But, for those who are actually in the front or just behind it, one cup of warm coffee in a jam-tin from a roadside stall has been, in certain times and places, all that can be given; the Fund has given that, and it has been the landmark in the day for many men. In those conditions there was but one occasional solace. A friend of mine found an Australian in the trenches in those days, standing in mud nearly to his waist, shivering in his arms and every body muscle, leaning back against the trench side, fast asleep.
AS IN THE WORLD’S DAWN
France, December 20th.
Yesterday morning we were looking across a bare, shallow valley at the opposite knuckle of hill-side, around the foot of which the valley doubled back out of sight. A solitary grey line of broken earth ran like a mole burrow up the bare knuckle and vanished over the top. A line of bare, dead willow stumps marked a few yards of the hollow below. On the skyline, beyond the valley’s end, stood out a distant line of ghostly trees—so faint and blue as to be scarcely distinguishable from the sky. There was nothing else in the landscape—absolutely nothing but the bare, blank shape of the land; save for those old ghosts of departed willows—no trees—no grass—no colour—no living or moving or singing or sounding thing.
Only—that morning at dawn had found a number of men tumbling, jumping, running, dodging in and out of the shell-holes across that slope, making towards our lines. The peck of occasional rifles came from some farther part of the grey, featureless hill-side—the report was the only trace of the rifles or of the men firing them. But as the men who were dodging back were Australians the rifles must have been the rifles of Germans, in trenches or shell-holes, somewhere on the face of that waste. Who these Australians were, the men who watched from where we stood did not know. Apparently they were men who had lost their way in the dark and wandered beyond our trenches; as the light grew they had suddenly realised that they were in front of our front line, and not behind it, as they thought, and had come tumbling back over the craters. They all reached the trench safely.
For this battle has now reached such a formless, featureless landscape, that it is a hard thing to tell whether you are looking at your own country or the German country, or the country between the lines. The stretch between the two sides has for the moment widened, the Germans abandoning many of their waterlogged, sodden ditches close in front of our lines, and contenting themselves with fighting a sort of rearguard action there, while they tunnel, bore, dig, burrow like moles into the farther heights where their reserve line runs near Bapaume. The battle has widened out generally over the landscape.