“If you boys want to see your sweethearts again, shut up, all of you!” warned the sergeant in a desperate breathless tone.
Straightaway they knew what it meant and all the men fell silent. They listened. The corporal with the new device set it quietly against the tunnel wall and listened on his headphones.
Those that could see him looked at the corporal for a sign – good or bad. The corporal listened and listened and then grimaced. His young grey face twitched with tension. A nod and a gesture with his fist told the sergeant all he needed to know. German tunnelers were only a few feet away on the other side of the limestone wall.
The sergeant drew his revolver and as he did so the rest of the men drew long bladed knives. Guns were not much use down the tunnels as they soon got clogged with mud and dust. They were no use in close quarter fighting anyway and you risked shooting one for your own. Knives and bayonets were more practical weapons. But the sergeant was an old fashioned cuss and kept his gun in a sealed bag for reassurance.
Fearful moments passed in silence: waiting for something to happen. They could hear the German voices on the other side now. They were closer, inches away. The silence was broken by a voice up at the tunnel face:
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.” 2
It ended with a youthful giggle. It was a Scottish accent. Young Jack from Fife had a habit of reciting poetry. He wrote some too. But this wasn’t one of his. He was suffering from shell shock after the Somme and had been sent down the tunnels to give him a rest from the shelling. The “rest” wasn’t working. His poetry recitals were becoming manic and now they were dangerous to one and all.
“Shut that young bastard up” pleaded the sergeant in a whisper to the men near Jack at the face.
The man nearest Jack swung a heavy fist catching young Jack full on his giggling face. He slumped over, unconscious and silent.
Then it happened.
The tunnel exploded in mayhem as the Germans broke through in a bull like charge. They came at the waiting Tommie’s with knives and bayonets flashing. Screams went up as men yelled at each other like wild beasts before plunging forward for the kill or to be killed. There was a frenzy of stabbing and gouging and strangling. The sergeant’s only shot killed himself as his gun was turned on him in a furious brawl.
Then it was over and silence returned to the tunnel. It had taken not much more than a minute of furious butchery. Killing in such a confined space was a fast business. There was nowhere to hide or to run to. Someone groaned. A quick thrust of a German bayonet restored the silence.
Shadowy figures moved in the tunnel: all German. The British were dead to a man: their blood splattered all around their well-engineered tunnel, darkly staining the pale limestone rock. Softly and efficiently the Germans withdrew. Their murderous attack would have been heard throughout the tunnel system and British reinforcements would be on their way.
Young Jack came to in the deathly murk. He smell of blood and the dead had revived him just like a dose of salts. He had been presumed dead in the melee and had escaped unscathed: apart from a sore head from the punch. He stared around in the gloom. Still dazed, all he knew was the way out towards the sound of approaching help. He clambered over the still warm bodies towards the shaft. As he did so another recitation came forth from young Jack:
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Jack giggled again as he gripped the ladder and began hauling himself up the shaft, glancing back at his slaughtered comrades one last time. As he did so the tunnel erupted below him in in an explosion of rock and dust and horrendous noise. The Germans had blown the tunnel to prevent access to their own network. With this the dead tunnelers were buried forever and without ceremony.
As the dust settled on this outrage young Jack could be seen continuing up the ladder towards the bright light ahead, smiling as he did so.
Lewis Carroll, Walrus & the Carpenter, 1871
Rudyard Kipling, If, 1910