As for the enemy, Pegram was generalissimo, to use his own word, and Rice and Abbott and Mitchell and Blades were his captains. It got jolly interesting just before the battle, and everybody was frightfully keen, and the kids who were not doing orderly and red-cross work, were allowed to stand on a slight hill fifty yards from the sand-pit and watch the struggle. And on the morning of the great day, happening to meet Rice and Mitchell, I asked them what was the psychical idea behind the attack of the Fourth; and Rice said his psychical idea was to give the Sixth about the worst time it had ever had; and Mitchell said his psychical idea was to make the Sixth wish it had never been born.
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They meant it, too, for there was a lot of bitter feeling against us, and I realised that we were in for a real battle, though there could only be one end, of course. They had thirty-eight fighters to our thirty-one, and they had rather the best of the weight and size; but in the Sixth we had Forbes and Forrester, both of the first eleven and hard chuckers; and we had three other hard chuckers and first eleven men in the Fifth, besides Williams, who was the champion long-distance cricket ball thrower in the school.
We had all practised a good deal, and also instructed the kids in the art of making snowballs hard and solid. The general feeling with us was that we had the brains and the strategy, while the Fourth had rather the heavier metal, but would not apply it so well as us. When a man fell, the ambulance, in the shape of two red-cross kids, was to conduct him to a place safe from fire in the rear; and when he was being taken from the firing-line, he was not to be fired at, but the battle was to go on, though the red-cross kids were to be respected.
I should like to draw a diagram of the field, like the diagrams in the newspapers, but that I cannot do. I can, however, explain that, when the great moment arrived, I manned the top of the sand-pit with my army, and during the half hour of preparation threw up a wall of snow all along the front of the sand-pit nearly three feet high. And along this wall I arranged the Fifth, led by Norris, on the right wing.
Five men, commanded by Saunders, specially guarded the incline on the left, which was our weak spot, and the remaining ten men, all from the Sixth, took up a position five yards to the rear and above the front line, in such a position that they could drop curtain fire freely over the Fifth. I, being the Grand Staff, took up a position on the right wing on a small elevation above the army, from which I could see the battle in every particular; and Thwaites, of the Sixth, who was too small and weak to be of any use in the fighting lines, was my adjutant to run messages and take any necessary orders to the wings.
As for the enemy, they made no entrenchments or anything of the kind, though they watched our dispositions with a great deal of interest. Pegram studied the incline on our wing, and evidently had some ideas about a frontal attack also, which would certainly mean ruin for him if he tried it, as it would have been impossible to rush the sand-pit from the front.
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They made an enormous amount of ammunition, and as they piled it within thirty yards of our parapet, they evidently meant to come to close quarters from the first. I was pleased to observe this. They arranged their line rather well, in a crescent converging upon our wings; but there was no rearguard and no reserve, so it was clear everybody was going into action at once.
The officers were distinguished by wearing white footer shirts, which made them far too conspicuous objects, and it was clear that Pegram was not going to regard himself as a Grand Staff, but just fight with the rest. Needless to say, I was prepared to do the same, and throw myself into the thickest of it if the battle needed me and things got critical. But I felt, somehow, from the first that we were impregnable. Well, the battle began by Fortescue blowing a referee's football whistle, and instantly the strategy of the enemy was made apparent.
They opened a terrific fire, and their one idea evidently was to annihilate the Sixth. They ignored the Fifth, but poured their entire fire upon the Sixth; and a special firing-party of about six or seven chosen shots, or sharpshooters, poured their entire fire on me, where I stood alone. About ten snowballs hit me the moment Fortescue's whistle went, and the position at once became untenable and also dangerous.
So I retired to the Sixth, and sent word to the Fifth by Thwaites to very much increase the rapidity of their fire. Which they did; and Pegram appealed that I was out of action, but Fortescue said I was not. They merely hated the Fifth, but they fairly loathed the Sixth, and wanted to put them all out of action in the first five minutes of the battle. Needless to say, they failed; but we lost Saunders, who somehow caught it so hot, guarding the slope, that he got winded and his nose began to bleed at the same moment, which was a weakness of his, brought on suddenly by a snowball at rather close range.
So he fell, and the red-cross kids took him out of danger. This infuriated us, and, keeping our nerve well, we concentrated our fire on Mitchell, who had come far too close after the success with Saunders. A fair avalanche of snowballs battered him, and he went down; and though he got up instantly, it was only to fall again.
And Fortescue gave him out, and he was conducted to a ruined cowshed, where the enemy's ambulance stood in the rear of their lines. I had already ordered the Sixth to take open formation and scatter through the Fifth; and this undoubtedly saved them, for though we lost my aide-de-camp, Thwaites, who was no fighter and nearly fainted, and was jolly glad to be numbered with those out of action, for some time afterwards we lost nobody, and held our own with ease. Once or twice I took a hand, but it wasn't necessary, and when we fairly settled to work, we made them see they couldn't live within fifteen yards of us.
They made several rushes, however, but, by a happy strategy, I always directed our fire on the individual when he came in, and thus got two out of action, including Rice. He was a great fighter, and I was surprised he threw up the sponge so soon; but after a regular battering and blinding, he said he'd "got it in the neck," and fell and was put out with one eye bunged. Travers minor also fell, rather to my regret; and what struck me was that, considering all their brag, the Fourth were not such good plucked ones when it came to the business of real war, as we were. It made a difference finishing off Rice, for he had fought well, and his fire was very accurate, as several of us knew to our cost.
I felt now that if we could concentrate on Pegram and Blades, who were firing magnificently, the battle would be practically over.
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But Blades, owing to his great powers, could do execution and still keep out of range. He was, in fact, their seventeen-inch gun, you might say; and though Williams on our side could throw further, he proved in action rather feeble and not a born fighter by any means. As for Pegram, he always seemed to be behind somebody else, which, knowing his character, you would have expected.
At last, however, he led a storming party to the slope, and, leaving the bulk of my forces to guard the front, I led seven to stem his attack. For the first time since the beginning of the battle, it was hand-to-hand; but we had the advantage of position, and were never in real danger.
I had the great satisfaction of hurling Pegram over the slope into his own lines, and he fell on his shoulder and went down and out. He was led away holding his elbow and also limping; but his loss did not knock the fight out of the Fourth, though in the same charge they lost Preston and we nearly lost Bassett. But he got his second wind and was saved to us, though only for a time, for Blades, who had a private hate of Bassett, came close and scorned the fire, and got three hard ones in on Bassett from three yards; and Fortescue had to say Bassett was done.
Blades, however, was also done, and there was a brief armistice while they were taken away. We now suddenly concentrated on Mitchell, who was tiring and had got into range. I think he was fed up with the battle, for, after a feeble return, he went down when about ten well-directed snowballs took him simultaneously on the face and chest, and then he chucked it and went to the ambulance. At the same moment one of their chaps, called Sutherland, did for Norris.
Norris had been getting giddy for some time, and he also feared that he was frost-bitten, and when Sutherland, creeping right under him, got him well between the eyes with a hard one, he was fairly blinded, though very sorry to join our casualties. I had a touch of cramp at the same moment, but it passed off. We'd had about half an hour now, and five of the ammunition kids were out of action with frozen hands. Then we got one more of the enemy, in the shape of Sutherland, and their moral ought to have begun to get bad; but it did not.
Though all their leaders were now down, they stuck it well, while we simply held them with ease, and repelled two more attempts on the slope.
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In fact, Williams wanted to go down and make a sortie, and get a few more out of action; but this I would not permit for another five minutes, though during those exciting moments we prepared for the sortie, and knocked out Abbott, who, much to my surprise, had fought magnificently and covered himself with glory, though lame. On their side they got MacAndrew, owing to an accident.
In fact, he slipped over the edge of the sand-pit, and was taken prisoner before he could get back, and we were sorry to lose him, not so much for his own sake, as because his capture bucked up the Fourth to make fresh efforts. And then came the critical moment of the battle, and a most unexpected thing happened. With victory in our grasp, and a decimated opposition, a frightful surprise occurred, and the most unsporting thing was done by the Fourth that you could find in the gory annals of war. It was really all over, bar victory, and we were rearranging ourselves under a very much weakened fire, when we heard a shout in the woods behind us, and the shout was evidently a signal.
For the whole of the Fourth still in action made one simultaneous rush for the slope, and of course we concentrated to fling them back. But then, with a wild shriek, there suddenly burst upon us from the rear the whole of their casualties! They had rested and refreshed themselves with two lemons and other commissariat, and then, taking a circuitous track from behind their ambulance, had got exactly behind us through the wood.
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And now, uttering the yells that the regular Tommies always utter when charging, they were on us with frightful impetus, just while we were repelling the frontal attack on the slope, and before we had time to divide to meet them. In fact, they threw the whole weight of a very fine charge on to us and fairly mowed us down. There was about a minute of real fighting on the slope, and blood flowed freely.
We got back into the fort, so to say; but the advancing Fourth came back, too, and the casualties took us in the rear. Then, unfortunately for us, I was hurled over the sand-pit, and three chaps--all defenders--came on top of me, and half the snow-bank we had built came on top of them.
With the snowbank gone, it was all up. I tried fearfully hard to get back, but of course the Fourth had guarded the slope when they took it, and in about two minutes from the time I fell out of our ruined fortifications, all was over. In fact, the Fourth was now on the top of the sand-pit and the shattered Fifth and Sixth were down below. One by one our men were flung, or fell, over, and then Fortescue advanced from cover with Brown and blew his whistle, and the battle was done. We appealed; but Pegram said all was fair in war, and Fortescue upheld him; and in a moment of rage I told Pegram and Mitchell they had behaved like dirty Germans, and Mitchell said they might, or they might not, but war was war, anyway.
And he also said that the first thing to do in the case of a battle is to win it. And if you win, then what the losers say about your manners and tactics doesn't matter a button, because the rest of civilisation will instantly come over to your side.
And Blades said the Sixth had still a bit to learn about strategy, apparently, and Pegram--showing what he was to a beaten foe--offered to give me some tips! Mind you, I'm not pretending we were not beaten, because we were; and the victors fought quite as well as we did; but I shall always say that, with another referee than Fortescue, they might have lost on a foul. No doubt they thought it was magnificent, but it certainly wasn't war--at least, not what I call war. We challenged them to a return battle the next Saturday, and Pegram said, as a rule, you don't have return battles in warfare, but that he should be delighted to lick us again, with other strategies, of which he still had dozens at his disposal.
Only Pegram feared the snow would unfortunately all be gone by next Saturday; and the wretched chap was quite right--it had. Mitchell, by the way, got congestion of his lungs two days after the battle, showing how sickness always follows warfare sooner or later. But he recovered without difficulty.
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My name is Abbott, and I came to Merivale two years ago. I have got one leg an inch and three-quarters shorter than the other, but I make nothing of it. A nurse dropped me on a fender when I was just born, owing to a mouse suddenly running across her foot. It was more a misfortune than anything, and my mother forgave her freely.
When I was old enough I also forgave her. In fact, I only mention it to explain why I am not going into the Army. All Abbotts do so, and it will be almost a record my going into something else.