By James Frances
The second draft for overseas service was very much like the first, and, for that matter, it differed little from those that were to follow. It was the same heterogeneous collection of saints and sinners, rich and poor the good, the bad, and the utterly indifferent, sharing the same characteristics as the others. Their common trait was a good physique, their common anxiety was to get over there, and their common fear was that all would be over before they could get there. And these characteristics held them together in spite of orderly-room sergeants, and inoculations, and physical jerks, and the thousand and one petty annoyances of army routine. They were a motley assortment, indeed. Smart looking ex-Imperials rubbed shoulders with the latest graduates from the awkward squad, who had but lately acquired the art of lifting one foot past the other with some semblance of measure. The hard-boiled marched and slept and ate with the tenderfoot, and managed somehow to keep from treading on his toes. The down-town business man meekly right-turned and formed-fours and galloped distractedly in open formation at the peremptory command of his erstwhile shipping clerk. A motley assortment, indeed. But no one had yet dreamt of Ypres, or Vimy Ridge, or of the Canadians entering Mons.
Nobody had paid much attention to McAllister before the arrival of the draft at Shorncliffe. The few whom the fortune of war had thrown in contact with him had given little thought to the matter and were generally content, when his queerness was mentioned, to pass it off with a joke or a suggestive tap on the forehead. To put it more plainly, the Platoon was of the opinion that poor Mac was mildly and harmlessly insane, and a subject of speculation to some of the more reflective minds was how he managed to enlist, and why. Not that there was anything in his appearance to suggest that he had “put one over” on the medical examiner. He walked, talked, and acted outwardly as any sober and rational person would do, and if a strange light would shine at times in those candid blue eyes no one gave it more than a passing thought. For those were stirring days when the hardest and the steadiest would suddenly find themselves the centre of an emotional vortex, when sensations hitherto unexperienced would seize upon the fabric of the nervous system and thrill its owner to an emotional standstill. There was no lack of stimuli, and McAllister, on account of his highly temperamental character, probably received more than his share. It was generally conceded, in any case, that there were lots on the effective much crazier than he. And Mac had shown himself a model soldier. He was a good man on parade, and he was always attentive, obedient, cheerful and willing. He was consequently esteemed by the officers and the non-coms, and he was liked by his comrades, but, curiously enough, he had no intimate friend or crony. While the rest of the gang were enjoying a few hours’ leave after a hard day’s training, or flitting around the various little distractions which the camp afforded, Mac could invariably be found in his cot, reading his Bible. And the din and racket occasioned by the bed-time preparation of half a hundred rough and tumble soldiers would always soften a little while Mac knelt down, on his bare knees, for a few minutes of silent prayer which preceded “Lights Out.”
One of the few subjects which Mac liked to discuss was the probable cause of the war. “The Germans,” he was once heard to say, “were a good people, but they have turned away from the Lord.” An impious listener pleasantly inquired if it were McAllister’s mission to bring the wanderers back to the fold, but Mac merely turned a compassionate eye in his direction and smiled rather sadly. He was clearly aggrieved that anyone could approach so serious a subject in so frivolous a spirit. We were not left long in doubt, however, as to the nature of his mission. To a few of the older and more serious minded men McAllister one evening suggested that plans be made for the launching of a stirring religious revival. The need for a movement of this kind was evidently urgent. He had little faith in the efficacy of the conventional agencies – religion sandwiched between cheerful songs and coffee and cakes was too easy-going altogether – and the time was at hand when the work of salvation must be taken up more earnestly. He had a vision, he said, in which his own figure had appeared clothed in a Highlander uniform, leading the Platoon in a victorious charge on the battlefield. His listeners, unfortunately, were not greatly impressed by his proposal, or perhaps they lacked the all essential enthusiasm which Mac was vainly endeavoring to instil. In any case, nothing was done; the boys continued to frequent the Y.M.C.A. and the Methodist Mission, to roar out hymns and imbibe hot tea, and Mac reluctantly relapsed into his accustomed reserve. The rumors which had been associating the second overseas draft with a Highland battalion suddenly ceased and a few days later we were on our way to reinforce the –th.
We had been in the front line just three or four days when I was awakened, one morning, by the sound of a heated altercation going on directly in front of the dug-out. The stentorian voice of the Company Sergeant-Major was insistently commanding someone to come down and to stay down, and each of the commands, as they issued from under the stubborn mustache of the C.S.M., was accompanied by a long and loud volley of hair-raising expletives. After the storm had somewhat subsided, I cautiously withdrew the gunny sack which served for a front door, and peered out anxiously into the bay. Against the parapet stood McAllister, flushed and obviously annoyed, grasping his rifle so tightly that the veins stood out in knotted lumps on his hands. Further along the section the C.S.M. could be heard raging away, the sound growing fainter in the distance. Grabbing my own rifle I trailed along in his wake and arrived at Company headquarters in time to hear him make his report. He had to complain, it appeared, of the conduct of Private McAllister, who insisted on standing on the firing step, with his head and shoulders showing above the parapet in full view of the enemy, after the danger of such a practice had been repeatedly pointed out to him. When remonstrated with, Private McAllister would only reply that a Higher Power than the Company Sergeant-Major was protecting him, and that no harm could touch him. The Company Commander’s usual cheerful grin had disappeared completely by the time the C.S.M. had completed his narrative, and after some discussion it was agreed that Private McAllister should be sent to the rear as soon as the battalion was relived, and would not be permitted in future to return to the line.
It happened the following morning. Mac was standing on the firing step in his usual position, and I was busily engaged scraping the mud off my legs with a Lee Enfield bayonet. I had just warned Mac of the danger to which he was exposed, but he had taken no heed. I was looking at him as he stood there, his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat, his rifle resting in the crook of his arm, waiting for him to speak. A few words left his lips when – CRACK! – the phrase was cut short, and poor McAllister fell forwards on his knees, his jugular severed by a sniper’s bullet. Shrieking for stretcher-bearers, I hastened to render whatever help I could, but Mac was already beyond the reach of all human aid.
We placed him on the low parados and covered him with sheet and blanket until the night would come when we could carry him out for burial. The smile of the old days was still on his lips, and the sightless eyes were staring, wide open, into eternity….