had confirmed the rumour of the past fortnight—that No. 3 Platoon was to be sent to join the rest of the battalion at the Front.
"Ah, well, 'tis certain he hath crossed River Somme,'" quoted Private Graham Alderhame formerly of the Shakesperian Repertoire Company and now a humble foot-slogging Tommy in a noted Line Regiment. "Well, if this is across the Somme I don't think much of it. Another ten miles by motor-bus, I suppose, and then something in the way of grub. Got a cigarette on you, dear boy?"
Private Ralph Setley, who seven months previously had been a bank-clerk in a busy provincial town, placed his rifle against a pile of equipment that was serenely resting in the mud, and fumbled for a packet of smokes. Then, having handed one of the contents to his chum, he struck a match.
The light flickered upon the honest, deeply tanned features of a typical British lad of about nineteen or twenty. In spite of a day of extreme discomfort in the over-crowded horse-box which the French Government placed at the disposal of Allied troops, his eyes twinkled with the excitement of the moment. At last he was within sound of the guns, and more, the chance of meeting a Hun was within measurable distance.
Having lighted Alderhame's cigarette and his own, Setley was about to throw the vilely sulphurous match to the ground when another voice interposed:
"Hold hard, chum. Let's have a light."
Ralph was about to comply with the request when a hand shot out and sent the still flaring match flying through the air.
"What's that for, George?" asked the disappointed applicant for a light, with mingled truculence and resentment.
"'Cause 'tain't for no good; third chap as 'as a light from the same match allus goes West—honest fact," replied Ginger Anderson, a short, wiry man, who, according to his attestation papers, used to be a gamekeeper, although others of his platoon swore that he had been convicted three times for poaching.
"Listen!" exclaimed Alderhame, placing a hand on Setley's shoulder.
A short distance along the double line of waiting Tommies a hungry Kentish man was endeavouring to persuade an ancient paysanne to sell some eggs. Judging by the man's injured tone his efforts were not meeting with success.
"Wot, no compree?" he asked. "Des woffs, des woffs. Blimey, these old Frenchies don't understand their own bloomin' language. Woffs, I said, missis—them wot we calls heggs."
A motor-car with dimmed head-lights dashed up, throwing showers of mud on either side like miniature cascades. From it descended a great-coated staff-officer. The ranks stiffened. Something was in the air. Information, perhaps, as to the place where the tired Tommies were to be billeted.
"Who's in charge of this platoon?" rasped out an authoritative voice.
"I am, sir," replied a subaltern fresh from home, a beardless youth of about nineteen, Stanley Dacres by name. "Details for the Second Wheatshires."
"Quite about time," rejoined the staff officer. "You are to take your men to the reserve trenches. Motor-buses for the first five miles. With luck you ought to be there by midnight. Arms and equipment all correct?"
"All correct, sir."
"Two per man, sir."
"All right; see that one is returned. New pattern gas-helmets will be issued. A guide will accompany you. Good night and good luck."
The staff officer vanished in the darkness, his place being taken by a sergeant who had evidently emerged from an estaminet.
In single file the No. 3 Platoon marched off, ankle deep in liquid mud, the coldness of which penetrated the thick puttees and boots of the men as they made their way towards the supply depot.
The depot was a long, rambling stone building that originally possessed one doorway. Now there were two, a Hun shell having obligingly knocked away twenty or thirty square feet of masonry in the end wall, while of the roof only a few rafters and tiles remained. Tarpaulin sheets had been nailed to the woodwork to form a temporary shelter from the driving rain. The corners of the canvas, flapping in the wind, threatened to demolish the remaining structure, besides allowing a steady stream of water to pour upon the earth and lime-trodden floor.
As each man entered the building he threw one of the two gas-masks in a corner, and in return had a complicated anti-poison-gas device thrust unceremoniously into his hand. Three paces further on he was greeted with half of a very dry loaf and a tin of bully-beef, while as he emerged into the night another gift in the shape of one hundred and fifty rounds of ball ammunition in clips was bestowed on the already heavily weighted Tommy.
"Repairs executed while you wait!" exclaimed Ginger Anderson. "Oh, dash! There goes my bloomin' tucker."
The half-loaf had slipped from his grasp and was rolling in the mud. As he stooped to retrieve it the man next to him cannoned into his unstable form, with the result that Ginger went on all-fours, plus equipment, in the Artois mud.
"Say, sergeant," remarked the luckless private, holding up the bread. "Wot am I ter do wi' this?"
"Get outside it when you're hungry," was the N.C.O.'s unsympathetic reply. "If you've never got to eat stuff worse than that you can thank your lucky stars."
"All aboard for 'Appy 'Ampstead!" shouted a wag as a line of motor-buses, some possessing the original advertisements they had displayed in London Town, snorted up through the blinding rain.
"Silence in the ranks!" ordered the platoon commander.
Even had his order not been given absolute silence fell upon the men as a blinding flash stabbed the darkness, followed by an appalling crash like a concerted roar of a dozen thunder claps. The ground trembled. A partly demolished gable collapsed with a long drawn-out rumble.
"We're under shell fire at last, then," remarked Second-Lieutenant Dacres to the sergeant told off as guide to the platoon.
"Fritz's evening hate, sir," replied the N.C.O. imperturbably. "He drops them occasionally on the high road well behind our lines on the off chance of strafing some of our chaps. That one fell quite five hundred yards away. You'll soon get used to it, sir. There'll be two more coming, and then we can get a move on."
Private Setley could feel his heart beating against his ribs as he waited. Being under shell fire for the first time was decidedly an uncanny sensation. Dimly he wondered if he would ever get used to it.
The second and third projectiles came almost simultaneously, one bursting a quarter of a mile away on the right, the other landing in an already ruined farm building on the outskirts of the village. Beams and masses of brick-bats were tossed sky-high like straws in a gale of wind, while some of the men felt certain that they saw portions of a field gun hurled upwards in the glare of the bursting shell.
"That's the lot," declared the sergeant coolly. "'Tain't like what it used to be. Fritz thinks twice about wasting heavy gun ammunition."
Silently the Tommies boarded the waiting buses. For the time being their natural hilarity was subdued by the unwonted display of war.
"Seeking a bubble reputation at the cannon's mouth,'" declared the ex-actor. "If it weren't for the fact that I've come a very long way to see the fun, I, like Pistol's boy, would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety. What say you, Setley?"
Private Setley did not reply. Mentally he was comparing his present position with that of a few short months ago. Then he would have given almost anything to be "clear of the Bank." The long hours spent in making up the "half-yearly balance" were loathsome. It was a relief to be able to live an open-air life. Now he was about to realise the dreams of months—yet, somehow, he hardly relished those bursting shells. It was too one-sided to his liking—to be potted at from an unknown distance and be unable to lift so much as a little finger in self-defence.
"Wait till it comes to bayonet work," he mused. "Then our fellows will give the Huns a bit of a surprise."
The detachment was really good at bayonet practice. While attached to the Fifth Battalion at home the men had earned unstinted praise from super-critical instructors at the way in which they prodded the suspended sacks.
With a few exceptions all the men of No. 3 Platoon were either Derby men or conscripts. They all had good excuses—or they individually firmly imagined they had—why they should not "join up." It wasn't that they were not patriotic, yet circumstances urged them to hold back as long as possible. They groused while they awaited the long-deferred call. The uncertainty of the whole business was the worst part of it; but when they did join up they made the very best of an unwanted job, went through the training like Trojans, and longed for the order for the Front.
Socially they were a motley lot. In addition to the "former occupations" of men already mentioned there were two solicitors, a 'Varsity graduate, an artist, a general manager, half a score of small business men, several mechanics and labourers and two ex-convicts—all firmly determined to have a slap at Kaiser Bill's grey-coated Huns.
For twenty minutes the line of motor-buses jolted and swayed, sometimes making abrupt turns to avoid deep shell holes, at others slowing down or stopping to allow convoys proceeding in opposite direction to pass. All the while the deafening din continued, increasing in intensity as the distance decreased.
At length the vehicles pulled up at the end of that stage of the journey. The stiff-limbed and sleepy men, hampered by their heavy equipment, got down into the mud once more.
There was very little talking. Every man seemed to be too interested in the novel form of Brock's fireworks to indulge in conversation. As far as the eye could reach the countryside—slightly undulating—was pin-pricked with flashes of gun-fire. Overhead star-shells of varying colours threw a lurid glare upon the mounds of brickwork that at one time formed populous and prosperous villages. Half a mile to the right a church tower still stood, with a jagged hole in one angle. It seemed marvellous that the whole structure had not collapsed. Ahead the road ended abruptly in a mound of earth and stones thrown up by the impact and explosion of a Hun eleven-inch shell. Almost touching the outer edge of the crater was a Calvary—the cross standing out sharply against the artificially lighted horizon. The crucifix was the only object left standing within a radius of a hundred yards from the place where the shell had dropped.
Suddenly a lurid flash, followed almost simultaneously by a roar that outvoiced the distant rumble of the artillery, seemed to burst from the ground within thirty paces of the platoon as they formed up to continue their journey on the march.
The spurt of fire directed upwards at an acute angle was followed by the hideous tearing screech of a huge projectile. A British gun, so cleverly screened that none of the detachment was aware of its existence, had just been fired. "It's only 'Gentle Gerty' saying good night to the Boches, sir," explained the guide. "Now, sir, single file, and no smoking in the ranks."
The Tommies, throwing away their cigarette ends and knocking out their pipes, set out on the last stage of their journey. They were now at the Front.
CHAPTER II Edit
THE COMMUNICATION TRENCH Edit
"For the next fifty yards Private Ralph Setley's range of vision was bounded in front by the steel helmet, bulging pack and hunched shoulders of the man preceding him. Right and left nothing but fields lavishly pitted with shell holes. The only sounds, besides the ever-thunderous roar of the guns, the quelching of the men's boots in the mud.
The platoon wriggled sideways like an enormous worm. The reason was soon not only apparent to the eye but to the nostrils. A mule, struck down by a shell, was lying half buried in the mud, its legs sticking up grotesquely in the air.
Presently the man preceding Setley seemed to disappear from view. The Tommies in front were descending the steps leading to the long communication trench. For nearly a mile the only way of gaining the reserve and firing trenches was by means of the sunken gallery.
Eight feet down Setley descended. His feet no longer sank to his ankles in mud. The nailed soles of his boots grated upon wire-netting, that, stretched across the seemingly endless line of "duck-boards," prevented the men slipping on the lively pieces of boarding into the slime that formed the major portion of the floor of the trench.
On either hand the stiff, slimy walls of clay, topped by rows of sandbags, threatened to collapse and bury the users of the narrow and tortuous way, for in order to prevent the communicating trench being enfiladed by hostile fire it was a continued succession of twists and turns.
Still the rain poured down remorselessly upon the great-coated Tommies. Here and there portions of the parapet had slipped bodily into the trench, necessitating a tedious clamber over a heap of moist clay of the consistency of soft putty.
Before a hundred yards of the narrow way had been traversed George Anderson, who was immediately in front of Setley, stepped incautiously upon the edge of one of the duck-boards. In a trice the section of woodwork tilted, deporting the man up to his thighs in mud and water, while Ralph, stopping abruptly to avoid the tilted end of the board, was cannoned into by the man behind who happened to be Private Alderhame. The next instant both were sprawling on top of the luckless Anderson, driving his writhing body still deeper into the mud.
With difficulty Ralph and the ex-actor extricated themselves. Ginger was in a worse predicament, for until his comrades gripped his arm and dragged him out by main force he was unable to disengage himself from the clammy embrace of the tenacious clay.
"I came out 'ere for sojering," remarked the aggrieved man. "Not to go in for mudlarkin'. I could get plenty of that at Gravesend."
"Phit! phit!" Something, buzzing like an angry bee, slapped viciously into the mud wall a few inches above Setley's head. Then another, glancing off the steel helmet of the still grumbling Anderson, sent the man staggering into Ralph's arms.
"Keep down as you pass this place," shouted a hoarse voice through the darkness. "The parapet's blown in."
A gap nearly twenty yards in length confirmed the speaker's words. Through this exposed section rifle bullets were whizzing. Apparently the Huns had marked the spot during the hours of daylight and had lashed some rifles to posts, so trained that at fifteen hundred yards they could command this part of the communication trench by night.
The platoon obeyed smartly, yet resentfully. It was bad enough to have to walk through mud. To crawl on one's hands and knees was about the limit.
"Way for the wounded!"
The men, most of them still in a prone position, hugged the slippery side of the trench, peering through the darkness at the as yet strange sight.
"Good luck, you blighters!" exclaimed the first of the wounded Tommies, a tall cadaverous man, with his head roughly bandaged and his arm in a sling. "You're going to a hot shop, s'welp me. Fifteen of our chaps copped it in ten minutes. Never mind; it's for Blighty I am."
The next casualty—a man with his left hand blown off at the wrist—was groaning and cursing as he passed, staggering like a drunken man and paying scant heed to the warning to keep well down.
Then two more, borne on stretchers. The knuckles of the bearers rasped the equipment of the Wheatshires, so narrow was the space in which to pass, while in order to cross the "unhealthy" section of the trench the men had to deposit the stretchers on the duck-boards and drag them sleigh fashion.
Three men, hobbling, using their rifles as crutches, completed the pageant of pain.
"Copped it proper," explained one of the wounded. "Never 'ad as much as a blinkin' chance to fire my blessed rifle."
"Wouldn't 'ave been much use if you did, Tommy," rejoined his comrade with a laugh. "You knowed as 'ow you're the rottenest shot in the battalion."
"No need to rub that in afore a lot of strangers," retorted the other. "'Op it; I'll race you to the dressing-station. No more dashed first line trenches for us for a bit, thank 'eaven. Foot it, you blighter, afore your leg gets stiff."
The twain vanished into the darkness, leaving the dank, reeking odours of dirt and sweat in the muggy air.
Another hundred yards and a voice rang out:
"Is that the ration party?"
"No," replied the sergeant. "Reliefs for the Wheatshires."
"Good luck to 'em, then!" rejoined the speaker. "But where the deuce are the rations? There's no barrage fire on now, an' we ain't seen no grub for two whole days."
"Keep your heads down, lads."
The caution was hardly necessary. Each man was bent almost double. Over the parapet on the left a whiz-bang exploded, sending a shower of dirt upon the soldiers' steel helmets. Trench mortars were lobbing their deadly missiles into the British second-line trenches.
"Here you are," explained the guide as the head of the platoon emerged into a short "bay" or section of the winding trench. "Two men to each dug-out, sir; t'other fellows will show 'em the ropes better. C.O.'s dug-out is fifty yards further on, sir."
"Stick to me, Setley," whispered Alderhame.
"Will if I can," replied Ralph. "They're telling us off in pairs."
"You two in there," ordered a strange sergeant, indicating what appeared to be a glorified rabbit-hole burrowed out of the side of the trench. "New chums, mates," he continued, calling to the as yet invisible denizens of the subterranean dwelling.
"Come in," said a youthful voice. "Mind your head. I thought it was Dixon with the grub. Don't keep the curtain held back longer than usual. It isn't healthy, you know."
Down nine steps cut into the slippery clay, each succeeding step being a little more like liquid slime than the preceding one, Setley made his way, the top edge of his pack rubbing against the cross timbers of the roof of the obliquely sloping tunnel. His hand came in contact with a clammy ground-sheet, termed by courtesy a curtain. Pulling it aside he had his first vision of the interior of a dug-out—his temporary abode during his "turn" in the trenches. The excavation measured roughly twelve feet by nine, its height being barely sufficient to allow a tall man to stand upright. At the end furthest from the entrance was a stove fashioned out of an old tin bucket and provided with a decidedly inefficient chimney, since most of the fumes wafted into the dug-out. On the stove a "billy" was boiling. Stuck on the end of a flat piece of iron projecting from the wall was a guttering candle, the sole illumination, its yellow light being hardly powerful enough to penetrate the smoky atmosphere. Against a horizontal slab of wood reposed six rifles, while on slightly raised benches against the side walls were bundles of damp straw, rolled blankets and kit-bags.
"That's right," continued the voice that had bidden the strangers enter. "Sling your gear on that bench, and please don't trouble to wipe your boots. We didn't bother to polish the floor this morning."
Ridding himself of his rifle and pack, an example that Alderhame was quick to follow, Ralph turned his attention to his facetious new comrade.
By this time Setley had grown more accustomed to the dim light. Half lying, half sitting upon one of the benches was a mere lad of about nineteen or twenty, burly of figure, round-faced except for a pronounced hollow in his cheeks, and with dark brown eyes in which lurked a suspicion of constant mental strain. He had discarded his tunic, revealing a Cardigan jacket. Otherwise he was fully dressed, even to his muddy boots, from which the warm vapour rose like steam from the back of an overworked horse on a cold day. Pulled well down over his head was a grey woollen cap, while wrapped loosely round his neck was a khaki-coloured scarf.
"In the absence of a mutual friend to introduce us," remarked the recumbent occupant of the sleeping-place, "I suppose we must do the honours ourselves. My name's Penfold—No. 142857, which is jolly easy to remember if you know anything about recurring decimals. What's yours?"
Setley told him, adding gratuitously that he was a bank clerk.
"That so?" remarked Penfold. "I was in a shipping office. And your chum?"
"Alderhame is my name," replied the actor. "My profession? Well, I used to tread the boards."
"Strikes me you'll still tread the boards and feel jolly sick at doing it before long," rejoined Penfold with a laugh. "Duck-boards I mean. We were to have been relieved at eight this evening. Another regiment is supposed to take our place, but they didn't turn up. Why, I don't know; there wasn't much of a barrage this evening—and now the infernal racket is starting again."
Heavy shells exploding in front and behind the lines of trenches shook the dug-out until the timbering seemed in imminent danger of giving way.
For some moments there was silence in the underground refuge. The continuous crash without was appalling.
"Is this place shell-proof?" asked Alderhame.
"Nothing is," replied Penfold nonchalantly. "A direct hit with a big shell and it's 'Gone West' with the three of us. Hullo!"
The waterproof-sheet was drawn aside and a red-faced sergeant, the moisture running in rivulets from his steel helmet, thrust his head into the reeking dug-out.
"Look slippy, you chaps!" he exclaimed. "Every man is wanted. There's a massed attack developing."
CHAPTER III Edit
THE NIGHT ATTACK Edit
"Snatching up their rifles the three men hurried from the dug-out, nearly colliding with the rest of their chums who were returning at the first alarm to get their equipment. "Follow me," exclaimed Penfold. "Keep well down."
At the fifth or sixth step along the tortuous communication trench Setley trod on something not so yielding as mud, but comparatively soft. He stooped and felt the object with his hand. His fingers came in contact with a human face.
"There's a man lying here!" he called out to Penfold, who was a few paces in front.
"I know," replied his new chum. "He's been there for the last three hours. Our fellows haven't had time to bring him in yet. Don't worry about that; you'll soon get used to it."
Setley hurried on, wondering whether he would ever get accustomed to the horrors of the trenches. The seemingly stony indifference with which Penfold had spoken jarred on his sensitive nerves. Somehow the realization did not fit in with the anticipation of what war really was. He could not help asking himself why nations should set about to deliberately exterminate each other merely for the lust of conquest—a wholesale slaughter by the most deadly scientific instrument that human ingenuity could devise.
His disjointed reveries were interrupted by Penfold being hurled violently backwards, his hunched shoulders striking Ralph violently in the chest. The two men staggered backwards, accompanied by showers of mud, stones, and displaced sand-bags, all silhouetted against the glare of an exploding shell. Three of the Wheatshires preceding Penfold were hurled bodily into the air, subsiding with sickening thuds upon the soft ground. One writhed furiously, groaning dismally the while; the others were mere lumps of clay fashioned in God's own image, but now hideously mangled.
"On!" exclaimed Penfold breathlessly. "Don't wait. The stretcher-bearers will be along for that fellow in half a shake."
Across a gap in the sand-bagged wall the men hurried. They could hear the hiss of the stream of bullets from a machine-gun. It seemed so close that Setley and Alderhame flung themselves flat.
"What are you hanging back for?" shouted a sergeant. "How the deuce can the rest of the men get by when you're blocking the road? Push along, both of you!"
Thus abjured the twain, fearing the scathing words of the N.C.O. more than the whistling bullets, slid over the mound of displaced sand-bags into the crater of the recently exploded shell, and scrambled up the other side.
Twenty paces more and Setley found himself in the front line trench. Almost mechanically he mounted the fire-step, rested the barrel of his rifle between two spaced sand-bags that formed a loophole, and waited.
"Here they come!" shouted an excited voice.
Standing out clearly against the glare of half a dozen star-shells came on dense masses of German infantry. The Huns advanced slowly, almost hesitatingly. There were no shouts of "Deutschland über alles!" that characterized the earlier attacks. The words were a hollow mockery—and the Huns knew it. They had now a wholesome respect for the British Tommy. It was mainly fear of their officers, who kept at the heels of their men and held revolvers ready to shoot down any who refused to charge, that made the attack develop.
In front came two men, masked and bearing metal cylinders resembling exaggerated packs upon their shoulders. In place of a rifle and bayonet they held a length of flexible hose. The Huns were about to use liquid fire in their attempt to oust the British from their trenches.
Supporting these perambulating torches were a dozen or more bombers, while close at their heels came men armed with rifles and bayonets. With the exception of the mud and numerous shell-craters there was little in the way of obstacles to impede their advance, for almost the whole of the wire entanglements fronting the British parapet had been blown away by shell-fire. Setley's impression at the unaccustomed sight was that the brunt of the attack was about to fall on his immediate front.
Suddenly the whole length of the British trench burst into a line of crackling flame as the Tommies commenced independent rapid fire. Some maxims, skilfully concealed in sand-bagged emplacements, added to the din with their quick pop-pop-pop.
The Huns, erroneously trusting that their heavy guns had battered the British trenches into shapeless mounds, and thinking that the Tommies had been either blown to fragments by the terrific artillery bombardment or had been compelled to seek refuge in their dug-outs, were met by the full blast of the rifle and machine-gun fire.
Ralph was soon surprised to find that he was slipping another clip of cartridges into the magazine of his rifle. He was now as cool as a cucumber. The months of infantry training had not been thrown away. With a visible enemy facing him he realized that the time had come when he could strike a blow for King and Country, instead of being subjected to shell-fire from a distant and unseen foe without being able to raise a hand in self-defence. The attack was doomed to failure from the start. One of the men bearing the liquid fire apparatus was on his face, his head and shoulders buried in mud, while his diabolical contrivance, which had evidently been perforated by a bullet, had taken fire and was blazing furiously. The bombers hurled their missiles prematurely, most of the bombs falling short; while the infantry, mown down in heaps, wavered, the survivors beginning to give way.
Above the rattle of musketry a whistle rang out loud and clear.
"Come on, boys!" shouted an officer, leaping on to the parapet, to topple backwards with a bullet through his brain.
Undeterred, the Wheatshires poured over the shattered breastwork of sand-bags. With an inspiring British cheer the infantry surged ver the top like a huge, irresistible breaker.
The opportune moment for delivering a counter-attack had arrived.
Well spent had been those months of active training. The Wheatshires, every man a passable athlete, literally swarmed over the parapet. With their bayonets gleaming in the ruddy glare and preceded by the regimental bombers the khaki-clad troops, dexterously threading their way through the gaps in the barbed wire, charged irresistibly against the already broken enemy.
A wave of thrilling enthusiasm swept over Private Setley. The chance of actually doing something, of getting clear of the imprisoning walls of slimy mire and coming to grips with the Hun had come. The studiously polite and law-abiding bank-clerk was transformed into a fighting Tommy. The lust of primeval combat was upon him. He saw red. Of what happened during the next two minutes Setley had but a faint and hazy notion. Bombs hurled by the retreating Huns fell around him. Once the blast from an exploding missile lifted his steel helmet from his head. He remembered putting it straight with his left hand and noticing that the fingers were covered with a dark, moist, warm fluid.
A man, keeping pace with him, suddenly dropped his rifle and fell on his face. Setley leapt over the slightly inclined bayonet and held on, the desire to stop and assist a fallen comrade being hardly existent. For the time being his sole desire was to overtake one of those field-grey forms showing dimly through the smoke.
The enemy first-line trenches at last—and the Huns were making a stand. A machine-gun, one of many, was pumping out nickel almost on Setley's immediate front. Hostile bombers were redoubling their efforts. In cold blood the lad would have thought twice, perhaps many times, before facing that deadly menace, but carried away in the mad rush he pressed forward, scarce noticing the weight of his rifle and bayonet.
A severed, coiled strand of barbed wire caught the puttee of his left foot. With a vicious jerk he freed himself from the encumbrance, leaving half a yard of mud-plastered cloth upon the sharp barb. Two yards in front of him was a burly German bomber with a bomb poised ready to hurl.
Regardless of the fact that the explosion of the missile would to an almost certainty annihilate him, the Hun threw the bomb. Setley caught it on the flat blade of his bayonet and threw it aside, where it burst ten yards to the right under a tall, bearded Prussian.
The next instant the thrower received six inches of cold steel right in the centre of his chest. Setley had made a mistake. It was a matter of considerable difficulty to withdraw the blade. He remembered too late the warning of the drill-instructors—when delivering a body thrust aim below the ribs.
Before he could disengage the steel another German commenced a furious blow with the butt-end of his rifle. In the midst of the swing of the weapon a shot rang out within a few inches of Setley's ear, and the Hun, with a curious look of surprise on his sullen features, staggered forward. The descending rifle-butt struck Setley's helmet a glancing blow and, missing his left shoulder, sank deeply into the mud.
"So much for Buckingham: off with his head," yelled Alderhame, as he ejected the still smoking cartridge-case from the breach of his rifle. "How's that, my festive?"
"Thanks," replied Setley briefly; then over the hostile parapet the two comrades surged, bending low as they crouched behind their ready bayonets.
The deep and narrow German trench was crowded with men—dead, wounded, and living. Some of the latter were putting up a stiff fight, like wild animals at bay. Others, with the dismal and monotonous whine of "Mercy, Kamerad!" were holding their hands high above their heads, the bombs taking toll of brave men and cowards alike.
Following at the heels of two of the Wheatshires' bombers, Setley, Alderhame, George Anderson, and two others, made their way along a traverse, the riflemen firing at the side of the bombers. At intervals the latter stopped to hurl their deadly missiles down the steep and steeply shelving entrances to the German dug-outs.
Rounding a sand-bagged traverse the party entered a bay in which was a machine-gun, with its crew of dead and dying lying around the silent weapon. A few paces further on a tall, bearded Hun barred the way.
"Hands up!" yelled Ginger.
The man threw down his rifle and complied. As the Tommies surged past Anderson took possession of the discarded weapon and tossed it over the parapet.
"Keep 'em up!" he continued, addressing his prisoner. "A little of that'll do you no 'arm. You bide 'ere till you're told to shift."
A shot rang out, and one of the British bombers dropped. His companion hurled a bomb, while Setley and Alderhame pushed forward towards a temporary barrier of sand-bags hastily piled on the floor of the trench. Beyond were three Huns, one of whom had just fired the fatal shot; but the avenging bomb had already done its work.
Standing on the parados was a captain of the Wheatshires.
"Back, men!" he ordered. "Don't get out of touch with the rest of the company. Secure your prisoners and retire."
"Retire, be hanged!" muttered George. "Wot's to prevent us going on to Berlin? Eh, you treacherous swine, wot's the game?"
He clapped his hand to his ear. One portion of the lobe was missing. The man he had taken prisoner had drawn a small revolver from his pocket and had fired at five paces at his captor while the latter's back was turned.
With a yell Ginger rushed at the recreant Hun. Once more the man's hands were raised above his head, and again the dolorous "Mercy, Kamerad; me haf wife and six children!"
"Liar!" shouted the now furious Tommy, giving the treacherous Boche a generous amount of cold steel. "You've a widow an' six orphans!"
Reluctantly, the Wheatshires quitted the hostile trenches and made their way back across No Man's Land. In many cases their officers had to push them towards their own lines. Having made good their footing in the German defences, the Tommies did not relish the idea of abandoning the ground. It did not occur to them that the captured trench would form a dangerous salient, liable to be enfiladed and levelled flat with hostile shells before it could be properly consolidated.
"How about grub?" enquired Penfold, as the men regained the safety of their own lines. "There's no barrage now? Why can't they bring our tommy up to us?"
"Could do with a good meal myself," said Sefton. "Fortunately, we were served out with bully-beef before we arrived. You can have some of mine."
"Thanks, awfully," replied his new chum. "I'll accept; but, remember, it's bad policy. Generosity is all very well, but here it's each man for himself in the grub line. You can't blame a half-starving fellow sneaking any food that he finds lying about, you know."
"How is it that you're short of rations?" asked Alderhame.
"Goodness only knows. The Huns were going it pretty hot all day and during the earlier part of this evening. Perhaps our ration party copped it. Everything has to be brought up by hand in this section of the line," replied Penfold. "Well, let's foot it, before the guns start again. The Boches will be pretty wild after this little affair."
Mingled with a jostling throng of exultant Tommies and dejected prisoners, the three made their way along the communication trench to their dug-out.
"What luck!" ejaculated Penfold, stopping short at a heap of disordered sand-bags and splintered timber that marked the site of their temporary abode. "Our dug-out has been properly strafed. We would have all gone West by this time if we'd been inside. But I say, you fellows; what price grub, now?"
CHAPTER IV Edit
"Penfold spoke of his escape without emotion. He had been long enough check by jowl with death to express no surprise. He had merely remarked that it was a lucky chance that the occupants of the shelled dug-out had not been inside when the heavy howitzer missile had demolished it. What did seriously annoy him was the loss of the promised food.
Ralph Setley, although by this time ravenously hungry, was fervently thankful for his escape. Already the reaction of the raid into the German trenches was beginning to tell. Shorn of excitement of the wild rush over the top, the horrors of that nocturnal excursion rose up in his mind. The knowledge that he had bayoneted a fellow-creature, although he were an enemy and a brutal Hun, worried him.
"Suppose the fellow would have done me in if I hadn't got him first," he soliloquized. Then, aloud:
"What are you jabbering about, Alderhame?"
The former actor was stamping up and down the duck-boards, now encrusted with a thin coating of ice:—
"Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky, Thou dost not bite so nigh As benefits forgot."
"That's As You Like It! chum. It aptly describes our condition. Horribly cold, and benefits in the shape of bully-beef gone, though not forgotten. Where's our next lodging?"
The stream of prisoners and wounded Tommies had now dwindled. Penfold, addressing a sergeant, stated his case.
"D'ye think I'm a Cook's tourist guide?" snapped the N.C.O. "Turn in where you can. There are a good many half empty dug-outs now, I'm thinking."
A shell shrieked overhead. The Huns were putting up a barrage, the shrapnel falling amongst their own men, who, prisoners in the hands of the British, were being escorted to the "Advance cages."
"In here," said Penfold, making a dive for the nearest entrance. Alderhame followed close at his heels, then Setley and George Anderson, the latter still grousing at the loss of a quarter of an inch of his ear.
"Anyone at home?" enquired Penfold.
He pushed aside the covering to the sloping tunnel and entered the dug-out, which in point of size and contents was much the same as his demolished mud-hole—the damp steaming straw, the pungent fumes of the charcoal brazier, the moisture dripping through the timber-shored roof, and the guttering candle—a typical Tommy's barrack-room on the Somme Front.
Seated on an upturned ammunition-case and with his feet resting on another tin box, in order to keep them out of the slime, was a young, pale-faced, dark-haired soldier He was busily engaged in writing with an indelible pencil certain words of deeper violet hue, betraying the fact that the paper shared the general failing of the subterranean abode—it was moist: uncommonly so.
So engrossed was the writer that for some moments he "carried on" with his task. Then looking up, and seeing strange faces, he exclaimed, in a lisping drawl:
"I say, you've made a mistake. This isn't your caboodle."
"No mistake, chummy," replied Penfold firmly. "We've been shelled out. We crave your hospitality. How many men in this dug-out?"
"There were eight this morning," replied the youth:
"Where are the others?"
"Ask me another."
"I will," rejoined Penfold, depositing his rifle on a bench. "Have they left any grub?"
"Wish they had," was the grim answer. Then, with more eagerness than he had hitherto shown, he asked: "Have you any food? I haven't had a bite since this morning. Finished the whole of my ration, including jam, thinking that the fresh stuff would be in—but it isn't!"
"You're welcome to a share of ours, laddie," remarked Alderhame, "which happens to be nixes."
Ralph sat down on a bundle of straw, having first appropriated the late occupant's pack as a pillow. He was feeling horribly tired. His feet and hands were numbed with the cold. His saturated clothes were throwing off wisps of muggy vapour. Even a huge rat pattering on the muddy floor and scampering through the straw hardly troubled him, and a few hours previously he would have gone twenty yards to avoid one.
In his drowsiness he found himself contemplating the latest of his many new comrades.
"I'll bet that chap's a Jew," he thought.
Setley was right in his surmise. Sidney Bartlett was the grandson of a Polish refugee who had become a naturalized Englishman and, dropping the name of Bariniski, had successfully engaged in business in Birmingham. Like many of the Hebrew race, young Bartlett was a patriot and a staunch supporter of the land of his adoption. When the call to arms came he rallied to the Colours, only to be sent back until he was sufficiently old to serve in His Majesty's Forces. Only three years previously Sidney was at a large day school, and there occurred an incident that was to influence his conduct at the Somme Front.
For some weeks the lad was persistently absent from school. The head master constantly received notes to the effect that Sidney was kept at home through domestic troubles, in which a grandmother figured largely. The caligraphy arousing his suspicions, the head wrote to the lad's father, and then the "cat was out of the bag."
One afternoon Bartlett Senior, accompanied by his errant son, came to the head master's study.
"Now, Sidney," said his sire, solemnly, "I vant you to tell de trut'—de whole trut', mind. Later on, in bizness, Sidney, you may tell a lie; but now you must tell de trut'."
Utterly worn out, Setley fell asleep—a slumber broken with dreams of the exciting episodes of the last few hours. Rats wandered at will over his couch of straw; vermin of other kind swarmed everywhere. His companions, too hungry to sleep, sat up and smoked, recounting anecdotes on almost every topic except the war. Without the guns thundered incessantly, but the duel was chiefly betwixt the artillery, and the trenches were left almost untouched.
"I'm off to see if I can't find some grub," declared Penfold. "Who's game?"
Ginger Anderson volunteered to accompany him with the greatest alacrity. It was better than sitting still in a damp dug-out with hunger gnawing at one's vitals. Alderhame and Bartlett also expressed their willingness to take part in the foraging expedition.
"I reckon as if we do 'ave any luck," remarked Ginger, "the rations will arrive directly we do, and all our work'll be for nothing."
"So much the better," rejoined Penfold.
"How about Setley?"
"Let him sleep on," suggested the ex-actor:
"Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee, And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber."
"'Buzzing night-flies' sounds poetical," remarked Penfold. "Poetic licence shows tactful discretion in this case. Come along, you fellows."
The four adventurers sallied forth to beg, borrow, or steal something in the edible line. It was freezing so hard that the trench-boards were immovably cemented in solid mud of the hardness of stone.
"Thank goodness we weren't warned for the wiring party," whispered Penfold. "Black as pitch, and as cold as charity. Hist! What do you make of that?"
He pointed to a faint ray of light emanating from an oblique shaft of a dug-out—that of the major of his company. The opening was for ventilating purposes, and was fitted with a piece of corrugated iron to prevent the water making its way into the underground room. From the shaft came the unmistakable odour of roast meat.
One by one the men reconnoitred, and withdrew to a safe distance to deliberate.
"Regular old food-hog," declared Alderhame. "Not only is he about to wolf a pound of meat, but there's a pudding and a packet of sausages. Presumably, his missis has sent him out a hamper."
"Too much for one man, albeit a field officer," decided Penfold. "Lads, we must have some of that grub!"
"'Ow?" enquired Anderson. "Yer can't just pop in an' say, friendly like: 'Wot cheer, major, old sport; 'ow abart it? Can yer?"
"Can't we lure him out?" suggested Alderhame.
"We might; but what's the use?" rejoined Penfold. "These officers' dug-outs have doors, and ten to one he'll lock it if he goes far from his grub."
"You get him out," said Sidney Bartlett. "I'll do the rest. All we want is a light pole. There are some in the next traverse. Lash a bayonet to one end and spear what we can through that hole."
"Sounds feasible," agreed Penfold. "Nip off and get the gear ready."
In a short space of time Bartlett had rigged up his improvised fishing-tackle.
"Now," he said, "I'm ready. You carry on, Penfold."
Drawing his woollen cap well over his eyes and turning up the collar of his greatcoat as high as possible, Penfold knocked at the door of the Major's dug-out.
"Well?" enquired a deep muffled voice testily.
"Colonel's compliments, sir," announced the mendacious private, in an assumed tone. "He wants you to report to him at once upon the number of men left in this section of the trench."
Grumbling, the Major issued from his subterranean retreat, carefully locked the door, and set out to find the company sergeant-major, in order to obtain the supposedly urgent information.
Before he returned the four raiders were scurrying back to their dug-out, each with his mouth full of cold sausage, while Alderhame retained a painful impression of an otherwise appetizing repast in the shape of a cut on his cheek, caused by the end of the pole as the elated Sidney swiftly withdrew it with the prized booty impaled upon the bayonet.
"Where's my first-aid dressing?" enquired the ex-actor, with mock concern.
"'And patches will I get unto these scars And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.'"
"Hardly good enough for Blighty," said Penfold, with a laugh. "My word, won't the Major be in a tear when he misses his sausages!"
"Let him," said Bartlett. "He can only blame the rats."
"Halt! Who goes there?" exclaimed the hoarse voice of a sentry in the next traverse.
"Engineers' ration party," was the reply. "Is this the Royal Engineers?"
"Rather!" replied the ready Penfold. "Dump 'em down; we'll fetch them."
Out of the neighbouring dug-outs poured other Tommies. Without having any suspicion of the ruse played upon them, the ration party handed over the stores intended for a company of the Royal Engineers, who were engaged in tunnelling on the left of the Wheatshires' trenches. Almost in the nick of time a famine was averted at the expense of the sappers and miners. But, as Penfold remarked, it was each man for himself when it came to a case of semi-starvation.
CHAPTER V Edit
THE EXPEDITION TO NO MAN'S LAND Edit
""Turn out, you chaps! You're warned for duty in the first-line trench."
With the sergeant's words ringing in his ears Ralph Setley arose from his uncomfortable bed. A candle was still guttering. It was not yet dawn. The Huns' protracted shelling had ceased until the time for their customary morning "hate."
The rest of the occupants of his dug-out were engaged upon their morning "toilet"—the rite consisting of cleaning and oiling their rifles. Washing was out of the question, and as they had turned in fully dressed, including great-coats and boots, there was nothing further to be done beyond cooking breakfast.
Thanks to the blunder of the rationing party the men regaled themselves with slices of bacon, bread not more than three days old, and tea of exceptionally strong brew. The bacon was gritty, which was not to be wondered at, seeing that the men had been under shell-fire almost the whole way to the trenches.
Alderhame was in high spirits notwithstanding he had had but a few hours' sleep. There was a touch of the far-off "green-room" days, as he laid his hand on Setley's shoulder.
"Come on, laddie," he said. "Let's survey the radiant morn:—
"This battle fares like to the morning's war, When dying clouds contend with glowing light; What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails, Can neither call it perfect day nor night."
Viewed in the pale grey dawn, the dreary stretch of No Man's Land was robbed of most of its ghastly details. Here and there, often in heaps, huddled corpses dressed in mud-stained field-grey testified to the accuracy of the British rifle and machine-gun fire. Further away lay the trenches that the Wheatshires had visited so effectively. Already Hun wiring parties had been out, and the shattered stakes and snake-like coils of severed barbed wire had been replaced by new. Almost in the front row of wire a black, white, and red striped flag—the emblem of Germany—fluttered in the faint breeze.
Setley could now understand why the order for recall had been given when the regiment was in possession of this section of the Hun trenches, for dominating the advance works was a strong redoubt, known to the Wheatshires by the somewhat ominous name of Pumpnickel. For the last three weeks the Engineers—the same company whose rations had been appropriated by the Wheatshires—had been engaged in driving a mine-gallery in the direction of this earthwork-fortress. Great things were promised when the time came to spring the mine and send Pumpnickel Redoubt flying in the air.
"I mean to get that flag," declared Bartlett. "I'll go out to-night and bring it in."
"Wouldn't if I were you," said Penfold. "It's a sort of booby-trap, I wouldn't mind betting. Something that, when moved, explodes a grenade."
"I'll risk that," declared the lad grimly. "The Boches mustn't flaunt their colours in our faces. I was——"
Something "pinged" on the rounded surface of his steel helmet. A watchful sniper had seized his chance. Only by an inch had Sidney escaped death, for had the bullet struck the steel squarely instead of glancing off the convex surface the head-gear would not have withstood the impact.
"Are you young fools looking for trouble?" growled Sergeant Ferris, the N.C.O. who had routed them from the dug-out. "Keep under cover, and use a trench periscope if you want to enjoy the scenery."
"Thanks for the tip, sergeant," said George Anderson. "Sorry I can't offer yer a seegar, sergeant; I left me case on the grand pianner at 'ome; but 'ave a fag—a genuine Day's March Nearer 'Ome' brand."
The N.C.O. took the proffered cigarette and lit it slowly and deliberately.
"Are we on Wiring Party to-night, sergeant?" asked Ginger.
"Not as I know of," was the reply. "Why?"
"'Cause my pal 'ere is goin' to get 'old of that striped bed-cover"—jerking his thumb in the direction of the German flag—"an' I'm a-goin' with 'im; ain't I, Sid, ole sport?"
"Then you'll have to be sharp about it," remarked Sergeant Ferris. "The mine is to be sprung at 3.30 a.m. We're over the top again; this time there'll be no going back, if all goes well. We ought to advance four hundred yards and consolidate the position. So now you know. Go for the flag at your own risk, chums; but don't forget. Be back before three, or you'll stand a sure and certain chance of going to Kingdom Come with a couple o' hundred perishing Boches for company."
During the rest of the day nothing happened beyond the customary routine of trench life, combined with the monotonous occurrence of casualties.
"Are you still of the same mind, Bartlett?" enquired Alderhame, as darkness set in.
"Rather," was the firm reply.
"Then I'm going with you."
"And I," added Setley.
"No, you don't," objected Anderson. "Two's quite enough for this blessed job. Look 'ere: if I don't come back, there's a letter in my pack wot I wants sent 'ome. Anythink else you can 'ave, fags an' all. I'm going to 'ave a doss. Turn me out at twelve."
"Rum chap," commented Alderhame, indicating the soundly sleeping Ginger. "A regular rough diamond, always ready to do a pal a good turn."
"By the by," said Setley. "You did me a good turn when my bayonet got hung up, although you nearly split the drum of my ear when you fired and brought down the fellow who was about to club me."
"Every little helps," said Alderhame. "Lucky for you the Hun wasn't on my left side."
"Why?" enquired Ralph curiously.
"Simply because I'm stone-blind in my left eye," replied the ex-actor composedly. "I was passed for Class A just the same. When I told the doctor he merely remarked: 'Oh, left eye, eh? Well, a man almost invariably shoots with his right eye!' 'I'd sooner shoot with a rifle, sir!' I said. 'And so you shall, my man!' he rejoined, laughing at my repartee; so he marked me down for general service, and here I am. I'm not at all sorry. If I come through this business it will be something to be proud of, you know."
All was quiet between the opposing lines. The Huns, realizing the superior weight and volume of fire of the British guns, wisely refrained from inviting them; while the latter, massed until they were practically wheel to wheel, were silent, concentrating their energies for a terrific tornado of shell as a prelude to the rush of the infantry "over the top."
At midnight the two volunteers were roused from their slumbers.
"Still of the same mind?" enquired Penfold.
"Not 'arf," replied Ginger, while Bartlett nodded his head and shrugged his shoulders in the characteristic way that he had inherited from his Polish ancestors.
"We'll speed the parting guests," declared Alderhame, with a forced attempt at joviality. "Me lud, your carriage waits."
"Chuck it!" retorted Anderson. "'Ere, gimme me baynit. Look arter me rifle till I comes back. Now, Sidney, old sport."
Setley, Penfold, and the ex-actor accompanied them to the front trench. Like men about to dive into icy-cold water the two raiders paused, with one foot on the fire-step; then without a word both wriggled silently and cautiously over the parapet. Ten seconds later the intense darkness had swallowed them up.
Braving the piercing cold the three men awaited their comrades' return, peering at intervals over the top of the parapet and straining their ears to catch the faintest sound of their movements. Twenty minutes passed, but neither by sight nor sound did the twain betray their presence in the forbidding No Man's Land.
Suddenly the darkness was pierced by a short shriek of mingled pain and rage, the thud of blows falling on some soft object, and the unmistakable squelching of many feet in the tenacious slime.
"Good heavens!" ejaculated Penfold. "They've been done in. Who's going out, lads?"
"Not much use at present," objected Alderhame. "The Huns are on the alert. When things have quieted down a bit, I'll go."
"That's the spirit, lad," said Sergeant Ferris, who had joined the party of watchers. "Discretion is what's wanted now. We've chucked away two men over this business already, and all for the sake of a dirty German flag."
Another twenty minutes passed. The Huns could be heard talking excitedly in their trenches, but the distance was too great to distinguish their words. Setley was of the opinion that Sidney was a prisoner. He fancied that he heard the lad's voice, but he could not be certain.
"If they'd got Ginger," declared Penfold, "there would be no doubt of hearing his voice. Well, lads, are you fit?"
The three men began to remove great-coats and everything likely to impede their movements. Suddenly Setley snatched up his rifle.
"What's up, now?" asked the sergeant.
"Something moving," declared the lad.
The sentries, too, held their arms in readiness to open fire.
"Steady on, chums," whispered Ginger. "Don't let rip. It's only me."
He wriggled over the parapet and dropped inertly upon the fire-step. For some moments he lay like one dead, his comrades forbearing to question him.
Presently he raised his head, and extending his hand showed a closely rolled bundle that was indistinguishable in the darkness.
"I've got it, mates," he announced. "It's the flag we went out for. Got me baynit into one bloke's throat, an' didn't 'e scream."
"Where's Sidney?" asked Penfold.
"Ain't 'e back? I lost touch with 'im. 'Ere, I'm off out again!"
"No, you don't," declared Sergeant Ferris firmly. "You'll be put under arrest if you attempt it. You're done up. Now, you fellows, if you're going you'd best look sharp about it. Take a rope, in case you find young Bartlett. Slip it round his heels, and drag him in if he cannot crawl."
In spite of his resolution, Setley's heart was literally in his mouth when he found himself in contact with the slime of No Man's Land. At ten paces he had lost all idea of the whereabouts of his companions. Guided by the relative position of the Pole star, now shining feebly through the drifting smoke, he crawled slowly but steadily onwards towards the spot where the coveted flag had been planted.
At frequent intervals star-shells burst overhead, throwing a blinding, ghostly glare upon the crater-pitted ground. Their appearance was the signal for Setley to throw himself flat upon the ground. The slightest movement would have resulted in a machine-gun being trained upon him. With his face pillowed on his arm—it was the only way of preventing a smothering acquaintance with the evil-smelling Somme mud—he was unable to take advantage of the light to look for his companions. Whether they were ahead, behind, or had relinquished their efforts, he was totally in ignorance.
Presently his hand came in contact with some hard cold substance. It was the face of a frozen corpse—that of a Hun, judging by the cloth-swathed helmet. The man was obviously a sniper, for he had on him a stock of candles, food and drink, and a pair of binoculars. Evidently he was making, under cover of darkness, for a favourite lair when a chance bullet struck him on the forehead.
A searchlight, unexpectedly unmasked, swept the ground. Fortunately, Setley had just crept into a shell-crater, and the raised lip effectually intercepted the dazzling rays. From the corner of his eye he made out the sinister lines of wire fronting the German trenches, the criss-cross of barbed entanglements standing out like silver filigree work in the cold rays of the electric light. He was within a few feet of his objective.
Voices were talking just over the sand-bagged parapet. He listened. There were Germans speaking in broken English, asking questions in menacing tones. Someone was answering—and that someone was Private Sidney Bartlett.
The Content is only a Excerpt.