Sir Galahad by James Owen Hannay
An Extract from
Our Casualty And Other Stories
The order, long expected and eagerly desired, came at last. The
battalion moved out from dusty and crowded barracks to a camp in the
wilderness. Lieutenant Dalton, a cheerful boy who had been taught Holy
Scripture in his childhood, wrote to his mother that the new camp was
Somewhere in the wilderness beyond Jordan between the river of Egypt
and the great sea. This description of the situation was so entirely
inaccurate that the Censor allowed it to pass without complaint. Old
Mrs. Dalton told her friends that her son was living under the shadow
of Mount Sinai. He was, in fact, nowhere near either Jordan or Sinai.
He was some miles east of the Suez Canal. For a week or so officers and
men rejoiced in their new quarters. There was plenty of elbow room; no
more of the overcrowding they had suffered since they landed. They had,
indeed, miles of totally unoccupied desert at their disposal. Each tent
might have stood in its own private grounds, three acres or so in
extent, if that had not been felt by the colonel to be an inconvenient
arrangement. There was alsoand this particularly pleased the
battalionthe prospect of a fight with the Turks. Everyone believed
when the move was made that a battle was imminent, and the battalion,
which had no experience of fighting, was most anxious to show what it
After awhile the enthusiasm for the new camp began to fade. The
Turks did not put in an appearance, and life was as peaceful as it had
been in the English camp where the battalion was trained. The situation
of the camp, though roomy, was not exciting. Both officers and men
began to find existence exceedingly dull. Lieutenant Dalton, who at
this time wrote long letters to his mother, told her that he understood
at last why the Children of Israel were so desperately anxious to get
back to Egypt and were inclined to rag Moses about the want of melons
and cucumbers. At the end of the month the whole battalion was bored to
The desert which stretched in front of the camp was intolerably flat
The sun rose with pitiless regularity, shone with a steady glare for a
great many hours, and then set. That was all that ever happened. The
coming of a cloud into the sky would have been greeted with cheers. No
cloud appeared A sandstorm, however disagreeable, would have been
welcomed as a change. The sand stayed quietly where it was. The men
tried football, and gave it up because of the blistering heat. They
played House until even the excitement of that mild gamble exhausted
itself. No other form of amusement suggested itself. There was not even
any work to do. Had the battalion belonged to the Brigade of Guards it
would no doubt have gone on doing barrack-square drill every day and
all day long until the men learned to move like parts of a machine. But
this was a Territorial battalion, and the colonel held reasonable views
about modern warfare. The value of drill, a mechanical business, was in
his opinion easily exaggerated. Had the battalion belonged to an Irish
regiment there would probably have been several interesting fights and
some means of obtaining whisky would have been devised. In such ways
the men would have escaped the curse of monotony, and the officers
would have been kept busy in the orderly room. But this battalion came
from the English Midlands. The men did not want to fight each other,
and had no overpowering desire to get drunk. When the morning parades
were over they lay in their tents and grumbled peacefully. Under such
circumstances tempers often wear thin, and a habit of bickering takes
possession of a mess. It is greatly to the credit of everyone concerned
that there was no sign of bad temper among the officers of the
battalion. The colonel lived a good deal by himself in his tent, but
was always quietly good-humoured. Lieutenant Dalton, an incurably merry
boy, kept the other subalterns cheerful. Only Captain Maitland was
inclined to complain a little, and he had a special grievance, an
excuse which justified a certain amount of grumbling. He slept badly at
night, and liked to read a book of some sort after he went to bed. The
mess had originally possessed an excellent supply of books, some
hundred volumes of the most varied kind supplied by the Camps
Libraries' Association at home. Unfortunately, almost all the books
were left behind when the move was made. Only three volumes were to be
found in the new campone novel, a treatise on the culture of apple
trees, and Mallory's Morte D'Arthur.
Captain Maitland blamed the chaplain for the loss.
You ought to have looked after those books, padre, he said. It's
a padre's business to look after books.
The Rev. John Haddingly, C.F., was a gentle little man, liked by the
officers because he was entirely unassuming, and popular with the men
because he was always ready to help them. He accepted the whole blame
for the loss of the books without an attempt to defend himself.
I'm awfully sorry, Maitland, he said. I ought to have seen to
those books. I did look after the Prayer Books. They're here all right;
at least most of them are.
Prayer Books! said Maitland. If they were even whole Prayer
Books! But those little yellow tracts of yours! They haven't even got
the Thirty-Nine Articles in them. If they were pukka Prayer Books I'd
borrow one and try to read it. I expect there are lots of interesting
things in the small print parts of the Prayer Book, the parts you
padres never read out. But what's the good of the books you have?
Nothing in them but what we all know off by heart.
Haddingly sighed. He was painfully conscious of the shortcomings of
the Field Service Books supplied for the use of the troops. Dalton came
to his defence.
Don't strafe the padre, he said. He brought along a church, an
entire church. Is there another padre in the whole Army who could have
got a church to a place like this?
Dalton's almost incredible statement was literally true. Haddingly
had succeeded, contrary to all regulations, in bringing with him from
England a corrugated iron church. It was quite a small one, it folded
up and could be packed flat When unpacked and erected it was undeniably
a church. It had a large cross at one end of it outside. Inside it was
furnished with an altar, complete with cross and candlesticks, a
collapsible harmonium and a number of benches. Chaplains have certainly
no right to load up troopships with churches, but Haddingly had somehow
got his to Egypt. By what blandishments the transport officer had been
induced to drag the thing out into the desert beyond the canal no one
knew. Haddingly was one of those uncomplainingly meek men who never
stand up for themselves. It is a curious fact, but it is a fact, that a
really helpless person gets things done for him which the most
aggressive and masterful men cannot accomplish. The success in life of
women of the clinging kind is an illustration of this law.
Haddingly smiled with joy at the mention of his church. It stood,
securely bolted together, a little outside the camp. No one, the cross
being disproportionately large, could possibly mistake it for anything
but a church. In front of it was a notice board, a nice black notice
board with a suggestion of Gothic architecture about it. On the board,
in bright white letters, was a list of services and the name of the
churchSt John in the Wilderness.
Originally, before the move into the desert, it had been simply St
John the Evangelist, but Haddingly felt that the new circumstances
demanded a change of dedication. Everyone, from the colonel down to the
humblest private, was secretly proud of the church. The possession of
such a thing gave a certain distinction to the battalion. Haddingly was
a good deal chaffed about it; but the building was in a fair way to
become a regimental mascot I'm not strafing the padre, said Captain
Maitland, but I wish we had a few of the books we left behind.
To listen to you talking, said Dalton, anyone would think you
were some kind of literary swellHall Came and Wordsworth rolled into
one, whereas we all know that the only thing you take an interest in is
horses. Captain Maitland was very far from being a literary swell or
claiming any such title. The books he really liked, the only books he
read when he had a free choice, were sporting stories with a strong
racing and betting interest But in camp in the wilderness no sporting
stories were obtainable. The one novel which remained to the mess dealt
with the sex problem, a subject originally profoundly uninteresting to
Maitland, who had a healthy mind He read it, however, as a remedy for
insomnia. It proved effective. A couple of chapters sent him to sleep
every night, so the book lasted a good while.
Every morning at breakfast Maitland used to propound the problems
raised by the chapters which he had read the night before. The mess got
into the way of holding informal debates on the divorce laws. When he
finished the book, Maitland declared that he intended to devote himself
to Eugenics and the more enlightened kind of social reform as soon as
the war was over.
I never thought of it before, he said, but I can see now that the
future of the Empire really depends on the proper legislation for child
welfare, on ante-natal clinic, and the abolition of the old empiric
methods of marriage.
Wait till after I'm married before you begin, said Dalton.
Haddingly was a little pained. He said things about the sanctity of
marriage and the family as a divine institution. No one else took
Maitland seriously. It was felt that when the war came to an endif it
ever didhe would go back to horse-racing and leave the scientific
aspects of marriage in decent obscurity.
When he had finished the novel he took the book on apple trees to
bed with him. He became, after a short time, interested in that
subject. He announced that when the war was over he intended to buy a
small place in Devonshire and go in for orchards.
Apple growing, he said, is just exactly the peaceable, shady kind
of life a man wants after being stuck down in a desert like this.
With your taste for the turf, said Dalton, you'll get into a
shady kind of life all right, whether you plant apple trees or not.
Dalton was an irreverent boy. Haddingly was greatly pleased at the
thought of Maitland sitting innocently under an apple tree.
The turn of Mallory came next Maitland left it for the last because
the print was very small and the only light in his tent was a feeble
candle. When he got fairly started in the book he became profoundly
interested, and the other members of the mess were treated at breakfast
time to a good deal of information about medieval warfare.
As far as I can make out, Maitland said, every officer in those
days was knighted as soon as he got his commission.
Jolly good idea, said Dalton. I should buck about like anything
if they made me a K.C.B.
You wouldn't have been an officer or a knight, said Maitland.
You'd have been the court fool. You've no idea whatever of chivalry.
Like most simple men who read very little, Maitland took the books
he did read seriously and was greatly influenced by them. The apple
tree treatise made him want to be a gardener. A slow and careful study
of Mallory filled him with a profound admiration for medieval romance.
The reason modern war is such a sordid business, he said, is that
we've lost the idea of chivalry.
Chivalry is all very well, said Dalton, if there's anyone to
chival about. I haven't read much about those old knights of yours,
Maitland; but so far as I can make out from what you tell us they were
always coming across damsels, fair, distressed, and otherwise fetching.
Now, I haven't seen a damsel since I left England. How the deuce can I
be chivalrous? I defy anyone, even that Lancelot blighter of yours, to
go into raptures about the old hag you turned out of the camp yesterday
for selling rotten dates to the men.
Dalton was not the only member of the mess who made jokes about the
knights of King Arthur's fellowship. But Maitland went on reading out
selected passages from Mallory, and there is no doubt that everyone,
even Dalton, became interested. Haddingly, the padre, made no attempt
to conceal the fact that he was profoundly influenced.
He had always been proud of his church, but had hitherto been
content to use it in the normal way for parade services on Sunday
morning. The services were undeniably popular. The men enjoyed singing
hymns, and they listened patiently to the sermons because they liked
Haddingly. The officers, who also liked Haddingly, attended the Sunday
morning services with great regularity. Dalton, though he preferred
playing rag-time on the piano, accompanied the hymns on the harmonium.
Haddingly was greatly moved by Maitland's account of the medieval
spirit. He took to spending half an hour in the church every morning
before breakfast Nobody knew what he did there. The officers, through
feelings of delicacy, never asked him questions about these new
devotions. The men, who were getting to know and like Haddingly better
and better as time went on, regarded his daily visits to the church as
proof that their padre was one who knew his job and did it thoroughly.
One morningthe mess had then been discussing medieval chivalry for
about a fortnightMaitland read out a passage from Mallory about a
visit paid by Sir Galahad to a lonely chapel among the mountains,
where he found nobody at all for all was desolate. Haddingly had just
spent his lonely half hour in the church of St John in the Wilderness.
He sighed. He found nobody there in the mornings, and could not help
wishing that the battalion contained a Galahad. Dalton felt that
something must be done to preserve the credit of the mess and the
dignity of English manhood. He felt sure that sentiment about desolate
chapels was an unwholesome thing. He scoffed:
All very well for Gallipot, he said, but
Galahad, said Maitland.
Galahad, or Gallipot, or Golly-wog, said Dalton. If a man has a
silly name like that, it doesn't matter how you spell it. The point is
that it would be simply ridiculous to attempt that sort of thing now.
Suppose, for instanceI put it to you, padre. Suppose you saw
Maitland mounted on one of the transport gee-gees trotting tap to that
tin cathedral of yourson a week-day, mind! I'm not talking about
Sundays. Suppose he got down and went inside all by himself, what would
you think, padre? There's only one thing you could think, that Maitland
had been drinking.
Sir Galahad, said Maitland, went in to say his prayers. He was on
his way to a battle. They didn't have to wait months and months for a
battle in those days. They had a scrap of some sort about once a week.
He sighed. The Turks had failed to do what was expected of them, and
life in the camp was intolerably dull.
He looked at Haddingly. It was plainly a padre's duty to support a
spiritual and romantic view of life against the profane jibes of
Dalton. Haddingly spoke judicially.
The general tone of society in those days, he said, seems to have
been very different from what it is now. Men had much less difficulty
in giving expression to their emotions. No doubt we still feel much as
they did, but
Haddingly became aware that no one was listening to him. The
attention of everyone at the table was attracted by something else. The
men sat stiffly, listening intently. Haddingly heard a faint, distant
humming sound. It grew louder.
Jiminy! said Dalton, an aeroplane!
The breakfast table was laid in the open air outside the mess tent
The men rose from their seats and stared in the direction of the coming
sound. It was the first time that an aeroplane had approached the camp
in the desert. Its coming was an intensely exciting event, an
unmistakable evidence of activity somewhere; surely a sign that
activity everywhere might be expected.
The sound increased in volume. The machine appeared, a distant speck
in the clear sky. It grew rapidly larger, flying fast. It was seen to
be a biplane. It passed directly over the camp, flying so low that the
head of the pilot was plainly visible. In a few minutes it passed from
sight. The hum of its engines grew fainter. But till the sound became
inaudible no one spoke.
Then a babble of inquiry and speculation broke out Where was the
thing going? What was it doing? What did its sudden swift voyage mean?
For the rest of the day the camp was less sleepy than usual. Men
everywhere discussed the aeroplane. Dalton was not the only one who
envied the members of the Flying Corps. It seemed a very desirable
thing to be able to rush through the air over unknown deserts; to have
the chance of seeing strange and thrilling things, Arab encampments,
green oases, mirages, caravans and camels; to drop bombs perhaps on
Syrian fortresses; to estimate the numbers of Turkish columns on the
march, to reckon their strength in artillery; to take desperate risks;
to swerve and dart amid clouds of bursting shrapnel. How much more
gloriously exciting such a life than that of men baking slowly in the
monotony of a desert camp.
Maitland, stimulated by his reading to an unnatural effort of
imagination, recognized in the men of the Flying Corps the true
successors of Mallory's adventurous knight-errants. For them war still
contained romance. Chivalry was still possible. Haddingly caught the
thought and expanded it Knights of old had this wonderful spirit,
because to them the forests through which they roamed were unknown
wastes, where all strange things might be expected. Then when all the
land became familiar, mapped, intersected with roads, covered thick
with towns, sailors inherited the spirit of romance. Afterwards all the
seas were charted, policed, and ships went to and fro on ocean
highways. The romance of adventure was lost to seamen, lost to the
world, until the airmen came and found it again by venturing on new
In the evening the aeroplane returned. Once more its engines were
heard. Once more it appeared, a speck, a shape, a recognizable thing.
But this time it did not pass away. On reaching camp it circled twice,
and then, with a long swift glide, took the ground outside the camp a
few yards beyond Haddingly's church of St. John in the Wilderness. The
pilot stepped out of the machine.
Good man, said Dalton. Friendly of him dropping in on us like
this. Must want a drink after that fly. Eight hours at least. I'll go
and bring him along to the mess. Hope he'll tell us what he's been
doing. Wonder if the Turks potted at him.
The pilot left his machine. He walked stiffly, like a man with
cramped limbs, towards the camp.
Something wrong with the engine, perhaps, said Dalton. Or he's
short of petrol. I'll fetch him along. A whisky and soda in a big
tumbler is the thing for him. I dare say he'll stay for dinner.
He started and walked quickly towards the machine. The airman,
approaching the camp, reached the church. Instead of passing it he
stopped, opened the door, and went in. Dalton paused and looked back.
Must have mistaken your tin cathedral for the mess, padre, he
said. I'll run on and fetch him out.
If he's made a mistake, said Haddingly, he'll find it out for
himself and come out without your fetching him.
Dalton stood still. His eyes were on the door of the church.
Maitland and Haddingly were gazing at it too. The other officers,
gathered in a group outside the mess tent, stood in silence, staring at
the church. It seemed as if hours passed. In fact, nearly half an hour
went by before the door of the church opened and the airman came out.
He turned his back on the camp and went towards his machine. Neither
Dalton nor anyone else made an attempt to overtake him. The noise of
the engine was heard again. The machine raced a few yards along the
ground and then rose in steep flight. It passed across the camp and
sped westwards, its shape sharply outlined for a minute against the
light of the setting sun. Then it disappeared.
Maitland took Haddingly by the arm and led him to his tent The two
men sat down together on the camp bedstead. Maitland opened Mallory's
Morte d'Arthur, and read aloud:
Then Sir Galahad came unto a mountain, where he found an old
chapel, and found there nobody, for all was desolate, and there he
kneeled before the altar and besought of God wholesome counsel.
I suppose it was just that, said Haddingly.
Dalton put his head into the tent.
I thought I'd find you here, he said. I just wanted to ask the
padre something. Was that Sir Golliwog come to life again or just some
ordinary blighter like me suffering from nerve strain?
Haddingly had no answer to give for a moment.
He can't have really wanted to sit in that church for half an
hour, said Dalton. What the dickens would he do it for?
He might have wanted to pray, said Haddingly.
Not even his profession justified the saying of such a thing as that
outside church. But every excuse must be made for him. He had been
soaked in Mallory for a fortnight Deserts, even when there are camps in
them, are queer places, liable to upset men's minds, and the conduct of
the airman was certainly peculiar.
Of course, if you put it that way, said Dalton, I've nothing more
to say. All the same, he might have come into the mess for a drink. I'm
not complaining of his doing anything he liked in the way of going to
church; but I don't see that a whisky and soda would have hurt him
afterwards. He must have wanted it.