At the same moment he turned to address a young artillery-officer in the road: “Is your gun near here?” “Yes, sir, I was just going back to it.” He was asked to show us the way. As we followed I noticed the white puff of a shell, far ahead, over the flat, ditch-lined fields; a captive balloon was making observations about half a mile in front, and an aeroplane passed over our heads. “Ah, not a Boche,” said Captain —— regretfully, “but we brought a Boche down here yesterday, just over this village—a splendid fight.”
Meanwhile, the artillery fire was quickening. We reached a ruined village from which all normal inhabitants had been long since cleared away. The shattered church was there, and I noticed a large crucifix quite intact still hanging on its chancel wall. A little farther and the boyish artillery-officer, our leader, who had been by this time joined by a comrade, turned and beckoned to the General. Presently we were creeping through seas of mud down into the gun emplacement, so carefully concealed that no aeroplane overhead could guess it.
There it was—how many of its fellows I had seen in the Midland and northern workshops!—its muzzle just showing in the dark, and nine or ten high-explosive shells lying on the bench in front of the breech. One is put in. We stand back a little, and a sergeant tells me to put my fingers in my ears and look straight at the gun. Then comes the shock—not so violent as I had expected—and the cartridge-case drops out. The shell has sped on its way to the German trenches—with what result to human flesh and blood? But I remember thinking very little of that—till afterwards. At the time, the excitement of the shot and of watching that little group of men in the darkness held all one’s nerves gripped.
In a few more minutes we were scrambling out again through the deep, muddy trench leading to the dugout, promising to come back to tea with the officers, in their billet, when our walk was done.
Now indeed we were “in the battle”! Our own guns were thundering away behind us, and the road was more and more broken up by shell holes. “Look at that group of trees to your left—beyond it is Neuve Chapelle,” said our guide. “And you see those ruined cottages, straight ahead, and the wood behind.” He named a wood thrice famous in the history of the war. “Our lines are just beyond the cottages, and the German lines just in front of the wood. How far are we from them? Three-quarters of a mile.” It was discussed whether we should be taken zigzag through the fields to the entrance of the communication-trench. But the firing was getting hotter, and Captain —— was evidently relieved when we elected to turn back. Shall I always regret that lost opportunity? You did ask me to write something about “the life of the soldiers in the trenches”—and that was the nearest that any woman could personally have come to it! But I doubt whether anything more—anything, at least, that was possible—could have deepened the whole effect. We had been already nearer than any woman—even a nurse—has been, in this war, to the actual fighting on the English line, and the cup of impressions was full.