By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June 6, 1936.
“Tell me,” said Jimmie Frise, “something about the war.”
“Jimmie,” I exclaimed, “this is wonderful of you. Nobody ever asks me about the war any more.”
“Oh, I just wanted to freshen up my memory of some of the infantry angles,” said Jim. “Us artillery men missed certain features, you know.”
“Jim,” I said, “this is very kind of you. You can have no idea how congested I get sometimes just from wanting to talk about the war. But nobody will let me. I’ve worn out all my family. I used to look forward to the days when my little sons would be old enough to want to hear about the war. But now that they are getting into long pants they haven’t the slightest interest. If I even try to stick in just one little apologetic anecdote about the war they hear somebody whistling outside and jump up and leave me flat.”
“Don’t forget,” said Jim, “I’m a veteran myself.”
“Yes, but,” I pointed out, “the artillery couldn’t have had all the adventures the infantry had. Don’t forget that.”
“Oh, is that so?” said Jim.
“Just the same old thing every day for you gunners,” I explained. “Firing a modern gun is just like working a lathe or running an engine. You don’t see anything. You just twiddle some wheels, adjust some gadgets, pull a string and bang she goes off into space, aimed at an arithmetical calculation instead of a romantic target.”
“Is that so?” said Jim.
“But don’t let me offend you,” I hurried. “You wanted to hear about the war. My dear boy, I appreciate this more than I can tell you.”
“Just a certain aspect of it,” said Jim.
“It has got so,” I assured him, “that not only does my family walk out on me whenever I introduce even the least teeny weeny bit of war, even just in passing, but now my old gardener has folded up on me. He used to love to have me walking beside him when he was running the lawn mower, for example, and tell him about the war. Many’s the hour we have sat in the garden when he was edging or weeding, and remembered old times together. But now whenever I see him he is so busy he just has to rush.”
“Maybe you have told him all your stories for the second time,” suggested Jim.
“Second time?” I protested. “My dear boy, a war story doesn’t really get rich and fruity until the third or fourth time.”
“What I wanted to know,” said Jim, “was about these wiring parties. What was a wiring party?”
“Ah, now you are asking somebody,” I cried, settling back. “Jim, you are talking now to one of the most expert wirers in the world. I have strung literally miles of wire. I have laid acres and acres of barbed wire.”
“You mean your men did,” said Jim.
“Naturally,” I admitted. “An officer does not go around, as a rule, with canvas mitts on hauling barbed wire. When I speak of having strung miles of barbed wire I speak as an engineer speaks when he says he has built miles of road, see? But as a matter of fact, Jim, I have actually laid quite a lot of wire myself in my time. I remember one night…”
“Tell me,” said Jim, “was the wire in big coils?”
“No, no,” said I. “It came in tight spools or bobbins. Remember, we had to carry that wire into the trenches, as well as string it after we got it there. I recollect one night – was it in June, seventeen …?”
“Was it springy, sort of?” asked Jim. “When you started to undo a coil of it did it spring out and get all tangled?”
“No, no,” I assured him. “You cut a couple of small bits of tie wire, and then, with the spool on a stick, you just backed up and unrolled it. Now, this night I speak of in June, I think it was, seventeen, or was it May? Now, let me see? We went from Enquin lez Mines back up to Les Brebis and Mazingarbe…”
“I should think,” said Jim, “that anybody who had handled barbed wire could handle almost any kind of wire.”
“You’re right,” I said. “There were about 300,000 Canadians in the infantry from time to time and every one of those men to-day, wherever he is, is an expert wire man. But as I was telling you, we were on the Bully Grenay front, out by Loos, you remember. It was a fine summer’s night…”
“How did you get the wire tight?” asked Jim. “After you had laid it where you wanted it, how did you pull it snug and tight?”
“A fine summer’s night,” I explained. “One of those luminous June nights, with the stars fairly dripping from the sky. It was quiet, too. Here and there a flicker of guns, like summer lightning. Now and then the lazy bang of a five-nine somewhere in the distance …”
“How many men would you use on one spool of wire?” asked Jim.
”The major says to me, ‘Clark,’ he says, ‘I want you to take the wiring party tonight. It’s a ticklish bit. It’s those old chalk pits. On our side, the wire is about as useful as a lace curtain. I want some wire in there that is wire. I want you to handpick your party, Clark,’ he says, ‘and make a night of it.’ It must have been about nine o’clock …”
“Is this the story,” asked Jim, “about the time the two Germans crawled out and asked you the time, thinking you were a German?”
“Ha, ha,” I laughed. “You’ve heard that, eh? Wasn’t that a scream?”
“I have heard it six or seven times,” admitted Jim admiringly, “and every time it gets better.”
“One keeps remembering details,” I explained. “I wonder if I ever told you one little detail in that story about…”
“What I am trying to get at,” said Jim, still laughing reminiscently. “is this – you see, I had no experience of wiring – and now I am trying to put up a fence at my place. I wanted your advice.”
“A wire fence?” I asked.
“You know that little green wire fence I’ve got?” said Jimmie. “Gyp, my new setter, can hop it in her stride. What I am doing is putting up about twenty tall stakes, with holes bored through them, and then stringing two wires along them, about a foot apart, above the top of the regular fence. Then I am going to plant morning glories and sweet peas and things and grow a sort of screen. I don’t think Gyp will jump through that.”
“It should be very simple.” I said, “just threading wire through holes in stakes.”
“I was trying it last night,” said Jim, “but the wire coil springs out fearfully when you snip the little bits of wire tying the coil together.”
“Hold it with one hand, my dear fellow,” I smiled, “and thread it with the other.”
“I wish I had been in the infantry,” sighed Jim.
“Tut, tut,” I said. “I’ll run over after dinner to-night.”
Which I did, and Jimmie had all the material laid out just like a regular old supply dump back of the lines in Flanders. Four large coils of good stout wire. A heap of long green painted stakes with holes ready bored in them. Smaller posts of two by four for reinforcing them.
“You haven’t the stakes up yet? I pointed out.
“I got three or four up as you see,” said Jim, “but I thought I had better get your advice on that, too, because half the problem of wiring must be the stakes, isn’t it?”
“Quite right,” I agreed. “I recall one time down on the Arras front, out by a place called Roclincourt straight ahead from Madagascar Dump, if you remember?”
“Sure,” said Jim. “Which do you suggest? Should we just drive the stakes down or should we first dig a little hole to soften the earth and then drive them in?”
“On this Roclincourt front,” I explained, “”the problem consisted of an overbody of soft, mucky earth on top of a stratum of hard chalk. And the way we drove our angle iron stakes and screw stakes was this.”
“Here’s a shovel,” said Jim.
He removed his coat and vest eagerly and picked up a fence stake and carried it over to the side of the garden. I followed suit, bringing the shovel. I dug a small hole. About a foot deep.
“Now,” said Jim, “which will I do? Hold the stake or drive it with the axe?”
“You hold it,” I agreed. “I’ll show you a trick or two.”
So in a matter of twenty minutes we had three stakes well and firmly buried in their proper places, except that the first one had the holes for the wire pointing the wrong way.
“That won’t matter,” I showed. We will just jog the wire there and it will make it all the tighter.”
In less than an hour we had ten stakes firmly planted, and that gave us the one full side of the garden and all along the bottom.
“Now, Gunner,” I explained, “we’ll string some wire just before it gets dark, so that you will know how to carry on.”
“This is the part I am interested in,” said Jim.
The big coils of wire were heavy. It would be impossible to hold one in one hand and steer it with the other. So we agreed that one of us would carry the coil and the other steer it through the little holes in the pickets. Jim handed me the pliers to snip the tying wire around the coils.
“Wire,” I explained, as I squatted down to snip, “has a character all its own.”
“Shouldn’t you kneel on it?” asked Jim, “before you cut that last bit?”
I snipped and the coil of wire sprang into the air with a twanging, hissing sound like a serpent. It seemed to be wrapping itself around me. I threw myself on it, and held it down.
“Jimmie,” I commanded, “lend a hand here and tuck it back under me.”
So I lay on it while Jim slowly tucked it back in rings and circles about the size it was originally.
“Ease up a little,” said Jim. “As I coil these coils under you.”
“We never used to have this happen in Flanders,” I said.
“Upsadaisy,” said Jim, “but not too much. Just relax a trifle, while I slide this end under.”
And thus spreadeagled on the very untidy and always struggling wire, I lay while Jim patiently worked it back under me.
“I wish some of your old troops could see you now,” said Jim, appreciatively. “The ones that you used to wire miles and miles with.”
“They’d help me if they did,” I declared.
“And be just about as handy as you are,” said Jim.
“One time,” I said, “out near the Canal du Nord, it was in August, eighteen, if I recollect…”
“Ease up a little,” said Jim, “just a little.”
“We were stopped,” I continued, “on account of our flanks having failed to keep up with us, so I had to put out some wire, just a temporary belt of wire, while we dug in and waited for a day or so…”
“Lift your left leg,” said Jim.
“That’s very wiry wire,” I admitted, after we had got most of it back somehow and laid the axe and a few stakes on it to hold it down.
“I’ll sit on it,” said Jim, “right here on the ground while you work it out carefully and fasten one end to the first stake.”
So Jim sat on the rather untidy coil while I sought out the end of the wire and slowly edged out yard after yard of it until I had enough to reach the first post, up near the house end of the proposed fence. With staples I secured it firmly and wound it several times around the post.
“Now,” I said.
“Good heavens,” said Jim.
For now, having secured one end, we had the whole coil on the ground before us to thread through the holes of the dozen remaining pickets.
“Mmm,” said I. “I guess we should have threaded it first, eh?”
“In the artillery,” said Jim, “we always put the shell in the breech before we fired the gun.”
“I’ll thread this end,” I explained. “It will all come to the same thing.”
It did. In removing a few more coils, Jim eased up just a trifle too high and a whole burst of coils leaped front tinder him and, like lariats, flung themselves around me before I could grasp the situation and let go my end. Jim seeing me trapped, foolishly leaped up to help me and as he did so, the clever coils had him. In a moment, we were both netted in the wire, which, every time you freed yourself of one coil seized you with another.
“Up around Arras,” asked Jim, “what did you do when this kind of thing happened?”
“It didn’t happen,” I declared. “We had proper wire. Barbed wire. Wire that had some sense to it.”
“I suppose all you had to do was call the troops, and they uncoiled you?” said Jim.
“Jim,” I said, as I shoved the coils down off my chest and legs, only releasing them to have them snare Jim instead. “I think you might remember that I sunk most of those pickets for you. I did the digging. I did the pounding.”
“It was your experience with wire that I wanted,” said Jim. “Even gunners can dig holes.”
We gradually got free of the wire, and it committed a few more twangs and leaps and futile snatches in our direction and then subsided into a large, loose and twisted tangle in the middle of Jim’s garden.
“Now let’s see,” said Jim.
“Jim,” I said. “I promised my boys I’d drive them over for an ice cream soda before bed.”
“Good old infantry,” said Jim.
So when I looked back as I went down the gate steps, Jim was standing, the way the gunners always did, just looking down with his hands in his pockets.