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Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The Story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and Some Account of the Daily Round of the Troops within Its Bounds

The Bivouac

page 145

The Bivouac

One in the lee of a fence post,
Dreamed of an ingle-nook warm;
Dim, 'neath a shadowy gorse bush,
Slumbered a blanketed form;
And those who had crept to a hay-loft,
Swore at the bellowing storm.

Uriously the wind thrashed the tall pine trees and swept through the trunks and lower boughs; the rain drove in a mist, heavily, and slowly, across the Kaitoke landscape like a moving curtain of shrapnel fire. It was going to be a wet bivouac for the troops that were route-marching from Featherston to Trentham, and for whom the advance party was preparing. They were due within a couple of hours.

"One thing," an A.S.C. man, grizzled and grinning, said, "even if they don't get 'ere till midnight, it can't be no wetter than it is now."

He was wet himself; the big, well-fed Army Service Corps horses, loosed in a paddock and rolling luxuriously in the grass and mud, with their covers on, were wet. Two hooded waggons, anchored by the mass of harness the horses had discarded, showed only muddy wheels and wet tarpaulins; some soldiers, chopping meat on improvised chopping-blocks, didn't seem to mind the rain; but the clean red and white mutton was wet. Except in the lee of sheds or trees, there were no dry places, and the wind went roaring over the tree-tope beyond the farm house.

Presently a soldier came out of the kitchen door. A pretty girl was with him. He was one of the advance party; he was the piper. They sought the shelter of the trees, where the wind came through the openings in the fence with an edge to it. The piper took his pipes from the girl and began to play. He strutted back and forth, stood awhile and tapped the time with his toe, strutted again. The men at the fires, two hundred yards away, where, in long narrow trenches, logs and branches were blazing, and where potatoes were being peeled into big pots, heard the pipes. The Sassenachs made rough jests about "bloomin' Hielenmen." Even the pipes' music seemed wet and windy, though it touched the ear like a warm wind. A collie pup came out and barked. Then it howled. When the pipes kept on, it lay on the ground and writhed and howled.

page 146

"Poor little bloke!" a young soldier said, patting the pup. To a wet civilian who was watching, he said, surreptitiously almost,

"What's the chance of gettin' some eggs, mister?"

"I don't own this farm," the civilian answered, looking at the hills behind the curtain of rain.

"I want to get some before the officers come," the young soldier explained. "They mop up all the eggs every time. Must be some eggs here; I seen some hens s'mornin'."

A voice rang above the skirl of the pipes:

" 'Ere, you, why ain't y' watchin' that stuff ?"

The young soldier jumped and faced the angry sergeant.

"I am," he declared.

"How the digging can y' when you're 'ere and it's there, eh?"

"Easy," was the reply; but the lad hurried away eggless.

A motor-car with a staff officer in it dashed along the road.

"He's been doing that all morning," the girl said to the civilian, the pipes occupying the complete attention of the piper. "I wonder if the boys are lost in this storm."

She meant that the staff officer had been passing to and fro all the morning. The civilian said he didn't think the boys would get lost—not her boy, at any rate, as long as he had the pipes. The piper gave him such a glare through the stirring bars of "The Cock o' the North" that the civilian turned away along the tree-sheltered cart-way, and presently met the second-lieutenant. This young gentleman was as dry as a cuckoo; there wasn't a spot of rain on him, and he had no overcoat on.

"Good morning," he said, in a quiet voice, as though the occasion demanded the barest mention and a reserve of breath should be kept for more stirring moments. "This is a pig, isn't it ?"

He referred to the weather. The wet civilian agreed.

"Had any lunch?" asked the lieutenant. "My chaps can soon fry you a chop, if you haven't."

"Thanks, I've had it at the farm. Have a cigarette?" said the civilian.

They had cigarettes, and watched a white ambulance from Trentham, with the large red cross on its side, swing through the gates and come to rest under the rocking pine trees.

"Yes, it began when we arrived about dark last night," the officer related in the same still voice. "Had to sort ourselves out in the dark. We were in a mess until we'd got things fixed up. But no use growling. Then we had tea. I had three fat chops, and went to bed in a hayloft. I thought that was good enough. But, hang me, if the Q.M.S. didn't stir me up at page 147midnight with a cup of coffee and some biscuits and cheese. Thought I might not be sleeping well. Decent of him."

He smoked, and watched the behaviour of a bull that had been turned out of its paddock into a strange one, to make room for the troops. His eyes had a dreamy, dark appearance, and his slight smile never changed. No doubt the boy was tired out, but he didn't show it.

"You're pretty dry; look at me, wet through," the civilian said.

"Yes, I've just got up," the other explained. It was mid-day then.

"Was out early this morning, of course," he continued, "mucking about in the mud, fixing up fires and other things. Then I turned in again. Slept well, too."

"You're in charge of this lot, I take it?"

"Oh, yes; advance party," he agreed.

An n.c.o. hurried up and saluted.

"Say they can't be here for another hour, sir. What time do you want tea ready?"

"Tea at 4.15," said the dry young officer, in precise tones. He sauntered away, with a nod to the civilian, in company with the quartermastersergeant. The wind hooted across the hills and thrashed the pines, and the rain streamed from sky to earth and from sky to sky. The pipes were silent, while the piper talked to his girl. She was laughing. Suddenly she became still and tense. A sound had caught her ear—something that, the storm had stolen and blended in its wild music.

"It's the boys; they're singing!" she cried. "Listen!"

Everybody listened. It came again, wild and disconnected, but human—the sound of men singing behind the spur of hill that hid the road beyond the bridge.

"Here they are!" the word was passed round.

"What do you think o' that?" a ruddy-faced, burly private asked. "But, they're the Devil's Own."

The wind was hurling itself along as wildly as ever; the rain was something to weep over. But these things were forgotten. Down the road came these khaki fellows. They swept, like a wave, along the road, with their own band at their head, playing "The Long, Long Trail." Like magic, a dozen more girls appeared, all hatless and coatless, to see the boys march in. No doubt the farm-house had been their shelter, and they were waving and cheering, too. A squall of rain seethed over everything; but the khaki fellows still laughed and sang. An orderly, riding the colonel's horse, came first, for the colonel was marching at the head of the wave. The mounted man had a rifle slung across his back, and he looked like a bush-page 148ranger. The girls threw him kisses, and he grinned and blushed. But the foot-sloggers, the gravel-crushers, would have none of it.

"Fair does; some to me, girlies!" they shouted.

"Hullo, Bob!" a girl called.

Bob waved his hand. Brown and burly was Bob.

"Shall I kiss him for you, lady?" shouted Curly, who looked well in shorts, "or kiss you for him? Say the word."

She laughed, and smiled at Curly. The band wheeled aside in the roadway and played the troops in.

In a little shed, the chiropodist who had come with the ambulance set out his scissors and plaster and needles and lotions. After the march over the mountain there would be blisters to lance and dress, corns to trim, and other lesser ailments to attend to. Like all the others, the medical staff was ready for the incoming of the soldiers.

In the minds of the small army that had route-marched through the storm was one thing, and one thing only—that is to say, speaking collectively—and that was food. The canteens were ready. Also the fires smoked and blazed, and the cooks were lifting the big pots that had been standing beside the flames, into hotter positions. The meat-choppers chopped off interminable fat chops in the rain, and the spud-peelers argued over trivial and irrelevant matters. The dry young subaltern was speaking respectfully to the colonel. He waved a hand to include the whole wide, wet scenery, indicating that the troops had permission to bivouac anywhere they pleased in the shelter of bush and bank. But he kept his back to the shed and hayloft. Soon there were throngs round the canteens. At 4.15 precisely the evening meal was ready. It was hot, and there was plenty of it, and in the dusk the A.S.C. men came tramping along the road behind the lumbering waggons. The rain and wind had been in their faces during the two-mile march from the railway.

The soldiers' kits were unloaded and distributed, and away two thousand khaki fellows went out into the wet night to seek their cheerless bivouacs. The wind and rain put their heads together and sobbed over what they had planned to do; the clouds rode low, like airmen seeking a better aim. The plaintive call of the pipes, in "Lochaber No More," "The Gathering of the Gordons," and such grand airs, came from the farm-house, where the piper, beside the fire, with a girl on each side of him, blew and played. Lights twinkled about the fires outside, where the A.S.C. men went about their duties, and the collie pup, cuddling up to the young egg-hunting soldier in his bed of hay, was very unhappy because of the pipes.