Private Richard Chuck, aka The Incorrigible Rogue
By Bill Slim
The excitement mounts! Later this month Sharpe Books will publish the three volumes (and one large omnibus edition) of Bill Slim’s pre-war newspaper and magazine articles that I’ve spent much of the last few months sorting and editing. I’m feverishly copy-editing the final ones now. One of my many favourites is this, first written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1937 and republished in Slim’s Unofficial History in 1959. All those who have ever served will recognise ‘Chuck’. Enjoy!
One of the disadvantages of living in London is that you hardly ever see the stars. The real stars are so dimmed by theatre signs advertising the Hollywood variety, by shop windows, street lamps, and a thousand man-made lights, that a glimpse of them is rare. Besides, people in cities do not raise their heads much, and so they cannot expect to see the stars. Yet on that particular night, as I walked through the monotonous Kensington streets, I did raise my eyes and I did see the stars. In the strip of sky, clear after rain, between the tall black houses they shone, calm and tolerant as always. The same stars that I had watched, night after night, four or five years before, as I lay on the hard desert sand. But they had seemed nearer then, when Orion had swung so magnificently close that I felt I had only to raise a hand to tug him by the belt.
Head in air, I turned to cross a deserted square, and promptly learned one reason why stargazing is not a city pursuit. A saloon car shot round the corner, missed me by inches and, with a screech of brakes, jerked to a standstill against the kerb a few yards ahead. I was angry. I might have been killed; I had been splashed.
As I drew level with the car, a man scrambled out of the driving seat, a great, burly fellow in rough clothes with a cap and a muffler. His back was towards me, but there was a vague familiarity about the broad, rather rounded shoulders and the suggestion of clumsy strength that he gave. He heard my step and swung round like a flash. Then I knew him. There was no mistaking that broad face with its high cheekbones, the small widely spaced eyes, the broken nose and big slit of a mouth. My anger evaporated.
“Why, Chuck!” I exclaimed. His figure relaxed and a half-sheepish smile spread over his ungainly features.
“’Ullo!” he said in not too exuberant welcome. We shook hands.
“Funny meeting you,” I went on: “I was just thinking of old times. I've often wondered what became of you. What have you been doing since the war?”
“Oh, jus' gettin' along like,” he answered non-committally, his eyes wandering over my shoulder, round the top of my head, anywhere but meeting mine—a habit of his I remembered.
“You've got a job now?” I persisted.
“I'll have to be goin'. Got a date,” he interrupted, jerking his head vaguely towards the other side of the square.
“Half a minute”, I protested, but he was already edging away.
“See you some other time—p'raps,” he said.
“But, I say, what about your car?” I called after him. He looked back and grinned.
“Oh, somebody'll come for that,” he said as he turned the corner.
I was hurt. Even if he did not want to tell me much about himself—and I could well believe that—he need not have made it so obvious. He always was an awkward devil, but in his queer way I thought he had liked me. Well, I suppose I had flattered myself. I tried to shrug it off as I resumed my way. I had not twenty steps when, for the second time that night, I heard a furiously driven car turn into the square. I stopped and looked round. Regardless of tyres, this too drew up abruptly. Three men, one of them a uniformed police constable, sprang out and clustered round Chuck's deserted car. A large man in plain clothes separated himself from the group and sauntered towards me. He ran a keen eye over me, noting, I hoped, my air of respectability.
“You didn't happen to be hereabouts when that other car arrived?” he suggested.
“Er—yes. It passed me as I was walking through the square.”
“See anybody get out?”
“Yes—a man. Why?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, that's a stolen car and half an hour ago it was used in a smash-and-grab raid. What sort of a man got out? Could you describe him?”
I hesitated a moment.
“Describe him?' I repeated. 'No... no, I'm afraid I couldn't do that!”
“Light duty of a clerical nature,” announced the President of the Medical Board. Not too bad, I thought, as I struggled back into my shirt. “Light duty of a clerical nature” had a nice leisurely sound about it. I remembered a visit I had paid to a friend in one of the new government departments that were springing up all over London at the end of 1915. He had sat at a large desk dictating letters to an attractive young lady. When she got tired of taking down letters, she poured out tea for us. She did it very charmingly. Decidedly, light duty of a clerical nature might prove an agreeable change after a hectic year as a platoon commander and a rather grim six months in hospital. Alas, after a month in charge of the officers’ mess accounts of a reserve battalion, with no more assistant than an adenoidal ‘C’ Class clerk, I had revised my opinion. My one idea was to escape from ‘light duty of a clerical nature’ into something more active. Reserve battalions were like those reservoirs that haunted the arithmetic of our youth—the sort that were filled by two streams and emptied by one. Flowing in came the recovered men from hospitals and convalescent homes and the new enlistments; out went the drafts to battalions overseas. When the stream of voluntary recruits was reduced to a trickle the only way to restore the intake was by conscription, and this was my chance.
It had been decided to segregate the conscripts into a separate company as they arrived. I happened to be the senior subaltern at the moment and I applied for command of the new company. Rather to my surprise, for I was still nominally on light duty, I got it. The conscripts, about a hundred and twenty of them, duly arrived. They looked very much like any other civilians suddenly pushed into uniform, awkward, bewildered, and slightly sheepish, and I regarded them with some misgiving. After all, they were conscripts; I wondered if I should like them.
The young British officer commanding native troops is often asked if he likes his men. An absurd question, for there is only one answer. They are his men. Whether they are jet-black, brown, yellow, or café-au-lait, the young officer will tell you that his particular fellows possess a combination of military virtues denied to any other race. Good soldiers! He is prepared to back them against the Brigade of Guards itself! And not only does the young officer say this, but he most firmly believes it, and that is why, on a thousand battlefields, his men have justified his faith.
In a week I felt like that about my conscripts. I was a certain rise to any remark about one volunteer being worth three pressed men. Slackers? Not a bit of it! They all had good reasons for not joining up. How did I know? I would ask them. And I did. I had them, one by one, into the company office, without even an N.C.O. to see whether military etiquette was observed. They were quite frank. Most of them did have reasons—dependants who would suffer when they went, one-man businesses that would have to shut down. Underlying all the reasons of those who were husbands and fathers was the feeling that the young single men who had escaped into well-paid munitions jobs might have been combed out first.
One man, however, did not plead overruling. The first thing I noticed about him as he stepped through the door was that he nearly filled it; even the ill-fitting khaki could not hide the strength of his shoulders and his huge muscled thighs. There was a weather-beaten look about him too which the other men lacked, and he seemed much more sure of himself. As he looked down on me with a strong-featured face, reddened and roughened by exposure, his keen blue eyes, their smallness strongly emphasized by the distance they were set apart, met mine with a glance in which amusement verged on insolence. Then his gaze went wandering off over my head and round the room. I had a feeling that our roles were reversed—that I was the recruit waiting to be interviewed. Almost in self-defence I decided to be as brisk and official as I could.
“Name?” I snapped at him. The suddenly barked question startled him. His eyes swung back to mine; he stiffened.
“Chuck, sir,” he answered crisply. Then his figure relaxed, and he was once more the undrilled conscript. His eyes flickered warily over my face and went on their travels again,
“Christian name,” I went on.
“What d'you mean, say twenty-five? Don't you really know how old you are?”
“Didn't your parents ever tell you?”
“Never knew 'em.” I felt I was getting out of my depth. Age twenty-five went down in my book, and I tried again.
“What was your job when you were called up?”
“Adn't got one.”
“‘Sright,” he nodded.
“Well, what was your trade when you were employed?”
“’Adn't got one.”
“But how did you get your living? You must have done something?”
“’Sright.’ This was getting beyond me.
“You walked? Where did you walk?”
“The roads,” he said simply.
“Walked the roads? You mean you were ... a tramp?”
“Well, there doesn't seem much reason why you couldn’t join up. Why didn't you?” His eyes strayed back to mine; he shrugged massive shoulders.
“I knew they'd fetch me as soon as I was really wanted,” he said. Not a bad answer when you come to think it over.
“Ever been in the Army before?” I resumed.
“Yes.” I looked at him baffled as he stood there, his great red hands hanging loosely in front of him. Then on one wrist I saw tattoo marks.
“Pull up that sleeve.” Reluctantly he did so and displayed on his forearm the crude design of an unclothed female draped round an anchor.
“Sailor?” I asked.
“Stoker,” he admitted with a slow grin.
“Got your discharge certificate?” He shook his head.
“Tore it up.”
“Why?” I asked.
“’Cause I was discharged as ‘an incorrigible rogue’.”
And that was my first meeting with Private Richard Chuck, the Incorrigible Rogue.
The more I saw of my conscripts the better I liked them. They gave no trouble, and, physically, they were undoubtedly a big improvement on their immediate predecessors, the rather pathetic dregs of the voluntary system. Of course there were misfits among them, and Chuck was one. As his platoon sergeant put it: “That Chuck ‘e don't mill in at all. ‘E won't play football, ‘e won't box —though 'e's a darned sight too ready to fight—and as for work ‘e just does what you might call the legal minimum. ‘E's that stupid, too, you can't teach ‘im nothink, not even ‘is left from ‘is right. It’s my belief 'e's wantin', not right in the 'ead.”
As time went on these reports became more frequent. The men left Chuck to himself as a morose, dangerous fellow. The N.C.O.s disliked him, accusing him of that elusive military crime 'dumb insolence'; his platoon commander urged his discharge as mentally deficient. I was inclined to agree with him.
We had now advanced far enough in our training to introduce the company to the mysteries of the Mills bomb. There is something about a bomb which is foreign to an Englishman's nature. Some nations throw bombs as naturally as we kick footballs, but put a bomb into an unschooled Englishman's hands and all his fingers become thumbs, an ague affects his limbs, and his wits desert him. If he does not fumble the beastly thing and drop it smoking at his—and your—feet, he will probably be so anxious to get rid of it that he will hurl it wildly into the shelter trench where his uneasy comrades cower for safety. It is therefore essential that the recruit should be led gently up to the nerve-racking ordeal of throwing his first live bomb; but as I demonstrated to squad after squad the bomb’s simple mechanism, I grew more and more tired with each until I could no longer resist the temptation to stage a little excitement. I fitted a dummy bomb, containing, of course, neither detonator nor explosive, with a live cap and fuse. Then for the twentieth time I began!
When you pull out the safety-pin you must keep your hand on the lever or it will fly off. If it does it will release the striker, which will hit the cap, which will set the fuse burning. Then in five seconds off goes your bomb. So when you pull out the pin don't hold the bomb like this!'
I lifted my dummy, jerked out the pin, and let the lever fly off. There was a hiss, and a thin trail of smoke quavered upwards. For a second, until they realized its meaning, the squad blankly watched that tell-tale smoke. Then in a wild sauve qui peut they scattered, some into a nearby trench, others, too panic-stricken to remember this refuge, madly across country, I looked round, childishly pleased at my little joke, to find one figure still stolidly planted before me. Private Chuck alone held his ground, placidly regarding me, the smoking bomb, and his fleeing companions with equal nonchalance. This Casablanca act was, I felt, the final proof of mental deficiency—and yet the small eyes that for a moment met mine were perfectly sane and not a little amused.
“Well,” I said, rather piqued, “hy don't you run with the others?” A slow grin passed over Chuck's broad face.
“I reckon if it ‘ud been a real bomb you'd ‘ave got rid of it fast enough,” he said. Light dawned on me.
“After this, Chuck,” I answered, “you can give up pretending to be a fool; you won't get your discharge that way!”
He looked at me rather startled, and then began to laugh. He laughed quietly, but his great shoulders shook, and when the squad came creeping back they found us both laughing. They found, too, although they may not have realized it at first, a new Chuck; not by any means the sergeant-major's dream of a soldier, but one who accepted philosophically the irksome restrictions of army life and who even did a little more than the legal minimum.
Chuck completed his training just about the same as I was passed fit, and he was in the draft I took to rejoin the battalion in Mesopotamia. We endured the usual horrors of mass sea-sickness as the transport, a big converted cargo liner, rolled through the Bay of Biscay. Chuck, slinging a hammock and then contemptuously heaving a green-faced soldier into it, was, to me at any rate, one of the few stable things in a revolving and revolting world.
The Mediterranean brought us internal peace, but a keener realization of the danger without. We studded the ship with amateur look-outs, who identified as an enemy submarine everything from a dead mule to a school of porpoises. When Crown and Anchor palled we amused ourselves by sing-songs, and these we were lucky, for we had on board a draft of a couple of hundred Welsh Territorials bound for India. They sang magnificently as one great choir, and to listen to their Celtic harmonies rising to the calm evening skies while the ship's mast drew lazy arcs across the stars was to realize how and why music can be part of the fabric of a race.
Just after early dinner one evening I was climbing into a bath— not the time one would normally choose, but in a crowded transport junior officers take their baths as they can get them— when, above the generous rush of sea water from the tap, I heard the familiar clanging of bells. Cursing another practice alarm, I wrapped a towel round my middle and pulled on the Burberry that served me as dressing-gown. As I made for my cabin and a lifebelt the alleyways were full of men swarming up to the decks. Suddenly over all the din sounded a dull thud; the gun at our stern was firing. This was no practice alarm. With the lifebelt under my arm I dashed for my boat station. The watertight doors were closing slowly as I leapt through them,
I found my men already fallen in along the rail on the forward deck. They stood in two lines, very silent in their lifebelts, while the deck beneath their bare feet vibrated to the beat of straining engines, and all round them, packed close, crowded the tense ranks of other drafts. An officer told me he had seen the greenish track of a torpedo cross our bows a few minutes before, and our gun was firing rapidly, but the superstructure of the bridge towering above us prevented us from seeing its target. Then, without warning, over the top of the bridge something rustled through the air, cleared our crowded deck, and fell into the sea far ahead with a white splash—the submarine had surfaced and was firing at us. Again and again a shell passed over us, small shells judging from the sound, and aimed at the bridge, but the effect of one of them plunging into the solid mass jammed tight on the foredeck would not bear thinking about.
I looked at the men. They were steady enough, but faces were white and drawn. No one spoke. The uncanny silence was broken only by the thud, thud of our gun astern, the rush of water past the ship, and that sinister rustle overhead. For minutes we stood with nothing but our imaginations to occupy us, waiting the shell that would find us. All around me I could feel in the crush of men a pent-up emotion struggling for outlet.
Then the Welshmen fallen in beside us began to sing. It was not a case of one or two starting and the others joining in; they began suddenly altogether as one man. They sang 'Nearer My God to Thee', and they sang it just as beautifully as they had on calmer evenings when no shells whispered overhead. I turned and watched them, row after row of pale faces, upturned and absorbed. They stopped as abruptly as they had begun. As an example of steadiness and discipline it was strange and moving, yet somehow the hymn with its melancholy cadences made me think of the sinking of the Titanic. I shivered.
Again that horrible rustle, this time so low over our heads that men ducked and the ranks swayed. An uneasy murmur went up from the crowd. Then behind me a solitary voice began suddenly to sing. It was Chuck. Hoarsely and without much regard for tune he roared out the chorus of a pre-war music hall ditty, with the refrain, “I don't care if the ship goes down, it doesn't belong to me!” A coarse, silly song, but Chuck put into it such a ring of reckless defiance, of vitality, of humour, that jangled nerves were steadied, imaginations mastered. Some laughed, some joined in. We were ourselves again.
The shelling ceased; we had shaken off our pursuer. For another hour the ship drove through the deepening dusk, while the men sang, and then the bugles blew the ‘Dismiss’. As walked back to my cabin I was cold, and I tried to believe that was why my knees trembled.
Once through the Suez Canal we passed from a world at war into a world seemingly at peace—but if peaceable it was hot. Canvas wind-scoops sprouted like mushrooms all over the ship, but it was only when we circled on our course to defeat the following wind that they sucked down any air to the sweltering troop decks, and when a call came for volunteers to reinforce the stokehold I expected no great rush. I was wrong. The only man in my draft who did not volunteer was Private Chuck. I asked him why.
“ ‘Ad some,” he explained briefly.
“Well,” I said, “this is another of the times you're wanted badly enough to be fetched”. He looked angry for a moment, then shrugged as a shadowy smile drifted across his face.
“Orlright,” he agreed.
I was not sure what that smile meant, and I was even more suspicious when I saw Chuck that evening in earnest conversation with a group of grimy stokers at the entrance to the crews' quarters in the forecastle. Next day, as we clambered down oily steel ladders to the stokehold, I half expected to find him missing, but he was there. A ship's engineer officer received us, and I found myself partnering Chuck at a furnace door, under the bleary but cynical eye of a grizzled old stoker. Immediately above us was a great duct from which a fan beat down air, and I was surprised to find that the stokehold was no hotter and certainly fresher than many other parts of the ship.
The old stoker thrust a great shovel he had already obligingly filled with coal into my hands, and jerked down a lever which opened the furnace door. I found myself staring into the red-yellow heart of a great fire. The heat of it stung my eyes as I heaved the coal at the opening. It was not a very good shot. The ship chose that moment to heave, too. Most of the coal went wide, and it was only Chuck's huge hand on one shoulder that saved me from lurching against the hot iron. The old stoker spat accurately over my other shoulder and the door fell with a clang.
“First footin'!” announced Chuck in a loud voice.
“’Sright,” agreed the old man. I looked suspiciously at them. “Sright,” repeated the stoker. “Orficers allus pays their fust futtin'.”
I gazed round the stokehold. There seemed an extraordinary number of people in it, and they were all looking at me with expectant and thirsty grins. From them my eyes came back via the old stoker, still nodding his grey head and mumbling “'Sright”, to Chuck's broad face. Then I knew why he had smiled the day before. I laughed.
“All right”, I said. “How many of you are there?”
In due course we bumped over the bar at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab, and landing at an incredibly confused, congested, and primitive Basra one sweltering afternoon, found ourselves in the British Reinforcements Camp, Indian Expeditionary Force D.
There was something wrong with I.E.F.D.; one could not be a day in the Reinforcements Camp without feeling that. In Gallipoli we had clung precariously to a few miles of shell-swept beaches; we knew we were in an almost impossible tactical position, yet we were cheerful. In France we knew, if we were infantrymen, that it was only a question of time before we stopped something in one of the offensives that were always going to end the war but only succeeded in making it more unpleasant; yet we were cheerful. In Mesopotamia, very definitely, we were not cheerful. The climate played its part and the humid summer heat in the fly-infested tents was almost unbearable. Comforts and amusements there seemed none. Rations were poor in quality, unsuited to the time of year, and deadly in their monotony. Bully-beef—I can still hear the sickly plop with which, half liquid, it oozed from the tin—and biscuits, unearthed from some long-forgotten surplus of the South African War, washed down by over-chlorinated water, were our staple food. It seemed to us that I.E.F.D. was a dump for everything that was too old, too worn out, or too bad to be used elsewhere. Even the ammunition we loaded into barges for the front was labelled: 'Made in U.S.A. To be used for practice only'.
All this men could have endured, and still have mustered a grin, but Kut had fallen—fallen in spite of those repeated, desperately gallant efforts that had bled I.E.F.D. white. Its shattered units were exhausted in body and soul. Failure lay heavy on them. A campaign that had once been carried forward on a wave of optimism was now sunk in stagnant despondency. In Mesopotamia in that summer of 1916 men felt they were far, very far from home, forgotten of their friends and deserted by God.
The only hope was to get up the line. It is at the base that extremes of despair and optimism prevail; with the battalion, I knew, things would be better. So when orders came to proceed up-river and we marched out of camp to embark, the whole draft was heartily glad to see the last of Basra.
But the gladness rather fell from us as we marched on and on, while the sun got hotter and hotter and the road dustier and dustier. Eventually we reached our embarkation point, a crude wharf of roughly-shaped palm logs, alongside which were tied two big iron barges. An immaculate lieutenant of the Royal Indian Marine met us.
“Your barges,” he said with a flourish, as if inviting me to take over a couple of Mauretanias. I looked round. The two rust-stained barges, with their dirty awnings; the deserted wharf; the muddy banks running up to the black palm groves and the dull river flowing sullenly past were all the melancholy prospect.
“When do we sail?” I asked. The lieutenant hesitated.
“Well,” he said at last, “you ought to sail now, but the ‘P’ boat that's due to tow you isn't here yet.”
“Where is she?”
“There,” he answered, pointing across the wide stretch of the Shatt-al-Arab.
I followed his arm and could see, apparently buried among the palm trees on the opposite bank, a small paddle-steamer.
“What's she doing there? Picking dates?” The lieutenant seemed pained at my flippancy.
“She's aground,” he explained, “but I expect they'll get her off this afternoon. I hope you'll be comfortable.”
“I hope so,” I said, as he climbed down into a motor-boat and chugged away.
By three o'clock that afternoon I had given up the attempt to make the men comfortable—I was concentrating on keeping them alive. The iron deck of a barge under a single awning in the fantastic temperature of a Mesopotamian summer is about as near hell as one can get this side of the Styx—and our ‘P’ boat was as firmly embedded in the palms as ever. No relief was to be expected from there. I searched our bank. It seemed completely deserted until I caught a glimpse of tents among the trees about half a mile downstream towards Basra. This looked more hopeful. I decided to explore.
I found a couple of large E.P. tents inside a barbed-wire enclosure that was stacked with crates, boxes, sacks and supplies of all kinds. I passed an Indian sentry at the gate and made for one of the tents. Inside, seated at a packing-case fitted roughly as a desk, was a lieutenant-colonel of the Supply and Transport Corps. He was a tall, cadaverous, yellow-faced man with a bristling moustache. He looked very fierce and military—officers who dealt with bully-beef and biscuit in the back areas so often did— and he gave short shrift to my timid suggestion that his dump might possibly provide something in the way of additional awnings or tents for us. No, his Supply Depot contained nothing but supplies. Then, perhaps, a little something extra in the way of rations...? I was informed that his supplies were not for issue to any casual subaltern who cared to ask for them, and, if my detachment had not got everything that was necessary for its comfort, it was because either:
(a) I was incompetent,
(b) The staff at the Reinforcement Camp was incompetent,
(c) A combination of (a) and (b).
I gathered he rather favoured the first alternative. He ended with the final warning: “And don't let your fellows come hanging round here. The British soldier is the biggest thief in Asia and his officers encourage him.”
It is not a very profitable pastime for subalterns to quarrel with lieutenant-colonels, so I swallowed all this as best I could; besides, I wanted to use the field telephone on his packing-case desk. He could hardly refuse the request, and after some difficulty I got through to the Reinforcement Camp. To my suggestion that I should march my detachment back to the camp and remain there until the ‘P’ boat tore itself away from its sylvan retreat, I received a peremptory order to remain where we were, for we should certainly sail next morning. The only satisfaction I got was the promise of a couple of bullock tongas to take away my sick, and authority to draw rations from the colonel’s supply depot.
We did not sail in the morning; in fact we spent two more infernal nights on those moored barges. We had, however, one pleasant surprise. On the evening of the second day our rations, which up to then had been limited strictly to the regulation bully, biscuit, dried vegetables—horrible things—tea and sugar, were suddenly supplemented by a liberal issue of tinned fruit. As I squatted on my valise, making a leisurely choice between pineapple and peaches, I thought of the kind heart that S. and T. colonel must hide beneath his fierce exterior. Next morning when we all breakfasted off first-class bacon, followed by admirable Australian quince jam, while tinned milk flowed in streams, and every man seemed to have a handful of cigarettes, I meditated on how one could be misled by first impressions.
I will not deny that certain suspicions did flit across my mind. There was a tinge of apprehension on the face of my acting quartermaster-sergeant when I suggested it would be a graceful act of courtesy if he would accompany me to thank the good colonel for his generosity. Well, well; perhaps the colonel was one of those splendid fellows who rejoiced in doing good by stealth and thanks might be embarrassing—most embarrassing.
On the last afternoon of our stay another subaltern and I were standing in the stern of a barge, clad only in our topis, heaving buckets of tepid water over one another, when an agitated quartermaster-sergeant interrupted our desperate attempt to avert heat stroke.
“They've caught ‘im, sir!” he panted, as if announcing the fall of a second Kut.
I groped for a pair of shorts.
“Who’s caught him and why?” I demanded.
“The colonel at the dump, sir. Says Chuck’s been pinchin’ ‘is comforts, sir. There's a warrant officer and a gang of natives come to search the barges, sir.”
“Search the barges?”
“Yes, sir, to see if any of the stuff’s ‘idden.”
One look at my sergeant's face told me what to expect if the search took place.
“How long do you want?” I asked.
“’Arf an hour, sir,” he answered hopefully.
With as much dignity as I could muster I walked to the gangway and confronted the warrant officer, who informed me with the strained politeness of a hot and angry man that his colonel had sent him to search the barges. With the utmost indignation I spurned the idea that any unauthorized supplies could be concealed on my barges. Did he think my men were thieves? He made it quite clear that he did. I shifted my ground. What authority had he? No written authority! I could not think of permitting a search without written authority until I had seen the colonel. We would go back to the colonel.
I dressed, and we went to the supply depot. It was in an uproar. Indian babus and British N.C.O.s were feverishly checking stores all directions, while from the office tent came roars of rage as in each fresh discrepancy was reported. I entered in some trepidation to be greeted by a bellow.
“Do you know how much those Birmingham burglars of yours have looted from my hospital comforts? Look at this!”
He thrust a list under my nose, item after item: condensed milk, tinned fruit, cigarettes, jam.
“But—but how do you know my men have taken all this, sir?” I gasped.
“Caught ‘em! Caught ‘em in the act! Bring that hulking great lout who said he was in charge!”
Chuck, seemingly quite unmoved, and if anything slightly amused by the uproar, was marched in between two British sergeants.
“That's the feller!” exploded the colonel, stabbing a denunciatory pencil at Chuck. “Caught him myself, marching out as bold as brass with a fatigue party of your robbers and a case of lump sugar—the only lump sugar in Mesopotamia! Lifting it under my very nose! Said he'd picked it up by mistake with the other rations, blast his impudence!”
Chuck stood there stolidly, his jaws moving slowly as he chewed gum—more hospital comforts, I feared. His eyes roamed over the tent, but as they passed mine they threw me a glance of bored resignation.
“He'll be court-martialled,” continued the colonel, “and”—he glared at me—"you'll be lucky if he's the only one that's court-martialled! Now I'm going to search those barges of yours.”
Chuck grinned ruefully as I passed and I caught a whisper of, “It's a fir cop, all right.” I was afraid it was. We left him chewing philosophically while he and his escort awaited the arrival of the provost-marshal's police.
The colonel, to give him his due, searched those barges thoroughly. He even had the hatches of and delved among the sacks of atta that formed the cargo, He and his men grew hotter, dustier, and more furious, but not an empty condensed milk tin, not the label of a preserved pineapple could they find. He turned out the men’s kits, he rummaged in the cooks’ galley; he even searched the sick-bay we had rigged up in the bows for the sick awaiting removal by bullock tonga.
It was empty, except for one man, who lay stretched out flat on his blankets, under a mosquito-net. The colonel glared through the net at the wretched man who with closed eyes was breathing heavily.
“Suspected cholera!” the quartermaster-sergeant whispered hoarsely.
The sick man groaned and clasped his stomach. I thought his was rather good for a cholera case, but then I am no clinical expert. Nor was the colonel. He called off his men, and, breathing threats, left us.
That evening we sailed. After much chuffing and chugging, to the accompaniment of a great deal of yelling in good Glasgow Scots and bad British Hindustani, a squat little tug had hauled our steamer out of the palm grove. We were lashed, a barge on each side, and staggered off up-river. But we left Chuck behind us, and I was thinking, rather sadly and not without some prickings of conscience, that we should miss him, especially at mealtimes, when the quartermaster-sergeant interrupted my gentle melancholy.
“Will you ‘ave peaches or pineapple for dinner, sir?”
“Good lord, Quartermaster-Sergeant, I thought you'd chucked it all overboard?” I gasped.
“So we did, sir,” he grinned. “But we tied a rope to it with a bit of wood for a float, and when the colonel ‘ad gone we pulled it up again. Some of the labels ‘ve come off the tins, but that's all.’ ‘What about the cigarettes; they weren't in tins?”
“Oh, that chap in the sick-bay, ‘e lay on 'em!”
We found the battalion out of the line, resting. Resting in Mesopotamia meant that, instead of sitting in trenches dug in the desert, one sat in tents in the same desert. It was just as hot, just as uncomfortable, just as depressing, and more monotonous. But it was something to be back with the battalion again and to find myself commanding my old company.
I missed Chuck. I had come to look for his clumsy figure on parade and to catch the understanding twinkle in his wandering eye, but no news of him reached us and we pictured him sweating out the sentence of his court-martial in some detention camp. The popular conception of a court-martial is half a dozen blood-thirsty old Colonel Blimps, who take it for granted that anyone brought before them is guilty—damme, sir, would he be here if he hadn't done something – who at intervals chant in unison, “Maximum penalty—death!” In reality courts-martial are almost invariably composed of nervous officers, feverishly consulting their manuals, so anxious to avoid a miscarriage of justice that they are, at times, ready to allow the accused any loophole of escape. Even if they do steel themselves to passing a sentence, they are quite prepared to find it quashed because they have forgotten to mark something ‘A’ and attach it to the proceedings. Still, even a court-martial could hardly acquit Chuck, and we were astonished when one day he joined us, without a stain, or at least any more stains, on his conduct sheet.
“Acquitted? But, dash it all, the colonel caught you red-handed, carting off his sugar!” I protested as soon as I got him alone.”
“’Sright,” he grinned, “and ‘e weren't ‘arf wild, that colonel! Wanted me charged with pinchin' a list of things as long as your arm.
“Well, you had pinched 'em, hadn't you?”
“Oh, I'd pinched 'em orl right. Easy. You only 'ad to march up in fours like you was a proper ration party and the Indian sentries 'ud let you in. The British N.C.O.s always slept of an afternoon, lazy 'ogs, and so we could take what we liked. 'Orspital comforts mostly—tinned fruit, milk, you know.”
“I know!” I agreed guiltily.
“But at the court-martial they told the old colonel 'e 'adn't any evidence I'd pinched anythin' except the sugar. No more 'e 'ad!”
“And what about the sugar?”
“Well,” Chuck thoughtfully rubbed his nose, “that was a bit orkard. But ‘Cube Sugar’ was written on the case, and I said I wouldn't steal sugar. Why should I? We get sugar as a ration. If I'd been stealing I'd 'ave taken tinned fruit or somethin' not in the ration.”
“And they believed you?”
“But tell me, Chuck, why did you take sugar?”
“I thought it was tinned fruit.”
“But it had ‘Cube Sugar’ written on it.”
“Ah,” said Chuck, “but I can't read.”
It seemed as if Chuck brought luck. No sooner had he re-joined than things began to improve. Rations, comforts, replacements of worn-out equipment arrived on a scale previously unheard of; new steamers appeared on the river; convoys of Ford vans rattled across the desert. The shock of the fall of Kut had galvanized Whitehall and Simla into an interest in our sideshow. Maude was in charge, and there was not a man in the Force who did not feel the renewed energy and hope that were vitalizing the whole army. To watch an army recovering its morale is enthralling; to feel the process working within oneself is an unforgettable experience.
The temptation to supplement our rations by unorthodox means grew less, but habit dies hard, or perhaps with Chuck it was nature, not habit. Our weekly issue of meat on hoof would mysteriously increase in numbers during the night, and bitter lamentations would rise from neighbouring units. There was, too, the painful incident of the corps commander's private stores, unloaded by a party which had included Private Chuck. But suspicion alone will not avail a lieutenant-general against even a private; and besides, the corps commander was so rude, even for a corps commander, about the whole affair that we hardly felt it necessary to inquire too closely into the origin of the delectable hors-d'oeuvres that lent such welcome variety to our simple fare.
After his encounter with the corps commander, Chuck very wisely avoided senior officers, and it was some time before he again brought himself to the notice of Higher Authority. The war was in full blast again, but for the moment we were enjoying a comparatively quiet spell of trench warfare between attacks on the formidable Turkish positions round Kut. Three hundred yards separated us from the Turkish trenches, and the usual struggle to dominate no-man's-land was going on between patrols at night and snipers by day. Chuck had proved himself a fine shot, and spent his days curled up in a cunningly hidden lair just behind our trench bumping off unsuspecting Turks. A slight rise in the ground gave him a view over the enemy lines, but he could neither see into our trench nor be seen from it, although he was within easy speaking distance.
At this time our brigadier, a somewhat anxious officer, was notorious among the troops for his constant warnings, repeated and groundless alarms, and sudden orders to stand-to against attacks that never materialized. One morning my company headquarters was rung up by the adjutant, who asked me if I had noticed the enemy cutting lanes through their barbed wire just after dawn. I said I had not; had anybody? Yes, the brigadier himself had, and was convinced it portended imminent attack. I suggested that at the distance brigade headquarters was from the enemy the light must have played tricks, and the brigadier's well-known imagination done the rest. The adjutant agreed: we cursed senior officers who would not leave us in peace to get on with the war, and I went to my breakfast.
I had hardly begun it before I was hurriedly called to the head of a communication trench to meet an imposing procession. First came my colonel, who, I suspected from his expression of suppressed fury, had been interrupted at his breakfast; then the tall bent form and eager face of our brigadier, followed by the staff captain, who threw me a friendly wink over his general's shoulder. A straggle of orderlies brought up the rear. The brigadier acknowledged my salute and stalked to the fire-step.
Taking off his topi, he peered over the sandbags. The colonel, the staff captain, the orderlies and I followed suit, The two sentries in the bay were crowded out, and resigned it to us.
As I knew, the Turkish wire was uncut—not the sign of a lane. Nothing daunted, however, the brigadier waved aside the question of lanes, but persisted that at dawn he had seen, with his own eyes through field-glasses, Turks working on their wire under our very noses. It was no use my saying we had had patrols up to the wire just before dawn; that from the first glimmer of light until now the wire had been under observation. He had seen Turks working there that morning. I called up the men who had been on sentry; they had seen no Turks. The brigadier was not convinced.
“I've had a sniper up there, sir, since before dawn. He would certainly see any movement on the Turkish wire,” I said in a last effort to settle the matter.
“Well, ask him!” snapped the brigadier.
“Chuck!” I shouted.
“‘Ullo,” came back the answer.
“Did you see any Turks working on their just after dawn this morning?”
“No; they wouldn't be such ruddy fools.”
“But the brigadier says he saw them himself.”
“The brigadier!” came the answer in tones of ineffable contempt. “The brigadier's got Turks on ‘is flickin' eye-lashes.”
There was nothing more to be said. In frigid silence the procession moved on.
Trench warfare when it is not the most terrifying is the most monotonous form of warfare. In the intervals between attacks we spent our time shovelling the sandy soil of Mesopotamia into bags, and it was this interminable shifting of what he called 'dirt' that proved Chuck's undoing.
One night he was digging himself a sniper's post; being something of an expert at the job he liked to design and build his own. Every shovelful of earth went into a sandbag, and when the sandbag was full Chuck carried it down the communication trench to empty it where the fresh earth would not betray his position. Along came Corporal Galbally, an ex-elementary schoolteacher, a precise, conscientious little man, a shade over-mindful of the dignity that should hedge a non-commissioned officer and a schoolmaster. The corporal, noting the number of man-hours Chuck expanded in removing the earth sandbag by sandbag, bethought him that the process should be speeded up.
“You're wasting time, carrying all that earth away,” he said, shortly. “Scatter it around. It'll be dry by morning and won't show.”
“Sez you!” responded the sweating Chuck, resting on his spade.
“Don't talk like that to a non-commissioned officer,” snapped Galbally, “or you'll find yourself in trouble!”
“Look,” said Chuck, his anger rising, “I've got to get into that 'ole, not you. I'm the judge of what sort of trouble I'd be in tomorrow with all that flippin' fresh earth around me—a flippin' bulls-eye I'd be. Buzz off, you little so and so, and let me get on with the job!”
“You're under arrest for using insulting and insubordinate language to your superior officer,” announced the corporal, standing up bravely to the now furious Chuck.
“Superior officer? Aw, 'ell, you little black bastard!” said Chuck, and punched him on the jaw.
I attended the court-martial. My sympathy went out to poor corporal Galbally, a most conscientious man with the highest conceptions of duty, but such a nagging voice. The scales, not perhaps of justice but of inclination in my mind, dipped however towards Chuck, when he was asked by the prosecutor, “Why did you call the corporal ‘a black bastard’,” and replied, “I can't think! He's not black!” But this time there was no loophole of escape, and Chuck came back to us from the court-martial under a suspended sentence of six years’ imprisonment for, when on active service, striking his superior officer in the execution of his duty.
These suspended sentences were unsatisfactory things, introduced to prevent men from committing offences in order deliberately to exchange the hardships and dangers of active service for the not much greater hardships and the safety of prison. The men rejoined their units under the threat of having to serve their sentences after the war, unless by exemplary conduct they earned remission. Usually a suspended sentence had little effect on a man; it was a waste of time, especially for an infantryman, to bother about what was going to happen after the war.
Chuck took his indifferently enough; he became a shade more morose and quick-tempered—N.C.O.s were more careful in their dealings with him—and took to grousing a good deal. This was not very serious; all good soldiers grouse, and Chuck had a way of giving his bitterest and most profane grouses a picturesque turn that took away their sting.
Immediately we had retaken Kut, we pelted so hard after the bolting Turk that, while we never caught him, we did outstrip our supplies, and received, instead of our bully and biscuit, the only rations available, those of the Indian troops alongside us. Private Chuck, muttering to himself, regarded the heaps of strange foodstuffs piled up on the river bank for issue to the company. He filled one great hand with atta, the rough Indian flour, and the other with a mixture of the grain, gur, turmeric, and what-not dear to the sepoy's stomach.
“Fourteen flickin’ miles and an empty belly yesterday,” he growled; “twenty-two flickin' miles and a flickin' battle today! They marches us like buckin’ mules; they loads us like buckin' mules; and now” — he raised his full hands to an outraged heaven — “now, by cripes, they feeds us like buckin' mules!”
However, whether ‘they’ fed us like mules or not, we took Baghdad. It was an extraordinary feeling to find oneself there. For a year Baghdad had been for us the Unattainable City, a mirage on the distant horizon. And now a sudden rush and it was ours. The slackness that follows achievement, the physical and mental after prolonged striving, descended momentarily on us. There seemed no more to be done; there was an unreality about everything as we bivouacked beyond the city and looked wonderingly about us.
Through the evening dust haze I caught the gleam of a blue-tiled dome above date-palms. Forgetful of everything but curiosity, I wandered towards it, and found myself on the out-skirts of a large village. The Arabs streamed out to greet me in the most friendly way. They patted me on the back, they made signs inviting me to their village, they urged me forward, in every way their delight at my arrival. My chest, under its sweat-stained shirt, swelled. This was the sort of thing I had read about, but never expected to see—-the liberated populace welcoming the Conquering Hero! I strode confidently forward to increasing applause.
Suddenly it dawned upon me that a score of brown gentlemen were all trying at the tops of their voices to tell me the same thing, all continually in one direction. Their excitement increased. So did the closeness with which they hemmed me in, the speed with which they swept me along. I grew uneasy. There was rather too much urgency about all this. I felt myself exchanging the role of Conquering Hero for that of Unwilling Captive! A grubby little boy in a dirty nightshirt squirmed through the mass.
“Good-night, Tommy,” he said affably in American.
“Good-night—I mean, good evening. You speak English?”
“Well, what are these fellows saying?”
He shrugged indifferently.
“Twenty, thirty,” he hazarded, and added with relish: “You fight them!”
“Here, I say!” I protested. “Stop!”
But it was no use; the mob bore me on. Without warning it melted away and I found myself standing alone in the mouth of a lane opening into a small square. The space in front of me was empty, the booths surrounding it deserted. Only in one, an Arab coffee shop immediately opposite me, did I detect a sign of movement. There, through a rough barricade, I saw a glint of steel; half a dozen rifles were covering the square. I dodged quickly into a doorway and stood there gently. The silence of expectation had fallen on my once vociferous allies; a hundred eyes watched me from sheltering doors and windows. I was conscious, too, of eyes behind those rifle barrels across the square. The noble exhilaration of a Conquering Hero had evaporated completely; all I wanted to do was to bolt back to camp for help, but I doubted if my brown friends would let me.
I had just decided to run for it, when, above the buzz of voices that was beginning to rise again in every alley, I heard drawing nearer a rumbling metallic sound—jangle, jangle, bump, jangle, jangle, bump. It was a sound heard often enough over Flanders pavé, on Gallipoli beaches, along Frontier tracks, in East African jungles, in a dozen odd corners of the world at war—the unmistakable rumbling rattle of an Indian Army transport cart. Some unsuspecting native drabi was driving his cart right up to those threatening rifles.
Sure enough, as I watched, into the square from my right debouched a pair of mules, and clattering behind them the familiar two-wheeled cart. Seated nonchalantly on the board that served as driving-seat, a rifle slung over his shoulder, was not an Indian drabi, but a British soldier.
“Get back!” I yelled, showing as much of myself as I dared. The soldier pulled up his mules and looked towards me. It was Chuck.
“Get back, you idiot!” I shouted again.
“Why?” he roared back.
“Turks!” I shrieked, pointing.
Chuck deliberately and looked at the barricade. Then he stood up in the cart so that he could see over the top.
“Oi, you!” be bellowed, with a sweep of his arm. “Come out of it! Jaldi, imshi, idarao!”
A dirty white rag fluttered over the barricade. A swarthy, bearded man in bedraggled khaki stepped out with his hands above his head, Another followed him, another, and another. I walked across and joined Chuck as he clambered down from his cart and unslung his rifle.
“My God, Chuck,” I said, “you took a risk!”
“Risk! With them?” He jerked a contemptuous thumb at the increasing group of ragged prisoners. “All they was waitin’ for was to surrender to the first white man they saw—these lousy Arabs was after 'em!”
He slammed the butt of his rifle hard into the ribs of an Arab who was prancing round the wretched Turks brandishing a murderously curved knife. This gentleman and his friends fell back to a respectful distance.
“Rifles in there, Johnny,” said Chuck to the Turkish N.C.O.
Their rifles clattered on to the iron slats of the cart, and we counted our bag. There were ten Turks in all, two of them in dirty blood-stained bandages, too weak to walk. These went into the cart after the rifles.
Chuck climbed back on to the seat; the prisoners formed up. The Turkish N.C.O. saluted me.
“March!” I ordered.
“Chelo! Imshi!” translated Chuck, and the procession moved off amid the mingling of cheers for us, and curses for the prisoners.
“Chuck,” I called out, “how did you get that cart?”
“And what were you doing with it?”
“Scroungin',” he answered expressively.
I looked into the cart. One of the wounded Turks was reposing on a sticky mass of dates, the other on a sack half-full of oranges; a couple of fowls with hastily wrung necks were in a corner.
But the campaign was not over with the capture of Baghdad. Within a few days we were off again, marching north, and it was not long before we found ourselves launched in another of those frontal assaults on an entrenched enemy so typical of the First World War. On whatever front these attacks took place they were, at least for the infantry, uniformly uninspiring and unbelievably bloody. The only difference in Mesopotamia was that there was less cover than elsewhere, the distances to be crossed under fire longer, and the artillery support less.
In long thin lines we plodded forward across a plain, flat and bare as a tabletop. My company advanced, steadily but wearily, with two platoons extended in the front line and two in the second, with my headquarters, a little knot of men, centrally between them. Two thousand yards away, glimpsed now and then through the smoke and dust of a bombardment that was the best our one and only artillery regiment could do for us, stretched the enemy position.
The lines of my company were continued far to the left and right where the other battalions of the brigade moved forward too. Soon, here and there, a man fell or started to hobble back, but the long khaki lines went doggedly on. As we drew closer to the enemy the whining of bullets overhead changed to sharp claps at more and more frequent intervals in our ears; shells began to crump among us, not as yet doing very much harm; the lines became more unevenly spaced. We began to walk a little faster.
Ahead of me, I saw one of my leading platoon commanders, a fine young Australian, stumble to his knees. I hurried forward; he was sitting on the ground, face towards me. I knelt beside him for a moment, my hand on his shoulder.
“Where are you hit?” I asked him. He looked at me wonderingly.
“I don't know,” he said. “In the body I think.” And then he was dead. I lowered him to the ground.
As I rejoined my headquarters, Chuck, whom I had attached to myself as an extra runner so that I could keep an eye on him, jerked his head with a question towards where the platoon commander lay.
“Dead,” I answered.
“Pity, ‘e was a good bloke,” said Chuck—the soldier's requiem for a comrade.
Our bombardment suddenly stopped. The dust curtain drifted up into the air, and there about a hundred yards away across our front stretched a shattered wire entanglement and behind it a line of newly turned earth, the enemy parapet. At that moment we must for the first time have become fully visible to the Turkish gunners. With a horrible slurring screech there slammed down on us a blizzard of steel. Shrapnel shells burst in salvos twenty feet in the air ahead of us and hurled their heavy bullets in our faces, whole sections from our lines. Men ducked their heads as they cringed against the storm. Many fell—I lost more than half my company in the next two minutes, only one officer remained alive and unwounded—some stopped dazed, a few turned back. The lines hesitated, wavered, in a moment they would have broken in rout. I ran forward shouting to the leading platoons to get on, but it was not I who rallied them. In a voice like the last trumpet, Chuck at my side roared, “Heads up the Warwick! Show the — yer cap-badges!”
Even in that pandemonium a few men heard him as his great form came bullocking through them. They had no cap-badges for we wore Wolseley helmets, but they heard the only appeal that could have reached them—to their Regiment, the last hold of the soldier when all else has gone. The half dozen around Chuck heard, their heads came up, they lurched on again. Other men feeling them move came too; in a moment the whole line was running forward. We cursed the wire as it tore at us, but we were through, looking down on brown faces, grey uniforms, raised hands and dirty white rags held aloft.
I have tried to describe Chuck to you. Do you wonder that I could not describe him to the policeman in that Kensington Square?
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