Great Britain at War/A Training Camp

IX
A TRAINING CAMP

THE great training camp lay, a rainlashed wilderness of windy levels and bleak, sandy hills, range upon range, far as the eye could see, with never a living thing to break the monotony. But presently, as our car lurched and splashed upon its way, there rose a sound that grew and grew, the awesome sound of countless marching feet.

On they came, these marching men, until we could see them by the hundred, by the thousand, their serried ranks stretching away and away until they were lost in distance. Scots were here. Lowland and Highland; English and Irish were here, with bronzed New Zealanders, adventurous Canadians and hardy Australians; men, these, who had come joyfully across half the world to fight, and, if need be, die for those ideals which have made the Empire assuredly the greatest and mightiest this world has ever known. And as I listened to the rhythmic tramp of these countless feet, it seemed like the voice of this vast Empire proclaiming to the world that Wrong and Injustice must cease among the nations; that man, after all, despite all the "Frightfulness" that warped intelligence may conceive, is yet faithful to the highest in him, faithful to that deathless, purposeful determination that Right shall endure, the abiding belief of which has brought him through the dark ages, through blood and misery and shame, on his progress ever upward.

So, while these men of the Empire tramped past through blinding rain and wind, our car stopped before a row of low-lying wooden buildings, whence presently issued a tall man in rain-sodden trench cap and burberry, who looked at me with a pair of very dark, bright eyes and gripped my hand in hearty clasp.

He was apologetic because of the rain, since, as he informed us, he had just ordered all men to their quarters, and thus I should see nothing doing in the training line; nevertheless he cheerfully offered to show us over the camp, despite mud and wind and rain, and to explain things as fully as he could; whereupon we as cheerfully accepted.

The wind whistled about us, the rain pelted us, but the Major heeded it nothing — neither did I — while K. loudly congratulated himself on having come in waders and waterproof hat, as, through mud and mire, through puddles and clogging sand, we followed the Major's long boots, crossing bare plateaux, climbing precipitous slopes, leaping trenches, slipping and stumbling, while ever the Major talked, wherefore I heeded not wind or rain, for the Major talked well.

He descanted on the new and horribly vicious methods of bayonet fighting — the quick thrust and lightning recovery; struggling with me upon a sandy, rainswept height, he showed me how, in wrestling for your opponent's rifle, the bayonet is the thing. He halted us before devilish contrivances of barbed wire, each different from the other, but each just as ugly. He made us peep through loopholes, each and every different from the other, yet each and every skilfully hidden from an enemy's observation. We stood beside trenches of every shape and kind while he pointed out their good and bad points; he brought us to a place where dummy figures had been set up, their rags a-flutter, forlorn objects in the rain.

"Here," said he, "is where we teach 'em to throw live bombs — you can see where they've been exploding; dummies look a bit off-colour, don't they?" And he pointed to the ragged scarecrows with his whip. "You know, I suppose," he continued, "that a Mills' bomb is quite safe until you take out the pin, and then it is quite safe as long as you hold it, but the moment it is loosed the lever flies off, which releases the firing lever and in a few seconds it explodes. It is surprising how men vary; some are born bombers, some soon learn, but some couldn't be bombers if they tried — not that they're cowards, it's just a case of mentality. I've seen men take hold of a bomb, pull out the pin, and then stand with the thing clutched in their fingers, absolutely unable to move! And there they'd stand till Lord knows when if the Sergeant didn't take it from them. I remember a queer case once. We were saving the pins to rig up dummy bombs, and the order was: 'Take the bomb in your right hand, remove the pin, put the pin in your pocket, and at the word of command, throw the bomb.' Well, this particular fellow was so wrought up that he threw away the pin and put the bomb in his pocket!"

"Was he killed?" I asked.

"No. The sergeant just had time to dig the thing out of the man's pocket and throw it away. Bomb exploded in the air and knocked 'em both flat."

"Did the sergeant get the V.C. or M.C. or anything.?" I enquired.

The Major smiled and shook his head.

"I have a good many sergeants here and they can't all have 'em! Now come and see my lecture theatres."

Presently, looming through the rain, I saw huge circular structures that I could make nothing of, until, entering the larger of the two, I stopped in surprise, for I looked down into a huge, circular amphitheatre, with circular rows of seats descending tier below tier to a circular floor of sand, very firm and hard.

"All made out of empty oil cans!" said the Major, tapping the nearest can with his whip. "I have 'em filled with sand and stacked as you see! — good many thousands of 'em here. Find it good for sound too — shout and try! This place holds about five thousand men — "

"Whose wonderful idea was this?"

"Oh, just a little wheeze of my own. Now, how about the poison gas; feel like going through it?"

I glanced at K., K. glanced at me. I nodded, so did K.

"Certainly!" said I. Wherefore the Major led us over sandy hills and along sandy valleys and so to a dingy and weatherworn hut, in whose dingy interior we found a bright-faced subaltern in dingy uniform and surrounded by many dingy boxes and a heterogeneous collection of things. The subaltern was busy at work on a bomb with a penknife, while at his elbow stood a sergeant grasping a screwdriver, who, perceiving the Major, came to attention, while the cheery sub. rose, beaming.

"Can you give us some gas?" enquired the Major, after we had been introduced, and had shaken hands.

"Certainly, sir!" nodded the cheerful sub. "Delighted!"

"You might explain something about it, if you will," suggested the Major. "Bombs and gas is your line, you know."

The sub. beamed, and giving certain directions to his sergeant, spake something on this wise.

"Well, 'Frightful Fritz' — I mean the Boches, y'know, started bein' frightful some time ago, y'know — playin' their little tricks with gas an' tear-shells an' liquid fire an' that, and we left 'em to it. Y'see, it wasn't cricket — wasn't playin' the game — what! But Fritz kept at it and was happy as a bird, till one day we woke up an' started bein' frightful too, only when we did begin we were frightfuller than ever Fritz thought of bein' — yes, rather! Our gas is more deadly, our lachrymatory shells — are more lachrymose an' our liquid fire's quite tophole — won't go out till it burns out — rather not! So Frightful Fritz is licked at his own dirty game. I've tried his and I've tried ours, an' I know."

Here the sergeant murmured deferentially into the sub.'s ear, whereupon he beamed again and nodded.

"Everything's quite ready!" he announced, "so if you're on?"

Here, after a momentary hesitation, I signified I was, whereupon our sub. grew immensely busy testing sundry ugly, grey flannel gas helmets, fitted with staring eye-pieces of talc and with a hideous snout in front.

Having duly fitted on these clumsy things and buttoned them well under our coat collars, having shown us how we must breathe out through the mouthpiece which acts as a kind of exhaust, our sub. donned his own headpiece, through which his cheery voice reached me in muffled tones:

"You'll feel a kind of ticklin' feelin' in the throat at first, but that's all O.K. — only the chemical the flannel's saturated with. Now follow me, please, an' would you mind runnin', the rain's apt to weaken the solution. This way!"

Dutifully we hasted after him, ploughing through the wet sand, until we came to a heavily timbered doorway that seemingly opened into the hillside, and, beyond this yawning doorway I saw a thick, greenish-yellow mist, a fog exactly the colour of strong absinthe; and then we were in it. K.'s tall figure grew blurred, indistinct, faded utterly away, and I was alone amid that awful, swirling vapour that held death in such agonising form.

I will confess I was not happy, my throat was tickling provokingly, I began to cough and my windpipe felt too small. I hastened forward, but, even as I went, the light grew dimmer and the swirling fog more dense. I groped blindly, began to run, stumbled, and in that moment my hand came in contact with an unseen rope. On I went into gloom, into blackness, until I was presently aware of my companions in front and mightily glad of it. In a while, still following this invisible rope, we turned a corner, the fog grew less opaque, thinned away to a green mist, and we were out in the daylight again, and thankful was I to whip off my stifling helmet and feel the clean wind in my hair and the beat of rain upon my face.

"Notice the ticklin' feelin'?" enquired our sub., as he took our helmets and put them carefully by. "Bit tryin' at first, but you soon get used to it — yes, rather. Some of the men funk tryin' at first — and some hold their breath until they fairly well burst, an' some won't go in at all, so we carry 'em in. That gas you've tried is about twenty times stronger than we get it in the open, but these helmets are a rippin' dodge till the chemical evaporates, then, of course, they're no earthly. This is the latest device — quite a tophole scheme!" And he showed us a box-like contrivance which, when in use, is slung round the neck.

"Are you often in the gas?" I enquired.

"Every day — yes, rather!"

"For how long?"

"Well, I stayed in once for five hours on end — "

"Five hours!" I exclaimed, aghast.

'Y'see, I was experimentin'!"

"And didn't you feel any bad effects?"

"Yes, rather! I was simply dyin' for a smoke. Like to try a lachrymatory?" he enquired, reaching up to a certain dingy box.

"Yes," said I, glancing at K. "Oh, yes, if — "

"Only smart for the time bein'," our sub. assured me. "Make you weep a bit!" Here from the dingy box he fished a particularly vicious-looking bomb and fell to poking at it with a screwdriver. I immediately stepped back. So did K. The Major pulled his moustache and flicked a chunk of mud from his boot with his whip.

"Er — I suppose that thing's all right?" he enquired.

"Oh, yes, quite all right, sir, quite all right," nodded the sub., using the screwdriver as a hammer. "Only wants a little fixin'."

As I watched that deadly thing, for the second time I felt distinctly unhappy; however, the refractory pin, or whatever it was, being fixed to his satisfaction, our sub. led the way out of the dingy hut and going some few paces ahead, paused.

"I'm goin' to give you a liquid-fire bomb first!" said he. "Watch!"

He drew back his hand and hurled the bomb. Almost immediately there was a shattering report and the air was full of thick, grey smoke and yellow flame, smoke that rolled heavily along the ground towards us, flame that burned ever fiercer, fiery yellow tongues that leapt from the sand here and there, that writhed in the wind-gusts, but never diminished.

"Stoop down!" cried the sub., suiting the action to word, "stoop down and get a mouthful of that smoke — makes you jolly sick and unconscious in no time if you get enough of it. Top-hole bomb, that — what!"

Then he brought us where those yellow flames leapt and hissed; some of these he covered with wet sand, and lo! they had ceased to be; but the moment the sand was kicked away up they leapt again fiercer than ever.

"We use 'em for bombing Boche dugouts now!" said he; and remembering the dugouts I had seen, I could picture the awful fate of those within, the choking fumes, the fire-scorched bodies! Truly the exponents of Frightfulness have felt the recoil of their own vile methods.

"This is a lachrymatory!" said the sub., whisking another bomb from his pocket. "When it pops, run forward and get in the smoke. It'll sting a bit, but don't rub the tears away — let 'em flow. Don't touch your eyes, it'll only inflame 'em — just weep! Ready? One, two, three!" A second explosion louder than the first, a puff of blue smoke into which I presently ran and then uttered a cry. So sharp, so excruciating was the pain, that instinctively I raised hand to eyes but checked myself, and with tears gushing over my cheeks, blind and agonised, I stumbled away from that hellish vapour. Very soon the pain diminished, was gone, and looking up through streaming tears I beheld the sub. nodding and beaming approval.

"Useful things, eh?" he remarked. "A man can't shed tears and shoot straight, an' he can't weep and fight well, both at the same time — what? Fritz can be very frightful, but we can be more so when we want — yes, rather. The Boches have learned that there's no monopoly in Frightfulness."

In due season we shook hands with our cheery sub., and left him beaming after us from the threshold of the dingy hut.

Britain has been called slow, old-fashioned, and behind the times, but to-day she is awake and at work to such mighty purpose that her once small army is now numbered by the million, an army second to none in equipment or hardy and dauntless manhood.

From her Home Counties, from her Empire beyond the Seas, her millions have arisen, brothers in arms henceforth, bonded together by a spirit of noble self-sacrifice — men grimly determined to suffer wounds and hardship and death itself, that for those who come after them, the world may be a better place and humanity may never again be called upon to endure all the agony and heartbreak of this generation.