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Suddenly, out of the blue there comes a sharp, whizzing noise, and almost before you've heard it there is a crash, and from the village in front there rises a cloud of dust. A thing hums past up in the air, with a whistling noise, leaving a trail of sparks behind it—one of the fuses.
A shell has burst on impact on one of the few remaining houses; some slates and tiles fall into the road, and round the hole torn out of the sloping roof there hangs a whitish-yellow cloud of smoke. This isn't the village in front now—he's shelling the road you're standing on! Later, the curio-hunter may find it nestling by a turnip. With a vicious thud a jagged piece of shell buries itself in the ground at your feet; and almost simultaneously the bullets from a well-burst one cut through the trees above you and ping against the road, thudding into the earth around. Our pessimistic friend at the cross-roads spoke the truth; they're quite lively.
The setting sun is glinting on the little crumbling village two or three hundred yards ahead, and as you walk towards it in the still evening air your steps ring loud on the pav.
The Germans are shelling the empty village just in front with shrapnel, and who are you to interpose yourself between him and his chosen target? No sound breaks the stillness, save the steps ringing towards you—and it looks silly to be found in a ditch for no apparent reason. Just as with infinite stealth you endeavour to step out nonchalantly from behind a tree, as if you were part of the scenery—bang! Edging rapidly along the road—keeping close to the ditch—you approach the houses.
But if in no particular hurry, then it were wise to dally gracefully against a tree, admiring the setting sun, until he desists; when you may in safety resume your walk. Your position, you feel, is now strategically sound, with regard to the wretched pair cowering behind rubble heaps.
"They're a bit lively farther up the road, sir." The corporal of military police stands gloomily at a cross-roads, his back against a small wayside shrine.
A passing shell unroofed it many weeks ago; it stands there surrounded by dbris—the image of the Virgin, chipped and broken.
There are many things worse than shelling—the tea-party you find in progress on your arrival on leave; the utterances of war experts; the non-arrival of the whisky from England.
But all of those can be imagined by people who have not suffered; they have a standard, a measure of comparison. The explosion of a howitzer shell near you is a definite, actual fact—which is unlike any other fact in the world, except the explosion of another howitzer shell still nearer. Stand with me at the Menin Gate of Ypres and listen. Rapidly it rises in a great swelling crescendo as it dashes into the open, and then its journey stops on some giant battlement—stops in a peal of deafening thunder just overhead.
But—do not forget that he may not stick to the village, and that whizz-bangs give no time. You even desire revenge for your mental anguish when discovery in the rodent's lair seemed certain. Woolly, fleecy puffs of smoke floating gently down wind, getting more and more attenuated, gradually disappearing, while below each puff an oval of ground has been plastered with bullets. And that, methinks, is an epitome of other things besides shrapnel.
That is why I specified a tree, and not the middle of the road. Suddenly, without a second's warning, they shift their target. So light a cigarette—if you didn't drop them all when you went to ground yourself; if you did—whistle some snappy tune as you stride jauntily into the village. " To linger is bad form, but it is quite permissible to ask his companion—seated in a torn-up drain—if the ratting is good. And it's when the ground inside the oval is full of men that the damage is done. It's all the war to the men who fight and the women who wait.
And the only point of interest about them is that between you and them run the two motionless, stagnant lines of men who for months have faced one another.