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A Phantasy of the Trenches

A Phantasy of the Trenches

By T.K. Gwinnell

November, 1953


It was a quiet night, but somehow the tools in the company dump couldn’t get to sleep.

Perhaps they were over-tired; they’d been too tired to sleep many times, more times than they cared to think of, but they never complained’ on the contrary, they were rather proud of the fact that they worked twenty-four hours a day and never went into rest billets. The poor little despised mudscoop said some of ‘em bucked something awful about it. They were bucking tonight.


“I saved the boys right from the beginning,” said the shovel for the twentieth time. “Right from the beginning. Guess if anybody’s winning this ‘ere war, it’s me; I ought to write a book about it, I ought. Now, just you listen to me. I was at Mons, right through Mons Le Cateau…”


“Oh! I know, I know,” broke in the pick. “More battle honours than the Rifle Brigade and the Black Watch put together. Oh! you’re a wonder, you are, a perfect little wonder, but where would you be without me, I’d like to know? I come first, and don’t you forget it. You’re all right for soft stuff, but on gravel – now what would you do alone on gravel?”


The other tools listened patiently; they’d heard all these arguments so many times before, and sometimes they had to wait such a long time before they could speak for themselves.


An old pump stirred in the corner. “You two talk a lot,” he wheezed. “Can you remember the winter, or have you only just come out? Do you remember when it rained, how the water rose one, two, three and, in places, four feet? Who kept it under, who saved the boys then?”


“I did!” squealed an old gum boot, half buried in mud at the bottom of the dump. “I kept their feet dry when the pumps broke down. I prevented frostbite and trench foot. Trench foot knocked out more men than Boche bullets the winter before I came. I saved the boys!”


And a tin of frostbite grease in the Sergeant-Major’s dugout next door fairly boiled on its shelf; the gum boot was taking too much on itself. The frostbite grease knew many things, but it couldn’t make itself heard, so it continued to bubble and boil on its shelf till the Sergeant-Major thought it was a rat and threw a boot at it and cursed its ancestors, so it had to be quiet.


But it would have liked to have told the others who it was that helped to light those precious little fires in the winter, when everything that wasn’t damp was wet, and a little grease made just all the difference – who, with the aid of a piece of flannelette as a wick, was often the sole means of lighting a dug-out during those long, dreary nights. However, it was always much abused, and had got used to working in silence. But, oh! it would have liked to have crossed swords with that gum boot!


A rusty old brazier then rattled, stirred itself, and in a rasping voice, like a file working overtime said: “Who kept the boys warm during the frost and snow, tell me that?”


And, as if that had settled the matter, he tried to go to sleep, but a rum jar laughed so uproariously that he didn’t get a chance. The rum jar had a very bass, mellow laugh, and he laughed till his sides were in danger of cracking. “You know,” he said, between deep chuckles, “what the boys think of me. Why argue about it?” And being quite certain that did settle it, he chuckled again.


“Say!” said a rifle that was leaning up against the dug-out door. “Gosh! you dumb idiots make me tired.” He was a colonial rifle, so he spoke the language; but he spoke in a very, very tired, weary voice. He seemed a very, very tired, weary rifle; he had a bulged barrel, and was on his way to the land where the good rifles go.


On his stock were a lot of little scratches – scratches that at a first glance might escape observation; but the rifle knew they were there, was proud of ‘em, and had cause to be; they were his medal ribbons. “Tell me,” he went on, “who fought for the boys, who is the soldier’s best friend, his pal? The way you talk, one would think it was a durned building society we were running out here instead of a war. You’re only a lot o’ blamed tools when all’s said and done; you don’t fight!”


“I’ve stopped my man!” said the little mud-scoop excitedly, “I’ve put my man out of step. It was on a dark night when they tried to raid us. There wasn’t much wire, ‘cos we were so close, and they just crept in. I bet they wish they hadn’t. A sentry fired and gave the warning, and the boys tumbled out before you could say ‘knife’. A stretcher-bearer bloke picked me up and ‘biff!’ right on Fritz’s head! I did give him a oner, a proper oner; outed him, I did. Got the stains on me now,” wound up the little fellow breathlessly.


A Mill’s bomb in the store got so hot and excited over all this that he nearly went off. He remembered that night, too, and thought he would get called out; but he didn’t have any luck; a bomber did come and empty him and his eleven little brothers (Mill’s bombs always grow up in families of twelve) into a canvas bucket, but they weren’t used, so next morning they were all carefully greased and put back again into their little wooden box of a home.


How disappointed they all were, for they were fine little fellows, these bombs, and wanted to make their one appearance so badly. They had been well brought up, and used to pray every night, before going to sleep, that when they died they might lodge in some part of the body of a nice, fat Boche. It was their idea of Elysium, and they were always ready, waiting for their chance.


The mud-scoop’s story caused most frightful commotion among the tools. Quite forgetting the etiquette of the dump, they all started speaking at once. The spade tried to tell what it had done to a Hun’s face, but it was drowned by a pick who had killed a rat, and everybody was shouting and making so much noise that the officer on duty, who happened to be passing at the time on his way to see the Sergeant-Major, said: “Damn these something rats, they’ll be eating us next.” And “Granny” barked and roared from about three miles back: “Shut up, you kids! You’re always arguing about who does the most for the boys, when you know very well that it’s me and mine that save the line.”


“Hear! Hear!” barked a field battery, and the other section followed with “Hear! Hear!” thirty seconds later. Field batteries always back up “Granny” whatever she says. Gunners are wonderful people for sticking together.


As soon as “Granny” had spoken, Boche sent up three flares in quick succession to see what it was all about, and the tools had to close their eyes, which can’t stand any light, and that is why you never see them.


When they opened their eyes again they found a queer little fellow sitting on an upturned pail in the middle of the dump. He was a funny, brown-skinned little chap, and I regret to say that he wore no clothes, though he didn’t seem the least bit cold. There he was, just like a perfectly made Greek God, smiling at everybody.


“Excuse me, sir,” said the spade. “But how the devil did you get here, and who or what are you?”


The little chap laughed and said: “Your first question is easy. You see I have a season on the Moonbeam Railway. I’ve also a free pass on the Falling Star Line, so I had a choice of routes. As a matter of fact, I changed at Piccadilly, and just caught a fast Star, and here I am. Now, as to who or what I am, I must say I think ‘what’ was very rude of you,” and the smiling little face made such huge efforts to look hurt that the dump simply rocked with laughter.


“I’m awfully sorry, sir,” said the spade, “but I haven’t the ghost of a notion who you are. Are you Cupid, or ‘Fumbs Up!’, or ‘Billiken’? Won’t you tell us?”


“Well,” sighed the little fellow, “it isn’t often that I’m not recognised, and to be taken for Cupid does seem a little hard; but as none of you seem to know me, I shall have to introduce myself.


Gentlemen, I am the Spirit of Sport, and I have come tonight to tell you about my work, to thank you for your help, and to settle your little differences for all time.


“In the first place, let me tell you that I am as old as the British race; it was I that got into the veins of Raleigh, Hawkins, and Drake, and made them play with death, and win! It was sport in those days, and its sport still. I’ve been at the game ever since.


“Whenever a man child is born I am in his blood. I make him restless; I make him long for the sea and the open spaces of the world. Above all, I make him love a fight – whether it be against Nature, scratching a hard-earned living from a barren soil, or fighting impossible seas in a ridiculous boat, it matters not – it’s a fight. And so long as there’s a weaker side, a forlorn hope, or a cause to fight for, they’ll fight; and because they never know when they are beaten, they never will be beaten.


“It was I that seethed and boiled in the colonial’s blood till he left his shack, went down into the township, and said: ‘Boys, it’s a ruddy war, but it’s better than no war at all; guess it’s good enough for me, and I’m going;”



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