Donald Hankey

The honour of the Brigade

This and other despatches from the front line were published anonymously from ‘A Student in Arms’. Hankey was killed at the Somme in 1916, aged 31

The honour of the Brigade
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190 years of The Spectator

11 December 1915

The road was full of troops. Columns of infantry slogged along at the side. Guns and ammunition-wagons thundered down the paved centre. Motor despatch riders flew past with fresh orders for those in rear. The men sucked their pebbles in grim silence. It was no time for grumbling. This meant business. They forgot their fatigue, their thirst, their hunger. Their minds were full of the folk at home whom they might not see again, and of the struggle that lay before them. So they marched, silently, and with frequent halts, most of the morning. At length they left the road, and took to the fields. They were going back whence they had come,

by a circuitous route.

Shrapnel burst overhead. As they neared the firing line they met streams of wounded returning from the scene of action. The company commanders took charge. One company rested to let another pass, and the men exchanged greetings. Men spoke to each other who only knew each other by sight. An officer caught the eye of a corporal and they both smiled, and felt that there was some curious link between them, hitherto unguessed.

A captain said a few words to his men during a halt. Some trenches had been lost. It was their brigade that had lost them. For the honour of the brigade, of the New Army, they must try to retake them. The men listened in silence; but their faces were set. They were content. The honour of the brigade demanded it. The captain had said so, and they trusted him. They set off again, in single file. There was a cry. Someone had stopped a bullet. Don’t look round; he will be looked after. It may be your turn next.

They lay down behind a bank in a wood. Before them raged a storm. Bullets fell like hail. Branches were carried away, great tree-trunks shattered and split. Shells shrieked through the air and burst in all directions. The storm raged without any abatement. The whistle would blow. Then the first platoon would advance. Half a minute later the second would go forward, followed at the same interval by the third and fourth. A man went into hysterics, a pitiable object. His neighbour contemplated him with a sort of uncomprehending wonder. He was perfectly, fatuously cool. Something had stopped inside him.

A whistle blow. The first platoon scrambled to their feet and advanced at the double. What happened no one saw. They disappeared. The second line followed, and the third and fourth. Surely no one could live in that hell. No one hesitated. They went forward mechanically, as men in a dream. It was so mad, so unreal. Soon they would awake . . .