- from The War Illustrated, 5th August, 1916
- 'A Night Affair on the Western Front'
- by H. F. Prevost Battersby
- True Tales of the War by Famous Correspondents
How British Daring Foiled a German Surprise
night-time attacks on British trenches : covers from The War Illustrated
H. F. PREVOST BATTERSBY, the brilliant war correspondent of the "Morning Post," was educated for the Army at Woolwich and at Sandhurst, whence he passed to a commission hi the Royal Irish Rifles. He represented his paper throughout the South African War (being twice wounded), and in Somaliland, and he is now representing it in Flanders, where he was wounded recently. Under his pen name of "Francis Prevost" he has published two volumes of poetry, works on hockey- in which game he played for the South against the North on five occasions and many novels. Author, traveller, big- game hunter, and all-round sportsman, Mr. Prevost Battersby has enjoyed a varied career. His identity with the brilliant novelist "Francis Prevost" must not lead our readers to suppose that this present story is a piece of fiction ; it is cast in fictional form because that helps to bring the thrilling adventure before the mind with more vivid actuality, but it is really a narration of fact.
Henry Alton looked at his colonel with a certain mild surprise. None of his surprises were ever more than that.
"Yes," said his CO. "It is, as I told you, rather off the usual line, but the Chief sees no other way of doing it. He doesn't want to waste the men on a raid, and besides, you know how little one learns from them of what the Boche is up to."
Briefly, the job was to discover what in the way of mining the enemy was doing. Along this stretch of the front mining on both sides was the chief amusement. Very little, so far, had actually come of it, but nothing is more trying to the steadiness of men who have much else to try them than the muffled tick, tick of a hostile pick at some unknown depth beneath them, with the certainty at no distant date of being dismembered in the air or buried alive under the debris of one's own parapet.
Alton was therefore asked to discover where the mine-shafts started in the German lines, and the direction they took. How he was to do that, no one, including himself, had the least idea. He was not a soldier by profession, having been, till past thirty, a bank clerk in a Midland town, and, having a wife and child and no money, had tried for as long as he could to think that Britain could do without him. He had enlisted, but found himself after five months' service a first lieutenant. He was. the sort of man men trust, and having captained a famous football team, knew how to handle them.
To go with him on this occasion he chose a small, quick-witted Cockney of his own company, called Smith, on the strength of his ability to think quicker and go through smaller gaps than himself.
The thing had, of course, to be done at night, and they waited at the sally-port a dignified name for the little tunnel that burrowed under the parapet and out beyond the barbed-wire for enough darkness to conceal their movements. They each had revolvers, which they did not mean to use, and, fastened by a loop to their right wrists, the handle of an entrenching tool up to the top of which had been slipped a cogged circlet of iron, guaranteed to crush the hardest of Square-head skulls.
Rain and an Ill Wind
Grey blankets were draped like Crusaders' cloaks from their shoulders, to mask their outlines when they had to flatten themselves against the ground to cheat the German flares. There was the usual dreary drizzle of rain, that smeared the sides of the trenches with slime, and made the bottom boards slippery as an ice-slide. The rain was all to the good ; the soft drift of it would dull as much of the sentry's ears as it had not hunted under his coat collar, but the wind that brought it was the wrong way, west by south, carrying sounds to the enemy.
The man who was thrust into such an enterprise was tailing his life in his hands, in his finger-tips one might say, so insecure was the holding ; but where that is done by so many, it loses all its picturesqueness. There was no " warm grip of a hand " to speed him on his way. There was no warmth anywhere a yard away from the braziers that chilly night. A certain length of the front line had to be warned of his adventure, so that he should not be fired on going and returning, otherwise no one would have paid any particular heed to him. He did not expect them to. He had seen men, shaving by a periscope mirror, just crook their bodies forward to make room for a casualty carried away in a blanket, without troubling to look to see if it was one of their pals. He did not even know the subaltern who gave him a careless nod of farewell at the sally-port.' He had been away on a week's leave, and there were a lot of new faces. That was the way of the Army, always renewing itself like a tree ; old leaves fell, new ones sprouted ; the tree remained.
Flares and Rifle Shots
Clear of the slimy little tunnel, he looked carefully about him, only his head raised. Here and there the quick crack of a rifle told of vigilant or nervous eyes strained across that uninhabitable country into which he was come, and flares, like flowers of white flame opening in the air, were beginning to outline the battle frontier for leagues on either hand.
His idea was to find some unseen way into the German trenches. He had really only a hazy idea of I what he expected. He would crawl along the entanglements, hoping that, in the glare of the Very lights, some dark port of entry might reveal itself. Then, if he could get into the trench, he would have to grope about among its defenders who were fortunately known to be few till he found what might pass for a mine-shaft. It all seemed very vague and unpromising ; but other men had done it.
He crawled along in the rain, the Cockney youth behind him, the blankets trailing over their backs, all the front of their bodies from their chins to their, toes soaked from being pressed for concealment at every flare-burst into the soggy ground. As they crawled, even with outspread palms, their arms sank to the elbows and the slush closed over their knees. The rain dulled their hearing, but once when stopping to listen, they were aware of whispering voices. They flattened themselves into the mud at once, and Alton, his hands cupped over his wet ears, could make out the speech to be German. The trenches here were far enough apart for night patrols to be used, and when they met, fierce, stabbing, throttling fights ended in one of other being finished off in silence. While wondering if he dared make such a fight for it, there was a soft rush in the air above them, and, before the flare burst, the mud quaked with the precipitation into it of the German patrol, too big a one obviously for two men to tackle.
The Germans lay grunting and muttering for several minutes, only a few yards away; then crept on cautiously towards the British lines, one of them actually stumbling over Smith's foot, which he took, no doubt, for one of the many that would never move again from that country.
About thirty yards farther on, while still crawling, Alton felt the ground give way under his arms ; the grass at which he grabbed proved to be lying loose about him, and his body slid forward till all of it had disappeared except one boot, to which his follower clung with a faithful pertinacity that almost foiled Alton's apoplectic efforts to free it.
The Secret Passage
He had fallen into what proved to be the end of a tunnel about four feet deep. Canvas had been laid across the opening, and strewn with grass and earth. The tunnel led towards the German lines, but could hardly be a mine-shaft, and was needlessly long for a sally-port.
Alton paused. The chances of his coming out of that burrow alive, if he went into it, were, he knew, small; but he was there for just the chance it offered, so, whispering to his companion to wait for him for a couple of hours before returning, he unstrapped the blanket from his shoulders, felt along the lanyard to the handle of his revolver, took a firmer grip of his knobkerrie, and began to grope his way with lowered shoulders through the gluey. slush which clung half way to his knees. He listened after each thrust into it of his clotted feet, and heard presently above the queer conch-like hum of the tunnel, the drip of water. Caution, bred of the sound, and the swift thrust of his head against the roofing, saved him from mishap a moment later when his foot suddenly trod upon air. There was plainly some sort of a drainage hole in front of him, and after much wary balancing between the slimy walls he managed to bridge it with his long legs and again crept forward.
Ten yards farther on they took him as many minutes he heard a grunting which seemed to be human. The sound came nearer, but, while it still appeared to him some little way off, a heavy body lurched against him. He struck as he lost his balance, and buried his knobkerrie in the oozy wall. There was a splutter of Teutonic gutturals before he struck again, bidding this time a solid that was not mud. Something heavy fell forward against his stomach, and he felt fiercely for it with his hands, making out with desperate swiftness a man's head and shoulders, and fixing his fingers into the neck. There was no resistance, and, with the swift instinct that danger quickens, he crushed the thing in his hands down into the mud and held it there for a long two minutes. Then he felt for the rest of the body, and, pressing it down to the side out of his way, went on. He was not conscious of being upset, but had to stop because he was trembling. Killing a man in that dark, secretive fashion seemed somehow more like murder than war. A little farther on he thought his nerves were playing tricks for he began to see something red that came and went in that subterranean blackness.
It was a long time before he made it out to be the glow of a brazier near the end of the tunnel, and figures passing to and fro in front of it. He moved nearer, cautiously, and] caught the murmur of voices. Nearer still, and he could hear what they said, and discriminate between shapes and shadows against the parados. He propped his back on the side of the tunnel and listened. The talk was spasmodic the mere trench personalities that he knew so well. He waited half an hour, chilled to the marrow, biting his fingers to keep the blood in them. Then they began to talk of to-morrow. He knew German well, but not well enough to make out all they said ; but it was clear that there was going to be some sort of sally the next day, and the outlet they were guarding had something to say to it. Then he tumbled suddenly to the meaning of that long tunnel.
By it, and others like it, the Boches were going after dark to get out into No Man's Land, close up to our wire waiting there for their guns to demolish the parapet, knowing that when our guns replied they would be laid ineffectively to prevent a raid on their own empty trenches.
It was quite a new move in the game, and new moves paid ; and the knowledge of it was much more important to his own people than any news of mine-shafts. As he turned stiffly to go, something was being hauled into the mouth of the tunnel, a machine-gun, perhaps. That gave; a better chance to his stiffened joints to carry him out of danger. As he blundered along on them he fell over the dead German. Obviously he could not be left there, yet to drag him through that mud out of the tunnel was not to be thought of. Then Alton remembered the drainage pit. By an immense effort he pulled the body forward, and thrust it down into the hole, hearing with great relief the slime slushing down on top of it. Then suddenly a beam of light flashed past him. The men carrying the gun were using an electric torch. They saw him, but probably taking him for the comrade of whose corpse he had just disposed, only grunted something at him. He was soaked with sweat when he reached the entrance, and got a grip of the little Cockney's hand. The men behind were so near that they could not replace the covering of the tunnel. To leave it . uncovered might give away their knowledge. Signing to Smith to imitate him, Alton spread himself by the mouth of the tunnel, his knobkerrie laid back to strike. A head appeared, then another ; woollen caps on both.
The Work of the Knobkerrie
"Now!" he said, and struck. Fortunately Smith had selected the other. Both men had to be got out of the hole, by no means an easy job. Then they had to be dragged towards the British lines, so that their deaths might, when discovered, be attributed to an indiscretion. It was risky work, for either side might shoot. The bodies were at last laid near our wire, and then Alton, to run no risk, smashed in one of the skulls with his knobkerrie.
He was going to repeat the operation on the other when his companion saved him the trouble, with a blow into which he put an infinite relish. Ten minutes later they were again within their own lines with the news that would foil the enemy's raid on the morrow and carpet the sad spaces of No Man's Land with blue-grey uniforms.
Back to Index