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It was a colonel of the North Staffordshires who revealed to me the astounding belief that he was "immune" from shell-fire, and I met other men afterward with the same conviction. He had just come out of desperate fighting in the neighborhood of Thièpval, where his battalion had suffered heavily, and at first he was rude and sullen in the hut. I gaged him as a hard Northerner, without a shred of sentiment or the flicker of any imaginative light; a stern, ruthless man. He was bitter in his speech to me because the North Staffords were never mentioned in my dispatches. He believed that this was due to some personal spite -- not knowing the injustice of our military censorship under the orders of G.H.Q.

"Why the hell don't we get a word?" he asked. "Haven't we done as well as anybody, died as much?"

I promised to do what I could -- which was nothing -- to put the matter right, and presently he softened, and later was amazingly candid in self-revelation.

"I have a mystical power," he said. "Nothing will ever hit me as long as I keep that power which comes from faith. It is a question of absolute belief in the domination of mind over matter. I go through any barrage unscathed because my will is strong enough to turn aside explosive shells and machine-gun bullets. As matter they must obey my intelligence. They are powerless to resist the mind of a man in touch with the Universal Spirit, as I am."

He spoke quietly and soberly, in a matter-of-fact way. I decided that he was mad. That was not surprising. We were all mad, in one way or another or at one time or another. It was the unusual form of madness that astonished me. I envied him his particular "kink". I wish I could cultivate it, as an aid to courage. He claimed another peculiar form of knowledge. He knew before each action, he told me, what officers and men of his would be killed in battle. He looked at a man's eyes and knew, and he claimed that he never made a mistake. . . . He was sorry to possess that second sight, and it worried him.

There were many men who had a conviction that they would not be killed, although they did not state it in the terms expressed by the colonel of the North Staffordshires, and it is curious that in some cases I know they were not mistaken and are still alive. It was indeed a general belief that if a man funked being hit he was sure to fall, that being the reverse side of the argument.


View of Combles.
Highlanders working on the roads. See larger image.

I saw the serene cheerfulness of men in the places of death at many times and in many places, and I remember one group of friends in the Somme who revealed that quality to a high degree. It was when our front-line ran just outside the village of Martinpuich to Courcelette, on the other side of the Bapaume road, and when the 8th-10th Gordons were there, after their fight through Longueval and over the ridge. It was the little crowd I have mentioned before the battle of Loos, and it was Lieut. John Wood who took me to the battalion headquarters located under some sandbags in a German dugout. All the way up to Contalmaison and beyond there were signs of recent bloodshed and of present peril. Dead horses lay about, disemboweled by shell-fire. Legs and arms protruded from shell-craters where bodies lay half buried. Heavy crumps came howling through the sky and bursting with enormous noise, here, there, and everywhere over that vast, desolate battlefield, with its clumps of ruin and rows of dead trees. It was the devil's hunting-ground and I hated every yard of it. But John Wood, who lived in it, was astoundingly cheerful, and a fine, study, gallant figure, in his kilted dress, as he climbed over sandbags, walked on the top of communication trenches (not bothering to take cover) and skirting round hedges of barbed wire, apparently unconscious of the "crumps" that were bursting around. I found the laughter and friendly greeting in a hole in the earth where the battalion staff was crowded. The colonel was courteous, but busy. He rather deprecated the notion that I should go up farther, to the ultimate limit of our line. It was no use putting one's head into trouble without reasonable purpose, and the German guns had been blowing in sections of his new-made trenches. But John Wood was insistent that I should meet "old Thom", afterward in command of the battalion. He had just been buried and dug out again. He would like to see me. So we left the cover of the dugout and took to the open again. Long lines of Jocks where digging a support trench -- digging with a kind of rhythmic movement as they threw up the earth with their shovels. Behind them was another line of Jocks, not working. They lay as though asleep, out in the open. They were the dead of the last advance. Captain Thom was leaning up against the wall of the front-line trench, smoking a cigarette, with his steel hat on the back of his head -- a handsome laughing figure. He did not look like a man who had just been buried and dug out again.

"It was a narrow shave," he said. "A beastly shell covered me with a ton of earth. . . . Have a cigarette, won't you?"

We gossiped as though in St. James's Street. Other young Scottish officers came up and shook hands, and said: "Jolly weather, isn't it? What do you think of our little show?" Not one of them gave a glance at the line of dead men over there, behind their parados. They told me some of the funny things that had happened lately in the battalion, some grim jokes by tough Jocks. They had a fine crowd of men. You couldn't beat them. "Well, good morning! Must get on with the job." There was no anguish there, no sense of despair, no sullen hatred of this life, so near to death. They seemed to like it. . . . They did not really like it. They only made the best of it, without gloom. I saw they did not like this job of battle, one evening in their mess behind the line. The colonel who commanded them at the time, Celt of the Celts, was in a queer mood. He was a queer man, aloof in his manner, a little "fey". He was annoyed with three of his officers who had come back late from three days' Paris leave. They were giants, but stood like schoolboys before their master while he spoke ironical, bitter words. Later in the evening he mentioned casually that they must prepare to go into the line again under special orders. What about the store of bombs, small-arms ammunition, machine-guns?

The officers were stricken into silence. They stared at one another as though to say: "What does the old man mean? Is this true?" One of them became rather pale, and there was a look of tragic resignation in his eyes. Another said, "Hell!" in a whisper. The adjutant answered the colonel's questions in a formal way, but thinking hard and studying the colonel's face anxiously.

"Do you mean to say we are going into the line again, sir? At once?"

The colonel laughed.

"Don't look so scared, all of you! It's only a field-day for training."

The officers of the Gordons breathed more freely. Poof! They had been fairly taken in by the "old man's" leg pulling. . . . No, it was clear they did not find any real joy in the line. They would not choose a front-line trench as the most desirable place of residence.

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