The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter XIII. Intensive Training
Barry's return to the battalion was like a coming home. In the mess there was no demonstration of sympathy with him in his loss, but the officers took occasion to drop in casually with an interesting bit of news, seeking to express, more or less awkwardly, by their presence what they found it impossible to express in actual words.
It was to Barry an experience as new as it was delightful. Hitherto, as far as any real fellowship was concerned he had lived a life of comparative isolation among his fellow officers, and while they were careful to preserve the conventions and courtesies imposed by their mutual relations, he had ever been made to feel that in that circle he was an outsider.
Among the officers who came to call upon him, none surprised him more than did Major Bayne. While that officer had always been careful to maintain an attitude toward him, at once correct and civil, there had never been any approach to friendliness. As a matter of fact, Major Bayne was too entirely occupied with his own interests to have either the leisure or the inclination for anything but a casual concern for the chaplain and his affairs. That was not to be wondered at. Life in the army, notwithstanding all its loyalties and its fine unselfishnesses, is, in some of its phases, a brutally self-centred form of existence. Its routine consists in the continual performance of "duties" under an authority ruthless in its exactions and relentless in its penalties. Only after months of experience of its iron rigidity does the civilian, accustomed as he is to self-determination, with a somewhat easygoing regard for the conventions of his community, arrive at the state of mind in which unconsciously and as a matter of second nature he estimates the quality of the most trivial act by its relation to the standard set by the Military High Command. Like a spectre does that solemn, impalpable, often perfectly unreasonable omniscient and omnipotent entity lurk in the shadow ready to reach out a clutching hand, and for some infraction of regulations, wilful or inadvertent, hale the luckless and shivering defaulter to judgment. It therefore behooves a man to take heed to himself and to his ways, for, with the best intention, he may discover that he has been guilty of an infraction, not of a regulation found in K. R. & O., with which he has painfully made himself familiar and which he has diligently exercised himself to observe, but of one of those seventeen hundred and sixty-nine "instructions" and "informations" which from time to time have appeared in those sacred writings known as Army, Divisional, Brigade, or Battalion Orders.
In consequence, an officer with a conscience toward his duty, or an ambition for promotion, gives himself so completely to the business of "watching his step" that only by a definite exercise of his altruistic faculties can he indulge himself in the commendable civilian luxury of caring for his neighbour.
And so it came about that Major Bayne, possessing in a large measure the quality of "canniness" characteristic of his race--a quality which for the benefit of the uninitiated Saxon it may be necessary to define as being a judicious blending of shrewdness and caution,--and being as well, again after the manner of his race, ambitious for his own advancement, and, furthermore, being a man of conscience, had been so entirely engrossed in the absorbing business of "watching his step" that he had paid slight heed to the affairs of any other officer, and least of all to those of the chaplain, whose functions in the battalion he had regarded, it must be confessed, as more or less formal, if not merely decorative.
But, in spite of all this, in the major the biggest thing was his heart, which, however, true to his race type again, he kept stored in the deepest recesses of his system. To "touch" the major's "heart" was an operation of more than ordinary difficulty. It was that very thing, however, which the letter to the battalion Commanding Officer from the A. D. C. S. had achieved. The effect of this letter upon the members of the mess, and most especially upon the junior major in regard to their relation to their chaplain, was revolutionary. Hence the major's visit to Barry upon the evening of his return.
It was with an unusually cordial handshake that he greeted the chaplain.
"We are glad to have you back with us, Captain Dunbar," he said. "We missed you, and we have discovered that we need you. Things have been moving while you were away. This battalion is undergoing a transformation. The O. C. is tightening down the screws of discipline. He sees, and we all are beginning to see, that we are up against a different proposition from what we had imagined, and right here, Captain Dunbar, I want to say for myself, and I believe for the rest of the boys, that we have not given you a square deal."
His attitude and his words astounded Barry.
"Don't say that, major," he said, in a voice husky with emotion. "Don't say that. I have been all wrong. I am not going to talk about it, but I am awfully glad to get a second chance."
"If you need a second chance, Pilot," said the major, for the first time using the friendly western sobriquet, "believe me, you'll get it."
The major sat down, pulled out his pipe, and began to impart some interesting bits of news.
"Things are moving rather swiftly with us these days. There are many changes taking place. Duff has gone permanently to the transport, and is in the way for a captaincy. Hopeton has gone for a machine gun course. Sally is to be company commander in his place. Booth takes charge of the bombers. Your friend, Sergeant Knight, is slated for a commission. He is doing awfully well with the signallers, and, by the way, there is something I want to show you to-morrow, something quite unique and remarkable, our new instructor in bayonet fighting. Do you know we were rather stuck on our bayonet fighting, but he has made the boys feel that they didn't know anything about bayonet fighting, or, for that matter, about anything else. I think you will enjoy him. The boys are all up on their toes. There is nothing like the scream of a live shell 'coming in' to speed up the training."
When the major had departed, he left Barry in a maze of wonder and gratitude. That the battalion were glad to have him back, that all the old feeling of latent hostility of which he had been conscious was gone, and that they felt that they really needed him stirred in his heart a profound sense of humility and gratitude.
Late as it was he felt he must go out for a stroll about the camp just to see the men and give them greeting.
Wherever he went he was greeted with a new respect and a new cordiality. It was as if he had passed through some mystic initiation ceremony and had been admitted into a magic circle of comradeship with the common soldier, than which no privilege is more dearly coveted by the officers, from the colonel himself to the youngest sub, and which is indeed, in the last analysis, the sine qua non of effective leadership.
As Barry was passing the sergeants' mess-room the door opened and there came out Sergeant Major McFetteridge himself, with two others of the mess.
"Good evening, sergeant major," said Barry quietly passing on his way.
"Good evening, sir," said the sergeant major with his usual stiff salute. "Oh, it's you, sir," he cried as the light fell upon Barry's face. "We're glad to see you back, sir."
"Thank you, sergeant major," replied Barry, offering his hand, "and I'm glad to be back with you all again."
"Thank you, sir. I assure you we're glad to have you. Won't you come in, sir? The boys will all want to see you," and so saying the sergeant major threw wide open the door.
Nowhere is class privilege more appreciated and more jealously guarded than in the sergeants' mess. It is the most enclusive of all military circles. Realising this, Barry was glad to accept the invitation. The hut was filled with sergeants in easy deshabille, smoking, lounging, playing various games.
"The chaplain, boys," announced the sergeant major, and instantly every man was on his feet, and at attention.
"It's all right, boys," said the sergeant major. "The chaplain has just dropped in for a minute for a friendly call, and we want you to feel, sir," he added, for the sergeant major loved a little ceremonial, "that we respectfully sympathise with you in your loss, and that we consider ourselves honoured by your presence here tonight."
Barry was so deeply touched by the unexpected warmth of their welcome, and by the reference to his recent sorrow, that he could not trust himself to speak. Without a word he passed around the group, shaking hands with each man in turn. By the time he had finished the round, he had his voice in control, and said:
"Sergeant major, this is very kind of you. I thank you for this welcome, and I am grateful for your sympathy." He hesitated a moment or two; then, as if he heard his father's voice, "Tell them! Tell them! They don't know Him," he added: "And, sergeant major, if you will allow me, I have something I want to say to all the men when I get a chance. I cannot say it all to-night to the sergeants, but this much I would like to say: That since I saw you, I believe I have got a new idea of my work in the battalion. I got it from a sergeant major whose men told me that he was a fine soldier and a brave man, and more than that, that he was 'like a father to them.' That, sergeant major, was my own father. From him I learned that my job was not to jump on men for their faults, but to help men to know God, who is our Father in Heaven, and, men, I think if I can do this, I shall count myself happy, for He is worth knowing, and we all need Him."
His words gripped them hard. Then he added, "Before I say 'good night,' may I have the privilege of leading you to Him in words that you have all learned at your mother's knee?" Then simply he spoke the words of that immortal prayer, the men joining in low and reverent voices.
After the prayer, he quietly said, "Good night!" and was passing out of the hut. He had not got to the door, however, when the sergeant major's voice arrested him.
"Sir, on behalf of the sergeants, I thank you for coming in and I thank you for your words. You have done us all good."
The following morning, a sergeant from a neighbouring battalion, visiting the transport lines, and observing Barry passing along with Major Bayne on the battalion parade ground, took occasion to remark:
"That is your padre, ain't it? He checks you fellows up rather short, don't he?"
"Yes, that is our padre, or Pilot, as we like to call him," was Sergeant Mackay's answer, "but I want to tell you that he can just check us up until our heads touch the crupper, and it's nobody's damned business but our own."
"Well, you needn't get so blasted hot over it. I ain't said nothing against your padre that I haven't heard from your own fellows."
"That's all right, sergeant. That was before we got to the war. I'm not huntin' for any trouble with anybody, but if any one wants to start up anything with any one, sergeant, in this battalion, he knows how to do it."
And this came to be recognised as an article in the creed of the sergeant's mess.
The bayonet-fighting squad were engaged in some preliminary drill of the more ordinary kind when Major Bayne and the chaplain arrived on the ground.
"We'll just watch the little beggar a while from here and go up later," said the major.
As Barry watched the drill sergeant on his job, it seemed to him that he had never seen a soldier work before. In figure, in pose, in action there was a perfection about him that awakened at once admiration and envy. Below the average height, yet not insignificant, erect, without exaggeration, precise in movement without angularity, swift in action without haste, he was indeed a joy to behold.
"Now, did you ever see anything like that?" enquired the major, after their eyes had followed the evolutions of the drill sergeant for a time.
"Never," said Barry, "nor do I hope to again. He is a--I was going to say dream, but he's no dream. He's much too wide awake for that. He's a poem; that's what he is."
Back and forth, about and around, stepped the little drill sergeant, a finished example of precise, graceful movement. He was explaining in clean cut, and evidently memorised speech the details of the movements he wished executed, but through his more formal and memorised vocabulary his native cockney would occasionally erupt, adding vastly to the pungency and picturesqueness of his speech.
"He knows we are here all right," said the major, "but he would not let on if it were King George himself. I'll bet you a month's pay, though, that we can't get one foot beyond what he considers the saluting point before he comes to attention, and as for his salute, there is nothing like it in the whole Canadian army. Talk about a poem, his salute has Shakespeare faded. Now he's going to move them off. Watch and listen!"
"Ye-a-ou-w!" came the long-drawn cry, fiercely threatening, representing in English speech the word "squad." Then followed an expletive, "Yun!" which for explosive quality made a rifle crack seem a drawl, and which appeared to release in the men a hidden spring drawn to its utmost tension. The slack and sagging line leaped into a rigid unit, of breathless, motionless humanity.
"Aw-e-ou-aw!" a prolonged vocalisation, expressive of an infinite and gentle pity, and interpreted to the initiated ear to mean "As you were!" released the rigid line to its former sagging state.
"N-a-w then," said the voice in a semi-undertone, slow and tense, "this ain't no arter dinner bloomin' siester. A little snap--ple-- ease!" The last word in a sharply rising inflection, tightening up the spring again for the explosive "Ye-a-ou-w--yun!" (Squad attention.) "Aw-e-ou-r--yun!!! Aw-e-ou-r--yun!!!"
Without warning came the commands, repeating "As you were!" "Attention!" He walked up and down before the rigid line, looking them over and remarking casually,
"Might be a little worse," adding as an afterthought, "per-haps!" After which, with a sharp right turn, and a quick march, he himself leading with a step of clean-cut, easy grace, he moved them to the bayonet-fighting ground.
"By Jove!" breathed Barry. "Did you ever imagine anything like that?"
"The result of ten years in the regular army," said the major.
"It's almost worth it," answered Barry.
Arriving at the bayonet-fighting ground, the little sergeant major put the squad through their manual as if they had been recruits, to a running comment of biting pleasantries. After bringing them to attention, he walked slowly down the line, then back again, and remarked after due deliberation:
"I have seen worse--not often--" Then, in a tone of resignation, he gave the order:
The men "stood at ease," and then "stood easy."
"Now, then," said the major, "we'll steal in on him, if we can." They moved forward toward the little sergeant major, who remained studying the opposite horizon in calm abstraction until their toes had reached a certain line, when, like the crack of a whip, there came once more the long-drawn cry with its explosive termination:
"Ye-a-ou-w!--Yun!!!" with the result that the line was again thrown into instantaneous, breathless and motionless rigidity.
Toward the advancing officers the sergeant major threw himself into a salute with one smooth, unbroken movement of indescribable grace and finish.
"Good morning, sergeant major," said Major Bayne. "Captain Dunbar, this is Sergeant Major Hackett."
Again came the salute, with a barely perceptible diminution of snap, as befitted a less formal occasion.
"Sergeant major," said Barry, "I would give a great deal to be able to do that."
"Wot's that, sir?" enquired the sergeant major.
"That salute of yours."
"Quite easy wen you knaow 'ow!" permitting himself a slight smile.
"You are doing some bayonet-fighting, I see, sergeant major," said Major Bayne.
"Yes, sir, goin' to do a bit, sir," replied the sergeant major.
"Very well, carry on!"
And the sergeant major "carried on," putting into his work and into his every movement and utterance an unbelievable amount of concentrated and even vicious energy.
On the bayonet-fighting ground, the first line of the enemy was represented by sacks stuffed with straw, hung upon a frame, the second by stuffed sacks deposited on the parapet of a trench. In bayonet-fighting the three points demanding special emphasis are the "guarding" of the enemy's attack, a swift bayonet thrust and an equally swift recovery, each operation, whether in case of a living enemy or in the stuffed effigy, being attended with considerable difficulty. Barry was much interested in the psychological element introduced into the exercises by the drill master.
"You must halways keep in mind that the henemy is before you. It's important that you should visualise your foe. The henemy is hever before you. Anything be-ind a British soldier won't trouble anybody, and you are to remember that hit's either you or 'im."
In moments of rapid action the sergeant major evidently had difficulty with his aspirates.
"The suspended sacks before you represent the henemy. You are to treat 'em so."
Having got his line within striking distance of the swinging sacks, the exercise was directed by two commands, "On guard!" and "Point!" the first of which was supposed to knock off the enemy's thrust, and the second to drive the bayonet home into his vitals, after which, without command, there must be a swift recovery.
"Naw then, "Hn-gah!--Pint!!!"
For some moments, in response to these orders, the squad practised "guarding" and "pointing," not, however, to the complete satisfaction of the sergeant.
"Naw, then, number five, stick it hinto 'im. Ye ain't 'andin' a lidy an unbreller!"
Another attempt by number five being still suggestive of the amenities proper to a social function, the sergeant major stepped up to the overgentle soldier.
"Naw, then," he said, "hobserve! There's my henemy. See 'is hugly mug. Hn-gah! Pint!!!"
At the words of command, the sergeant major threw himself into his guard and attacked with such appalling ferocity as must have paralysed an ordinary foe, sending his bayonet clean through to his guard, and recovering it with a clean, swift movement.
Having secured a fairly satisfactory thrust, the sergeant major devoted his attention to the recovery of the bayonet.
"Fetch it hout!" he cried fiercely. "There's another man comin'. Fetch it hout! Ye may fetch 'is spinial column with it. No matter, 'e won't need it."
The final act in this gruesome drama was the attack upon the second line represented by the sacks lying upon the parapet of the trench beyond. The completed action thus included the guard, thrust, recovery, the leap forward past the swinging line of sacks, and a second thrust at the figure prone upon the parapet, with a second recovery of the weapon, this second recovery being effected by stamping the foot upon the transfixed effigy, and jerking back the bayonet with a violent upward movement.
This last recovery appeared to cause number five again some difficulty.
"Now then, number five, put a little aight (hate) into it. Stamp your bleedin' 'obnyles (hobnails) on his fice, and fetch it hout! This wye!" As he took the rifle from number five, the sergeant major's face seemed to be transformed into a living embodiment of envenomed hate, his attack, thrust, recovery, gathering in intensity until with unimaginable fury he leaped upon the prostrate figure, drove his bayonet through to the hilt, stamped his hobnails upon the transfixed enemy, jerked his weapon out, and stood quivering, ready for any foe that dared to approach. The savage ferocity of his face, the fierce energy in his every movement, culminating in that last vicious leap and stamp, altogether constituted such a dramatic and realistic representation of actual fighting that the whole line burst into a very unsoldierly but very hearty applause, which, however, the sergeant major immediately and sternly checked.
"What do you think of that?" enquired the major. "Isn't he a scream?"
"He is perfectly magnificent," said Barry, "and, after all, he is right in his psychology. There is no possibility of training men to fight, without putting the 'aight into it!'"