I GO "OVER THE TOP"
Next morning, while we were having our tea piping hot from Nicholi's samovar, the stretcher-bearers brought in a badly wounded soldier.
He was covered with a blanket and as they placed him on the stretcher I was amazed at his strange appearance. He was no longer than a child and yet his arms were of the average length and his shoulders were broad!
As he lay under the blood-soaked blanket, he moaned feebly. His face was ghastly, a peculiar greenish white.
As an orderly lifted the blanket, the poor fellow cried out:
"My feet! My feet! My God, don't touch my feet!"
I gazed horror-stricken as the blanket was removed and I saw why he had looked so small. There were no feet! Neither were there any legs to speak of---just stumps bound in blood. soaked bandages.
"A high explosive shell dropped in the trench near him and exploded," one of the orderlies, with blanched face, explained to me in a whisper. "A large fragment struck him between the knee and the hip, carrying away both legs. One leg hung by a small strip of skin, Excellency, but I cut it off with my knife, for it was difficult to carry him with it swinging about before we got him on the stretcher."
The orderlies had applied tourniquets, partially checking the hemorrhage.
"Oh! my feet, why do they pain so? Please don't touch them, don't touch them!" he pleaded.
I gave him a hypodermic of morphine for the pain and a pint of hot salt solution in one of the veins of his arm, for he had lost much blood.
I tied off the arteries and veins with cat-gut to prevent further hemorrhage and then took off the tourniquets. I then cleaned up the stumps as well as I could, applied iodine to the raw surfaces and put on clean bandages, during all of which he complained bitterly of the pain in his feet---a phenomenon due, of course, to the fact that the nerves which had been severed by the amputation were conveying an erroneous message to the poor fellow's brain.
When he had reacted sufficiently, we placed him in one of our little horse ambulances, which were kept hidden in the forest a few hundred yards back of the trenches, and started him on his journey to the division hospital, which was located some four miles farther back. As the ambulance slowly rattled off over the rough frozen road, the poor fellow was still crying: "My feet! My feet! How they pain!"
That afternoon, as Nicholi and I were having tea in our dug-out, the door opened and Lieutenant Muhanoff entered. He brushed the powdery snow from his sheepskin coat and walked over to the stove to warm his hands. It was only three-thirty o'clock in the afternoon but already the short Russian day was drawing to a close and we had a candle lighted in the dug-out.
"It will be a thick night---four inches of snow have fallen already," he said. "It will be a fine dark night for the little affair we've planned!"
"What little affair?" I asked.
"Well, we're going to give the Germans a raiding party. It won't amount to much---just two companies---about four hundred men---will go over. The artillery will put up a barrage on their communication trenches and on a certain sector of their first-line trenches which form a salient. An intense fire will be concentrated at the same time on the barbed wire at certain points. This preparation will last about an hour, and then, when the fire on the wire and the first-line lifts, we will go over and our artillery will then fire on the communication trenches and the German batteries to prevent the Germans from escaping and their artillery from putting up a barrage on us."
I showed him that I was very much interested in the modus operandi and he gave me further details.
"We'll only remain in the German trenches about five minutes, but we hope to take some prisoners and possibly some machine guns. The main object, I understand, is to prevent the Germans from sending troops north to the Riga-Dvinsk front where there is some heavy fighting. If you worry them by raids at various points on the line they become nervous, fearing larger attacks, and they won't weaken their line by transferring troops to the region where they are really needed."
The Lieutenant explained the proposed plan to me as simply as possible, aware that I knew nothing of the technical end of the game. He drew a rough map to show the salient we were to attack and the communication trenches where they hoped to cut the Germans off if they attempted to escape.
"I should like very much to go over with you," I said, hardly hoping that I would be allowed to do so.
"You may if you want to," he replied; "but you must remember that it is very dangerous work. We will take stretcher-bearers with us to bring the wounded back and, if you want to, you may go with them. Have you a white operating gown?"
I reached for my gown which was hanging on a hook.
"That's very good. We're all going to wear white on account of the snow. It will make us invisible to the German machine gun and rifle men. Put a pillow-case over your head and you'll do fine I"
I snatched a pillow-case from the cot and put it on.
"You look like a cowled monk," Muhanoff commented; "but it will serve first-rate. I will call for you at eight-twenty. We'll go into the first line at that time and watch the artillery preparations, which starts at eight forty-five, and at nine forty-five we will attack. Have you a good revolver? All right, be prepared at eight-twenty!"
He closed the door and was gone.
It was very still there in the dug-out. Nicholi had gone out immediately after tea to visit the other dressing-station and I was all alone. The candle cast flickering shadows on the earthen wall. A coal popped in the stove and it sounded to me like a rifle-shot!
A dug-out with good thick walls and a tightly closed door is a very dismal sort of place---more like a tomb than anything else, with the smell of fresh earth and the dampness. It is especially so when you're alone. I felt like a child when left alone in the dark.
It occurred to me that I was doing a very foolish thing---sticking my nose into a dangerous proposition like this which really didn't concern me in the least. A little cold shiver ran up and down my spine. I wondered if the revolver which Dr. Egbert had given me really was all right. I hadn't tried it out and possibly the blamed thing wouldn't work at all or the cartridges were stale or the firing pin gummed up or something. I took it down and examined it and as I opened it up my hand shook. I was frankly in a blue funk!
I looked at my wrist-watch---6:34---three hours and eleven minutes to go! I opened the door and let in an icy blast and a flying swirl of snow.
"What is the matter! Is Meester so warm he keeps the door open?" exclaimed Nicholi, step. ping in the open door a moment later, a look of astonishment on his red frosty face at the pile of snow which had blown in and the frigid temperature of the dug-out.
"Oh, no," I replied; "I just wanted to give it a little airing. You can close it now; it is a bit chilly!"
A great deal might happen in three hours and eight minutes. The general might call the little party off or I might stumble in the trench in the dark and break a leg. One can never tell. The reflection made me feel a little better.
The orderly brought our dinner and after dinner we had tea. I drank five or six glasses, and my spirits were considerably brightened. I was in for it now and there was nothing to do but to go through with it.
Promptly at eight-twenty, Lieutenant Muhanoff came in, his scraggly beard plastered with snow and ice. He stood by the stove combing it out with his fingers. He looked like a be-spectacled, bearded imitation of a stage ghost, with his white gown and peeked head covering.
In his hand he held two peculiar objects which looked like tomato cans with long handles on them, and there were two more in his belt, which he wore outside his white coat.
"They are hand grenades," he explained, observing me looking at them. "They are very useful to have at times, especially if you are not a dead shot with a revolver. One of these things will usually get anything within a radius of five meters when it explodes. You had better take these two with you."
He showed me how to insert the capsule, as he called it, and how to throw it, retaining in my hand the little metal ring which fitted over the handle.
"When you throw it, hold on to the ring and let the bomb go, slipping the ring off the handle," he said. "This releases the spring which starts the time fuse. The time fuse burns four seconds after the ring is pulled off and then the bomb explodes.--- It is well to drop flat on the ground when you throw it, especially if it does not fall in a trench---you'll be less apt to be hit by fragments." I took one of the things gingerly in my hand.
"Any danger of it going off from a jar?" I asked.
"No, not unless you knock the ring off."
I determined to be very gentle and to keep my hand on those rings in going over the rough spots.
"You can carry a bomb in your right hand and your revolver in your left," said the Lieutenant, as I put on my white coat and the pillow-slip over my head. He strapped the other bomb in its sling on my belt outside the coat. As we started out, Nicholi solemnly shook hands with both of us, wishing us good luck.
As I stepped out of the door, I thought hell had been turned loose.
The air was full of a variety of sounds running the scale from a screech to the noise an express train makes when going over a trestle while you are standing underneath.
"The high-pitched scream is from the three-inch shells, and the deep roar is from the six-inch howitzer shells," the Lieutenant shouted in my ear. "Hurry! This way!" he said, slipping quickly down an approach-trench. "The Boches will start to reply in a minute and we must get under cover!"
The roar of the artillery was terrific.
Through the tree-trunks ahead and in the sky above their black tops, I could see the flickering white flare of a steady stream of rockets from the German trenches.
"We've got them throwing up their fire-works!" the Lieutenant shouted as we stumbled on.
It was snowing thickly and the flickering rockets produced peculiar diffused light effects, indistinct yet very powerful.
In the first line, we joined hundreds of other white ghosts. Some had glowing cigarettes in their mouths, and the pungent smell of makorka, the vile tobacco they smoke, was in the air.
They stood about, leaning against the trench parapet, talking in subdued voices in little groups. Some sat on the fire-step alone and silent with white sheeted head bowed, waiting for the signal to go over the top. A very few were laughing and joking, but it was nervous laughter and some peered intently out over No Man's Land through the loopholes. Those who were not going to take part in the raid but were to remain in the trenches acting as reserves did not have on the white coats.
"Come here and look through the loophole!" said the Lieutenant in my ear.
As I started toward him I heard shells which had a different sound from ours---a sound which rose gradually in pitch as though near the end of a song. They were German shells. It was their reply to our bombardment and several times I saw a red flash through the loophole, accompanied by a close stunning explosion which sounded as if limbs of trees and things were falling around us.
At the culmination of a particularly vicious whiz, a terrific crash with a red flash of light occurred about sixty feet down the trench, apparently right on the parapet. The ground shook and we were covered with a shower of dirt.
"They are setting up their barrage," the Lieutenant explained. "We'll have to go through it. Notice the next time a rocket goes up how our barbed-wire is cut so as to produce lanes through which we will go after we leap over the parapet." And then turning to his orderly, he ordered: "Go and find Ivan and bring him here!"
The orderly returned in a minute with a big burly fellow who saluted and stood at attention.
"This is Ivan," introduced the Lieutenant. "He is the under-officer commanding the stretcher-bearers of this company. You will go with him and when he returns, return with him!"
Then he turned to Ivan.
"Ivan," he said, "take the American doctor with you and take good care of him. Bring him back safe or I'll skin you alive!"
"Tak tochena---that surely, your Excellency," said Ivan, saluting.
I noticed that Ivan was entirely unarmed, carrying only a first aid kit slung over his shoulder. In fact, none of the stretcher-bearers were armed, and I realized what a self-sacrificing job theirs was---all take and no give. If a fellow is armed he feels much better when going into an attack, but the poor stretcher-bearer cannot think of his own safety at all. They can't even keep under cover by lying in shell-holes on the ground but must keep on carrying the wounded back just as though a couple of dozen machine-guns were not spraying the air full of death right behind them.
Ivan leaned against the trench parapet and lit a cigarette, and in the glow of the match which he held in his cupped hand to shield it from the wind I got a good glimpse of his face. He had a great red beard, fan-shaped like the tail of a grouse and matted with snow, a red nose and cheeks and little, deep-set gray eyes with bushy red eyebrows, peering out from under his white monkish head covering. It is queer how these little unimportant things impress you even when your mind is centered on bigger matters, and I can recall that kindly, homely peasant face now after two years as plainly as though it were yesterday, although I haven't seen it since.
I looked at my wrist-watch and saw by the illuminated dial it was 9:28---only seventeen minutes more.
I was trembling all over from suppressed excitement.
Looking through the loophole I could scarcely make out the German trenches through the whirling snow and flying smoke of exploding shells, even when the rockets flared, although they were only two hundred yards away across a slight depression in the ground. When a particularly great number of rockets lit up the snow-covered field I could just see a thicket of black stakes which marked their barbed wire. Here and there along this hedge great black splotches showed where our shells had hit, tearing up the snow and earth. Red flashes and clouds of smoke rose from where their trenches lay. A green rocket went up from their trenches and several machine-guns started to pound away, sounding like riveting machines on a sky-scraper at home, followed by the cracking of rifles all going like mad.
"They are getting nervous," said the Lieutenant at my elbow---in which respect, I thought, they were not much worse off than I.
I could hear ricochets spee overhead in the trees and the crack of bullets hitting the branches, and occasionally dirt would be thrown from the parapet of the trench as one struck not a foot above my head.
The small-arm fire gradually quieted down but did not entirely cease, a machine-gun sputtering nervously every now and then.
"How they must be straining their eyes trying to pierce the screen of whirling snow-flakes for the first movement in No Man's Land!" declared the Lieutenant. "The company on our left will go over a few seconds before we do. They have a little farther to go to where the German communicating-trench runs back. They must get back there to head the Boches off when they try to leave the salient that we will attack. You wait until the stretcher-bearers go forward---they will follow us---and stick close to Ivan!"
Two minutes more, my watch told me.
"Look to your left!" the Lieutenant shouted
I looked but could see nothing but whirling snow in the flickering glare of the rockets.
"The company on the left went over," he said. "I heard their whistles."
He peered intently at his watch, holding a whistle to his lips.
Two shrill blasts and he crawled up over the parapet by means of one of the little ladders placed there for the purpose. He was followed by the white-draped figures of his men. They did not hurry but went carefully over, and as I looked down the line of the trench I could make out a few low-stooping figures passing slowly out through the lanes in the barbed wire. They were crawling and nearly invisible in their white garb. In a moment or two our sector was deserted except for the stretcher-bearers and reserves who were gazing out of their loopholes.
"Come!" said Ivan, and crawled up over the parapet.
I was in a daze. My brain felt numb. I was trembling all over but I followed with my heart thumping under my ribs.
Fig. 6. White gowns were worn by the Russian troops as camouflage when raiding the German trenches through the wastes of snow.
Fig. 7. One of the first women soldiers. She was in the First Siberian Army Corps, to which the author belonged, in 1916. Wounded at the battle of Postovy after reaching the third German line of trenches in the attack, she was rescued and brought to the author's dressing station, where her sex was discovered.
As I stuck my head and shoulders over and looked out I saw three blood red rockets shoot up from the German lines on the left and then a dozen machine-guns started, together with a sharp volley of rifle fire, and the screech of shells. The wicked red flashes and the sharp stunning reports of their explosions indicated the starting of the German barrage through which we had to pass.
The red rockets were thrown up by the Germans, who had seen the attacking company on their right and were asking for an artillery barrage.
I followed Ivan's great stooping bulk as he scurried quickly through the barbed wire, half a dozen stretcher-bearers following at my heels.
There was a rip of tearing cloth and a stretcher-bearer swore softly as his white coat caught on the barbed wire. I could see nothing at all of the men of our company who had gone ahead. They were completely swallowed up in the swirling snow.
Ivan suddenly stopped and leaned over something white lying in the snow.
The stretcher-bearers crowded up about him, a sharp order was given, and the white object was placed groaning on the back of an orderly, who started running back toward our trenches with it. We sped on over the snow, the Germans now firing all along the line, and the din of the machine-guns and rifles was terrific. Every now and then shrapnel would explode overhead with a coughing crump! and I could hear the bullets hit the ground about me as I ran.
Ivan turned and ran left and then forward again, lifting his feet high over a mass of twisted wire and stakes. This was German wire torn by our artillery fire. He had found an opening and I followed him.
The firing directly in front of us was not so intense, but to the left, where the Germans were still throwing up their red rockets shrapnel, H. E. shells and bombs were making a great row. I could hear voices---Russian words of command---above the uproar.
Again Ivan stooped and another orderly went back with a limp form on his back.
Ivan started up over a ridge of earth-covered with snow. He reached the top and stood poised a moment in the glare of a rocket. Then he coughed hollowly, swayed and slipped back, his great bulk crashing on top of me and carrying me down into a tangle of barbed wire.
As he fell, I thought of the bomb in my right hand. I felt something warm running down over my face as I squirmed out from under Ivan's body.
An orderly was bending over him.
"A bullet through the forehead, Excellency!" he reported. "He is quite dead, but I will take him back. Did they get you too?"
"Oh, no," I replied. "Take poor Ivan back."
I wiped my sleeve over my wet face and the white cloth showed a dark stain, but, strangely enough, I felt no pain.
"Sanitar! Sanitar!" a voice called from the darkness ahead.
I could see no one but crawled up cautiously over the ridge which I knew was the parapet of the German trench. I looked down over the parapet and saw two white-coated figures looking up at me.
"We have a wounded officer here," one of them said, as I slid over the parapet with the four remaining orderlies. He pointed to a third figure seated on the fire-step of the captured German trench. Two orderlies climbed back upon the parapet and we passed the wounded officer up to them.
"Be careful. It's his leg," one of the soldiers said.
When they had started back across No Man's Land with their burden, we went down the German trench toward the left.
I had gone only a few feet when I stumbled over a form lying in the darkness. As I stooped over it, one of the soldiers who was following me flashed an electric torch on the ashy face. It was a dead German with a small puncture in the throat from which a trickle of blood still oozed, and another in the chest.
"Bayonet!" commented an orderly at my elbow.
We proceeded on up the trench and finally came to a number of steps which led down to a strongly built dug-out. I started to go down but was stopped by one of the soldiers.
"Don't go down without first throwing a bomb into the dug-out," he urged. "There may be Germans lurking there."
I threw the bomb which I had in my right hand through the open door, slipping the ring off the handle. A loud explosion shook the ground. A soldier flashed his searchlight over my shoulder as we entered the dug-out, which was filled with smoke from the bomb.
Through the gray veil of the little shaft of light, we searched about the dark interior and found in the center an overturned table and, in one corner, a crouching gray figure. The uniform was torn and soaked with blood. As I stepped toward it, the German weakly called: "Kamerad!"
The German's face was covered with blood from a dozen small wounds which the bomb had made, but as he seemed able to walk we decided to take him with us.
The two orderlies led him out, escorting him by the arms; and when we had gained the trench, we found that we had over-stayed our time by two minutes. We clambered up over the German parapet and started back on the run over No Man's Land, the two orderlies dragging their prisoner with them.
The Germans were now throwing a strong barrage in No Man's Land. From their support-trenches rockets flared and they began to shell the trenches we had just taken. One hit the parapet about forty yards away, showering us with dirt.
"I am hit in the arm I" exclaimed one of our men, but he changed his rifle to his other arm and went on.
We stooped low as we ran, and as I flew over the snow I had a queer feeling in my back---a feeling of expectancy as though something were going to hit me right between the shoulders---the sort of feeling you have when you're going down a dark, lonely road at night and you suddenly hear the patter of footsteps just behind you.
The orderlies and their prisoner were left far in the rear. In front of me I saw our barbed wire and I scurried along till I found an opening and plunged through, bumping into several other white-coats as I scrambled down over the parapet in a shower of loosened dirt. Then I sat down on the fire-steps gasping for breath. I think I had done the last 200 yards in less than nothing.
Our men who had gotten safely back were talking excitedly.
"I ran him through and lifted him off his feet, my bayonet bent and he slid off," I heard one say. "Our bayonets ought to be stronger and thicker. See how it is bent."
I started up the trench and ran into Lieutenant Muhanoff.
"You are all right, I am so glad I" he exclaimed, grabbing me by the shoulders. "Ivan is dead---dum-dum bullet through the head. I feared something had happened to you. What is wrong with your face, you are covered with blood?" he asked as a rocket flickered.
He led me to a dug-out and held up a candle to my face.
"Strange, no wound. How did you get it?" he asked.
Then I remembered Ivan---how he had toppled over on me.
"Must be from Ivan," I said. "I was at his heels as he climbed over the parapet. He fell back on me and I felt something warm running down my face."
We were joined by several young officers who had taken part in the raid and their conversation reminded me of the dressing-room after a football game, when the team discusses the incidents of the game.
"Our company on the left flank got off in the snow," said a boyish looking officer, his eyes glowing. "We could not see a thing. We went too far to the left and were late in shutting off the communication-trench. A lot of Germans escaped before we got there. You fellows in the other company got in before we did and drove them out. Say, how many machine-guns did we get?"
"That's good; we'll have that many more in the regiment. And we got twenty prisoners, too."
(The Russian regiments at that time averaged about 15 machine-guns to the regiment; the Germans had about 80 to the regiment.)
"Yes, and we would have had more if your old company had not got lost. You fellows should not be allowed out after dark!"
We left them chatting away, and walked toward our dressing station, The Germans were still throwing rockets and pounding the section we had raided with H. E. shells.
"They are not certain whether we are still there or not," explained the Lieutenant.
"How many men did we lose?" I inquired.
"I think there were 8 killed and 45 wounded."
At the dressing-station we found Nicholi Alexandrovitch bandaging the German we had taken from the dug-out.
"We have finished with eight of our wounded: they are now on their way back," said Nicholi. 'The other regimental stations handled the other wounded."
The wounded German was a middle-aged man. He did not look very formidable. He was covered with small wounds from the exploding bomb.
He looked so pathetic and helpless as he sat there having his numerous cuts touched with iodine that I felt sorry for him.
"I ran into the dug-out when the Russians entered our trenches," he said. "I could not get to an approach-trench as I heard the Russians ahead blocking my escape. I was hiding in the corner when there was a terrible explosion and I was driven up against the wall. Then some Russian soldiers came and brought me here."
I was glad he didn't recognize me, as I felt rather guilty about that bomb. His wounds, while numerous, were not dangerous and barring tetanus or blood-poisoning he would recover. He was soon bumping back over the rough roads in one of our ambulances bound for the division hospital.
The Boche artillery was quieting down. Occasionally a machine-gun could be heard pounding out a few nervous shots, and then all would be quiet.
We sat down to discuss the night's work. Mike, his face beaming with smiles that I had returned safely, brought in the samovar, we lit our long fragrant cigarettes and leaned back in comfort. When Lieutenant Muhanoff rose to go I accompanied him to the door. The position lay as quiet as before the raid. There was an occasional rocket and a single rifle shot now and then, but that was all. The snow had stopped falling and the sky was dear. Great sparkling stars glared coldly in the black arch of the heavens and the wind murmured softly through the branches of the pines. It was hard to realize that a few hours ago this peaceful Russian forest had been a howling inferno.
Chapter Ten: I meet the Czar.