- from The War Illustrated, 6th January, 1917
- 'Battle of the Great High Road
- and How the Despatch-Rider Came Home'
- By Max Pemberton
Battle Pictures of the Great War
HE is quite young, a boy in fact. He had been at a public school two years ago, got his colours for football, and was the proud owner of a Triumph. How little he thought when the birthday brought it that he would be riding a similar machine pell-mell upon the roads of France before he had celebrated his twenty-first birthday.
Yet here he is upon a sunny morning of October, wheeling hiss machine down a broad avenue of poplars and looking back, perhaps a little wistfully, to the pleasant chateau embowered yonder in what was once a fair and goodly garden. An old, old man, sweeping up the dirty brown leaves, gives him a "Bon jour !" and wishes him God-speed. The scene is very French and for the moment very restful. There are sentries at the gate and they alone speak of war.
Our young friend, of course, is a despatch-rider one of that splendid body of mere youtlis who have done such wonderful things upon the great French high roads. He is one of those who may be called upon to fight his lonely battle against the Huns at any hour of any day, who must wage it single-handed, who cannot hope for any kind of help. God be good to him, he is cheerful enough ! His face this morning is as polished as the good machine he rides. He wears stout khaki overalls ; he has a revolver handy ; the precious despatches are like love-letters on his heart. Yesterday he had a few spare hours and took it into his head to give the "old girl" a clean. Usually she is as filthy as the roads he dares, but to-day she is smiling like a bride.
Hey-ho for the Great Adventure!
Now, the despatch-rider has a journey of twenty-three kilometres to make, and his destination is the town. The word should ring pleasantly, as it ever does to rural ears in places remote. But do not make too much of the town. There are ruins there and great gaps which once were churches ; hotels which leak wickedly, and shops which can sell you nothing but dust. For all that it is the town, and our youth will eat and drink there and make a brief hour of merriment. That is to say, he will do all this if he arrives. It is the "if" which is the tragedy.
He, God bless him ! never thinks at all about it. He has ridden there so often, faced perils so many, known such tight places that it has all become a mere picnic. This morning he likes it better than ever. The sun is shining, the great marshland looks almost picturesque. It suggests great distances, shining rivers, the homesteads which were, And it is at the moment a land of peace. Yonder, far away over the low hills, the Hun is at breakfast. Mighty is the -sausage, and it shall prevail. He will fire no shot until lie has gorged. So our man leaps upon his Triumph with all the spirit of the boy he is. Hey-ho for the great adventure ! No knight of the old time ever rode a highway more blithely.
On the Alert
To be sure, there is company enough when the first of the villages has been passed. The road goes straight as an arrow across the tremendous plain, flanked by poplars and bordered by ditches. Traffic of all kinds frequents it at the busy hour, but not at this hour of breakfast. Now you shall see waggons at the roadside with their drivers eating. A platoon tramps leisurely with the steps of men who have fed. A fat officer rides a lean horse, but does not put him to the trot. All hail the boy as a friend. He gives them a merry "Cheer oh !" and a vigorous wave of the arm. The light and strength of the morning are in his eyes, the road is fair,. the rhythm of his exhaust like the rattle of a machine-gun. The town is three kilometres nearer by this time. "What a jolly business !" you say. "What a good time these fellows have !" But pause a moment, for the curtain is about to rise upon another picture.
The road sweeps to the left, and the gleaming face of a usually dull river is revealed. The despatch-rider hears a low booming sound, and he pricks his cars. Yonder, a mile away upon a little hill, there stands a hamlet once as fair as any in Flanders. The shells of the houses still remain, and the old church has the ghost of a tower remaining. But the despatch-rider knows it for the place of peril that it is. That booming echo across the great marsh brings a message which is unmistakable. "Hallo," says the boy, " they're shelling X ." It is just as though one at home had said, "We're going to have thunder."
He bends a little lower over his saddle now and begins to look out. There will be shell-holes hereabouts ; and shell-holes are ugly customers for a man upon a bicycle. Even the smallest will be some four feet in circumference and as many deep. The largest are caverns into which a furniture van could fall. .The boy dodges them with a skill which is amazing.
Travelling Like a Race-horse
He is travelling at forty miles an hour, and the Triumph quivers like a race-horse beneath him. Now it will be a tremendous swerve to the right; again such a left incline that luck alone keeps him from the profundity of ditches. But he. is a master, and nothing matters. The skid, which would send the dilettante at home into hospital for a month, finds the boy using his legs like a boxer in the ring. He is down ; he is up. An amazed peasant ploughing in yonder field despite the shells cries "Sacre nom !" and follows him with eyes bewitched. He is going over yonder to X , and bell may lie beyond it.
There are sentries at the entrance to the village, but they do not worry the boy. Where any other to come up they would prate of danger, saying, "You cannot go on ; the Bodies are bombarding us." But it is no good saying that to the boy, who passes them with a yell which is familiar and a wave which is stimulating. Now he is up the hill and can look ahead for many miles upon the white high road he must follow.
Tokens of the Huns' Goodwill
It is no pleasant prospect. The Hun has had information that a convoy would pass that particular spot at ten o'clock this morning, and he is now shelling it for all he is worth. You sec the tokens of his goodwill everywhere : in the air above, the white flakes of the shrapnel from the ground below, the yellow, the brown, and the black smoke of the high explosive. Viewed thus there does not seem a yard of space where you could shelter a dog. Does the boy stop because of it ? Not on your life. Down goes his head, wide open goes his throttle. The "old girl" accelerates like a wonder at Brooklands. A thunder of sounds is in-the boy's cars, but he does not heed it. Great blasts Of air strike him menacingly, but do not check his speed. Sometimes he will say, "That was a close shave !" but lie prefers not to think about it. He is in the very pit, and God alone can bring him out.
Nor is it any good to think of shelter. One of his pals did so not long ago got off his machine and went into that little hut over yonder until the storm should pass. The next instant 'a shell struck the shanty and blew it sky-high. Our boy will take no risks of that kind. He drives on, every yard is a landmark in the race for safety ; every second has meaning in time's great lottery. The shells are raining about him, and any one may leave him a thing of torn flesh and broken bone there upon the accursed highway. He is fighting the Hun alone; yet upon his courage to- morrow's great victory may depend.
Well, lie gets through, turns a welcome corner and finds himself in a place of peace. Here is the convoy which the Bodies thought they were shelling. The boy delights to race by it with just a word to its officers and another "Cheer ah !" for its men. The town is not far off by this time, and the odour of baked meats seems to be in the air. The boy will lunch like a "good 'un," and then hope to sleep the sleep of the just.
Hard on him. if he must return to-night! Yet such proves to be the edict.
He must go back, says authority, must quit the town : must forget that there are still white sheets and soft pillows in France. He takes his gruel without complaint ; yet night shall be one of terrors unnamable. His battle is but half won ; he must round off the victory. A lamp he has, it is true, but there will be many a mile upon which lie dare not show its aureole, and there is no sun to shine upon him now. The great marshland in its desolation so similar to the great fens of our own England that land will be steaming with mists when he crosses it ; its rivers will have become dark and silent pools ; its ruins will stand up like black sepulchres above some horrid place of the dead. Well is it that the boy has no imagination. His "Cheer oh !" now may be a" little modulated. but it is heard. His lamp burns brightly when lie leaves the town, but five miles beyond it that lamp is out. Here is the danger-zone ; he must trust to his luck now. God send that a shell-hole does not kill him !
Scene for a Great Word Painter
It is a weird scene, the Lord knows, and one to which none but a great word painter could, do justice. There are clouds in the sky, but a dim moon wrestles with them and the land below becomes a cold grey vista of solitude and desolation. Far away a little star of light may mark a house or village, or even another rider on the road ; but for the most part there is no light save that which the parish lantern vouchsafes. The boy is merely conscious of the fact, he is not afraid. The rim of a shell-hole has just brought him down heavily, and he scrambles from the mud and turns his lamp upon the beloved machine and risks the Hun and his venom. Has any damage been done ? He does not stop to ask if he himself be hurt; the machine alone matters. He starts the engine with a kick, and listens anxiously for the answer. He wheels the bike a little way and discovers that the steering is all right. There is joy in that house because of the sinner who is saved. The boy mounts and gradually recovers his confidence. The cold wind cuts his face like a rope ; the mud is all over him. He hears the boom of shells for the first time since he quitted the town, and his pulse leaps at that.
He must get there ! There is but one place in all the world for-him to-night. He must do his duty. The precious papers which his body is warming must be laid on the general's table before midnight. Let all the furies of hell rain upon this desolation, the boy must face them.
He sets his teeth and bends his head lower to the wheel. There are flecks of fire upon the far horizon, now and ever and anon some mighty flash of light in the fields about him. One shell bursts over his very head and for a minute he is blinded, and he swerves wildly upon the slippery road. Another narrow shave but what matter ?
The Bridge is Down!
The boy turns on his headlight, for he knows that he is coming to the bridge across the river. It should be there just at the bend. He searches for it anxiously, the light glowing in the blackness. "By God in heaven, it is not there !" he cries. The bridge is down, and but for the inspiration of the lamp he himself would have plunged headlong into the black water, and to-morrow there would have been another body drifting amid the reeds of the Yser. He pulls up to be sure of it, and wipes the mud from his face. What is to be done ? There is a temporary bridge, he remembers, two miles to the right, there by the. farm-house, which is a shattered landmark set upon a lonely hill. To reach it you must plough through mud and slime indescribable. The boy crosses the dike upon a frail. plank and has to drag the Triumph from its waters. The bog beneath him is Like a quagmire ; his boots squelch in it and arc nearly torn from his feet. It has become black dark, and there is a cold rain falling. He sees nothing now, his luminous compass alone will guide him.
For hours he is out there alone in the wilderness, not a sound to be heard but that of the booming shells ; not another living soul in all the world for what he can see of it.
Courage is needed now, the courage which is his birthright. He goes on doggedly, saying, "I must, I must !" Good God, will he never find the bridge ! They are waiting for him at Headquarters ; it is torture to be held up thus on the very threshold.
He finds it at last, scrambles over its muddy planks and pushes on into the lane that shall take him back to the high road. The very fact that he has crossed the river makes all other perils seem but thirty cents. With a wild war-whoop he swings again into the familiar high road and boldly switches on his lamp, so great is the emergency. He can see the shell-holes now, and no trained acrobat dodges them more skilfully. The last mite beyond the village is a joy beyond imagination. The boy does fifty miles an hour along it, despite the press of waggons and camions. Yonder between the trees are the welcome lights. The general is there waiting for him. "Hooray !" says the boy as he swings into the avenue. An hour later he will be fast asleep shall we say dreaming of England, and another ?
see also 'Diary of a Belgian Dispatch-Rider
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