An Officer and Gentleman
Canada in Warpaint, Capt. Ralph W. Bell, 1917
He was a tall well-built chap, with big, blue eyes, set far apart, and dark wavy hair, which he kept too closely cropped to allow it to curl, as was meant by nature. He had a cheery smile and a joke for every one, and his men loved him. More than that, they respected him thoroughly, for he never tolerated slackness or lack of discipline for an instant, and the lips under the little bronze moustache could pull themselves into an uncompromisingly straight line when he was justly angry.
When he strafed the men, he did it directly, without sparing them or their failings, but he never sneered at them, and his direct hits were so patently honest that they realised it at once, and felt and looked rather like penitent little boys.
He never asked an N.C.O. or man to do anything he would not do himself, and he usually did it first. If there was a dangerous patrol, he led. If there was trying work to do, under fire, he stayed in the most dangerous position, and helped. He exacted instant obedience to orders, but never gave an order that the men could not understand without explaining the reason for it. He showed his N.C.O.'s that he had confidence in them, and did not need to ask for their confidence in him. He had it.
In the trenches he saw to his men's comfort first—his own was a secondary consideration. If a man was killed or wounded, he was generally on the spot before the stretcher-bearers, and, not once, but many times, he took a dying man's last messages, and faithfully wrote to his relations. A sacred duty, but one that wrung his withers. He went into action not only with his men, but at their head, and he fought like a young lion until the objective was attained. Then, he was one of the first to bind up a prisoner's wounds, and to check any severity towards unwounded prisoners. He went into a show with his revolver in one hand, a little cane in the other, a cigarette between his lips.
"You see," he would explain, "it comforts a fellow to smoke, and the stick is useful, and a good tonic for the men. Besides, it helps me try to kid myself I'm not scared—and I am, you know! As much as any one could be."
On parade he was undoubtedly the smartest officer in the regiment, and he worked like a Trojan to make his men smart also. At the same time he would devote three-quarters of any leisure he had to training his men in the essentials of modern warfare, his spare time being willingly sacrificed for their benefit.
No man was ever paraded before him with a genuine grievance that he did not endeavour to rectify. In some manner he would, nine times out of ten, turn a "hard case" into a good soldier. One of his greatest powers was his particularly winning smile. When his honest eyes were on you, when his lips curved and two faint dimples showed in his cheeks, it was impossible not to like him. Even those who envied him—and among his brother officers there were not a few—could not bring themselves to say anything against him.
If he had a failing it was a weakness for pretty women, but his manner towards an old peasant woman, even though she was dirty and hideous, was, if anything, more courteous than towards a woman of his own class. He could not bear to see them doing work for which he considered they were unfit. One day he carried a huge washing-basket full of clothes down the main street of a little village in Picardy, through a throng of soldiers, rather than see the poor old dame he had met staggering under her burden go a step farther unaided.
The Colonel happened to see him, and spoke to him rather sharply about it. His answer was characteristic: "I'm very sorry, sir. I forgot about what the men might think when I saw the poor old creature. In fact, sir, if you'll pardon my saying so, I would not mind much if they did make fun of it."
He loved children. He never had any loose coppers or small change long, and two of his comrades surprised him on one occasion slipping a five-franc note into the crinkled rosy palm of a very, very new baby. "He looked so jolly cute asleep," he explained simply.
Almost all his fellow-officers owed him money. He was a poor financier, and when he had a cent it belonged to whoever was in need of it at the time.
One morning at dawn, he led a little patrol to examine some new work in the German front line. He encountered an unsuspected enemy listening post, and he shot two of the three Germans, but the remaining German killed him before his men could prevent it. They brought his body back and he was given a soldier's grave between the trenches. There he lies with many another warrior, taking his rest, while his comrades mourn the loss of a fine soldier and gallant gentleman.