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From One Man's Initiation: 1917, by John Dos Passos, 1920

Chapter VI

THE lamp in the hut of the road control casts an oblong of light on the white wall opposite. The patch of light is constantly crossed and scalloped and obscured by shadows of rifles and helmets and packs of men passing. Now and then the shadow of a single man, a nose and a chin under a helmet, a head bent forward with the weight of the pack, or a pack alone beside which slants a rifle, shows up huge and fantastic with its loaf of bread and its pair of shoes and its pots and pans.

Then with a jingle of harness and clank of steel, train after train of artillery comes up out of the darkness of the road, is thrown by the lamp into vivid relief and is swallowed again by the blackness of the village street, short bodies of seventy-fives sticking like ducks' tails from between their large wheels; caisson after caisson of ammunition, huge waggons hooded and unhooded, filled with a chaos of equipment that catches fantastic lights and throws huge muddled shadows on the white wall of the house.

"Put that light out. Name of God, do you want to have them start chucking shells into here?" comes a voice shrill with anger. The brisk trot of the officer's horse is lost in the clangour.

The door of the hut slams to and only a thin ray of orange light penetrates into the blackness of the road, where with jingle of harness and clatter of iron and tramp of hoofs, gun after gun, caisson after caisson, waggon after waggon files by. Now and then the passing stops entirely and matches flare where men light pipes and cigarettes. Coming from the other direction with throbbing of motors, a convoy of camions, huge black oblongs, grinds down the other side of the road. Horses rear and there are shouts and curses and clacking of reins in the darkness.

Far away where the lowering clouds meet the hills beyond the village a white glare grows and fades again at intervals: star-shells.

"There's a most tremendous concentration of sanitary sections."

"You bet; two American sections and a French one in this village; three more down the road. Something's up."

"There's goin' to be an attack at St. Mihiel, a Frenchman told me."

"I heard that the Germans were concentrating for an offensive in the Four de Paris."

"Damned unlikely."

"Anyway, this is the third week we've been in this bloody hold with our feet in the mud."

"They've got us quartered in a barn with a regular brook flowing through the middle of it."

"The main thing about this damned war is ennui--just plain boredom."

"Not forgetting the mud."

Three ambulance drivers in slickers were on the front seat of a car. The rain fell in perpendicular sheets, pattering on the roof of the car and on the puddles that filled the village street. Streaming with water, blackened walls of ruined houses rose opposite them above a rank growth of weeds. Beyond were rain-veiled hills. Every little while, slithering through the rain, splashing mud to the right and left, a convoy of camions went by and disappeared, truck after truck, in the white streaming rain.

Inside the car Tom Randolph was playing an accordion, letting strange nostalgic little songs filter out amid the hard patter of the rain.

"Oh, I's been workin' on de railroad
   All de livelong day;
I's been workin' on de railroad
   Jus' to pass de time away."

The men on the front seat leaned back and shook the water off their knees and hummed the song.

The accordion had stopped. Tom Randolph was lying on his back on the floor of the car with his arm over his eyes. The rain fell endlessly, rattling on the roof of the car, dancing silver in the coffee-coloured puddles of the road. Their boredom fell into the rhythm of crooning self-pity of the old coon song:

"I's been workin' on de railroad
   All de livelong day;
I's been workin' on de railroad
   Jus' to pass de time away."

"Oh, God, something's got to happen soon."

Lost in rubber boots, and a huge gleaming slicker and hood, the section leader splashed across the road.

"All cars must be ready to leave at six to-night."

"Yay. Where we goin'?"

"Orders haven't come yet. We're to be in readiness to leave at six to-night. . . ."

"I tell you, fellers, there's goin' to be an attack. This concentration of sanitary sections means something. You can't tell me . . ."

"They say they have beer," said the aspirant behind Martin in the long line of men who waited in the hot sun for the copé to open, while the dust the staff cars and camions raised as they whirred by on the road settled in a blanket over the village.

"Cold beer?"

"Of course not," said the aspirant, laughing so that all the brilliant ivory teeth showed behind his red lips. "It'll be detestable. I'm getting it because it's rare, for sentimental reasons."

Martin laughed, looking in the man's brown face, a face in which all past expressions seemed to linger in the fine lines about the mouth and eyes and in the modelling of the cheeks and temples.

"You don't understand that," said the aspirant again.

"Indeed I do."

Later they sat on the edge of the stone well-head in the courtyard behind the store, drinking warm beer out of tin cups blackened by wine, and staring at a tall barn that had crumpled at one end so that it looked, with its two frightened little square windows, like a cow kneeling down.

"Is it true that the ninety-second's going up to the lines to-night?"

"Yes, we're going up to make a little attack. Probably I'll come back in your little omnibus."

"I hope you won't."

"I'd be very glad to. A lucky wound! But I'll probably be killed. This is the first time I've gone up to the front that I didn't expect to be killed. So it'll probably happen."

Martin Howe could not help looking at him suddenly. The aspirant sat at ease on the stone margin of the well, leaning against the wrought iron support for the bucket, one knee clasped in his strong, heavily veined hands. Dead he would be different. Martin's mind could hardly grasp the connection between this man full of latent energies, full of thoughts and desires, this man whose shoulder he would have liked to have put his arm round from friendliness, with whom he would have liked to go for long walks, with whom he would have liked to sit long into the night drinking and talking--and those huddled, pulpy masses of blue uniform half-buried in the mud of ditches.

"Have you ever seen a herd of cattle being driven to abattoir on a fine May morning?" asked the aspirant in a scornful, jaunty tone, as if he had guessed Martin's thoughts.

"I wonder what they think of it."

"It's not that I'm resigned. . . . Don't think that. Resignation is too easy. That's why the herd can be driven by a boy of six . . . or a prime minister!"

Martin was sitting with his arms crossed. The fingers of one hand were squeezing the muscle of his forearm. It gave him pleasure to feel the smooth, firm modelling of his arm through his sleeve. And how would that feel when it was dead, when a steel splinter had slithered through it? A momentary stench of putrefaction filled his nostrils, making his stomach contract with nausea.

"I'm not resigned either," he shouted in a laugh. "I am going to do something some day, but first I must see. I want to be initiated in all the circles of hell."

"I'd play the part of Virgil pretty well," said the aspirant, "but I suppose Virgil was a staff officer."

"I must go," said Martin. "My name's Martin Howe, S.S.U. 84."

"Oh yes, you are quartered in the square. My name is Merrier. You'll probably carry me back in your little omnibus."

When Howe got back to where the cars were packed in a row in the village square, Randolph came up to him and whispered in his ear:

"D.J.'s to-morrow."

"What's that?"

"The attack. It's to-morrow at three in the morning; instructions are going to be given out to-night."

A detonation behind them was a blow on the head, making their ear-drums ring. The glass in the headlight of one of the cars tinkled to the ground.

"The 410 behind the church, that was. Pretty near knocks the wind out of you."

"Say, Randolph, have you heard the new orders?"

A tall, fair-haired man came out from the front of his car where he had been working on the motor, holding his grease-covered hands away from him.

"It's put off," he said, lowering his voice mysteriously. "D.J.'s not till day after to-morrow at four twenty. But to-morrow we're going up to relieve the section that's coming out and take over the posts. They say it's hell up there. The Germans have a new gas that you can't smell at all. The other section's got about five men gassed, and a bunch of them have broken down. The posts are shelled all the time."

"Great," said Tom Randolph. "We'll see the real thing this time."

There was a whistling shriek overhead and all three of them fell in a heap on the ground in front of the car. There was a crash that echoed amid the house-walls, and a pillar of black smoke stood like a cypress tree at the other end of the village street.

"Talk about the real thing!" said Martin.

"Ole 410 evidently woke 'em up some."

It was the fifth time that day that Martin's car had passed the cross-roads where the calvary was. Someone had propped up the fallen crucifix so that it tilted dark despairing arms against the sunset sky where the sun gleamed like a huge copper kettle lost in its own steam. The rain made bright yellowish stripes across the sky and dripped from the cracked feet of the old wooden Christ, whose gaunt, scarred figure hung out from the tilted cross, swaying a little under the beating of the rain. Martin was wiping the mud from his hands after changing a wheel. He stared curiously at the fallen jowl and the cavernous eyes that had meant for some country sculptor ages ago the utterest agony of pain. Suddenly he noticed that where the crown of thorns had been about the forehead of the Christ someone had wound barbed wire. He smiled and asked the swaying figure in his mind:

"And You, what do You think of it?"

For an instant he could feel wire barbs ripping through his own flesh.

He leaned over to crank the car.

The road was filled suddenly with the tramp and splash of troops marching, their wet helmets and their rifles gleaming in the coppery sunset. Even through the clean rain came the smell of filth and sweat and misery of troops marching. The faces under the helmets were strained and colourless and cadaverous from the weight of the equipment on their necks and their backs and their thighs. The faces drooped under the helmets, tilted to one side or the other, distorted and wooden like the face of the figure that dangled from the cross.

Above the splash of feet through mud and the jingle of equipment, came occasionally the ping, ping of shrapnel bursting at the next cross-roads at the edge of the woods.

Martin sat in the car with the motor racing, waiting for the end of the column.

One of the stragglers who floundered along through the churned mud of the road after the regular ranks had passed stopped still and looked up at the tilted cross. From the next cross-roads came, at intervals, the sharp twanging ping of shrapnel bursting.

The straggler suddenly began kicking feebly at the prop of the cross with his foot, and then dragged himself off after the column. The cross fell forward with a dull splintering splash into the mud of the road.

The road went down the hill in long zig-zags, through a village at the bottom where out of the mist that steamed from the little river a spire with a bent weathercock rose above the broken roof of the church, then up the hill again into the woods. In the woods the road stretched green and gold in the first horizontal sunlight. Among the thick trees, roofs covered with branches, were rows of long portable barracks with doors decorated with rustic work. At one place a sign announced in letters made of wattled sticks, Camp des Pommiers.

A few birds sang in the woods, and at a pump they passed a lot of men stripped to the waist who were leaning over washing, laughing and splashing in the sunlight. Every now and then, distant, metallic, the pong, pong, pong of a battery of seventy-fives resounded through the rustling trees.

"Looks like a camp meetin' ground in Georgia," said Tom Randolph, blowing his whistle to make two men carrying a large steaming pot on a pole between them get out of the way.

The road became muddier as they went deeper into the woods, and, turning into a cross-road, the car began slithering, skidding a little at the turns, through thick soupy mud. On either side the woods became broken and jagged, stumps and split boughs littering the ground, trees snapped off halfway up. In the air there was a scent of newly-split timber and of turned-up woodland earth, and among them a sweetish rough smell.

Covered with greenish mud, splashing the mud right and left with their great flat wheels, camions began passing them returning from the direction of the lines.

At last at a small red cross flag they stopped and ran the car into a grove of tall chestnuts, where they parked it beside another car of their section and lay down among the crisp leaves, listening to occasional shells whining far overhead. All through the wood was a continuous ping, pong, ping of batteries, with the crash of a big gun coming now and then like the growl of a bullfrog among the sing-song of small toads in a pond at night.

Through the trees from which they lay they could see the close-packed wooden crosses of a cemetery from which came a sound of spaded earth, and where, preceded by a priest in a muddy cassock, little two-wheeled carts piled with shapeless things in sacks kept being brought up and unloaded and dragged away again.

Showing alternately dark and light in the sun and shadow of the woodland road, a cook waggon, short chimney giving out blue smoke, and cauldrons steaming, clatters ahead of Martin and Randolph; the backs of two men in heavy blue coats, their helmets showing above the narrow driver's seat. On either side of the road short yellow flames keep spitting up, slanting from hidden guns amid a pandemonium of noise.

Up the road a sudden column of black smoke rises among falling trees. A louder explosion and the cook waggon in front of them vanishes in a new whirl of thick smoke. Accelerator pressed down, the car plunges along the rutted road, tips, and a wheel sinks in the new shell-hole. The hind wheels spin for a moment, spattering gravel about, and just as another roar comes behind them, bite into the road again and the car goes on, speeding through the alternate sun and shadow of the woods. Martin remembers the beating legs of a mule rolling on its back on the side of the road and, steaming in the fresh morning air, the purple and yellow and red of its ripped belly.

"Did you get the smell of almonds? I sort of like it," says Randolph, drawing a long breath as the car slowed down again.

The woods at night, fantastic blackness full of noise and yellow leaping flames from the mouths of guns. Now and then the sulphurous flash of a shell explosion and the sound of trees falling and shell fragments swishing through the air. At intervals over a little knoll in the direction of the trenches, a white star-shell falls slowly, making the trees and the guns among their tangle of hiding branches cast long green-black shadows, drowning the wood in a strange glare of desolation.

"Where the devil's the abri?"

Everything drowned in the detonations of three guns, one after the other, so near as to puff hot air in their faces in the midst of the blinding concussion.

"Look, Tom, this is foolish; the abri's right here."

"I haven't got it in my pocket, Howe. Damn those guns."

Again everything is crushed in the concussion of the guns.

They throw themselves on the ground as a shell shrieks and explodes. There is a moment's pause, and gravel and bits of bark tumble about their heads.

"We've got to find that abri. I wish I hadn't lost my flashlight."

"Here it is! No, that stinks too much. Must be the latrine."

"Say, Tom."


"Damn, I ran into a tree. I found it."

"All right. Coming."

Martin held out his hand until Randolph bumped into it; then they stumbled together down the rough wooden steps, pulled aside the blanket that served to keep the light in, and found themselves blinking in the low tunnel of the abri.

Brancardiers were asleep in the two tiers of bunks that filled up the sides, and at the table at the end a lieutenant of the medical corps was writing by the light of a smoky lamp.

"They are landing some round here to-night," he said, pointing out two unoccupied bunks. "I'll call you when we need a car."

As he spoke, in succession the three big guns went off. The concussion put the lamp out.

"Damn," said Tom Randolph.

The lieutenant swore and struck a match.

"The red light of the poste de secours is out, too," said Martin.

"No use lighting it again with those unholy mortars. It's idiotic to put a poste de secours in the middle of a battery like this."

The Americans lay down to try to sleep. Shell after shell exploded round the dugout, but regularly every few minutes came the hammer blows of the mortars, half the time putting the light out.

A shell explosion seemed to split the dugout and a piece of clat whizzed through the blanket that curtained off the door. Someone tried to pick it up as it lay half-buried in the board floor, and pulled his fingers away quickly, blowing on them. The men turned over in the bunks and laughed, and a smile came over the drawn green face of a wounded man who sat very quiet behind the lieutenant, staring at the smoky flame of the lamp.

The curtain was pulled aside and a man staggered in holding with the other hand a limp arm twisted in a mud-covered sleeve, from which blood and mud dripped on to the floor.

"Hello, old chap," said the doctor quietly. A smell of disinfectant stole through the dugout.

Faint above the incessant throbbing of explosions the sound of a claxon horn.

"Ha, gas," said the doctor. "Put on your masks, children." A man went along the dugout waking those who were asleep and giving out fresh masks. Someone stood in the doorway blowing a shrill whistle, then there was again the clamour of a claxon near at hand.

The band of the gas-mask was tight about Martin's forehead, biting into the skin.

He and Randolph sat side by side on the edge of the bunk, looking out through the crinkled isinglass eye-pieces at the men in the dugout, most of whom had gone to sleep again.

"God, I envy a man who can snore through a gas-mask," said Randolph.

Men's heads had a ghoulish look, strange large eyes and grey oilcloth flaps instead of faces.

Outside the constant explosions had given place to a series of swishing whistles, merging together into a sound as of water falling, only less regular, more sibilant. Occasionally there was the rending burst of a shell, and at intervals came the swinging detonations of the three guns. In the dugout, except for two men who snored loudly, raspingly, everyone was quiet.

Several stretchers with wounded men on them were brought in and laid in the end of the dugout.

Gradually, as the bombardment continued, men began sliding into the dugout, crowding together, touching each other for company, speaking in low voices through their masks.

"A mask, in the name of God, a mask!" a voice shouted, breaking into a squeal, and an unshaven man, with mud caked in his hair and beard, burst through the curtain. His eyelids kept up a continual trembling and the water streamed down both sides of his nose.

"O God," he kept talking in a rasping whisper, "O God, they're all killed. There were six mules on my waggon and a shell killed them all and threw me into the ditch. You can't find the road any more. They're all killed."

An orderly was wiping his face as if it were a child's.

"They're all killed and I lost my mask. . . . O God, this gas . . ."

The doctor, a short man, looking like a gnome in his mask with its wheezing rubber nosepiece, was walking up and down with short, slow steps.

Suddenly, as three soldiers came in drawing the curtain aside, he shouted in a shrill, high-pitched voice:

"Keep the curtain closed! Do you want to asphyxiate us?"

He strode up to the newcomers, his voice strident like an angry woman's. "What are you doing here? This is the poste de secours. Are you wounded?"

"But, my lieutenant, we can't stay outside . . ." "Where's your own cantonment? You can't stay here; you can't stay here," he shrieked.

"But, my lieutenant, our dugout's been hit."

"You can't stay here. You can't stay here. There's not enough room for the wounded. Name of God!"

"But, my lieutenant."

"Get the hell out of here, d'you hear?"

The men began stumbling out into the darkness, tightening the adjustments of their masks behind their heads.

The guns had stopped firing. There was nothing but the constant swishing and whistling of gas-shells, like endless pails of dirty water being thrown on gravel.

"We've been at it three hours," whispered Martin to Tom Randolph.

"God, suppose these masks need changing." The sweat from Martin's face steamed in the eyepieces, blinding him.

"Any more masks?" he asked.

A brancardier handed him one. "There aren't any more in the abri."

"I have some more in the ear," said Martin.

"I'll get one," cried Randolph, getting to his feet. They started out of the door together. In the light that streamed out as they drew the flap aside they saw a tree opposite them. A shell exploded, it seemed, right on top of them; the tree rose and bowed towards them and fell.

"Are you all there, Tom?" whispered Martin, his ears ringing.

"Bet your life."

Someone pulled them back into the abri. "Here; we've found another."

Martin lay down on the bunk again, drawing with difficulty each breath. His lips had a wet, decomposed feeling.

At the wrist of the arm he rested his head on, the watch ticked comfortably.

He began to think how ridiculous it would be if he, Martin Howe, should be extinguished like this. The gas-mask might be defective.

God, it would be silly.

Outside the gas-shells were still coming in. The lamp showed through a faint bluish haze. Everyone was still waiting.

Another hour.

Martin began to recite to himself the only thing he could remember, over and over again in time to the ticking of his watch.

"Ah, sunflower, weary of time.
Ah, sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Ah, sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest . . ."

"One, two, three, four," he counted the shells outside exploding at irregular intervals.

There were periods of absolute silence, when he could hear batteries pong, pong, pong in the distance.

He began again.

"Ah, sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun
In search of that far golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.

"Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go."

Whang, whang, whang; the battery alongside began again, sending out the light. Someone pulled the blanket aside. A little leprous greyness filtered into the dugout.

"Ah, it's getting light."

The doctor went out and they could hear his steps climbing up to the level of the ground.

Howe saw a man take his mask off and spit.

"O God, a cigarette!" Tom Randolph cried, pulling his mask off. The air of the woods was fresh and cool outside. Everything was lost in mist that filled the shell--holes as with water and wreathed itself fantastically about the shattered trunks of trees. Here and there was still a little greenish haze of gas. It cut their throats and made their eyes run as they breathed in the cool air of the dawn.

Dawn in a wilderness of jagged stumps and ploughed earth; against the yellow sky, the yellow glare of guns that squat like toads in a tangle of wire and piles of brass shell-cases and split wooden boxes. Long rutted roads littered with shell-cases stretching through the wrecked woods in the yellow light; strung alongside of them, tangled masses of telephone wires. Torn camouflage fluttering greenish-grey against the ardent yellow sky, and twining among the fantastic black leafless trees, the greenish wraiths of gas. Along the roads camions overturned, dead mules tangled in their traces beside shattered caissons, huddled bodies in long blue coats half buried in the mud of the ditches.

"We've got to pass. . . . We've got five very bad cases."


"We've got to pass. . . . Sacred name of God!"

"But it is impossible. Two camions are blocked across the road and there are three batteries of seventy-fives waiting to get up the road."

Long lines of men on horseback with gas-masks on, a rearing of frightened horses and jingle of harness.

"Talk to 'em, Howe, for God's sake; we've got to get past."

"I'm doing the best I can, Tom."

"Well, make 'em look lively. Damn this gas!"

"Put your masks on again; you can't breathe without them in this hollow."

"Hay! ye God-damn sons of bitches, get out of the way."

"But they can't."

"Oh, hell, I'll go talk to 'em. You take the wheel."

"No, sit still and don't get excited."

"You're the one's getting excited."

"Damn this gas."

"My lieutenant, I beg you to move the horses to the side of the road. I have five very badly wounded men. They will die in this gas. I've got to get by."

"God damn him, tell him to hurry."

"Shut up, Tom, for God's sake."

"They're moving. I can't see a thing in this mask."

"Hah, that did for the two back horses."

"Halt! Is there any room in the ambulance? One of my men's just got his thigh ripped up."

"No room, no room."

"He'll have to go to a poste de secours."

The fresh air blowing hard in their faces and the woods getting greener on either side, full of ferns and small plants that half cover the strands of barbed wire and the rows of shells.

At the end of the woods the sun rises golden into a cloudless sky, and on the grassy slope of the valley sheep and a herd of little donkeys are feeding, looking up with quietly moving jaws as the ambulance, smelling of blood and filthy sweat-soaked clothes, rattles by.

Black night. All through the woods along the road squatting mortars spit yellow flame. Constant throbbing of detonations.

Martin, inside the ambulance, is holding together a broken stretcher, while the car jolts slowly along. It is pitch dark in the car, except when the glare of a gun from near the road gives him a momentary view of the man's head, a mass of bandages from the middle of which a little bit of blood-soaked beard sticks out, and of his lean body tossing on the stretcher with every jolt of the car. Martin is kneeling on the floor of the car, his knees bruised by the jolting, holding the man on the stretcher, with his chest pressed on the man's chest and one arm stretched down to keep the limp bandaged leg still.

The man's breath comes with a bubbling sound, now and then mingling with an articulate groan.

"Softly. . . . Oh, softly, oh--oh--oh!"

"Slow as you can, Tom, old man," Martin calls out above the pandemonium of firing on both sides of the road, tightening the muscles of his arm in a desperate effort to keep the limp leg from bouncing. The smell of blood and filth is misery in his nostrils.

"Softly. . . . Softly. . .. Oh--oh--oh!" The groan is barely heard amid the bubbling breath.

Pitch dark in the car. Martin, his every muscle taut with the agony of the man's pain, is on his knees, pressing his chest on the man's chest, trying with an arm stretched along the man's leg to keep him from bouncing in the broken stretcher.

"Needn't have troubled to have brought him," said the hospital orderly, as blood dripped fast from the stretcher, black in the light of the lantern. "He's pretty near dead now. He won't last long."

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