Read CHAPTER VIII - THE “KNUT” of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on ReadCentral.com.

We were sitting round the fire in the club, discussing that individual colloquially known as the “knut.”

“The ‘knut,’” said Green, “is now virtually extinct, he is killed by war. As soon as he gets anywhere near a trench, he drops his cloak of affectation, and becomes a reasonable human being always excepting, of course, certain young subalterns on the staff.”

Rawlinson leant forward in his chair. “I’m not sure,” he said, “that I agree with you. It all depends upon how you define a ‘knut.’”

“A ‘knut’ is a fellow with a drawl and an eyeglass,” said someone.

“That just fits my man. I know of an exception to your rule. I know of a ‘knut’ who did not disappear at the front.”

“Tell us about him,” suggested Jepson.

Rawlinson hesitated, and glanced round at each of us in turn. “It’s not much of a story,” he said at length, “but it stirred me up a bit at the time I don’t mind telling it you if you think it sufficiently interesting.”

We filled up our glasses, and lay back in our chairs to listen to the following tale:

“When I was at Trinity I kept rooms just above a fellow called Jimmy Wynter. He wasn’t a pal of mine at all, as he had far too much money to chuck about one of these rich young wastrels, he was. He could drop more than my annual allowance on one horse, and not seem to notice it at all. In the end he got sent down for some rotten affair, and I was rather glad to see the last of him, as the row from his rooms was appalling. He always had an eyeglass and wonderfully cut clothes, and his hair was brushed back till it was as shiny as a billiard ball. I put him down, as did everyone else, as an out-and-out rotter, and held him up as an example of our decadent aristocracy.

“When I went out to the front, our Regular battalion was full up, and I was sent to a Welsh regiment instead. The first man I met there was none other than this fellow Wynter, still with his eyeglass and his drawl. In time, one got quite accustomed to him, and he was always fairly amusing which, of course, is a great thing out there so that in the end I began to like him in a sort of way.

“All this seems rot, but it helps to give you an idea of my man, and it all leads up to my story, such as it is.

“We came in for that Loos show last year. After months and months of stagnation in the trenches, we were suddenly called to Headquarters and told that we were to make an attack in about two hours’ time.

“I don’t know if any of you fellows came in for a bayonet charge when you were out at the Front. Frankly, I felt in a hell of a funk, for it’s not the same thing to leave your trench and charge as it is to rush an enemy after you’ve been lying in an open field for an hour or two. The first hour and a half went all right, what with fusing bombs, arranging signals, and all that sort of thing, but the last half-hour was the very devil.

“Most of us felt a bit jumpy, and the double rum ration went in two shakes. We knew that we shouldn’t worry when the whistles went for the charge, but the waiting was rather trying. Personally I drank more neat brandy than I have ever done before or since, and then sat down and tried to write one or two letters. But it wasn’t a brilliant success, and I soon left my dug-out and strolled along to C Company.

“The idea was for A and C Companies to attack first, followed by B and D companies. A battalion of the Westshires was in support to us.

“C Company Officer’s dug-out was not a mental haven of rest. With one exception, everyone was a bit nervy, everyone was trying not to show it, and everyone was failing dismally. The exception was Jimmy Wynter. He was sitting on a pile of sandbags in the corner, his eyeglass in his eye, looking at an old copy of La Vie Parisienne, with evident relish. His hand was as steady as a rock, and he hadn’t had a drop of rum or brandy to give him Dutch courage. While everyone else was fighting with excitement, Jimmy Wynter was sitting there, studying the jokes of his paper, as calmly as though he were sitting here in this old club. It was only then that it occurred to me that there was something in the fellow after all.

“At last the time drew near for our push, and we waited, crouching under the parapet, listening to our artillery plunking away like blazes. At last the whistles blew, a lot of fellows cheered, yelled all sorts of idiotic things, and A and C Companies were over the parapet on the way to the Huns.

“I am no hand at a description of a charge, but it really was wonderful to watch those fellows; the sight of them sent every vestige of funk from me, and the men could hardly wait for their turn to come. Just before we went, I had one clear vision of Jimmy Wynter. He was well ahead of his platoon, for he was over six foot and long-legged at that. I could see his eyeglass swinging on the end of its black cord, and in his hand he carried a pickaxe. Such ordinary weapons as revolvers, rifles, and bayonets had no apparent attraction for him.

“What happened next I had no time to see, for our turn came to hop over the parapet, and there wasn’t much time to think of other people. Allan, his servant, told me later all that occurred, for he was next to Jimmy all the time. They got to the Hun trenches and lost a lot of men on the wire. Away to the left the enemy had concealed a crowd of machine guns in one of the slag heaps, and they played awful havoc among our chaps. According to Allan, Jimmy chose a place where the wire had almost all gone, took a huge leap over the few remaining strands, and was the first of C Company to get into the trench.

“Somehow he didn’t get touched I’ll bet Allan had something to do with that; for he loved his master. With his pick he cracked the skull of the first Boche who showed signs of fight, and, losing his hold of his weapon, he seized the man’s rifle as he fell. No wonder the poor blighters fled, for Jimmy Wynter must have looked like Beelzebub as he charged down on them. His hat had gone, and his hair stuck out from his head like some modern Struwwelpeter. With the rifle swinging above his head, he did as much to clear the trench as did the rest of the platoon all put together.

“When we arrived on the scene the few who remained of A and C Companies were well on their way to the second line of trenches. Here again Jimmy Wynter behaved like a demon with his rifle and bayonet, and in five minutes’ time we were in complete possession of two lines of trenches along a front of two hundred yards. I do not even mention the number of Germans that Allan swore his master had disposed of, but the name of Wynter will long be a by-word in the regiment. The funny part of it is that, up to that time, he hadn’t had a single scratch. However, Fate may overlook a man for a short time, but he is generally remembered in the end. So it was with poor old Jimmy.

“He was leading a party down a communicating trench, bombing the Huns back yard by yard, when a hand grenade landed almost at his feet. He jumped forward, in the hope that he would have time to throw it away before it went off, but it was fused too well. Just as he picked it up, the damned thing exploded, and Jimmy Wynter crumpled up like a piece of paper.

“I was coming along the trench a few minutes later, seeing that our position was being made as secure as possible before the counter-attack came, when I found him. He was lying in one of the few dug-outs that had not been hit, and Allan and another man were doing what they could for him.

“You could see he was very nearly done for, but, after a few seconds, he opened his eyes and recognised me.

“‘Hullo, Rawlinson,’ he whispered; ’some damned fool has hit me. Hurts like the very devil.’

“I muttered some banal words of comfort, and continued to tie him up though God knows it was a pretty hopeless task. I hadn’t even any morphia I could give him to make things better.

“Suddenly he raised his arm and fumbled about in search of something.

“‘What do you want?’ I asked.

“‘Where the deuce is my eyeglass?’ And the drawl seemed to catch horribly in his throat.

“I put the rim of the eyeglass into his hand; the glass itself had gone.

“‘Must wear the damned thing,’ he murmured, and he tried to raise it to his face but his hand suddenly stopped half-way and fell, and he died.”

There was silence in the club room for a minute or so, and the ticking of the clock was oppressively loud. Then Jepson raised his glass.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “Here’s to the ‘Knut,’” and gravely we drank to the toast.