There came a sort of enrichment to that steady uproar. “Machine guns!”
The artist, with one boot on, thought to look at his watch, and went to it hopping.
“Half an hour from dawn,” he said.
“You were right about their attacking, after all . . . .”
The war correspondent came out of the tent, verifying the presence of chocolate in his pocket as he did so. He had to halt for a moment or so until his eyes were toned down to the night a little. “Pitch!” he said. He stood for a space to season his eyes before he felt justified in striking out for a black gap among the adjacent tents. The artist coming out behind him fell over a tent rope. It was half-past two o’clock in the morning of the darkest night in time, and against a sky of dull black silk the enemy was talking searchlights, a wild jabber of searchlights. “He’s trying to blind our riflemen,” said the war correspondent with a flash, and waited for the artist and then set off with a sort of discreet haste again. “Whoa!” he said, presently. “Ditches!”
“It’s the confounded searchlights,” said the war correspondent.
They saw lanterns going to and fro, near by, and men falling in to march down to the trenches. They were for following them, and then the artist began to feel his night eyes. “If we scramble this,” he said, “and it’s only a drain, there’s a clear run up to the ridge.” And that way they took. Lights came and went in the tents behind, as the men turned out, and ever and again they came to broken ground and staggered and stumbled. But in a little while they drew near the crest. Something that sounded like the impact of a very important railway accident happened in the air above them, and the shrapnel bullets seethed about them like a sudden handful of hail. “Right-ho!” said the war correspondent, and soon they judged they had come to the crest and stood in the midst of a world of great darkness and frantic glares, whose principal fact was sound.
Right and left of them and all about them was the uproar, an army-full of magazine fire, at first chaotic and monstrous and then, eked out by little flashes and gleams and suggestions, taking the beginnings of a shape. It looked to the war correspondent as though the enemy must have attacked in line and which his whole force—in which case he was either being or was already annihilated.
“Dawn and the Dead,” he said, with his instinct for headlines. He said this to himself, but afterwards, by means of shouting, he conveyed an idea to the artist. “They must have meant it for a surprise,” he said.
It was remarkable how the firing kept on. After a time he began to perceive a sort of rhythm in this inferno of noise. It would decline—decline perceptibly, droop towards something that was comparatively a pause—a pause of inquiry.
“Aren’t you all dead yet?” this pause seemed to say. The flickering fringe of rifle flashes would become attenuated and broken, and the whack-bang of the enemy’s big guns two miles away there would come up out of the deeps. Then suddenly, east or west of them, something would startle the rifles to a frantic outbreak again.
The war correspondent taxed his brain for some theory of conflict that would account for this, and was suddenly aware that the artist and he were vividly illuminated. He could see the ridge on which they stood and before them in black outline a file of riflemen hurrying down towards the nearer trenches. It became visible that a light rain was falling, and farther away towards the enemy was a clear space with men—“Our men?”—running across it in disorder. He saw one of those men throw up his hands and drop. And something else black and shining loomed up on the edge of the beam coruscating flashes; and behind it and far away a calm, white eye regarded the world. “Whit, whit, whit,” sang something in the air, and then the artist was running for cover, with the war correspondent behind him. Bang came shrapnel, bursting close at hand as it seemed, and our two men were lying flat in a dip in the ground, and the light and everything had gone again, leaving a vast note of interrogation upon the night.
The war correspondent came within bawling range. “What the deuce was it? Shooting our men down!”
“Black,” said the artist, “and like a fort. Not two hundred yards from the first trench.”
He sought for comparisons in his mind. “Something between a big blockhouse and a giant’s dish-cover,” he said.
“And they were running!” said the war correspondent.
“You’d run if a thing like that, searchlight to help it, turned up like a prowling nightmare in the middle night.”
They crawled to what they judged the edge of the dip and lay regarding the unfathomable dark. For a space they could distinguish nothing, and then a sudden convergence of the searchlights of both sides brought the strange thing out again. In that flickering pallor it had the effect of a large and clumsy black insect, an insect the size of an ironclad cruiser, crawling obliquely to the first line of trenches and firing shots out of portholes in its back.
And on its carcass the bullets must have been battering with more than the passionate violence of hail on a roof of tin.
Then in the twinkling of an eye the curtain of the dark had fallen again and the monster had vanished, but the crescendo of musketry marked its approach to the trenches.
They were beginning to talk about the thing to each other, when a flying bullet kicked dirt into the artist’s face, and they decided abruptly to crawl down into the cover of the trenches. They had got down with an unobtrusive persistence into the second line, before the dawn had grown clear enough for anything to be seen. They found themselves in a crowd of expectant riflemen, all noisily arguing about the thing that would happen next. The enemy’s contrivance had done execution upon the outlying men, it seemed, but they did not believe it would do any more. “Come the day and we’ll capture the lot of them,” said a burly soldier.
“Them?” said the war correspondent.
“They say there’s a regular string of ’em, crawling along the front of our lines . . . . Who cares?”
The darkness filtered away so imperceptibly that at no moment could one declare decisively that one could see. The searchlights ceased to sweep hither and thither. The enemy’s monsters were dubious patches of darkness upon the dark, and then no longer dubious, and so they crept out into distinctness. The war correspondent, munching chocolate absent-mindedly, beheld at last a spacious picture of battle under the cheerless sky, whose central focus was an array of fourteen or fifteen huge clumsy shapes lying in perspective on the very edge of the first line of trenches, at intervals of perhaps three hundred yards, and evidently firing down upon the crowded riflemen. They were so close in that the defender’s guns had ceased, and only the first line of trenches was in action.
The second line commanded the first, and as the light grew the war correspondent could make out the riflemen who were fighting these monsters, crouched in knots and crowds behind the transverse banks that crossed the trenches against the eventuality of an enfilade. The trenches close to the big machines were empty save for the crumpled suggestions of dead and wounded men; the defenders had been driven right and left as soon as the prow of this land ironclad had loomed up over the front of the trench. He produced his field-glass, and was immediately a center of inquiry from the soldiers about him.
They wanted to look, they asked questions, and after he had announced that the men across the traverses seemed unable to advance or retreat, and were crouching under cover rather than fighting, he found it advisable to loan his glasses to a burly and incredulous corporal. He heard a strident voice, and found a lean and sallow soldier at his back talking to the artist.
“There’s chaps down there caught,” the man was saying. “If they retreat they got to expose themselves, and the fire’s too straight . . . .”
“They aren’t firing much, but every shot’s a hit.”
“The chaps in that thing. The men who’re coming up——”
“Coming up where?”
“We’re evacuating them trenches where we can. Our chaps are coming back up the zigzags . . . . No end of ’em hit . . . . But when we get clear our turn’ll come. Rather! These things won’t be able to cross a trench or get into it; and before they can get back our guns’ll smash ’em up. Smash ’em right up. See?” A brightness came into his eyes. “Then we’ll have a go at the beggar inside,” he said . . . .
The war correspondent thought for a moment, trying to realize the idea. Then he set himself to recover his field-glasses from the burly corporal . . .
The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak, grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled-looking dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack . . . .
He lowered his glasses and took a more comprehensive view of the situation. These creatures of the night had evidently won the first line of trenches and the fight had come to a pause. In the increasing light he could make out by a stray shot or a chance exposure that the defender’s marksmen were lying thick in the second and third line of trenches up towards the low crest of the position, and in such of the zigzags as gave them a chance of a converging fire. The men about him were talking of the guns. “We’re in the line of the big guns at the crest but they’ll soon shift one to pepper them,” the lean man said, reassuringly.
“Whup,” said the corporal:
“Bang! bang! bang! Whir-r-r-r-r.” It was a sort of nervous jump and all the rifles were going off by themselves. The war correspondent found himself and the artist, two idle men crouching behind a line of pre-occupied-backs of industrious men discharging magazines. The monster had moved. It continued to move regardless of the hail that splashed its skin with bright new specks of lead. It was singing a mechanical little ditty to itself, “Tuf-tuf, tuf-tuf, tuf-tuf,” and squirting out little jets of steam behind. It had humped itself up, as a limpet does before it crawls; it had lifted its skirt and displayed along the length of it—feet! They were thick, stumpy feet, between knobs and buttons in shape-flat, broad things, reminding one of the feet of elephants or the legs of caterpillars; and then, as the skirt rose higher, the War correspondent, scrutinizing the thing through his glasses again, saw that these feet hung, as it were, on the rims of wheels. His thoughts whirled back to Victoria Street, Westminster, and he saw himself in the piping times of peace, seeking matter for an interview.
“Mr.—Mr. Diplock,” he said; “and he called them Pedrails . . . Fancy meeting them here!”
The marksman beside him raised his head and shoulders in a speculative mood to fire more certainly—it seemed so natural to assume the attention of the monster must be distracted by this trench before it—and was suddenly knocked backwards by a bullet through his neck. His feet flew up, and he vanished out of the margin of the watcher’s field of vision. The war correspondent grovelled tighter, but after a glance behind him at a painful little confusion, he resumed his field-glass, for the thing was putting down its feet one after the other, and hoisting itself farther and farther over the trench. Only a bullet in the head could have stopped him looking just then.
The lean man with the strident voice ceased firing to turn and reiterate his point. “They can’t possibly cross,” he bawled. “They——”
“Bang! Bang! Bang, bang!”—drowned everything.
The lean man continued speaking for a word or so, then gave it up, shook his head to enforce the impossibility of anything crossing a trench like the one below, and resumed business once more.
And all the while that great bulk was crossing. When the war correspondent turned his glass on it again it had bridged the trench, and its queer feet were rasping away at the farther bank, in the attempt to get a hold there. It got its hold. It continued to crawl until the greater bulk or it was over the trench—until it was all over. Then it paused for a moment, adjusted its skirt a little nearer the ground, give an unnerving “toot, toot,” and came on abruptly at a pace of, perhaps, six miles an hour straight up the gentle slope towards our observer.
The war correspondent raised himself on his elbow and looked a natural inquiry at the artist.
For a moment the men about him stuck to their position and fired furiously. Then the lean man in a mood of precipitancy slid backwards, and the war correspondent said “Come along” to the artist, and led the movement along the trench. As they dropped down, the vision of a hillside of trench being rushed by a dozen vast cockroaches disappeared for a space, and instead was one of a narrow passage, crowded with men, for the most part receding, though one or two turned or halted. He never turned back to see the nose of the monster creep over the brow of the trench; he never even troubled to keep in touch with the artist. He heard the “whit” of bullets about him soon enough, and saw a man before him stumble and drop, and then he was one of a furious crowd fighting to get into a transverse zigzag ditch that enabled the defenders to get under cover up and down the hill. It was like a theatre panic. He gathered from signs and fragmentary words that on ahead another of these monsters had also won to the second trench.
He lost his interest in the general course of the battle for a space altogether; he became simply a modest egotist, in a mood of hasty circumspection, seeking the farthest rear, amidst a dispersed multitude of disconcerted riflemen similarly employed. He scrambled down through trenches, he took his courage in both hands and sprinted across the open, he had moments of panic when it seemed madness not to be quadrupedal, and moments of shame when he stood up and faced about to see how the fight was going. And he was one of many thousand very similar men that morning. On the ridge he halted in a knot of scrub, and was for a few minutes almost minded to stop and see things out.
The day was now fully come. The grey sky had changed to blue, and of all the cloudy masses of the dawn there remained only a few patches of dissolving fleeciness The world below was bright and singularly clear. The ridge was not, perhaps, more than a hundred feet or so above the general plain, but in this flat region it sufficed to give the effect of extensive view. Away on the north side of the ridge, little and far, were the camps, the ordered waggons, all the gear of a big army; with officers galloping about and men doing aimless things, Here and there men were falling-in, however and the cavalry was forming up on the plain beyond the tents. The bulk of men who had been in the trenches were still on the move to the rear, scattered like sheep without a shepherd over the farther slopes. Here and there were little rallies and attempts to wait and do- something vague; but the general drift was away from any concentration. Then on the southern side was the elaborate lacework of trenches and defenses, across which these iron turtles, fourteen of them spread out over a line of perhaps three miles, were now advancing as fast as a man could trot, and methodically shooting down and breaking up any persistent knots of resistance. Here and there stood little clumps of men, outflanked and unable to get away, showing the white flag, and the invader’s cyclist infantry was advancing now across the open, in open order but unmolested, to complete the work of the machines. So far as the day went, the defenders already looked a beaten army. A mechanism that effectually ironclad against bullets, that could at a pinch cross a thirty-foot trench, and that seemed able to shoot out rifle-bullets with unerring precision, was clearly an inevitable victor against anything but rivers, precipices, and guns.
He looked at his watch. “Half-past four! Lord! What things can happen in two hours. Here’s the whole blessed army being walked over, and at half-past two—
“And even now our blessed louts haven’t done a thing with their guns!”
He scanned the ridge right and left of him with his glasses. He turned again to the nearest land ironclad, advancing now obliquely to him and not three hundred yards away, and then scrambled the ground over which he must retreat if he was not to be captured.
“They’ll do nothing,” he said, and glanced again at the enemy. And then from far away to the left came the thud of a gun, followed very rapidly by a rolling gun-fire. He hesitated and decided to stay.