Can the die fall which side up it will? Nay, not if it be honest.—Eastern Proverb.
MANY a league our infantry advanced that night, the guns following, getting the new range by a miracle each time they took new ground. We went forward, too, at the cost of many casualties—too many in proportion to the work we did. We were fired on in the darkness more than once by our own infantry. We, who had lost but seventy-two men killed and wounded in the charge, were short another hundred when the day broke and nothing to the good by it.
Getting lost in the dark—falling into shell-holes—swooping down on rear-guards that generally proved to have machine guns with them —weary men on hungrier, wearier horses—the wonder is that a man rode back to tell of it at dawn.
One-hundred-and-two-and-seventy were our casualties, and some two hundred horses—some of the men so lightly wounded that they were back in the ranks within the week. At dawn they sent us to the rear to rest, we being too good a target for the enemy by daylight. Some of us rode two to a horse. On our way to the camp the French had pitched for us we passed through reinforcements coming from another section of the front, who gave us the right of way, and we took the salute of two divisions of French infantry who, I suppose, had been told of the service we had rendered. Said I to Gooja Singh, who sat on my horse's rump, his own beast being disembowelled, "Who speaks now of a poor beginning?" said I.
"I would rather see the end!" said he. But he never saw the end. Gooja Singh was ever too impatient of beginnings, and too sure what the end ought to be, to make certain of the middle part. I have known men on outpost duty so far-seeing that an enemy had them at his mercy if only he could creep close enough. And such men are always grumblers.
Gooja Singh led the grumbling now—he who had been first to prophesy how we should be turned into infantry. They kept us at the rear, and took away our horses—took even our spurs, making us drill with unaccustomed weapons. And I think that the beginning of the new distrust of Ranjoor Singh was in resentment at his patience with the bayonet drill. We soldiers are like women, sahib, ever resentful of the new—aye, like women in more ways than one; for whom we have loved best we hate most when the change comes.
Once, at least a squadron of us had loved Ranjoor Singh to the death. He was a Sikh of Sikhs. It had been our boast that fire could not burn his courage nor love corrupt him, and I was still of that mind; but not so the others. They began to remember how he had stayed behind when we left India. We had all seen him in disguise, in conversation with that German by the Delhi Gate. We knew how busy he had been in the bazaars while the rumors flew. And the trooper who had stayed behind with him, who had joined us with him at the very instant of the charge that night, died in the charge; so that there was none to give explanation of his conduct. Ranjoor Singh himself was a very rock for silence. Our British officers said nothing, doubtless not suspecting the distrust; for it was a byword that Ranjoor Singh held the honor of the squadron in his hand. Yet of all the squadron only the officers and I now trusted him—the Sikh officers because they imitated the British; the British because faith is a habit with them, once pledged, and I —God knows. There were hours when I did distrust him—black hours, best forgotten.
The war settled down into a siege of trenches, and soon we were given a section of a trench to hold. Little by little we grew wise at the business of tossing explosives over blind banks—we, who would rather have been at it with the lance and saber. Yet, can a die fall which side up it will? Nay, not if it be honest! We were there to help. We who had carried coal could shovel mud, and as time went on we grumbled less.
But time hung heavy, and curiosity regarding Ranjoor Singh led from one conjecture to another. At last Gooja Singh asked Captain Fellowes, and he said that Ranjoor Singh had stayed behind to expose a German plot— that having done so, he had hurried after us. That explanation ought to have satisfied every one, and I think it did for a time. But who could hide from such a man as Ranjoor Singh that the squadron's faith in him was gone? That knowledge made him savage. How should we know that he had been forbidden to tell us what had kept him? When he set aside his pride and made us overtures, there was no response; so his heart hardened in him. Secrecy is good. Secrecy is better than all the lame explanations in the world. But in this war there has been too much secrecy in the wrong place. They should have let him line us up and tell us his whole story. But later, when perhaps he might have done it, either his pride was too great or his sense of obedience too tightly spun. To this day he has never told us. Not that it matters.
The subtlest fool is the worst, and Gooja Singh's tongue did not lack subtlety on occasion. He made it his business to remind the squadron daily of its doubts, and I, who should have known better, laughed at some of the things he said and agreed with others. One is the fool who speaks with him who listens. I have never been rebuked for it by Ranjoor Singh, and more than once since that day he has seen fit to praise me; but in that hour when most he needed friends I became his half-friend, which is worse than enemy. I never raised my voice once in defence of him in those days.
Meanwhile Ranjoor Singh grew very wise at this trench warfare, Colonel Kirby and the other British officers taking great comfort in his cunning. It was he who led us to tie strings to the German wire entanglements, which we then jerked from our trench, causing them to lie awake and waste much ammunition. It was he who thought of dressing turbans on the end of poles and thrusting them forward at the hour before dawn when fear and chill and darkness have done their worst work. That started a panic that cost the Germans eighty men.
I think his leadership would have won the squadron back to love him. I know it saved his life. We had all heard tales of how the British soldiers in South Africa made short work of the officers they did not love, and it would have been easy to make an end of Ranjoor Singh on any dark night. But he led too well; men were afraid to take the responsibility lest the others turn on them. One night I overheard two troopers considering the thought, and they suspected I had overheard. I said nothing, but they were afraid, as I knew they would be. Has the sahib ever heard of "left-hand casualties"? I will explain.
We Sikhs have a saying that in fear there is no wisdom. None can be wise and afraid. None can be afraid and wise. The men at the front, both Indian and British-French, too, for aught I know—who feared to fight longer in the trenches were seized in those early days with the foolish thought of inflicting some injury on themselves—not very severe, but enough to cause a spell of absence at the base and a rest in hospital. Folly being the substance of that idea, and most men being right-handed, such self-inflicted wounds were practically always in the hand or foot and always on the left side. The ambulance men knew them, on the instant.
Those two fools of my squadron wounded themselves with bullets in the left hand, forgetting that their palms would be burned by the discharge. I was sent to the rear to give evidence against them (for I saw them commit the foolishness). The cross-examination we all three underwent was clever— at the hands of a young British captain, who, I dare swear, was suckled by a Sikh nurse in the Punjab. In less than thirty minutes he had the whole story out of us; and the two troopers were shot that evening for an example.
That young captain was greatly impressed with the story we had told about Ranjoor Singh, and he called me back afterward and asked me a hundred questions more—until he must have known the very color of my entrails and I knew not which way I faced. To all of this a senior officer of the Intelligence Department listened with both ears, and presently he and the captain talked together.
The long and short of that was that Ranjoor Singh was sent for; and when he returned to the trench after two days' absence it was to work independently of us—from our trench, but irrespective of our doings. Even Colonel Kirby now had no orders to give him, although they two talked long and at frequent intervals in the place Colonel Kirby called his funk-hole. It was now that the squadron's reawakening love for Ranjoor Singh received the worst check of any. We had almost forgotten he knew German. Henceforward he conversed in German each day with the enemy.
It is a strange thing, sahib,—not easy to explain—but I, who have achieved some fluency in English and might therefore have admired his gift of tongues, now began to doubt him in earnest—hating myself the while, but doubting him. And Gooja Singh, who had talked the most and dropped the blackest hints against him, now began to take his side.
And Ranjoor Singh said nothing. Night after night he went to lie at the point where our trench and the enemy's lay closest. There he would talk with some one whom we never saw, while we sat shivering in the mud. Cold we can endure, sahib, as readily as any; it is colder in winter where I come from than anything I felt in Flanders; but the rain and the mud depressed our spirits, until with these two eyes I have seen grown men weeping.
They kept us at work to encourage us. Our spells in the trench were shortened and our rests at the rear increased to the utmost possible. Only Ranjoor Singh took no vacation, remaining ever on the watch, passing from one trench to another, conversing ever with the enemy.
We dug and they dug, each side laboring everlastingly to find the other's listening places and to blow them up by means of mining, so that the earth became a very rat-run. Above-ground, where were only ruin and barbed wire, there was no sign of activity, but only a great stench that came from bodies none dared bury. We were thankful that the wind blew oftenest from us to them; but whichever way the wind blew Ranjoor Singh knew no rest. He was ever to be found where the lines lay closest at the moment, either listening or talking. We understood very well that he was carrying out orders given him at the rear, but that did not make the squadron or the regiment like him any better, and as far as that went I was one with them; I hated to see a squadron leader stoop to such intrigues.
It was plain enough that some sort of intrigue was making headway, for the Germans soon began to toss over into our trench bundles of printed pamphlets, explaining in our tongue why they were our best friends and why therefore we should refuse to wage war on them. They threw printed bulletins that said, in good Punjabi, there was revolution from end to end of India, rioting in England, utter disaster to the British fleet, and that our way home again to India had been cut by the German war-ships. They must have been ignorant of the fact that we received our mail from India regularly. I have noticed this about the Germans: they are unable to convince themselves that any other people can appreciate the same things they appreciate, think as swiftly as they, or despise the terrors they despise. That is one reason why they must lose this war. But there are others also.
One afternoon, when I was pretending to doze in a niche near the entrance to Colonel Kirby's funk-hole, I became possessed of the key to it all; for Colonel Kirby's voice was raised more than once in anger. I understood at last how Ranjoor Singh had orders to deceive the Germans as to our state of mind. He was to make them believe we were growing mutinous and that the leaven only needed time in which to work; this of course for the purpose of throwing them off their guard.
My heart stopped beating while I listened, for what man hears his honor smirched without wincing? Even so I think I would have held my tongue, only that Gooja Singh, who dozed in a niche on the other side of the funk-hole entrance, heard the same as I.
Said Gooja Singh that evening to the troopers round about: "They chose well," said he. "They picked a brave man—a clever man, for a desperate venture!" And when the troopers asked what that might mean, he asked how many of them in the Punjab had seen a goat tied to a stake to lure a panther. The suggestion made them think. Then, pretending to praise him, letting fall no word that could be thrown back in his teeth, he condemned Ranjoor Singh for a worse traitor than any had yet believed him. Gooja Singh was a man with a certain subtlety. A man with two tongues, very dangerous.
"Ranjoor Singh is brave," said he, "for he is not afraid to sacrifice us all. Many officers are afraid to lose too many men in the gaining of an end, but not so he. He is clever, for who else would have thought of making us seem despicable to the Germans in order to tempt them to attack in force at this point? Have ye not noticed how to our rear all is being made ready for the defence and for a counter-attack to follow? We are the bait. The battle is to be waged over our dead bodies."
I corrected him. I said I had heard as well as he, and that Colonel Kirby was utterly angry at the defamation of those whom he was ever pleased to call "his Sikhs." But that convinced nobody, although it did the colonel sahib no harm in the regiment's opinion—not that he needed advocates. We were all ready to die around Colonel Kirby at any minute. Even Gooja Singh was ready to do that.
"Does the colonel sahib accept the situation?" one of the troopers asked.
"Aye, for he must," said Gooja Singh; and I could not deny it. "Ranjoor Singh went over his head and orders have come from the rear." I could not deny that either, although I did not believe it. How should I, or any one, know what passed after Ranjoor Singh had been sent for by the Intelligence officers? I was his half-friend in those days, sahib. Worse than his enemy —unwilling to take part against him, yet unready to speak up in his defence. Doubtless my silence went for consent among the troopers.
The end of the discussion found men unafraid. "If the colonel sahib is willing to be bait," said they, "then so be we, but let us see to it that none hang back." And so the whole regiment made up its mind to die desperately, yet with many a sidewise glance at Ranjoor Singh, who was watched more carefully than I think he guessed in those days. If he had tried to slip back to the rear it would have been the end of him. But he continued with us.
And all this while a great force gathered at our rear—gathered and grew—Indian and British infantry. Guns by the fifty were brought forward under cover of the night and placed in line behind us. Ranjoor Singh continued talking with the enemy, lying belly downward in the mud, and they kept throwing printed stuff to us that we turned in to our officers. But the Germans did not attack. And the force behind us grew.
Then one evening, just after dusk, we were all amazed by the news that the assault was to come from our side. And almost before that news had reached us the guns at our rear began their overture, making preparation beyond the compass of a man's mind to grasp or convey. They hurled such a torrent of shells that the Germans could neither move away the troops in front of us nor bring up others to their aid. It did not seem possible that one German could be left alive, and I even felt jealous because, thought I, no work would be left for us to do! Yet men did live—as we discovered. For a night and a day our ordnance kept up that preparation, and then word went around.
Who shall tell of a night attack, from a trench against trenches? Suddenly the guns ceased pounding the earth in front of us and lifted to make a screen of fire almost a mile beyond. There was instant pitch darkness on every hand, and out of that a hundred trumpets sounded. Instantly, each squadron leader leaped the earthwork, shouting to his men. Ranjoor Singh leaped up in front of us, and we followed him, all forgetting their distrust of him in the fierce excitement—remembering only how he had led us in the charge on that first night. The air was thick with din, and fumes, and flying metal —for the Germans were not forgetting to use artillery. I ceased to think of anything but going forward. Who shall describe it?
Once in Bombay I heard a Christian preacher tell of the Judgment Day to come, when graves shall give up their dead. That is not our Sikh idea of judgment, but his words brought before my mind a picture riot so much unlike a night attack in Flanders. He spoke of the whole earth trembling and consumed by fire—of thunder and lightning and a great long trumpet call—of the dead leaping alive again from the graves where they lay buried. Not a poor picture, sahib, of a night attack in Flanders!
The first line of German trenches, and the second had been pounded out of being by our guns. The barbed wire had been cut into fragments by our shrapnel. Here and there an arm or a leg protruded from the ground— here and there a head. For two hundred yards and perhaps more there was nothing to oppose us, except the enemy shells bursting so constantly that we seemed to breathe splintered metal. Yet very few were hit. The din was so great that it seemed to be silence. We were phantom men, going forward without sound of footfall. I could neither feel nor think for the first two hundred yards, but ran with my bayonet out in front of me. And then I did feel. A German bayonet barked my knuckles. After that there was fighting such as I hope never to know again.
The Germans did not seem to have been taken by surprise at all. They had made ample preparation. And as for holding us in contempt, they gave no evidence of that. Their wounded were unwilling to surrender because their officers had given out we would torture prisoners. We had to pounce on them, and cut their buttons off and slit their boots, so that they must use both hands to hold their trousers up and could not run. And that took time so that we lagged behind a little, for we took more prisoners than the regiments to right and left of us. The Dogra regiment to our left and the Gurkha regiment to our right gained on us fast, and we became, as it were, the center of a new moon.
But then in the light of bursting shells we saw Colonel Kirby and Ranjoor Singh and Captain Fellowes and some other officers far out in front of us beckoning—calling on us for our greatest effort. We answered. We swept forward after them into the teeth of all the inventions in the world. Mine after mine exploded under our very feet. Shrapnel burst among us. There began to be uncut wire, and men rushed out at us from trenches that we thought obliterated, but that proved only to have been hidden under debris by our gun-fire. Shadows resolved into trenches defended by machine guns.
But we went forward—cavalry, without a spur among us— cavalry with rifles—cavalry on foot—infantry with the fire and the drill and the thoughts of cavalry—still cavalry at heart, for all the weapons they had given us and the trench life we had lived. We remembered, sahib, that the Germans had been educated lately to despise us, and we were out that night to convert them to a different opinion! It seemed good to D Squadron that Ranjoor Singh, who had done the defamation, should lead us to the clearing of our name. Nothing could stop us that night.
Whereas we had been last in the advance, we charged into the lead and held it. We swept on I know not how far, but very far beyond the wings. No means had been devised that I know of for checking the distance covered, and I suppose Headquarters timed the attack and tried to judge how far the advance had carried, with the aid of messengers sent running back. No easy task!
At all events we lost touch with the regiments to right and left, but kept touch with the enemy, pressing forward until suddenly our own shell-fire ceased to fall in front of us but resumed pounding toward our rear. They call such a fire a barrage, sahib. Its purpose is to prevent the enemy from making a counter-attack until the infantry can dig themselves in and secure the new ground won. That meant we were isolated. It needed no staff officer to tell, us that, or to bring us to our senses. We were like men who wake from a nightmare, to find the truth more dreadful than the dream.
Colonel Kirby was wounded a little, and sat while a risaldar bound his arm. Ranjoor Singh found a short trench half full of water, and ordered us into it. Although we had not realized it until then, it was raining torrents, and the Germans we drove out of that trench (there were but a few of them) were wetter than water rats; but we had to scramble down into it, and the cold bath finished what the sense of isolation had begun. We were sober men when Kirby sahib scrambled in last and ordered us to begin on the trench at once with picks and shovels that the Germans had left behind. We altered the trench so that it faced both ways, and waited shivering for the dawn.
Let it not be supposed, however, sahib, that we waited unmolested. The Germans are not that kind of warrior. I hold no brief for them, but I tell no lies about them, either. They fight with persistence, bravery, and what they consider to be cunning. We were under rifle-fire at once from before and behind and the flanks, and our own artillery began pounding the ground so close to us that fragments of shell and shrapnel flew over our heads incessantly, and great clods of earth came thumping and splashing into our trench, compelling us to keep busy with the shovels. Nor did the German artillery omit to make a target of us, though with poor success. More than the half of us lived; and to prove that there had been thought as well as bravery that night we had plenty of ammunition with us. We were troubled to stow the ammunition out of the wet, yet where it would be safe from the German fire.
We made no reply to the shell-fire, for that would have been foolishness; so, doubtless thinking they had the range not quite right, or perhaps supposing that we had been annihilated, the enemy discontinued shelling us and devoted their attention to our friends beyond. But at the same time a battalion of infantry began to feel its way toward us and we grew very busy with our rifles, the wounded crawling through the wet to pass the cartridges. Once there was a bayonet charge, which we repelled.
Those who had not thrown away their knapsacks to lighten themselves had their emergency rations, but about half of us had nothing to eat whatever. It was perfectly evident to all of us from the very first that unless we should receive prompt aid at dawn our case was as hopeless as death itself. So much the more reason for stout hearts, said we, and our bearing put new heart into our officers.
When dawn came the sight was not inspiriting. Dawn amid a waste of Flanders mud, seen through a rain-storm, is not a joyous spectacle in any case. Consider, sahib, what a sunny land we came from, and pass no hasty judgment on us if our spirits sank. It was the weather, not the danger that depressed us. I, who was near the center of the trench, could see to right and left over the ends, and I made a hasty count of heads, discovering that we, who had been a regiment, were now about three hundred men, forty of whom were wounded.
I saw that we were many a hundred yards away from the nearest British trench. The Germans had crept under cover of the darkness and dug themselves in anew between us and our friends. Before us was a trench full of infantry, and there were others to right and left. We were completely surrounded; and it was not an hour after dawn when the enemy began to shout to us to show our hands and surrender. Colonel Kirby forbade us to answer them, and we lay still as dead men until they threw bombs—which we answered with bullets.
After that we were left alone for an hour or two, and Colonel Kirby, whose wound was not serious, began passing along the trench, knee-deep in the muddy water, to inspect us and count us and give each man encouragement. It was just as he passed close to me that a hand-grenade struck him in the thigh and exploded. He fell forward on me, and I took him across my knee lest he fall into the water and be smothered. That is how it happened that only I overheard what he said to Ranjoor Singh before he died. Several others tried to hear, for we loved Colonel Kirby as sons love their father; but, since he lay with his head on my shoulder, my ear was as close to his lips as Ranjoor Singh's, to whom he spoke, so that Ranjoor Singh and I heard and the rest did not. Later I told the others, but they chose to disbelieve me.
Ranjoor Singh came wading along the trench, stumbling over men's feet in his hurry and nearly falling just as he reached us, so that for the moment I thought he too had been shot. Besides Colonel Kirby, who was dying in my arms, he, and Captain Fellowes, and one other risaldar were our only remaining officers. Colonel Kirby was in great pain, so that his words were not in his usual voice but forced through clenched teeth, and Ranjoor Singh had to stoop to listen.
"Shepherd 'em!" said Colonel Kirby. "Shepherd 'em, Ranjoor Singh!" My ear was close and I heard each word. "A bad business. They did not know enough to listen to you at Headquarters. Don't waste time blaming anybody. Pray for wisdom, and fear nothing! You're in command now. Take over. Shepherd 'em! Good-by, old friend!"
"Good-by, Colonel sahib," said Ranjoor Singh, and Kirby sahib died in that moment, having shed the half of his blood over me. Ranjoor Singh and I laid him along a ledge above the water and it was not very long before a chance shell dropped near and buried him under a ton of earth. Yes, sahib, a British shell.
Presently Ranjoor Singh waded along the trench to have word with Captain Fellowes, who was wounded rather badly. I made busy with the men about me, making them stand where they could see best with least risk of exposure and ordering spade work here and there. It is a strange thing, sahib, but I have never seen it otherwise, that spade work—which is surely the most important thing—is the last thing troopers will attend to unless compelled. They will comb their beards, and decorate the trench with coloreds stones and draw names in the mud, but the all-important digging waits. Sikh and Gurkha and British and French are all alike in that respect.
When Ranjoor Singh came back from his talk with Captain Fellowes he sent me to the right wing under our other risaldar, and after he was killed by a grenade I was in command of the right wing of our trench.
The three days that followed have mostly gone from memory, that being the way of evil. If men could remember pain and misery they would refuse to live because of the risk of more of it; but hope springs ever anew out of wretchedness like sprouts on the burned land, and the ashes are forgotten. I do not remember much of those three days.
There was nothing to eat. There began to be a smell. There was worse than nothing to drink, for thirst took hold of us, yet the water in the trench was all pollution. The smell made us wish to vomit, yet what could the empty do but desire? Corpses lay all around us. No, sahib, not the dead of the night before's fighting. Have I not said that the weather was cold? The bombardment by our own guns preceding our attack had torn up graves that were I know not how old. When we essayed to re-bury some bodies the Germans drove us back under cover.
That night, and the next, several attempts were made to rush us, but under Ranjoor Singh's command we beat them off. He was wakeful as the stars and as unexcited. Obedience to him was so comforting that men forgot for the time their suspicion and distrust. When dawn came there were more dead bodies round about, and some wounded who called piteously for help. The Germans crawled out to help their wounded, but Ranjoor Singh bade us drive them back and we obeyed.
Then the Germans began shouting to us, and Ranjoor Singh answered them. If he had answered in English, so that most of us could have understood, all would surely have been well; I am certain that in that case the affection, returning because of his fine leadership, would have destroyed the memory of suspicion. But I suppose it had become habit with him to talk to the enemy in German by that time, and as the words we could not understand passed back and forth even I began to hate him. Yet he drove a good bargain for us.
Instead of hand-grenades the Germans began to throw bread to us— great, flat, army loaves, Ranjoor Singh not showing himself, but counting aloud as each loaf came over, we catching with great anxiety lest they fall into the water and be polluted. It took a long time, but when there was a good dry loaf for each man, Ranjoor Singh gave the Germans leave to come and carry in their wounded, and bade us hold our fire. Gooja Singh was for playing a trick but the troopers near him murmured and Ranjoor Singh threatened him with death if he dared. He never forgot that.
The Germans who came to fetch the wounded laughed at us, but Ranjoor Singh forbade us to answer, and Captain Fellowes backed him up.
"There will be another attack from our side presently," said Captain Fellowes, "and our friends will answer for us."
I shuddered at that. I remembered the bombardment that preceded our first advance. Better die at the hands of the enemy, thought I. But I said nothing. Presently, however, a new thought came to me, and I called to Ranjoor Singh along the trench.
"You should have made a better bargain," said I. "You should have compelled them to care for our wounded before they were allowed to take their own!"
"I demanded, but they refused," he answered, and then I wished I had bitten out my tongue rather than speak, for although I believed his answer, the rest of the men did not. There began to be new murmuring against him, led by Gooja Singh; but Gooja Singh was too subtle to be convicted of the responsibility.
Captain Fellowes grew aware of the murmuring and made much show thenceforward of his faith in Ranjoor Singh. He was weak from his wound and was attended constantly by two men, so that although he kept command of the left wing and did ably he could not shout loud enough to be heard very far, and he had to send messages to Ranjoor Singh from mouth to mouth. His evident approval had somewhat the effect of subduing the men's resentment, although not much, and when he died that night there was none left, save I, to lend our leader countenance. And I was only his half-friend, without enough merit in my heart truly to be the right-hand man I was by right of seniority. I was willing enough to die at his back, but not to share contempt with him.
The day passed and there came another day, when the bread was done, and there were no more German wounded straddled in the mud over whom to strike new bargains. It had ceased raining, so we could catch no rain to drink. We were growing weak from weariness and want of sleep, and we demanded of Ranjoor Singh that he lead us back toward the British lines.
"We should perish on the way," said he.
"What of it?" we answered, I with the rest. "Better that than this vulture's death in a graveyard!"
But he shook his head and ordered us to try to think like men. "The life of a Sikh," said he, "and the oath of a Sikh are one. We swore to serve our friends. To try to cut our way back would be but to die for our own comfort."
"You should have led us back that first night, when the attack was spent," said Gooja Singh.
"I was not in command that first night," Ranjoor Singh answered him, and who could gainsay that?
At irregular intervals British shells began bursting near us, and we all knew what they were. The batteries were feeling for the range. They would begin a new bombardment. Now, therefore, is the end, said we. But Ranjoor Singh stood up with his head above the trench and began shouting to the Germans. They answered him. Then, to our utter astonishment, he tore the shirt from a dead man, tied it to a rifle, and held it up.
The Germans cheered and laughed, but we made never a sound. We were bewildered—sick from the stink and weariness and thirst and lack of food. Yet I swear to you, sahib, on my honor that it had not entered into the heart of one of us to surrender. That we who had been first of the Indian contingent to board a ship, first to land in France, first to engage the enemy, should now be first to surrender in a body seemed to us very much worse than death. Yet Ranjoor Singh bade us leave our rifles and climb out of the trench, and we obeyed him. God knows why we obeyed him. I, who had been half-hearted hitherto, hated him in that minute as a trapped wolf hates the hunter; yet I, too, obeyed.
We left our dead for the Germans to bury, but we dragged the wounded out and some of them died as we lifted them. When we reached the German trench and they counted us, including Ranjoor Singh and three-and-forty wounded there were two-hundred-and-three-and-fifty of us left alive.
They led Ranjoor Singh apart. He had neither rifle nor saber in his hand, and he walked to their trench alone because we avoided him. He was more muddy than we, and as ragged and tired. He had stood in the same foul water, and smelt the same stench. He was hungry as we. He had been willing to surrender, and we had not. Yet he walked like an officer, and looked like one, and we looked like animals. And we knew it, and he knew it. And the Germans recognized the facts.
He acted like a crowned king when he reached the trench. A German officer spoke with him earnestly, but he shook his head and then they led him away. When he was gone the same officer came and spoke to us in English, and I understanding him at once, he bade me tell the others that the British must have witnessed our surrender. "See," said he, "what a bombardment they have begun again. That is in the hope of slaying you. That is out of revenge because you dared surrender instead of dying like rats in a ditch to feed their pride!" It was true that a bombardment had begun again. It had begun that minute. Those truly had been ranging shells. If we had stayed five minutes longer before surrendering we should have been blown to pieces; but we were in no mood to care on that account.
The Germans are a simple folk, sahib, although they themselves think otherwise. When they think they are the subtlest they are easiest to understand. Understanding was reborn in my heart on account of that German's words. Thought I, if Ranjoor Singh were in truth a traitor then he would have leaped at a chance to justify himself to us. He would have repeated what that German had urged him to tell us. Yet I saw him refuse.
As they hurried him away alone, pity for him came over me like warm rain on the parched earth, and when a man can pity he can reason, I spoke in Punjabi to the others and the German officer thought I was translating what he told me to say, yet in truth I reminded them that man can find no place where God is not, and where God is is courage. I was senior now, and my business was to encourage them. They took new heart from my words, all except Gooja Singh, who wept noisily, and the German officer was pleased with what he mistook for the effect of his speech.
"Tell them they shall be excellently treated," said he, seizing my elbow. "When we shall have won this war the British will no longer be able to force natives of India to fight their battles for them."
I judged it well to repeat that word for word. There are over ten applicants for every vacancy in such a regiment as ours, and until Ranjoor Singh ordered our surrender, we were all free men—free givers of our best; whereas the Germans about us were all conscripts. The comparison did no harm.
We saw no more of our wounded until some of them were returned to us healed, weeks later; but from them we learned that their treatment had been good. With us, however, it was not so, in spite of the promise the German officer had made. We were hustled along a wide trench, and taken over by another guard, not very numerous but brutal, who kicked us without excuse. As we went the trenches were under fire all the time from the British artillery. The guards swore it was our surrender that had drawn the fire, and belabored us the more on that account.
At the rear of the German lines we were herded in a quarry lest we observe too much, and it was not until after dark that we were given half a loaf of bread apiece. Then, without time to eat that which had been given to us, we were driven off into the darkness. First, however, they took our goatskin overcoats away, saying they were too good to be worn by savages. A non- commissioned officer, who could speak good English, was sent for to explain that point to us.
After an hour's march through the dark we were herded into some cattle trucks that stood on a siding behind some trees. The trucks did not smell of cattle, but of foul garments and unwashed men. Two armed German infantrymen were locked into each truck with us, and the pair in the truck in which I was drove us in a crowd to the farther end, claiming an entire half for themselves. It was true that we stank, for we had been many days and nights without opportunity to get clean; yet they offered us no means of washing —only abuse. I have seen German prisoners allowed to wash before they had been ten minutes behind the British lines.
We were five days in that train, sahib—five days and nights. Our guards were fed at regular intervals, but not we. Once or twice a day they brought us a bucket of water from which we were bidden drink in a great hurry while the train waited; yet often the train waited hours on sidings and no water at all was brought us. For food we were chiefly dependent on the charity of people at the wayside stations who came with gifts intended for German wounded; some of those took pity on us.
At last, sahib, when we were cold and stiff and miserable to the very verge of death, we came to a little place called Oeschersleben, and there the cruelty came to an unexpected end. We were ordered out of the trucks and met on the platform by a German, not in uniform, who showed distress at our predicament and who hastened to assure us in our own tongue that henceforward there would be amends made.
If that man had taken charge of us in the beginning we might not have been suspicious of him, for he seemed gentle and his words were fair; but now his kindness came too late to have effect. Animals can sometimes be rendered tame by starvation and brutality followed by plenty and kindness, but not men, and particularly not Sikhs—it being no part of our Guru's teaching that either full belly or tutored intellect can compensate for lack of goodness. Neither is it his teaching, on the other hand, that a man must wear thoughts on his face; so we did not reject this man's advances.
"There have been mistakes made," said he, "by ignorant common soldiers who knew no better. You shall recuperate on good food, and then we shall see what we shall see."
I asked him where Ranjoor Singh was, but he did not answer me.
We were not compelled to walk. Few of us could have walked. We were stiff from confinement and sick from neglect. Carts drawn by oxen stood near the station, and into those we were crowded and driven to a camp on the outskirts of the town. There comfortable wooden huts were ready, well warmed and clean —and a hot meal—and much hot water in which we were allowed to bathe.
Then, when we had eaten, doctors came and examined us. New clothes were given us—German uniforms of khaki, and khaki cotton cloth from which to bind new turbans. Nothing was left undone to make us feel well received, except that a barbed-wire fence was all about the camp and armed guards marched up and down outside.
Being senior surviving non-commissioned officer, I was put in charge of the camp in a certain manner, with many restrictions to my authority, and for about a week we did nothing but rest and eat and keep the camp tidy. All day long Germans, mostly women and children but some men, came to stare at us through the barbed-wire fence as if we were caged animals, but no insults were offered us. Rather, the women showed us kindness and passed us sweetmeats and strange food through the fence until an officer came and stopped them with overbearing words. Then, presently, there was a new change.
A week had gone and we were feeling better, standing about and looking at the freshly fallen snow, marking the straight tracks made by the sentries outside the fence, and thinking of home maybe, when new developments commenced.
Telegrams translated into Punjabi were nailed to the door of a hut, telling of India in rebellion and of men, women and children butchered by the British in cold blood. Other telegrams stated that the Sikhs of India in particular had risen, and that Pertab Singh, our prince, had been hanged in public. Many other lies they posted up. It would be waste of time to tell them all. They were foolishness—such foolishness as might deceive the German public, but not us who had lived in India all our lives and who had received our mail from home within a day or two of our surrender.
There came plausible men who knew our tongue and the argument was bluntly put to us that we ought to let expediency be our guide in all things. Yet we were expected to trust the men who gave us such advice!
Our sense of justice was not courted once. They made appeal to our bellies —to our purses—to our lust—to our fear—but to our righteousness not at all. They made for us great pictures of what German rule of the world would be, and at last I asked whether it was true that the Kaiser had turned Mohammedan. I was given no answer until I had asked repeatedly, and then it was explained how that had been a rumor sent abroad to stir Islam; to us, on the other hand, nothing but truth was told. So I asked, was it true that our Prince Pertab Singh had been hanged, and they told me yes. I asked them where, and they said in Delhi. Yet I knew that Pertab Singh was all the while in London. I asked them where was Ranjoor Singh all this while, and for a time they made no answer, so I asked again and again. Then one day they began to talk of Ranjoor Singh.
They told us he was being very useful to them, in Berlin, in daily conference with the German General Staff, explaining matters that pertained to the intended invasion of India. Doubtless they thought that news would please us greatly. But, having heard so many lies already, I set that down for another one, and the others became all the more determined in their loyalty from sheer disgust at Ranjoor Singh's unfaithfulness. They believed and I disbelieved, yet the result was one.
At night Gooja Singh held forth in the hut where he slept with twenty- five others. He explained—although he did not say how he knew— that the Germans have kept for many years in Berlin an office for the purpose of intrigue in India—an office manned by Sikh traitors. "That is where Ranjoor Singh will be," said he. "He will be managing that bureau." In those days Gooja Singh was Ranjoor Singh's bitterest enemy, although later he changed sides again.
The night-time was the worst. By day there was the camp to keep clean and the German officers to talk to; but at night we lay awake thinking of India, and of our dead officer sahibs, and of all that had been told us that we knew was lies. Ever the conversation turned to Ranjoor Singh at last, and night after night the anger grew against him. I myself admitted very often that his duty had been to lead us to our death. I was ashamed as the rest of our surrender.
After a time, as our wounded began to be drafted back to us from hospital, we were made to listen to accounts of alleged great German victories. They told us the German army was outside Paris and that the whole of the British North Sea Fleet was either sunk or captured. They also said that the Turks in Gallipoli had won great victories against the Allies. We began to wonder why such conquerors should seek so earnestly the friendship of a handful of us Sikhs. Our wounded began to be drafted back to us well primed, and their stories made us think, but not as the Germans would have had us think.
Week after week until the spring came we listened to their tales by day and talked them over among ourselves at night; and the more they assured us Ranjoor Singh was working with them in Berlin, the more we prayed for opportunity to prove our hearts. Spring dragged along into summer and there began to be prayers for vengeance on him. I said less than any. Understanding had not come to me fully yet, but it seemed to me that if Ranjoor Singh was really playing traitor, then he was going a tedious way about it. Yet it was equally clear that if I should dare to say one word in his behalf that would be to pass sentence on myself. I kept silence when I could, and was evasive when they pressed me, cowardice struggling with new conviction in my heart.
There came one night at last, when men's hearts burned in them too terribly for sleep, that some one proposed a resolution and sent the word whispering from hut to hut, that we should ask for Ranjoor Singh to be brought to us. Let the excuse be that he was our rightful leader, and that therefore he ought to advise us what we should do. Let us promise to do faithfully whatever Ranjoor Singh should order. Then, when he should have been brought to us, should he talk treason we would tear him in pieces with our hands. That resolution was agreed to. I also agreed. It was I who asked the next day that Ranjoor Singh be brought. The German officer laughed; yet I asked again, and he went away smiling.
We talked of our plan at night. We repeated it at dawn. We whispered it above the bread at breakfast. After breakfast we stood in groups, confirming our decision with great oaths and binding one another to fulfillment— I no less than all the others. Like the others I was blinded now by the sense of our high purpose and I forgot to consider what might happen should Ranjoor Singh take any other line than that expected of him.
I think it was eleven in the morning of the fourth day after our decision, when we had all grown weary of threats of vengeance and of argument as to what each individual man should do to our major's body, that there was some small commotion at the entrance gate and a man walked through alone. The gate slammed shut again behind him.
He strode forward to the middle of our compound, stood still, and confronted us. We stared at him. We gathered round him. We said nothing.
"Fall in, two deep!" commanded he. And we fell in, two deep, just as he ordered.
"'Ten-shun!" commanded he. And we stood to attention.
Sahib, he was Ranjoor Singh!
He stood within easy reach of the nearest man, clothed in a new khaki German uniform. He wore a German saber at his side. Yet I swear to you the saber was not the reason why no man struck at him. Nor were there Germans near enough to have rescued him. We, whose oath to murder him still trembled on our lips, stood and faced him with trembling knees now that he had come at last.
We stood before him like two rows of dumb men, gazing at his face. I have heard the English say that our eastern faces are impossible to read, but that can only be because western eyes are blind. We can read them readily enough. Yet we could not read Ranjoor Singh's that day. It dawned on us as we stared that we did not understand, but that he did; and there is no murder in that mood.
Before we could gather our wits he began to speak to us, and we listened as in the old days when at least a squadron of us had loved him to the very death. A very unexpected word was the first he used.
"Simpletons!" said he.
Sahib, our jaws dropped. Simpletons was the last thing we had thought ourselves. On the contrary, we thought ourselves astute to have judged his character and to have kept our minds uncorrupted by the German efforts. Yet we were no longer so sure of ourselves that any man was ready with an answer.
He glanced over his shoulder to left and right. There were no Germans inside the fence; none near enough to overhear him, even if he raised his voice. So he did raise it, and we all heard.
"I come from Berlin!"
"Ah!" said we—as one man. For another minute he stood eying us, waiting to see whether any man would speak.
"We be honest men!" said a trooper who stood not far from me, and several others murmured, so I spoke up.
"He has not come for nothing," said I. "Let us listen first and pass judgment afterward."
"We have heard enough treachery!" said the trooper who had spoken first, but the others growled him down and presently there was silence.
"You have eyes," said Ranjoor Singh, "and ears, and nose, and lips for nothing at all but treachery!" He spoke very slowly, sahib. "You have listened, and smelled for it, and have spoken of nothing else, and what you have sought you think you have found! To argue with men in the dark is like gathering wind into baskets. My business is to lead, and I will lead. Your business is to follow, and you shall follow." Then, "Simpletons!" said he again; and having said that he was silent, as if to judge what effect his words were having.
No man answered him. I can not speak for the others, although there was a wondrous maze of lies put forth that night by way of explanation that I might repeat. All I know is that through my mind kept running against my will self- accusation, self-condemnation, self-contempt! I had permitted my love for Ranjoor Singh to be corrupted by most meager evidence. If I had not been his enemy, I had not been true to him, and who is not true is false. I fought with a sense of shame as I have since then fought with thirst and hunger. All the teachings of our Holy One accused me. Above all, Ranjoor Singh's face accused me. I remembered that for more than twenty years he had stood to all of us for an example of what Sikh honor truly is, and that he had been aware of it.
"I know the thoughts ye think!" said he, beginning again when he had given us time to answer and none had dared. "I will give you a real thought to put in the place of all that foolishness. This is a regiment. I am its last surviving officer. Any regiment can kill its officers. If ye are weary of being a regiment, behold—I am as near you as a man's throat to his hand! Have no fear"—(that was a bitter thrust, sahib!)—"this is a German saber; I will use no German steel on any of you. I will not strike back if any seek to kill me."
There was no movement and no answer, sahib. We did not think; we waited. If he had coaxed us with specious arguments, as surely a liar would have done, that would probably have been his last speech in the world. But there was not one word he said that did not ring true.
"I have been made a certain offer in Berlin," said he, after another long pause. "First it was made to me alone, and I would not accept it. I and my regiment, said I, are one. So the offer was repeated to me as the leader of this regiment. Thus they admitted I am the rightful leader of it, and the outcome of that shall be on their heads. As major of this regiment, I accepted the offer, and as its major I now command your obedience."
"Obedience to whom?" asked I, speaking again as it were against my will, and frightened by my own voice.
"To me," said he.
"Not to the Germans?" I asked. He wore a German uniform, and so for that matter did we all.
"To me," he said again, and he took one step aside that he might see my face better. "You, Hira Singh, you heard Colonel Kirby make over the command!"
Every man in the regiment knew that Colonel Kirby had died across my knees. They looked from Ranjoor Singh to me, and from me to Ranjoor Singh, and I felt my heart grow first faint from dread of their suspicion, and then bold, then proud that I should be judged fit to stand beside him. Then came shame again, for I knew I was not fit. My loyalty to him had not stood the test. All this time I thought I felt his eyes on me like coals that burned; yet when I dared look up he was not regarding me at all, but scanning the two lines of faces, perhaps to see if any other had anything to say.
"If I told you my plan," said he presently, when he had cleared his throat, "you would tear it in little pieces. The Germans have another plan, and they will tell you as much of it as they think it good for you to know. Mark what my orders are! Listen to this plan of theirs. Pretend to agree. Then you shall be given weapons. Then you shall leave this camp within a week."
That, sahib, was like a shell bursting in the midst of men asleep. What did it mean? Eyes glanced to left and right, looking for understanding and finding none, and no man spoke because none could think of anything to say. It was on my tongue to ask him to explain when he gave us his final word on the matter—and little enough it was, yet sufficient if we obeyed.
"Remember the oath of a Sikh!" said he. "Remember that he who is true in his heart to his oath has Truth to fight for him! Treachery begets treason, treason begets confusion; and who are ye to stay the course of things? Faith begets faith; courage gives birth to opportunity!"
He paused, but we knew he had not finished yet, and he kept us waiting full three minutes wondering what would come. Then:
"As for your doubts," said he. "If the head aches, shall the body cut it off that it may think more clearly? Consider that!" said he. "Dismiss!"
We fell out and he marched away like a king with thoughts of state in mind. I thought his beard was grayer than it had been, but oh, sahib, he strode as an arrow goes, swift and straight, and splendid. Lonely as an arrow that has left the sheaf!
I had to run to catch up with him, and I was out of breath when I touched his sleeve. He turned and waited while I thought of things to say, and then struggled to find words with which to say them.
"Sahib!" said I. "Oh, Major sahib!" And then my throat became full of words each struggling to be first, and I was silent.
"Well?" said he, standing with both arms folded, looking very grave, but not angry nor contemptuous.
"Sahib," I said, "I am a true man. As I stand here, I am a true man. I have been a fool—I have been half-hearted—I was like a man in the dark; I listened and heard voices that deceived me!"
"And am I to listen and hear voices, too?" he asked.
"Nay, sahib!" I said. "Not such voices, but true words!"
"Words?" he said. "Words! Words! There have already been too many words. Truth needs no words to prove it true, Hira Singh. Words are the voice of nothingness!"
"Then, sahib—said I, stammering.
"Hira Singh," said he, "each man's heart is his own. Let each man keep his own. When the time comes we shall see no true men eating shame," said he.
And with that he acknowledged my salute, turned on his heel, and marched away. And the great gate slammed behind him. And German officers pressing close on either side talked with him earnestly, asking, as plainly as if I heard the words, what he had said, and what we had said, and what the outcome was to be. I could see his lips move as he answered, but no man living could have guessed what he told them. I never did know what he told them. But I have lived to see the fruit of what he did, and of what he made us do; and from that minute I have never faltered for a second in my faithfulness to Ranjoor Singh.
Be attentive, sahib, and learn what a man of men is Risaldar-major Ranjoor Singh bahadur.