The Kicking Twefth

Stephen Crane

The Spitzenberg army was backed by traditions of centuries of victory. In

its chronicles, occasional defeats were not printed in italics, but were

likely to appear as glorious stands against overwhelming odds. A favorite

way to dispose of them was to attribute them frankly to the blunders of the

civilian heads of government. This was very good for the army, and probably

no army had more self-confidence.

When it was announced that an expeditionary force was to be sent to

Rostina to chastise an impudent people, a hundred barrack squares filled

with excited men and a hundred sergeant-majors hurried silently through the

groups and succeeded in looking as if they were the repositories of the

secrets of empire. Officers on leave sped joyfully back to their harness,

and recruits were abused with unflagging devotion by every man from colonels

to privates of experience.

The Twelfth Regiment of the Line -- the Kicking Twelfth -- was consumed

with a dread that it was not to be included in the expedition, and the

regiment formed itself into an informal indignation meeting. Just as they

had proved that a great outrage was about to be perpetrated, warning orders

arrived to hold themselves in readiness for active service abroad in

Rostina, in fact. The barrack yard was in a flash transformed into a blue

and buff pandemonium, and the official bugle itself hardly had the power to

quell the glad disturbance.

Thus it was that early in the spring the Kicking Twelfth -- 1,600 men in

service equipment -- found itself crawling along a road in Rostina. They did

not form part of the main force, but belonged to a column of four regiments

of foot, two batteries of field guns, a battery of mountain howitzers, a

regiment of horse and a company of engineers. Nothing had happened. The long

column had crawled without amusement of any kind through a broad green

valley. Big white farm houses dotted the slopes, but there was no sign of

man or beast, and no smoke came from the chimneys. The column was operating

from its own base, and its general was expected to form a junction with the

main body at a given point.

A squadron of the cavalry was fanned out ahead, scouting, and day by day

the trudging infantry watched the blue uniforms of the horsemen as they came

and went. Sometimes there would sound the faint thuds of a few shots, but

the cavalry was unable to find anything to engage seriously.

The Twelfth had no record of foreign service, and it could hardly be said

that it had served as a unit in the great civil war when His Majesty the

King had whipped the Pretender. At that time the regiment had suffered from

two opinions. So that it was impossible for either side to depend upon it.

Many men had deserted to the standard of the Pretender, and a number of

officers had drawn their swords for him. When the King, a thorough soldier,

looked at the remnant he saw that they lacked the spirit to be of great help

to him in the tremendous battles which he was waging for his throne. And so

this emaciated Twelfth was sent off to a corner of the kingdom to guard a

dockyard, where some of the officers so plainly expressed their disapproval

of this policy that the regiment received its steadfast name, the Kicking


At the time of which I am writing the Twelfth had a few veteran officers

and well-bitten sergeants, but the body of the regiment was composed of men

who had never heard a shot fired excepting on the rifle range. But it was an

experience for which they longed and with it came the moment for the corps'

cry, "Kim up the Kickers" -- there was not likely to be a man who would not

go tumbling after his leaders.

Young Timothy Lean was a second lieutenant in the first company of the

third battalion, and just at this time he was pattering along at the flank

of the men, keeping a fatherly lookout for boots that hurt and packs that

sagged. He was extremely bored. The mere faraway sound of desultory shooting

was not war as he had been led to believe it.

It did not appear that behind that freckled face and under that red hair

there was a mind which dreamed of blood. He was not extremely anxious to

kill somebody, but he was very fond of soldiering -- it had been the

career of his father and of his grandfather -- and he understood that the

profession of arms lost much of its point unless a man shot at people, and

had people shoot at him. Strolling in the sun through a practically deserted

country might be a proper occupation for a divinity student on a vacation,

but the soul of Timothy Lean was in revolt at it. Sometimes in the camp at

night he would go morosely to the camp of the cavalry and hear the infant

subalterns laughingly exaggerate the comedy side of adventures which they

had had when out with small patrols far ahead. Lean would sit and listen in

glum silence to these tales, and dislike the young officers -- many of them

old military-school friends -- for having had experience in modern warfare.

"Anyhow," he said, savagely, "presently you'll be getting into a lot of

trouble, and then the Foot will have to come along and pull you out. We

always do. That's history."

"Oh, we can take care of ourselves," said the cavalry, with good-natured

understanding of his mood.

But the next day even Lean blessed the cavalry, for excited troopers came

whirling back from the front, bending over their speeding horses and

shouting wildly and hoarsely for the infantry to clear the way. Men yelled

at them from the roadside as courier followed courier, and from the distance

ahead sounded in quick succession six booms from field guns. The information

possessed by the couriers was no longer precious. Everybody knew what a

battery meant when it spoke. The bugles cried out, and the long column

jolted into a halt. Old Colonel Sponge went bouncing in his saddle back to

steer the general, and the regiment sat down in the grass by the roadside,

and waited in silence. Presently the second squadron of the cavalry trotted

off along the road in a cloud of dust, and in due time old Colonel Sponge

came bouncing back and palavered his three majors and his adjutant. Then

there was a bit more talk by the majors, and gradually through the correct

channels spread information, which in due time reached Timothy Lean. The

enemy, 5,000 strong, occupied a pass at the head of the valley some four

miles beyond. They had three batteries well posted. Their infantry was

intrenched. The ground in their front was crossed and lined with many

ditches and hedges, but the enemy's batteries were so posted that it was

doubtful if a ditch would ever prove convenient as shelter for the

Spitzenberg infantry. There was a fair position for the Spitzenberg

artillery 2,300 yards from the enemy. The cavalry had succeeded in driving

the enemy's skirmishers back upon the main body, but of course had only

tried to worry them a little. The position was almost inaccessible on the

enemy's right, owing to high, steep hills which had been crowned by small

parties of infantry. The enemy's left, although guarded by a much larger

force, was approachable and might be flanked. This was what the cavalry had

to say, and it added briefly a report of two troopers killed and five


Whereupon, Major-General Richie, commanding a force of 7,500 men of His

Majesty of Spitzenberg, set in motion with a few simple words the machinery

which would launch his army at the enemy. The Twelfth understood the orders

when they saw the smart young aide approaching old Colonel Sponge, and they

rose as one man, apparently afraid that they would be late. There was a

clank of accoutrements. Men shrugged their shoulders tighter against their

packs, and thrusting their thumbs between their belts and their tunics, they

wriggled into a closer fit with regard to the heavy ammunition equipment. It

is curious to note that almost every man took off his cap and looked

contemplatively into it as if to read a maker's name. Then they replaced

their caps with great care. There was little talking, and it was not

observable that a single soldier handed a token or left a comrade with a

message to be delivered in case he should be killed. They did not seem to

think of being killed; they seemed absorbed in a desire to know what would

happen, and what it would look like when it was happening. Men glanced

continually at their officers in a plain desire to be quick to understand

the very first order that would be given, and officers looked gravely at

their men, measuring them, feeling their temper, worrying about them.

A bugle called: there were sharp cries; and the Kicking Twelfth was off

to battle.

The regiment had the right of the line in the infantry brigade, and as

the men tramped noisily along the white road every eye was strained ahead,

but, after all, there was nothing to be seen but a dozen farms -- in short,

a country-side. It resembled the scenery in Spitzenberg; every man in the

Kicking Twelfth had often confronted a dozen such farms with a composure

which amounted to indifference. But still down the road there came galloping

troopers, who delivered information to Colonel Sponge and

then galloped on. But in time the Twelfth came to the top of a rise, and

below them, on a plain, was the heavy black streak of a Spitzenberg

squadron, and back of the squadron loomed the gray bare hill of the Rostina

position. There was a little of skirmish firing. The Twelfth reached a knoll

which the officers easily recognized as the place described by the cavalry

as suitable for the Spitzenberg guns. The men swarmed up it in a peculiar

formation. They resembled a crowd coming off a race-track, but,

nevertheless, there were no stray sheep. It is simply that the ground on

which actual battles are fought is not like a chessboard. And after them

came swinging a six-gun battery, the guns wagging from side to side as the

long line turned out of the road, and the drivers using their whips as the

leading guns scrambled at the hill. The halted Twelfth lifted its voice and

spake amiably but with point to the battery: "Go on, guns! We'll take care

of you. Don't be afraid. Give it to them." The teams -- lead, swing and

wheel -- struggled and slipped over the steep and uneven ground, and the

gunners, as they clung to their springless positions, wore their usual and

natural air of unhappiness. They made no reply to the infantry. Once upon

the top of the hill, however, these guns were unlimbered in a flash, and

directly the infantry could hear the loud voice of an officer drawling out

the time for the fuses. A moment later the first three-point-two bellowed

out, and there could be heard the swish and the snarl of a fleeting shell.

Colonel Sponge and a number of officers climbed to the battery's position,

but the men of the regiment sat in the shelter of the hill like so many

blind-folded people and wondered what they would have been able to see if

they had been officers. Sometimes the shells of the enemy came sweeping over

the top of the hill and burst in great brown explosions in the fields to the

rear. The men looked after them and laughed. To the rear could be seen also

the mountain battery coming at a comic trot with every man obviously in a

deep rage with every mule. If a man can put in long service with a mule

battery, and come out of it with an amiable disposition, he should be

presented with a medal weighing many ounces. After the mule battery came a

long, black, winding thing which was three regiments of Spitzenberg

infantry, and back of them and to the right was an inky square, which was

the remaining Spitzenberg guns. General Richie and his staff clattered up to

the hill. The blindfolded Twelfth sat still. The inky square suddenly became

a long racing line. The howitzers joined their little bark to the thunder of

the guns on the hill, and the three regiments of infantry came on. The

Twelfth sat still.

Of a sudden a bugle rang its warning, and the officers shouted. Some used

the old cry, "Attention! Kim up the Kickers!" and the Twelfth knew that it

had been told to go in. The majority of the men expected to see great things

as soon as they rounded the shoulder of the hill, but there was nothing to

be seen save a complicated plain and the gray knolls occupied by the enemy.

Many company commanders in low voices worked at their men and said things

which do not appear in the written reports. They talked soothingly; they

talked indignantly, and they talked always like father. And the men heard no

sentence completely. They heard no specific direction, these wide-eyed men.

They understood that there was being delivered some kind of exhortation to

do as they had been taught, and they also understood that a superior

intelligence was anxious over their behavior and welfare.

There was a great deal of floundering through hedges, a climbing of

walls, a jumping of ditches. Curiously original privates try to find new and

easier ways for themselves instead of following the men in front of them.

Officers had short fits of fury over these people. The more originality they

possessed the more likely they were to become separated from their

companies. Colonel Sponge was making an exciting progress on a big charger.

When the first faint song of the bullets came from above, the men wondered

why he sat so high. The charger seemed as tall as the Eiffel Tower. But if

he was high in the air, he had a fine view, and that is supposedly why

people ascend the Eiffel Tower. Very often he had been a joke to them, but

when they saw this fat old gentleman so coolly treating the strange new

missiles which hummed in the air, it struck them suddenly that they had

wronged him seriously, and a man who could attain the command of a

Spitzenberg regiment was entitled to general respect. And they gave him a

sudden quick affection, an affection that would make them follow him

heartily, trustfully, grandly -- this fat old gentleman, seated on a too-big

horse. In a flash, his touseled gray head, his short, thick legs, even his

paunch had become specially and humorously endeared to them. And this is the

way of soldiers.

But still the Twelfth had not yet come to the place where tumbling bodies

begin their test of the very heart of a regiment. They backed through more

hedges, jumped more ditches, slid over more walls. The Rostina artillery had

seemed to have been asleep, but suddenly the guns aroused like dogs from

their kennels and around the Twelfth there began a wild, swift screeching.

There arose cries to hurry, to come on, and as the rifle bullets began to

plunge into them, the men saw the high, formidable hills of the enemy's

right, and perfectly understood that they were doomed to storm them. The

cheering thing was the sudden beginning of a tremendous uproar on the

enemy's left.

Every man ran, hard, tense, breathless. When they reached the foot of the

hills they thought they had won the charge already, but they were

electrified to see officers above them waving their swords and yelling with

anger, surprise and shame. With a long, murmurous outcry, the Twelfth began

to climb the hill. And as they went and fell, they could hear frenzied

shouts. "Kim up the Kickers." The pace was slow. It was like the rising of a

tide. It was determined, almost relentless in its appearance, but it was

slow. If a man fell, there was a chance that he would land twenty yards

below the point where he was hit. The Kickers crawled, their rifles in their

left hands as they pulled and tugged themselves up with their right hands.

Ever arose the shout, "Kim up the Kickers." Timothy Lean, his face flaming,

his eyes wild, yelled it back as if he was delivering the gospel.

The Kickers came up. The enemy -- they had been in small force, thinking

the hills safe enough from attack -- retreated quickly from this

preposterous advance, and not a bayonet in the Twelfth saw blood. Bayonets

very seldom do.

The homing of this successful charge wore an unromantic aspect. About

twenty windless men suddenly arrived and threw themselves upon the crest of

the hill and breathed. And these twenty were joined by others and still

others until almost 1,100 men of the Twelfth lay upon the hilltop. The

regiment's track was marked by body after body, in groups and singly. The

first officer -- perchance, the first man -- one never can be certain -- the

first officer to gain the top of the hill was Timothy Lean, and such was the

situation that he had the honor to receive his colonel with a bashful


The regiment knew exactly what it had done. It did not have to wait to be

told by the Spitzenberg newspapers. It had taken a formidable position with

the loss of about 500 men, and it knew it. It knew, too, that it was a great

glory for the Kicking Twelfth, and as the men lay rolling on their bellies,

they expressed their joy in a wild cry. "Kim up the Kickers." For a moment

there was nothing but joy, and then suddenly company commanders were

besieged by men who wished to go down the path of the charge and look for

their mates. The answers were without the quality of mercy. They were short,

snapped quick words:

"No, you can't."

The attack on the enemy's left was sounding in great rolling crashes. The

shells in their flight through the air made a noise as of red-hot iron

plunged into water, and stray bullets nipped near the ears of the Kickers.

The Kickers looked and saw. The battle was below them. The enemy was

indicated by a long, noisy line of gossamer smoke, although there could be

seen a toy battery with tiny men employed at the guns. All over the field

the shrapnel was bursting, making quick bulbs of white smoke. Far away two

regiments of Spitzenberg infantry were charging, and at the distance this

charge looked like a casual stroll. It appeared that small black groups of

men were walking meditatively toward the Rostina entrenchments.

There would have been orders given sooner to the Twelfth, but

unfortunately Colonel Sponge arrived on top of the hill without a breath of

wind in his body. He could not have given an order to save the regiment from

being wiped off the earth. Finally he was able to gasp out something and

point at the enemy. Timothy Lean ran along the line yelling to the men to

sight at 800 yards, and like a slow and ponderous machine, the regiment

again went to work. The fire flanked a great part of the enemy's trenches.

It could be said that there were only two prominent points of view

expressed by the men after their victorious arrival on the crest. One was

defined in the exulting use of the corps' cry. The other was a

grief-stricken murmur which is invariably heard after a hard fight: "My God,

we're all cut to pieces!"

Colonel Sponge sat on the ground and impatiently waited for his wind to

return. As soon as it did, he arose and cried out, "Form up and we'll charge

again! We will win this battle as soon as we can hit them!" The shouts of

the officers sounded wild like men yelling on shipboard in a gale. And the

obedient Kickers arose for their task. It was running down hill this time.

The mob of panting men poured over the stones.

But the enemy had not been at all blind to the great advantage gained by

the Twelfth, and they now turned upon them a desperate fire of small arms.

Men fell in every imaginable way, and their accoutrements rattled on the

rocky ground. Some landed with a crash, floored by some tremendous blow;

others dropped gently down like sacks of meal; with others it would

positively appear that some spirit had suddenly seized them by the ankles

and jerked their legs from under them. Many officers were down, but Colonel

Sponge, stuttering and blowing, was still upright. He was almost the last

man in the charge, but not to his shame, rather to his stumpy legs. At one

time it seemed that the assault would be lost. The effect of the fire was

somewhat as if a terrible cyclone was blowing in the men's faces. They

wavered, lowering their heads and shouldering weakly as if it were

impossible to make headway against the wind of battle. It was the moment of

despair, the moment of the heroism which comes to the chosen of the war god.

The colonel's cry broke and screeched absolute hatred. Other officers simply

howled, and the men silent, debased, seemed to tighten their muscles for one

last effort. Again they pushed against this mysterious power of the air, and

once more the regiment was charging. Timothy Lean, agile and strong, was

well in advance, and afterward he reflected that the men who had been

nearest to him were an old grizzled sergeant, who would have gone to hell

for the honor of the regiment, and a pie-faced lad who had been obliged to

lie about his age in order to get into the army.

There was no shock of meeting. The Twelfth came down on a corner of the

trenches, and as soon as the enemy had ascertained that the Twelfth was

certain to arrive, they scuttled out, running close to the earth and

spending no time in glances backward. In these days it is not discreet to

wait for a charge to come home. You observe the charge, you attempt to stop

it, and if you find that you can't, it is better to retire immediately to

some other place. The Rostina soldiers were not heroes, perhaps, but they

were men of sense. A maddened and badly frightened mob of Kickers came

tumbling into the trench and shot at the backs of fleeing men. And at that

very moment the action was won, and won by the Kickers. The enemy's flank

was entirely crumpled, and, knowing this, he did not await further and more

disastrous information. The Twelfth looked at themselves, and knew that they

had a record. They sat down and grinned patronizingly as they saw the

batteries galloping to advance positions to shell the retreat, and they

really laughed as the cavalry swept tumultuously forward.

The Twelfth had no more concern with the battle. They had won it, and the

subsequent proceedings were only amusing.

There was a call from the flank, and the men wearily came to attention as

General Richie and his staff came trotting up. The young general, cold-eyed,

stern and grim as a Roman, looked with his straight glance at a hammered and

thin and dirty line of figures which was His Majesty's Twelfth Regiment of

the Line. When opposite old Colonel Sponge, a pudgy figure standing at

attention, the general's face set in still more grim and stern lines. He

took off his helmet. "Kim up the Kickers," said he. He replaced his helmet

and rode off. Down the cheeks of the little fat colonel rolled tears. He

stood like a stone for a long moment, and then wheeled in supreme wrath upon

his surprised adjutant. "Delahaye, you damn fool, don't stand there staring

like a monkey. Go tell young Lean I want to see him." The adjutant jumped as

if he was on springs, and went after Lean. That young officer presented

himself directly, his face covered with disgraceful smudges, and he had also

torn his breeches. He had never seen the colonel in such a rage. "Lean, you

young whelp, you -- you're a good boy." And even as the general had turned

away from the colonel, the colonel turned away from the lieutenant.