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   Chapter 6 THE MAD MAJOR

Private Peat By Harold Reginald Peat Characters: 13403

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


This first night in, had the commander-in-chief, had any one who questioned the discipline of the First Canadians, seen us, he would have been proud of our bearing, our behavior.

The Tommy who has been there before, when on guard never shows above the parapet more than his head to the level of his eyes. When he has had his view on the ground ahead, he ducks. He looks and ducks frequently. But we-we were not real soldiers; we were super-soldiers. We were not brave; we were super-brave. We went into those trenches; we returned the greeting of the English boys; we lined up to the parapet; we stretched across it to the waistline, and then rose on tippy-toe. I do admit it was a very dark night; at least it appeared so to me. Oh, we were on the brave act, all right, all right.

We stood there staring steadily into the blackness. Suddenly a bullet would come "Zing-g-g-g," hit a tin can behind us, and then we would duck, exclaim "Good lord! that was a close one," then resume the old position. But we soon learned not to have many inches of our bodies displayed, target-fashion, for the benefit of the Dutchies.

The first night in we fired more bullets than on any other night we were at the front. We saw more Germans that night. They sprang up by dozens; they grew into hundreds as the minutes passed and the darkness deepened. We felt like the prophet Ezekiel as he viewed the valley of dry bones. There was the shaking, there was the noise, and my imagination, at least, supplied the miraculous warriors. It was an awful night, that first night in.

Any one knows that if frightened in the dark (we were not frightened, of course; only a little nervous), the worst thing to do is to keep the eyes on one spot. Then one begins to see things. It is not necessary to be a soldier, and it is not necessary to go to the front line in France to make sure of that statement. Stare ahead into the dark anywhere and something will move.

We had our eyes set, and we peppered away. An English officer strolled by, and addressed a fellow near me. "What the ... what the blinkety-blank are you shooting at?"

"Me, sir ... m-me, sir? Germans, sir...." And he went on pumping bullets from his old Ross. The officer smiled.

For myself, I was detailed for guard. I stood there on the firestep with my body half exposed. I did not feel very comfortable. I thought if I could get any other job to do, I would like it better. The longer I stayed, the more certain I became that I would be killed that night. I did not want to be killed. I thought it would be a dreadful thing to be killed the first night in. A few bullets had come fairly close-within a yard or two of my head. I determined there and then, should opportunity offer, I would not stay on guard a minute longer than I could help.

My chance came sooner than I had hoped for. I hadn't realized, what I discovered after a few more turns in the trenches, that guard duty is the easiest job there is. I was eager for a change, and when I heard an English sergeant call out: "I want a Canadian to go on listening-post duty," I hopped down from my little perch and volunteered: "I'll go, Sergeant. Take me."

I had my job transferred in a few minutes. I honestly did not know the duty for which I was wanted. I knew there was a ration back in the town. I had a vague idea that we would go back to the town for more bread or something of the kind.

I had heard of an outpost, but a listening-post was a new one on me. These were very early days in the war. The Imperial soldiers had recently established this new system, and as yet it was not a matter of common knowledge.

This war is either so old-fashioned in its methods or so new-fashioned-in my opinion it is both-that it is continuously changing. The soldier may be drilled well in his own land, if he comes from overseas; he may be additionally trained in England; he may have a couple of weeks at the base in France, but it is all the same-when he reaches the front line trenches there will have been a change, an improvement, in some thing or other. It may be but a detail, it may be but a new name for an old familiar job, but changed it is.

The best soldier in the fighting to-day is the type of man who can adapt himself to anything. He must have initiative; he must have resource; he must have individuality; he must be a distinct and complete unit in himself, ready for any emergency and any new undertaking.

I started promptly to hike down the communication trench, following back the way we had come. An English private soldier was detailed to go on listening-post with me. Again, the raw soldier is never left to his own devices on first coming in. He is given the support of a veteran on all occasions, unless under some very special condition.

"Hie!" called the private to me, "where're yer goin' to?"

"Back, ye bally ass!"

He looked his contempt. "'Ave yer b'ynet fixed?" he asked, by way of answer.

"Bayonet fixed?"

"Yes," said he, "'urry up! We're late."

"Late?" I repeated.

"For Gawd's syke," he exclaimed, "don't yer know as 'ow we are goin' hout? Goin' over to the German trenches-goin' hout!"

?Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Scene from the Photo-Play THE END OF A PERFECT DAY.

Cheerful beggars

I gulped. "Going to make a charge?"

"No ... goin' HOUT ... listenin'-post." And that private started out across No Man's Land as nonchalantly as though he were strolling along his native strand. I followed. I followed cautiously. I don't know how I got out. I don't remember. I can't say that I was frightened ... no, I was just scared stiff. Five paces out I put my hand on the Englishman's shoulder ... I was quite close to him; don't doubt it. He stopped.

"How far is it to the German trenches?" I whispered.

"Eh?"

I raised my voice just a trifle. I didn't know who might hear me: "How far is it to the German trenches?"

"Five 'undred yards." My companion started off again. He stepped on a stick. I jumped. I jumped high. We continued, then I stopped him once more.

"Are we alone out here? Are there any Germans likely to be out too?"

"Why, yes ... plenty of 'em out here."

"Do they go in pairs, like us; or have they squads of them...."

"Pairs, my son, pairs, brace, couples...." The private strode on.

"Do our boys ever meet any of the Boches?"

"Sure! Many a time."

"What do we do?"

"Do? Stick 'em, matey, stick 'em! You've learnt to use yer b'ynet, 'aven't yer? Well, stick 'em ... kill 'em! Don't use yer rifle ... the flash would give you away, and then ye'd be a corpse."

I felt I was a corpse already. I felt that if there was any killing to be done that night he wo

uld have to do it, not I.

We crept more cautiously now. My comrade did not tread on sticks. I whispered to him for the last time: "What are we out here for, anyway?"

Then he explained. He was a good-hearted chap. "Don't yer know w'ot listenin'-post is? W'y, there's a couple of us fellows hout at intervals all along the line. We get as close to the enemy parapet as is possible. We watch and listen, lyin' flat on the ousey ground hall the while. We are the heyes of the harmy. The Germans raid us on occasions. Were these posts not hout, the raids would be more frequent. They'd come hover and inflict severe casualties on hour men. They can't see the Boche. We can. Should one Boche, or five 'undred try to come hover that parapet, one of us must immediately set hout and run back to hour trenches and give the warnin' for hour boys to be ready. The other one of us stays back 'ere, and with cold steel keeps back the rush."

I nodded. "What happens afterward to the man who stays back here?"

"Mentioned in despatches ... sometimes," Tommy returned casually.

I thought over the matter. Tommy whispered further.

"Oh, yer needn't be a bit nervous. There's two of us lads about every forty or fifty yards. This is the w'y. 'Ere we are, 'ere the Boches are ... there the boys are"-he flicked an expressive thumb backward. "Those Boches thinks as 'ow they 'as to get to our trenches, but before they gets to our trenches, they 'as to pass us ... they 'as to pass US ... see?"

I saw. "Say," I touched him gently, "a while before I joined up, I did the hundred yards in eleven seconds flat ... those Boches may pass you to-night, but never, on your life, will they pass me."

Tommy chuckled. He had been through it all himself. Every man has it the first time that he goes on any of these dangerous duties. I can frankly say I disliked the listening-post duty that first time. Nothing happened of course. There was no killing, but it was nervy work. Later, in common with other fellows, I was able to go on listening-post with the same nonchalance as my first coster friend. It lies in whether one is used to the thing or not. Nothing comes easy at first, especially in the trenches. Later on, it is all in the day's work.

When our relief came we crawled back to our trench and spent the night in our dugouts. Next day we got a change of rations. We had "Maconochie." "He" is by way of a stew. Stew with a tin jacket. It bears the nomenclature of its inventor and maker, although Maconochie's is a firm. This is an English ration and after bully beef for weeks, it is a pleasant enough change.

The weather was fine: clear overhead, blue sky and just a hint of frost, though it was not very cold. After dinner the first day in the trenches, I suddenly noticed an excitement among the English soldiers. We became excited, too, and strained to see what was happening.

There, sheer ahead of us, darting, twisting, turning, was a monoplane right over the German trench. It was a British plane, and taking inconceivably risky chances. We could see the airman on the steering seat wave to us. He seemed like a gigantic mosquito, bent on tormenting the Huns. Their bullets spurted round him. He spiraled and sank, sank and spiraled. Nothing ever hit him. The Boches got wildly hysterical in their shooting. Every rifle pointed upward. They forgot where they were; they forgot us; they fired rapidly, round after round. And still the plane rose and fell, flitted higher and looped lower. It was a magnificent display. We could see the aviator wave more clearly now; his broad smile almost made us imagine we heard his exultant laugh.

"Who is it? What is it?" We boys gasped out the questions breathlessly.

"'Ere he comes; watch 'im, mate; watch 'im. 'E's the Mad Major. Look, look-he's looping! Gawd in 'eaven, they've got 'im. No, blimey, 'e's blinkin' luck itself. 'E's up again."

"Who is the Mad Major?" I asked, but got no answer. Every eye was on the wild career of the plane.

The Germans got more reckless. They stood in their trenches. We fired. We got them by the ones and twos. They ducked, then-swoop-again the major was over them, and again they forgot. Up went their rifles, and spatter, spatter, the bullets went singing upward.

It was about an hour after that we heard a voice cry down to us: "Cheer up, boys, all's well." There, overhead, was the Mad Major in his plane. Elusive as was the elusive Pimpernel, he flitted back of the lines to the plane-base.

"Who is he?" We crowded round the English Tommies when all was quiet.

"The Mad Major, Canuck," they answered. "The Mad Major."

"Yes, but-"

"Never 'eard of 'im, 'ave yer?" It was a sergeant who spoke, and we closed round, thinking to hear a tale.

"'E comes round 'ere every evenin', 'e does. 'E 'as no fear, that chap, 'e 'asn't. Does it to cheer us up. Didn't yer 'ear 'im as 'e went? 'E 'arries them, 'e does, 'arries them proper. Down 'e'll go, up 'e'll go, and ne'er a bullet within singing distance of 'im. 'E's steeped in elusion!" The sergeant finished, proud of having found a phrase, no matter what might be its true meaning, that illustrated what he wished to convey.

The Mad Major certainly appeared immune from all of the enemy's fire.

The sergeant went on. He, himself, had been with the Imperial forces since August, 1914. He had fought through the Aisne, the Marne, and the awful retreat from Mons.

'Twas at Mons, he told us, that the Mad Major earned his sobriquet, and first showed his daring. During those awful black days when slowly, slowly and horribly, French and British and Belgians fought a backward fight, day after day and hour after hour, losing now a yard, now a mile, but always going back-then it was that with the dreadful weight of superior numbers-maybe twenty to one-the Germans had a chance to win. Then it was they lost, and lost for all time.

All through this rearguard action there was the Mad Major. Mounted on his airy steed, he flitted above the clouds, below the clouds. Sometimes swallowed in the smoke of the enemy's big guns; sometimes diving to avoid a shell; sometimes staggering as though wounded, but always righting himself. There would be the Mad Major each day, over the rearguard troops, seeming to shelter them. He would harry the German line; he would drop a bomb, flit back, and with a brave "We've got them, boys," cheer the sinking spirits of the wearied foot soldiers.

The Mad Major was a wonder. Every part of the line he visited, and was known the length and breadth of the Allied armies.

Though for the moment the Mad Major had disappeared from our view, we were to hear more of him later on.

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