500 of the Best Cockney War Stories
Library of Alexandria
The Great War was a matrix wherein many anecdotes have sprouted. They are short-lived plants—fragile as mushrooms—none too easy to extricate either, embedded as they are in the mass. To dig out the character of a General even from the plans of his General Staff is difficult; how much more difficult to dig out the adventures of Number 1000 Private Thomas Atkins from those of the other 999 who went "like one man" with him over the top? In the side-shows there was more scope for the individual and in the Victorian wars much more scope. To show the sort of thing I mean I am going to put down here for the first time an old story, almost forgotten now, in the hopes that it may interest by its contrast to barrages and barbed wire. Although only an old-fashioned affair of half a dozen bullets and three or four dead men it was a great event to me as it led to my first meeting with the great little Bobs of Kandahar. On the morning of September 11, 1879, I lay shivering with fever and ague at Alikhel in Afghanistan. So sick did I seem that it was decided I should be carried a day's march back to G.H.Q. on the Peiwar Kotal to see if the air of that high mountain pass would help me to pull myself round. Polly Forbes, a boy subaltern not very long from Eton, was sent off to play the part of nurse. We reached the Peiwar Kotal without any adventure, and were allotted a tent in the G.H.Q. camp pitched where the road between the Kurram Valley and Kabul ran over the high Kotal or pass. Next morning, although still rather weak in the knees, I felt game for a ride to the battlefield. So we rode along the high ridge through the forest of giant deodars looking for mementoes of the battle. The fact was that we were, although we knew it not, in a very dangerous No Man's Land. We had reached a point about two miles from camp when we were startled by half a dozen shots fired in quick succession and still more startled to see some British soldiers rushing down towards us from the top of a steep-sided knoll which crowned the ridge to our immediate front. Close past us rushed those fugitives and on, down the hillside, where at last, some hundred yards below us, they pulled up in answer to our shouts. But no amount of shouts or orders would bring them up to us, so we had to get off our ponies and go down to them. There were seven of them—a Corporal and three men belonging to one of the new short service battalions and three signallers—very shaky the whole lot. Only one was armed with his rifle; he had been on sentry-go at the moment the signalling picquet had been rushed—so they said—by a large body of Afghans. What was to be done? I realised that I was the senior. Turning to the Corporal I asked him if he could ride. "Yes, sir," he replied rather eagerly. "Well, then," I commanded, "you get on to that little white mare up there and ride like hell to G.H.Q. for help. You others go up with him and await orders." Off they went, scrambling up the hill, Forbes and I following rather slowly because of my weakness. When we got up to the path, ponies, syces, all had disappeared except that one soldier who had stuck to his rifle. All was as still as death in the forest where we three now stood alone. "Where are the others?" I asked the man. "I think they must be killed." "Do you think they are up there?" "Yessir!" So I turned to Forbes and said, "If there are wounded or dead up there we must go and see what we can do." Where we stood we were a bit far away from the top of the wooded hill for a jezail shot to carry and once we began to climb the slope we found ourselves in dead ground. Nearing the top, my heart jumped into my mouth as I all but put my foot on a man's face. Though I dared not take my eyes off the brushwood on the top of the hill, out of the corner of my eye I was aware he was a lascar and that he must be dead, for his head had nearly been severed from his body.