NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
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
"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
"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.
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
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.