A Batman at Large
BEING a pacifist did not mean to me sitting apart and hooting like an owl in a tree. I was a human being, and nothing that was human was alien. The war came. We in the United States were not likely to be involved, yet over there were millions of men slaughtering each other in ignorance and hate. An inner voice called me to the conflict — not as a fighter, but as a friend.
After seriously thinking it over, I was convinced that my place was with my tribe. I went into the woods and dedicated myself to service, saying nothing to anybody about my plans. Only men of influence or money could get over there. I had neither. I had my belief in God. If I were needed, I should be called; and, if called, the means to get there would be forthcoming. It would be difficult to find or conceive of a man better fitted by experience to be helpful in such a cataclysm. I was as familiar with poverty, ignorance, hardship, and suffering as with my face in a glass.
Twenty months passed. About the first of May, 1916, I received a letter dated November 1915. It was from a Quaker in York, England, a man I had never seen, never heard of. He had read my books, knew something of my history, and ‘the voice within’ had told him to call me. The letter had been going the rounds of my London and New York publishers and various residences for six months.
This, then, was the call. I cabled at once that I would proceed to England as soon as the school in which I was teaching broke up in June. I arrived in Liverpool on July 1,— the day of the catastrophe on the Somme, — and proceeded to London.
When I met the man who had called me, in York, and asked him what I was to do, he said he didn’t know. His inner ‘leading’ had been summed up in the call. I was new on the ground and must find my work. Very quickly I found out — and very definitely — what I was there for. In the two years of the war the United States had made billions out of the Allies. Wilson s ’ too proud to fight’ remark was sneered at. We were said to be ‘capitalizing the blood and tears of Europe. There was a distinctly hostile feeling everywhere. ’I have found my work,’I said to my friend the Quaker. ‘ I am the self-appointed representative of the American working class to the working class of the British Isles.’
‘If thee will speak for thy Maker, he replied, ‘thee will represent all classes.'
I began with the big factories and shops, going there at the noon hour. I made no apologies and offered no criticisms. I represented myself as a disinterested American who had deprived himself of many ordinary comforts in order to get money enough to come over and help. When I told them the story of my life they knew that I belonged to them. My job was, first of all, to give hope and courage; then to inform them that we were not all moneygrubbers; and boldly I capped every climax with the suggestion, well driven in, that America could n’t possibly keep out of the war.
My talks to the men were reported to the police and to the general commanding the district. Knowing this would be done, I spoke not merely to the men in front of me but to ‘ the powers that be’ behind them.
My speeches were considered valuable for industrial morale. At the end of the first week I was invited to visit military camps, factories, and churches, under the auspices of the Y. M. C. A. I went to London to confer with ‘Y’ leaders. Fearing an orthodoxy with which I had no sympathy, I proposed to give six addresses around London to soldiers and in them to incorporate the substance of my message. This was agreed to, with the result that I was sent to the great camps of the British Isles.
America entered the war. I wrote a score of letters offering my services, but not a word came back in reply. I worked and waited.
A catastrophe on the western front brought me into active service with a suddenness that took my breath away. The long bread lines, sugar queues, meat tickets, hunger, and the Zeppelin raids were all making inroads into the morale of the civil population. The trouble seeped through in letters to the soldiers and affected the fighting men to such an extent that military leaders feared a debacle on the front line. A general was sent from Haig’s headquarters to London with an S 0 S. Something had to be done, and done at once. The Cabinet met. Lord Rhondda was Food Commissioner, and Lloyd George put it up to him. He could n’t sink the German U-boats. He could n’t call down manna from Heaven. A wire summoned me to the Food Commissioner’s office.
‘A serious condition has arisen on the western fronts,’ Lord Rhondda said to me. ‘The morale is in danger of breaking, owing to our shortness of food at home. We have decided to send to France six of the best speakers in England, and you have been recommended to me to head the list. Will you go?’
‘The British Government will be under great obligations to you — I understand you are an American.’
I had an interview with a general from the staff of the Field Marshal, and when I came out into the murky streets of London the first thought that came to my mind was my dear old father’s ‘God’s a gintleman!’
‘Let them ask questions,’ said Lord Rhondda to me as I left him. ‘If you can’t answer them, I will. Just wire me.’
That sounded all right hi Whitehall, but in Ypres, when I invited questions, the first one hurled at me was: —
‘Isn’t Lord Rhondda a b—y profiteer? ’
I dodged that, but I could n’t dodge them all, and few of them bore any relation to my lecture.
A few days before the great German offensive on the Somme, I was ordered to Ham. Half a million men were camped there. The nearest point to the German lines was Clastres, identified by a sign which read, ‘This used to be Clastres.’ The British soldiers had made a garden of the place. Flowers and vegetables were beginning to peep above the ground; vines had been trained, and rustic trelliswork, rocks, and scrap iron had been piled together and in a few weeks would be covered with Virginia creepers and climbing roses. The seeds and plants had come from England. Care and labor bestowed on these little plots gave a look of permanence to the place. The Somme trickled lazily through some of the gardens, and the stumps of shellshocked trees lined the banks. Before I addressed the men I was asked to address one hundred officers. As 1 went out in front of them in a hut and they had a look at me as a Y man, they almost laughed. I knew they were disappointed.
‘I thoroughly appreciate the feeling I see spread out on your faces, gentlemen,’ I began, ‘but in self-defense I may say that I neither started this war nor invented the uniform I wear, and I am convinced that the man or men responsible for either or both should be shot at dawn without the formality of a court-martial.’ I was facetious to prepare the ground; then I exerted myself and succeeded in winning them over completely.
The Y headquarters in Ham was a ramshackle building which it was impossible to keep warm. There gathered around the dining-room table three times a day a strange aggregation of camp followers, yeast stirrers, morale raisers, and others. I noticed among them a very small pale man who seemed to be suffering. I asked one of the assistants who he was. ‘He is Sir Harry Johnston,’ he said, ‘and I wish to God he’d go home. He’s a good deal of a nuisance.’
‘Sir Harry Johnston?’
‘My dear man, he may be feeble now, but do you know that he added a million square miles to the British Empire? That he is a scientist, an author, an explorer, and a great governor of colonies?’
No, he did n’t know, and he did n’t care.
I found out that. Sir Harry had become a nuisance by asking for wood for the stove in his room and sometimes for a little hot water. That night I went scrounging for firewood. Next morning very early I lit the fire in his room, greased his top-boots, got him shaving water and a mug of tea. I did it all stealthily, noiselessly. When aJl was ready I pulled the front of my steel helmet down over my brow and awoke him.
‘What — what!’ he said as he looked around.
‘Your shaving water is on the stove, sir; your boots are greased; and I thought you would like a mug of hot tea.’
‘Who are you?’ he asked. ’I must be dreaming.’
‘Oh, I’m just a batman at large, sir.
I have to move around a good deal, but as long as I am here I shall attend to your fire and make you comfortable.’ And I walked quickly out of the place.
The night before the great debacle I was scheduled to address officers in the old Ham Opera House. I had talked to ten thousand men during the day and I was far spent physically, but the sight of two thousand officers of all ranks inspired and strengthened me. Somehow in the midst of that address coming events cast their shadow on my soul and I talked as I had never talked before. Thoughts and words new and strange and perhaps somewhat weird came to me, and instead of the ordinary mixture of humor and pathos and vision it was all vision, and spiritual in the highest degree. I can recall only the closing words, because a colonel asked me later to write them in his diary: —
‘We are not puppets in an Olympian show, playing for the amusement of the gods. We are not victims of a blind farce — consciously or unconsciously. We are hammering out on a mighty anvil the birth certificate of a new world. I salute you, sons of Vulcan, sons of God, as you go out to the forge!
And raze you jutting cape;
A world is on your anvil —
Now smite it into shape.’
Next morning the dance of death began. All lecturers, amusers, and instructors were ordered home — to England. I was the only exception. The Germans opened fire on a fiftymile front. The earth shook and trembled. Many camp followers seemed to go crazy. There was a rumor that we were surrounded, hemmed in. I went out, invented a counter-rumor, came back laughing and spread it. I laughed the fear out of every man’s soul around me except one — a Presbyterian minister, who had an idea that God was laughing at us.
‘ What makes you think so?’
’The Bible says He shall mock at our calamities and laugh when our fear cometh.’
‘Don’t worry, brother.’ I said, ‘God may smile at our stupidity, — I don’t see how He could help it, — but He is too much of a gentleman to laugh at calamity! ’
Lorries came for the others to take them to the coast, and I was driven in an army car to the 50th Division at Haroomers. For twenty miles along the route the British cavalry stood in readiness — the men at the horses’ heads, bridles in hand. Lances gleamed in the sunlight, horses pawed the ground restlessly, but there was no noise—not a sound; not a word of command broke the stillness. A sense of power seemed to charge the very air. The Artillery Reserve was in the sunken roads; overhead British planes kept off the eyes of the enemy.
The 50th Division was entraining for the front when I arrived. I returned to Ham. On the way we met miles and miles of ambulances carrying back the broken bodies that were the morning’s toll of German gunnery. Chaos reigned at Ham. The Germans could have reduced it to ashes, but they needed it as a base, probably, and spared it. But the British could not hold it. In one single day they had been pushed back thirty kilometres.
I selected my own work and at Ham railroad station attended all night to the ‘walking wounded’ — that is, men whose wounds permitted them to walk back from the fight and leave the casualty clearing stations for the more seriously wounded. They straggled in all through the night, fingers gone, heads, arms, and bodies swathed — temporary dressings they had had near the line. We gave them refreshments and cigarettes, piled them into lorries, twenty at a time, and sent them back.
Next day I helped to entrain the civilian population. The town was to be totally evacuated. The last person to be entrained was an old woman who limped along with a few worldly possessions in a bed sheet. I picked her up in my arms and carried her into a compartment. Then I gathered her bundle and put it by her side. She put both her long lean arms around my neck and, kissing me on both cheeks, sighed, ‘Ah, M’sieur Tommy!’
One phase of the aftermath was the thousands of men who became separated from their regiments and battalions. Hearing that there were thousands of such men at a railhead called Abancourt, I asked to be sent there. The Y man did n’t know me, and said the men did n’t want meetings. I had to ignore him, but I tried to do it kindly and diplomatically. I had signs painted and hung around announcing that at a certain hour there would be a one-man show. Two thousand turned up. 1 gave my programme, lengthening the humor, shortening the serious appeal. At the second meeting I had seven thousand.
In that region there were about twenty thousand men. Coming back from the camps one night, I was groping my way along the railway tracks when I heard voices. I listened. They were Irish voices, but there were so many freight cars that I could n’t, in t he darkness, discover where they were.
‘Who are ye?’ yelled a voice in answer to my call.
‘It’s mesilf,’ I said, ‘and I’m looking for a fast train to the hills of Donegal!*
‘This is it; come over here an’ let’s look at ye, an’ don’t stand there foolin’ us. Shure we have n’t had a bite to ate since th’ battle of Waterloo!’
They had shunted in there in the darkness and had n’t the slightest idea where they were. I piloted the fifty of them to the nearest Y, where they had something to eat and stocked up on tobacco.
In the British Army morale-raising was a hit-or-miss sort of thing. It was of more importance than guns, but nobody in the High Command had any idea of its value. Most of the officers with whom I talked about the psychology of war seemed to think that the best use the Army could make of psychology was in dealing with cases of shell shock. I was not in a position to advise the British Army; I could only demonstrate and muddle through like the rest when the theory did n’t work.
I was sent out to the 18th Division on the Somme just as the men came out of the front line for a two weeks’ rest. The general was on furlough, and a brilliant young colonel was in command. There was a deadlock in the minds of the soldiers. They had been fighting until war had become the natural thing. They were‘fed up.’ It was my job to break that deadlock. A new method, a new dynamic, was necessary. I was equipped by military experience, and I talked to them as an older comrade; I wore two bits of ribbon on my coat which reminded them that I was one of those old-timers who had served in the Gordon Expedition. I had a keen sense of humor, and an array of facts that amazed them. When they had laughed with me for half an hour they were mine.
War arouses all the fear instincts. All men have fear, in varying degrees. I analyzed fear so that every man could distinguish it from its results. I told a story about the Duke of Wellington. An artist who was painting his portrait said, ‘My lord, I should like to see the look you had on your face at Quatre Bras.’ ‘Oh,’ said the Duke, ‘if you want me as I was that morning, paint me crawling on my belly in a ditch.’
Every branch of the division received the best I had, and every man in that division became my friend. I gave talks on literature. I outlined an educational scheme and helped to choose an educational director. I went to Dieppe and selected two thousand volumes for a divisional library. The division was covered in a week, and it was a complete job in morale-raising. I was on my feet talking an average of seven hours a day. When the car taking me to Mers for a day’s rest drew up at the door of the inn the driver found me crumpled up in a heap in the back seat. I was carried in and put to bed. Two days later I was on my nay to another appointment.
General Jackson, commanding the 50th Division, had heard of me in the War Office, and made a special request that I be sent to his division in the Dieppe area. There I did for the 50th Division what I had done for the 18th.
The Honorable Artillery Company has a regimental history that runs back to the middle of the twelfth century. It was a distinguished unit during the war, and went through it without having a court-martial — a very remarkable tribute to discipline and spirit. The commanding officer in introducing me said I was ‘ the funniest man in France’ — a statement he amplified by telling two of my best stories. Such an introduction, of course, is fatal to humor. It would have paralyzed a Mark Twain.
My task was one of the most difficult I had ever known. I politely disclaimed all credit for the reputation the commandant had given me. ‘It is with the Irish, gentlemen, in the matter of humor, as it is with the English in the matter of war — we just blunder into it and blunder out again. The things you English would consider funny are to me very serious — in fact, our stupidity is often looked upon as humorous. When I became a writer I joined a literary club in New York. I used to see men play a game called poker— I am sure nobody here ever heard of the game. It’s peculiarly an American institution. Well, I had never played cards, but when I saw men get such a barrel of fun out of “penny ante” I thought I should like to learn. So I was told the value of certain card combinations— and here let me explain some of these.’ A roar of laughter greeted this assumption of innocence — a nest of inveterate poker players were sitting right in front of me. ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘I got a hand, and one of the five cards seemed worthless, so I asked for another. Two of the four players were satisfied with what they got at first. So the chips began to pile up. I seemed to hold on — in fact, they all gave in. The last man to succumb asked me what I had. Not being as familiar as are old-timers with the names of the cards, I said: “I have four ones! ” ’
This set the place in a roar. My face was as devoid of a smile as a wooden Indian’s.
‘Well, would you believe it,’ I continued, when they had quieted down, ‘that man who made me show what I had seemed annoyed, and he said, “What the hell did you want — five?” Of course those “ones” were aces, I may explain.’
Three or four stories set me right, and I gave my lecture. When I finished, the commandant arose amid wild cheering and said: ‘I think you will all agree with me that this is an occasion for H. A. C. fire.’ The officers rose to their feet instantly and, moving their right hands from side to side as if they held bombs, made a fizzing sound as they did so. After nine moves they gave a wild yell. This peculiar salutation, I was told, is very rarely given. To me it was of small concern that it was given. That it was evoked was important.
I was ordered to visit the Field Marshal’s headquarters and address his staff officers — a small army in themselves. Going to Montreuil was like going to Tibet. It was supposed to be a great privilege and something of an honor. To those in line for honors and privileges I presume it was; but I was not in line.
I addressed the staff in two groups — one at 6 and the other at 9 P.M. I was told to talk to them as if they were all Tommies. What I should have liked to do was to repeat an address I once gave to the officers of a division, when I said: ’ Gentlemen, I am Tommy Atkins. I died on the Somme in 1916. I have come back from the dead for an hour to tell you what I think of you.’ Which I proceeded to do.
During the first fifteen minutes here at Haig’s headquarters the atmosphere was cold. The officers sat like gravestones coldly examining this new specimen. A very profane thought fluttered through my brain. Its expression would have produced shell shock. So I began to tell some stories not on the programme.
‘An Australian sheep farmer bumped into a staff officer on the Strand. The digger apologized as any sheep farmer would. “Why don’t you salute me?” asked the irritated officer. “Kid,” said the Australian, “I’m not here for physical exercise!” '
This story gave some facial latitude, a rehearsal for a smile. The next one made them laugh, and when they were thawed out I went on with my talk; at the close they applauded generously. But there was as much chance of getting a new idea adopted, especially a psychological idea, as there would be of passing a prohibition bill in the House of Commons. At the second meeting I jollied them, and when they were slow to catch a joke I would say, ‘Never mind that one, gentlemen — I have another!’ When f got away from that stifling atmosphere of pomp, red tape, bowing and scraping, and fear, I had an idea that I should like to get drunk or do something ridiculous — just for a change.
I was called to Flexicourt to address a large gathering of officers of the Fourth Army Corps, commanded by Sir Henry Rawlinson. The meeting was in a large marquee tent, and I was ten minutes late. Half a dozen generals stood outside the side entrance. I walked briskly from the car and, saluting them, announced myself with an apology for my lateness, clue to a faulty tire.
‘Well, sir,’the senior general said, ‘you come to us with a wonderful reputation — can you live up to it?’ His tone and look seemed half in fun yet very much in earnest. I could n’t sit down and think it over, so I just blurted out what came to me: —
‘No, sir, I can’t; but I can blunder along like the rest, of you!’
There was a moment’s silence, during which I again saluted and passed into the tent. The generals followed me, and as they took the seats reserved for them they were still laughing.
At that meeting my humor failed. Before I had been speaking five minutes I became possessed of a sense of sadness. The audience was mentally restless and so affected me that I abandoned my usual appeal and spoke of the immortality of the soul and the glory of adding something to the tradition of the race. Where had my reputation gone? What would the generals think of such an address?
‘Just the thing we all needed,’ said one of the generals, and the others concurred. I understood it all when, in Sir Henry Rawlinson’s room half an hour later, he told me that his army was going into action at four in the morning. When I told him how I felt at the meeting and how I was unconsciously led from the beaten track, he said I had just addressed men who in twelve hours would be in their graves. ‘You did n’t know; they did n’t, either; but both of you got it by intuition.’ I was kept addressing various units until midnight — the Royal Canadian Dragoons, French mortar men, Strathcona Horse, and machine-gun units. Then at the window of my billet on the main street I sat and watched the long procession of guns and men pass along to be swallowed up in the mouth of hell. They were singing now, — singing the old songs with the old gusto, — but at dawn thousands of them would be leaving a vacant place in the heart of the world.
At four the guns belched forth their lava of death. At seven I was in the general’s map room listening to the record of the three hours’ slaughter. At eight I was off again to the reserves — more mind-sweeping, more speeches to crowds within the range of the guns. Then suddenly, as I addressed a battalion, my voice ceased. I was talking, but there was no sound. I realized the situation instantly and indicated to the commander that I was ‘all in.’ For a moment the men laughed, but when they saw tears streaming down my cheeks they broke into cheers, and I could hear them still cheering when I was on my way toward the Fourth Army Medical Corps.
I was ordered to London. Medical men warned me that I had exhausted the life force of years in a few months; I was to make up my mind to an inevitable collapse. I became haggard. My eyes sunk in my head. I was weak. At Calais another examination confirmed the first. They ticketed and labeled me for a London hospital. In my inner consciousness I did n’t believe a word the doctors said, but there were disabilities I could not deny. Even if I had come to the end of my rope, I was satisfied — better a thousand times to wear out than to rust out, and it had been a wonderful experience.
Instead of going to a hospital I went to the home of a mental healer, a man I knew. I wrote on a slip of paper: ‘How soon can you get me back to France?’ I heard him laugh, but knew no more for some hours. I had collapsed. When I caine back to consciousness my friend was sitting beside me. He picked up the slip of paper and showed it to me, and said, ‘In a few days.’ The words sent a glow all through my body. I took some warm milk and went to sleep. I slept for six hours, and when I awoke I got up — tottering, it is true; but my voice had come back, and hope revived. In a few days I was quite ready to return. I wrote a letter to the Adjutant General, asking him to permit me to dispense with the ghastly stock collar that always seemed to suffocate me. It was hurtful to my voice and irritating to my mind. I begged the Y officials to intercede for me. It was the only favor I had ever asked either from the Government or from the Y. The former ignored it, and the latter looked upon it as one of my pleasantries and evaded it. I was so sure that I should be accorded this privilege that I had a khaki jacket made with a turned-down collar.
I was in the Étaples area. Three hundred thousand men were there. I had been around for nearly a week — borne about like a bag of flour from one part of the district to another to speak to small groups. One night there was a big entertainment. The ‘ talent ’ did n’t turn up and the leaders were commandeering anything they could get hold of to pad the programme. By this time I was inured to the hit-or-miss methods and took things as they came, in big lots or small doses. I suggested that I could help them out. It was a big crowd and I just opened up all the stops and held them for an hour. The Y staff woke up — they really did — and thereafter I was busy.
One night in an air raid about seven hundred men were killed. Next morning the London papers charged the Germans with bombing hospitals. One German airman was brought down, unhurt. When he was before the commanding officer he showed photographs of the area. There was not a single red cross painted on a hospital, and around the hospitals were ammunition dumps, railways, and camps with tens of thousands of men, including the Life Guards. When the English Tommies read the papers they were angry, and the general comment was: ‘It ain’t cricket.’
A Scotch regiment had quite a different reaction. Many of their friends had been killed, and as a reprisal they made up their minds to break into the German prison camps and bayonet the prisoners. I was let into the secret of the intended reprisal and made it my business to prevent murder by informing those in command. Every evening thereafter for some weeks the embittered troops were marched to the seaside and marched back in the morning.
The morning after the raid red crosses were painted on the hospitals and photographed before the paint was dry. These photographs were published as evidence of German ruthlessness.
During September and October 1918 I had my greatest satisfaction in my work. I made use of the last ounce of my energy, and enjoyed every day of the whirlwind of activity. The fighting men knew little of the power-of-mind stuff; the camp followers knew less. I blamed nobody, criticized nothing. I looked upon every day as a little lifetime in itself, and functioned to the extent of my ability in its given tasks.
When the Germans were swept back the Y advanced with the troops. Five new Y stations had to be established in one day. I took charge in Péronne that day. The first item was the marching of German prisoners from their stockade to the Y on St. Fursy Street, where they were put to work renovating the wrecked building. The mayor of the town gave me an orderly, and I sent him for the prisoners. All he had to do was to fix a bayonet in his rifle and march beside them. But he was an Army Service Corps man and had never handled a rifle. I got him an old German rifle-and-saw bayonet, put him through a few moves, and marched him off. He brought the prisoners, but as they marched into the yard it was a German cavalryman who carried the rifle on his shoulder and not the orderly.
When I assigned the men to their work I began to take stock of the Y larder. Uncle Remus’s receipt for rabbit pie was: ‘Fust you done gone catch a nice fat rabbit.’ The rabbit of the Y larder was bully beef, — six cans, — a pound of margarine, and eleven potatoes. There was n’t a shop within fifty miles. Two American officers called, and they were starving. While I was wondering what I could give them an orderly came in for a gallon of petrol. Certainly, but what had he to trade for it ? A loaf of bread. Fine! I gave him the petrol and went with him for the bread. In a corner of the hut — it was the office of the military police — I saw a small box of onions. I got them for a hundred cigarettes. I returned and fed the Americans on coffee and bread. A young officer looking for a ride toward Calais came in. Through him I got in touch with the Transport Department. They would lend us a lorry to bring stores from Amiens, if we would give them a thousand francs’ worth of cigarettes. I made the deal.
A weary subaltern came for a night ’s lodging. Yes, of course, in return for service. ‘You have rank and prestige,'
I said; ‘just lend me your dignity for the rest of the day, and we will see you to the coast to-morrow.’ He went foraging, and his achievements added considerably to our comfort, if not to our reputation. All forenoon men from all parts of the front came straggling in, for tea, for cigarettes, for the Daily Scream, for stamps. The orderly reported that a German prisoner was doing something reprehensible upstairs.
I found him having a bath in a tin dish, and punished him by making him peel the onions. Later I saw that the prisoners all had a bath.
The prisoners fared poorly in food that noontime. Rice and raisins and a drink made with a yellow powder supposed to make lemonade were all they got. It was all we had. A message came from a part of the front line that a brigade of artillery had n’t a cigarette among them. I got a car and a driver, took ten thousand packages of cigarettes and a case of biscuits, and went up the line. Our destination was just beyond Maissemy, but we lost outway. We drove up a hill in order to get a view, and at the top we found ourselves between the German and British balloons. As soon as we stopped, a shell whizzed over our heads. I saw a Red Cross sign about two hundred yards away, with two men standing beside it. We left the car and joined them in order to find out where we were, and a quick succession of shells led us to believe that our car perhaps was the objective. The red cross marked a casualty clearing station — a hole in the ground, twenty feet deep. In the Red Cross dugout we were treated to tea and made comfortable as long as the strafing continued. To our amazement the car was there when we returned — and intact. We found the artillery and distributed the cigarettes and biscuits. The men came at us for the cigarettes like famished wolves; I had never seen men so frenzied. Cool and calm when around them fellow humans were being blown to shreds — and half crazy for want of a cigarette! I made a short speech to each battery; then returned to Péronne and resumed the problem of providing a meal for half a dozen hungry Y men.
I fried the onions on a boiler lid. When well done I mixed them with the bully beef, and over that I grated some cheese. The eleven potatoes I cut up and stuck into the stuff like eggs in a salad. There were some strange and unusual odors, but a severe dose of pepper allayed their vehemence. The prisoners had cleaned the place. The tablecloth was a clean newspaper. When the famished workers returned they were overjoyed to see such a nice layout. Oh, yes, I forgot — we had soup.
‘What did you make that soup of?’ asked the leader.
‘A ham bone.'
‘Where did you get it?’
‘ In the cellar.'
’That was n’t ham,’ he said. “It was the hip joint of a mule.’
‘Well, in that case, you’ll have a strong kick in your work to-morrow.’
One day after the Armistice had been signed the General informed me that the King was to inspect the Division and that I was to be presented to His Majesty, if I cared for the honor. He thought there might be something in the American mind opposed to royal recognition. And that reminds me that once in a speech I had referred to a time when the American colonists ‘ told George III where to get off; and we ’re now telling George the — what’s the King’s number?’ I asked the audience, having really forgotten. The men went into spasms of laughter. It seemed the funniest thing they had ever heard. ‘What is his number?’ The slip went so well that I deliberately used it hundreds of times afterward to produce the laugh, and it never failed.
One high official hoped I would n’t joke with the King or tell him a funny story. He was told — but doubted it — that I knew how to behave myself before kings. Seven men of the thirty or forty thousand were selected for the honor of presentation, and we were instructed by an expert in court manners. At this juncture it suddenly occurred to me that, since the war was actually over, I could dispense with the stupid stock collar and face the King in comfort. I put on my double-breasted khaki jacket, with khaki shirt, turned-down attached collar, and four-in-hand tie. This was a luxury and made me human again.
The King had wired instructions that there were to be no ordered or formal cheers, no stiff-starched parade. The men were to be loosely arranged and left entirely to their own initiative. As I was the civilian of the group to be presented I stood at the tail end of the line. It just happened, however, that the royal car stopped at that end and I was the first to be introduced. Englishmen are sparing in praise and incapable of fulsome flattery, but that day General Jackson certainly spread it on generously as he told the King of my services. The fact that I was an American reconciled His Majesty to my unusual uniform, and on that double-breasted jacket were two bits of ribbon which he recognized.
‘But you were in Egypt,’ he said, looking at the ribbons.
Wes, sir, I wore the uniform of Queen Victoria in the Gordon Relief Expedition.’
‘Ah,’ he said, ’then originally you were an Englishman!’
’No, Your Majesty; originally I was just an Irishman.’
The King laughed; he laughed heartily; but in my mind there was absolutely no idea of being humorous.
’Well,’ he said, ‘I thank you for coming back. I thank you for your splendid work.’ And a second time he extended his hand. But that was n’t all of the conversation. He asked me what ‘morale-raising’ meant. The term seemed as unfamiliar to him as the actuality was to his High Command. A few minutes after the King had passed, the Prince of Wales came.
‘I was not here when the King was talking to you,’ said the Prince, ‘but the General has been telling me about your splendid work and I want to add my thanks.’
It was all over in a few minutes. The battalions melted away. The General and his staff mounted their horses and rode back to Doulers, followed by a lone lancer on a gray charger. From his long lance there fluttered in the wind a little red and white pennant — a splash of color, a touch of the old regime, that fixed in my memory an historic example of a king functioning as father to his divisions of fighting men.
It was over a cup of tea beside a warm fire in a London club that I heard the last word of the high official who had some suspicion that I should cave in before royalty.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll be hanged if he did n’t joke with the King after all — don’t you know!’
(Further chapters of Mr. Irvine ’s autobiography will appear in February)