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british graves
British soldiers' graves in France. See larger image.

The goal of our desire seemed attained when at last we reached Bapaume after these terrific battles in which all our divisions, numbering nearly a million men, took part, with not much difference in courage, not much difference in average of loss. By the end of that year's fighting our casualties had mounted up to the frightful total of four hundred thousand men. Those fields were strewn with our dead. Our graveyards were growing forests of little white crosses. The German dead lay in heaps. There were twelve hundred corpses littered over the earth below Loupart Wood, in one mass, and eight hundred of them were German. I could not walk without treading on them there. When I fell in the slime I clutched arms and legs. The stench of death was strong and awful.

Trophies captured by the Sherwood Foresters. The dog was found in a German dug-out. See larger image.

But our men who had escaped death and shell-shock kept their sanity through all this wilderness of slaughter, kept -- oh, marvelous! -- their spirit of humor, their faith in some kind of victory. I was with the Australians on that day when they swarmed into Bapaume, and they brought out trophies like men at a county fair. . . . I remember an Australian colonel who came riding with a German beer-mug at his saddle. . . . Next day, though shells were still bursting in the ruins, some Australian boys set up some painted scenery which they had found among the rubbish, and chalked up the name of the "Coo-ee Theater."

The enemy was in retreat to his Hindenburg line, over a wide stretch of country which he laid waste behind him, making a desert of French villages and orchards and parks, so that even the fruit-trees were cut down, and the churches blown up, and the graves ransacked for their lead. It was the enemy's first retreat on the western front, and that ferocious fighting of the British troops had smashed the strongest defenses ever built in war, and our raw recruits had broken the most famous regiments of the German army, so in spite of all tragedy and all agony our men were not downcast, but followed up their enemy with a sense of excitement because it seemed so much like victory and the end of war.

When the Germans retreated from Gommecourt, where so many boys of the 56th (London) Division had fallen on the 1st of July, I went through that evil place by way of Fonquevillers (which we called "Funky Villas"), and, stumbling over the shell-craters and broken trenches and dead bodies between the dead masts of slashed and branch-less trees, came into open country to our outpost line. I met there a friendly sergeant who surprised me by referring in a casual way to a little old book of mine.

"This place," he said, glancing at me, "is a strange Street of Adventure."

It reminded me of another reference to that tale of mine when I was among a crowd of London lads who had just been engaged in a bloody fight at a place called The Hairpin.

A young officer sent for me and I found him in the loft of a stinking barn, sitting in a tub as naked as he was born.

"I just wanted to ask you," he said, "whether Katharine married Frank?"

The sergeant at Gommecourt was anxious to show me his own Street of Adventure.

trench mortar
Loading trench mortar. See larger image.

"I belong to Toc-emmas," he said (meaning trench-mortars), "and my officers would be very pleased if you would have a look at their latest stunt. We've got a 9.3 mortar in Pigeon Wood, away beyond the infantry. It's never been done before and we're going to blow old Fritz out of Kite Copse."

I followed him in the blue, as it seemed to me, and we fell in with a young officer also on his way to Pigeon Wood. He was in a merry mood, in spire of harassing fire round about and the occasional howl of a 5.9. He kept stopping to look at enormous holes in the ground and laughing at something that seemed to tickle his sense of humor.

"See that?" he said. "That's old Charlie Lowndes's work."

"Who is Charlie?" I asked. "Where can I find him?"

"Oh, we shall meet him in Pigeon Wood. He's as pleased as Punch at having got beyond the infantry. First time it has even been done. Took a bit of doing, too, with the largest size of Toc-emma."

We entered Pigeon Wood after a long walk over wild chaos, and, guided by the officer and sergeant, I dived down into a deep dugout just captured from the Germans, who were two hundred yards away in Kite Copse.

"What cheer, Charlie!" shouted the young officer.

"Hullo, fellow-my-lad! . . . Come in. We getting gloriously binged on a rare find of German brandy."

"Topping and I've brought a visitor."

In a captured German dug-out. The Germans have made some very fine dug-outs. See larger image.

Capt. Charles Lowndes -- "dear old Charlie" -- received us most politely in one of the best dugouts I ever saw, with smoothly paneled walls fitted up with shelves, and [a] good deal [of] furniture made to match.

"This is a nice little home in hell," said Charles. "At any moment, of course, we may be blown to bits, but meanwhile it is very comfy down hear, and what makes everything good is a bottle of rare old brandy and unlimited supply of German soda-water. Also to add to the gaiety of indecent minds there is a complete outfit of ladies' clothing in a neighboring dugout. Funny fellows those German officers. "Take a pew, won't you? and have a drink. Orderly!"

He shouted for his man and ordered a further supply of German soda-water.

We drank to the confusion of the enemy, in his own brandy and soda-water, out of his own mugs, sitting on his own chairs at his own table, and "dear old Charlie", who was a little étoilé, as afterward I became, with a sense of deep satisfaction (the noise of shells seemed more remote), discoursed on war, which he hated, German psychology, trench-mortar barrages (they had simply blown the Boche out of Gommecourt), and his particular fancy stunt of stealing a march on the infantry, who, said, Captain Lowndes, are "laps behind". Other officers crowded into the dugout. One of them said: "You must come round to mine. It's a blasted palace," and I went round later and he told me on the way that he had escaped so often from shell-bursts that he thought the average of luck was up and he was bound to get "done in" before long.

Charlie Lowndes dispensed drinks with noble generosity. There was much laughter among us, and afterward we went upstairs and to the edge of the wood, to which a heavy, wet mist was clinging, and I saw the trench-mortar section play the devil with Kite Copse, over the way. Late in the afternoon I took my leave of a merry company in that far-flung outpost of our line, and wished them luck. A few shells crashed through the wood as I left, but I was disdainful of them after that admirable brandy. It was a long walk back to "Funky Villas," not without the interest of arithmetical calculations about the odds of luck in harassing fire, but a thousand yards or so from Pigeon Wood I looked back and saw that the enemy had begun to "take notice". Heavy shells were smashing through the trees there ferociously. I hoped my friends were safe in their dugouts again . . . .

After I thought of the laughter and gallant spirit of the young men, after five months of the greatest battles in the history of the world. It seemed to me wonderful.


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