from 'the War Illustrated' 3rd August, 1918
Autolycus of the Battlefield
Little Journeys to the Great War

sketches from 'the War Illustrated'


The closer the view one gets of war the more it reveals itself as a sort of organised lunacy. The spendthrift who squanders thousands of money in folly and saves farthings on his stomach or his back is as sound an economist as the evil genius who presides ever war. Nothing is more eloquent of the futility of methods of modern war than its little economies, which it is practising at the same instant as it is squandering with seeming senseless prodigality.

Whether to admire or to be sadly amused by the triumphs of the British Salvage Branch as witnessed throughout the war zone, I could not rightly determine. While our ponderous guns, made perfect at so much expenditure of national treasure and priceless ingenuity, were blasting away our resources to the tune of thousands of pounds per minute, that somewhat pathetic figure, Autolycus of the Battlefield, was raking among the debris of battles past to rescue here and there a few pitiful sovereigns' worth of material that might be used again.

The chiffonier of the Somme rubbish-heaps was indeed a strangely suggestive feature of a world at war. And all his devoted labour, what does it avail to day ? The Hun has come back to reoccupy the ground that Autolycus raked over so assiduously and so well; possibly to thank his good old "Gott" for having inspired the British to such habits of thrift and tidiness, since the harvest thereof is not to -the sowers!

It would be easy to pursue this contrast with which I have set out to an end that would make all effort after economy appear vain ; but I shall not be tempted thither. On the whole, I'm for Autolycus, and I'm equally for the big, prodigal guns ! Many men of great wealth who have made generous public use of their savings have borne testimony to the fact that, .but for their small economies, they had never come by the surplus riches they were able to give with both hands in public benefaction. Thus the work of those chiffoniers in khaki has helped to keep, the big guns going. In any event are not they workers in the gruesome vineyard of war, who deserve to be written about ?

I know that I have no more to do than make certain inquiries at the office of the Director of Salvage to become possessed of precise statistics relative to every branch of the service; statistics that might astonish my readers with the magnitude of the thrifty achievements of Autolycus of the Battlefield ; but I shall leave these to the gentlemen who take the girth of old Mother Earth as a measure and tell us how many times the barbed-wire salved on the Somme would girdle her ancient bulk. Autolycus in the act of raking the rubbish-heaps is my mark.

It was an object-lesson in the art of the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" to study him throughout the Somme battlefields before the Hun came back to possess himself of much that had been picked up; for I fear that large quantities of this precious salvage must either have been left to him in the British retreat or destroyed, but the latter alternative would be no easy matter.

The remaking of military roads, so splendidly done throughout the whole of that. war-riven region, was, of course, no part of the salvage work ; though, when you think of it, there is no better salvage than a highway of war restored. But all along these roads were innumerable evidences of the labours of the salvage gangs. Immense dumps were formed, each with its special purpose. Thus, there were dumps where many hundred huge bundles of rusty barbed- wire were stored.

It required no statistician to tell you of the countless hours of irksome labour which any one of these dumps represented; since this barbed-wire had to be gathered over miles of abandoned entanglements, unravelled, so to say, and wound by strong hands into these heavy bundles, neat enough to be served out again for wiring some new part of the front. I saw the salvage men toiling devotedly at this most trying task, which in time they would come to perform with a particular knack, so that certain gangs would specialise in wire-salving.

The dumps where hundreds of thousands of old shell-cases were neatly stacked did not suggest the same difficulties in their retrieving; nor those devoted to the rifles that were gathered up for forwarding to the repairing depots. These were easily found trifles for the bag of Autolycus. So, too, the old trench props, which were diligently collected and trimly stored in scores of thousands for using over again.

On every road near the old front line one came upon these second-hand warehouses of war goods, and they had. bold advertisement, "Salvage Dump," with its distinguishing number and the branch of the Service—engineers, artillery, motor transport, and many another—to which it appertained being painted on a sign-board in tall letters such as would have gladdened t-he eye of the late Phineas T. Barnum. To those of us whose pockets were being rifled by a needy, though friendly, Government to carry on the war, there was a distinct sense of gratefulness in witnessing all this effort to save something from the wreck; the more appreciated perhaps, since we had written these things off as a bad debt. Is there any money a creditor more values than the belated half-crown in the pound he gets back from a spendthrift debtor ?

Moreover, immense quantities of these scrapings of the battlefields were of enemy origin. Many were the great bales of the Huns' peculiarly barbarous wire, stamped out of flat thin steel, with teeth like circular saws, and thousands of the pit props had probably grown in the Black Forest or been made from timber somewhere in Hunland. Here was treasure-trove mingled with the salvage.

What fortunes might have been left for private disciples of Autolycus to snap up on these battlefields had not the war endured so long! The long periods of "nothing to report " made the work of salvage more profitable, and doubtless, in the aggregate, millions of money would be represented by those gigantic dumps so many of which I saw in my travels — along the old battle-front — as much of the material by the time it was gathered up, cleaned, sorted, and stacked away, had become more valuable than when it was new. The dumps where quantities of "assorted" sheets of zinc were stored and those where old corrugated iron in all lengths and widths was awaiting "indents" for new dug-outs, represented material that would have cost vastly more to purchase at the beginning of 1918 than in the summer of 1915.

In this way the economic conditions at home were being reproduced in the war zone ; those, of us who were looking out last season's clothes and making them do service again instead of ordering a new suit were doing the same thing as the salvage men over there, and for the same reason — ah, " wasteful war " turns all our thoughts towards economy.


sketches from 'the War Illustrated'


Of course, Autolycus on the battlefield is not all profit, as he is really a little army in himself, with generals, a considerable staff of officers, thousands of men, numerous horses and waggons, requiring great expense to maintain ; but probably the Salvage Branch was (he-only one at that time that could have published a quarterly balance-sheet showing a tangible profit.

What interested me even more. than the dumps of salved materials were the minor evidences of the spirit of economy which was being instilled into the head of the British soldier, who starts out with the notion that he need not be niggardly with the things his Government provides, and who has not been reared in an atmosphere of national and individual thrift such as that in which the Hun is bred.

Along the highways near the approaches to all the camps, canvas bags, wooden boxes, baskets, and such-like receptacles were fixed on telegraph posts, or in any prominent position, some labelled "Nails," others "Rubber," "Brass," or "Copper," and into these Tommy was expected to place any nails, bits of rubber, or metals he found by the way. And he was encouraged in the path of thrift by many words of advice and admonition painted on sign-boards by the roadside, and in bold characters on the sides and backs of the motor-waggons that rattled along every road in the war zone. "Do not waste a single nail," "Waste not, want not," and sundry echoes of our copy-book days, reminded him of this duty to the Army and to himself.

If Tommy thought as he dropped a nail into a salvage bag after having read in the papers from home that half a million of money had been wasted on an abandoned aerodrome, or that some of the war-time departments were wrong in their accounts by a million or two, I shall not try to guess. But he could at least feel he was doing the right thing in picking up the nail, and that is the true spirit of Autolycus on the battlefield — to pick up and save every scrap that may be turned to use against the enemy, without thought of what may have to be wasted, since war must ever be a carnival of waste. The greater the waste, the more need for Autolycus.

So my last thoughts of him are all in his favour, and I hail him as one of the many devoted souls who are toiling on "over there" on the old, sound principle, that "every little helps."

see also : The Garbage of War : Recycling War Material


sketches from 'the War Illustrated'


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