from ‘the War Illustrated’1st June, 1918
'Kindness and a Howitzer'
by the Editor


Little Journeys to the Great War

British artillery as illustrated on magazine covers


IN one of my little journeys along the old front line I came, on a gusty autumn morning when the sky was lowering and the rain spattered at times in squally showers, to a 12 in. howitzer battery. So deftly was it screened with netting, to which thousands of little tags of green cloth had been tied, that we had already passed the monster weapon unnoticed in its pit behind a low hill. Everything around was green, and the wide- spreading, green-tagged net that was suspended above and clear of the great gun, harmonised so well with the landscape that at a very short distance it was absorbed into the verdure of the hillside. Some of the gun-team, engaged as we came upon them in getting a shell into position for loading, even wore green, painted helmets.

We .were unlucky enough to have arrived just a little too late for the aerial "shoot" that was the task of the day. -A dozen rounds had been ordered on a certain objective, and seven of these had already been fired while an aeroplane from the camp near by had been able to "spot" for the gunners in the too brief intervals of good visibility. The young flyer was even now, that it was squally again, back at his camp and wisely enjoying his well-earned lunch. There were these five rounds yet to fire, and they would have to wait until the airman was ready to go up again and the weather promised him a chance of spotting to some purpose.



In the Never Again Land

With hopes of seeing the second instalment of the shoot, we accepted the invitation of the battery major to the shelter of his dug-out, and a share of his bully beef, biscuits, and liquor by way of lunch.

Wonderfully neat and businesslike was the mess-room of the gunnery officers. Like their giant weapon, it was hidden in a hollow of the little hill, and made almost as inconspicuous as the howitzer itself. The main room, which served for mess and office, was excavated for half its length from the sloping face of the ground. In appearance it was merely a large box of rough wood planks, stuck into a square cavity in a little hill. What protruded was thickly covered with sandbags on top and sides, and on these some inglorious disciple of Futurism had splashed about a few pails of green paint.

The interior had certain rude comforts. Walls and ceiling were hung with sacking, nailed loosely to the wood. Pinned here and there on the walls were various notices and bright coloured prints cut from the pictorial magazines that exploit the lures of the eternally feminine. In the centre of the room a plain deal table, and two or three bentwood chairs ; to the left of the door a rough-hewn bench, with telephone instruments, books, and papers; to the right another table, bearing the costly and delicate mechanism of the battery's wireless equipment.

That is the complete inventory as it met the eye, yet the major's servant would flap up a bit of canvas in the wall and, lo! a neat little cupboard with bottles all in a row ; another flap raised up by him revealed the resources of the mess in glasses ; and yet another "cubbyhole," camouflaged with canvas, held the cigarettes and tobacco. The whole place reminded me aŁ Wendy's kitchen in the Never, Never Land.

It was a mess-room in the Never Again Land, if I did not misjudge the- battery major.



With the Gunnery Officers

There were dormitories adjoining where each of the officers had his little stock of treasured books, those magic wands that enable them to retire Into themselves when they have grown aweary of the eventful monotony of serving the great guns and, perhaps, a little "fed-up" with each other in this rather isolated position. There were the dug-outs of the men, their, cook-house, workshop, and so forth ; but it was not of these I meant to write, though an incident concerning one of them may be recorded. A corporal appeared at the door and saluted. The subaltern inquired his business.

"Please, sir, the men say they cannot eat their dinner."

The subaltern showed no great alarm, but reported to the major, who said in his quiet way :

"There was a fire in the cook-house this morning, and everything was spoiled."

This explanation was conveyed to the corporal, who withdrew, with what consolation for the dinner-less men one could not guess. A fire in the cook-house is a desirable thing within bounds, but the cook-house in the fire ! Well, well, c'est la guerre, and let us to the battery major.

The little group, of gunnery officers gathered in this Wendy's room would all bear a few lines of portraiture, presenting each a distinctly interesting personality, even to the junior sub, whose geography was proved to be hazier than the cloudy sky that frowned upon the second bout of the aerial shoot. But it was the major who engaged me and kept my mind busy piecing together an entirely imaginary history for him.



The Then and The Now

Imprimis, he was never intended for a soldier, and that was probably the reason why he made so good a one. He was slight in figure, moderately tall — say, five feet ten — and his countenance was instinct with kindness, friendliness, humanity. He had probably been a Sunday-school superintendent, or a worker among the poor in some London slumland. His mildness of manner, his soft, gentle voice, sounded absurd when one thought that his pet howitzer represented the very extreme of noisy brute force. This gentle soul the director of that roaring monster out there under its green-tufted veil !

He was so little "born for a soldier," that he did not even trim his moustache according to regulations, but let it curl softly over his lip, just as his wife had said she liked to see it and to feel it caressingly on her own lips when he sped each morning from his suburban nest to the City, she hurrying indoors to hold baby up for a last look. For I did not doubt that such had been his great happiness in the past; its vision and memory his truest solace in the hateful life foul war had substituted.

He was either an architect or a draughts-man, possibly a mathematical lecturer, before he was snatched by the military Moloch and thrust out there into those wilds of war. A man of delicate physique, whose young wife would have grave eyes for him when he wheezed and coughed in the cold winter winds. Now he had lived in draughty, sodden dug-outs for two long winters, had been invalided home after going through all the horrors of the great Somme push in 1916, and he was bodily tired and spent that grey day as we talked together in his latest home on the battle-front.

"I expect this winter will crock me up for good," he said, as quietly and uncomplainingly as he might have remarked that it was a cloudy day.

But when we fell to talking of his work, his dark, intelligent eyes brightened, and with the gentlest of smiles he told how he had been shooting at a certain objective for several days, and the day before had got " a plus Z on it " — 'twas Greek tome; and that had it been a minus — or it may have been the other way round — the target would have been no more. As soon as the sky cleared again, he would get that plus, or minus, or whatever it was, and then Heaven help the Huns in the vicinity !

How strange was this talk, how absurdly unlike our rooted notions of war! It was as though the teller at your bank were asking how you would have your money.



One of War's Contrasts

As we sat there, the noise of the lighter guns forward never ceased, the long whine of the "stuff" that Fritz was sending over making the earth spout in many dark fountains a mile or so beyond us, came every few minutes. We went outdoors to look at the weather, and many little woolly clouds were in the sky.

"That's the worst stuff we're up against," observed the major, raising his binoculars. It was Hun shrapnel, raining down on our advanced trenches. "It looks pretty," he said.

"Fritz is a damned good artilleryman, if you ask my opinion," he remarked a moment later, and I was almost taken aback by the expletive.

The telephone had buzzed at odd intervals during our stay, but the news from the flying camp was against the likelihood' of those five rounds of the aerial shoot being fired while we could wait. As we had many strange sights to see that day, we had to say good-bye to the battery major and his fellow-officers.

Strange sights, indeed ! What stranger, when you think of it, than the scene we had left ! This gentle soul, divorced from the simple joys that made existence Life, wearing out his not abundant energies in directing the monstrous machinery of a, metal beast that vomited tons of steel and explosive on objects eight or ten miles distant, while a sad- eyed young wife and a little child, longing for the loving arms of husband and father around them, waited away to the west, across the narrow sea, in some suburban villa ! Waited for one who expected that the coming winter would "crock him up for good."

And such is the glory of war!


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