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Action Front Boyd Cable

Conscript Courage

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There is no need to tell of the stages by which he arrived at the conclusion that he must enlist: from the first dawning wonder at such a possibility, through qualms of doubt and fear and spasms of hope and--almost--courage, to a dull apathy of resignation. No need to tell either the particular circumstances that "conscripted" him at last, because although his name is not real the man himself is, and one has no wish to bring shame on him or his people. I have only described him so closely to make it very clear that he was driven to enlistment, that a less promising recruit never joined up, that he was a conscript in every real sense of the word. We can pass over all his training, his introduction to the life of the trenches, his feelings of terror under conditions as little dangerous as the trenches could be. He managed, more or less, to hide this terror, as many a worse and many a better man has done before him, until one day----

The Germans had made a fierce attack, had overborne a section of the defense and taken a good deal of trenched ground, had been counter-attacked and partly driven back, had scourged the lost parts with a fresh tempest of artillery fire and driven in again to close quarters, to hot bomb and bayonet work; were again checked and for the moment held.

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Private Gerald Bunthrop's battalion had been hurried up to support the broken and breaking line, was thrust into a badly wrecked trench with crumbling sides and broken traverses, with many dead and wounded cumbering the feet of the few defenders, with a reek of high-explosive fumes catching their throats and nostrils. The open ground beyond the trench was scattered thick with great heaps of German dead, a few more sprawled on the broken parapet, another and lesser few were huddled in the trench itself amongst the many khaki forms. The battalion holding the trench had been almost annihilated in the task, had in fact at first been driven out from part of the line and had only reoccupied it with heavy losses. Bunthrop had with his battalion passed along some smashed communication trenches and over the open ground this fighting had covered, and the sights they saw in passing might easily have shaken the stoutest hearts and nerves. They made the approach, too, under a destructive fire with high-explosive shells screaming and crashing over, around, and amongst them, with bullets whistling and hissing about them and striking the ground with the sound of constantly exploding Chinese crackers.

Bunthrop himself, to state the fact baldly, was in an agony of fear. He might have been tempted to bolt, but was restrained by a complete lack of any idea where to bolt to, by a lingering remnant of self-respect, and by a firm conviction that he would be dealt with mercilessly if he openly ran. But when he reached the comparative shelter of the broken trench all these safeguards of his decent behavior vanished. He flung himself into the trench, cowered in its deepest part, made not the slightest attempt to look over the parapet, much less to use his rifle. There is this much of excuse for him, that on the very instant that they reached the cover of the trench a bursting high-explosive had caught the four men next in line to him. The excuse may be insufficient for those who have never witnessed at very close hand the instant and terrible destruction of four companions with whom they have eaten and slept and talked and moved and had their intimate being for many months; but those who have known such happenings will understand. Bunthrop's sergeant understood, and because he was a good sergeant and had the instinct for the right handling of men--it must have been an instinct, because, up to a year before, he had been ledger clerk in a City office and had handled nothing more alive than columns of figures in a book--he issued exactly the order that appealed exactly to Bunthrop's terror and roused him from a shivering embodiment of fear to a live thinking and order-obeying private. "Get up and sling some of those sandbags back on the parapet, Bunthrop!" he said, "and see if you can't make some decent cover for yourself. You've nothing there that would stop a half-crippled Hun jumping in on top of you." When he came back along the trench five minutes later he found Bunthrop feverishly busy re-piling sandbags and strengthening the parapet, ducking hastily and crouching low when a shell roared past overhead, but hurriedly resuming work the instant it had passed. Then came the fresh German attack, preceded by five minutes' intense artillery fire, concentrated on the half-wrecked trench. The inferno of noise, the rush and roar of the approaching shells, the crash and earth-shaking thunder of their explosions, the ear-splitting cracks overhead of high-explosive shrapnel, the drone and whirr and thump of their flying fragments--the whole racking, roaring, deafening, sense-destroying tempest of noise was too much for Bunthrop's nerve. He flung down and flattened himself to the trench bottom again, squeezing himself close to the earth, submerged and drowned in a sweeping wave of panic fear. He gave no heed to the orders of his platoon commander, the shouting of his sergeant, the stir that ran along the trench, the flat spitting reports of the rifles that began to crack rapidly in a swiftly increasing volume of fire. A huge fragment of shell came down and struck the trench bottom with a suggestively violent thud a foot from his head. Half sick with the instant thought, "If it had been a foot this way!..." half crazed with the sense of openness to such a missile, Bunthrop rose to his knees, pressing close to the forward parapet, and looking wildly about him. His sergeant saw him. "You, Bunthrop," he shouted, "are you hit? Get up, you fool, and shoot! If we can't stop 'em before they reach here we're done in." Bunthrop hardly heeded him. Along the trench the men were shooting at top speed over the parapet; a dozen paces away two of the battalion machine-guns were clattering and racketing in rapid gusts of fire; a little farther along a third one had jambed and was being jerked and hammered at by a couple of sweating men and a wildly cursing boy officer. So much Bunthrop saw, and then with a hideous screeching roar a high explosive fell and burst in a shattering crash, a spouting hurricane of noise and smoke and flung earth and fragments. Bunthrop found himself half buried in a landslide of crumbling trench, struggled desperately clear, gasping and choking in the black cloud of smoke and fumes, saw presently, as the smoke thinned and dissolved, a chaos of broken earth and sandbags where the machine-guns had stood; saw one man and an officer dragging their gun from the debris, setting it up again on the broken edge of the trench. Another man staggered up the crumbling earth bank to help, and presently amongst them they got the gun into action again. The officer left it and ran to where he saw the other gun half buried in loose earth. He dragged it clear, found it undamaged, looked round, shouted at Bunthrop crouching flat against the trench wall; shouted again, came down the earth bank to him with a rush. "Come and help!" he yelled, grabbing at Bunthrop's arm. Bunthrop mumbled stupidly in reply. "What?" shouted the officer. "Come and help, will you? Never mind if you are hurt," as he noticed a smear of blood on the private's face. "You'll be hurt worse if they get into this trench with the bayonet. Come on and help!" Bunthrop, hardly understanding, obeyed the stronger will and followed him back to the gun. "Can you load?" demanded the officer. "Can you fill the cartridges into these drums while I shoot?" Bunthrop had had in a remote period of his training some machine-gun instruction. He nodded and mumbled again. "God!" said the officer. "Look at 'em! There's enough to eat us if they get to bayonet distance! We must stop 'em with the bullet. Hurry up, man; hurry, if you don't want to be skewered like a stuck pig!" He rattled off burst after burst of fire, clamoring at Bunthrop to hurry, hurry, hurry. A wounded machine-gunner joined them, and then some others, and the gun began to spit a steady string of bullets again. By this time the full meaning of the officer's words--the meaning, too, of remarks between the wounded helpers--had soaked into Bunthrop's brain. Their only hope, his only hope of life, lay in stopping the attack before it reached the trench; and the machine-guns were a main factor in the stopping. He lost interest in everything except cramming the cartridges into their place. When the officer was hit and rolled backwards and lay groaning and swearing, Bunthrop's chief and agonizing thought was that they--he--had lost the assistance and protection of the gun. When one of the wounded gunners took the officer's place and reopened fire, Bunthrop's only concern again was to keep pace with the loading. The thoughts were repeated exactly when that gunner was hit and collapsed and his place was taken by another man. And by now the urgent need of keeping the gun going was so impressed on Bunthrop that when the next gunner was struck down and the gun stood idle and deserted it was Bunthrop who turned wildly urging the other loaders to get up and keep the gun going; babbled excitedly about the only hope being to stop the Germans before they "got in" with the bayonet, repeated again and again at them the officer's phrase about "skewered like stuck pigs." The others hung back. They had seen man after man struck down at the gun, they could hear the hiss and whitt of the bullets over their heads, the constant cracker-like smacks of others that hit the parapet, and--they hung back. "Why th' 'ell don't you do it yerself?" demanded one of them, angered by Bunthrop's goading and in some degree, no doubt, by the disagreeable knowledge that they were flinching from a duty.

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Action Front
Boyd Cable

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