We kept moving our mud-poulticed feet forward, with the flares at our backs, till we came to a road where we saw dimly a silent company of soldiers drawn up and behind them the supplies for the trench. Through the mud and under cover of darkness every bit of barbed wire, every board, every ounce of food, must go up to the moles in the ditch. The searchlights and the flares and the machine-guns waited for the relief. They must be fooled. But in this operation most of the casualties in the average trenches, both British and German, occurred. Without a chance to strike back, the soldier was shot at by an assassin in the night.
When the men who had been serving their turn of duty in the trenches came out, a magnet drew their weary steps—cleanliness. They thought of nothing except soap and water. For a week they need not fight mud or Germans or parasites, which, like General Mud, waged war against both British and Germans. Standing on the slats of the concrete floor of a factory, they peeled off the filthy, saturated outer skin of clothing with its hideous, crawling inhabitants and, naked, leapt into great steaming vats, where they scrubbed and gurgled and gurgled and scrubbed. When they sprang out to apply the towels, they were men with the feel of new bodies in another world.
Waiting for them were clean clothes, which had been boiled and disinfected; and waiting, too, was the shelter of their billets in the houses of French towns and villages, and rest and food and food and rest, and newspapers and tobacco and gossip—but chiefly rest and the joy of lethargy as tissue was rebuilt after the first long sleep, often twelve hours at a stretch. They knew all the sensations of physical man, man battling with nature, in contrasts of exhaustion and danger and recuperation and security, as the pendulum swung slowly back from fatigue to the glow of strength.
Those who came out of the trenches quite “done up,” Colonel Bate, Irish and genial, fatherly and not lean, claimed for his own. After the washing they lay on cots under a glass roof, and they might play dominoes and read the papers when they were well enough to sit up. They had the food which Colonel Bate knew was good for them, just as he knew what was deadly for the inhabitants whom they brought into that isolated room which every man must pass through before he was admitted to the full radiance of the colonel’s curative smile. When they were able to return to the trenches, each was written down as one unit more in the colonel’s weekly statistical reports. In summer he entertained al fresco in an open-air camp.
Typical of many others, this quiet village in a flat country of rich farming land, with a church, a school, a post-office, and stores where the farmer could buy a pound of sugar or a spool of thread, employ a notary, or get a pair of shoes cobbled or a horse shod, without having to go to the neighbouring town of Bethune, Neuve Chapelle became famous only after it had ceased to exist—unless a village remains a village after it has been reduced to its original elements by shell-fire.