- from 'the War Budget', June 21st, 1917
- 'The Pluck of a Coward'
Story of a Soldier Who Was Afraid to Run Away
from 'the War Illustrated' - how bravery is presented in illustrated form
"THERE is more than one sort of courage," said the sergeant, when tackled on the old, old question of British pinch. He was a sergeant of the new type "converted clerk" was his own description of his change from tweed to khaki. This newness of outlook on the sergeant's part accounted for his broad views on courage.
"I 'believe very strongly," he continued, "in the courage born of fear; it is behind some of the most splendid achievements of war and peace. It all hangs on what one is terribly afraid of.''
"You have an instance in your mind, I expect," hinted a bystander.
The Fear of Medical Rejection
"Well, I did happen to be thinking of a case that would illustrate the point. It was in the earlier days of the war when volunteering was in full swing. Harold Hardy, a city acquaintance, was in my company. We were both privates. I could see how distasteful the whole business of training was to him, though we had got in with a jolly nice lot of fellows.
"Hardy had plenty of excuses for staying at home, five of them being medical rejection's. I know the mere routine of the examination was torture to him, and asked him how he screwed up his courage for it so many times.
I had no courage to screw up," he said; 'it was fear that drove me into those awful doors.'
"Fear?' I laughed.
"Yea,' he persisted, ' I was afraid of the shame that would haunt a slacker. Nobody could see my rotten lung, and I had no way of advertising my unfitness. So at last I found a doctor who put his deaf ear to the stethoscope or something and in I went.'
'The sergeant was called away in the midst of his tale, but he tossed on the hut table a letter that Hardy had written him while in hospital. After a brief personal introduction it ran thus: "
"I don't know how I ever got into line on the day we marched from the rear to go to the front. Everything I did was mechanical. We were called before daylight; we were marching along the road.
The Fear of the First Shell
"We had been marching nearly two hours when I heard my first shell. There was a long, thin whine in the air. It was a new sound, and it was so strange to me that I raised my head for the first time since we started on the march.
The man next to me laughed.
"A shell,' he said.
"I looked all around me. I tried to stop to see the path of that queer whine, but the man behind me prodded me on. Several of them laughed.
"You will hear plenty more,' they said.
"It was very queer to me; I tried to think it out. I knew I was afraid. But I had not run. I began to wonder just how afraid I was, and I wanted to know. I had heard the shell and my curiosity was aroused. I wanted to go on and see how far I would go before my fear overcame me. With everyone of their long whines I studied myself to see if I would run, and when I continued marching with the regiment I would say: "Not yet; perhaps the next time. Certainly, there is a limit beyond which I will not go.'
"Eleven o'clock came and we stopped for luncheon.
While we waited there shells began to fall close to us close enough so that we could hear the explosion after the whine. Before we had only beard the whine. The first one made me jump. The whine was loud and strong and the explosion came quick and sharp. With the second I was strong enough to turn and look at the cloud of earth, smoke and rooks. I was doing 'pretty well. A shot fell short of us. Some of the men looked up and saw an aeroplane sailing around over our heads.
The Enemy's Eyes
"Better get out of here, they said. 'That is a Boche. He is giving our range to his battery. A shell dropped up near the head of the line, almost in the road. I heard no orders, but we all gathered up our rifles and equipment and marched off at quick step.
I had looked straight in the face of the shell that fell in the field beside us. It was another triumph for me, I had looked at it, shivering to be sure, wondering if I would run. But I had not run. There was still a little further to go to pursue my investigation and find out how much I could stand before I ran.
We went on up that road at the quick step until we came to the entrance of a tunnel leading to the supporting trenches. Shells fell around us all the time. The Boche aeroplane was still trying to regulate the fire of its battery and there was a maddening wait for the signal to go in.
"I have always been afraid, and there has always been the question in my mind if any fear would conquer or if I would conquer my fear.
Crossing the Barrage
"There was the time when, it became necessary to take a message from our support trenches to our advanced lines. There was a barrage to be crossed and' volunteers were called for. I was chosen.
"By that time I bad formed the theory that a man can do anything if his duty demands it of him and he will keep that in his mind. It was a part of the thought that came to me the first day in the trench, and I developed it later in the long nights, The first day I had no really coherent thoughts, only a great fear of my own fear.
Only afterwards did I find out that a great duty will take a man anywhere with a calm mind. I stood against German attacks. I was in counter-attacks. I lay out in shell holes, helping to hold a line where there were no trenches. I never forgot my fear, but I thought of my country, my duty and though I shivered and the cold sweat rolled off me, I held steady.
What it is Like
"Have you ever seen. a barrage? You can walk up to it and draw a line with a surveyor's chain on the ground, marking exactly the limit where the shells fall, and all beyond that line will be a mass of boiling earth, like waves, in a storm dashing on a rocky coast. There is no interval between the explosions. They are constant, unremitting, one following so closely on another that their detonations mingle in a steady roar.
"I came within fifty yards of the barrage and stopped to watch it and try to mark out a path. But no path was possible. No sooner was one chosen than it was wiped out, all the little landmarks, gone, the whole face of the ground changed by a new rain of shells. My heart sank. My stomach went suddenly empty. I knew that I had reached the limit beyond which I could not go. I had found the point where my fear was greater than my duty. I lay flat down on the earth. I do not know how long I lay. I thought of nothing. There was only a horrible fear.
D.S.O. Won Through Fear
'And then I found that unconsciously, not knowing it, I was digging my fingers into the ground, clutching the roots of grass and dragging myself into the barrage. I might as well have been dragging myself the other way, but I had lain down with my face toward my duty.
"When I made that discovery I got to my feet and stood upright for a second, not more, only time to say, I must not give myself time to think, and dashed forward into the exploding shells. Such a race as that is, like the last stops of a dying horse, one that has broken a blood vessel straining for the wire, and plunges on his face in the midst of his stride. I floundered wildly into the raw earth and fell again on my face. But this tame my mind was working. There was only one thing for me to do, and I knew it. That was to go on. I crawled forward on my hands and knees. I could not stand. It would be certain death. Twenty times I was knocked flat, my wind gone, by the explosion of a shell almost beside me. But I crawled on. I did not know if I had been hit. I thought I had. Two hundred yards I crawled through the barrage and then I got to our lines. They gave me the D.S.0. for that.
"And now I am not afraid to confess that I was afraid all through."
from 'the War Illustrated' - the roll-call of heroes
Back to Index