It was one of the many places where American units had been taken to plug the damaged French lines. There was a reserve battalion near by, and outside this village a group of men were at work, putting up tents for a hospital. Some thirty miles ahead was the front, and you heard the guns off and on, a low sullen roar, punctuated with hammer-strokes f big fellows. Millions of dollars every hour were being blown to nothingness in that fearful inferno; a gigantic meat-mill that was grinding up the bodies of men and had never ceased day or night for nearly four years. You could be a violent pacifist in sound of those guns, or you could be a violent militarist, but you could not be indifferent to the war, you could not be of two minds about it.
And yet—Jimmie Higgins was of two minds! He wanted to beat back the Huns, who had made all this fearful mess; but also he wanted to beat the profiteers who were making messes at home. It happened that Jimmie had reached the army at a trying moment, when there were no American big guns, and when promises of machine-guns and aeroplanes had failed. There was wild excitement in the home papers, and not a little grumbling in the army. It was graft and politics, men said; and Jimmie caught eagerly at this idea. He pointed out how the profiteers at home were entrenching themselves, making ready to exploit the soldiers returning without jobs. That was a line of talk the men were ready for, and the little machinist rejoiced to see the grim look that came upon their faces. They would attend to it, never fear; and Jimmie would go on to tell them exactly how to attend to it!
But that was only now and then, when the wind was the other way, and you did not hear the guns. For the most part Jimmie’s thoughts were drawn irresistibly to the front; about him were thousands of other men, all their thoughts at the front, their hands clenched, their teeth set, their beings centred upon the job of holding the Beast at bay. Jimmie saw the grey ambulances come in, and the wounded lifted out on stretchers, their heads bandaged, their bodies covered with sheets, their faces a ghastly waxen colour. He saw the poilus, fresh from the trenches, after God alone knew what siege of terror. They came staggering, bent double under a burden of equipment. The first time Jimmie saw them was a day of ceaseless rain, when the dust ground up by the big lorries was turned into ankle-deep mud; the Frenchmen were plastered with it from head to foot; you saw under their steel helmets only a mud-spattered beard, and the end of a nose, and a pair of deep-sunken eyes. They stopped to rest not far from the place where Jimmie worked; they sank down in the wet, they fell asleep in pools of water, where not even beasts could have slept. You did not have to know any French to understand what these men had been through. Good God! Was that what was going on up there?