“I think,” said another, “my job’s going to be barman in a nice snug little public with a fire in the bar parlor and red blinds on the window.”
“Why don’t you pick a job that’ll be easy to get?” said the third, with deep sarcasm—“say Prime Minister, or King of England. You’ve about as much chance of getting them as the other.”
Lieutenant Ainsley grinned to himself in the darkness. At least, he thought, these men have no doubts about their coming back in safety from this patrol; but then of course it was easier for them because they did not know the full detail of the risk they ran. But it was no use thinking of that again, he told himself.
He took his place in readiness, waited until one flare had burned out and there was no immediate sign of another being thrown up, slipped over the parapet and dropped flat in the mud on the other side. One by one the men crawled over and dropped beside him, and then slowly and cautiously, with the officer leading, they began to wend their way out under their own entanglements.
There may be some who will wonder that an officer should feel such qualms as Ainsley had over the simple job of a night patrol over the open ground in front of the German trench; but, then, there are patrols and patrols, or as the inattentive recruit at the gunnery class said when he was asked to describe the varieties of shells he had been told of: “There are some sorts of one kind, and some of another.”
There are plenty of parts on the Western Front where affairs at intervals settled down into such a peaceful state that there was nothing more than a fair sporting risk attaching to the performance of a patrol which leaves the shelter of our own lines at night to crawl out amongst the barbed wire entanglements in the darkness. There have been times when you might listen at night by the hour together and hardly hear a rifle-shot, and when the burst of artillery fire was a thing to be commented on. But at other times, and in some parts of the line especially, business was run on very different lines. Then every man in the forward firing-trench had a certain number of rounds to fire each night, even although he had no definite target to fire at. Magnesium flares and pistol lights were kept going almost without ceasing, while the artillery made a regular practice of loosing off a stated number of rounds per night. The Germans worked on fairly similar lines, and as a result it can easily be imagined that any patrol or reconnoitering work between the lines was apt to be exceedingly unhealthy. Actually there were parts on the line where no feet had pressed the ground of No Man’s Land for weeks on end, unless in open attack or counter-attack, and of these feet there were a good many that never returned to the trench, and a good many others that did return only to walk straight to the nearest aid-post and hospital.