Our creeping barrage was so effective that we ourselves could not see the next trench until we were close upon it. When not more than fifty yards from it I saw four pairs of eyes, two pair of them behind iron-rimmed spectacles, glaring at me out of dirty, unshaven faces under coal-scuttle helmets. There was such a tremendous roaring and swishing of shells and crackling of bullets all about that I could hear nothing distinctly. I could only see. The four rifles were pointed at me. Suddenly I felt an immense blow in the left breast, like a ten-inch spike being driven into me by a sledge-hammer, and I toppled over into a shell-hole.
As my breathing was practically cut off, the pain was intense, and I took it for granted that I had received the long-expected knock-out. The stretcher-bearer who presently dressed my wound was of the same opinion, and asked me if I had any messages to send home. I had none, of course. I had soldiered long enough to foresee the likelihood of this and had made my arrangements before the attack. The stretcher-bearer left me propped in a shell-hole with a water-bottle beside me. As I was ostensibly a dying man, I was no longer of use, and he had other, more valuable work to do. In leaving me, he was obeying the orders we have given before the attack –to give first attention to the lightly wounded who could continue fighting. But the prospect of dying in loneliness was bitter. It was the one thing which I had ever dreaded above all others, and now it seemed as if, by one of Fate’s ironies, it was to be my lot. It was an agony to lose the rough hand of the stretcher-bearer, an agony which made me understand Nelson’s “Kiss me, Hardy.” It was not Hardy that they dying sailor yearned to embrace, but the spirit of man and all human friendliness.
A heavy dose of morphia, taken to end the pain in any way, at last had partial effect. Breathing became easier and strength slowly flowed back. I was even able to send to headquarters, by a passing walking wounded man, a message that the company had lost all its officers and most of its men, and that the need for reinforcements was imperative. The message was received and acted upon, though I did not know of this at the time as I was not found.
I fought to keep consciousness all afternoon, fearing lest otherwise I might be discovered but abandoned as dead, or that the Germans might break through and that I might be taken prisoner. I had no desire to be taken prisoner in that condition. So long as I was conscious and had my revolver I was safe. All the time strength was returning to me and with it a very fierce desire to live.
The afternoon darkened into evening and the stars came out, but still nobody found me. My voice was too weak to attract the attention of passerby. An attempt to rise showed me that I was yet too feeble, and the movement started again the racked in my side. Once more I had to compose myself to lie and wait. Through all the hours of the night, as I lay there listening to the distant thundering of the guns, strength must have been gradually returning, though I did not realize it at the time. I only knew that I was becoming more and more determined to put up a desperate fight for life.
How it Feels to be Shelled
About an hour before dawn, when I had been laying out for some fourteen hours, there came a sudden burst of shelling in my neighborhood. The enemy was probably putting a barrage behind our new line to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. I could see the flame flashes of bursting shells to right and left of me. Still I dared no move. I seemed safer in my shell-hole than I could have been anywhere else nearby, and with my smashed side it seemed certain that I could not get far. The shells crumped around me and threw dirt over me, but the shell-splinters buzzed and sang overhead. I seemed fairly safe. Then the shells began to burst closer and closer to where I lay. Soon it was apparent that unless I could get out of the line of the barrage, I should be blown to pieces. Another attempt to rise proved ineffectual. I bean to lighten myself by loosening my equipment. Just as, after much weak fumbling, I slipped the straps off my shoulders, there was a blinding flash to the right of me and I received a heavy blow in the centre of my face, splitting it from forehead to chin. The blow felt like a knock-out in a boxing contest. But it wasn’t a knock-out. I was dazed but still conscious. My right eye was temporarily blinded. From the amount of flesh hanging loose on my cheek, I thought that the eye was out. My nose was broken and the end was practically torn off and hanging loose. My mouth was split in two.
“What a hideous sight,” I can remember thinking. “If I pull through I shall have to live by myself. Still, I have one good lung and one good eye, and I shall be able to read and write. I can give people some little pictures of war that are true and that may help a little to make this filthy business impossible in the future. It’s a life worth making a try for.”
Once on my feet, I soon staggered out of the line of the barrage. It was not easy to walk, but sheer desire of life, the most powerful of all passions, was impelling me to a fierce effort. There were difficulties enough ahead of me. I was not even sure of the way to the dressing station. I had been lying so long by myself and my mind was so confused with shock that I was very hazy as to direction and knew that unless careful I might stray through some gap into the German lines. The whole horizon was brilliant with gun-flashes and with the sweeping, intersecting parabolas of flare-lights. That way, I knew, lay our guns, and I headed for them.
I stumbled along, over shell-holes, ditches, deserted trenches and dead bodies, my one eye watching the gun-flashes. With my left hand I tried to cover the hole in my chest, from which the wind soughed at every step. My right hand held a revolver. I might run into a stray German, or I might be smashed up again by a shell, and I had no mind to endure more of that.
At last, after nearly an hour’s wandering in the dark, with occasional short rests –I dared not allow myself to rest long –I came on a small group of men, evidently from the supports, who were engaged in burying the dead. One of these lads gave me his arm and helped me down to the dressing-station. Arrived there I was immediately placed on a stretcher and sent down to seven months of hospital. It was five months before I was able to stand on my feet again.
In hospital I found that luck once more had been very much with me. My eye, though damaged, was still in my head and was gradually to come back nearly to normal. The surgeons made a remarkably good job of the face, and in marvellous fashion brought me through the various complications consequent on the wound in the chest.
It is an interesting coincidence that the bullet which hit me in the chest passed through a pocket containing a sprig of white heather (the Scottish token of good luck). The white heather was the last thing I had received by mail the night before the attack. I had given a piece of it to each of the officers in my company. All of them were hit (all but myself before reaching the German first line trench) and not one was killed. Another interesting coincidence is that the bullet, which struck to the left of the heart, and which if it had gone straight through would have killed instantly, was deflected by striking a head object in my pocket, so that it travelled downwards, making a great hole in the side and breaking down the lung-wall, but sparing the heart. The heavy object which deflected the bullet downwards was a thick silver pencil which was found later in my pocket, bent, but not shattered. The pencil had been sent to me on my previous birthday by one of my best friends.
Perhaps I have described this last day’s happenings at too great a length for my readers’ patience, but it is a story in which the quondam book-worm takes some satisfaction. In spite of the months of pain that followed, in spite of the fact that even now, nearly two years later, I cannot do half the things in which I formerly found delight, I am thankful for my experience, and glad of it. The war has brought to me, as it has brought to hundreds of thousands of others, an increase in self-respect. The scars which we shall carry are badges of hard service rendered to an ideal –the ideal of a finer life for all mankind. Moreover, for my part, I am happy that I can boast at least one small adventure.
[Major Peregrine Acland is a typical Briton. He has discovered, he believes, that “literature is less interesting than life,” and he talks of “accomplishing nothing” but “a few short stories and some trifles of verse.”
I have written to him begging him to give the readers of Pearson’s the opportunity of judging his short stories for themselves. He has sent me two poems which I am delighted to print here. I am not a poet and perhaps have no right to speak; but this much I will say: if there is any war-poem to beat this “Reveille of Romance” I have not been lucky enough to meet it: the last verse is simply superb.
Major Acland’s war-experiences, too, are splendidly vivid and I am sure all my readers look forward as I do to some more of his enthralling war-pictures which may help to make “the filthy business impossible in the future.”
Great work, Major, this literature; the greatest a man can do and you do it greatly. –Editor Pearson’s.]
There follows two poems already on this site elsewhere: first the 1917 version of The Reveille of Romance, followed by The Voice of Ypres.