EVER four miles along the road we would pass a white-washed box set upon a post. Through the glass front a little lamp would be steadily burning at the foot of a miniature crucifix fronting a painting of the travellers' patron saint - St Francis, I believe. A till in each box contained a few coins. The shrine offered any traveller the opportunity of worship and, if needed, the money to buy food along the road. Peaceful symbols, these, in a lovely country soon to be trampled under the iron-shod heel of the invader.
As we passed through Larissa Horrie barked frantically at the sky and, leaping up, overbalanced to tumble into the outspread arms of folk below.
"What bit him then, I wonder," said Fitz as we glanced up to see a stork perched on its huge nest high up on a church steeple. The solemn stork gazing so calmly down on the laughing people, the excited little dog made a scene that lingers sweetly in memory.
That night we camped off the road by the side of a rocky hill, green under bramble, gay with red poppies and white flowers. Through a valley a stream flowed over a bed of snowy pebbles. Along the banks on either side little fields of green and golden barley rippled under a whispering breeze.
"It is a beautiful country," said Don that evening.
The Rebels were unusually silent, gazing up at the golden stars, dreamily aware of the tinkle of tiny bells on the necks of sheep and goats wandering upon the hills.
"Yes, it's a lovely country," sighed Poppa and we felt sadness in his voice.
"It's not the first time that armies have marched through here," protested Gordie, "and the country and people still survive."
"They'll survive this one too!" declared Feathers.
We were silent, only just beginning to realize what our small force was to face.
Next day Don and I were ordered to travel by cycle, so Horrie was parked inside my greatcoat which I belted so that he could not fall through. He insisted upon seeing all that was to be seen and poked his little head out between two buttons, to the delight of the Greek folk whose attention he attracted by his ever-ready bark. He was to travel very many miles in this fashion, some of them awful miles, the terrible miles of a retreating army ploughing back through hail and mud under a pitiless rain of bombs and shells. I had only to sit on the cycle and unbutton the coat and Horrie would scramble up and dive in like a baby kangaroo into the pouch. In a moment his little head would be poking out and he was ready for the road. The instant I stopped, however, he would scramble out.
That first morning we travelled on and up through the Thermopylae Pass of deathless memory. The road wound round and round as we climbed. At the top we gazed down upon a beautiful scene. Nine sections of the road were clearly visible, each at a different height as it climbed the hills. Far below the green fields were spread out like a chessboard with little white doll's-houses of farms. A long, perfect stretch of road gleamed like silver in the light as it cleanly divided the chessboard from the bottom of the Pass. Towering distantly above this scene gleamed the snowy crown of Mount Olympus.
The day grew very cold. I felt the Wog-dog draw deep down in the coat until only the tip of his nose was visible. Then that, too, disappeared.
"I feel Horrie shivering," I said.
"I'm a bit that way myself," replied Don, "but we must fix Horrie up. I've an idea."
"What is it?"
"I've got a couple of spare socks. We'll cut the heels and toes off and draw the remainder over his body."
"He'll be snug as a bug in a rug," I laughed. "Let's do it.
So we dismounted and very soon fitted Horrie with his "nightie". It was a tight fit; he looked comically uncom-fortable but as he felt the warmth his tail began to wag and he gazed up with appreciative brown eyes, plainly saying "Thanks boys. you two certainly do know just what a fellow needs."
We were surprised that no aircraft had yet had a shot at us but were to discover that torrential rains had hopelessly bogged the enemy air force. That rain saved us many lives.
Time found us establishing battalion headquarters at the foot of Mount Olympus towering nearly ten thousand feet above, capped with snow that gleamed through the purple haze. Around us rose the majestic mountains of Greece. Through rock-walled passes ahead came the echoing thunder of guns. Around us thousands of men were busy with a grim earnestness. Along the rocky road a stream of trucks was arriving, loaded with materials for the gluttonous maw of war.
"We're going to be busy soon!" observed Fitz.
"You're busy now!" called Poppa. "Come and give a hand with this gear."
"The old warhorse smells action," nodded Gordie.
"We all will soon," said Murchie eagerly, "judging by that nasty noise coming over the mountains."
"We'll be in a dangerous position here," remarked an artilleryman, "if the Greeks collapse away out on the left flank."
"Poor beggars," said a weary mud-covered soldier. "They've fought like Trojans throughout months of it and now must stand up against the German panzers and Stukas."
Sergeant Poppa, working like a Trojan and supervising signal communication, came hurrying across with orders.
"Fitz and Gordie to remain temporarily at B.H.Q. for signal duties," he ordered. "Feathers to go with A Company in charge of a section of attached signallers. Murchie to be spotter on the adjutant's car. Don and Moody for dispatch-riding duty under Corporal Thurgood."
"And what are you going to do?" inquired Murchie.
"I am taking over the duties of signal officer and signal sergeant as well!" snapped Poppa. "Got anything against it?"
"Oh, no," drawled Murchie as he lit a cigarette. "Neither will the enemy."
"You won't be feeling quite so smart a few hours from now, my bright lad," promised Poppa grimly and hurried away to his duties followed by our grins. A great old scout, Sergeant Poppa.
Presently, D Company moved out towards the fighting at the Albanian border while A, B and C Companies moved out to join two Australian and a New Zealand Brigade now in heavy action defending Servia Pass, some sixteen miles further ahead. We stood silently and watched our mates hurrying towards the hoarse rumbling of the guns.
Next morning early I received orders to rush a message to the firing-line. I felt a funny little tremor away down in the pit of my stomach.
The mud-caked, grim-faced wounded spoke without words of what was happening away up in the iron-jawed heads of the pass.
The Rebels were all away at various jobs; any of the lads would gladly have kept an eye on Horrie but I determined to take him with me; I couldn't have faced the Rebels had anything happened to him while he was in my charge.
"We're in for it now, Horrie!" I said, and patted the little Wog-dog.
We mounted, and started up the long, historic road. Horrie, peeping from my greatcoat was this day to see more sights, hear more things than even his insatiable interest and curiosity could stomach. The road proved muddy as we rode on to the rumble of the guns. Burned-out trucks and smashed flotsam of war littered the roadside. Progress became slower and slower. I was riding cautiously, staring at the mouth of the pass looming in front, wondering why the stretch of road just ahead was ominously deserted. The noise of the cycle's engine muffled sound until a screaming roar lifted the hair on my scalp. The mud spat up to machine-gun bullets as I hauled the cycle over. We crashed into the ditch as the diving plane roared past. He zoomed up but another was roaring down as my finger felt for the little Wog-dog's head.
"Are you all right, Horrie?" I whispered. Breathlessly I squeezed into the mud as the second plane screeched down with machine-gun bullets hissing around us. Horrie kicked frantically under me as the third plane roared down and for a second I thought he was hit. But it was the spill into the ditch and the scream of the planes that had terrified him. They had scared me, let alone the little dog.
The three planes as they zoomed up circled lazily over-head. I peered up anxiously and saw the devils' heads gazing down from the machines; I could visualize the grins on the cynical, masked faces. The machines began to climb in a horribly suggestive circle. I scrambled up and seized the bike to race for cover before they could dive again. Horrie whimpered in sympathetic understanding that something tragic was doing. My heart thumped violently at a screech of brakes then a voice called down from a big truck.
"Are you all right, Dig?"
"Yes, no, yes, no," I grinned, "you nearly frightened the life out of me. I'm a bit winded, that's all. Those planes spilled me into the ditch."
"It's lucky the ditch was handy," he said. "Sure you're all right?"
"I think so," I replied hopefully.
"Then race for the pass," he advised. "They'll be back in a minute." And the big truck lumbered off.
I leaped on the bike and was away with an eye on the three planes climbing and turning away to the left as the pilots gazed down in search of victims. There was a half-mile of straight road between me and the pass. I leaned over the handle bars and went flat out, heartened by the roar of truck engines as a convoy appeared behind me. Spotters clung to the running boards, searching the skies.
"Still, Horrie; keep still!" I implored. "Good dog, good dog!" Horrie was very nervous and should he leap out I didn't know what might happen. The road was awful - pitted with bomb holes, greasy with mud. We couldn't make it but this time I heard them and slewing the bike off the road jumped off and tumbled into a ditch, hugging Horrie. "Thank heaven!" I muttered. "We beat them that time!"
The trucks had pulled up with a screech of brakes while all hands jumped down and raced to cover. In an instant the road was devoid of life. There was just a long line of stationary trucks. Above them were the diving planes with sirens screaming, machine-guns "rat-tat-tatting", answered now by the vicious crackle of rifle-fire from the men lying in the fields.
And so it went on. The enemy planes were enjoying the game; they'd zoom up and circle as if to fly away. Then when the trucks got going again they'd suddenly wheel and dive straight down.
With each run off and dive into the ditch, Horrie began to regain confidence. His ears pricked up and I could feel his stub of a tail wagging as we dived off the road and he leapt out to cover with excited barks.
Apparently the planes were short of bombs though once they dropped two some distance away. Horrie and I were racing and fell into a furrow and stayed there feeling big as pyramids while waiting for the worst. The play went out of Horrie to the shattering roar of the explosions. Pressed into the furrow his eyes glared up at the planes and his hair rose on end. He growled as ferociously as a very small dog can possibly growl. Those bombs obviously took his memory back to the raid on Piraeus; he knew now this was no game. When silence reigned I peeped up and laughed to see heads popping up all over the ploughed field, all eyes watching the receding planes and almost everyone saying the same thing:
"Missed, you b---s, missed!"
I held up Horrie to gaze after the vanishing planes; his eyes fairly spat fire and he growled menacingly to the relieved laughter from the boys.
From that moment Horrie became the troops' best spotter, wherever he might be. He was immediately to become famous at detecting approaching enemy planes. In all our various movements, throughout all the fighting that we saw after this Horrie would always be the first to pick up sounds of approaching aeroplanes and some among us would always keep an eye upon Horrie. "Planes!" a man would shout and we'd dive for cover. For Horrie would have been noticed sitting very erect with his ears cocked, a look of intense interest on his face. Immediately that he growled then the cry would arise, "Planes!"
But this was Horrie's first morning in battle apart from the raid on Piraeus. At least, the three planes did fly away and as we were breathing sighs of relief their place was suddenly taken by twenty-one devils that dived down with the scream of bombs howling above the screech of sirens.
I called to Horrie as he led the way and we dived into a hole as a bomb exploded with a shattering roar. The Wog-dog pressed himself against me, his little heart thumping.
"Good dog," I said encouragingly, "keep low; it will soon be over."
Bomb after bomb shattered the crackle of rifle-fire as the machines roared low over the convoy, spraying it with lead. As they sped away for more bombs men leapt from the earth and ran for trucks and within seconds the convoy was heading for the mouth of the pass, now very close.
But the frightful noise and grim fear of death had again put the wind up the Wog-dog. As for me - - !
We gained the mouth of the pass. The gloomy iron walls of the mountains now sheltered us in some degree from the planes. The road now was a nightmare, pock-marked with shell and bomb craters, the mud from which was a quagmire. The sight of the once pretty little village of Servia clinging on the western side of Mount Olympus would turn any man against war; it was a rubble of smoking ruins. Families of warm-hearted people had lived and loved and toiled in that village only a matter of days before.
As I passed the ruined village, I was halted by one of the road patrol.
"Be careful, Dig," he advised. "Jerry is shelling the pass again. Been through before?"
"Well, here's the drum (good oil). Work your way quickly close up beside that second bend, see, away ahead!"
"Well, when you get there keep close to cover and watch the head of the pass. Stay there until you see the flashes of the gun, then beat it through the bend before they fire the second shell. Don't worry about the first shell, it'll be at you soon as you see the flash. If it misses, then go for your life."
"Thanks," I said.
"Where did you get the pup?" he grinned.
"At the first flash?" I replied from a single track mind.
"Not scared, are you?" he asked a little anxiously.
"No," I lied. "Oh, the pup! We brought him from the desert outside Alexandria."
"You don't say! How on earth did you manage to get him here?
"Oh, we got help all along the line; lots of the boys helped us out of little difficulties."
"I suppose they would," he said. "He's a bonzer little pup. He'll make a good little soldier too!"
"He'll be O.K." I replied. 'Thanks, Dig," and I rode -on, leaving him to his dangerous post. He seemed to be an accusing sort of chap, but I'll admit I did have the wind up a bit. Well, just a little bit.
I reached the second bend safely and pulled up along-side a stationary truck. The driver was standing by the side of the truck, dreamily gazing up towards the head of the pass.
"How's she going?" I asked.
"Not bad, Dig," he replied absent mindedly. "The first one's coming!" He nodded as we both dived into a ditch hurried by a heavy explosion over the embankment. "This one should be in the I diddle diddle (middle of the ditch)!" he said, as he wiped mud out of his eye.
Thank heavens his judgment was a few yards out; the shell landed with a crash just over the embankment a few yards to our left.