Once, in another war, I had been on a paved road when—well, I did not care to be on this one if a nine-inch hit it and turned fragments of paving-stones into projectiles. An effort to “run out the bunt”—Caesar’s ghost! It was one of our own shells! Nerves! Shame! Two stretcher-bearers with a wounded man looked up in surprise, wondering what kind of a hide-and-seek game we were playing. They made a picture of imperturbability of the kind that is a cure for nerves under fire. If the other fellow is not scared it does not do for you to be scared.
“Did you get any shells in your neighbourhood?” we asked the chauffeur—also British and imperturbable—whom we found waiting at a clearing station for wounded.
“Yes, sir, I saw several, but none hit the car.”
As we came to the first cross-roads in that dead land back of the trenches which was still being shelled by shrapnel, though not another car was in sight, and ours had no business there (as we were told afterwards), that chauffeur, as he slowed up before turning, held out his hand from habit as he would have done in Piccadilly.
Two or three days later things were normal along the front again, with Mr. Atkins still stuffing himself with marmalade in that two hundred yards of trench.
Seeming an immovable black line set as a frontier in peace, that Western front on your map which you bought early in the war in anticipation of rearranging the flags in keeping with each day’s news was, in reality, a pulsating, changing line.
At times you thought of it as an enormous rope under the constant pressure of soldiers on either side, who now and then, with an “all together” of a tug-of-war at a given point, straightened or made a bend, with the result imperceptible except as you measured it by a tree or a house. Battles as severe as the most important in South Africa, battles severe enough to have decided famous campaigns in Europe in former days, when one king rode forth against another, became landmark incidents of the give and take, the wrangling and the wrestling of siege operations.
The sensation of victory or defeat for those engaged was none the less vivid because victory meant the gain of so little ground and defeat the loss of so little; perhaps the more vivid in want of the movement of pursuing or of being pursued in the shock of arms as in past times, when an army front hardly covered that of one brigade in the trenches. For winners and losers, returning to their billets in French villages as other battalions took their places, had time to think over the action.
The offensive was mostly with the British through the summer of 1915; any thrust by the Germans was usually to retake a section of trenches which they had lost. But our attacks did not all succeed, of course.
Battalions knew success and failure; and their narratives were mine to share, just as one would share the good luck or the bad luck of his neighbours.