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   Chapter 3 No.3

Life in a Tank By Richard Haigh Characters: 11442

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


"Well, thank Heaven, that sweat's over," said the Old Bird the night after we finished our tank course, and had our celebration. He stretched luxuriously.

"Yes, but you're starting off again on the gun to-morrow morning," said the Major, cheerfully.

The Old Bird protested.

"But I can have a few days' rest, sir, can't I?" he said sorrowfully.

The Major laughed.

"No, you can't. You're down, so you'll have to go through with it."

So for three days we sat in the open, in the driving sleet, from half-past eight in the morning until half-past four in the afternoon, learning the gun. On the fourth day we finished off our course with firing on the range. Surprising as it may seem, after two or three rounds we could hit the very smallest object at a distance of four or five hundred yards.

"How many more courses must we go through?" asked the Old Bird of Rigden, as they strolled back one evening from the range. The Old Bird was always interested in how much-or, rather, how little-work he had before him.

"There's the machine gun; the signalling course,-you'll have to work hard on that, but I know you don't object,-and also revolver practice. Aren't you thrilled?"

"No, I'm not," grumbled the Old Bird. "Life isn't worth living with all this work to do. I wish we could get into action."

"So do I," said Talbot, joining them. "But while we're waiting, wouldn't you rather be back here with good warm billets and a comfortable bed and plenty to eat, instead of sitting in a wet trench with the Infantry?" He remembered an old man in his regiment who had been with the Salvation Army at home. He would stump along on his flat feet, trudging miles with his pack on his back, and Talbot had never heard him complain. He was bad at drill. He could never get the orders or formations through his head. Talbot had often lost patience with him, but the old fellow was always cheerful. One morning, in front of Bapaume, after a night of terrible cold, the old man could not move. Talbot tried to cheer him up and to help him, but he said feebly: "I think I'm done for-I don't believe I shall ever get warm. But never mind, sir." And in a few minutes he died, as uncomplainingly as he had lived.

"You're right, of course, Talbot," the Old Bird said. "We're very well off here. But, I say, how I should like to be down in Boulogne for a few days!" And until they reached the Mess, the Old Bird dilated on the charm of Boulogne and all the luxuries he would indulge in the next time he visited the city.

The rest of that week found us each day parading at eight o'clock in the courtyard of the Hospice, and after instruction the various parties marched off to their several duties. Some of us went to the tankdrome; some of us to the hills overlooking historic Agincourt, and others to the barn by the railroad where we practised with the guns. Another party accompanied Borwick to a secluded spot where he drilled them in machine-gun practice. Borwick was as skilful with a machine gun as with a piano. This was the highest praise one could give him.

That night at mess, Gould said suddenly:-

"To-morrow's a half day, isn't it?"

"Of course. Wake up, you idiot," said Talbot. "We're playing 'J' Company at soccer, and on Sunday we're playing 'L' at rugger. Two strenuous days before us. Are you feeling fit?"

Gould was feeling most awfully fit. In fact, he assured the mess that he, alone, was a match for "J" Company.

Our soccer team was made up almost entirely of men who had been professional players. We had great pride in them, so that on the following afternoon, an eager crowd streamed out of the village to our football field, which we had selected with great care. It was as flat as a cricket pitch. A year ago it had been ploughed as part of the French farmland, and now here were the English playing football!

Before the game began there was a good deal of cheerful chaffing on the respective merits of the "J" and "K" Company teams. And when the play was in progress and savage yells rent the air, the French villagers looked on in wonder and pity. They had always believed the English to be mad. Now they were convinced of it.

From the outset, however, "J" Company was hopelessly outclassed, and wishing to be generous to a failing foe, we ceased our wild cheering. "J" Company, on the other hand, wishing to exhort their team to greater efforts, made up for our moderation, with the result that our allies were firmly convinced that "J" Company had won the game! If not, why should they dance up and down and wave their hats and shriek? And even the score, five to one in favor of "K" Company, failed to convince them entirely. But "K" went home to an hilarious tea, with a sense of work well done.

And what of the rugger game the next day? Let us draw a veil over it. Suffice it to say that the French congratulated "K" Company over the outcome of that, although the score was twelve to three in favor of "J"!

We awoke on Monday morning with a delightful feeling that something pleasant was going to happen, for all the world the same sensation we used to experience on waking on our birthday and suddenly remembering that gifts were sure to appear and that there would be something rather special for tea! By the time full consciousness returned, we remembered that this was the day when, for the first time, the tank was to be set in motion. Even the Old Bird was eager.

We hurry off to the tankdrome. One after another we slide in through the little door and are swallowed up. The door is bolted behind the last to enter. Officer and driver slip into their respective seats. The steel shutters of the portholes cli

ck as they are opened. The gunners take their positions. The driver opens the throttle a little and tickles the carburetor, and the engine is started up. The driver races the engine a moment, to warm her up. The officer reaches out a hand and signals for first speed on each gear; the driver throws his lever into first; he opens the throttle: the tank-our "Willie"-moves!

Supposing you were locked in a steel box, with neither portholes to look through nor airholes to breathe from. Supposing you felt the steel box begin to move, and, of course, were unable to see where you were going. Can you imagine the sensation? Then you can guess the feelings of the men in a tank,-excepting the officer and driver, who can see ahead through their portholes,-when the monster gets under way. There are times, of course, with the bullets flying thick and fast, when all portholes, for officer, driver, and gunners, must be closed. Then we plunge ahead, taking an occasional glimpse through the special pin-point holes.

Thirty tons of steel rolls along with its human freight. Suddenly, the driver rings a bell. He presses another button, and signals the driver of the right-hand track into "neutral." This disconnects the track from the engine. The tank swings around to the right. The right-hand driver gets the signal "First speed," and we are off again, at a right angle to our former direction.

Now we are headed for a gentle slope across the field, and as we approach it, the tank digs her nose into the base of the hill. She crawls up. The men in the rear tip back and enjoy it hugely. If the hill is steep enough they may even find themselves lying flat on their backs or standing on their heads! But no such luck. Presently they are standing as nearly upright as it is ever possible to stand, and the tank is balancing on the top of the slope. The driver is not expert as yet, and we go over with an awful jolt and tumble forward. This is rare fun!

But the instructor is not pleased. We must try it all over again. So back again to attack the hill a second time. The top is reached once more and we balance there. The driver throws out his clutch, we slip over very gently, and carefully he lets the clutch in again and down we go. The "Willie" flounders around for the fraction of a second. Then, nothing daunted, she starts off once more. We have visions of her sweeping all before her some day far behind the German lines.

Three or four weeks of this sort of thing, and we are hardened to it.

Our reward came at last, however. After mess one morning, when the conversation had consisted mainly of the question, "When are we going into a show?" with no answer to the question, we were called into the Major's room, where he told us, in strictest secrecy, that in about three weeks a big attack was to come off. We should go in at last!

For the next two or three weeks we studied maps and aeroplane photographs, marking out our routes, starting-points, rear ammunition-dumps, forward dumps, and lines of supply. At last, then, our goal loomed up and these months of training, for the most part interesting, but at times terribly boring, would bear fruit. Two direct results were noticeable now on looking back to the time when we joined. First, each man in the Battalion knew how to run a tank, how to effect slight repairs, how to work the guns, and how to obtain the best results from the machine. Second, and very important, was the fact that the men and officers had got together. The crews and officers of each section knew and trusted each other. The strangeness of feeling that was apparent in the first days had now entirely disappeared, and that cohesion of units which is so essential in warfare had been accomplished. Each of us knew the other's faults and the mistakes he was prone to make. More important still, we knew our own faults and weaknesses and had the courage to carry on and overcome them.

A few nights before we moved up the line, we gave a grand concert. Borwick and the Old Bird planned it. On an occasion of this sort, the Old Bird never grumbled at the amount of work he was obliged to do. Some weeks before we had bought a piano from one of the inhabitants of the village, and the piano was naturally the pièce de résistance of the concert. The Old Bird went around for days at a time, humming scraps of music with unintelligible words which it afterwards developed at the concert were awfully good songs of his own composing. The Battalion tailor was called in to make up rough Pierrot costumes. The Old Bird drilled us until we begged for mercy, while Borwick strummed untiringly at the piano. At last the great night arrived.

A stage had been built at one end of a hangar, and curtains hung up.

The whole of the Staff and H.Q. had been invited, and the maire, the curé, the médecin of the village, and their families were also to attend.

Promptly at eight o'clock, the concert began, with Borwick at the piano. Everything went off without a hitch. Although "K" Company provided most of the talent, the Battalion shared the honours of the entertainment. Each song had a chorus, and so appreciative was our audience that the choruses were repeated again and again. The one "lady" of the Troupe looked charming, and "she" arranged for "her" voice to be entirely in keeping with "her" dress and paint. The French spectators enjoyed it hugely. They were a great encouragement, for they laughed at everything uproariously, though it could not have been due to their understanding of the jokes.

At ten o'clock we finished off with "God Save the King," and went back to our billets feeling that our stay in the village had been splendidly rounded off.

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