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Life in a Tank By Richard Haigh Characters: 26135

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


We were at a rest camp on the Somme when the chit first came round regarding the joining of the H.B.M.G.C. The Colonel came up to us one day with some papers in his hand.

"Does anybody want to join this?" he asked.

We all crowded around to find out what "this" might be.

"Tanks!" some one cried. Some were facetious; others indifferent; a few mildly interested. But no one seemed very keen about it, especially as the tanks in those days had a reputation for rather heavy casualties. Only Talbot, remembering the derelict and the interest she had inspired, said, with a laugh,-

"I rather think I'll put my name down, sir. Nothing will come of it, but one might just as well try." And taking one of the papers he filled it in, while the others stood around making all the remarks appropriate to such an occasion.

Two or three weeks went by and Talbot had forgotten all about it, in the more absorbing events which crowded months into days on the Somme.

One day the Adjutant came up to him and, smiling, put out his hand.

"Well, good-bye, Talbot. Good luck."

When a man puts out his hand and says "Good-bye," you naturally take the proffered hand and say "Good-bye," too. Talbot found himself saying "Good-bye" before he realized what he was doing. Then he laughed.

"Now that I've said 'Good-bye,' where am I going?" he asked.

"To the Tanks," the Adjutant replied.

So he was really to go; really to leave behind his battalion, his friends, his men, and his servant. For a moment the Somme and the camp seemed the most desirable places on earth. He thought he must have been a fool the day he signed that paper signifying his desire to join another Corps. But it was done now. There were his orders in the Colonel's hand.

"When do I start, sir? And where do I go?" he asked.

"You're to leave immediately for B--, wherever that is. Take your horse as far as the railhead and get a train for B--, where the Tank Headquarters are. Good-bye, Talbot; I'm sorry to lose you." A silent handshake, and they parted.

Talbot's kit was packed and sent off on the transport. A few minutes later he was shaking hands all round. His spirits were rising at the thought of this new adventure, but it was a wrench, leaving his regiment. It was, in a way, he thought, as if he were turning his back on an old friend. The face of Dobbin, his groom, as he brought the horses round was not conducive to cheer. He must get the business over and be off. So he mounted and rode off through a gray, murky drizzle, to the railhead about eight miles away. There came the parting with Dobbin and with his pony. Horses mean as much as men sometimes, and his had worked so nobly with him through the mud on the Somme. He wondered if there would be any one in the new place who would be so faithful to him as Polly. Finally, there was Dobbin riding away, back to M--, with the horse, and its empty saddle, trotting along beside him. It was simply rotten leaving them all!

One has, however, little time for introspection in the Army, and especially when one engages in a tilt with an R.T.O. The R.T.O. has been glorified by an imaginative soul with the title of "Royal Transportation Officer." As a matter of fact, the "R" does not stand for "royal," but for "railway," and the "T" is "transport," nothing so grandiose as "transportation." Now an R.T.O.'s job, though it may be a safe one, is not enviable. He is forced to combine the qualities of booking-clerk, station-master, goods-agent, information clerk, and day and night watchman all into one. In consequence of this it is necessary for the traveller's speech and attitude to be strictly soothing and complimentary. Talbot's obsession at this moment was as to whether B-- was near or far back from the line.

If he supposed that B-- was "near" the line, the R.T.O. might tell him-just to prove how kind Fate is-that it was a good many miles in the rear. But no such luck. The R.T.O. coldly informed Talbot that he hadn't the slightest idea where B-- was. He only knew that trains went there. And, by the way, the trains didn't go there direct. It would be necessary for him to change at Boulogne. Talbot noticed these signs of thawing with delight. And to change at Boulogne! Life was brighter.

Travelling in France in the northern area, at the present time, would seem to be a refutation of the truth that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. For in order to arrive at one's destination, it is usually necessary to go about sixty miles out of one's way,-hence the necessity for Talbot's going to Boulogne in order to get a train running north.

He arrived at Boulogne only to find that the train for B-- left in an hour.

He strolled out into the streets. Boulogne had then become the Mecca for all those in search of gaiety. Here were civilized people once again. And a restaurant with linen and silver and shining glass, and the best dinner he had ever eaten.

When he had paid his bill and gone out, he stopped at the corner of the street just to look at the people passing by. A large part of the monotony of this war is occasioned, of course, by the fact that the soldier sees nothing but the everlasting drab of uniforms. When a man is in the front line, or just behind, for weeks at a time he sees nothing but soldiers, soldiers, soldiers! Each man has the same coloured uniform; each has the same pattern tunic, the same puttees. Each is covered with the same mud for days at a time. It is the occasion for a thrill when a "Brass Hat" arrives, for he at least has the little brilliant red tabs on his tunic! A man sometimes finds himself envying the soldiers of the old days who could have occasional glimpses of the dashing uniforms of their officers, and although a red coat makes a target of a man, the colour is at least more cheerful than the eternal khaki. The old-time soldier had his red coat and his bands, blaring encouragingly. The soldier of to-day has his drab and no music at all, unless he sings. And every man in an army is not gifted with a voice.

So Talbot looked with joy on the charming dresses and still more charming faces of the women and girls who passed him. Even the men in their civilian clothes were good to look upon.

Riding on French trains is very soothing unless one is in a hurry. But unlike a man in civil life, the soldier has no interest in the speed of trains. The civilian takes it as a personal affront if his train is a few minutes late, or if it does not go as fast as he thinks it should. But the soldier can afford to let the Government look after such minor details. The train moved along at a leisurely pace through the lovely French countryside, making frequent friendly stops at wayside stations. On the platform at étaples station was posted a rhyme which read:-

"A wise old owl lived in an oak,

The more he saw, the less he spoke;

The less he spoke, the more he heard;

Soldiers should imitate that old bird."

It was the first time that Talbot had seen this warlike ditty. Its intention was to guard soldiers from saying too much in front of strangers. Talbot vowed, however, to apply its moral to himself at all times and under all conditions.

From nine in the morning until half-past two in the afternoon they rolled along, and had covered by this time the extraordinary distance of about forty miles! Here at last was the station of Saint-P--.

Talbot looked about him. Standing near was an officer with the Machine-Gun Corps Badge, whom he hailed, and questioned about the Headquarters of the Tank Corps.

"About ten miles from here. Are you going there?" the fellow asked.

Talbot explained that he hoped to, and being saturated with Infantry ideas, he wondered if a passing motor lorry might give him a lift.

The man laughed. "Why don't you telephone Headquarters and ask them to send a car over for you?" he asked.

Talbot did not quite know whether the fellow were ragging him or not. He decided that he was, for who had ever heard of "telephoning for a car"?

"Oh, I don't believe I'll do that-thanks very much for the hint, all the same," he said. "Just tell me which road to take and I'll be quite all right."

The officer smiled.

"I'm quite serious about it," he said. "We all telephone for cars when we need them. There's really no point in your walking-in fact, they'll be surprised if you stroll in upon them. Try telephoning and you'll find they won't die of shock."

Partly to see whether they would or not, and partly because he found the prospect of a motor car more agreeable than a ten-mile walk, Talbot telephoned. Here he experienced another pleasant surprise, for he was put through to Headquarters with no difficulty at all. A cheerful voice answered and he stated his case.

"Cheero," the voice replied. "We'll have a car there for you in an hour-haven't one now, but there will be one ready shortly."

Saint-P-- was a typical French town, and Talbot strolled around. There were soldiers everywhere, but the town had never seen the Germans, and it was a pleasant place. There was, too, a refreshing lack of thick mud-at least it was not a foot deep.

Although Talbot could not quite believe that the car would materialize, it proved to be a substantial fact in the form of a box-body, and in about an hour he was speeding toward Headquarters. It was dark when they reached the village, and as they entered, he experienced that curious feeling of apprehensive expectancy with which one approaches the spot where one is to live and work for some time to come. The car slowed up to pass some carts on the road, and started forward with such a jerk that Talbot was precipitated from the back of the machine into the road. He picked himself up, covered with mud. The solemn face of the driver did not lessen his discomfiture. Here was a strange village, strange men, and he was covered with mud!

Copyright by Underwood & Underwood, N.Y.


Making himself as presentable as possible, Talbot reported to Headquarters, and was posted to "J" Company, 4th Battalion. That night he had dinner with them. New men were arriving every few minutes, and the next day, after he had been transferred to "K" Company, they continued to arrive. The nucleus of this company were officers of the original tanks, three or four of them perhaps, and the rest was made up with the newcomers.

Men continued to arrive in driblets, from the beginning of December to the first of January. When a new man joins an old regiment there is a reserve about the others which is rather chilling. They wait to see whether he is going to fit in, before they make any attempts to fit him in. In a way, this very aloofness makes for comfort on the part of the newcomer. At mess, he is left alone until he is absorbed naturally. It gives him a chance to find his level.

All this was different with the Tank Corps. With the exception of the very few officers who were "old men," we were all painfully new, so that we regarded one another without criticism and came to know each other without having to break through the wall of reserve and instinctive mistrust which is characteristically British. A happy bond of good-fellowship was formed immediately.

The first few days were spent in finding billets for the men. They were finally quartered at a hospice in the village. This was a private almshouse, in charge of a group of French nuns, where lived a number of old men and women, most of them in the last stages of consumption. The Hospice consisted of the old Abbey of Ste. Berthe, built in the twelfth century, and several outbuildings around a courtyard. In these barns lived the men, and one large room was reserved for the officers' mess. The Company Orderly Room and Quartermaster's Stores were also kept in the Hospice, and four or five officers were quartered above the Refectory. The buildings were clean and comfortable, and the only drawback lay in the fact that one sometimes found it objectionable to have to look at these poor old creatures, dragging themselves around. They had nothing to do, it seemed, but to wait and die. One old man was a gruesome sight. He was about ninety years old and spent his days walking about the courtyard, wearing a cigarette tin hung around his neck, into which he used to cough with such terrible effort that it seemed as if he would die every time the spasm shook him. As a matter of fact, he and many others did die before we left the village: the extreme cold was too much for them; or perhaps it was the fact that their quiet had been invaded by the "mad English."

It was during this time that Talbot developed a positive genius for disappearing whenever a gray habit came into sight. The nuns were splendid women: kind and hospitable and eager for our comfort, but they did not like to be imposed upon, however slightly. The first thing that Frenchwomen do-and these nuns were no exception-when soldiers are billeted with them, i

s to learn who is the officer in charge, in order that they may lose no time in bringing their complaints to him. The Mother Superior of the Hospice selected Talbot with unerring zeal. His days were made miserable, until in self-defence he thought of formulating a new calendar of "crimes" for his men, in which would be included all the terrible offences which the Mother Superior told off to him.

Did the Colonel send for Captain Talbot, and did Talbot hurry off to obey the command, just so surely would the Mother Superior select that moment to bar his path.

"Ah, mon Capitaine!" she would exclaim, with a beaming smile. "J'ai quelque chose à vous dire. Un soldat-"

Talbot would break in politely, just as she had settled down for a good long chat, and explain that the Colonel wished to see him. As well try to move the Rock. It was either stand and listen, or go into the presence of his superior officer with an excited nun following him with tales of the "crimes" his men had committed. Needless to say, the Mother Superior conquered. Talbot would have visions of some fairly serious offence, and would hear the tale of a soldier who had borrowed a bucket an hour ago, promising, on his honour as a soldier of the King, to return it in fifty minutes at the most.

"And it is now a full sixty minutes by the clock on the kitchen mantel, M'sieu le Capitaine," she would say, her colour mounting, "and your soldier has not returned my bucket. If he does not bring it back, when can we get another bucket?"

And so on, until Talbot would pacify her, promising her that the bucket would be returned. Then he would go on to the Colonel, breathless and perturbed, his mind so full of buckets that there was hardly room for the business of the Tank Corps. Small wonder that the sight of a gray habit was enough to unnerve the man.

He, himself, was billeted with a French family, just around the corner from the Hospice. The head of the family had been, in the halcyon days before the war, the village butcher. There was now Madame, the little Marie, a sturdy boy about twelve, and the old Grand'mère. The husband was away, of course,-"dans les tranchées," explained Madame with copious tears.

Talbot was moved to sympathy, and made a few tactful inquiries as to where the husband was now, and how he had fared.

"Il est maintenant à Paris," said Madame with a sigh.

"In Paris! What rank has he?-a General, maybe?"

"Ah, M'sieu s'amuse," said Madame, brightening up. No, her husband was a chef at an officers' mess in Paris, she explained proudly. He had been there since the war broke out. He would soon come home, the Saints be praised. Then the Captain would hear him tell his tales of life in the Army!

The hero came home one day, and great was the rejoicing. Thrilling evenings the family spent around the stove while they listened to stories of great deeds. On the day when his permission was finished, and he set out for his hazardous post once more, great was the lamenting. Madame wept. All the brave man's relatives poured in to kiss him good-bye. The departing soldier wept, himself. Even Grand'mère desisted for that day from cracking jokes, which she was always doing in a patois that to Talbot was unintelligible.

But they were very kind to Talbot, and very courageous through the hard winter. When he lay ill with fever in his little low room, where the frost whitened the plaster and icicles hung from the ceiling, Madame and all the others were most solicitous for his comfort. His appreciation and thanks were sincere.

By the middle of December the Battalion had finally settled down and we began our training. Our first course of study was in the mechanism of the tanks. We marched down, early one morning, to an engine hangar that was both cold and draughty. We did not look in the least like embryo heroes. Over our khaki we wore ill-fitting blue garments which men on the railways, who wear them, call "boilers." The effect of wearing them was to cause us to slouch along, and suddenly Talbot burst out laughing at the spectacle. Then he remembered having heard that some of the original "Tankers" had, during the Somme battles, been mistaken for Germans in their blue dungarees. They had been fired on from some distance away, by their own infantry; though nothing fatal ensued. In consequence, before the next "show" chocolate ones were issued.

In the shadows of the engine shed, a gray armour-plated hulk loomed up.

"There it is!" cried Gould, and started forward for a better look at the "Willie."

Across the face of Rigden, the instructor, flashed a look of scorn and pain. Just such a look you may have seen on the face of a young mother when you refer to her baby as "it."

"Don't call a tank 'it,' Gould," he said with admirable patience. "A tank is either 'he' or 'she'; there is no 'it.'"

"In Heaven's name, what's the difference?" asked Gould, completely mystified. The rest of us were all ears.

"The female tank carries machine guns only," Rigden explained. "The male tank carries light field guns as well as machine guns. Don't ever make the mistake again, any of you fellows."

Having firmly fixed in our minds the fact that we were to begin on a female "Willie," the instruction proceeded rapidly. Rigden opened a little door in the side of the tank. It was about as big as the door to a large, old-fashioned brick oven built into the chimney beside the fireplace. His head disappeared and his body followed after. He was swallowed up, save for a hand that waved to us and a muffled voice which said, "Come on in, you fellows."

Gould went first. He scrambled in, was lost to sight, and then we heard his voice.

McKnutt's infectious laugh rose above the sound of our mirth. But not for long.

"Hurry up!" called Rigden. "You next, McKnutt."

McKnutt disappeared. Then to our further astonishment his rich Irish voice could be heard upraised in picturesque malediction. What was Rigden doing to them inside the tank to provoke such profanity from them both? The rest of us scrambled to find out. We soon learned.

When you enter a tank, you go in head first, entering by the side doors. (There is an emergency exit-a hole in the roof which is used by the wise ones.) You wiggle your body in with more or less grace, and then you stand up. Then, if it is the first time, you are usually profane. For you have banged your head most unmercifully against the steel roof and you learn, once and for all, that it is impossible to stand upright in a tank. Each one of us received our baptism in this way. Seven of us, crouched in uncomfortable positions, ruefully rubbed our heads, to Rigden's intense enjoyment. Our life in a tank had begun!

We looked around the little chamber with eager curiosity. Our first thought was that seven men and an officer could never do any work in such a little place. Eight of us were, at present, jammed in here, but we were standing still. When it came to going into action and moving around inside the tank, it would be impossible,-there was no room to pass one another. So we thought. In front are two stiff seats, one for the officer and one for the driver. Two narrow slits serve as portholes through which to look ahead. In front of the officer is a map board, and gun mounting. Behind the engine, one on each side, are the secondary gears. Down the middle of the tank is the powerful petrol engine, part of it covered with a hood, and along either side a narrow passage through which a man can slide from the officer's and driver's seat back and forth to the mechanism at the rear. There are four gun turrets, two on each side. There is also a place for a gun in the rear, but this is rarely used, for "Willies" do not often turn tail and flee!

Along the steel walls are numberless ingenious little cupboards for stores, and ammunition cases are stacked high. Every bit of space is utilized. Electric bulbs light the interior. Beside the driver are the engine levers. Behind the engine are the secondary gears, by which the machine is turned in any direction. All action inside is directed by signals, for when the tank moves the noise is such as to drown a man's voice.

All that first day and for many days after, we struggled with the intricacies of the mechanism. Sometimes, Rigden despaired of us. We might just as well go back to our regiments, unless they were so glad to be rid of us that they would refuse. On other days, he beamed with pride, even when Darwin and the Old Bird distinguished themselves by asking foolish questions. "Darwin" is, of course, not his right name. Because he came from South Africa and looked like a baboon, we called him "Baboon." So let evolution evolve the name of "Darwin" for him in these pages. As for the Old Bird, no other name could have suited him so well. He was the craftiest old bird at successfully avoiding work we had ever known, and yet he was one of the best liked men in the Company. He was one of those men who are absolutely essential to a mess because of his never-failing cheer and gaiety. He never did a stroke of work that he could possibly "wangle" out of. A Scotchman by birth, he was about thirty-eight years old and had lived all over the world. He had a special fondness for China. Until he left "K" Company, he was never known by any other name than that of "Old Bird."

There was one man, from another Company, who gave us the greatest amusement during our Tank-mechanism Course. He was pathetically in earnest, but appeared to have no brains at all. Sometimes, while asking each other catch questions, we would put the most senseless ones to him.

Darwin would say, "Look here, how is the radiator connected with the differential?"

The poor fellow would ponder for a minute or two and then reply, "Oh! through the magneto."

He naturally failed again and again to pass his tests, and was returned to his old Corps.

Somehow we learned not to attempt to stand upright in our steel prison. Before long, McKnutt had ceased his remarks about sardines in a tin and announced, "Sure! there is plenty of room and to spare for a dozen others here." The Old Bird no longer compared the atmosphere, when we were all shut in tight, with the Black Hole of Calcutta. In a word, we had succumbed to the "Willies," and would permit no man to utter a word of criticism against them.

It is necessary here, perhaps, to explain why we always call our machines "Willies." When the tanks were first being experimented upon, they evolved two, a big and a little one. Standing together they looked so ludicrous, that they were nicknamed "Big" and "Little Willie." The name stuck; and now, no one in the Corps refers to his machine in any other way.

A few days before Christmas, our tank course was finished, and the Old Bird suggested a celebration. McKnutt led the cheering. Talbot had an idea.

"Let's get a box-body and go over to Amiens and do our Christmas shopping," he said.

A chorus of "Jove, that's great!" arose. Every one made himself useful excepting the Old Bird, who made up by contributing more than any one else to the gaiety of the occasion. The car was secured, and we all piled in, making early morning hideous with our songs.

We sped along over the snowy roads. War seemed very far away. We were extraordinarily light-hearted. After about twenty miles the cold sobered us down a little. Suddenly, the car seemed to slip from under us and we found ourselves piled up in the soft snow of the road. A rear wheel had shot off, and it went rolling along on its own. Fortunately we had been going rather slowly since we were entering a town, and no one was hurt. Borwick, the musician of the Company, looked like a snow image; Darwin and the Old Bird were locked in each other's arms, and had an impromptu and friendly wrestling match in a snowdrift. McKnutt was invoking the aid of the Saints in his endeavours to prevent the snow from trickling down his back. Talbot and Gould, who had got off lightly, supplied the laughter. The wheel was finally rescued and restored to its proper place, and we crawled along at an ignominious pace until the spires of Amiens welcomed us.

We shopped in the afternoon, buying all sorts of ridiculous things, and collecting enough stores to see us through a siege. After a hilarious dinner at the H?tel de l'Univers (never had the Old Bird been so witty and gay), we started back about eleven o'clock, and forgetting our injured wheel, raced out of the town toward home. A short distance down the main boulevard, the wheel again came off, and this time the damage could not be repaired. There was nothing for it but to wait until morning, and it was a disconsolate group that wandered about. All the hotels were full up. Finally, a Y.M.C.A. hut made some of us welcome. We sat about, reading and talking, until we dozed off in our chairs. The next morning we got a new wheel and ran gingerly the sixty-odd miles back, to regale the others with enviable tales of our pre-Christmas festivities.

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