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

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


“WITH us it’s always a feast or a famine,” the men groaned, when they sat down by the road to munch dry biscuit at noon. They had covered eighteen miles that morning, and had still seven more to go. They were ordered to do the twenty-five miles in eight hours. Nobody had fallen out yet, but some of the boys looked pretty well wilted. Nifty Jones said he was done for. Sergeant Hicks was expostulating with the faint-hearted. He knew that if one man fell out, a dozen would.

“If I can do it, you can. It’s worse on a fat man like me. This is no march to make a fuss about. Why, at Arras I talked with a little Tommy from one of those Pal Battalions that got slaughtered on the Somme. His battalion marched twenty-five miles in six hours, in the heat of July, into certain death. They were all kids out of school, not a man of them over five-foot-three, called them the ‘Bantams.’ You’ve got to hand it to them, fellows.”

“I’ll hand anything to anybody, but I can’t go no farther on these,” Jones muttered, nursing his sore feet.

“Oh, you! We’re going to heave you onto the only horse in the Company. The officers, they can walk!”

When they got into Battalion lines there was food ready for them, but very few wanted it. They drank and lay down in the bushes. Claude went at once to Headquarters and found Barclay Owens, of the Engineers, with the Colonel, who was smoking and studying his maps as usual.

“Glad to see you, Wheeler. Your men ought to be in good shape, after a week’s rest. Let them sleep now. We’ve got to move out of here before midnight, to relieve two Texas battalions at Moltke trench. They’ve taken the trench with heavy casualties and are beat out; couldn’t hold it in case of counter-attack. As it’s an important point, the enemy will try to recover it. I want to get into position before daylight, so he won’t know fresh troops are coming in. As ranking officer, you are in charge of the Company.”

“Very well, sir. I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will. Two machine gun teams are going up with us, and some time tomorrow a Missouri battalion comes up to support. I’d have had you over here before, but I only got my orders to relieve yesterday. We may have to advance under shell fire. The enemy has been putting a lot of big stuff over; he wants to cut off that trench.”

Claude and David got into a fresh shell hole, under the half-burned scrub, and fell asleep. They were awakened at dusk by heavy artillery fire from the north.

At ten o’clock the Battalion, after a hot meal, began to advance through almost impassable country. The guns must have been pounding away at the same range for a long while; the ground was worked and kneaded until it was soft as dough, though no rain had fallen for a week. Barclay Owens and his engineers were throwing down a plank road to get food and the ammunition wagons across. Big shells were coming over at intervals of twelve minutes. The intervals were so regular that it was quite possible to get forward without damage. While B Company was pulling through the shell area, Colonel Scott overtook them, on foot, his orderly leading his horse.

“Know anything about that light over there, Wheeler?” he asked. “Well, it oughtn’t to be there. Come along and see.”

The light was a mere match-head down in the ground,—Claude hadn’t noticed it before. He followed the Colonel, and when they reached the spark they found three officers of A Company crouching in a shell crater, covered with a piece of sheet-iron.

“Put out that light,” called the Colonel sharply. “What’s the matter, Captain Brace?”

A young man rose quickly. “I’m waiting for the water, sir. It’s coming up on mules, in petrol cases, and I don’t want to get separated from it. The ground’s so bad here the drivers are likely to get lost.”

“Don’t wait more than twenty minutes. You must get up and take your position on time, that’s the important thing, water or no water.”

As the Colonel and Claude hurried back to overtake the Company, five big shells screamed over them in rapid succession. “Run, sir,” the orderly called. “They’re getting on to us; they’ve shortened the range.”

“That light back there was just enough to give them an idea,” the Colonel muttered.

The bad ground continued for about a mile, and then the advance reached Headquarters, behind the eighth trench of the great system of trenches. It was an old farmhouse which the Germans had made over with reinforced concrete, lining it within and without, until the walls were six feet thick and almost shell-proof, like a pill-box. The Colonel sent his orderly to enquire about A Company. A young Lieutenant came to the door of the farmhouse.

“A Company is ready to go into position, sir. I brought them up.”

“Where is Captain Brace, Lieutenant?”

“He and both our first lieutenants were killed, Colonel. Back in that hole. A shell fell on them not five minutes after you were talking to them.”

“That’s bad. Any other damage?”

“Yes, sir. There was a cook wagon struck at the same time; the first one coming along Julius Caesar’s new road. The driver was killed, and we had to shoot the horses. Captain Owens, he near got scalded with the stew.”

The Colonel called in the officers one after another and discussed their positions with them.

“Wheeler,” he said when Claude’s turn came, “you know your map? You’ve noticed that sharp loop in the front trench, in H 2,—the Boar’s Head, I believe they call it. It’s a sort of spear point that reaches out toward the enemy, and it will be a hot place to hold. If I put your company in there, do you think you can do the Battalion credit in case of a counter attack?”

Claude said he thought so.

“It’s the nastiest bit of the line to hold, and you can tell your men I pay them a compliment when I put them there.”

“All right, sir. They’ll appreciate it.”

The Colonel bit off the end of a fresh cigar. “They’d better, by thunder! If they give way and let the Hun bombers in, it will let down the whole line. I’ll give you two teams of Georgia machine guns to put in that point they call the Boar’s Snout. When the Missourians come up tomorrow, they’ll go in to support you, but until then you’ll have to take care of the loop yourselves. I’ve got an awful lot of trench to hold, and I can’t spare you any more men.”

The Texas men whom the Battalion came up to relieve had been living for sixty hours on their iron rations, and on what they could pick off the dead Huns. Their supplies had been shelled on the way, and nothing had got through to them. When the Colonel took Claude and Gerhardt forward to inspect the loop that B Company was to hold, they found a wallow, more like a dump heap than a trench. The men who had taken the position were almost too weak to stand. All their officers had been killed, and a sergeant was in command. He apologized for the condition of the loop.

“Sorry to leave such a mess for you to clean up, sir, but we got it bad in here. He’s been shelling us every night since we drove him out. I couldn’t ask the men to do anything but hold on.”

“That’s all right. You beat it, with your boys, quick! My men will hand you out some grub as you go back.”

The battered defenders of the Boar’s Head stumbled past them through the darkness into the communication. When the last man had filed out, the Colonel sent for Barclay Owens. Claude and David tried to feel their way about and get some idea of the condition the place was in. The stench was the worst they had yet encountered, but it was less disgusting than the flies; when they inadvertently touched a dead body, clouds of wet, buzzing flies flew up into their faces, into their eyes and nostrils. Under their feet the earth worked and moved as if boa constrictors were wriggling down there—soft bodies, lightly covered. When they had found their way up to the Snout they came upon a pile of corpses, a dozen or more, thrown one on top of another like sacks of flour, faintly discernible in the darkness. While the two officers stood there, rumbling, squirting sounds began to come from this heap, first from one body, then from another—gases, swelling in the liquefying entrails of the dead men. They seemed to be complaining to one another; glup, glup, glup.

The boys went back to the Colonel, who was standing at the mouth of the communication, and told him there was nothing much to report, except that the burying squad was needed badly.

“I expect!” The Colonel shook his head. When Barclay Owens arrived, he asked him what could be done here before daybreak. The doughty engineer felt his way about as Claude and Gerhardt had done; they heard him coughing, and beating off the flies. But when he came back he seemed rather cheered than discouraged.

“Give me a gang to get the casualties out, and with plenty of quick-lime and concrete I can make this loop all right in four hours, sir,” he declared.

“I’ve brought plenty of lime, but where’ll you get your concrete?”

“The Hun left about fifty sacks of it in the cellar, under your Headquarters. I can do better, of course, if I have a few hours more for my concrete to dry.”

“Go ahead, Captain.” The Colonel told Claude and David to bring their men up to the communication before light, and hold them ready. “Give Owens’ cement a chance, but don’t let the enemy put over any surprise on you.”

The shelling began again at daybreak; it was hardest on the rear trenches and the three-mile area behind. Evidently the enemy felt sure of what he had in Moltke trench; he wanted to cut off supplies and possible reinforcements. The Missouri battalion did not come up that day, but before noon a runner arrived from their Colonel, with information that they were hiding in the wood. Five Boche planes had been circling over the wood since dawn, signalling to the enemy Headquarters back on Dauphin Ridge; the Missourians were sure they had avoided detection by lying close in the under-brush. They would come up in the night. Their linemen were following the runner, and Colonel Scott would be in telephone communication with them in half an hour.

When B Company moved into the Boar’s Head at one o’clock in the afternoon, they could truthfully say that the prevailing smell was now that of quick-lime. The parapet was evenly built up, the firing step had been partly restored, and in the Snout there were good emplacements for the machine guns. Certain unpleasant reminders were still to be found if one looked for them. In the Snout a large fat boot stuck stiffly from the side of the trench. Captain Ovens explained that the ground sounded hollow in there, and the boot probably led back into a dugout where a lot of Hun bodies were entombed together. As he was pressed for time, he had thought best not to look for trouble. In one of the curves of the loop, just at the top of the earth wall, under the sand bags, a dark hand reached out; the five fingers, well apart, looked like the swollen roots of some noxious weed. Hicks declared that this object was disgusting, and during the afternoon he made Nifty Jones and Oscar scrape down some earth and make a hump over the paw. But there was shelling in the night, and the earth fell away.

“Look,” said Jones when he wakened his Sergeant. “The first thing I seen when daylight come was his old fingers, wigglin’ in the breeze. He wants air, Heinie does; he won’t stay covered.”

Hicks got up and re-buried the hand himself, but when he came around with Claude on inspection, before breakfast, there were the same five fingers sticking out again. The Sergeant’s forehead puffed up and got red, and he swore that if he found the man who played dirty jokes, he’d make him eat this one.

The Colonel sent for Claude and Gerhardt to come to breakfast with him. He had been talking by telephone with the Missouri officers and had agreed that they should stay back in the bush for the present. The continual circling of planes over the wood seemed to indicate that the enemy was concerned about the actual strength of Moltke trench. It was possible their air scouts had seen the Texas men going back,—otherwise, why were they holding off?

While the Colonel and the officers were at breakfast, a corporal brought in two pigeons he had shot at dawn. One of them carried a message under its wing. The Colonel unrolled a strip of paper and handed it to Gerhardt.

“Yes, sir, it’s in German, but it’s code stuff. It’s a German nursery rhyme. Those reconnoitering planes must have dropped scouts on our rear, and they are sending in reports. Of course, they can get more on us than the air men can. Here, do you want these birds, Dick?”

The boy grinned. “You bet I do, sir! I may get a chance to fry ’em, later on.”

After breakfast the Colonel went to inspect B Company in the Boar’s Head. He was especially pleased with the advantageous placing of the machine guns in the Snout. “I expect you’ll have a quiet day,” he said to the men, “but I wouldn’t like to promise you a quiet night. You’ll have to be very steady in here; if Fritz takes this loop, he’s got us, you understand.”

They had, indeed, a quiet day. Some of the men played cards, and Oscar read his Bible. The night, too, began well. But at four fifteen everybody was roused by the gas alarm. Gas shells came over for exactly half an hour. Then the shrapnel broke loose; not the long, whizzing scream of solitary shells, but drum-fire, continuous and deafening. A hundred electrical storms seemed raging at once, in the air and on the ground. Balls of fire were rolling all over the place. The range was a little long for the Boar’s Head, they were not getting the worst of it; but thirty yards back everything was torn to pieces. Claude didn’t see how anybody could be left alive back there. A single twister had killed six of his men at the rear of the loop, where they were shovelling to keep the communication clear. Captain Owns’ neat earthworks were being badly pounded.

Claude and Gerhardt were consulting together when the smoke and darkness began to take on the livid colour that announced the coming of daybreak. A messenger ran in from the Colonel; the Missourians had not yet come up, and his telephone communication with them was cut off. He was afraid they had got lost in the bombardment. “The Colonel says you are to send two men back to bring them up; two men who can take charge if they’re stampeded.”

When the messenger shouted this order, Gerhardt and Hicks looked at each other quickly, and volunteered to go.

Claude hesitated. Hicks and David waited for no further consent; they ran down the communication and disappeared.

Claude stood in the smoke that was slowly growing greyer, and looked after them with the deepest stab of despair he had ever known. Only a man who was bewildered and unfit to be in command of other men would have let his best friend and his best officer take such a risk. He was standing there under shelter, and his two friends were going back through that curtain of flying steel, toward the square from which the lost battalion had last reported. If he knew them, they would not lose time following the maze of trenches; they were probably even now out on the open, running straight through the enemy barrage, vaulting trench tops.

Claude turned and went back into the loop. Well, whatever happened, he had worked with brave men. It was worth having lived in this world to have known such men. Soldiers, when they were in a tight place, often made secret propositions to God; and now he found himself offering terms: If They would see to it that David came back, They could take the price out of him. He. would pay. Did They understand?

An hour dragged by. Hard on the nerves, waiting. Up the communication came a train with ammunition and coffee for the loop. The men thought Headquarters did pretty well to get hot food to them through that barrage. A message came up in the Colonel’s hand:

“Be ready when the barrage stops.”

Claude took this up and showed it to the machine gunners in the Snout. Turning back, he ran into Hicks, stripped to his shirt and trousers, as wet as if he had come out of the river, and splashed with blood. His hand was wrapped up in a rag. He put his mouth to Claude’s ear and shouted: “We found them. They were lost. They’re coming. Send word to the Colonel.”

“Where’s Gerhardt?”

“He’s coming; bringing them up. God, it’s stopped!”

The bombardment ceased with a suddenness that was stupefying. The men in the loop gasped and crouched as if they were falling from a height. The air, rolling black with smoke and stifling with the smell of gases and burning powder, was still as death. The silence was like a heavy anaesthetic.

Claude ran back to the Snout to see that the gun teams were ready. “Wake up, boys! You know why we’re here!”

Bert Fuller, who was up in the look-out, dropped back into the trench beside him. “They’re coming, sir.”

Claude gave the signal to the machine guns. Fire opened all along the loop. In a moment a breeze sprang up, and the heavy smoke clouds drifted to the rear. Mounting to the firestep, he peered over. The enemy was coming on eight deep, on the left of the Boar’s Head, in long, waving lines that reached out toward the main trench. Suddenly the advance was checked. The files of running men dropped behind a wrinkle in the earth fifty yards forward and did not instantly re-appear. It struck Claude that they were waiting for something; he ought to be clever enough to know for what, but he was not. The Colonel’s line man came up to him.

“Headquarters has a runner from the Missourians. They’ll be up in twenty minutes. The Colonel will put them in here at once. Till then you must manage to hold.”

“We’ll hold. Fritz is behaving queerly. I don’t understand his tactics…”

While he was speaking, everything was explained. The Boar’s Snout spread apart with an explosion that split the earth, and went up in a volcano of smoke and flame. Claude and the Colonel’s messenger were thrown on their faces. When they got to their feet, the Snout was a smoking crater full of dead and dying men. The Georgia gun teams were gone.

It was for this that the Hun advance had been waiting behind the ridge. The mine under the Snout had been made long ago, probably, on a venture, when the Hun held Moltke trench for months without molestation. During the last twenty-four hours they had been getting their explosives in, reasoning that the strongest garrison would be placed there.

Here they were, coming on the run. It was up to the rifles. The men who had been knocked down by the shock were all on their feet again. They looked at their officer questioningly, as if the whole situation had changed. Claude felt they were going soft under his eyes. In a moment the Hun bombers would be in on them, and they would break. He ran along the trench, pointing over the sand bags and shouting, “It’s up to you, it’s up to you!”

The rifles recovered themselves and began firing, but Claude felt they were spongy and uncertain, that their minds were already on the way to the rear. If they did anything, it must be quick, and their gun-work must be accurate. Nothing but a withering fire could check.… He sprang to the firestep and then out on the parapet. Something instantaneous happened; he had his men in hand.

“Steady, steady!” He called the range to the rifle teams behind him, and he could see the fire take effect. All along the Hun lines men were stumbling and falling. They swerved a little to the left; he called the rifles to follow, directing them with his voice and with his hands. It was not only that from here he could correct the range and direct the fire; the men behind him had become like rock. That line of faces below; Hicks, Jones, Fuller, Anderson, Oscar.… Their eyes never left him. With these men he could do anything. He had learned the mastery of men.

The right of the Hun line swerved out, not more than twenty yards from the battered Snout, trying to run to shelter under that pile of débris and human bodies. A quick concentration of rifle fire depressed it, and the swell came out again toward the left. Claude’s appearance on the parapet had attracted no attention from the enemy at first, but now the bullets began popping about him; two rattled on his tin hat, one caught him in the shoulder. The blood dripped down his coat, but he felt no weakness. He felt only one thing; that he commanded wonderful men. When David came up with the supports he might find them dead, but he would find them all there. They were there to stay until they were carried out to be buried. They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.

The Colonel’s twenty minutes must be almost up, he thought. He couldn’t take his eyes from the front line long enough to look at his wrist watch.… The men behind him saw Claude sway as if he had lost his balance and were trying to recover it. Then he plunged, face down, outside the parapet. Hicks caught his foot and pulled him back. At the same moment the Missourians ran yelling up the communication. They threw their machine guns up on the sand bags and went into action without an unnecessary motion.

Hicks and Bert Fuller and Oscar carried Claude forward toward the Snout, out of the way of the supports that were pouring in. He was not bleeding very much. He smiled at them as if he were going to speak, but there was a weak blankness in his eyes. Bert tore his shirt open; three clean bullet holes—one through his heart. By the time they looked at him again, the smile had gone … the look that was Claude had faded. Hicks wiped the sweat and smoke from his officer’s face.

“Thank God I never told him,” he said. “Thank God for that!”

Bert and Oscar knew what Hicks meant. Gerhardt had been blown to pieces at his side when they dashed back through the enemy barrage to find the Missourians. They were running together across the open, not able to see much for smoke. They bumped into a section of wire entanglement, left above an old trench. David cut round to the right, waving Hicks to follow him. The two were not ten yards apart when the shell struck. Then Sergeant Hicks ran on alone.