From the variety of screams of big shells and little shells and screams harrowingly close and reassuringly high, which were indicated as ours, one was warranted in suggesting that the British were doing considerable artillery preparation themselves.
“We must give them as good as they send—and better.”
Better seemed correct.
“Those close ones you hear are doubtless meant for the front German trench, which accounts for their low trajectory; the others for their support trenches or any battery-positions that our planes have located.” We could not see where the British shells were striking. We could judge only of the accuracy of some of the German fire. Considering the storm being visited on the support trench which we had just left, we were more than ever glad to be out of it. Artillery is the war burglar’s jemmy; but it has to batter the house into ruins and blow up the safe and kill most of the family before the burglar can enter. Clouds of dust rose from the explosions; limbs of trees were lopped off by tornadoes of steel hail.
“There! Look at that tree!”
In front of a portion of the British support trench a few of a line of stately shade trees were still standing. A German shell, about an eight-inch, one judged, struck fairly in the trunk of one about the same height from the ground as the lumberman sinks his axe in the bark. The shimmer of hot gas spread out from the point of explosion. Through it as through an aureole one saw that twelve inches of green wood had been cut in two as neatly as a thistle-stem is severed by a sharp blow from a walking-stick. The body of the tree was carried across the splintered stump with crushing impact from the power of its flight, plus the power of the burst of the explosive charge which broke the shell-jacket into slashing fragments; and the towering column of limbs, branches, and foliage laid its length on the ground with a majestic dignity. Which shows what one shell can do, one of three which burst not far away at the same time. In time, the shells would get all the trees; make them into chips and splinters and toothpicks.
“I’d rather that it would hit a tree-trunk than my trunk,” said L------.
“But you would not have got it as badly as the tree,” said the officer reassuringly. “The substance would have been too soft for sufficient impact for a burst. It would have gone right through!”
At battalion headquarters in the front trenches the battalion surgeon had just amputated an arm which had been mauled by a shell.
“Without any anaesthetic,” he explained. “No chance if we sent him back to the hospital. He would die on the way. Stood it very well. Already chirking up.”
A family practitioner at home, the doctor, when the war began, had left his practice to go with his Territorial battalion. He retains the family practitioner’s cheery, assuring manner. He is the kind of man who makes you feel better immediately he comes into the sick-room; who has already made you forget yourself when he puts his finger on your pulse.