“In a charge,” said the Sergeant, “the ‘Hotwater Guards’ don’t think about going back till there’s none of them left to go back; and you can always remember this: if you go forward you may die, if you go back you will die.”
The memory of that phrase came back to Private Everton, tramping down the dark road to the firing-line. Just because he had no knowledge of how he himself would behave in this his baptism of fire, just because he was in deadly fear that he would feel fear, or, still worse, show it, he strove to fix that phrase firmly in front of his mind. “If I can remember that,” he thought, “it will stop me going back, anyway,” and he repeated: “If you go back you will die, if you go back you will die,” over and over.
It is true that, for all his repetition, when a field battery, hidden close by the side of the road on which they marched, roared in a sudden and ear-splitting salvo of six guns, for the instant he thought he was under fire and that a huge shell had burst somewhere desperately close to them. He had jumped, his comrades assured him afterwards, a clear foot and a half off the ground, and he himself remembered that his first involuntary glance and thought flashed to the deep ditch that ran alongside the road.
When he came to the trenches, at last, and filed down the narrow communication-trench and into his Company’s appointed position in the deep ditch with a narrow platform along its front that was the forward fire-trench, he remembered with unpleasant clearness that instinctive start and thought of taking cover. By that time he had actually been under fire, had heard the shells rush over him and the shattering noise of their burst; had heard the bullets piping and humming and hissing over the communication- and firing-trenches. He took a little comfort from the fact that he had not felt any great fear then, but he had to temper that by the admission that there was little to be afraid of there in the shelter of the deep trench. It was what he would do and feel when he climbed out of cover on to the exposed and bullet-swept flat before the trench that he was in doubt about; for the Hotwaters had been told that at nine o’clock there was to be a brief but intense bombardment on a section of trench in front of them which had been captured from us the day before, and which, after several counter-attacks had failed, was to be taken that morning by this battalion of Hotwaters.
At half-past eight, nobody entering their trench would have dreamed that the Hotwaters were going into a serious action in half an hour. The men were lounging about, squatting on the firing-step, chaffing and talking—laughing even—quite easily and naturally; some were smoking, and others had produced biscuits and bully beef from their haversacks and were calmly eating their breakfast.