Edgar Wallace’s humorous tales of British Army life
Most readers are familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, and the delightful and enduring tales of Queen Victoria’s ‘hard bargains’ have come to epitomise the character of the British soldier at the time of empire and the Raj in India. Edgar Wallace, who is also famous for his own stories of colonial life—the Sanders stories—was principally a writer of crime and detective fiction. However, he was well aware that the irrepressible spirit of Kipling’s famous rankers would live on, and he wrote his own tales of ordinary British soldiers. Set at a later—and, when first published, contemporary—time, and on a different stage, this substantial collection of the Smithy stories finds our incorrigible hero and his scurrilous band of confederates malingering, scheming and conniving their way through life in the British Army during the First World War. The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 is, of course, an ideal occasion for Leonaur to republish these wonderful stories for today’s readers to discover and enjoy.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
“We’d expected to have a fairly busy night owin’ to Commandant Viljoen bein’ in the neighbourhood, and at eight o’clock that night a telephone message came through from headquarters to say that Viljoen had been turned northward by Henniker’s Column, and we settled down for a quiet night.
“I’d just dozed off, when I woke suddenly to feel Nobby pressin’ my hand. (Learnt by the British soldier in South Africa is this effective method of waking a man, press the hand and increase the pressure, and the sleeper will awake noiselessly.)
“‘What’s up?’ I whispered.
“‘Listen!’ he murmured.
“I strained my ears an’ then I heard click-clock—click-clock very faintly.
“‘Firin’,’ sez Nobby, under his breath; ‘an’ the question is: What in——is Pikey doin’ not to give the alarm.’
“I was reachin’ out my hand to touch the sergeant when Nobby caught it.
“‘For God’s sake, wait,’ he whispers, ‘there’s only two things that Pikey can be; dead’s one, an’ asleep’s the other. Get outside as quietly as you can.’
“As silent as I could, I picked up my rifle an’ bandolier, an’ got outside. Nobby was with me in a second.
“There was no sign of Pikey, but there was a sign of somethin’ else, for not two hundred yards away you could see a lot of shadders movin’ across the veldt.
There was no noise, for they were keepin’ to the soft bed of a little dried-up river.
“‘Pikey first,’ sez Nobby, an’ walked round to the other side of the blockhouse.
“There we found Pikey—Pikey the Jonah. On the flat of his back he lay a-sleepin’ as calm an’ as comfortable as if it was Sunday mornin’ at home.
“‘Get up, you worm!’ hissed Nobby, an’ Pikey opened his eyes an’ said, “Merry Christmas.”
“I couldn’t see quite plain, because we only had starlight, but I fancy he opened his eyes, an’ then grunted an’ turned over an’ went to sleep.
“Nobby took a kick at him that woke him up with a yell, an’ just at that minute I raised my rifle an’ fired at the shadows on the veldt.
“‘Guard, turn out!’ I shouted, an’ I heard a scramble inside the blockhouse.
“Nobby an’ I let fly together an’ dropped down to cover, for the Boers are pretty nippy when it comes to that sort of thing. All through that Christmas night we lay tucked up against the sandbag entrenchment, firin’ till the barrels of our rifles was scorchin’ hot. The telephone wire had been cut, so we could get no news from headquarters.
“There was another blockhouse a mile an’ a half away, an’ firin’ was goin’ on there—it was their fire that Nobby had heard. I heard the sergeant say, ‘It’s Viljoen doublin’ back,’ an’ I knew how serious it was, for we’d been warned an’ threatened as to what would happen to us if we allowed Viljoen to get across the lines.
“‘What I want to know,’ sez the sergeant, between the firin’, ‘is how these chaps got so close to us without the sentry givin’ an alarm.’
“‘It’s a dark night, sergeant,’ sez Nobby.
“‘Dark be damped,’ sez the sergeant; ‘all night’s are dark, ain’t they?’
“There wasn’t much talk after this.
“The Boer Intelligence Department ought to have gold medals, for what they didn’t know wasn’t worth knowin’. They knew that ‘49’ was weakly held, an’ they turned all their fire on to us. If they could smash us up they could get across the line with their convoy, an’ their fire was terrific.
“A chap of ours named Moley was the first to go down; shot through the lung, he went down all of a heap at my side. Then the sergeant was killed, an’ fell without a word.
“Nobby closed up and took poor Moley’s place.
“‘If ever I get out of this,’ he sez, ‘I’ll make Jonah sorry he ever gave up the whale business.’
“Corporal Thom was the next to go—he was lookin’ over the trench with his night glasses an’ Nobby pulled him down. He was a well-educated sort of youngster, an’ he hadn’t much experience.
“He shook Nobby off, an’ rose again. He leant over the sandbags for a long time without movin’, till Nobby said:
“‘Corporal, come down out of that, for the Lord’s sake,’ and gave him a tug.
“Then he came down all of a heap, for he was stone dead, an’ must have been shot the moment he went up.
“All the chaps were takin’ the fire quite coolly; Spud Murphy was singin’ a little Irish song to himself— his Irish blood always came out at times like this—an’ Pug Wilson was sayin’ what a good job it was it wasn’t rainin’.
“Only Pikey lost his head. He was whimpering and moanin’.
“‘I can’t stand this much longer,’ he sez.
“The bullets were patterin’ against the blockhouse like hail.
“All this time we’d been holdin’ the trench outside the blockhouse, but the fire got so hot that the other corporal, Higgs, ordered us to take shelter inside, an’ we crept inside one by one so that our fire shouldn’t die down.
“We’d hardly got inside before the Boers got a seven-pounder into action.
“The first shell went shriekin’ overhead, an’ the second went wide.
“But the third hit the roof an’ carried part of it away.
“The fourth killed the corporal an’ we was reduced to six men—reckonin’ Pikey.
“Then I think Pikey must have gone off his head.
“‘I’m a Jonah, a cursed Jonah!’ he yelled, an’ sprang from the little manhole where we’d crawled in.
“Before we could stop him he was through.
“Through the loopholes we saw him scramble down into the trench an’ up on the other side, an’ he stood there hesitating for a bit, as though he couldn’t make up his mind what he was goin’ to do.
“Then a most wonderful thing happened. For as he stood with not a bullet touching him, a dazzling white light fell on him, just as though he was on a stage an’ a limelight had suddenly been turned on. Clear an’ as plain as daylight he stood, for friend an’ foe to look at.
“He realised his danger in a second, an’ tried to run out of the circle of light, but it follered him an’ follered him all along the edge of the bank as he stumbled an’ ran.
“Then he stopped suddenly and faced the light, covering his eyes with his hands.
“That’s how poor old Jonah Pikey died, an’ that’s how we found him when the armoured train came up to us.
“It was the searchlight from the train that was the death of Pikey.
“The light was intended to show us where to fire, an’ to dazzle the enemy, an’ it only shows how Pikey’s bad luck held out to the last.”