Extract > An extract from Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island by H.G. Wells
An extract from Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island by H.G. Wells
The day came when I scribbled my last uncensored letter to Rowena, and our draft was marched through the streets to Victoria Station, band playing brassily, and girls and women thrusting into our marching ranks. There was no one to see me off; but about me was a storm of emotion, and I waved farewells to strangers, was kissed suddenly by some unknown woman, and shouted “Good-byee” with my fellows. So by quay, pier, steamship packed like a sardine-can, thundering gangways, lumbering trains, a base camp, and a long road march towards the front.
We were moved about behind the front in the darkness of blinded trains – their windows had been put out and replaced by sheet-tin – and finally we were poured out, to bivouac in a drizzle upon a bleak upland and listen to the loutish muttering uproar of the guns to which we were presently to be offered up. Ardam had got me after all. I was beaten, and Ardam played with me now as it seemed best to him, in the lunatic chess of modern war.
With a slow inevitability I was thrust forward, through a land that was continually more horribly desolated. There were halts, rests, fresh advances.
Trees, houses, churches, factories in this land of man’s supreme effort became at last mere splintered stumps and rags; ever and again an insane activity of trench-making and barbed-wire distribution had occurred, and the ground was more and more broken by the craters of shell-bursts, and littered with rusty, smashed and abandoned war material. Across this desolation went trains of supply lorries and food-carts, and a perpetual dribble to and fro of troops. We saw ambulances coming down, litters, walking wounded men, prisoners.
There was a halt and a lightening of our equipment, We were being put into the front line.
Presently we were in the zone of fire and could learn, if we chose to do so, the various screams and whines of shell and what these noises might mean for us. Shells burst about us, sending up massive pillars of red-black smoke, that seem to stand still for a long time, boiling up within themselves, and then blow away. We began to whiff the sweetish smell of gas and put on our stifling masks which made our faces like the faces of hogs under our helmets of painted tin. Then came a whirring aeroplane that peppered us with machine-gun fire, killed two men close to me and left three others wounded on the ground, One of them wriggled and screamed very disgustingly, and suddenly, suddenly, out of the evil in my heart, I found I hated him. For the cruelty of the universe was in me as well as about me, and my nerves were on the defensive.
After a halt to wait for the protection of night, we resumed our progress to the front. The impact of the great guns was heavier and heavier, and we stumbled and cursed our way over the broken, uncertain ground. Once we came near to an unsuspected gun-emplacement, and were nearly deafened by the blow of sudden gunfire close at hand. Shells came at us, specially at us, they found our track as easily in the dark as in the daylight. Red flares lit the desolation horridly, betrayed our knots and groups to distant machine-guns and showed many crumpled dead about us.
We were now going up to an intensely contested part of the front. Whiffs of human decay became frequent. Then for a time we struggled through a place thick with unburied enemies and our own all too lightly covered men.
I fell over a dead body alive with maggots; my knee went into the soft horror. There was a place where all of us were obliged to trample our dead. Through such circumstances as this I toiled to a trench, where I was given a bomb to throw and told to wait for my captain’s start at dawn. Meanwhile we squatted in the dirt of that trench, ate beef and jam with such appetite as we could summon, smoked cigarettes, winced at the flight and whizz-bang of shell about us, and reflected upon life.
“Rampole Island,” said I, ” was sanity to this – a mere half-way house to reality.”
And suddenly it came to me with overwhelming force that I should be killed and that Rowena would be left in the world without me, exposed again to all the treacheries and cruelty of mankind. A trick of that sort would be just after the Captain’s heart. Our confidence in my safe return had been the confidence of fools.
I stood up suddenly. “My God l” I said – quite inappropriately. “What am I doing here? I’m going home, out of all this cursed foolery. I’ve got serious things to see to.”
My captain was a little shop-man sort of fellow, a temporary gentleman, as we used to call them, of about my age and type. He held a revolver in his hand without either menace or concealment. But he knew how to restrain me.
“It’s foolery all right, old chap,” he said, “but you’d better stick it now. The way home for all of us here, is over the top and east. You won’t last a minute if you try going back out of this trench. It’s just suicide for you.”
“Well, take us over soon,” said I, and subsided.
The waiting seemed to go on for ever.
“Why did I come from America?” I repeated.
He kept beside me and studied his wrist-watch.
“Ready?” he said presently.
I fiddled with the emergency ammunition in my bandolier.
“Time,” he said, and we scrambled out of the trench together. It was already quite light and the eastward sky in front of us was red. The world seemed to broaden out to a vast exposure. The azure skyline ahead exploded with rockets and guns at our emergence. Our shells made whirling pillars of smoke and dust amidst that blue indistinctness.
Our charge was a plodding walk over tumbled ground and under a heavy weight, towards an unseen enemy. Our men were so heavily burthened they did not look like men charging. They staggered along, hunched and despondent, looking as though they were running away from something rather than delivering an attack. They made a sort of pattern of bluish-khaki figures, repeated endlessly in the cold morning light. As they dodged along amidst holes and mud puddles they lost alignment, and here and there they bunched.
My little shop-man captain, who had kept by my side for a bit, ran ahead and turned towards a knot of men. By his gesticulations I could see he wanted them to open out. For a moment there were five soldiers moving forward and an officer waving an arm beside them. Then something seemed to drop out of nothingness among them and flash blindingly with an immense stunning detonation.
Something wet hit me. The five men had vanished. There was nothing there but a black source of unfolding smoke and dust. But all about me were bloody rags, fragments of accoutrements and quivering lumps of torn flesh that still for a moment or so moved as if they were alive. I stopped aghast. My knees seemed to lose their strength. I staggered, and then I was physically sick.
I stood on the battle-field, stunned and sick and sobbing. Dully the maxim came back which the captain had printed on my mind, that the only way out of this lay eastward through the enemy lines. I went on. I do not know for how long I went on. I believe I was blubbering like a miserable child.
Suddenly my legs were knocked from under me and down I went. It was as though I had been struck on the shins by an iron bar. “Damnation!” I said, “I’m killed,” and felt our hopes had cheated me.
My childish desolation changed to rage. I rolled to the bottom of a slope cursing God and fate, and found myself in a basin-shaped cavity, with the helmeted heads of men passing onward just invisible over the basin. It was D company; our second wave. They passed and were gone.
I have a strong suspicion I fainted and came-to again. I seemed to be just out of things in that hole, the battle skimming past a foot or so over my head. Ever and again the earth on the brim of my basin flew up in little puffs. I rolled over on my back and, after a careful estimate of the depth of this sheltering hollow, sat up to examine my wounds. One calf was bleeding, but not excessively, and the other leg had a bone smashed. And I was not killed,
I contemplated my situation. I seemed to contemplate all my life.
For this moment I had enlisted. This was the end of my active service. For this I had been brought over from America and drilled and equipped. The foolery of it! Far away above the battle the sky was flushing towards sunrise and a little line of horizontal clouds shone like burnished pink-gold.
I felt scarcely any pain at first, except for a sickening twinge when I moved the broken bone. My heart was hot with rebellion. To be born for this! To live for this!
I addressed the universe. “And you, you Idiot,” I said; “what next before you’ve done with me altogether?”
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