By Greg Clark, March 13, 1926
“How would Simson do?” asked the company sergeant major.
“Nothing doing,” replied Lieutenant Cinders.
Promotions caused more trouble in the army than you would think. The selection of cabinet ministers is small business compared with the selection of a sergeant for a platoon. Cinders’ platoon had lost its senior sergeant, Irwin, through measles; the Junior sergeant Attick became platoon sergeant, and which of the corporals would step up to three stripes was the mighty question confronting the allied armies, the cause of Britain and Number Sixteen platoon in particular.
“Simson a good man,” said the sergeant major.
“He’s too good,” said Cinders, reaching up and scratching match on his tin hat. That’s his trouble. He don’t take his rum issue, he don’t swear.” Cinders paused in thought. As matter of fact,” continued Cinders, rather awed by the thought, “he can’t swear. I don’t believe he knows the words. The point is, the platoon doesn’t respect him. He is too soft, too friendly, too wishy washy.”
“He’s the best corporal in the company.”
“On guard mounting, you mean. Or as corporal of the escort at a court martial. But as a trench man, major, now think of it, as a trench man, he’s a pipsqueak. I don’t want Simson.”
The sergeant-major spat over the paradox.
“I don’t know what the hell you want, Mr. Cinders.”
“I want a rough guy, a noisy guy, a man with crime sheet far back in his past. This platoon has been too darn lucky in guard mounting contests to suit me. Too frequently complimented by the colonel, too often mentioned in orders for its beautiful billets. I feel as if something is going to happen.”
Lieutenant Cinders stabbed the chalk wall of the trench with an impatient stick.
“Well, then,” said the sergeant major, “let’s ask the captain to hold the vacancy open to the end of this tour before you promote your sergeant. Perhaps something will happen to make the decision for us.”
“I feel it in my bones,” said Cinders, gloomily.
In the late evening dusk, he walked up the trench and, after looking at his wrist watch, shouted down the dugout mouth –
“Stand to, sixteen platoon.”
And obediently the men of his platoon began filing out of the dugouts, silent, cheerful, clean, fresh. They fixed their bayonets and leaned their rifles nicely against the parapet. The section leaders went smartly to the bomb stores and carried the little black boxes to their proper places along the fire-step. There was no bunching, no crowding. Each man went to his proper stand, watching the sergeant for the sign to climb up on to the fire step.
His Platoon Was Too Good
“Had a nice sleepy-bye?” asked Lieut. Cinders of the three lads nearest him.
“Yes, sir,” they replied, smiling.
“Nursey dress you all up pitty?” said the officer.
“We got one swell little dugout,” said the nearest man earnestly. “Driest I have been in for months.”
“Huh!” said Cinders, walking on. The sight of these smart, obedient, well-trained boys of his filled the lieutenant with a great restlessness. To him, there was something uncanny about it. He had a firm belief that soldiers in good health should be dissatisfied, grousing, growling he-bears, not any smarter than they had to be. For over a month his platoon had been suffering from this epidemic of smartness. It had been difficult for him to find anything to say on inspection. Not a dull razor in the outfit. Not a man held the toe of the butt too far forward or too far back of his toe. Every man had spare pair of shoelaces in his pack. Not a single top to a mess tin was missing.
At the far end of his trench, the lieutenant found Corporal Simson, whom Cinders believed to be largely responsible for the condition of his platoon. The tall, bashful corporal snapped to attention when he saw his lieutenant.
“Evening, corporal! No need for saluting in the front line, you know.”
“Yes, sir.” The luminous eyed corporal had deep, bass voice, reverent with respect.
“Cut your chin again, corporal? Why in hell to you shave to often in the line? I’d a darn sight rather see a few whiskers on my men in the line than have their faces all cut to pieces. You’re liable to get blood poisoning, if you aren’t careful.”
“Very good sir,” said the dark, eager man in his vibrant voice.
“Aw, what the…” growled Cinders as he turned away.
Sergeant Attick, full of his responsibility as senior sergeant, bustled along the trench giving the signal for the men to mount the fire-step for the evening stand-to-arms. Twilight had fallen.
“Smart as a drum, sir.”
“Tonight I want a working party to scrub these here bathmats”
“Very good, sir! Five men, ten men?”
“Oh, sergeant,” groaned Cinders, suddenly feeling very lonely, “go and chase yourself.”
“Yessir!” replied the sergeant soberly.
Cinders rushed down the trench, past his own flank, past Thirteen platoon which was holding next to him, down to Fourteen platoon where, in the dusk, he found his big fat friend, Lieutenant Thooms. Thooms was standing wide-legged in the trench, wailing: –
“Come on here, come on! I gave the order twenty minutes ago, and half the platoon is still in the dugouts! Sergeant! Corporal! Hey!”
Weary, disgruntled shadows were dragging about the trench. Cinders feasted his eyes on them. An untidy sergeant hurried by, cursing.
“Thooms, I’ll trade you platoons.”
“I’ll take you, doggone it!” cried Thooms, leaning wearily and heavily against the trench wall. “I never saw such a collection of half-witted, half-dead, lousy, weary, half-baked…”
“That’s the stuff!” cried Cinders, swaggering his shoulders with pleasure.
He watched with childish interest and delight the long-drawn-out, wrangling, grumbling process of getting Number Fourteen on to the fire-step.
“Now, if I had this bunch,” he said to Thooms.
“The captain wouldn’t hear of it,” said Cinders. “He wants me to bring up the rear of the company for my soul’s sake.”
He returned slowly to his own trench.
It was dark. From the right came the message, passed from man to man…
“From O. C. Don company, stand down.”
The shadowy figures stepped down into the trench.
“Who’s in Lulu Sap?” asked Cinders
“Corporal Simson and two men, sir,” replied Sergeant Attick.
“Let’s go and see them.”
They came to the narrow little trench leading forward into No Man’s Land. It twisted intricately and ran out about forty yards to a little hillock on which had once stood a small out-house of stone. From this little eminence a watchful listening post could keep track of the ground for many yards to right and left, the whole of the platoon section, in fact. Cinders had hardly set foot in the crowded little cockpit amidst the ruined stones of the sap-end before there came a shuffling, snuffling. whuffling sound which caused him and the four other men in the place to crouch down with closed eyes and open mouth.
With an unbelievable crash, a trench-mortar shell hit the ground half way between the sap-end and the main trench.
“Wow!” said Cinders, breathlessly. swallowing to remove the concussion from his ears. “If they are going to shell this sap, you come out Simson!”
“Very good, sir,” said Simson, straightening up and listening. “Here comes another!”
A Little Private Battle
A tiny, intermittent spark was arching high in the sky over the German lines. It curved up, up, paused and disappeared. All five pairs of eyes in the sap were turned upwards. Then to their chumping ears came the faint whuff-whuff-whuff of the shell. It came very slowly. Its swushing sound grew to a rush. The five men were cringed down to the very ground. They felt the ground shake with the fall of the huge shell. They gritted their teeth. Then the most awful blast of sound stunned them. Dirt pattered on their bent backs. The shell had fallen ten yards to the right of the sap.
“Get out of here!” gasped Cinders. “Attick, lead on and you two men follow.”
“Another one coming, sir,” said Simson, in his deep quiet voice.
“Run!” cried Cinders. The sergeant and two men plunged into the narrow sap towards the main trench. Cinders and Simson bowed themselves into the bottom of the sap end. They heard the rush and thud of the great shell. The gigantic, rending crash followed. The patter of earth and fragments passed. Cinders popped up and stared back. The shell had fallen clear of the narrow sap.
“We’re all right,” called Sergeant Attick from the darkness.
As he turned, Cinders was aware for a fleeting instant of a couple of rushing figures in the gloom ahead. Then he felt a numbing blow from behind. A throbbing darkness engulfed him.
But complete unconsciousness does not fall easily on a man of Cinders’ vital and thick-skinned nature. As in nightmare, he felt himself being clutched and grasped and hauled out of the listening post. He discovered himself being carried by his arm-pits and heels. He heard heavy breathing close to his ear. Even though it was like a fearful dream, and with a shocking ache on the back of his neck, Cinders knew he was captured. The most ignominious fate that can overtake a proud soldier had befallen him. He groaned and tried to shout for help. The sound he made emerged as a scream. He felt himself suddenly laid down.
Consciousness returned to him, and the fearful buzzing pain in his head was unbearable. His eyes, opened in the night, saw stars and rings swimming before him. Then be made out five kneeling figures. Two were crouched over him. And just a little forward, towards the German lines, he saw three other figures kneeling on top of what probably was Corporal Simson. And Simson was struggling on his face, his heels kicking impotently in the air.
A Lewis gun opened from behind them. All figures dropped prone on the ground. The man at his head shouted something in a hoarse muffled voice.
Cinders, groaning, moved, and passed his hand in a stealthy gesture, over his holster to find it empty, as he feared. A big rough band grasped his wrist and held it.
His cheek crushed against the damp earth. He stared in pain and hopeless abandonment at the group a few feet away. The Germans were lying across Simson. Simson, groaning, gave convulsive heave and collapsed very still. From the group came a short, gruff comment.
“Dead,” whispered Cinders.
The Lewis gun opened again. He heard the bullets hissing very close. Another gun opened from further down. It cracked high overhead and then swished past them, low.
“Thirteen platoon,” said Cinders to himself.
Mr. Cinders’ Problem Solved
The man at his head spoke gruffly. He was lifted and felt them lurching and swaying as they ran a few yards. Then dropped him, heavily, clumsily, falling on him, pinning him. He lay limp.
Behind came the other party, still carrying the sagging great frame of Corporal Simson. They too ran and dropped beside them, but they did not fall on top of their burden. The two Lewis guns continued to chugger and sweep, hissing and dying away as their stream of fire passed, and repassed.
The German at his head had his arm around Cinders’ neck, haft stiffling him. He head was pressed close to Cinders’ head. He spoke again, gruffly, commanding. Cinders had one eye clear of the great grey arm covering his mouth. He saw two figures kneel up, two at Simson’s feet and one at his head. A swish of Lewis fire swept close. The figure at Simpson’s head jerked to its feet, staggered backwards and fell, without a sound. He saw Simson’s two huge feet rear up and strike savagely, one at the head and the other at the small of the back of the bowed figures. In a flash, Simson was crouched over them. The man at Cinders head cried out, let go of Cinders, and after a fumble, fired with a pistol. But the figure that was looming towards him the night was not Simson but the rear end of one of the two Germans, whom Simson was holding up limply as a shield. The pistol bullet whacked into him with the sound of carpet beater.
Cinders felt a warm flood of wetness gush all over his face and head. The Lewises had stopped instantly. All he could hear was furious grunting and heaving while a great heavy weight collapsed on top of him. His ankles were tramped on. Suddenly he heard a clear, punctuated, low, vibrant series of the most famous oaths, cusswords and imprecations known to the English language. Cinders gave a great shove. The weight rolled from him. Above him, he beheld a shadow as two huge figures twisted and fought, body to body, in the sort of wrestling that comes under no known rules and regulations of the sport. Cinders, sick and dizzy, staggered up. The struggling shadow fell to earth. Cinders panting and whimpering, bent over the heaving forms and felt the top body. His hand encountered a strange leather strap, a strap unknown to him as part of Canadian equipment. Cinders drew back and with his heavy issue boot kicked into the soft side of that upper figure with all his weight, with every ounce of strength he had in him, the punting kick, the leaping kick that he had used at college. He felt something snap against his toe.
He swayed and felt himself caught once again in huge arms. But these arms didn’t stifle him. He was slightly sick. He coughed nosily.
“Hold my shoulder, sir!” whispered Corporal Simson, breathlessly.
He found himself being haft dragged. The world was rocking and rolling. He felt himself fall into a hole. It was the sap end. Sergeant Attick was there, seized him, dragged him down the narrow trench. Thooms was there, the captain was there, the sergeant-major was there, lifting him, carrying him. He was laid out blissfully on the fire-step.
“Where’s Sergeant Simson,” he heard himself asking, thinly.
“Where’s Sergeant Simson?” called the captain, sharply.
There was confused noise. The sound of German machine guns broke into the excitement and shuffling.
Sergeant Attick spoke breathlessly, “Corporal Simson bas just returned into the sap with two prisoners!”
“Sergeant Simson, if you please!” snapped Cinders from the fire-step.
“Yes sir!” said the senior sergeant.
“That’s the easiest promotion I have ever had to make,” said Cinders reaching out and pinching the sergeant-major’s leg.
Editor’s Notes: A Fire-step was built into each trench in World War One, cut into the wall some two or three feet from the trench floor. During the pre-dawn and dusk procedure of “Stand-To” each occupant of the trench would be expected to man the fire-step with rifle loaded and bayonet fixed. The floor of the trench was lower than the fire-step in order that men could pass along the trench without exposing their heads to enemy fire.
Bathmats was the term used for small trench floor coverings.
A Sap was a trench dug at a 90 degree angle of the main trench that would jut out into no-man’s-land for the purpose of monitoring enemy movement.
A Lewis Gun was a generic term used in World War One for machine guns, as it was the most common type used by Britain.