The Burying Party

Half-an-hour later, in obedience to a message, I reported for orders at Brigade Headquarters, about three hundred yards to our left front. I took an orderly with me, and was attended by a sniper. It  was very annoying to be fired at without replying. That tries your nerves and your temper, if you like. I had no time to hunt snipers now, so I consigned my attentive friend to perdition, and went about my business.

At headquarters I was introduced to the general, who said my regiment had done awfully well, and that, if my lot were as good as the others, we ‘d be a decided acquisition. I replied that they would do their best. Then the staff captain got hold of me, and very tactfully told me that I was going to be given an honourable but not very pleasant job, which would break the men in wonderfully. And it did.

The honourable task was burying the dead. I went back at once, of course, called the officers and non-coms. together, broke the grim bit of news to them, reminded them how all-important it was to take identity-discs and papers off the bodies before burying them, and we got to work. Our C.O. shared Napoleon’s theory that a general might be excused for losing a battle, but never for losing a moment ; and so with any other soldier. Certainly ‘Do it now’ is a good rule for almost everything soldiers have to do, and for none is it a better rule than for burying-parties.

It was not pleasant work, but, in small things at least, war makes philosophers of us all. I have always had an unconquerable dislike of looking at a dead body laid out at home. But on active service Providence, or whatever you like to call it, seems to step in and drug you. You grow callous. One is not indifferent, but one does not think over-much of the solemnity. I do not say that your finer senses are really blunted (privately, I suspect that finesenses are unbluntable), but you are given a job to do, and, no matter what it is, you just do it, as being all in the day’s work.

There were many of our own dead. There were more than twice as many of the Turks.

There had been a splendid bayonet-charge the night before, the action which made the battalion ‘s name, and for it the regiment was given the post of honour for the next three days. It is almost incredible how soldiers value such rewards.

The situation had been saved by the quick order of Captain M’Lagan, the acting C.O., but the inevitable toll of war was heavy. Both the leading companies lost their commanders, Captains Lindsay and Russell ; and Lieutenant Smith, the acting adjutant, was also killed. They could i’ll be spared ; but their grit and initiative had admittedly saved an appallingly desperate situation, and for it their regiment was mentioned in despatches. They laid down their lives blithely enough, I was told ; and this it was easy to believe. They died to save others as truly and simply as ever was done, and I am sure they died where they would, could they have chosen – at the head of their men. I left my second in command to bury them, and went off to see how the party burying the enemy was doing it. I had splít our burying-party into two one to look to our own dead, one to deal with the Turks. I had no doubt that the two parties would handle the bodies of foe and of friend alike, but it seemed more decent, as well as distinctly my job, to see for myself. Well, I saw.

A burn ran down the centre of our position, just such a mossy, bubbly, friendly thing as I had waded in and fished in a thousand times in Scotland. It was full of dead Turks. We had to wade in and pull them out. Most of them were heavy. All of them were sodden and water-logged. Water and slime oozed and squelched from their clothes as we hauled them about. It was a tough and a dirty job, but it was done as decently as it could be.

The side of the bank of the nullah was quite ten feet high, and crouched against it were seven Turks. Two were smiling broadly – and all were stone-dead. Three of them were leaning up against three others, and the seventh was keeping them all up, propping and holding them. He had crept in among them, his face to the cliff, and all you could see of him was his back and his heels. Seven Turks as dead as dead could be, and only one of the seven had a mark! His mark was ugly enough for seventy. The top of his head had been blown off exactly as you crack off the top of an egg. About fifteen yards away was the body of another Turk, disembowelled. He was an appalling sight. Evidently one of our awful Lizzie shells had dropped there, and its concussion alone had killed six of the enemy. I had heard a great deal of soldiers being killed by concussion. This was the first time I saw it.

The Turk wears an extraordinary amount of clothing, especially round his middle, which is encircled by never-ending yards and yards of cloth. He must be a great believer in keeping his stomach warm. And, in hot countries, no idea could be sounder. Would that we could succeed in drumming it into Tommy. In Gallipoli a great number of our men persisted in taking off their body-bands against orders, and invariably these were the first to contract dysentery. They got hot during the day, and in the chill of the evening naturally started to shiver. Then the trouble began. And nine times out of ten the body-band would have proved a preventive. Tommy is a lovable creature, but he is not always tractable, and often he is not teachable.

We buried sixty-two Turks that day, and most of them were highly trained Regulars. They were all tall and well built. The majority of them were handsome fellows. Instead of the identity-disc our men wear, the Turk wears a small three-cornered leather bag slung from his neck. There is a paper in it with evidently a lot of information, but whether extracts from the Koran or personal details or what I was unable to tell. I could not read it.

I saw my first dead German officer on that occasion. Really they did do themselves well. He had a fine Mauser pistol with a stock that you could make into a butt and use from the shoulder, up to twelve hundred yards, I think. His binoculars were splendid – the best I ever looked through.

Towards the end of my long rounds I came to a party that was burying some of our own men, and among the dead there lay the piper, his arm about his bag, his cheek on his pipes. It is often said that the bandsmen do not take their instruments into action ; and I rather think it is in regulations that they should not. But we had with us in Gallipoli more than one piper who went into action, his pipes with him. In the old days the band acted as stretcher-bearers.

Music is an enormous asset at the front. More might wisely be done with it, I hold. And I believe that it might with the greatest advantage be employed nearer the fighting-line than it commonly is. Of course, the difficulties of transport and of thoroughfare, already enormous in any serious campaign, grow tremendously greater the nearer the firing-front one gets ; mobility is an acute desideratum, and every commander is desperately anxious to hamper and burden his troops as little as possible. But no general would order arms or munitions to be thrown away for the sake of enabling the men to travel light when they dash at the enemy, and there are times when troops find a reasonable amount of music – even under fire – a valuable aid to bayonet and gun. And in the safer phases of war the usefulness of the band and of the impromptu amateur singsong is very great. Often in Gallipoli at night we heard the men singing, songs for the most part we had frequently heard at home, some of them songs we had heard in our cradles. Doubtless you do not remember what songs you heard in your youngest days, but equally of course those same songs make a very special appeal to you always, and nowhere, I believe, more than in soldiers’ exile. I think it invariably both pleased and stiffened us to hear the men singing in the distance. I know it always meant something to me and did something to me to hear the pipes at the Dardanelles. They seemed even more Celtic than they had done in Scotland.

I had liked the piper we had buried for himself, and I had liked him for his music.  They had been good pipes, his pipes. But I was not sorry that they had gone with him into the roll of honour. It seemed fitter so. They seemed very still; but perhaps their spirit followed his, whispering in soft, ghostly numbers ‘The Flowers of the Forest’.

What this piper had been through at the last I could not guess. He was badly battered, and his pipes were smashed as badly as he was. But he had stuck to them through it all, and that was soldierly of him, I thought, for surely they were his chief weapon. Puir laddie ! far awa’ frae hame, we buried him gently, and we laid his pipes on his grave. I passed by it three weeks later, and they were still there, sentinelling his dust, and marking his grave as no stone could have done. They told his story very eloquently, I thought, he and they muted in youth, broken in exile.

We laid six of our boys side by side in one grave, and I took out my prayer- book and read part of the burial service, before we turned and left them to keep their long state in Gallipoli. As we went one of the men came up to me with tears running down his face, and said in an odd voice, ‘Oh sir, I never thought much about it till you started to read those prayers, and then, somehow, it seemed quite different’. He had always been a dare-devil of a chap, and sometimes incorrigible.

It was a beautiful day. I think it was the most intensely blue of all the vivid blue days I saw at Gallipoli. The air danced and shimmered as if full of infinitely small dust of blue diamonds. Butterflies swam through it ; a thousand wild  flowers perfumed it. Always there in the radiant days of the brief early summer our eyes saw great patches of bloom, except where they beheld only desolation, aridity, death, and blood. Achi Baba, ever the most prominent mark in the view, loomed like a lump of awkwardness in the near distance, so shapeless that its very ugliness was picturesque. The sun went down in glory and in rainbows of fire as we worked, and the guns a little farther inland the – never ceasing guns – belched out a venomous requiem and a reiterated threat.

And so – we buried our dead.

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