Extract: ‘The Great Push’ by Patrick MacGill

‘The Retreat’ is a chapter from the 1916 novel by ‘navvy poet’ Patrick MacGill, based on his experience in the trenches of Loos


Patrick MacGill became known as the “Navvy Poet” when a slim little volume of poetry which he had mostly written when working on the railways in Scotland, and which he called Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapbook, came to the notice of literary critics in Britain at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

The young MacGill, a native of Glen in Glenties, Co Donegal, was only about 20. He had left home at about 11 for the hiring fair in Strabane in neighbouring Tyrone.

Having done his stint on the farms and tramped the roads of Scotland finding work here and there, he finally got a job on the Glasgow-Greenock railway line. Even though he had only a rudimentary education, he read voraciously.

His poetry, much of it based on his own experience as a navvy, reflected his preoccupation with the poor and the downtrodden and those navvies who, like himself, toiled in the muck to build civilisation but lived on the outside of society. His talent was spotted and he landed a job in Fleet Street at the Daily Express, and then got a job in Windsor Castle.

Another book of poetry, Songs of a Navvy, was followed by the novels Children of the Dead End and The Rat Pit. In 1914 he joined up and would write about life on the front line from his experience as a stretcher-bearer in the London Irish Rifles.

Even after he had been wounded at the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915 – about which he had written his best book on the first World War, The Great Push, a chapter of which we publish here – he would go on writing books on life in the trenches.

Despite enjoying considerable celebrity and acclaim, MacGill emigrated to the US in 1930 where he died in obscurity in 1963.

Chapter 12 The retreat

There’s a battery snug in the spinney,

A French ‘seventy-five’ in the mine,

A big ‘nine-point-two’ in the village,

Three miles to the rear of the line.

The gunners will clean them at dawning,

And slumber beside them all day,

But the guns chant a chorus at sunset,

And then you should hear what they say.”

The hour was one o’clock in the afternoon, and a slight rain was now falling. A dug-out in the bay leant wearily forward on its props; the floor of the trench, foul with blood and accumulated dirt, showed a weary face to the sky. A breeze had sprung up, and the watcher who looked over the parapet was met in the face with a soft, wet gust laden with rain swept off the grassy spot in front. A gaunt willow peeped over the sandbags and looked timorously down at us. All the sandbags were perforated by machine-gun fire, a new gun was hidden on the rise on our right, but none of our observers could locate its position. On the evening before it had accounted for 87 casualties; from the door of a house in Loos I had seen our men, who had attempted to cross the street, wiped out like flies.

Very heavy fighting had been going on in the front line to the cast of Hill 70 all through the morning. Several bomb attacks were made by the enemy, and all were repulsed. For the men in the front line trench the time was very trying. They had been subject to continual bomb attacks since the morning before.

“’Ow long ’ave we been ’ere?” asked Bill Teake, as he removed a clot of dirt from the foresight guard of his rifle. “I’ve lost all count of time.”

“Not such a length of time,” I told him.

“Time’s long a-passin’ ’ere,” said Bill, leaning his head against the muddy parados. “Gawd, I’d like to be back in Les Brebis drinkin’ beer, or ’avin’ a bit of a kip for a change. When I go back to Blighty I’ll go to bed and I’ll not get up for umpty-eleven months.”

“We may get relieved tomorrow night,” I said.

“Tomorrow’ll be another day nearer the day we get relieved, any’ow,” said Bill sarcastically. “And another day nearer the end of the war,” he added.

“I’m sick of it,” he muttered, after a short silence. “I wish the damned war was blurry well finished. It gives me the pip. Curse the war! Curse everyone and everything! If the Alleymongs would come over now, I’d not lift my blurry ’ipe. I’d surrender; that’s wot I’d do. Curse . . . Damn . . . Blast . . .”

I slipped to the wet floor of the trench asleep and lay there, only to awaken 10 minutes later. I awoke with a start; somebody jumping over the parapet had planted his feet on my stomach. I rose from the soft earth and looked round. A kilted soldier was standing in the trench, an awkward smile on his face and one of his knees bleeding. Bill, who was awake, was gazing at the kiltie with wide open eyes.

The machine gun was speaking from the enemy’s line, a shrewish tang in its voice, and little spurts of dirt flicked from our sandbags shot into the trench.

Bill’s eyes looked so large that they surprised me; I had never seen him look in such a way before. What was happening? Several soldiers belonging to strange regiments were in our trench now; they were jumping over the parapet in from the open. One man I noticed was a nigger in khaki . . .

“They’re all from the front trench,” said Bill in a whisper of mysterious significance, and a disagreeable sensation stirred in my being.

“That means,” I said, and paused.

“It means that the Alleymongs are gettin’ the best of it,” said Bill, displaying an unusual interest in the action of his rifle. “They say the 21st and 24th Division are retreating from ’ill 70. Too ’ot up there. It’s goin’ to be a blurry row ’ere,” he muttered. “But we’re goin’ to stick ’ere, wotever ’appens. No damned runnin’ away with us!”

The trench was now crowded with strangers, and others were coming in. The field in front of our line was covered with figures running towards us. Some crouched as they ran, some tottered and fell; three or four crawled on their bellies, and many dropped down and lay where they fell.

The machine gun swept the field, and a vicious hail of shrapnel swept impartially over the quick, the wounded and the dead. A man raced up to the parapet which curved the bay in which I stood, a look of terror on his face. There he stood a moment, a timorous foot on a sandbag, calculating the distance of the jump . . . He dropped in, a bullet wound showing on the back of his tunic, and lay prostrate, face upwards on the floor of the trench. A second man jumped in on the face of the stricken man.

I hastened to help, but the newcomers pressed forward and pushed me along the trench. No heed was taken of the wounded man.

“ ’Tack! get back!” yelled a chorus of voices. “We’ve got to retire.”

“’Oo the blurry ’ell said that?” I heard Bill Teake thunder. “If ye’re not goin’ to fight, get out of this ’ere place and die in the fields. Runnin’ away, yer blasted cowards!”

No one seemed to heed him. The cry of “Back? back!” redoubled in violence. “We’ve got orders to retire! We must get back at once!” was the shout. “Make way there, let us get by.”

It was almost impossible to stem the tide which swept up the trench towards Loos Road where the road leaves the village. I had a fleeting glimpse of one of our men rising on the fire position and gazing over the parapet. Even as he looked a bullet hit him in the face, and he dropped back, clawing at the air with his fingers . . . Men still crowded in from the front, jumping on the struggling crush in the trench . . . In front of me was a stranger, and in front of him was Rifleman Pryor, trying to press back against the oncoming men. A bullet ricochetted off a sandbag and hit the stranger on the shoulder and he fell face downwards to the floor. I bent to lift the wounded fellow and got pushed on top of him.

“Can you help him?” Pryor asked.

“If you can keep the crowd back,” I muttered, getting to my feet and endeavouring to raise the fallen man.

Pryor pulled a revolver from his pocket, levelled it at the man behind me and shouted:

“If you come another step further I’ll put a bullet through your head.”

This sobered the soldier at the rear, who steadied himself by placing his hand against the traverse. Then he called to those who followed, “Get back! there’s a wounded man on the floor of the trench.”

A momentary halt ensued. Pryor and I gripped the wounded man, raised him on the parapet and pushed him into a shell-hole behind the sandbags. Lying flat on the ground up there I dressed the man’s wounds. Pryor sat beside me, fully exposed to the enemy’s fire, his revolver in his hand.

“Down, Pryor,” I said several times. “You’ll get hit.”

“Oh, my time hasn’t come yet,” he said. “I’ll not be done in this time, anyway. Fighting is going on in the front trench yet, and dozens of men are racing this way. Many of them are falling. I think some of our boys are firing at them, mistaking them for Germans . . . Here’s our colonel coming along the trench.”

The colonel was in the trench when I got back there, exhorting his men to stand and make a fight of it. “Keep your backs to the walls, boys,” he said, “and fight to the last.”

The Irish had their back to the wall, no man deserted his post. The regiment at the moment was the backbone of the Loos front; if the boys wavered and broke, the thousands of lives that were given to make a victory of Loos would have been lost in vain. Intrepid little Bill Teake, who was going to surrender to the first German whom he met, stood on the banquette, his jaw thrust forward determinedly and the light of battle in his eyes. Now and again he turned round and apostrophised the soldiers who had fallen back from the front line.

“Runnin’ away!” he yelled. “Ugh! Get back again and make a fight of it. Go for the Alleymongs just like you’s go for rum rations.”

The machine gun on the hill peppered Loos Road and dozens dropped there. The trench crossing the road was not more than a few feet deep at any time, and a wagon which had fallen in when crossing a hastily-constructed bridge the night before now blocked the way. To pass across the men had to get up on the road, and here the machine gun found them; and all round the wagon bleeding bodies were lying three deep.

A young officer of the --- Regiment, whose men were carried away in the stampede, stood on the road with a Webley revolver in his hand and tried to urge his followers back to the front trench. “It’s all a mistake,” he shouted. “The Germans did not advance. The order to retire was a false one. Back again; boys, get back. Now, get back for the regiment’s sake. If you don’t we’ll be branded with shame. Come now, make a stand and I’ll lead you back again.”

Almost simultaneously a dozen bullets hit him and he fell, his revolver still in his hand. Bill Teake procured the revolver at dusk . . .

Our guns came suddenly into play and a hell-riot of artillery broke forth. Guns of all calibres were brought into work, and all spoke earnestly, madly, the 4.2’s in the emplacement immediately to rear, the 9.2’s back at Maroc, and our big giants, the caterpillar howitzers, away behind further still. Gigantic shells swung over our heads, laughing, moaning, whistling, hooting, yelling. We could see them passing high up in air, looking for all the world like beer bottles flung from a juggler’s hand. The messengers of death came from everywhere and seemed to be everywhere.

The spinney on the spur was churned, shivered, blown to pieces. Trees uprooted rose 20 yards in the air, paused for a moment to take a look round, as it were, when at the zenith of their flight, then sank slowly, lazily to earth as if selecting a spot to rest upon. Two redbrick cottages with terra-cotta tiles which snuggled amidst the trees were struck simultaneously, and they went up in little pieces, save where one rafter rose hurriedly over the smoke and swayed, a clearly defined black line, in mid-air. Coming down abruptly it found a resting place on the branches of the trees. One of the cottages held a German gun and gunners . . . Smoke, dust, lyddite fumes robed the autumn-tinted trees on the crest, the concussion shells burst into lurid flame, the shrapnel shells puffed high in air, and their white, ghostly smoke paled into the overcast heavens.

The retreat was stopped for a moment. The --- Regiment recovered its nerve and 50 or 60 men rushed back. Our boys cheered . . . But the renewed vitality was short-lived. A hail of shrapnel caught the party in the field and many of them fell. The nigger whom I had noticed earlier came running back, his teeth chattering, and flung himself into the trench. He lay on the floor and refused to move until Bill Teake gave him a playful prod with a bayonet. Our guns now spoke boisterously, and the German trenches on the hill were being blown to little pieces. Dug-outs were rioting, piecemeal, in air, parapets were crumbling hurriedly in and burying the men in the trench, bombs spun lazily in air, and the big caterpillar howitzers flung their projectiles across with a loud whoop of tumult. Our thousand and one guns were bellowing their terrible anthem of hate.

Pryor stood on the fire-step, his bayonet in one hand, an open tin of bully-beef in the other.

“There’s no damned attack on at all,” he said. “A fresh English regiment came up and the --- got orders to retire for a few hundred yards to make way for them. Then there was some confusion, a telephone wire got broken, the retirement became a retreat. A strategic retreat, of course,” said Pryor sarcastically, and pointed at the broken wagon on the Loos Road. “A strategic retreat,” he muttered, and munched a piece of beef which he lifted from the tin with his fingers.

The spinney on which we had gazed so often now retained its unity no longer, the brick houses were gone; the lyddite clouds took on strange forms amidst the greenery, glided towards one another in a graceful waltz, bowed, touched tips, retired and paled away weary as it seemed of their fantastic dance. Other smoke bands of ashen hue intermixed with ragged, bilious-yellow fragments of cloud rose in the air and disappeared in the leaden atmosphere. Little wisps of vapour like feathers of some gigantic bird detached themselves from the horrible, diffused glare of bursting explosives, floated towards our parapet, and the fumes of poisonous gases caused us to gasp for breath. The shapelessness of Destruction reigned on the hill, a fitting accompaniment to the background of cloudy sky, dull, dark and wan.

Strange contrasts were evoked on the crest, monstrous heads rose over the spinney, elephants bearing ships, Vikings, bearded and savage, beings grotesque and gigantic took shape in the smoke and lyddite fumes.

The terrible assault continued without truce, interruption or respite; our guns scattered broadcast with prodigal indifference their apparently inexhaustible resources of murder and terror. The essence of the bombardment was in the furious succession of its blows. In the clamour and tumult was the crash and uproar of a vast, bubbling cauldron forged and heated by the gods in ungodly fury.

The enemy would reply presently. Through the uproar I could hear the premonitory whispering of his guns regulating their range and feeling for an objective. A concussion shell whistled across the traverse in which I stood and in futile rage dashed itself to pieces on the level field behind. Another followed, crying like a child in pain, and finished its short, drunken career by burrowing into the red clay of the parados where it failed to explode. It passed close to my head, and fear went down into the innermost parts of me and held me for a moment . . . A dozen shells passed over in the next few moments, rushing ahead as if they were pursued by something terrible, and burst in the open a hundred yards away. Then a livid flash lit a near dug-out; lumps of earth, a dozen beams and several sandbags changed their locality, and a man was killed by concussion. When the body was examined no trace of a wound could be seen. Up the street of Loos was a clatter and tumult. A house was flung to earth, making a noise like a statue falling downstairs in a giant’s castle; iron girders at the coal-mine were wrenched and tortured, and the churchyard that bordered our trench had the remnants of its headstones flung about and its oft-muddled graves dug anew by the shells.

The temporary bridge across the trench where it intersected the road, made the night before to allow ammunition limbers to pass, was blown sky high, and two men who sheltered under it were killed. Earth, splinters of wood and bits of masonry were flung into the trench, and it was wise on our part to lie on the floor or press close to the parapet. One man, who was chattering a little, tried to sing, but became silent when a comrade advised him “to hold his row; if the Germans heard the noise they might begin shelling.”

The gods were thundering. At times the sound dwarfed me into such infinitesimal littleness that a feeling of security was engendered. In the midst of such an uproar and tumult, I thought that the gods, bent though they were upon destruction, would leave such a little atom as myself untouched. This for a while would give me a self-satisfied confidence in my own invulnerability.

At other times my being swelled to the grand chorus. I was one with it, at home in thunder. I accommodated myself to the Olympian uproar and shared in a play that would have delighted Jove and Mars. I had got beyond that mean where the soul of a man swings like a pendulum from fear to indifference, and from indifference to fear. In danger I am never indifferent, but I find that I can readily adapt myself to the moods and tempers of my environment. But all men have some restraining influence to help them in hours of trial, some principle or some illusion. Duty, patriotism, vanity, and dreams come to the help of men in the trenches, all illusions probably, ephemeral and fleeting; but for a man who is as ephemeral and fleeting as his illusions are, he can lay his back against them and defy death and the terrors of the world. But let him for a moment stand naked and look at the staring reality of the terrors that engirt him and he becomes a raving lunatic.

The cannonade raged for three hours, then ceased with the suddenness of a stone falling to earth, and the ordeal was over.

As the artillery quietened the men who had just come into our trench plucked up courage again and took their way back to the front line of trenches, keeping well under the cover of the houses in Loos. In twenty minutes’ time we were left to ourselves, nothing remained of those who had come our way save their wounded and their dead; the former we dressed and carried into the dressing-station, the latter we buried when night fell.

The evening came, and the greyish light of the setting sun paled away in a western sky, leaden-hued and dull. The dead men lying out in the open became indistinguishable in the gathering darkness. A deep silence settled over the village, the roadway and trench, and with the quiet came fear. I held my breath. What menace did the dark world contain? What threat did the ghostly star-shells, rising in air behind the Twin Towers, breathe of? Men, like ghosts, stood on the banquettes waiting, it seemed, for something to take place. There was no talking, no laughter. The braziers were still unlit, and the men had not eaten for many hours. But none set about to prepare a meal. It seemed as if all were afraid to move lest the least noise should awake the slumbering Furies. The gods were asleep and it was unwise to disturb them . . .

A limber clattered up the road and rations were dumped down at the corner of the village street.

“I ’ope they’ve brought the rum,” somebody remarked, and we all laughed boisterously. The spell was broken, and already my mate, Bill Teake, had applied a match to a brazier and a little flame glowed at the corner of a traverse. Now was the moment to cook the hen which he had shot that morning.

As he bent over his work, someone coming along the trench stumbled against him, and nearly threw Bill into the fire.

“’Oo the blurry ’ell is that shovin’ about,” spluttered Teake, rubbing the smoke from his eyes and not looking round.

“It’s the blurry Colonel of the London Irish,” a voice replied, and Bill shot up to attention and saluted his commanding officer.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said.

“It’s all right,” said the officer. “If I was in your place, I might have said worse things.”

Bill recounted the incident afterwards and concluded by saying, “’E’s a fine bloke, ’e is, our CO. I’d do anythink for him now.”