A poet's war in the mud of the First World War in Europe. After the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Irishman Patrick MacGill enlisted in a territorial army unit the 2nd London Irish Battalion as a rifleman. His claim at the time was that he and its colonel were the only true Irishmen serving in it. MacGill, already a well regarded author and poet, would record his experiences from training to his unit's embarkation to France and then onwards to his early experiences of trench warfare and finally to the time of the great attacks which included the battle of Loos and in which he was seriously wounded. During the course of the war-which he survived-MacGill wrote several books on the subject, but three-The Amateur Army, The Red Horizon and The Great Push, directly concern his time with the London Irish and it is these books that have here been combined-in their entirety-by the Leonaur Editors to create this single comprehensive volume of his life as an ordinary rifleman in the front line. MacGill employs his talent to great effect in this volume so the reader is not only taken into the heart of the war through his sensitivity to the description of events, emotions, sights and details but also because of his ability to convey realistic dialogue that portrays the various types of the army in the trenches authentically and often with great affection and humour.
“Do any of you fellows know Marie Redoubt?” an officer asked at that moment.
“I know the place,” said Mervin, “it’s just behind the Keep.”
“Will you lead me to the place?” said the officer.
“Right,” said Mervin, and the two men went off.
They had just gone when a shell hit the building on my left barely three yards away from my head. The explosion almost deafened me, a pain shot through my ears and eyes, and a shower of fine lime and crumpled bricks whizzed by my face. My first thought was, “Why did I not put my hands over my eyes, I might have been struck blind.” I had a clear view of the scene in front, my mates were rushing hither and thither in a shower of white flying lime; I could see dark forms falling, clambering to their feet and falling again. One figure detached itself from the rest and came rushing towards me, by my side it tripped and fell, then rose again. I could now see it was Stoner. He put his hands up as if in protest, looked at me vacantly, and rushed round the corner of the building. I followed him and found him once more on the ground.
“Much hurt?” I asked, touching him on the shoulder.
“Yes,” he muttered, rising slowly, “I got it there,” he raised a finger to his face which was bleeding, “and there,” he put his hand across his chest.
“Well, get into the dug-out,” I said, and we hurried round the front of the building. A pile of fallen masonry lay there and half a dozen rifles, all the men were gone. We found them in the dug-out, a hole under the floor heavily beamed, and strong enough to withstand a fair sized shell. One or two were unconscious and all were bleeding more or less severely. I found I was the only person who was not struck. Goliath and Bill got little particles of grit in the face, and they looked black as chimney sweeps. Bill was cut across the hand, Kore’s arm was bleeding.
“He had just gone out,” I said, “I was speaking to him, he went with Lieut. —— to Marie Redoubt.”
I suddenly recollected that I should not have left my place outside, so I went into my niche again. Had Mervin got clear, I wondered? The courtyard was deserted, and it was rapidly growing darker, a drizzle had begun, and the wet ran down my rifle.
“Any word of Mervin?” I called to Stoner when he came out from the dug-out, and moved cautiously across the yard. There was a certain unsteadiness in his gait, but he was regaining his nerve; he had really been more surprised than hurt. He disappeared without answering my question, probably he had not heard me.
“Stretcher-bearers at the double.”
The cry, that call of broken life which I have so often heard, faltered across the yard. From somewhere two men rushed out carrying a stretcher, and hurried off in the direction taken by Stoner. Who had been struck? Somebody had been wounded, maybe killed! Was it Mervin?
Stoner came round the corner, a sad look in his brown eyes.
“Mervin’s copped it,” he said, “in the head. It must have been that shell that done it; a splinter, perhaps.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s gone away on the stretcher unconscious. The officer has been wounded as well in the leg, the neck, and the face.”
“No, he’s able to speak.”
Fifteen minutes later I saw Mervin again. He was lying on the stretcher and the bearers were just going off to the dressing station with it. He was breathing heavily, round his head was a white bandage, and his hands stretched out stiffly by his sides. He was borne into the trench and carried round the first traverse. I never saw him again; he died two days later without regaining consciousness.
A heavy rifle fire was opened by the Germans and the bullets snapped viciously at our sandbags. Such little things bullets seemed in the midst of all the pandemonium! But bigger stuff was coming. Twenty yards away a shell dropped on a dug-out and sandbags and occutrousers whirled up in mid-air. The call for stretcher-bearers came to my bay, and I rushed round the traverse towards the spot where help was required accompanied by two others. A shrapnel shell burst overhead and the man in front of me fell. I bent to lift him, but he stumbled to his feet. The concussion had knocked him down; he was little the worse for his accident, but he felt a bit shaken. The other stretcher-bearer was bleeding at the cheek and temple, and I took him back to a sound dug-out and dressed his wound. He was in great pain, but very brave, and when another stricken boy came in he set about dressing him. I went outside into the trench. A perfect hurricane of shells was coming across, concussion shells that whirled the sandbags broadcast and shrapnel that burst high in air and shot their freight to earth with resistless precipitancy; bombs whirled in air and burst when they found earth with an ear-splitting clatter. “Out in the open!” I muttered and tried not to think too clearly, of what would happen when we got out there.
It was now grey day, hazy and moist, and the thick clouds of pale yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from the scene of war. The word was passed along. “London Irish lead on to assembly trench.” The assembly trench was in front, and there the scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death, as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands, and at a little distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard.
The company were soon out in the open marching forward. The enemy’s guns were busy, and the rifle and maxim bullets ripped the sandbags. The infantry fire was wild but of slight intensity. The enemy could not see the attacking party. But, judging by the row, it was hard to think that men could weather the leaden storm in the open.
The big guns were not so vehement now, our artillery had no doubt played havoc with the hostile batteries. . . . I went to the foot of a ladder and got hold of a rung. A soldier in front was clambering across. Suddenly he dropped backwards and bore me to the ground; the bullet caught him in the forehead. I got to my feet to find a stranger in grey uniform coming down the ladder. He reached the floor of the trench, put up his hands when I looked at him and cried in a weak, imploring voice, “Kamerad! Kamerad !”
“A German!” I said to my mate.
“H’m! h’m!” he answered.
I flung my stretcher over the parapet, and, followed by my comrade stretcher-bearer, I clambered up the ladder and went over the top.