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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Five: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On”


FOUR o’clock … a summer dawn … his first morning in the trenches.

Claude had just been along the line to see that the gun teams were in position. This hour, when the light was changing, was a favourite time for attack. He had come in late last night, and had everything to learn. Mounting the fire-step, he peeped over the parapet between the sandbags, into the low, twisting mist. Just then he could see nothing but the wire entanglement, with birds hopping along the top wire, singing and chirping as they did on the wire fences at home. Clear and flute-like they sounded in the heavy air,—and they were the only sounds. A little breeze came up, slowly clearing the mist away. Streaks of green showed through the moving banks of vapour. The birds became more agitated.

That dull stretch of grey and green was No Man’s Land. Those low, zigzag mounds, like giant molehills protected by wire hurdles, were the Hun trenches; five or six lines of them. He could easily follow the communication trenches without a glass. At one point their front line could not be more than eighty yards away, at another it must be all of three hundred. Here and there thin columns of smoke began to rise; the Hun was getting breakfast; everything was comfortable and natural. Behind the enemy’s position the country rose gradually for several miles, with ravines and little woods, where, according to his map, they had masked artillery. Back on the hills were ruined farmhouses and broken trees, but nowhere a living creature in sight. It was a dead, nerveless countryside, sunk in quiet and dejection. Yet everywhere the ground was full of men. Their own trenches, from the other side, must look quite as dead. Life was a secret, these days.

It was amazing how simply things could be done. His battalion had marched in quietly at midnight, and the line they came to relieve had set out as silently for the rear. It all took place in utter darkness. Just as B Company slid down an incline into the shallow rear trenches, the country was lit for a moment by two star shells, there was a rattling of machine guns, German Maxims,—a sporadic crackle that was not followed up. Filing along the communication trenches, they listened anxiously; artillery fire would have made it bad for the other men who were marching to the rear. But nothing happened. They had a quiet night, and this morning, here they were!

The sky flamed up saffron and silver. Claude looked at his watch, but he could not bear to go just yet. How long it took a Wheeler to get round to anything! Four years on the way; now that he was here, he would enjoy the scenery a bit, he guessed. He wished his mother could know how he felt this morning. But perhaps she did know. At any rate, she would not have him anywhere else. Five years ago, when he was sitting on the steps of the Denver State House and knew that nothing unexpected could ever happen to him … suppose he could have seen, in a flash, where he would be today? He cast a long look at the reddening, lengthening landscape, and dropped down on the duckboard.

Claude made his way back to the dugout into which he and Gerhardt had thrown their effects last night. The former occupants had left it clean. There were two bunks nailed against the side walls,—wooden frames with wire netting over them, covered with dry sandbags. Between the two bunks was a soap-box table, with a candle stuck in a green bottle, an alcohol stove, a bain-marie, and two tin cups. On the wall were coloured pictures from Jugend, taken out of some Hun trench.

He found Gerhardt still asleep on his bed, and shook him until he sat up.

“How long have you been out, Claude? Didn’t you sleep?”

“A little. I wasn’t very tired. I suppose we could heat shaving water on this stove; they’ve left us half a bottle of alcohol. It’s quite a comfortable little hole, isn’t it?”

“It will doubtless serve its purpose,” David remarked dryly. “So sensitive to any criticism of this war! Why, it’s not your affair; you’ve only just arrived.”

“I know,” Claude replied meekly, as he began to fold his blankets. “But it’s likely the only one I’ll ever be in, so I may as well take an interest.”


The next afternoon four young men, all more or less naked, were busy about a shellhole full of opaque brown water. Sergeant Hicks and his chum, Dell Able, had hunted through half the blazing hot morning to find a hole not too scummy, conveniently, and even picturesquely situated, and had reported it to the Lieutenants. Captain Maxey, Hicks said, could send his own orderly to find his own shellhole, and could take his bath in private. “He’d never wash himself with anybody else,” the Sergeant added. “Afraid of exposing his dignity!”

Bruger and Hammond, the two second Lieutenants, were already out of their bath, and reclined on what might almost be termed a grassy slope, examining various portions of their body with interest. They hadn’t had all their clothes off for some time, and four days of marching in hot weather made a man anxious to look at himself.

“You wait till winter,” Gerhardt told them. He was still splashing in the hole, up to his armpits in muddy water. “You won’t get a wash once in three months then. Some of the Tommies told me that when they got their first bath after Vimy, their skins peeled off like a snake’s. What are you doing with my trousers, Bruger?”

“Hunting for your knife. I dropped mine yesterday, when that shell exploded in the cut-off. I darned near dropped my old nut!”

“Shucks, that wasn’t anything. Don’t keep blowing about it—shows you’re a greenhorn.”

Claude stripped off his shirt and slid into the pool beside Gerhardt. “Gee, I hit something sharp down there! Why didn’t you fellows pull out the splinters?”

He shut his eyes, disappeared for a moment, and came up sputtering, throwing on the ground a round metal object, coated with rust and full of slime. “German helmet, isn’t it? Phew!” He wiped his face and looked about suspiciously.

“Phew is right!” Bruger turned the object over with a stick. “Why in hell didn’t you bring up the rest of him? You’ve spoiled my bath. I hope you enjoy it.”

Gerhardt scrambled up the side. “Get out, Wheeler! Look at that,” he pointed to big sleepy bubbles, bursting up through the thick water. “You’ve stirred up trouble, all right! Something’s going very bad down there.”

Claude got out after him, looking back at the activity in the water. “I don’t see how pulling out one helmet could stir the bottom up so. I should think the water would keep the smell down.”

“Ever study chemistry?” Bruger asked scornfully. “You just opened up a graveyard, and now we get the exhaust. If you swallowed any of that German cologne— Oh, you should worry!”

Lieutenant Hammond, still barelegged, with his shirt tied over his shoulders, was scratching in his notebook. Before they left he put up a placard on a split stick.

No Public Bathing!! Private Beach

C. Wheeler, Co. B. 2-th Inf’ty.


The first letters from home! The supply wagons brought them up, and every man in the Company got something except Ed Drier, a farm-hand from the Nebraska sand hills, and Willy Katz, the tow-headed Austrian boy from the South Omaha packing-houses. Their comrades were sorry for them. Ed didn’t have any “folks” of his own, but he had expected letters all the same. Willy was sure his mother must have written. When the last ragged envelope was given out and he turned away empty-handed, he murmured, “She’s Bohunk, and she don’t write so good. I guess the address wasn’t plain, and some fellow in another comp’ny has got my letter.”

No second class matter was sent up,—the boys had hoped for newspapers from home to give them a little war news, since they never got any here. Dell Able’s sister, however, had enclosed a clipping from the Kansas City Star; a long account by one of the British war correspondents in Mesopotamia, describing the hardships the soldiers suffered there; dysentery, flies, mosquitoes, unimaginable heat. He read this article aloud to a group of his friends as they sat about a shell-hole pool where they had been washing their socks. He had just finished the story of how the Tommies had found a few mud huts at the place where the original Garden of Eden was said to have been,—a desolate spot full of stinging insects—when Oscar Petersen, a very religious Swedish boy who was often silent for days together, opened his mouth and said scornfully,

“That’s a lie!”

Dell looked up at him, annoyed by the interruption. “How do you know it is?”

“Because; the Lord put four cherubims with swords to guard the Garden, and there ain’t no man going to find it. It ain’t intended they should. The Bible says so.”

Hicks began to laugh. “Why, that was about six thousand years ago, you cheese! Do you suppose your cherubims are still there?”

“’Course they are. What’s a thousand years to a cherubim? Nothin’!”

The Swede rose and sullenly gathered up his socks.

Dell Able looked at his chum. “Ain’t he the complete bonehead? Solid ivory!”

Oscar wouldn’t listen further to a “pack of lies” and walked off with his washing.


Battalion Headquarters was nearly half a mile behind the front line, part dugout, part shed, with a plank roof sodded over. The Colonel’s office was partitioned off at one end; the rest of the place he gave over to the officers for a kind of club room. One night Claude went back to make a report on the new placing of the gun teams. The young officers were sitting about on soap boxes, smoking and eating sweet crackers out of tin cases. Gerhardt was working at a plank table with paper and crayons, making a clean copy of a rough map they had drawn up together that morning, showing the limits of fire. Noise didn’t fluster him; he could sit among a lot of men and write as calmly as if he were alone.

There was one officer who could talk all the others down, wherever he was; Captain Barclay Owens, attached from the Engineers. He was a little stumpy thumb of a man, only five feet four, and very broad,—a dynamo of energy. Before the war he was building a dam in Spain, “the largest dam in the world,” and in his excavations he had discovered the ruins of one of Julius Caesar’s fortified camps. This had been too much for his easily-inflamed imagination. He photographed and measured and brooded upon these ancient remains. He was an engineer by day and an archaeologist by night. He had crates of books sent down from Paris,—everything that had been written on Caesar, in French and German; he engaged a young priest to translate them aloud to him in the evening. The priest believed the American was mad.

When Owens was in college he had never shown the least interest in classical studies, but now it was as if he were giving birth to Caesar. The war came along, and stopped the work on his dam. It also drove other ideas into his exclusively engineering brains. He rushed home to Kansas to explain the war to his countrymen.. He travelled about the West, demonstrating exactly what had happened at the first battle of the Marne, until he had a chance to enlist.

In the Battalion, Owens was called “Julius Caesar,” and the men never knew whether he was explaining the Roman general’s operations in Spain, or Joffre’s at the Marne, he jumped so from one to the other. Everything was in the foreground with him; centuries made no difference. Nothing existed until Barclay Owens found out about it. The men liked to hear him talk. Tonight he was walking up and down, his yellow eyes rolling, a big black cigar in his hand, lecturing the young officers upon French characteristics, coaching and preparing them. It was his legs that made him so funny; his trunk was that of a big man, set on two short stumps.

“Now you fellows don’t want to forget that the night-life of Paris is not a typical thing at all; that’s a show got up for foreigners.… The French peasant, he’s a thrifty fellow.… This red wine’s all right if you don’t abuse it; take it two-thirds water and it keeps off dysentery.… You don’t have to be rough with them, simply firm. Whenever one of them accosts me, I follow a regular plan; first, I give her twenty-five francs; then I look her in the eye and say, ‘My girl, I’ve got three children, three boys.’ She gets the point at once; never fails. She goes away ashamed of herself.”

“But that’s so expensive! It must keep you poor, Captain Owens,” said young Lieutenant Hammond innocently. The others roared.

Claude knew that David particularly detested Captain Owens of the Engineers, and wondered that he could go on working with such concentration, when snatches of the Captain’s lecture kept breaking through the confusion of casual talk and the noise of the phonograph. Owens, as he walked up and down, cast furtive glances at Gerhardt. He had got wind of the fact that there was something out of the ordinary about him.

The men kept the phonograph going; as soon as one record buzzed out, somebody put in another. Once, when a new tune began, Claude saw David look up from his paper with a curious expression. He listened for a moment with a half-contemptuous smile, then frowned and began sketching in his map again. Something about his momentary glance of recognition made Claude wonder whether he had particular associations with the air,—melancholy, but beautiful, Claude thought. He got up and went over to change the record himself this time. He took out the disk, and holding it up to the light, read the inscription: “Meditation from Thais—Violin solo—David Gerhardt.”

When they were going back along the communication trench in the rain, wading single file, Claude broke the silence abruptly. “That was one of your records they played tonight, that violin solo, wasn’t it?”

“Sounded like it. Now we go to the right. I always get lost here.”

“Are there many of your records?”

“Quite a number. Why do you ask?”

“I’d like to write my mother. She’s fond of good music. She’ll get your records, and it will sort of bring the whole thing closer to her, don’t you see?”

“All right, Claude,” said David good-naturedly. “She will find them in the catalogue, with my picture in uniform alongside. I had a lot made before I went out to Camp Dix. My own mother gets a little income from them. Here we are, at home.” As he struck a match two black shadows jumped from the table and disappeared behind the blankets. “Plenty of them around, these wet nights. Get one? Don’t squash him in there. Here’s the sack.”

Gerhardt held open the mouth of a gunny sack, and Claude thrust the squirming corner of his blanket into it and vigorously trampled whatever fell to the bottom. “Where do you suppose the other is?”

“He’ll join us later. I don’t mind the rats half so much as I do Barclay Owens. What a sight he would be with his clothes off! Turn in; I’ll go the rounds.” Gerhardt splashed out along the submerged duckboard. Claude took off his shoes and cooled his feet in the muddy water. He wished he could ever get David to talk about his profession, and wondered what he looked like on a concert platform, playing his violin.