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Tales of War
by Lord Dunsany
Tales of War was first published in 1918 and the text is in the
public domain. The transcription was done by William McClain
A printed version of this book is available from Sattre Press, http://tow.sattre-press.com. It includes a new introduction and photographs of the author.
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. There 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 them, 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 further back. The shells still screamed over them, but the bursts were further 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 some one 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 further 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 plowing 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 bowlder 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 bowlder. 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 bowlder 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 the 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 mint 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.
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