But, of course, I had to stick it out, so I rose and got my report off through the battered ‘phone, which the surviving signallers just managed to make work once more, by propping it here, splicing it there.
I was now infernally hungry – it was well on in the afternoon – but there was no sign of food. So I had a look at the beastly car, which was still there – I dare say it is there now – and in it I found bully-beef and biscuits. Bully-beef is not my special weakness, but I ate that bully-beef for all it was worth, and I always have liked biscuits.
In one of the attacks that day a small party of an English regiment rushed a machine-gun, and succeeded in capturing it and the officer in charge, who was only slightly wounded. It happened to be a volunteer crew who manned the gun, a crew from the Goeben, which was so much in evidence early in the war. The officer in command of the machine- gun was a Prussian. He was wild at being captured. He commanded (and then he begged) to be shot dead rather than be taken prisoner. ‘No, sir’ an English Tommy told him ; ‘we are British soldiers, not Germans’. Tommy has his feelings, but he also has his failings. His feelings are nasty ones at times, and at times his tongue is nasty too.
The C.O., who had been going. up and down the line all the time, came in while I was still munching my stolen biscuits, and we had a serious confab, and together we contrived to get a fairly extensive report off to headquarters. The battle had practically ceased now. I am afraid that in the centre of the position where we were not much progress had been made. In fact, I learned long afterwards that I had been practically as far as we ever got in that particular bit of the line. The C.O. told me that I would get some dinner if I went down to the gully, and he kindly waited till I came back.
I went to the gully, and I got some dinner but I felt that there was something very wrong with me. I couldn’t quite diagnose what it was. My spine seemed to be misplaced, and to be made of glue rather than of bone ; yet I could walk all right. I went back at about half-past seven, and started my usual evening’s work. But I was listless. I could neither rest nor really work. Nothing interested me – nothing. At half-past two I gave it up and lay down, but I couldn’t sleep. What I did from four till about half-past seven I have never been able to remember. Perhaps I shall some day, but I fancy not. I believe that those three or four hours of my life are dead, and forever buried in the chalky loam of Gallipoli. At half-past seven I struggled down to the gully for breakfast. It was torture to walk. It was torture to walk. It was double torture to be.
I remember chatting quite cheerfully with some one, I cannot recall with whom, as I began to eat, and then something suddenly a sort of snapped, and I collapsed into maudlin, weeping condition. I was all in.
I felt that I was going silly, and that I must have a rest, if only for one day. I had been under fire for forty-two days. And during all that time I had had very little sleep, barely tasting it now and then, just enough of it to whet to stronger agony my appetite and need for it.
I did not require to tell the C.O. when I got back – how I did get back I do not remember ; he saw at once what a plight I was in, and he packed me off immediately for three days’ leave. And he gave me a note to the medical officer at the beach. i pulled myself together enough to arrange a few matters that I ought not to leave at loose ends, got my bag, and went off by myself, not wishing to see or speak to any one.
And even now I’d rather not write of the little I remember of how I got to the beach. It was mine, my very own, and I’ll keep it so. I roamed and groped about forlornly. I was dazed, and for the most part my memory had forsaken me. I remember laughing once or twice when I heard the guns go, pleased as a child. And why not? I was a child again, a stray child, alone in Gallipoli.
My mind rebalanced itself partly after a time, but not my body. I hunted for the M.O. to whom the commanding officer had given me a chit; but I could not find him, and presently I lay down on my back, feeling absolutely helpless, and wondering peevishly if he ‘d find me. For two hours or more I never moved. Then I crawled back to the hospital tent. I crawled in and held out my note. An officer took it – not he to whom it was addressed – and, after a sharp glance at me, opened and read it. He directed me to another marquee. It was near enough, and I found it and lurched in. I was swaying now like a man very drunk. An officer got up quickly, and looked at me hard. I held out my note again. The officer in the other tent had written something on the envelope, but I had no curiosity as to what it was, and I hadn’t glanced at it. And I believe that I could not have read then, not even very big print.
This officer never spoke, but just looked at me, wrote something on a ticket, and pinned it on my coat. Then he said regretfully that the place was full up – choked – and that I’d better rest about a bit, and come back at seven in the morning, and that then I ‘d be put on board a ship. I heard what he said, but it did not mean much to me. He had to tell me a second or a third time to go away until the next day, and then I did stagger out and off again. I remember distinctly that my feelings were hurt. I wanted a home. I desired to be coddled. And I was turned out, and very homeless.
I meandered about for a while, and by luck I tumbled across the acting quartermaster. He took me to his dug-out, and a glass of rum steadied me a bit. We sat and talked for a long time; at least, he talked, and supplied me with rum ad lib. Curiously enough – for I was very weak, and had scarcely eaten for I don’t know how long – it had not the least effect on me.
Finally I lay down, and I dozed off and on until about five ; and then I had some breakfast, and wandered back to the hospital tent. There I found the last officer left of one of the original regiments. He had a bullet in his leg, and we walked down to the pier together, leaning on each other.
Walking none too steadily across the pontoon pier (and little thinking that it was my passing from Gallipoli), I had a narrow squeak. The pier was crowded. Half of it was covered with stretcher cases. We were half-way across when a hideous scream came hurtling through the air. I exclaimed involuntarily, ‘My God, we ‘re in for it!l’ when splash into the water beside us went a great shell. Its spray drenched us, and spattered the wounded, and some of them began to groan.
They were working on the beach that day as I had never seen men work before. Like Trojans? No; like Britons and Twenty-ninthers. I don’t believe the Trojan wars, fought so near here, ever saw such herculean labour so herculeanly performed. Even the ‘brass hats’ had thrown off their coats, and were carrying stretchers. It was a great campaign, and great men fought it.
I went to the end of the pier and sat down, absolutely not caring one minute what became of me, and the next minute praying to God for a boat to take me off the awful place. And when you pray at the front, you pray fervently. No slack prayers go up from the firing-line
By this time I had lost the officer with whom I had limped down, and was quite alone. I met him again on the ship at Lemnos.
I was in a dirty mood now. I would do nothing for anyone. How long I sat on the pier I have no idea, but eventually I found myself on a pinnace. I don’t remember how I got there, but probably the midshipman in charge had carried me. He was not half my size, or nearly half my age ; but he was a dominant person. We scudded out to sea, and soon we came alongside a tug-boat. I boarded her willingly enough, and someone showed me my way down to a tiny cabin.
I sat down. And then it dawned on me that I actually was sitting on a cushioned seat. I laughed. Nearly, I wanted to cry. And for the moment I scarcely could believe it. I on a cushion. A carpet under my feet. I not in a trench And where were the smells and the dead and the bullets? I actually was not in a trench! When I had grown just a little used to that stupendous fact, I looked feebly about me. There was a side- board opposite me. There were bottles on i-lots of bottles. I kept my eye on them, and when a steward came in I asked him for a drink. He went away, and brought me a cup of tea. I told him to take his tea somewhere, and bring me something stronger. He replied that he was not allowed to do that, as the bottles were solely for the use of the ship’s officers. Evidently it was no use arguing. I had been up against ship’s rules and skipper discipline before, So I meekly took the tea.
I felt the boat moving. Dulled and half dead as my senses were, my emotions were indescribable. My blood leapt in my tired veins, exultant that I had left Gallipoli : but my heart clove to the battalion – the tattered, battered remains of it, fighting and festering in the trenches, on the beach, across the nullahs. I felt a deserter. And a lot of use I’d have been – if I could have gone back . I only just managed to get upstairs when they sent for me, only just managed with the assistance of my inexorable he-Hebe of the tea-pot. We were in Lemnos harbour, and lying close beside the Southland.
The last time I had seen her I had been embarking from a port in England. Directed to do so, I went up the companion-way, and found myself on a magnificent vessel, absolutely packed with wounded.
I was pushed along to a doctor who was taking names and issuing brisk orders. I told him that he need not bother about my name, as I must get off at once, for I had only three days’ leave, and feared it was nearly up. He smiled curtly, and informed me that I was not getting off until I got off at Alexandria. Ibegan to expostulate. I was wretchedly upset. I insisted that there was nothing wrong with me, and that I must and would get off. He turned kind at that, and told me not to be ashamed of being a very ill man ; that I was chewed up, body and soul ; and that my cabin was 412. I really wasn’t able to argue, so I went off to the cabin, and threw myself on my bunk. But I couldn’t sleep – it was all so strange – and before long I got up again.
It was evening now, between seven and eight. I wandered along corridors till I found the saloon, and in it my friend of the morning, and another officer who used to visit us in the Fir-Tree Wood. We had dinner together (dinner on a table, off a cloth!) ; we had a bottle of the bubbly wine ; and we drank a solemn toast to the boys we ‘d left behind us.
I tumbled back to bed, at the close of our very brief meal, too tired and too sore to sleep. I never closed an eye. I felt the screw turn and the great boat throb, and knew that we were steaming away from Lemnos. So in the dark and the silence we crept back over the Aegean, away from the place we had come to six weeks before – a glorious army of young exultant men, strong and un-afraid then ; now a boatload of broken men, old and very tired.
I lay late the next day. I felt indescribably ill, and I seemed to be losing my memory. In the afternoon I struggled up to have a look round. I could walk with more and more difficulty : but I got hold of a stick and hobbled about the deck. I can never forget that sight. It out-trenched the trenches. It was crueller than the firing-line. Men were lying on stretchers all over the deck, just as they had been picked up after getting first- aid. They were caked with mud, and with dirt that was worse than mud, and with blood. They had the growth of weeks on their sunken faces. Some were dying, and knew it. All were badly hurt, many maimed for life. But every one of them was cheerful.
It was appalling tragedy. The great liner, beautifully appointed, was ploughing its way through a calm sea in bright sunshine, and with just a faint breeze to temper the heat. It was a fit boat for a queen ‘s holiday. The scenery – ill as I was – thrilled me, and I was born and bred in the beauty of Scotland. It was a boat and a day and a scene for song and laughter, and high good spirits and friendliness. There was so much here to enjoy ; but instead of the passengers at ease that she and the day and the place catered and called for, the boat lay low under a weight of bleeding, weltering men, over a thousand of them, humanity maimed and mutilated. They had been in the full flower of strength and of manhood but yesterday.
And in normal times each would have been making or doing something useful in some peaceful vocation, in some peaceful home-place. Now they lay, pallid and bleeding, on the deck of a misery- packed steamer, going to Alexandria to die, or to have a dangling leg cut off, an aching wound probed and tortured, to be sick and strangled and intolerably thirsty from anæsthetics, to be patched up, if possible, and come back to the hell of battle, the purgatory of the trench.
Yet, with it all, I don’t believe that there was even one who regretted that he had come out to do his bit, or who ever had regretted, or ever would regret.
I have seen many a man die. Death and I are ‘auld acquaintance’ now. Every soldier of ours that I watched set off on the long journey was no coward, but crossed over calmly, with a smile on his white lips and a cheery au revoir in his glazing eyes. I remember a dying man saying, ‘I’m going West, sir. I hope the wife and bairns at home will be looked after’. These were the last words he spoke – he had loved his native country, and at the last his thought was all of some small home in a village in Scotland, where a woman was fighting bravely to keep that home together till her husband came back to her. God grant that his last wish may be fulfilled.
War is a damnable tragedy. And that its bitterest battles are fought, and lost or won, at the front, no man can say.