The Prayer of the Men of Daleswood

He said: "There were only twenty houses in Daleswood. A place you would scarcely have heard of. A village up top of the hills.

"When the war came there was no more than thirty men there between sixteen and forty-five. They all went.

"They all kept together: same battalion, same platoon. They was like that in Daleswood. Used to call the hop-pickers foreigners, the ones that come from London. They used to go past Daleswood, some of them, every year, on their way down to the hop-fields. Foreigners they used to call them. Kept very much to themselves did the Daleswood people. Big woods all round them.

"Very lucky they was, the Daleswood men. They'd lost no more than five killed and a good sprinkling of wounded. But all the wounded was back again with the platoon. This was up to March, when the big offensive started.

"It came very sudden. No bombardment to speak of. Just a burst of Tok Emmas going off all together and lifting the front trench clean out of it; then a barrage behind, and the Boche pouring over in thousands. `Our luck is holding good,' the Daleswood men said, for their trench wasn't getting it at all. But the platoon on their right got it. And it sounded bad, too, a long way beyond that. No one could be quite sure. But the platoon on their right was getting it: that was sure enough.

"And then the Boche got through them altogether. A message came to say so. `How are things on the right?' they said to the runner. `Bad,' said the runner; and he went back, though Lord knows what he went back to. The Boche was through right enough.

"`We'll have to make a defensive flank,' said the platoon commander. He was a Daleswood man, too. Came from the big farm. He slipped down a communication trench with a few men, mostly bombers. And they reckoned they wouldn't see any of them any more, for the Boche was on the right, thick as starlings.

"The bullets were snapping over thick to keep them down while the Boche went on on the right: machine guns, of course. The barrage was screaming well over and dropping far back, and their wire was still all right just in front of them when they put up a head to look. They was the left platoon of the battalion. One doesn't bother, somehow, so much about another battalion as one's own. One's own gets sort of homely. And there they were wondering how their own officer was getting on, and the few fellows with him, on his defensive flank. The bombs were going off thick. All the Daleswood men were firing half-right. It sounded from the noise as if it couldn't last long, as if it would soon be decisive, and the battle be won, or lost, just there on the right, and perhaps the war ended. They didn't notice the left. Nothing to speak of.

"Then a runner came from the left. `Hullo!' they said. `How are things over there?'

"`The Boche is through,' he said. `Where's the officer?'

"`Through!' they said. It didn't seem possible. However did he do that? they thought. And the runner went on to the right to look for the officer.

"And then the barrage shifted farther back. The shells still screamed over them, but the bursts were farther away. That is always a relief. Probably they felt it. But it was bad, for all that. Very bad. It meant the Boche was well past them. They realized it after a while.

"They and their bit of wire were somehow just between two waves of attack. Like a bit of stone on the beach with the sea coming in. A platoon was nothing to the Boche: nothing much perhaps just then to anybody. But it was the whole of Daleswood for one long generation.

"The youngest full-grown man they had left behind was fifty, and someone had heard that he had died since the war. There was no one else in Daleswood but women and children, and boys up to seventeen.

"The bombing had stopped on their right, everything was quieter, and the barrage farther away. When they began to realize what that meant, they began to talk of Daleswood. And then they thought that when all of them were gone there would be nobody who would remember Daleswood just as it used to be. For places alter a little, woods grow, and changes come: trees get cut down, old people die; new houses are built now and then in place of a yew-tree, or any old thing, that used to be there before; and one way or another the old things go; and all the time you have people thinking that the old times were best, and the old ways when they were young. And the Daleswood men were beginning to say: `Who would there be to remember it just as it was?'

"There was no gas, the wind being wrong for it, so they were able to talk -- that is, if they shouted, for the bullets alone made as much noise as breaking up an old shed, crisper like, more like new timber breaking; and the shells, of course, was howling all the time, that is the barrage that was bursting far back. The trench still stank of them.

"They said that one of them must go over and put his hands up, or run away if he could, whichever he liked, and when the war was over he would go to some writing fellow, one of those what makes a living by it, and tell him all about Daleswood, just as it used to be, and he would write it out proper, and there it would be for always. They all agreed to that. And then they talked a bit, as well as they could above that awful screeching, to try and decide who it should be. The eldest, they said, would know Daleswood best. But he said, and they came to agree with him, that it would be a sort of waste to save the life of a man what had had his good time, and they ought to send the youngest, and they would tell him all they knew of Daleswood before his time, and everything would be written down just the same, and the old time remembered.

"They had the idea, somehow, that the women thought more of their own man and their children and the washing and what-not, and that the deep woods and the great hills beyond, and the ploughing and the harvest and snaring rabbits in winter, and the sports in the village in summer, and the hundred things that pass the time of one generation in an old old place like Daleswood, meant less to them than the men. Anyhow, they did not quite seem to trust them with the past. The youngest of them was only just eighteen. That was Dick. They told him to get out and put his hands up, and be quick getting across, as soon as they had told him one or two things about the old time in Daleswood that a youngster like him wouldn't know.

"Well, Dick said he wasn't going, and was making trouble about it; so they told Fred to go. Back, they told him, was best, and come up behind the Boche with his hands up; they would be less likely to shoot when it was back towards their own supports.

"Fred wouldn't go, and so on with the rest. Well, they didn't waste time quarrelling, time being scarce, and they said: What was to be done?

"There was chalk where they were, low down in the trench, a little brown clay on the top of it. There was a great block of it loose near a shelter. They said they would carve with their knives on the big boulder of chalk all that they knew about Daleswood. They would write where it was and just what it was like, and they would write something of all those little things that pass with a generation. They reckoned on having the time for it. It would take a direct hit with something large, what they call big stuff, to do any harm to that boulder. They had no confidence in paper, it got so messed up when you were hit; besides, the Boche had been using thermite. Burns, that does.

"They'd one or two men that were handy at carving chalk; used to do the regimental crest and pictures of Hindenburg, and all that. They decided they'd do it in reliefs.

"They started smoothing the chalk. They had nothing more to do but just to think what to write. It was a great big boulder with plenty of room on it. The Boche seemed not to know that they hadn't killed the Daleswood men, just as the sea mightn't know that one stone stayed dry at the coming in of the tide. A gap between two divisions, probably. "Harry wanted to tell of the woods more than anything. He was afraid they might cut them down because of the war, and no one would know of the larks they had had there as boys. Wonderful old woods they were, with a lot of Spanish chestnut growing low, and tall old oaks over it. Harry wanted them to write down what the foxgloves were like in the wood at the end of summer, standing there in the evening. `Great solemn rows,' he said, `all odd in the dusk. All odd in the evening, going there after work, and makes you think of fairies.' There was lots of things about those woods, he said, that ought to be put down if people were to remember Daleswood as it used to be when they knew it. What were the good old days without those woods? he said.

"But another wanted to tell of the time when they cut hay with scythes, working all those long days at the end of June; there would be no more of that, he said, with machines come in and all.

"There was room to tell of all that, and the woods too, said the others, so long as they put it short like.

"And another wanted to tell of the valleys beyond the wood, far afield, where the men went working; the women would remember the hay. The great valleys he'd tell of. It was they that made Daleswood. The valleys beyond the wood, and the twilight on them in summer. Slopes covered with mind and thyme, all solemn at evening. A hare on them perhaps, sitting as though they were his, then lolloping slowly away. It didn't seem, from the way he told of those old valleys, that he thought they could ever be to other folk what they were to the Daleswood men in the days he remembered. He spoke of them as though there were something in them, besides the mint and the thyme and the twilight and hares, that would not stay after these men were gone, though he did not say what it was. Scarcely hinted it, even.

"And still the Boche did nothing to the Daleswood men. The bullets had ceased altogether. That made it much quieter. The shells still snarled over, bursting far, far away.

"And Bob said tell of Daleswood itself, the old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood. There weren't houses like that nowadays. They'd be building new ones and spoiling it, likely, after the war. And that was all he had to say.

"And nobody was for not putting down anything anyone said. It was all to go in on the chalk, as much as would go in the time. For they all sort of understood that the Daleswood of what they called the good old time was just the memories that those few men had of the days they had spent there together. And that was the Daleswood they loved, and wanted folks to remember. They were all agreed as to that. And then they said how was they to write it down. And when it came to writing there was so much to be said, not spread over a lot of paper I don't mean, but going down so deep like, that it seemed to them how their own talk wouldn't be good enough to say it. And they knew no other, and didn't know what to do. I reckon they'd been reading magazines, and thought that writing had to be like that muck. Anyway they didn't know what to do. I reckon their talk would be good enough for Daleswood when they loved Daleswood like that. But they didn't, and they were puzzled.

"The Boche was miles away behind them now, and his barrage with him. Still in front he did nothing.

"They talked it all over and over did the Daleswood men. They tried everything. But somehow or other they couldn't get near what they wanted to say about old summer evenings. Time wore on. The boulder was smooth and ready, and that whole generation of Daleswood men could find no words to say what was in their hearts about Daleswood. There wasn't time to waste. And the only thing they thought of in the end was: `Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be.' And Bill and Harry carved that on the chalk between them.

"What happened to the Daleswood men? Why, nothing. There come one of them counter-attacks, a regular bastard for Jerry. The French made it, and did the Boche in proper. I got the story from a man with a hell of a great big hammer, long afterwards, when that trench was well behind our line. He was smashing up a huge great chunk of chalk because he said they all felt it was so dam silly."