'Grapes of Wrath' is a fictional account of the Somme battle, colored by the fact that the greater part of it was written in the Somme area or between the Cable's visits to it. This a story of three friends going together through the misery and horrors of war, inspired by the author's ambition of describing the clash from the point of view of an ordinary infantry private and showing how much he sees or knows and suffers in a great battle like that.
Boyd Cable (real name Ernest Andrew Ewart, 1878-1943) was an English author born in India. At the outbreak of World War I, he offered his services and was accepted in 1914, being one of the first men not in the regular army to get a commission and be sent to the front. Previously unheard of as an author, he soon became the greatest 'literary discovery' of the War due to his works 'Between the Lines', 'Action Front', 'Doing Their Bit' and 'Grapes of Wrath'. He published more than 80 titles, mostly novels and short stories.
CHAPTER II Table of Contents
THE OVERTURE OF THE GUNS
All that night the men, packed close in their blankets, slept as best they could, but continually were awakened by the roaring six-gun salvos from the battery beside them.
One of the gunners had explained that they were likely to hear a good deal of shooting during the night, "the notion being to bust off six shells every now and again with the guns laid on the wire we were shooting at in daylight. If any Boche crawls out to repair the wire in the dark, he never knows the minute he's going to get it in the neck from a string of shells."
"And how does it work?" asked the interested Arundel.
"First rate," answered the gunner. "Them that's up at the O.P.1 says that when they have looked out each morning there hasn't been a sign or a symptom of new wire going up, and, of course, there's less chance than ever of repairing in daytime. A blue-bottle fly-let alone a Boche-couldn't crawl out where we're wire-cutting without getting filled as full of holes as a second-hand sieve."
1 Observation Post.
The salvos kept the barnful of men awake for the first hour or two. The intervals of firing were purposely irregular, and varied from anything between three to fifteen minutes. The infantry, with a curious but common indifference to the future as compared to the present, were inclined to grumble at this noisy interruption of their slumbers, until Arundel explained to some of them the full purpose and meaning of the firing.
"Seein' as that's 'ow it is," said Pug, "I don't mind 'ow noisy they are; if their bite is anything like as good as their bark, it's all helpin' to keep a clear track on the road we've got to take presently."
"Those gunners," said Kentucky, "talked about this shooting match having kept on for four days and nights continuous, but they didn't know, or they wouldn't say, if it was over yet, or likely to be finished soon."
"The wust of this blinkin' show," said Billy Simson, "is that nobody seems to know nothin', and the same people seem to care just about the same amount about anythin'."
"Come off it," said Pug; "here's one that cares a lump. The sooner we gets on to the straff and gets our bit done and us out again the better I'll be pleased. From what the Quarter-bloke says, we're goin' to be kep' on the bully and biscuit ration until we comes out of action; so roll on with comin' out of action, and a decent dinner of fresh meat and potatoes and bread again."
"There's a tidy few," said Billy, "that won't be lookin' for no beef or bread when they comes out of action."
"Go on," said Pug; "that's it; let's be cheerful. We'll all be killed in the first charge; and the attack will be beat back; and the Germans will break our line and be at Calais next week, and bombarding London the week after. Go on; see if you can think up some more cheerfuls."
"Pug is kind of right," said Kentucky; "but at the same time so is Billy. It's a fair bet that some of us four will stop one. If that should be my luck, I'd like one of you," he glanced at Arundel as he spoke, "to write a line to my folks in old Kentucky, just easing them down and saying I went out quite easy and cheerful."
Pug snorted disdainfully. "Seems to me," he said, "the bloke that expec's it is fair askin' for it. I'm not askin' nobody to write off no last dyin' speeches for me, even if I 'ad anybody to say 'em to, which I 'aven't."
"Anyhow, Kentucky," said Arundel, "I'll write down your address, if you will take my people's. What about you, Billy?"
Billy shuffled a little uneasily. "There's a girl," he said, "one girl partikler, that might like to 'ear, and there's maybe two or three others that I'd like to tell about it. You'll know the sort of thing to say. I'll give you the names, and you might tell 'em"-he hesitated a moment-"I know, 'the last word he spoke was Rose-or Gladys, or Mary,' sendin' the Rose one to Rose, and so on, of course."
Arundel grinned, and Pug guffawed openly. "What a lark," he laughed, "if Larry mixes 'em up and tells Rose the last word you says was 'Gladys,' and tells Gladys that you faded away murmurin' 'Good-by, Rose.'?"
"I don't see anythin' to laugh at," said Billy huffily. "Rose is the partikler one, so you might put in a bit extra in hers, but it will please the others a whole heap. They don't know each other, so they will never know I sent the other messages, and I'll bet that each of 'em will cart that letter round to show it to all her pals, and they'll cry their eyes out, and have a real enjoyable time over it."
Arundel laughed now. "Queer notions your girls have of enjoyment, Billy," he said.
"I know 'em," insisted Billy; "and I'm right about it. I knew a girl once that was goin' to be married to a chum o' mine, and he ups and dies, and the girl 'ad to take the tru-sox back to the emporium and swop it for mournin'; and the amount of fussin' and cryin'-over that girl got was somethin' amazin', and I bet she wouldn't have missed it for half a dozen 'usbands; and, besides, she got another 'usband easy enough about two months after." He concluded triumphantly, and looked round as if challenging contradiction.
Outside, the battery crashed again, and the crazy building shook about them to the sound. A curious silence followed the salvo, because by some chance the ranked batteries, strung out to either side of them, had chosen the same interval between their firing. Most of the men in the barn had by this time sunk to sleep, but at the silence they stirred uneasily, and many of them woke and raised themselves on their elbows, or sat up to inquire sleepily "What was wrong now?" or "What was the matter?" With the adaptability under which men live in the fire zone, and without which, in fact, they could hardly live and keep their senses, they had in the space of an hour or two become so accustomed to the noise of the cannonade that its cessation had more power to wake them than its noisiest outbursts; and when, after the silence had lasted a few brief minutes, the batteries began to speak again, they turned over or lay down and slid off into heedless sleep.
Somewhere about midnight there was another awakening, and this time from a different cause-a difference that is only in the note and nature of the constant clamor of fire. Throughout the night the guns had practically the say to themselves, bombs and rifles and machine guns alike being beaten down into silence; but at midnight something-some alarm, real or fancied-woke the rifles to a burst of frenzied activity. The first few stuttering reports swelled quickly to a long drum-like roll. The machine guns caught up the chorus, and rang through it in racketing and clattering bursts of fire. The noise grew with the minutes, and spread and spread, until it seemed that the whole lines were engaged for miles in a desperate conflict.
Arundel, awakened by the clamor, sat up. "Is anybody awake?" he asked in low tones, and instantly a dozen voices around him answered.
"Is it the attack, do you suppose?" asked one, and a mild argument arose on the question, some declaring that they-the Stonewalls-would not be left to sleep there in quietness if our line were commencing the push; others maintaining that secrecy was necessary as to the hour planned, because otherwise the Boches would be sure to know it, and be ready for the attack.
"Maybe," some one ventured the opinion, "it's them that's attacking us." But this wild theorist was promptly laughed out of court, it being the settled conviction apparently of his fellows that the Boche would not dare to attack when he knew from the long bombardment that our lines must be heavily held.
As the argument proceeded, Arundel felt a touch on his elbow, heard the soft, drawling voice of Kentucky at his ear.
"I'm going to take a little pasear outside, and just see and hear anything I can of the proceedings."
"Right," said Arundel promptly. "I'm with you; I'm not a bit sleepy, and we might find out something of what it all means."
The two slipped on their boots, moved quietly to the door, and stepped outside.
They walked round the end of the barn to where they could obtain a view clear of the building and out towards the front, and stood there some minutes in silence, watching and listening. A gentle rise in the ground and the low crest of a hill hid the trenches on both sides from their view, and along this crest line showed a constant quivering, pulsing flame of pale yellow light, clear and vivid along its lower edge, and showing up in hard, black silhouette every detail of the skyline, every broken tree stump, every ragged fragment of a building's wall, every bush and heap of earth. Above the crest the light faded and vignetted off softly into the darkness of the night, a darkness that every now and then was wiped out to the height of half the sky by a blinding flash of light, that winked and vanished and winked again and again, as the guns on both sides blazed and flung their shells unseeing but unerring to their mark.
Larry and Kentucky heard a call in the battery near them, the quick rush of running feet, a succession of sharp, shouted orders. The next instant, with a crash that made them jump, the six guns of the battery spoke with one single and...