The Light Side of War
One of the characteristics of the British soldier is the cheerfulness he displays on all occasions. He has a strong sense of humour, which never fails him; he can enjoy a joke even when the bullets are darting about him like angry wasps searching for someone to sting. The big German shells, which were intended to rob away his courage and cow him, have sometimes provided him with amusement.
One day an English private, named Palmer, was suffering terribly in a trench from neuralgia. He endured the pain for hours, hoping it would pass away, but was unable to get relief.
"Oh, this will drive me crazy!" he exclaimed at length, resting his head on his open hand on the side of the trench.
"Poor chap!" murmured his companions.
Suddenly a huge shell from a German gun fell with a deafening thud in the ground in front of him. The trench almost collapsed with the shock, and the sufferer was stunned. For a minute or two he lay unconscious, and a comrade went over to lift him tenderly. Then he revived.
"Do you feel better?" he was asked.
Palmer smiled. He raised his right hand to his cheek and rubbed it gleefully. "The pain has gone!" he said. "Oh, my! what a relief!"
A merry laugh arose from the trench as a wag referred to the next German shell that burst near them as "Palmer's neuralgia cure".
An officer, who is a well-known cricketer, was lying cramped up for hours in a trench, longing for night to come on so that he might get a little exercise. The German snipers were concealed not far off, and blazed away when they got the least target to pop at. It was a hot corner. Sometimes a soldier raised his cap at the end of the bayonet and got it riddled by bullets in a few minutes.
The officer suffered from sharp pains in his right leg, and at length turned round and stretched it above the level of the trench mouth. In another second a bullet entered his thigh.
"I'm out, by Jove!" he exclaimed; "l.b.w. Better luck next time."
"War," remarked a private one day, as he sat down in a "funk hole" which had been dug out in a trench, "is a really horrible affair."
"Don't get downhearted, old chap," a comrade said. "Here's a London paper to read."
The other seized it eagerly and scanned the pages with great interest. What a treasure the newspaper seemed, although it was two weeks old.
At length he looked up and asked: "I say, where is the football page, old man? Have you torn it off for fun? Let me have a look at it."
"Oh, I didn't tear it off!" answered the other. "When I was reading the paper this morning a bit of shell carried off the football page."
"What a shame!" the football enthusiast exclaimed. "I was so anxious to see how my favourite team, the Woolwich Arsenal, got on. Ah, well! War is a really horrible affair indeed."
The fierce fighting which took place on the borders of France and Germany was one dark night relieved of its terrible seriousness by an attack of quite a humorous character.
It chanced that the Germans had occupied a little town from which the British were particularly anxious to drive them. In the midst of it is an old Norman church, with a high tower, which was being used as a signaling station. It proved to be of great service to the enemy, because it commanded a wide prospect of country. When the British attempted to advance, the signalers sent message's to two batteries of artillery concealed behind a field of hops, with the result that their fire was directed with deadly accuracy. The British had no desire to injure the church tower so as to render it useless for the purpose to which it was put by the Germans.
After a day of fighting, which was not decisive for either side, a night attack against the Germans was planned. The British force which was selected to carry it through was not a strong one, but the men entered into the spirit of the adventure and resolved to bluff their opponents into believing that their numbers were very great. A proportion of them carried tin basins and empty cans, with which to rouse a mighty din when they got near to the Germans. They also asked for a piper. One of the London Scottish Territorials, who had just arrived at the front, offered to serve in this capacity. He was just an amateur at the pipes, but promised he would make them skirl to some purpose. On being asked to play, he warbled a few bars of weird music, resembling the sounds heard in a farmyard, and was told he would do. Carrying the set of bagpipes, he then marched off with the others towards the village.
The advance was conducted in silence. It was a dark, misty night, and not a star could be seen. The conditions were admirably suited for the tactics of the attackers. They did not make straight for the little town, but selected a winding route which led them round fields of beetroot, turnip, and potatoes. By doing so they completely hoodwinked the drowsy German sentries.
The church tower proved to be a splendid landmark. It would not have aided them at all, however, on that murky night, had not the German signalers occupied it. These men were busily engaged sending private messages with coloured lamps to the batteries, so as to amuse themselves and while away the time, little dreaming that they were doing splendid service to the British.
Stealthily and silently the attackers moved down into the little town. Rain had begun to fall heavily, hushing the noise of their footsteps, and they approached quite close to the church before their presence was suspected. The Germans had made themselves comfortable in a number of houses. Many were fast asleep in warm beds; others were drinking heavily and singing songs.
The British force took up a strong position. Then the signal was given to alarm the enemy. The amateur piper blew the bagpipes and made them skirl indeed. The others shouted and yelled and clattered their tins on the cobbled streets. At the same time a brisk fire was opened, and the signalers on the church tower soon found their position rather uncomfortable. In a flurry a signal-lamp winked out a hurried message; then a bullet struck it and it winked no more.
The little town was thrown into confusion. Germans leaped from beds and drinking-tables and scampered hither and thither in a state of bewilderment and alarm. Showers of well-directed bullets hastened their pace or caused them to change their minds as to the best way by which to escape. The town seemed to be full of British troops. Loudly skirled the bag-pipes; the rattling of tins seemed to be the rattling of Maxim guns, and the yells of the humorous attackers were believed to be rejoicings over their assured success. Hundreds of Germans fled towards the hopfield. Apparently they were mistaken for the attackers, because their own batteries of artillery opened fire on them with shrapnel; but more were scared than were killed.
The British soldiers had really very little to do. Indeed the amateur piper seemed to be the hardest-worked man among them. He never ceased "tuning his pipes"; some of the squeals he got out of his chanter were quite awesome.
There never was a more successful attempt at creating a panic. The Germans evacuated the town in record time. No attempt was made on their part to rally and hold back the little band of Britishers, who had not a single man killed or wounded.
All the townsfolk were delighted when they discovered what had happened. They praised the British for their cleverness, and laughed over the hurried flight of the Germans, many of whom did not wait to clothe themselves after leaping from their beds. But the townsfolk were very polite regarding the bagpipes. They took it for granted that the piper's performance was supposed to be of high class character in his native land. One old lady exclaimed to this amateur, with flushed cheeks and gleaming eyes: "Oh, m'sieur, never will I forget your beautiful music! I will carry it in my heart for the remainder of my life."
She wondered why the soldiers laughed merrily when her words were translated to them. Then she said: "Ah yes, I understand! They can't forget that the beautiful music made the 'Boches' run away."
Occasionally soldiers who have found themselves cut off from their regiments have experienced adventures which were sometimes as amusing as they were exciting. A Highlander and a Londoner once took refuge in a little farm-house to escape the Germans. They were very anxious to return to their regiments, and saw that their only chance of doing so was to change their clothing. After a good deal of trouble they made the kindly housewife understand what they wanted. She smiled, and said something in French, and left the room. A few minutes afterwards she returned with a woman's dress and a man's suit of clothes.
The Londoner laughed merrily. "Well, I'm blessed," he exclaimed to his friend, "if she does not take you for my wife. That's why she has brought the lady's costume."
"Not at all," retorted the Highlander, who was the taller of the two; "the costume is intended for yourself. She thinks you are so pretty."
The housewife had only one suit of men's clothes to give, and the Highlander put it on. The Englishman got into the costume and made a comical-looking woman; then, performing the most amusing antics, he took his friend's arm and bade good-bye to the farmer's wife and daughter, whom he left laughing merrily until the tears ran down their cheeks. The soldiers enjoyed their experience, and when they reached the British lines were hailed with shouts of applause. "Strike up the band," exclaimed a wag; "here come the famous music-hall stars, 'Jock and his wife'. After a little song the lady will give a performance of the skirt dance, French style."
A British officer and nine privates attempted, on another occasion, to steal through the German lines dressed as women. They had been taken prisoners by the enemy, but managed to escape. One night they entered the town of Roye, feeling quite exhausted, and were greatly disappointed to find that the Germans occupied it.
By good luck they were met by a French lad, a native of Paris, who chanced to be residing at Roye with his aunt when the war broke out. As the officer could speak French, he was able to make the youngster understand that he wanted to find a safe hiding-place for himself and his men.
"Come with me," the young Frenchman said, "and I will conceal you all right."
He led them down a lane to a stable behind the house in which he was residing.
"You will be quite safe in the loft," he told them, "because the entrance is a hidden one."
"Thank you very much!" exclaimed the officer.
"I will bring you food as soon as I can procure some," the boy assured them. "Keep very quiet and do not come down on any account."
The British soldiers climbed the ladder, then pulled it up, and the concealed hatch was closed.
When this was done the boy hastened back to the house. Someone was knocking at the front door. He opened it and found himself confronted by a German officer, who began to ask him many questions. The lad answered every one, but did not give any information of value.
"Can I help to look after your wounded?" he asked. The officer smiled and declined the offer. But it had its desired effect. He never suspected that the simple-looking lad was concealing ten British soldiers in the back yard, and went away.
The next difficulty was to procure food for the hungry men lying in the loft. None could be purchased openly, for all the shops had been seized by the Germans, who fixed the quantity which each householder should receive daily. However, the lad arranged with, friends to contribute food for the hidden strangers, and both he and his aunt ate as little as possible.
He was thus able to carry supplies every night to the stable.
For nearly a week the soldiers kept in hiding; then they began to weary.
"This is worse than prison," they said.
"One settles down in prison, but here, knowing that we have a chance of escape, we cannot endure to remain long without doing something."
Said the lad: "If the Germans see you they will take you prisoners at once."
"Bring us workmen's clothes, so that we may disguise ourselves," they pleaded.
Said the lad: "You would be seized all the same. The 'Boches' are arresting all the able-bodied men in the town, and sending them out to dig trenches."
"Well, then," the officer said, with a smile, "bring us women's clothes, and we shall march off and not trouble you any more." The men laughed heartily at the idea of dressing up as French women.
Said the lad: "Do not say that you trouble me. It is a great honour to be of service to the brave Englishmen." He went away, and after some hours elapsed returned with female attire for the hidden soldiers.
"When you have all dressed up," said the lad, "I will act as your guide."
"That is very good of you," answered the officer, "but remember that if you accompany us you will be running a very great risk."
Said the courageous lad: "The risk would be greater if I stayed. What if the 'Boches' were to find your uniforms here? Do you think they would trouble to take me a prisoner? No; they would just shoot me as if I were a little black crow."
On the next night the disguised soldiers stole out from their hiding-place. They all looked very tall and powerful women, and chaffed one another in whispers. They slipped round by back streets, some walking alone and others in couples. The French lad accompanied the officer, who acted his part very well. It seemed for a time as if they would all be able to get away, but on the outskirts of the town the officer and his young friend were stopped by a German sentry, who refused to let them pass. "You must remain in Roye," he said. "It is very suspicious that you should want to leave it during the night. I shall report the matter at once, so that it may be investigated."
Alarmed at his attitude, the French lad and the officer turned back and warned the others. They lost no time in returning to their hiding-place in the stable loft.
A few days afterwards, however, they were able to regain their freedom. Allied troops were closing round the town, and the Germans found it necessary to retire from it, and this they did very smartly.
The French lad at once ran to inform the officers and men of what had happened. "We had better clear out at once," they said, "in case the Germans should come back."
"I will act as your guide," said their young friend. "I know all the roads in this district."
They were only too pleased to accept this offer. The lad took them by short cuts and unfrequented paths to Amiens, where they were able to rejoin their regiment. He thought it best not to return to Roye again. For all he knew his movements might have been watched by German spies. So he traveled by train to Paris, and was exceedingly glad to reach home safe and well.
Stragglers who have found themselves cut off from their regiments and surrounded by enemies on every side have had many exciting adventures. A young British artilleryman and a sapper of the Royal Engineers were isolated one day in a field near Soissons. Neither carried rifles. Together they crept towards the area where a force of British troops were posted, taking cover as well as possible, so as to escape observation.
Suddenly they saw six Uhlans riding out of a wood about 200 yards distant. These German cavalrymen were scouring the district for stragglers, and, believing they would kill rather than take prisoners, the two British soldiers determined to show fight.
Said the sapper: "Run to yon boulder. I observed as I came along that there are dead men lying behind it."
The young artilleryman set off at a scamper, followed by his companion. They promptly took cover behind the boulder, where they seized the rifles of a couple of fallen soldiers. The Uhlans observed them and rode forward at a quick canter.
The young artilleryman had been a Territorial before he joined the army, and used to be known as a rather good shot. His friend was also a creditable marksman. They lay, cool and collected, and took deliberate aim at the German cavalrymen. In a few minutes they had picked off an officer and three privates, who tumbled off their horses. The remaining two halted, wheeled about, and raced towards the wood, and one of them received a wound before he reached it.
Meanwhile four horses with empty saddles came racing forward. Up leaped the sapper and artilleryman, and after a brisk effort caught three of them. Then they mounted and rode towards the wood, the sapper leading the spare horse. "Who knows," he said, "but we may meet a wandering friend."
Before riding away they went over to the men they had shot down, in case any of them might be wounded and requiring a temporary dressing. But they were all dead. Taking possession of the helmets and the officer's sword, they then rode off towards the British lines, and had a great reception from their companions, who called them "The jolly horse-dealers".