“Bond paints a vivid picture of the battle for the soul of teen atheist 2/Lt. C.S. Lewis.” MIKE T. SUGIMOTO, Professor, Pepperdine University (endorsements)
Read excerpts from WAR IN THE WASTELAND
"Put this at the top of your must-read list!" George Grant WAR IN THE WASTELAND (book trailer)
is a project that has long fascinated me. I was giddy with excitement
about launching in (a bit anxious too), diving into the pile of books I
had set aside, creating my point(s) of view for the yarn, and all the
rest. But now that the fine tuning, rewriting, revising, not sleeping,
wrenching hair, gnawing fingernails is behind me, I am giddy with
excitement about the release of this new book!
“War in the Wasteland is proof positive of what I have known for many years now: Douglas Bond is a great storyteller. Indeed, this novel combines all the attributes of a can’t-put-it-down thriller with the intellectual tensions of a historical drama: taut plotting, strong characters, and soaring backdrop. Put this one on the top of your must-read list.” GEORGE GRANT, author, teacher, pastor at Parish Presbyterian Church
“War in the Wasteland is a gripping, informative, adrenalin-producing picture of World War I. The awful moments of fear and the reflective conversations of men who don't know if they'll survive the day, are captured on every page of this book.” DOUGLAS E. LEE, Brigadier General, USA (Ret), President, Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty
“War in the Wasteland gives a back story of the pre-Christian Lewis, a literate atheist arguing against God in the trenches of the Great War. In 1917, as a young enlistee, Lewis marks both a personal and historical turning point not only in his encounter with theism, but how young men became soldiers for King and Country - part of the last volunteer army in Europe. A non-nostalgic glimpse of war, Bond’s characters bring historical life and color to the human costs in WWI, not romanticizing its brutality. In the end, the reader is able to connect the experiences of ‘Jack’ Lewis the soldier - a young Oxford man responding to his nation's call for duty - with the Inkling who would grant a moral seriousness to the battles of Narnia and a sense of high-stakes to the apologetics of Mere Christianity.”MIKE T. SUGIMOTO, Professor of Asian Studies and Great Books, Pepperdine University
“Douglas Bond is one of my family’s favorite authors. A new Bond book produces a thrill of anticipation around our table. His latest, War in the Wasteland, lives up to this reputation. Through the eyes of his protagonists we see the horrors of the First World War and the spiritual struggle of young C. S. Lewis. Weaving in ideas from Lewis’ own writings, Bond gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like to listen to Lewis as he opposed the faith and then slowly began to be drawn to Jesus Christ, all within a compelling, emotive story which illuminates the reality of life in World War I. You won’t want to miss this one.” RAY VAN NESTE, Chair of Biblical Studies, Union University
"Douglas and G.A. Henty are two of the kind. It is hard to stop reading their books. This 84-year-old stayed up way past his bed time reading War in the Wasteland." Barney Siebert
"I'm an appreciative reader from Oregon. I recently bought several new copies of your books at the Christian Heritage Conference; one of them was "War in the Wasteland." It was a stirring read and I couldn't put down! I began reading it on the breaks at the conference and in the car on the way home. My family joked that the book was glued to me (at some points the drama was so intense that I read it aloud for my family to hear).
"I cried with the squad after the deadly results of their machine guns on the Germans. I was afraid with Nigel when Chips was left behind. I dialogued with Lieutenant Johnson and Lieutenant Lewis. I felt the fatherly encouragement of Sergeant Ayres before the advance. I trembled with grief and awe when... [spoiler delete] ...in the fray but Lewis was providentially spared, and I couldn't suppress a smile when Chips was [spoiler delete]... (...every book with a dog character always has a sad ending for the dog).
"The inward struggles of Elsie, Nigel, and Lewis hit my heart and gave me a greater appreciation for God's work through the dark times. 'Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.' I am passing this book on to my older brother who is in the service.
"I appreciate your book's historical connection and deep portrayal of the characters' human feelings consistently woven with Gods presence. It is literature that sets the mind and spirit ablaze for the King! Thank you, thank you! May God bless you as you continue writing for Him Soli Deo gloria! Joyfully in Christ, L--
DANIKA COOLEY'S Thinking Kids blog review:
In War in the Wasteland (Inkblots Press, 2016), Douglas Bond deftly weaves a tale that tells the story of both life in the trenches, and of Jack (C.S) Lewis’ time there. Mr. Bond is one of my favorite storytellers, theologians, and historians; he is the author of more than 25 books.
The novel focuses on the story of fictional Nigel Hopkins, an 18-year-old drafted for war, and his dog Chips. There is a side story involving Elsie Fleming, another 18-year-old serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. The lives of Nigel, Jack, and Elsie intersect as Nigel serves under Jack’s command, and Elsie nurses them both in a brief respite from direct combat when one contracts Trench Fever and another Trench Foot. There is camaraderie and compassion, but no blatant romance. In fact, Elsie several times reflects on her father’s wise warnings of the “romantic” dangers of war.
War in the Wasteland depicts the tension of one side versus the other. Readers are immersed in the trenches and headquarters of the British and French allies. There are names (rather benign, yet not without teeth) applied to the Germans. Yet the Germans are several times humanized. The reader comes to see them as young men who also have families, are fighting for their country, and who often worship the same God.
War in the Wasteland is an exciting, theologically rich historical read. War is depicted honestly and brutally, without glorification or gore. There are several scenes in the 282-page book that involve Jack Lewis debating the existence and goodness of God with another junior officer while waiting out a shelling attack. I think one of the best ways to introduce students to theology and apologetics is to have them wrestle with it through story. I appreciate that Douglas Bond never leaves kids wondering what the truth is, but neither is he preachy.
War in the Wasteland is another gem from Douglas Bond. This is a novel perfect for every home library. Douglas Bond’s books are my favorite to review–and to read.
War in the Wasteland would coordinate well with studies involving
Over 50,000 dogs served in World
War I, including the celebrated American dog named Sergeant Stubby, a
stowaway pet smuggled into the ranks by his soldier master. (My
protagonist, Private Nigel Hopkins, pulls off the same stunt--but no spoilers).
"Dogs had a vital part to play in World War One as the complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front. It is estimated that by 1918, Germany had employed 30,000 dogs, Britain, France and Belgian over 20,000 and Italy 3000. America, at first, did not use dogs except to utilize a few hundred from the Allies for specific missions. Later, after a chance stowaway, the USA produced the most decorated and highly-ranked service dog in military history, Sergeant Stubby." C N Trueman, Dogs in World War One historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 16 Apr 2015. 17 Dec 2015.
“W-what’s it like?”
Nigel glanced at the huddle of khaki wool uniform crouched in the mud immediately to his right. It was Perrett’s voice. In his short time in the army, Nigel had learned that most men attempted to feign courage—even when they didn’t feel it. Most men did their best to steady their voices, by iron resolve, determined to keep a stiff upper lip, to be a man, to do their duty, or at least to appear to be doing it. Perrett was different. Like his voice, Perrett was trembling, his fingers clutching his Enfield rifle so tightly his knuckles were bone white. It was as if Perrett either didn’t know he ought to pretend to be courageous, or he was just entirely incapable of doing so.
What was it like? How was Nigel to know? He was just as green as Perrett, that is, he’d had no more training, and certainly hadn’t been in the army any longer.
When Nigel had met Perrett at the Somerset training camp there was something immediately familiar about him. Then it struck: They had been at Malvern together, but that had been years ago, when they were boys. Perrett seemed very much still to be a boy. Nearly a month ago, they had boarded the troopship RMS Amazon enroute to Étaples and training camp in France, the over-loaded merchant vessel hogging in the troughs as the ship lurched and plunged in heavy seas. Perrett had never been on a boat before in his life, not so much as on a lake in a rowboat. The English Channel in late October was no lake, and the top-heavy troopship was no rowboat.
Down in the hold, diesel fumes combined with human sweat and urine created a stench more than sufficient to make the sturdiest of stomachs queasy. Perrett’s had already proven not to be one of the sturdiest. Youngest child with four older sisters, Perrett’s father had died before he had any memory of him. He had been raised by his mother and sisters. He had turned eighteen two weeks before Nigel. When the ranks had been so drastically depleted by casualties, the void left by their taking off the government filled by conscription of any and all men, eighteen to fifty, men who could stand on two legs, including men like Perrett.
Few men Nigel had met during his weeks of training were more ill-suited to warfare. Timorous and scrawny—Nigel was fully a head taller—Perrett was handed a trenching tool, a Lee Enfield rifle, kitted out with a Tommy helmet and khaki uniform, and dubbed a soldier.
Most of the men shunned Perrett, as if his honesty about his fears might be like a virus, catchy as when a man with a cold sneezed and failed to cover his mouth and nose, or, worse yet, catchy like the influenza. They ignored him, afraid that their fears would be awakened and given vent by Perrett’s candor about his own.
Worse yet, there were others like Spike and Floyd who found a release for their own hidden fears by tormenting Perrett for his. Nigel even overheard Spike taking bets on how long Perrett would last; every situation was a gamble for men like Spike. Though embarrassed and frustrated with him, on the whole, Nigel felt sorry for Perrett and sometimes came to his defense. Desperate for someone to carry his fears for him, Perrett had latched onto Nigel like a stray puppy.
“Stay close,” whispered Nigel to the trembling form at his side. Nodding toward their new sergeant, he continued, “Don’t think about anything but his voice.”
Perrett tried to nod in acknowledgement, but it looked more like a convulsion of the neck and head.
“Up and out! Up and out!”
There was his voice. Nigel breathed more easily at the command. He knew what it meant: “Come out of your dugouts; take your place in the trench; ready your weapons for action.” It meant it was time to be a soldier, time to earn your pay—one shilling a day—time to face off with the enemy. There was no getting around it in Nigel’s mind. He knew that for some these words would mean it was time to be wounded, time to be dismembered, time to die. So why did this sergeant’s words make him feel so at ease? Try as he might, Nigel had not worked it out, but when their new sergeant gave the order—any order—he felt that he wanted to obey the man, that, come what may, following this man was the right thing to do.
“On your legs! On your legs!”
There it was again. Nigel couldn’t explain it; neither did he feel that he needed to. It was as if Sergeant Ayres’s words lifted something from his shoulders, made things align themselves in proper order in his mind. The man’s words made him feel relieved of the responsibility to cower at danger; it was as if his commands suspended the obligation to fear the outcome.
“On your legs! On your legs!”
Sergeant Ayres’s all-business monotone was gone. Unlike other sergeants Nigel had encountered, Sergeant Ayres didn’t shout, not like the others. It wasn’t that he lacked the necessary volume in his voice when it was needed. But his voice carried more like what he had once heard with his aunt in the baritone voice singing the part of Jesus in Bach’s St. John’s Passion at Westminster Abbey—not shouting, but loud, clear, and somehow penetrating into the deepest regions of the affections.
No private could excuse his disobedience for lack of clarity or volume from Sergeant Ayres’s lungs. But it wasn’t the same bullying shouting of other non-commissioned officers Nigel had experienced. The sound of Ayres’s words had the effect of quickening the blood; it conveyed utter urgency, and roused the mind to action. It also somehow assuaged the cold chill that had lodged itself in the back of Nigel’s neck only moments before.
“Fixed bayonets.” This instruction came from the proper Oxford English voice of a junior officer, a youthful voice, slightly arrogant, with a hint of Irish influence, doing its best to sound confident, authoritative, bold, but convincing few in the effort.
No one moved. After a slight pause, Sergeant Ayres’s voice resonated down the column of men in the trench, “Fi-xed!” Led by Wallace on Nigel’s other side, there followed a coordinated metallic clicking and snapping sound. Then another instant of silence as men readied themselves for the rest of the order. “Bayonets!”
It is difficult to describe the combined shying and shearing sound of hundreds of eighteen-inch steel bayonets as they are drawn from their iron sheaths and affixed to the barrels of hundreds of Enfield rifles, all at once, all on the command, “Bayonets!”
Combined and coordinated, that is, for all but Perrett. At the command, he managed to drop his bayonet with a sploosh in the mud. With a whimper, Perrett fell to his knees, groping for it in the foul slurry with his bare hands.
“Careful, you’ll slice a finger off!” hissed Nigel. Glancing toward Sergeant Ayres, Nigel propped his rifle against the wall of the trench, bent over, and retrieved Perrett’s bayonet.
“Th-thanks,” murmured Perrett, attempting a smile as he wiped a streak of mud across his forehead.
And then nothing. Nothing but waiting, and more waiting.
“W-what’s it like?” asked Perrett again. His voice cracked.
Nigel nodded toward Sergeant Ayres. “Perrett, don’t think about anything else,” he said. “Just do what he says.” He nodded again. “Do what he does.”
Nigel’s words were cut short. The second lieutenant’s trench whistle, shrill and penetrating, sounded through the trench. Vaulting over the top, Sergeant Ayres led the way. Like a racehorse at the start, Wallace vaulted up next. Nigel scrambled up the ladder after them. Something about Sergeant Ayres made Nigel never want to be far away from him.
Behind him, Nigel heard pushers yelling at the men hanging back, Perrett among them. “Out! Out! Up and out! Get shot at by the Bosch, or face court martial and a firing squad of our boys. Up and out with the lot of you!”
Over the top, a wasteland of shattered trees, mud, and artillery craters lay before Nigel. On every side there was a chaos of noise, shouting, rumbling, pounding feet. The man to his left stumbled—Spike, it was, he couldn’t be sure—then collapsed face down with a splat in the mud. Another man foundered in the mud—Floyd it appeared to be. Leaping to clear the man, Nigel hurtled forward toward the enemy. Narrowing his eyes, his head low, he ran harder, rehearsing the maneuvers that had been pounded into him in his training.
“Left jab, right cross, feint low.” Boots pummeling the mud and turf, knees bent, rifle at the ready, Nigel had nearly caught up with Wallace and Sergeant Ayres. His mind raced with the intricacies of bayonet training. “Thrust-and-lunge-attack: crouch position, knees bent, rifle held close to body; thrust bayonet forward, lowering left hand to line up blade with the chest and vitals of the enemy; step forward with right foot whilst driving right hand and rifle forward.”Suddenly in front of him...
Three-and-half weeks later, from the quarterdeck of the same troopship RMS Amazon, carrying another load of soldiers, Elsie Fleming watched waves crash on the outer breakwater of the port of Dover, growing rapidly smaller behind the ship’s wake. Gray-on-white seagulls cavorted behind the ship, muscular wings arched, screeching at each other as if it were all a frolic. With a quick tilt and nod of her head, Elsie chose to imagine that, instead of scrounging for rubbish jettisoned from the ship’s galley, they were her own personal feathered escorts wishing her farewell, a speedy war, and a happy return. Twirling a thick lock of auburn hair around her index finger, she tried to smile, but her lips refused to cooperate.
Though her father had tried to warn her, Elsie was unprepared for the intensity of the emotions she felt as she watched the jagged coastline diminish. The white cliffs rose precipitously above the gray-green of the English Channel, shrinking in size and becoming more opaque with every turn of the troopship’s massive screw.
Exhilarated with the adventurous prospects of war, Elsie had barely been able to contain herself when she had read the newspaper report in January, 1917. The War Department had established a new corps, the Women’s Axillary Army Corps, called the WAAC for convenience. But ten months later, November 18, 1917, on board a troopship, in convoy with destroyers and armored cruisers, heading into the U-boat-infested waters of the English Channel, she found that a good deal of her exhilaration had given way to giddy uneasiness.
Breathing in the damp salty air, Elsie was grateful for the sea spray and mist tugging at her hair and bringing the water to her eyes. It helped conceal the tears of another kind she knew were there. It had been different ten months earlier; she had been all enthusiasm, begging her father to let her enlist.
“Aye, lass, that’s all good and well, I’m sure, but you have but eighteen years to your name,” he had observed. “And the WAAC requires, and most properly does it do so, a young woman to have not a day fewer than one and twenty years. Now I know that you’ve never fancied yourself good at mathematics, but even you can work it out, my dear, that eighteen is nae the same thing as twenty-one.”
“There’s only a wee difference, really. And I’m tall for my age.” She had tried every argument she could think of to persuade him. “The Germans are planning another big offensive—everyone says they’ll be doing it. And the War Department has made it clear that we need more of our boys at the Front, doing the actual fighting. Father, don’t you see, that means that every woman who enlists in the WAAC frees up a man to fight in the trenches. Father, this could be the difference between winning the war or losing it!”
When Elsie had paused for breath, her father had smiled. “You ken I think the world of you, my Elsie, but even I donnae think that you can do that.”
“Win the war, my precious,” he said.
“O Father, you’re infuriating!” she said, battering playfully at his broad chest as she said it.
As the transport vessel began rolling with the channel swell, Elsie wiped the sea spray from her face and eyes. “This will never do,” she murmured. Being here, going off to do her bit in the war, it was everything for which she had begged and cajoled her father. For months she had persisted. Every article she saw in the paper about women doing their part for the war effort, she had read aloud to him. “And here’s one about women being ambulance drivers and helping save the lives of our boys near the Front.”
“I’ll nae have my Elsie so near the fighting as the Front,” he had said, shaking his head with decision.
“There’s another about typists—but that wouldnae do for me,” she had said. “I’m a wee bit deficient at the spelling.”
“Elsie, my love, you’re an abysmal speller.”
“But wait!” she said, pretending not to hear. “Here’s another: ‘Nurses needed.’ Father, that’s it!” Elsie had jumped to her feet with excitement, holding the advertisement so he could see it. “That’s it! You’ve taught me everything about surgery and your practice. I could do nursing.”
“Perhaps you could, dearest,” he said gently, “if you were doing it on a horse, or a dog, or a heifer. Elsie, my dear, I am a veterinary surgeon, not a people one. You ken that.”
“It can’t be that different,” she had said with a quick bob of her head. “Besides, there are thousands of horses and dogs doing their bit. I could help with them. O, Father, please?”
“I ken you want to do your part,” he had said. “And a most commendable quality it is in you, dearest. Truly it is.” He broke off, his brow furrowed in thought.
“If, on the other hand, you had brothers,” he continued, “though it would break my heart to lose them—and your dear mother’s, God rest her soul—your brothers, if you had brothers, to be sure, they would enlist and fight. It would be our duty as a family for them to do so.”
“Aye, Father, like Uncle Kincaid, and Uncle Edgar, and all my cousins, there’s Ralph, Jamie, Charles, Roland, Warren, Clive—Father, how is it that I have all boy cousins, even the distant ones? Well, it doesnae matter; they’re all of them doing their bit.”
Gazing with vacant eyes into the coal fire on the grate, her father had passed a hand slowly across his brow. Elsie had not intended to hurt him. There was nothing she would ever intentionally do to hurt her father.
“Aye, and my youngest brother, your Uncle Kincaid is in hospital,” he had replied.
Elsie remembered her father’s voice when he spoke of his brother; it had been like the low moaning of the wind in the standing rigging of the ensign on the Amazon.
Her father had continued. “Wheezing out his final days, his lungs forever ruined in a gas attack at the Marne.” He hesitated. “And poor Ralph, a mere eighteen years old himself, you ken he’s been missing for more than three months and presumed dead.”
Bringing Elsie back to the present with a start, the ship lurched, heeling abruptly to starboard, and then fell into the trough of a wave with a shudder felt from stem to stern of the vessel. The Union Jack snapped irritably from its spar. Several of the WAAC’s squealed. Elsie gripped the rail until her knuckles were white.
“What happened?” cried Trudy. “Were we struck?”
“Zig-zagging course,” said the forewoman in charge of Elsie’s unit, her voice a steady monotone. “Standard naval procedure in time of war.”
“Why a z-zig-zagging course?” stammered another, the girl’s voice higher pitched than Elsie had remembered it being in their training.
“Quite simple, really,” said the forewoman, droning like a bored professor. “German U-boats find it more challenging to fire torpedoes accurately at zig-zagging convoys. Not impossible, mind you. Simply more challenging. The same for German aircraft. Whilst we make sudden and unpredictable alterations in our course, the difficulties encountered by enemy airplanes attempting to strafe our decks are considerably augmented.”
“’Strafe our decks,’” repeated a timid female voice to Elsie’s left. “P-perhaps we ought to go below.”
Even the thought of going below made Elsie’s stomach rumble and heave. Trying to ignore the convulsing in her throat, she looked out across the gray swells, whitecaps thrashing in the heavy seas. Less than a cricket pitch away steamed a British destroyer, and visible astern of them, an armored cruiser. There were at least three troopships, she couldn’t be sure of the exact number, encircled by heavily armed vessels of the Royal Navy, all white and black and gray blotched for concealment. For an instant, Elsie toyed with the notion of seeing an enemy U-boat, and how glamorous it might be if it did its best to launch a torpedo at them. With all these ships of war, surely it would be a losing proposition for the enemy. Surely it would be.
Dampening her enthusiasm against her will, a shudder passed throughout her body, and it was not from the soggy November weather. She would never forget the reports of the Lusitania in 1915; her father and she had huddled around the radio. Lusitania had been a passenger vessel, not a troopship carrying combatants. It had been filled with women and children, hundreds of them, mercilessly torpedoed by a German U-boat, nearly 1,200 perishing beneath the frigid sea, including more than thirty infants. She scanned the iron-gray horizon, wrapping a lock of hair around her finger and pulling till it hurt; she had read in the newspaper that U-boats usually surfaced for better accuracy before firing on their target.
With these reflections, Elsie took a moment to indulge herself in a reverie of mental Hun-loathing, calling down imprecatory curses, like a Hebrew prophet, on the German race. She was forced to admit that she seldom found this activity as satisfying as she hoped it would be. Most often, when the fit passed, she found herself feeling empty, cold, and far more ashamed than gratified.
Another lurching of the troopship Amazon interrupted her thoughts. But this time something was different. Clutching the ship’s rail with her fingers, Elsie felt a trembling through every rivet in the hull of the vessel, a trembling that reverberated through her whole body. Suddenly from the ship’s bridge, the steam siren blared. “Whoop-whoop!”More sirens peeled from the other ships in the convoy. Elsie’s heart beat faster. Surely it was only a training exercise. The Amazon burst instantly into a flurry of activity. Officers shouted orders. “Battle stations! To your battle stations!” Sailors ran past, their shoes ominously rumbling on the iron decking like drum sticks on a giant kettle drum.
“What is it?” cried the forewoman to anyone who would listen. She had dropped her monotone; her words sounded more like a shriek.“U-boat detected!” shouted a sailor running past. “Get below!”...
It was November 29, 1917, Jack’s nineteenth birthday. It was also his first day of trench warfare. Some birthday party! Later he wrote about that day. “The first bullet I heard ‘whined’ like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear… a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.’”
One day he had been a fresh young college student; now he was a soldier. After a hasty few months of training he was dubbed a Second Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry and shipped off to France. Near Arras he heard that first of many bullets. When not dodging those bullets, he wrote down reflections on his experience.
The war—the frights, the cold, the smell, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet… I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead… I came to know, and pity, and reverence the ordinary man.
April 15, 1918 at Mont-Bernenchon, near Arras, France, an artillery shell whistled louder and closer than the rest. Then it hit. Erupting in a deafening explosion, the shrapnel instantly killed Jack’s friend, who had been a father figure to him. And it hit Jack. He wrote, “The moment just after I had been hit… I found that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death.” Perhaps at the field hospital at Etaples, perhaps at a convalescent camp back in England on the Salisbury Plain, embittered by his experience, Jack began writing a poem:
Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.
Laugh then and slay.
Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth—
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.
|The grand Amiens Cathedral survived WW I|
Such absolutist conclusions are ironic on many levels, not the least of which is that it was our devout devotion to Modernism that set the stage for this war to end all wars. Modernism said that we human beings could solve our problem by our economic strength, by our technology and scientific knowledge, by education, and by our military might. Its champions declared that "Success is the only measure of a just war."
Modernism was a ticking time bomb that exploded in our face 100 years ago, August 1914. And nobody paid for the enormous miscalculation more than the young people of that generation--the millions of young men who died before they could marry and have children, and the millions of young women for whom there were simply no young men to marry. Following our will and way produces barrenness, a wasteland; self-worship always has and always will. Cursing God, as then-atheist Lewis did in 1918, won't fix the problem. Cursing our neighbor and pitching our hope in national and military superiority in war won't fix it either. There is only one hope for a bludgeoned, broken, and barren world.
"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God." Jesus himself, the Son of God, was the ultimate peacemaker, the "Prince of Peace." Sacrificing 18 million sons on the alter of national pride and ambition did not produce anything close to peace. But peace did require a sacrifice, a far costlier one even than those 18 million sons. God the Father made peace by sacrificing his only Son Jesus on the cross for hopeless sinners. In this benighted, war-torn world, it is only the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will restore all things to love, beauty, and peace. Jesus alone has accomplished what is needed to turn this God-forsaken wasteland into the God-glorifying eternal garden of heaven; he alone turns swords into plowshares. Come Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace!
Where CS Lewis was wounded Where JRR Tolkien fought
Giles took this video of me at the British cemetery just on the outskirts of Mont-Bernenchon where Lewis, had he been killed instead of wounded, would most likely have been buried.
A song soldiers sang on the march in WW I:
You stole our wenches
We found poppies growing beside the road at Mont-Bernenchon where CS Lewis was wounded in April, 1918 in the Battle of Arras, but found no marker or indicator of any kind about Lewis, though I asked everyone I could in the little village.
Reformation Tour 2013, we stopped for lunch at WW I battlefield and cemetery at Verdun, early ideas already forming for a historical fiction novel set in WW I.
Sobering--the Ossuary at Verdun, where unidentified remains of young men killed in battle are stored. More than 40% of soldiers who died in WW I were never positively identified.
Giles (11) tells us about what happened at Thiepval, France near where JRR Tolkien was wounded in WW I and where, had Tolkien been killed instead of wounded, he would likely have been buried.
UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2014 featured the "Christmas Truce" of 1914, when British and German troops suspended hostilities for a little while, played football in the snow, chatted, exchanged small gifts (Sainsbury chocolate), then took up their positions and resumed killing each other.
Giles and Gillian in the remarkably well-preserved trenches of Vimy Ridge where intrepid Canadians, after taking heavy loses, drove back the Hun.
BBC documentary on Soldier Poets of WW I, including JRR Tolkien, Owen, Sassoon, and others
Initial cover-art idea. Thanks to friend and author Robert Treskillard!
Cover art: Photographers James Francis (Frank) Hurley and George Hubert Wilkins, National Media Museum, UK which has this posted about this image and several others: “The images which are part of The Commons have no known copyright restrictions, indicating that we are unaware of any current copyright restrictions on the works displayed, either because the term of copyright may have expired and not been renewed, or because we believe no copyright restrictions apply.”
“From two albums entitled ‘Official Australian War Photographs’, produced by the Australian War Records Section, established by the British government in 1917. These photographs are probably the work of official photographers James Francis (Frank) Hurley and George Hubert Wilkins.”
"Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector. They form a silhouette against the sky as they pass towards the front line to relieve their comrades, whose attack the day before won Broodseinde Ridge and deepened the Australian advance. Taken October 5, 1917, at Western Front (Belgium), Menin Road Area, Hooge."Public domain image source http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmediamuseum/3007981750/
Image of British soldiers heading to the front lines in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium
First chapter of THE BETRAYAL, my novel on John Calvin
The opening chapter of my 16th century novel on Calvin begins during the bombardment of Calvin's birthplace, Noyon in Picardy. Here is that first chapter:
April, 1918: The Bombardment
In the war-torn village of Noyon-le-Sainte in northern France an old man, clutching the hand of a little boy, mused on the war to end all wars. After three-and-a-half years of bloody stalemate, it seemed less like a war to end war and far more like a war that would just never end. In spite of the endless cycle of artillery barrage, infantry advance, and entrenchment, inexplicably the cathedral, the Town Hall, the renaissance library, and other medieval buildings remained standing, awaiting the next cycle of bombing. Still more importantly to the old man, his house, “Grain Place,” as it had been known for centuries, yet remained standing. And he had his music and his books.
That night, windows shrouded in black, he opened the volume he had been reading. A biography originally penned in 1577 by Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, the old man’s copy had been printed in 1875. Far more a vengeful diatribe than a proper biography, the old man had read enough not to think of it as real history; nevertheless, the scandalous rant against a man Bolsec must have intensely hated was entertaining. Perching his reading glasses on his nose, and leaning toward the lantern, he had only just recommenced reading when suddenly the house shuddered to its foundation stones.
“Grand-père!” cried the little boy at his feet. “Qu'est-ce que c'est?”
The old man knew what it was. Snatching the boy’s hand, he ran through the house into the back garden, hoping to get the little one to the bomb shelter in time. There was nothing an old man or a mere boy could do; the defense of the town and of the Oise valley was entirely up to the British 5th Army.
Shifting troop strength to the Western Front in April of 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his German army to redirect the gaping mouths of their massive artillery, capable of firing one-ton bombs over nine miles, and to commence thundering destruction on the Allied defenders and on what remained of the town of Noyon-le-Sainte. The apocalyptic Hindenburg-Ludendorff Offensive had begun.
Holding the trembling boy in his arms, the old man listened to the earth-shaking staccato of German artillery raining death and devastation on the village above them. And then would come the infantry advance. With deadly accuracy, the British defenders who had survived the barrage valiantly went to work with their Enfield rifles, pee-oohing death into the waves of German infantry advancing on the town. The Germans responded with the heavy gut-lurching chattering of machine gun fire, cutting down all life in its path, valiant or otherwise. But the old man had seen enough of modern war. He knew that at the last it would be the coordinated German artillery fire, the molten shrapnel, and the erupting debris that would carve out a path of death and devastation for the German advance through his village, his home, and his life.
When at last the echoing of heavy guns had lapsed into an eerie silence, the old man and the boy slowly immerged from the bomb shelter. What met their senses seemed like a microcosm of the death of civilization. Everywhere the air was thick with acrid smoke and the stench of death. The complete absence of laughter, of the cheery sounds of children at play, of chattering housewives, of yapping dogs created a silence so palpable that it unhinged the mental faculties of some who had inexplicably survived.
Stooped and frail, the widow next door sat on a fragment of her front steps—all that remained of her home. Moaning softly, her head bowed and shrouded with a black shawl, she sat rocking, rocking as if thereby to find some comfort for herself. Heaped about her radiated mounds of rubble: the remains of her home, of a Gallo-Roman crypt, of the towers of the cathedral. An instant of thunderous chaos had reduced the village to heaps of debris; order, antiquity, and beauty devolving into crumbled heaps of stone, dust, and matchsticks.
The few buildings still standing looked as if a puff of wind would finish the job. Stones chiseled into columns and arches by master stone cutters of the Middle Ages, now seemed to stagger and sway like drunken men. The tinkling of breaking glass broke the stillness; the old man shook his head in wonder: What glass could yet be unbroken after such a bombardment?
Enormous as the loss in buildings, the loss of human life far exceeded all other devastation. Though many had been instantaneously buried as their lives were crushed by hailing stones and molten shrapnel, yet were there many bodies undignified by such a burial. And as the April sun warmed the scene, grotesque corpses swelled in the heat. Others were so disfigured that they had ceased to affright, so inhuman had they become. Still others had instantly been obliterated, their parts so ground up and mingled with the mud, stone, and earth that they no longer existed, or so it seemed. Hundreds of townsfolk—men, women, and children—had simply vanished without a trace, no mangled body, no dental work to compare with records.
There was a new sound that made the old man frown. Faintly at first: the rumbling of horse-drawn artillery, the clattering of hooves, the mechanical throttling of trucks and the grinding of gears—and the advance of men. German infantry soldiers in spiky helmets would be pouring into the streets across the town, shoulder-to-shoulder, right arms swinging stiffly, their rifles over the left shoulder, their boots echoing with every tread more fearfully than their artillery had done before them. The old man had seen and heard it all before.
“Grain Place” had been reduced to a chaotic mound of rubble. Dazed at first, the old man and the boy picked through the debris that had been their home. It had been home to many families over the centuries, the family names obliterated by the forgetfulness of time, as were now its beams and stones.
Strewn amongst the chaos were tufts of stuffing from a pillow, and there a mangled arm of a chair, here a broken leg of a table, and the battered head and foot of a bed frame. Unlike other mounds of debris that had once been the houses that made up the village, there were no human arms, legs, heads and feet in the homey mound of rumble that had been “Grain Place.”
Recognition flashed across the old man’s face as he discovered the final remains of his favorite chair and here and their a page from the Bolsec book he had only the night before hurriedly laid aside to retire to the relative safety of the bomb shelter in the back garden. With a cry, the boy snatched up the shredded remains of his teddy bear, and a tear fell on the mangled creature’s face as the boy clutched it, searching in the debris for an arm, a leg, an ear, the innards of its torso.
More familiar objects poked out of the rubbish: the old man’s violin, never to be played again, and black and white keys from his piano were scattered about the debris like the shrapnel of a melodic grenade.
Then, scowling, the old man’s eyes fell on an unfamiliar object. It puzzled him, because he could not remember having anything like it in his possessions, yet here it was amongst the rubble that had been his home and his things. Carefully picking his way to it, he bent low, with a hand clearing aside gravel and powder that had so late been solid stone. It was a battered metal chest, the same length and somewhat wider than an ammunition case for the .303 caliber rounds the British soldiers had used in their Enfield rifles.
Lifting it from the debris, the old man blew the remaining mortar dust away and studied the metal work on the case more closely.
“Grand-père, qu'avez-vous trouvé?” called the boy.
“Je ne sais pas,” he replied with a shrug.
He had no idea what it was, what it contained, but clearly it was very ancient. The rumbling, grinding, and trampling grew louder. The old man, tucking the chest under his arm, gripped the boy’s hand in his own and scrambled through the wreckage back to the bomb shelter, now their only home.
Once underground, he took up a pries bar and worked at the lid of the chest. As he worked so did his imagination. Perhaps there would be within something of value, something of antiquity: bank notes from the 16th century would be nice, family gemstones or gold jewelry better still, the title to a vast estate best of all. Food ration coupons would do, he thought grimly. With a sudden crack, the lid gave way. The man’s heart raced as he lifted it and gazed inside.
Disappointed, he lifted a large sheaf of paper, yellowed with age. He looked more closely within. Underneath the pages, nest-like, was the decaying remains of a piece of cloth, silk it felt like; at one time perhaps a shade of blue. The cloth was fragile with age, and as he turned it carefully in his hands, he decided it had long ago been a chapeau for the head.
Again he looked within. There was a small leather-bound book. Opening it tenderly, he saw that it was a French Bible, hundreds of years old, it must be, and perhaps of some value. Indifferently he closed the book, though cautiously so as not to devalue it. He turned his attention back to the sheaves of paper, clearly some kind of manuscript, written in a hasty agitated scrawl, but legible for all that, and in French. The writer had used both sides of each sheet of paper, and had allowed no room for margins, as if he feared he might run out of paper, as if he had much to say and little time or space in which to say it.
Who had written these words? the old man mused, thumbing the yellow pages pensively. It was eerie to think that a man long dead had penned them. And the old man, whose emotions had been dulled by the numbing years of war, felt a flickering of excitement at it all. Why had the ancient writer walled this manuscript up in this house? There would be no better way to find out than to read the pages, perhaps aloud to the boy.
So he did.
Memoir--from under-aged boy soldier in British army
Memoirs & Diaries - A Boy's Experiences
I was born in November 1898 so that when war was declared I was at school. I joined the School Cadet Battalion in 1914 and was appointed corporal.At Whitsun, 1915, I told the O.C. cadets I was going to join up. "Good," he said. "How old do you want to be?"
We fixed things between us, and armed with a letter from him, I presented myself, after attestation, to the colonel of an infantry battalion which was just being formed, and on the strength of the letter I was appointed a lance-corporal and told to get my hair cut.
I did so and afterwards saw the regimental sergeant-major, who put me through my paces and told me to get my hair cut. In ten weeks I had been made sergeant.
We did the usual training in England until May 1916, then went to France as a complete division. Some of the N.C.O.'s were sent up the line for instruction with a Scottish battalion at Ploegsteert. What a lovely war that was!
In complete daylight we marched up to and through the wood to find a network of trenches and sand-bags. Still in daylight, but now through the trenches, one was able to wander up to the front line.
During instruction with the Scottish, I was sent out on a wiring party. We were subjected to machine-gun fire, but oh, blissful ignorance, I kept upright, a perfectly good 6 feet of human target!
"Git doon, ye fool!" and, crash! my legs were knocked from under me and I fell flat on my face with a good coil of barbed wire in my stomach. The Scot explained and marvelled at my ignorance.
Our time in the line was occupied with patrols, wiring parties, and minor offences. The minor offences consisted of sending over a few rifle grenades, sniping with periscope rifles, and generally asking for trouble. We were not to rest too long, however. Time and "Intelligence" decreed that a raid had to be made on the German line.
Volunteers were asked for and I asked the company commander if I could go as the N.C.O. The major had seen service in Gallipoli, and was not nearly so bloodthirsty as we new soldiers, and he promptly asked me if I wanted to end my young life. Being facetious, I answered that I thought there was a war on. I had my wish and the raiding party was sent back from the line to prepare.
The night of the raid was perfect so far as weather was concerned, but something went wrong. Either the wire had not been cut in front of the enemy trench, or it had not been cut in the right place, or the Germans had been successful in filling the gap.
In any case, we did not get through and luckily enough the raiding party suffered but few casualties, although there was quite a number in the company from the barrage put down by the enemy. One of the casualties was the company sergeant-major, whose place I had to take before I was eighteen.
From "Plug Street" we went slightly north to Messines Ridge, and spent about thirty days in the line and in supports without getting a change of clothing. This was a little more like the war we had read about at home and less like a rather dangerous picnic.
About this time the great Somme attack started, and we were chafing because we could not get there. We were still joyfully ignorant of the real conditions, but we were soon to experience them. The Division was moved to the shambles.
On the first day the tanks went into action, the Division went over and this was our real baptism. We had marched all one afternoon and part of the night to reach the front line, which consisted of a tape along the shell holes. What a contrast! From the comparative quiet of a proper line and minor shelling, to come to this shell-torn tape line, absolute din, rain of shells and machine-gun bullets.
We had had our instructions, however, which were to attack at zero hour. We composed ourselves as best we could for the rest of the night and at dawn the attack began.
During our transit from Messines to the Somme the major had impressed upon me the necessity for removing all maps and documents from his person as soon as he was hit. I endeavoured to "pooh-pooh" the idea; but he knew. How he knew only God can tell; within two minutes of the start he was hit, and badly. I heard later he lost a leg, and I expect he was thankful to get away with that.
To carry on with the attack. I took the maps, etc. and looked round for another of the company officers, but could see none. There were only two, and I found out that one of those had gone out about the same time as the major. I had to keep the papers and carry on.
The tanks were at once a delight and a disappointment. They were fairly easily ditched, but at the same time they were impregnable. I saw a party of the enemy clamber on to one in motion and endeavour to put it out of action, after firing at it point blank with a machine gun and throwing bombs from about 5 yards range.
I saw another run along a thick belt of wire in a sunken road, and so clear the way for us. Yet another spotted a machine gun in a house in Flers; this fellow wandered up the road, did a sharp turn, and ambled through the house.
Shortly afterwards I had one of the best meals I can remember. We had been attacking since dawn; it was now about 1 p.m. I produced a hunk of cheese and some biscuits. Another fellow scrounged a huge Spanish onion. That onion made the meal.
By this time we had secured a couple of miles of enemy territory, and while going through the doorway of a building I was hit. It was only a shrapnel bullet but it felt as though half the house had fallen on me. I was bowled over and, on trying to get up, found my leg would not move.
I had by now lost at least half my bravado, and was sent back, having to hop and crawl as best I could; but eventually I did get there, and in due course arrived at a base hospital. Our losses must have been fairly heavy, but those of the Germans were at least three times as great.
We seemed to take hordes of prisoners, and numbers were left behind waiting burial, either proper or accidental.
In due course I arrived back in England to experience the joys of hospital life.
The men in blue were well looked after. Even towards the end of 1916, after two years, the hospitality of the general public was astounding.
Until the end of June 1917 I was convalescent at the regimental depot and at reserve battalion. The application for a commission, which I had made in the early part of 1916, before going to France, was then entertained, and I was sent to an officers' cadet battalion at Oxford.
Four months were spent there preparing for the examination, at which I was successful. I was granted a commission in my old regiment and returned to the same reserve battalion.
After a short time at the depot, I was sent to France to join a very depleted battalion, in the early days of January 1918. This battalion was temporarily under the command of a major from another regiment, and I regret to say he was not at all popular. Being fed-up with him, another subaltern and myself applied for transfer to the Flying Corps.
The first part of our time was spent in the line in the northern part of France. When we took over, it was deep in snow and we held a string of outposts on the eastern side of a stream. The first trench patrol I did, I spent most of my time in the stream.
There was only one way to get to the sentries and if one deviated from the narrow path by so much as a foot, it usually meant one had to remove one's waders to empty out the water.
In January, in this part of the line, the war was not waged very furiously.
The trench mortar batteries used to come up and let off a few rounds, then go back. We were left to patch up the trenches after the usual replies from the "Minnie" brigade.
Those Minenwerfers! I shall never forget their soul-destroying qualities. To be hit by something you could not see was not too bad, but to see something coming, sufficient to blow a crater of 15 feet diameter and not to know which way to go to avoid it, was enough to destroy the nerve of a suit of armour.
You can imagine, therefore, how decidedly unpopular the trench mortar batteries became. The daily "strafe" too, was far more intense than in my earlier days. I have already said that my bravado had been reduced, and this did not improve it. In various ways one was able to forget, but I nearly gave out.
It was in the early days of March. The Germans were raiding; we were counter-raiding. Each company had only three officers in the line, and it usually meant two patrols in No Man's Land each night. In addition to this we were subjected to intermittent gun-fire and "Minnies" during the day.
Luckily, the colonel, who had returned by this time and who was one of the best men I have ever met, talked to me very severely and made me pull myself together. It was an effort, but, thank God! I succeeded.
About March 20th we were relieved from the line and started rest. I lost eighteen men the first day on a working party.
Next day came news of the great enemy attack. We received orders to dump all surplus kit and pack up to go south again. We started early in the morning, and reached a village towards evening. We were shown our billets and the cooks prepared a meal.
Just as we were sitting down the "Fall in at the double" was sounded. Good-bye dinner.
Throughout the night we rode in lorries and chars-a-bancs, and towards noon we reached some deserted huts, had a short rest and a shave. Then we started to march on to a position between Bazentin-le-Grand and Bazentin-le-Petit. We never arrived. The Germans were first.
From there we changed direction and retired through Pozieres, where we managed to set fire to the place. It burned for three days and nights, so we did that job well. We eventually took up a position along the railway line in Aveluy Wood.
On the first night, the enemy marched through on the left of us in column of fours, blowing bugles and singing. He was beaten back and next afternoon we were attacked from the right flank, and the Germans were again behind us. Again we rallied, beat them back and retook our position along the railway.
We were attacked again that night, and next morning found ourselves very short of ammunition. The colonel wandered along the line carrying over 2,000 rounds in bandoliers round his shoulders.
That night we were relieved, but simply took up another position at dawn on the top of a hill. In the evening we were attacked again, and the colonel was wounded once more, making the seventh time. We were relieved next day and got back to rest, a sadly depleted battalion.
When we got back to rest I think every man slept the clock round. The men were falling asleep during the march back and after every halt it took us nearly ten minutes to wake them up.
During the time we were in the wood, five of our aeroplanes went over and were shot down in flames, making me begin to wish I had never applied for transfer. But after two days rest our transfer to the Flying Corps came through, and my chum and I promptly hurried back to England, arriving there the first week in April.
On July 21st I was back in France, this time with the Air Force, wherein life was great.
One had only a nominal amount of work to do compared with the P.B.I. In fact, if you had to work more than four hours a day, you were decidedly unlucky.
After about six weeks with the squadron I was third senior observer. This rapid change of personnel was a serious drawback, but otherwise everything was much more comfortable.
One morning, taking off at dawn, we hit the top of a hangar in which were sleeping several mechanics. Their language was an education in itself. The machine was written off, but the flight commander and myself escaped with a shaking. We did no more work that day.
On another occasion, while taking a new pilot over the line, we were closely shelled. I smacked him on the head and told him to get back, as he appeared quite unconcerned. When we returned to the aerodrome, the bus badly riddled with shrapnel holes, which I pointed out to my pilot, he said he thought the shell bursts were small clouds. I thought of my first wiring party and said no more.
Our job was to do contact work in machines that were designed for artillery observation. Contact, of course, had to be kept with people working, on the ground, and, in the particular kind of machine we were using, was an unenviable task.
About this time we were beginning to win the War, and one night the Squadron Commander outlined our job in an advance for next day. It was very ambitious, and was met with some facetious remarks. From the squadron point of view, the first job was for all machines but one to go over and drop smoke bombs at dawn.
The other machine, containing my pilot, aged seventeen and a half, and myself, had to take off about an hour and a half later and watch the Canal du Nord, which at this particular spot emerged from underground and was supposed to house large numbers of the enemy.
Whether it did or not I never knew. We got over the line, flying just below 1,000 feet, to find that the usual late September ground mist and the effects of the squadron's smoke bombs were such that the ground was obscured.
We could not see the line but apparently could ourselves be seen, for a machine gun was firing at us and I, as observer, was firing in the direction of the sound, with my back to the pilot.
Suddenly the nose of the machine went down and we started to spin. I turned round to ask what the--. Imagine my consternation at finding the pilot shot through the head and leaning forward on the joy-stick. I had no visions of my past life; I merely clutched at the straw.
In other words, in a fraction of a second I had the spare stick out of its place on the fuselage and into its socket for dual control. With the other hand, I stopped the spin by hauling on to the rudder wire alongside my seat, then I pulled at the stick, and can dimly remember the nose of the plane rising.
The next thing I remember is being offered a drink by a German officer. This I refused, so he drank it himself and offered me another from the same bottle. I could only have been semi-conscious, for I again refused. Once more I lapsed into unconsciousness and returned to find somebody taking a souvenir in the shape of my wrist-watch.
I was then told to sit at the foot of the steps of the dug-out, as our attack was expected. I was to call up that there was a British officer there. Having myself dropped bombs into dug-outs first and asked questions afterwards, I suggested going to the top of the steps.
This did not meet with approval, so I was left below to nurse a cracked chin, a bleeding head and a very sore body, the only ill-effects to myself. Our attack was not successful, so I was not rescued, but was sent behind the German lines.
During my short stay in Germany, I was in many camps, the chief of which were at Karlsruhe, Kamstigall, near Munich, and Landshut, near Konigsberg. From Munich to Konigsberg we travelled through Berlin, where I bartered half a bar of Sunlight Soap for five shillings' worth of cigarettes.
I arrived back in England before Christmas 1918, thus creating what appears to be a record of every Christmas at home during the War. In 1915 I was lucky in a ballot at Aldershot; 1916, being convalescent at Epsom, I was allowed out a certain amount and plead guilty to taking a little more without being found out; 1917, I was on draft leave; and 1918 I have just recounted.
C. J. Arthur enlisted in May 1915, after Whitsun weekend in camp with Boy Scouts, and within ten weeks was promoted to Sergeant. Went to France May 1916. Wounded September same year, and awarded M.M.
In hospital until December, then convalescent until February 1917. Thence to depot until gazetted in November 1917. To France again, January 1st, 1918, until April 5th, when he was sent home for transfer to R.A.F.
On July 21st again went to France and was shot down on September 29th, and taken prisoner, returning to England December 20th, 1918, and demobilized March 1919.
Whilst in the infantry he served with the (Queen's Own) Royal West Kent Regt., both in the ranks and when gazetted.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--A German point of view
Defeat at the Marne, July 1918
The Marne-Drama of July 15, 1918, seen from the angle of the fighting grenadier regiment No. 5, 36th Infantry Division
"Tomorrow we shall march on Paris!"
Thus we expressed ourselves to the commander of the Third Battalion of the French line Infantry Regiment No. 2, which, driven to the Marne by our briskly attacking grenadiers, was forced to surrender, 800 men strong, on the evening of May 30th."Non, Monsieur, a Paris! Jamais! Pensez a 1914! La Marne!" ("Not monsieur, to Paris! Never! Remember 1914! The Marne!")
Seriously and with dignity the French Lieutenant-Colonel thus replied, and we honoured his pride - and grew pensive ourselves for a moment. But then our joy in the glorious success of the day had the upper hand: the Marne was reached, in four days from the Chemin des Dames across the Aisne and Vesle to the mythical stream. Hardly any casualties. The enemy, on the other hand, was most severely damaged. Only - on to Paris!
In the night between the 30th and the 31st of May, however, the 36th Infantry Division received the command: "The position won must be held!"
No advance? Here was disappointment! But one could not see far to the right or the left; and when the water-carriers early in the morning went down to the Marne, they encountered fire aimed at them from the other shore.
We had a new enemy opposite us - one who no longer thought of retreat.
Between this enemy and us was the Marne, a river with a swift current, over 60 metres broad at Chateau-Thierry, very deep and canalized. The valley resembles that of the Weser, except that it is usually somewhat broader.
Slopes to the right and left are luxuriously covered with woods, orchards and vineyards; there are numerous villages, pastures full of cattle. When on the morning of May 31st I stood with my commander on the heights to the east of Chateau-Thierry - truly, a paradise lay before me, the sun smiled over it, a brisk wind blew across the valley. Here one breathed a different air; no war - peace.
Of the enemy nothing could be seen. Scarcely a man was visible in the next five weeks. Only now and then a sharp report when some one carelessly showed himself. We took great pains to point out targets for the artillery, but usually without success.
Men on leave, who came from Charleville in the first days of July, told us, when we had at that time withdrawn quietly to Fere-en-Tardenois, 20 kilometres north of the river: "On July 15th we shall cross the Marne!"
We knew for ourselves that we would attack. As in the days of March, we practiced that kind of attack in which we advanced where the enemy offered the least resistance; we did not storm the strong front, the "forehead," as it were, but attacked it from the flanks and the rear; we followed the firing body and cleared the way, cooperating effectively with the artillery and mine throwers.
But at night we heard first a very muffled shot, then for a while there was calm. Suddenly there rose a rustling and whizzing which grew sharper and sharper, then a blow which started a roaring in one's ears and made the heart of the bravest tremble.
The infantry rushed out of the houses into the fields, for it had no protection against the grenades of the heavy French railway guns, and then returned to its quarters at dusk and quiet descended. The infantrymen were supposed to find recreation, but they could not enjoy life, and many a man had to be buried before command was given for the new attack.
A few days before the assault - on July 12th - we learned details of the operation about to be performed.
We were ordered to keep our inquiries within the narrowest limit.
Thus only commanders of regiments and battalions and very few leaders of companies were able to view the first and second places for preparation, the roads for marching, the positions for action, the places for vehicles and all the many points about which one wanted to find out.
My troop, the Grenadier Regiment No. 5, was to cross at the right flank of the 36th Infantry Division near Jaulgonne at two places: to the right, together with the 10th Infantry Division, our proved fighting companion of the 21st and 27th of May, the first days of storm of the offensive of Quentin and of the Chemin des Dames; to the left with the brave Infantry Regiment 175.
Infantry and machine-gun troops were to cross on pontoons, and later on ferries; artillery and vehicles were to be drawn after them over bridges.
At Fismes we practiced in advance with some pontoons on the Ourcq: embarking and disembarking and crossing over. In order to carry out this peace-time manoeuvre, the infantry had to march 18 km twice, in scorching heat and dust which lay piled up high like a wall upon the road that led through the woods from Fere-en-Tardenois.
Tired to death, they returned to their quarters, whence they were driven again in the night by firing. And this a few days before the attack!
The actual command for the operation came very late. I was just sitting and working over it, when a perfectly strange grenadier was announced. With excitement but modestly he asked if it were true that Americans were stationed over there and that our attack was betrayed.
I quieted him, but inquired carefully here and there what the general opinions on the attack might be. There was thorough confidence in the leaders; but there was an indefinite feeling that the affair would not succeed.
"The infantry has the right instinct," veterans of the front used to say.
Whoever saw clearly had to think seriously of failure. The enemy had taken several prisoners from us, among others an officer of photometry who, contrary to orders, had carried important maps with him.
From here and there we heard of deserters. In defiance of all war experiences little had been done to keep our purpose secret; thus at nine o'clock in the morning, while enemy aviators had been circling above for over four hours, our munition columns still stood crowded together on the streets.
The enemy fire increased each day. When on July 13th we moved to the places of preparation, thick clouds of gas lay on the wood of Jaulgonne.
"It will turn out all right," was the general consolation. The last offensive had given us courage, less to the troops than to the commanders.
Were the men at the front mistaken at the time when they felt that their warning had not been heeded enough? To be sure, it would have made a strange impression if, a few days before the attack, timid voices should have been heard from a division.
And it was quite comprehensibly human that an officer of the general staff, who had exerted his whole strength and intelligence for the hard work of preparing the attack and was looking forward to success, should be shy of saying: "It can't he carried through!"
Two forces were exerting their pressure - the hope roused by ambition: "Perhaps we will succeed after all; the enemy's fighting is so poor"; and then the man at the top who was accustomed to an inconsiderate process of removal whenever he noticed that positions were filled by the wrong men.
The two days which we spent 5 km away from the Marne under cover of the woods passed favourably. We had to suffer little from shooting. The weather was tolerable; it rained somewhat, but the infantry which, to be sure, was quite without cover, had already endured worse things.
"On July 15, 1.10 o'clock in the morning, our own artillery fire is to begin, at 3.40 in the morning the artillery fire will be advanced 300 m. Infantry is to cross over. At 4.50 in the morning the volley is to start and the infantry storm is to begin."
Thank heaven, now there was clearness! Except for trifles, the entire apparatus was in good shape; to be sure, some bearers of carrier pigeons were missing; the wireless station had lost its way. But the main point was that all posts had their orders in time.
On July 14th in the evening, soon after dark, the infantry troops were led to the front positions. They lay 600-800 m. away from the river on the slopes, in the midst of the forest, which faced the enemy and descended to the Marne. Covers (trenches or shelters) had not been prepared; the only things which marked the positions were tablets which one could not see in the night.
Scarcely ever have I experienced such a dark night as the one from July 14th to 15th. In the woods one could not see one's own hand in front of one's eyes, and ran against trees. The ground was smooth and slippery, the air filled with gas; now and then there was a roaring - for the enemy sent across some heavy grenades.
This lasted hour after hour. The infantry for whose march two hours had been calculated (for a march of 4 km) had not arrived at its positions. The leaders required infinitely much longer time than they had planned, to find the way which they had seen once by daylight.
The hardships for our men were enormous. And when they had arrived at last, the announcements did not sound very edifying: casualties already during the march; great exhaustion of the troops, some ill from marching, some lost. But - they stood where they were supposed to stand.
When is it going to start? We were in a torpor.
At last! A mad artillery fire started. I looked at my watch: 1 o'clock in the morning! Had our artillery made a mistake? It wasn't supposed to begin till 1.10 in the morning!
Out of the holes in which we sat - and back into them fast! Before and behind us the missiles struck. The enemy had begun! Ten minutes later we began, not like one blow, as we had been ordered, but starting out here and there; our fire swelled to a mighty strength for ten minutes, so that we had the hope: now everything will turn out all right!
Then it grew weaker again and weaker. Frequently the enemy fire was much stronger than ours.
Soon telephone lines forward and backward were destroyed. If only the program is carried out right! At 3.50 in the morning no report. From the rear you are pressed: "Report how things are! Has the infantry crossed the river?" Answer: "There is no report yet. The enemy fire is terrible. But we suppose that everything is going on as planned."
At 4.30 in the morning at last a report from the front: the fusilier battalion, the left front attacking battalion, reports that the prepared positions were subjected to the strongest enemy fire, that two companies were fully broken up and that there were grave doubts about the success of the attack.
This report is immediately passed on verbatim. No word has come as yet, if the crossing has succeeded. The regiment's staff sends out patrols, to make sure of the situation. At last, after hours, a more accurate report arrives.
The first battalion, which was to attack to the right, has been caught terribly in the narrow path that leads down to the river, by enemy fire. Only parts have reached the river. The pioneers have given up. The pontoons have been left 100 metres before the Marne; it is impossible to cross here, as strong enemy infantry is defending the other shore stubbornly with numerous machine guns.
To the left things look a little better. The fusilier battalion has reached the river with two companies and is crossing. Strong parts of the IInd battalion, which were to follow as reserves and which have been led forward very skilfully by Cavalry Captain von Plehwe, the victor of May 3oth, have already arrived at the other shore of the river and are holding the railroad embankment which lies about 600 m to the south of the river.
The casualties of F 5 are very severe, those of II 5 a little lighter. The attack has halted. A strong enemy prevents farther advance.
This is the first picture. The infantry without protection lying in the midst of the great forest of Jaulgonne, which has such dense thickets that it is impossible to pass through, and on the other hand, has scarcely a tree strong enough to serve as cover against an infantry bullet.
Now the massed fire of the enemy artillery bursts into them: not a spot is saved. Here fire from a heavy battery keeps on continually. The striking in the forest is terrible, nerve-racking.
The clearing over there is caught every five minutes by a light battery and in a short time is a black crater. And the small path to the right is spread over with shrapnel, which glow fiery in their courses, like comets. Our men run aimlessly hither and thither; no cover!
And again roaring, dull reports: gas grenades! Put on the gas masks! One could not see anything before - now still less! Many are seized with a dull despair. They feel helpless: if it would only be day! The wounded scream.
At last a hoarsely gasped command from the leader of the company, even now seriously conscious of his duty: "Begin! Has every man a gun?"
Now forward on the narrow paths which are struck so fiercely, which, nevertheless, are the only ways that lead down to the river. The pioneers stand somewhat lower down. Their leader does not know what to do. He has only a few men. The infantry take hold themselves and carry the pontoons the several hundred metres to the river.
A new situation for the artillery. Everything is out of joint. Several dead and a shattered machine gun stay lying beside the pontoons. Only let us go on, away from here! There are other pontoons below.
The accompanying artillery arrives - for each infantry regiment has one to two batteries, in our case a field-gun battery and a mountain battery. One gun has been ruined by good shots, a second has broken a shaft.
The leaders ask: "Is it wise to advance farther?"
They were commanded to halt and seek a place where they might be stationed if possible outside the firing range. But the mountain battery has already driven into the narrow path through the wood, upon which the 1st battalion marched ahead, and is now caught, for it cannot budge either to the right or the left nor forward.
And one shot after the other hits those fine, proud troops. The horses writhe on the ground, and the munitions explode.
Down by the river, the pioneers of the fusilier regiment have worked better. Two pontoons are ready, six should be there. Overladen the first man crosses. A machine gun shoots from over there, but too high. All duck, throw themselves down.
Has our artillery had no effect? The bank is steep. The first infantrymen pull themselves up by the willows and hang there - a wire obstacle! No one had ever seen that, and no telescope had been able to discover it. Was a trench behind it?
Our men feel their way. It is still quite dark. One of them steps on something soft, which suddenly gives way, and now the hand-to-hand fight has come.
The enemy is entrenched here and has till now taken cover against our artillery fire. One moment - and then we have the upper hand. That is always the way with all "bitter hand-to-hand fights" - that fear of the cold steel seizes the one or the other and he runs away.
The crossing is comparatively quick. We look at the time. "For heaven's sake, the firing body is already marching!" - "Form positions!"
The companies are assigned new aims, as everything has turned out differently than as it was planned.
The railroad tracks are crossed, the railroad station Varennes taken after a short fight, we go on past the road Moulins-Varennes - already 1,000 m south of the Marne! - and up the southern slopes of the valley.
Suddenly from the right there are sounds of sharp firing and screams. In the morning mist, in the high grain field, one can see storm columns advance, dressed in brown - Americans!
Now and then they stand still and shoot. Our men come running back. The situation is extremely critical. Where are our neighbours, the 6th grenadiers? The attack must have been given up.
The grenadiers are blindly shooting their volleys "according to program." This is to last until 11 o'clock in the morning, then they will be free for other tasks. But these they could hardly have carried out anyway, for observation of the battle is very hard; low mists veil the landscape, the grain is high, and movements are covered by the many little woods and orchards.
The commanders of the IInd battalion of the fusiliers, Cavalry Captain von Plehwe and Captain Eben who are far at the front of their companies, realize that there is extreme danger in delay. All able to shoot, aim against the enemy on the right flank.
One must admit he is courageous unto death. Not till the machine-gun fire and the desperate shooting of our infantry had reaped a bloody harvest in his lines, did he halt and run back. But we take breaths of relief. Yet it is clear to each one of us: our own attack has failed! We must see to it that we can hold the position we have won with our weak forces, numerically much smaller than the enemy's.
The railroad line seems adequate for the defence. It is situated somewhat high and offers protection against fire, although on the other hand it is naturally a good target for the enemy artillery.
Methodically the parts which are farther front are drawn back to this point. The right endangered flank is strongly reinforced. Toward 11 o'clock in the morning there is communication with our neighbour to the left. He has fared a little better, but is now fighting hard too.
The Grenadier Regiment No. 6 at first came across with strong forces, but encountered a superior foe and was annihilated. One of our companies which strangely broke through the enemy line - the 6th, under Lieutenant Oberg believes that there are German troops ahead and advances 4 km deep, along the eastern slope of the Surmelin valley, right into the enemy.
Below to the right, American infantry columns are marching; above, to the left, the enemy batteries are firing continually, till at last the little band is discovered. Now it is in a difficult position, but holds its own bravely till evening.
Its death-defying leader and a few men make their way through the enemy lines backwards to another part of the German troops, and rejoin us. This was a ray of light, but it was the only one in this operation, and therefore I mention it.
On the afternoon of July 15th it was possible to improve the line somewhat, as the enemy on the Marne, probably from fear of a double flanking movement, drew back its position somewhat; but this did not change anything in the final result of the day. It was the severest defeat of the war!
One only had to descend the northern slopes of the Marne: never have I seen so many dead, nor such frightful sights in battle. The Americans on the other shore had completely shot to pieces in a close combat two of our companies.
They had lain in the grain, in semicircular formation, had let us approach, and then from 30 to 50 feet had shot almost all of us down. This foe had nerves, one must allow him this boast; but he also showed a bestial brutality.
"The Americans kill everything!" That was the cry of horror of July 15th, which long took hold of our men. At home meanwhile they were sarcastic about the imperfect training of this enemy, about the American "bluff" and the like. The fact that on July 15th more than 60 per cent of our troops led to battle were left dead or wounded upon the battlefield may substantially be charged to his credit.
Our hopes that perhaps on the rest of the attacking front we might achieve better results unfortunately proved vain. To be sure, the usual reports arose: "Rheims has fallen!" "To our left the Bavarian division has advanced 15 km!" But there was unhappily no truth in them, as happened so often.
Everywhere the same sight: courageous, death-defying attack, the severest casualties and no success in any way worth mentioning.
t the Marne front a long, narrow bridgehead had been made. It was naturally expected that the strongest attacks would be aimed against this in a short while. We prepared for this situation, but had small hope of being able to keep our position: 1 to 2 km behind us was the river - this did not help our prospects.
On July 17th the first attacks were started. They were repulsed. On the, 18th the enemy went at it with more energy and brought armoured tanks into the fight. But without success.
Like salvation we welcomed the command: "Front to be withdrawn behind the Marne!"
In the night between the 18th and 19th of July we withdrew. The Marne bridges were afire. One bridge was already destroyed. Yet we crossed in tolerable condition. The enemy, at any rate, noticed nothing, so that our patrols left behind on the southern shore could remain over there several hours and could return unmolested.
We hoped for rest. A day like the 15th of July affects body and nerves for weeks. Our lines were thinned. Low spirits took hold of most of the men. So infinitely many dear comrades we had left over there. Many of them we had not been able to lay in the earth.
It had all been like a warning: your turn too is coming! Thus thought the man at the front.
Then the report reached us: trouble to the right. The enemy, enormously strong, has attacked from the woods of Villers-Cotterets, has advanced 15 km on the first day.
"We must go back." We gnashed our teeth, but believed it, even before we received details officially. And these troops, which had just endured such hardships, had the task of giving their last, of hurling themselves as an obstacle against the overwhelming storm wave.
They did this calmly and patiently, sacrificed the remainder of the veterans of 1914, and did not lose their honour.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--"Stand To!" songs soldiers sang and being taken prisoner
"Stand To" on Givenchy Road
It was near the end of the great German bid for victory in April 1918. We left Beuvry and passed the hamlet of Le Fresnoy and crossed the bridge over the La Bassee Canal into the village of Gorre. There we struck a route past the famous Brewery to make for the open fields and the front-line trenches.We knew our destination was "somewhere between Festubert and Givenchy" - a new sector to us - and, as we marched, we sang softly a popular ditty of those days. It went to the tune of a sentimental song then going strong in Blighty, about a Tulip and a Red, Red Rose. Our own exclusive lyric had pointed reference to certain gentlemen at home and ended in averring that:
You stole our wenches
While we were in the trenches
Facing the angry foe;
You were a-slacking
While we were attacking
The Huns on Givenchy Road.
Now, in reality, we were to know what it was like on Givenchy Road, and it was said that there was plenty of "dirt" up in "the doings". The "Pork and Beans" had broken in disorder on the left, and it was rumoured that the Germans had captured the Portuguese commissariat and were even raiding and reconnoitring in Portuguese uniforms.
The 55th Division had made a stand and held up a veritable horde of the enemy with great slaughter. Now, utterly weary, they were to be relieved, and we of the 1st Division were to hold the renewed attack of the enemy.
A part of my own company relieved a detachment of the Liverpool Scottish, and we occupied a section of the trenches almost square-shaped in form, with three sides facing a miniature salient of German troops, who surrounded us more or less in the form of a horseshoe. Our post was evidently a key position in the line.
Dead men lay about here and there; the communication trench to Headquarters - a small pillbox in the centre of the square - had partly collapsed at the sides and was sickeningly yielding underfoot with the bodies of buried men. Here and there a leg or an arm protruded from the trench side. The wire was cut in places and the gaps in the trenches, caused by trench mortar attacks, were staringly open and dangerous.
We arrived in the dark of the evening, before the moon had risen. Silently we filed into the trench at a corner of the square. A line of bare trees, tall and ghostly, marked another boundary of the line.
The Scotties trailed out with whispered greetings, and we settled down to the eternal vigil. The silence was of the dead. Not a gun fired. Not even a Verey light flared. The bloated trench rats squeaked now and again and only intensified the silence.
There was nothing to do but overhaul equipment: place Mills bombs at strategic points, with slack pins ready for throwing; play cards ; smoke interminable cigarettes. During the night we examined the wire and sent reconnoitring patrols into No Man's Land. They met nothing, heard nothing, saw no one, and came back scared and craving rum.
Above all we must not remain still to brood on things. For two days the silence continued, unnatural and nerve-racking. Old soldiers talked with bated breath of the horrors that were surely coming. On the evening of the third day, as we shook our limbs and set guards and patrols moving, a whispered word went round that at "Stand to" at dusk the Germans might attack in force.
We lined up along the trench, and gulped our rum ration and literally ached for something to happen. But the sun went down and the gloom came on, and not a sound broke the solitude. Well, it would be at "Stand to" at about six o'clock in the morning - a blood-chilling time.
Morning "Stand to" came in due course, and once more the rum went round and the whispered word of warning. A watery sun peeped through the mist and still no enemy appeared. No lark rose to greet the dawn. Not a gun hurled its load of venom. I sat down with my section of eight men and I looked at our ration of bread, bacon, and cheese. It was small enough, and God knew if we should ever get another.
"Shall we cook the whole issue?" I asked, and a nodding chorus signified assent. We lit the "Tommy" cooker, and made a good job of the cooking, and ate a great bellyfull and smoked a Woodbine at the end.
Suddenly a gun barked and a heavy explosion shook the trenches. The frantic rats squeaked and scuttled past us: men shuddered, and clattered their arms and sprang to attention.
The barrage had started. I heaved a sigh and was almost glad the suspense was over. The barrage was pitched about 40 yards short of our line of trench. Evidently it would creep to us after first smashing the wire.
I placed five men on the fire-step and fixed one man with a Lewis gun and two men to fill containers for it. We waited with livid faces. The barrage crept nearer. Now it was 30 yards, now 20 yards. We were in a hell of din and slaughter.
The trench was crumbling slowly to pieces. One of my men suddenly sank to his knees. A piece of a shell had torn at his middle and he sat down quietly to die a slow death. I shook with stark fear, but I held to my rifle and kept my place on the crumbling fire-step.
The barrage lifted again and moved nearer. The man with the wound in his side moaned at intervals, and fixed his field bandage and held his hands to it as if to hold the very life in him. His groans, coming during the briefest lulls in the shelling, were unnerving us all.
We crouched at the bottom of the trench, abject and trembling. I passed the rum bottle round and took a long swig myself. Rum numbs you at times like these. It gives you Dutch courage and a lurching contempt for danger. You die more or less decently; neither whining nor squealing - which is as it should be.
A moment later the machine gun to the right of us went up in the air and its team of men went up with it: a direct hit. The shells were dropping practically on the very brink of the trench. Now the worst had come. We were face down in the slime, with boot and finger and knee clutching and scraping for the veriest inch of cover; hiding our eyes, as we did once from childish terrors; now whimpering, now cursing, with bowels turned to water and every faculty at agonized tension.
...Who shall say where Providence came in? Death grinned at us and yet not a shell hit full on our dozen yards of entrenchment. Still leaping forward, the barrage blundered over us and beyond us. It left us stunned and deaf and prostrate. The dying man mercifully breathed his last in the midst of it. Still we cowered in the mud and the slime.
At nine o'clock in the morning the barrage started. It ceased as suddenly as it had begun, at exactly 11.30 a.m. It might have been a year of time. The deadly stillness came on again but I ran among the others kicking right and left in a frenzy because I knew the attack was coming. The man would follow the machine.
Looking over the top I saw the long grey lines sweeping along four hundred yards away. They were marching slowly, shoulder to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations.
We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste. It should have been horrid slaughter at the distance, for the Germans seemed to huddle together like sheep as they lurched over No Man's Land.
But there were thousands of them and our aim was hurried and bad. We fired in abandonment rather than by design. Still the grey hordes advanced. A hoarse voice shouted at the back of us. It was Sergeant Winnford: God knows how he got through to us; and he yelled, "Retreat back to support line: you, corporal, see them all out."
He made for a gap in the trench. The survivors followed him. As he reached the open a stray shot, or splinter, splattered his brains out and he fell without a sound. Stupefied, the others crept through and got clear, and raced across the open land with the enemy in full cry behind. Barker was the last to crawl out. I howled at him to hurry but he was tall and lanky and dead beat. I raced at his side.
"Slip off your pack," I shouted, as I got out of my own trappings. He did so, but he was ashen and panting. I felt a smart above my elbow and found there was blood trickling from the tips of my fingers. "Barker, Barker!" I screamed. "Hurry up, chum, for God's sake!" I might have saved my breath.
As I turned my head to him, and as he made a supreme effort to hasten, I saw the bullet hit the back of his tin helmet and spurt out at the front. He curled over in a heap. He was past aid.
I ran a dozen steps further. Something hit my other elbow, searing hot and smashing through, and I spun round like a top and lay once more in the slime. I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of grey uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?
Presently I came fully to myself and found that my arm was still there but was bleeding profusely. Laboriously, I got my field dressing somewhere near where the blood was flowing, and I got to my knees, then to my feet in a half-blind endeavour to get somewhere, to someone... I staggered to meet the second wave of the advancing Germans.
Would they shoot me again as they passed me? An officer, with revolver in hand, waved me through the ranks. They parted to make a road for me. At every other step I fell with weakness and the spikes of the ground wire stabbed into my hands, my limbs, my very face, as I fell. I remember weeping like a child because I could not help falling and suffering this torture.
I cannot say how far I walked. I passed a first-aid post in an old trench, but they waved me off despairingly. They had too many to see to. Stretcher bearers passed me, carrying a pole, with a blanket slung to it, and inside an agonized bundle of broken humanity-blood trickling and dripping from the pendulous blanket.
Eventually I simply fell into another portion of trench and there a sad-eyed, black-bearded man whispered "Armes kind" - meaning little child - and stripped off my tunic, leather jerkin, and cardigan, and took his own field dressing and patched up the mess of my arm. A prisoner indeed; receiving succour from a man whose countrymen I had blazed at in hate but a while ago, and from whom I had suffered this shot in my elbow.
Truly the quality of mercy is not strained. I had none of his tongue, nor he of mine, but he gave me a drink of warm coffee from a flask, and his hands were as tender as a woman's as he bandaged me.
If ever I had felt hate for the German I was cured of it now. I had had my job to do and he his. The responsibility was not ours and our fate was none of our choosing. I to-day; perhaps he to-morrow. But I could not stay here.
The English barrage had now started; tearing and rip-snorting along all the roads and communications. It was intended to hold up the reinforcements for the German attack. For me there was the sickening necessity of walking through the menace of our own barrage; to risk death from our own shells; to get to some place of refuge.
Three others joined me. They also had staggered from the shambles of No Man's Land, and we bled from various wounds all along that pitiless road to the rear.
How we escaped the shelling I know not. German transport wagons lumbered past us at intervals, the drivers whipping the horses to a mad gallop. Here and there dead or dying horses lay among the splintered ruins of shafts and wheels.
The very road was greasy with blood. Yet even as the horses fell the poor brutes were dragged to the side of the road and the matter-of-fact Germans whipped out knives and cut long strips of flesh from the steaming flanks. Heaps of intestines lay in the ditches.
At last a German unter-offizier dashed out from behind a ruined house and took charge of our little band. He took us a further short walk till we came to a large church, with the Red Cross flag flying from the tower. We were placed in a queue of men all waiting for attention to wounds. Gradually we got inside the church. May I never again see such a sight.
All along the nave improvised stretchers lay side by side and reached to the step leading to choir and chancel. Up there a dozen surgeons in ghastly stained white overalls performed operation after operation. Amputation after amputation. The smell of chloroform and ether pervaded everything. The horrible rasping sound of the silver saws grated on the ear.
Attendants carried limbs away in tall baskets. Men died before aid could get to them. Each had inexorably to wait his turn and the surgeons, with white and drawn faces, sweated and toiled silently: no time for consultations. I was attended to in my turn, and left that charnel house for the near-by prisoners' cage, where I was questioned and had my papers examined and my letters from home confiscated.
It was now nightfall. I was in a small town - La Bassee, maybe, though I had no means of knowing. Twenty-four hours previously I had "stood to" on the fire-step and awaited the coming of the attack. Now it was all over. There is enduring stuff in youth, and I was young and craved for life with every fibre of my being. I was not done for yet.
So I staggered among the ranks of a draft of prisoners to be entrained for the rear hospitals. We marched in columns of four to the station, and we held one another up and marched as if in a dream. They placed us in open trucks; Black Watch, South Wales Borderers, and others, and we clanked through a pitch-black night of hail, rain, and storm, through Lille and on to Tournai.
I was half delirious by then: the numbness had given place to agony, and with all of us the bitter night did its worst to finish off the work that even the shells had failed to do.
So we ended up away in high Germany. and the Army Lists posted me as "missing."
Lance-Corporal Thomas A. Owen. Attested November 1916; called up February 1917. Service in France and Belgium, chiefly on sections of the Ypres Salient, 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers, 1st Division. Wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert, April 18th, 1918. Thence to Schleswig. In hospital for 6 months, then discharged for labour at Munster Prisoner of War Camp, till Armistice. Repatriated December 2nd, 1918.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Noyon - Twenty-Third of March, 1918
The most unhappy hours which I can remember during my service in France and Belgium were spent in and near Noyon, on the third day and night of the great German attack on the V Army.I shall not describe the first two days of our retreat. They are very blurred in my mind now, but I still dream of what happened to two of our field ambulances, to one of which I was attached, which had been withdrawn from active work after these first two days and nights.
Blistered heels seem a small thing to grouse about, but they are enough to cause acute misery, and I had unfortunately contracted, as the Americans say, "a good case of them."
Owing to the fact that at the beginning of our hasty retreat I had been wearing an old-fashioned pair of field-boots, ideal for riding, but the worst of walking footwear, my ankles above the heels were unbearably painful, and when our ambulance was directed to proceed to Noyon and await orders there, I got permission from my colonel to precede them in a motor ambulance which was going on with baggage.
Arriving at Noyon, I soon heard that the German Army was advancing rapidly from La Fere, and that Noyon shortly would be evacuated. I managed to find the French barracks, where I was to await the arrival of my unit, and found myself in a large open space, which was guarded by a long castellated gateway, just inside of which there was a small macadamised drill-ground sloping up to a pretty grassy field with small trees at the side.
For about 50 yards up from the gate and on the right were some small tarred-felt huts, and down near the gate a small lane turned sharply to the right, leading to some buildings.
It was a perfect afternoon, the sun was as warm as on a summer day, and, having had practically no sleep for more than two days and nights, I sat down to rest just inside the gate on a bank at the side of the lane. Though I began to read a book, I dropped sound asleep with my head between my knees, and the next thing I knew was our Padre waking me up with the words, "They're in".
If that unsympathetic soul had not disturbed my slumbers, I do not think that I should have ever awakened again, at least, not in this world! I must have been very sound asleep, for four motor ambulances had parked in the lane right in front of me without disturbing me at all.
"Oh! Right-o!" I yawned, and staggered to my feet. "I'll walk up and see them." Then I strolled up the barrack yard, casually looking up at a British aeroplane, which was flying very low and coming towards us.
I stopped about 50 yards from the gate to talk to a group of our men, noticed the colonel talking to two or three other officers in the centre of the macadamised space, and was admiring the pretty aeroplane - the first British 'plane we had seen for days - glittering in the sun, the red-white-and-blue rings clearly visible, when there came an indescribable explosion.
It was the most terrific, though not the loudest, perhaps, that I have ever heard, followed immediately by dull thuds and the sickening sight of men falling, groaning, spouting blood - whole limbs severed, horses frantically breaking loose.
But in the moment of frightful surprise I could only grasp the fact that two more explosions followed, luckily outside the gate, and believing that a Boche long-range gun had found us, I waited a few seconds flat on the ground for more - but no more came.
Beside me was one of the youngest men in the ambulances; the calf of one of his legs was torn right out, and the wound was spouting blood. I dragged him into the nearest hut and compressed his femoral artery, managing to stop the bleeding.
The hut seemed full of frightfully wounded men; I could do nothing but hang on to my poor little private's artery. What terrible faces they all had, pale as ashes! "Water," they groaned. "Oh, sir, can you do nothing for me?" It was frightful.
I saw two men die in front of my eyes, and no one came to help; my thumbs were nearly breaking, when to my horror, a badly wounded horse came galloping straight at the door of the hut, reared up, and appeared to want to come in!
It would have trampled us badly. I was half-turned from the door, and was just able to keep it shut by holding my foot against it, my right leg braced against the weight of the poor horse, which was frantically beating the door with its fore-feet!
All the time I hung on to that femoral artery! Just when I felt that I could keep my leg up no longer. the horse fell dead, and I was released from my uncomfortable position by the arrival of a sergeant, who first had to open the backs of two wagons to get enough dressings, as we were all "packed up," and then was able to give me some assistance with first aid to the wounded in our immediate vicinity.
All this must have taken place in a matter of a few minutes, for when I was able to get out of this ghastly hut (by the way, why did we all crowd into it?) things outside were still appallingly confused. I gathered from quick questioning that the aeroplane must have been one captured by the Germans, and that a bomb had been dropped, the hole which it had made being just inside the barrack gate.
The terrible nature of the damage to everything in the neighbourhood of the explosion was due to the impact of flying fragments of road-metal. The vagaries of explosives were illustrated in this case by the fact that our colonel was standing within a few yards of the spot where the bomb went off, and though a French interpreter just beside him was stone dead, he was not touched or affected in any way by the concussion.
Piteous sight after sight met my eyes as I got more into the centre of the holocaust; more than fifty non-combatants were dead, dying, or wounded. One face haunts me to this day: a fine young American medical officer lay in the hut at the foot of the row, his expression the most horrible and soul-searing I ever saw.
He was half-sitting up, waiting for his turn for attention, both legs bending, not at the natural place at the knees, but half-way up the thighs, and he was praying for morphia to ease his agony.
All the wounded seemed to suffer more than any I had seen before, owing probably to the awful bruising and smashing power of these lumps of road-metal. Just where I had been sleeping a few minutes before, the greatest damage was apparent.
The two foremost ambulances were completely wrecked, two men had been hideously mangled on the front seat of one of them, and along the bank one could see the ground furrowed by the flying stones, many pieces of which were almost as big as one's clenched fist.
I found the strain of helplessly watching so much suffering while waiting for dressings and drugs to be unpacked so insupportable that I asked the colonel if I could go down to a casualty clearing station for liquid morphia and perhaps some help.
My memory here is somewhat blurred, but somehow I got hold of a car and managed to find the clearing station or stationary hospital - I cannot remember which it was - with great difficulty, as the place seemed deserted.
I found a nursing sister - her face of sorrow is another painful memory. I blurted out to her, "We've had an awful catastrophe with a bomb - thirty or forty men crying for morphia. Can you give me some?" Her sad face hardly changed its expression. Then she made me understand why. "Come this way," she said, and led me to the largest marquee. I stepped inside and recoiled, aghast... Row upon row upon row of silent forms on stretchers - nothing else.
"There are several hundred stretcher cases here who still have their first field dressings on." The sister sighed - "And we are leaving very soon!" She had reached the limit of unavailing regret, and I felt quite ashamed of mentioning such a trifling matter as thirty or forty wounded!
When I returned to the blood-stained barrack yard, order of a kind had been restored, but another row of forms, alas, still for ever, lay side by side in the evening sunshine.
The less seriously wounded were being got away somewhere in our available transport, baggage was being cleared from wagons to make room for them, and the obviously dying were in the biggest hut. We survivors could barely raise our voices to speak. I was detailed to take a certain number of men to dig a grave near the abandoned hospital.
A beautiful chestnut mare stood patiently tethered to a tree, bleeding slowly to death from a small wound in the belly, through which a flying fragment had passed; the blood dripped steadily on, and one could not think of the poor animal's final and tedious death; as I had at one time been a combatant officer I was beseeched to put an end to its misery with a rifle which was produced from somewhere. All that I can say about this is that I did it... but it is another haunting memory.
Then followed the burial of twenty-nine officers and men. The grave took several hours to dig. The service and filling in of the grave took a couple of hours more, and then, in darkness, began the crowning agony of that awful day.
Twelve miles to march with exhausted men to a destination which never seemed to come nearer; every halt a torture - thinking of starting again; whipping in stragglers whom one pitied from the bottom of one's heart, while cursing them for their bad discipline; trying to be cheerful, when we were all in the darkest depths.
What a night! It ended by our arrival at a place called Lassigny, which had once been a village, and where the main body of our ambulance had crept into a muddy field and erected tents. I at last could lie on my face on the ground and moan to myself, "My heels!... Oh! my heels!" until someone - perhaps my servant, perhaps my friend Captain Barton - came to help me off with my boots...
Dr. F. O. Taylor served in France in the R.F.A. and the R.A.M.C.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Memoir of teen girl who joined the WAAC
The Story of a W.A.A.C.
This is a girl's contribution. It has few thrills.
First, as to why I went: At home, my father was too old to go. Also, he had the farm. My sister and I have no brother. Many relatives lived near us. All had men-folk who could go to fight-and did. Uncles, cousins, and cousin's sweethearts were all in the trenches or in training for the trenches.Three or four times a week an aunt or a cousin would bring in her letter from the Front, and read it proudly. They were anxious of course. One cousin was killed. One uncle was wounded. But they were proud, above all. They said that Father and Mother were lucky, to have no one about whom they need be anxious. Yet even my young sister could see that they pitied us, too.
I do not know what Mother felt. I quickly discovered that Father did not count himself lucky. Their pity hurt his pride. With him, it was not only pride. The farm had been the family's for two hundred years. The country meant more to Father than flags waved and glib patriotic cant uttered. The old sorrow that he had no sons had become, I guessed, a new bitterness.
To be brief, there you have the reason why I joined the W.A.A.C.'s. I joined first and told my home-folks afterwards. (I had to call myself twenty-one. They would allow no girl under twenty-one to go to France. I meant to go to France. But I was not nineteen.) Mother was upset. Father said little. Yet I knew that he was glad.
I was sent to camp near Oswestry. My humdrum training days are of no interest to Everyman. Here are two impressions which remain. How good it was to wear (unofficial) riding breeches! How queer in the small villages of the Glynceiriog Valley to feel myself the foreigner that I was! I had not left Britain: yet I was a stranger in a strange land, with strange speech in my ears.
We went to France, via Folkestone. Our billet was a big hotel by the sea. I liked its luxury. It had not occurred to me before that riches have their good side. I seemed to grow taller in those lofty rooms. The many bright lights and the soft, thick carpets made me feel quietly content. I think that I must have had the feeling which our cat has when it purrs on the rug before the fire at home.
Our draft was posted. The end of Folkestone was excitement and inoculation and leave. That last English leave of mine was rather wonderful. Mother cried. Daddy took me down to the pig-sties and talked. He told me that he was proud of me. He knew, he said, that I should be good. He wanted me to be kind as well as good. The Tommies were heroes, but they were men, too. I had only to respect myself, and they would respect me, also.
I did not understand all this at the time. I did later. Daddy scratched Dolly the sow's back while he talked. The old sow grunted. Months afterwards, those grunts came back to me. A Tommy who wasn't a hero, and not much of a man, tried to make love to me.
He was the exception to Daddy's rule: I had respected myself, and this man wanted not to respect me. I got away from him, and ran. He ran after me. I could run better than he. Soon, he was grunting much like the old sow. No other Tommy behaved like this one. They did as Daddy said they would do.
The Channel brought my first real war thrill. Like the other girls, I was, I think, both sad and exalted at the thought of England behind, and of France in front. The zigzag course we kept was because of German submarines: with these our destroyer escorts were there to deal.
Foolishly, I wished that the submarines might be there with which to be dealt. I had my wish. A torpedo missed us by a few feet. In a flash, I discovered that I did not want to die. Especially, I did not want to die in that horrible green water that was under and on every side of us.
The excitement died away. Our course grew less erratic. Our escorts became sedate once more. I had never heard bells more cheerful than those which rang below-deck as we entered harbour at last!
I had got to France, but I had not got to the War. I was never very near the line. The devilish guns rumbled day and night. By day, the click-clacking of my typewriter keys drowned the rumbling of the guns. In that, I see now, lay a parable. I saw only unheroic monotony, then.
By night, the rumbling grew louder and seemed nearer. Wakeful, I would make impossible plans to get hold of a Tommy's uniform, in it to break camp and to make my way to the line. There I was to be a second Lady of the Lamp, or something equally ridiculous. It was all very schoolgirlish and absurd, I have no doubt. But, then, I was absurd, and I had been a schoolgirl not so very long before.
I did not get to the War. But twice the War got to me. On each occasion it was at Etaples in 1918. Let me tell of one of the two.
The bridge at Etaples meant much to the Allies: in consequence, the enemy made incessant attacks upon it from the air. Near it, in the sunlight of a spring day, I saw half a company of men blown to pieces by bombs. Some of the latter fell into the adjoining cemetery.
Coffins and dead men were blown from their graves. Into those graves limbs of living men and fragments of shattered dead men were flung. Our N.C.O. shouted: "Quick, girls, quick! The dugouts." In the shelter and comparative safety of one of them, found myself laughing hysterically, and crying: "The quick and the dead; the quick and the dead."
I remember that I was very sick. I said my prayers; I thought of Mother. I wished that I were home.
A few days later I had a letter from our curate. In it he talked about war as noble discipline. He said it purged men of selfishness, and by its pity and terror brought men nearer to God. I felt sick for a second time. He put with his letter a printed Prayer for Victory, and told me to say it every night.
I remembered that my prayer in the dug-out had been just this, said over and over again: "O God, stop this war; stop it, and let me go home." At home the curate had been rather a hero of mine. He wasn't my hero any more.
Soon after this my chum and I thought that we would go to the cinema. In the town we came upon a queue of Tommies. One of them was shouting out: "This way for the one-an'-thruppennies." We tacked ourselves to the end of the queue. The Tommies tittered.
For some reason we seemed to amuse them very much. Then one rather nice boy came to us, and said: "Missies, this performance is for men only". He blushed as he said it. We did not understand, but we went away.
Afterwards, when we did understand, I wondered what the curate would have said about that queue.
In the "office" I had, as part of my work, to translate into English letters written in French. (It was my knowledge of colloquial French, rather than my white lies as to my age, which had got me to France.) A number of these were from the parents of French girls who were with child.
At first, this seemed very terrible to me. It shocked me most that my superiors should be shocked so little. "Another Mamzelle like it," one would say. "Damned little fool!" a second would answer. That was all. They looked upon it as natural and normal, a necessary nuisance of war. They called it a "beastly bother" when I was about. They used stronger terms when they thought I was out of hearing. Never once did I hear an expression of pity or sorrow or indignation.
Sometimes, one of these girls would come to the office, alone or with her parents. One was Helene. She came alone, at midday, when I was in sole charge. She was frantic. She said that her father would kill her: she said that she would kill herself.
She implored me to help her find the man. She would kill him when she had found him, if he would not marry her. Suddenly her rage left her. She sobbed like a child. She refused to tell me anything but her Christian name, and went away. For weeks the sound of her sobbing haunted me. I never knew what became of her.
There was, too, the old grandmother of another girl. Her back was bent, but not her spirit. She cursed me; she cursed the Colonel; she cursed the British Army; she cursed England and all the English. She went away, cursing. I sat shivering and ashamed.
In the beginning I condemned these girls and their men in my heart. Later, I learned not to judge. I myself became very friendly with a young sergeant named John. He had been in France for over three years and had been several times wounded.
Gas and shrapnel had left him fit only for a job at the Base. When the big German advance began in March, 1918, however, he was put on draft for the trenches. He had to report at ten o'clock. At seven o'clock he asked me to go for a walk with him, as I had done several times before.
We went into the woods. The stars were clear. The night was very beautiful. There were rustlings at our feet, and twitterings over our heads. The guns rumbled in the north, and the ground shook slightly beneath us as he talked of his Surrey home and the woods near it, which he loved.
He said that he was afraid - more afraid than he had ever been in his life. He was sure that this time he was going to "collect some-thing worse than a packet". He wanted to know what I believed about death. I forget what I told him. He made me promise to write to his mother if anything happened to him. When I promised he said that I was a "dear kid". I was very near to crying.
He asked me if he could kiss me. I said, "Yes". He kissed me many times, and held me very tight. He held me so tight that he hurt me and frightened me. His whole body was shaking. I felt for him as I had never felt for any man before. I know now that it wasn't love. It was just the need to comfort him a little.
I am an emotional girl. I might have forgotten what Daddy had told me by the pigsties, if John had not been so decent. Before he need have done, he took me back into the town, saying: "This won't do. You shouldn't get so sorry for a chap. It's risky for you. You're only a kid."
It was not till later that I realized how decent John had been. Yet Daddy, I know, would have called him "common", and "not my sort". He was killed before March was out.
It was in April that my own great grief came to me. A telegram was sent, telling me that my Mother was very ill. They gave me leave, and I went home. When I got there, Mother had been dead six hours. Influenza had killed her in three days, as it had killed many thousands more.
The sun shone when they buried her. The cherry trees were white. "It is God's will; His will be done; for He is good," the Vicar said. I thought of the men blown into pieces at Etaples, and of the corpses blown from their graves. I thought of John, dead near Arras, and of Mother dead in our quiet churchyard. I thought of Daddy, who had cried because Mother was dead, and of Helene, who had cried because her unborn child was alive. It set me wondering whether the Vicar knew any more of God than the Curate did of war.
My leave ended, and I went back to France. One of the first letters I received was from a boy friend of mine. He was a Quaker, and he had written his letter from prison. He had been put in prison because he had shown in times of war that he had meant what he had said in times of peace.
Till then I had abominated his opinions. At least, I thought I had. Yet his letter was a queerly happy letter. He said that, thinking of France and the Tommies there, he had been miserable until they had put him in prison. He said that he wasn't miserable any more. He was sure that he was doing his bit for England.
I read that letter, written on blue prison paper, many times. I had begun to doubt whether there was any God, or, if there was a God, whether He was good. In some way and for some reason that letter made me doubt my doubts. I wondered what Sergeant John would have thought of it.
The spring and the summer went on. The Germans began to go back. The Allies began to go forward and to take prisoners. Part of my work had to do with prisoners quartered in a camp near to our own. Those Germans were friendly men.
They were clever with their hands, and would give me little carvings which they had made. One of them had a look of Father about him. He talked a little like Father, too. He said that he was sure that I was as good as I was kind. (A few packets of cigarettes quickly made one a paragon of kindness in the eyes of prisoners of war.) I found it strange that he should seem so genuinely concerned for me.
These German prisoners would sing in the evenings. They would often sing hymns. Many of these hymns were the old, familiar hymns which, or the tunes of which, I had sung in church at home. They had rich voices. They put much feeling into their singing.
It must have been at about this time that I found I could say my prayers again. Or, rather, not my prayers, but this one prayer: "O God, stop this war; stop it and set all us poor prisoners free". That seemed to cover the Tommies and me, the German prisoners and my friend in prison in England.
The day of Armistice came, and the War stopped. I remember that I drank four glasses of champagne, and afterwards had a very bad headache. Later I felt ashamed. Demobbed, I went home. There they wanted to treat me as a sort of heroine. Their talk hurt me, even Daddy's.
They praised me for all the wrong things. When I tried to tell them what the War had taught me, they were hurt in their turn. When I went to visit my friend, not yet released from prison, they were angry. When he and I - but that is another story.
The War Office sent me two medals after many months.
Mrs. A. B. Baker joined the W.A.A.C. in mid-1917; trained at Kimmel Park, Oswestry, etc.; went to France late 1917, Etaples, Rouen, Dieppe; demobilized 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--A gunner's adventure in the Somme
A Gunner's Adventure
One of the most exciting experiences which befell me during the War happened on the Somme front on June 26th, 1916, four days before the great Allied offensive. Our battery, of which I was a signaller, was in action at Sailly-au-Bois, and was to support the attack on Gommecourt Wood on July 1st.It was my turn to be on duty at the "O.P.," so off I started on my journey, accompanied by two other comrades, one acting as a runner. We fully realized that a hot time was in store for us, his duty being to carry messages back to Headquarters, which were situated in Hebuterne village, should occasion arise in any emergency, such as telephonic communication breaking down or other unforeseen circumstances arising. My other comrade, Signaller Thompson, was to assist with the work that we were to do at the "O.P."
Leaving the battery at half-past seven, the three of us made our way over the plain, passing Hebuterne Wood and along the road, and through a winding of trenches known as "Wood Street," to a place called "The Grotto" and some more trenches known as "The Keep," well-known spots in this sector, where more often than not, one had to keep very alert of machine-gun fire, owing to the fine overlooking position the Hun had at his command.
The morning was fine and bright with the sun just breaking through. We leisurely made our way along the trench leading to our observation post, which was situated at a junction of the support and front-line trenches, arriving there about nine o'clock.
After testing our telephone lines and receiving the "O.K." from the stations in communication with us, we awaited the arrival of the major and Lieutenant Hasper, who took a very brave and active part, saving my life, of which I will give you further details later.
After we had been on the look out for some hours our infantry put over a smoke screen. Jerry had been on the alert for several weeks, knowing too well that we had been preparing for a big offensive. In fact more than once he had put notice boards on the top of his trenches, intimating that he was already aware of our intentions and suggesting a number of likely dates for the offensive to take place. Being in such readiness, he at once realized what we were at. His artillery opened fire on our front-line trenches, many shells getting direct hits on our "O.P ." We at once made for our dug-out.
We had spent many days and long nights in making the place as secure as our means would allow. The stairs led down to a depth of 16 feet, the walls being held by corrugated iron. At the bottom there was a room 12 feet square. At the left-hand corner an airshaft had been cut, leading to the top of our trench, some 12 feet from the parapet. Unfortunately, this emergency exit had not been quite completed, having no support should the walls of earth cave in, which, as you will learn, was the cause of our major and my two comrades losing their lives.
By the time we had reached the bottom of the dug-out the trench outside had been destroyed by the continuous shelling, causing the entrance to our dug-out to collapse, thus cutting off our means of escape to the trench outside.
After some few moments, which seemed like hours, our major decided that Lieutenant Hasper should make an attempt to be lifted up the airshaft. We now began at once, to pull out the timbers that had been blown into the dug-out to put under the feet of our comrade, in assisting him to make his escape, pushing the pieces of wood under each other, the higher he got up the shaft. After some considerable time Lieutenant Hasper reached the top. The bombardment was now at its height, but, thank the good Lord! he managed to get away without getting hit, to bring back a rescue party of half a dozen officers and men.
The time which elapsed between Lieutenant Hasper's escape and his return with the rescue party seemed endless. At last we heard shouts, and the next instant Lieutenant Hasper was being let down the airshaft. Unable to obtain a rope, our rescue party formed themselves into a human chain.
We now wondered who would be next to be got out. The major decided that he would make an attempt, but after many despairing efforts he was not able to get more than a few feet from the bottom: his figure was more robust than Lieutenant Hasper's, and our task of lifting him was much more difficult. While all this had been going on I had been praying very quietly, asking the Almighty to save me. I shall never forget those moments of anxiety.
The major then said, "Well, Bradbury, you have a go." This was the last I heard or saw of him.
I began to claw my way up towards daylight. The German guns were now belching forth with more intensity than ever, and the work of the rescue party was becoming more difficult every moment. All this time I was working my way inch by inch, grappling the clay walls of the airshaft, and digging my fingers in as far as I could. I was now becoming very exhausted, and only the encouragement which I received from those up above made me go on.
Every moment, I kept on repeating the words, "I cannot do it," only to hear Lieutenant Hasper's voice calling "...For God's sake, man, stick it!"
I now had worked myself half-way up, and the distance between myself and my rescuers still seemed a very long way. It was getting late in the evening and darkness was creeping upon us, the bursting of the enemy shells on top of the dug-out making a very vivid scene.
I could now see the outstretched fingers of another officer, Lieutenant Hibbins, who formed one of the rescue party and, try as I could, with all my strength, I was still unable to reach them. The exertion which I was putting into my efforts made the perspiration run down me, I felt that the veins in my hands were at bursting point.
At last I felt the tips of his fingers, and, after a couple of almost superhuman efforts on my part, he grabbed my wrists. The feeling that ran through me at this moment I cannot describe, realizing that I was now safe. At last I was landed safely at the top, each rescuer putting every ounce of energy behind his pull.
Shells were falling heavily as I lay in a semi-conscious and half-dazed condition on the ground.
Our corporal, Frierley, and some more men were now endeavouring to dig as hard as they could to widen the shaft to rescue Major Heard. After working many hours they had to give up, and the major and my other two comrades had to be abandoned in the collapsed dug-out.
Our infantry in the front-line trenches, which were only a few yards away, were depleted in number, the Boche attacking very heavily as I lay on the ground.
It was now eight o'clock in the evening and I made my way back along the shell-battered trenches, being assisted by Corporal Frierley, who was awarded the Military Medal in this action.
I was met by our captain, who afterwards took command of the battery. He congratulated me upon my escape, Eventually we arrived back at the gun-pits.
Lieutenant Hasper was awarded the Military Cross. I shall never forget him. This incident is only one of the many great deeds of heroism enacted during the Great War.
Gunner N. H, Bradbury enlisted in the Territorial service on May 6th, 1909, and was mobilized on August 4th, 1914, his unit then being the 3rd London Brigade, R.F.A., which stayed in England until October 4th, 1915, when it embarked for France, the first action being at Sailly-au-Bois, November 1915, January 27th, 1916, the Kaiser's birthday anniversary, he was in the front line at Loos, going from there to the Somme, where he took part in the Somme offensive of July 1st, 1916.
After leaving there the brigade was in the Battle of the Somme. Afterwards took part in the capture of Vimy Ridge, April 10th, 1917, when, after doing good work there, the brigade was designated the 282nd Brigade, R.F.A., being Army field artillery, Other: engagements were: Third Battle of Ypres, July 31St, 1917; Pilkem Ridge; St. Julien, August 3rd, 1917; Poelcappelle, August 19th, 1917; Passchendaele Ridge, November 6th, 1917; V Army retreat, March 21st, 1918. On the date of the Armistice at Cambrai.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--life in the trenches
Varieties of Trench Life
August 4th, 1914, in a little country bank: "Broad's gone with the Terriers: you'll have to take charge." It was 1915 before wire-pulling brought a strange, lame man to the office. "I've come to let you get away," he said."To let me go?"
It was as if a spring that had been wound up and up all these months was suddenly released. That made the bump against a brick wall all the more dumbfounding. To be rejected by the doctor, turned down as physically unfit after all manner of sports and specializing in gymnasium work - it was staggering. But there was no doubt: "danger of rupture: operation and a month's rest."
The day did come at last to be sworn in. It wasn't quite so thrilling as I'd expected because the last words before the Bible was passed round were words of advice from the captain:
"I should advise some of you - I mention it now because after you have sworn I shall have to order, not advise - to get your hair cut rather more a la military; at present some of you have it decidedly not a la military."
Still, we were soldiers, even if we weren't soldierly enough in forming fours to please the corporal. And we took his word that it wasn't any use thinking we were soldiers until we could jump to it better. No one argued that we shouldn't be fighting the Germans from the formation of "At the halt facing left, form close column of ---platoons!"
It wasn't until months later, after a tenth successive two hour wait on the same patch of snowy bog-holes for an attack that never came, that the frozen silence of dismissal was broken by Johnson's acid comment - he was a schoolmaster from the north, so his critical faculty was not quite tame:
"I may be obtuse, but I really can not see what earthly good anyone has got out of this night's battalion training" - and oh! the world of scorn in that word "training." "Learning to follow each other about in the dark? I'm afraid, Dickie, if you can think of that, you've got the making of a better i soldier in you than I have."
But there was still enthusiasm, even though only of the sticking-it order: we wouldn't let it be damped quite out: keenness enough to bring stripes and their load of care, stripes that evoked cynical ribaldry from pals, hostility from the fed-up and the jealous, and that lynx-like antagonistic vigilance that noncom. and private mutually felt.
And then a commission and a new world to conquer. One would be able to do so much more.
Could one, though? When we asked about the men: "Are they old soldiers? Do they need much training?" and got the answer: "Training? They've been getting all the training they want this last year and more," it became apparent that fed-upness was not confined to the ranks.
It wasn't to be wondered at, really: a few Zep scares, a few entrainment orders that turned out to be only practice, did make us wonder whether the duration of the War was to be spent in English billets. Then, Easter 1916, at 2 a.m. came another entrainment order.
Half the battalion didn't believe it: many a one had no razor in his kit when the next chance to shave came. For the trains that we really did entrain into sped off not south-westward for the Plain or France, but away and away up the "North Western," and it wasn't until they disgorged us on Liverpool Docks that rumours could be swopped about "Sinn Fein gentry - broken bottles and shillelaghs."
It was a baptism of fire all right, with flintlocks, shotguns, and elephant rifles, as well as more orthodox weapons. And 100 casualties in two days' street fighting was a horrible loss to one battalion: the more so since my one friend from the ranks, commissioned same day, was shot through the head leading a rush on a fortified comer house; first day on active service, and it was my job to write and tell his mother, who thought him still safe in England.
A hateful task: so was another duty of one misty dawn soon after, when four young officers had to command four firing parties, and four rebel leaders stood in turn blindfold against a wall.
After that, more training - a repetition of the training so wearisome in England, till the Irish winter made even trench-digging impossible; but we could always have "Lecture by Company Officers on March Discipline."
We did get to France at last, though; and into the trenches, too. The memory of that is mainly-mud. There was the ominous donning of " um-boots, thigh"; the shell holes and slithery duckboards (dear old Johnson and his "following each other about in the dark"); the front line, where, by constant baling, liquid slime could just be kept from lipping over the dug-out door-sills.
And there in that nightmare of mud and wire, by the deathly light of occasional star-shells from over the way, we learned the landmarks to guide us : "Left by the coil of wire, right by French legs."
"French legs?" "Yes, we took over from the French; the legs of one they buried in the side of the trench stick out a bit, you can't miss it." It was rather startling, but didn't seem to merit a second thought.
Sniping, shelling, and the Sisyphean labour of trench maintenance were endured until relief, and even that was nightmare, too.
Climbing out of the river of sludge called "C.T." we trudged along the top, caring for nothing but those wicked ankle-high strands of wire across the track - oh! the concentrated loathing in that warning growl of "Woy-er" from each man to his follower. And so we bundled on until the guide - poor lad, he'd only been up once before - confessed he'd lost his way, for the duckboard track we'd struck led up to the line again, to the sector on our right.
Despair? There was pale grey dawn behind us by the time compass bearings, verified by a periodic "ploomp ah" from one of our own kindly howitzers, led to the double line of shattered tree stumps along the great straight Amiens road; and we held off utter exhaustion until dug-outs, black, boiling tea, and sleeping like logs, ended the first turn in the line.
Then suddenly, those trenches were abandoned: on we pushed for the Hindenburg Line. But though company after company was flung on a mass of wire with machine guns sweeping its face, the Hindenburg Line was proof against little local attacks like these: mortifying thought after hell let loose with rifle and machine gun, artillery and trench mortar, that the pandemonium whose only visible result was those corpses on the wire - men we had never known till a year ago and since then had known as brothers - was nothing but a demonstration to pin the enemy down, unworthy even of mention in the report of activity on the Western Front.
Still, we saw a real big push later on. How many trucks from those mazes of sidings at St. Pol and Hazebrouck are needed to move a battalion? How many trains to move a division? And how many divisions poured into that never-ending assault - a division a day, we heard - beyond the Menin Gate, a one-way road for thousands in the British Army?
Fancy going on leave from the Ypres Salient to England! It seemed unreal all the way; at Poperinghe rail-head, at Boulogne rest camp. Even when Grisnez at last faded into the sea and Folkestone rose nearer, one could hardly believe it - until the barrier at Victoria. It must have been in a different world.
Lifted out of the mud of the Salient to derelict seaside villas; taking up a new lot of men to a section of front made up of town, canal, and dyke-edged polder, with a foot of water rippling around the earth-works; fetid fluid in the dykes around the ruined town; inky-black, icy river swishing under flimsy duckboard bridges: no wonder that trench-foot sent more men down the line than wounds.
Add the ever-present shelling of the town that brought tottering brickwork crashing down on us; add the machine-gunning of the straight right-angled streets; add dysentery; add utter exhaustion from hurrying in sodden, heavy clothing around those slimy tenacious " boyaus," and realize that relief from the Nieuport sector, wherever it might mean we were going, seemed a blessed release from purgatory.
A ten-mile canal voyage and three days' march on good roads through inhabited country might have been a glorious rest cure, but for feet rendered soft and agonizing by standing and sleeping in sopping boots and socks.
Down among the tunnels and brick-stacks of La Bassee, trench mortars on both sides rained down their 12lb., 50 lb., 112 lb. of high explosive: and such lumps of death as that can't be thrown about without the casualty returns growing sadly. It was all in the day's work, but none the less it meant the loss of pals, when one after another went west through a direct hit, or a premature burst, or an unlucky shell clean into the ammunition store.
So all the spring of 1918, ever feebler reinforcements came, slim boys and weary crippled men; and ever rumours grew of the great push coming.
It was a certain satisfaction to the wiring parties of those nights - every available man - that this sector was one of the few points invulnerable to the German rush of March 21st: So that Collishan, the little cook's mate who had been a Manchester coster and showed a magic skill in coaxing barbed wire around those terrible screw-pickets, had accomplished something before the machine gun got him down south.
Down south again - oh, the pitiful irony of it - on that same old battlefield where the Somme advance had started nearly two years before; and after all that measureless slaughter men were to fight again over that same blood-soaked ground.
And the weary, wearing hopelessness of it joined with the fearful intensity of the shelling to make this such a culmination as even previous experience had never made us dream of.
Shelled continuously through the night; dashing out to tie up and replace the sentry hit by shrapnel; floundering with the dead weight of a wounded man along the collapsing makeshift trench, and then back again, lurking in a flimsy brick cellar that shook with every blast. And in the morning the rims of five great shell holes around the dome of our tiny shelter.
Blazing away with the dawn at massed attacks in full view. One gun blown up; dragging back the other to reserve positions, while every pair of men who could walk, or stagger, loaded up with boxes of ammunition, and tramped up the open road with that frightful barrage spouting up cascades of earth on right and left. What was in everybody's mind?
What was in the mind of old Private Jim Black, a road labourer by trade, when the man carrying with him got a splinter in the leg, and Black tied him up and then humped the 2-cwt. box on his own rheumaticky shoulder and trudged on?
So it went on for days, with "wounded" and "killed" appearing against name after name. It never crossed my mind to wonder whether I'd ever get hit - too busy to think of such a thing, and that is a literal fact.
That was why it was such a surprise. Up the long valley north of Gommecourt, where bits of line changed hands every few hours, I tramped choosing gun positions: passed a rough trench cutting across the track, and reconnoitred the shoulder of the hill. "Smack!" "Smack!" at intervals went the sound of bullets at medium range. But one had grown to disregard them: till it struck me, "They're sniping from across the valley: they've pushed us off that nearest ridge; and I'm in No Man's Land."
That moment he got me: a terrific "Bung-g-g" on the jaw, and down in the ditch by the track I spun, face and neck streaming blood. Field dressing was pulled out in a moment, but it was no place to stay: back to that trench I must creep, dragging flat along the ditch. Too slow, though; bleeding at that rate I'd never cover 200 yards: up on all fours and crawl. But then "Smack-k!" came the vicious spit again: was I to crawl and be potted at?
Up and run for it; and "Smack-k-k!" came again as I tottered forward, half the field dressing in its waterproof cover still clenched in each hand. One hundred and fifty yards to go: "Smack-k-k!" again before half-way, and a spurt of earth just behind. How long - how long, to get into that trench? And how long does it take to reload and fire? I know that perfectly well, and I see time for one more shot before I can reach it. Slacken speed, to make a final effort, and "Smack-k-k!" into the ditch a yard ahead.
"Ah! Safe!" and I tumble into that trench on top of a knot of mud-caked Fusiliers.
"My Gawd! Field dressin', sir?" and the two bits are ripped open and clapped on, and the word goes along for stretcher bearers.
Memories after that? A kindly efficient American M.O. bandaging cases by the dozen. Then another figure emerged out of the mist: the dearest old silver-haired padre, who didn't waste any silly words, but brought a luscious sponge and hot water, and tenderly bathed face and forehead clear of mud and blood.
Then they took my boots off: that meant rest for a while, anyway. And when the ambulance pulled in to a chateau marked "C.C.S.," I heard the voice of an English nurse; and at the sound there came a most wonderful feeling that now everything would be perfectly all right: there was no need to worry any more.
Hospital in Rouen, where at length the M.O. took down the card from my bed, and at that mystic sign the next man - oldest inhabitant of the ward, he had seen dozens pass through while his leg refused to mend, but still he enjoyed their good luck - turned to me and whispered, "Blighty, Dickie."
Captain A. A. Dickson, Inns of Court O.T.C., September to December 1915. Commissioned to Sherwood Foresters. Dublin Rebellion. France, January 1917: Somme, Ypres, Nieuport. Commanding trench mortar battery. Wounded, November 1917; again in April 1918, during German attack. Hospital until September 1918. Demobilized unfit, January 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir of surveillance in a kite balloon
In a Kite Balloon
I am not what is termed a literary man, so I shall have a little difficulty in clearly expressing myself, but I have had some experiences as a flight sergeant in the Royal Air Force which may prove interesting.I will, therefore, do my best with a poor stock of words to give an accurate account of my experience in the Great War in a kite balloon on the Vimy Ridge sector of the line.
I shall not give the name of the officer who was observing in the balloon with me, but I will give the first initial of his surname, so that if he reads this, he may recognize himself.
In the early part of May 1916, before the big Vimy Ridge battle, in the morning soon after sunrise the balloon ascended with Lieutenant H. and myself to about 5,000 feet. Everything was at peace except an anti-aircraft gun showing evident anger at an annoying mosquito that was buzzing over enemy country.
That bark was the only sound that made one realize that a tragic war was on. For people with jaded nerves who are perplexed with the ceaseless hurry, bustle, and noise of modern life, I recommend a few hours up aloft in a kite balloon as a tonic and respite from its cares and worries. There is a charming and attractive calm and quietness about the experience that is recuperative and restful.
Of course this is not recommended whilst there is a war on, because the clouds can harbour unseen, unknown terrors and instruments of destruction. For instance, the enemy developed an astonishing accuracy in shelling kite balloons with shrapnel. I have had some uncomfortable half-hours with this kind of attack. This morning in May one shell burst towards our balloon, only one, but it left us guessing as to when the next would be sent over, for the enemy rarely let us off with only one try, but this morning he did. He was kind to us that day.
Our object on this morning was to locate a very annoying gun that kept everybody in our sector of the front on tenterhooks by its back-area firing - a nasty irritating business.
We nicknamed the gun "Ginger," and its explosive crumps gave everyone the jumps. A hollow bang would faintly be heard in the distance, and, before you could count two, with a terrific whoop and crump, a high explosive shell would burst near.
I remember our sergeant-major getting terribly upset over this gun; we were at a part of the line, taken over from the French, called Bois de Ville, and our sleeping accommodation consisted of a lot of holes covered over with brushwood, mud and sandbags, and one went down three steps into it. One night "Ginger" was particularly active, and "Molly" M., our sergeant-major, could not sleep, but remained wandering about from one side of the small dug-out to the bottom step of the entrance, where he would fearfully look out.
He did that once too often, for, with a roar and a crump, a shell exploded just outside our dug-out, and "Molly," with just his head showing, caught a drift of lyddite smoke from that shell that made him look like a nigger minstrel. He fled. We heard no more of him until our motor-cyclist reported having seen him running for dear life, with blazing and staring eyes, and a foaming and muttering mouth.
Poor old "Molly"! It became particularly hard for him, after telling us all on parade at home, "Now come on, you lazy lot of buzzers, lep, rite, lep, rite, faster, faster. When you get the other side and have a nine-point-two on your backsides, you'll hop it quick enough."
Poor old "Molly"! If he had gone to bed with Sergeant Tom B. and me he would have been all right; it was pure funk after all, for he never got a scratch otherwise.
We were out to locate this gun, but for a long time Lieutenant H. and I did not trouble much about guns. We were too enraptured with the glorious sunrise. It was wonderful, marvellous - words fail me to express what I felt. I felt very near to what some people call the infinite, whatever they may mean, or, as some may say, near to God, but whatever it was I was thinking and feeling, I began to realize in some dim way that to be absorbed in a vision of unutterable beauty is a fine experience. I was thinking that it was good to have been born, just to experience that one thing. I thought of many other things in a rambling sort of way...
Bang! Like a big drum being struck. Swish-rip - a sighing whistle, a noise, or rather a shriek like the tearing of some gigantic piece of canvas. Christ! What's happened? Gee! The balloon has burst. It had collapsed about us, and we were coming down. I desperately struggled to push away the fabric of the balloon from the basket, and suddenly from underneath the mountain of fabric, I glimpsed the white face of Lieutenant H.
"We must jump," he said. I agreed with him, and immediately dived over head first, and nearly dived through my harness. It had no shoulder straps, only a waistband and loops for one's legs. Never shall I forget that sickening horrible sensation when, in my first rush through the air, I felt my leg loops at the knees, and my waistband round my buttocks. I managed, however, to grab hold of the thick rope which is toggled on from the waistband to the parachute. Meanwhile, everything else seemed to go wrong; the cords of the parachute somehow in the struggle got entangled round my neck, so that as the parachute began to open with a deadly pull on my body, I was literally being strangled in mid-air.
The sensation was horrible and unforgettable; my face seemed to swell to twice its size, and my eyeballs to become too big for their sockets. Then I was suddenly freed, and could breathe again, but my neck was badly lacerated and raw. My bad luck was not over, however, because I was suddenly pulled up with a sharp jerk that jarred every bone in my body.
I had fouled the cable which held the balloon to the winch, and my parachute had, in striking it, coiled itself round about three or four times. Suspended in mid-air! I remained in that helpless position for what seemed like hours, and I looked down, and saw Lieutenant H., his parachute getting smaller and smaller. Then I slowly began to unwind - round and round I went like a cork, and broke away with a rush, the silk of my parachute being torn almost across, and I began hurtling down at a great speed, with my damaged and useless parachute flap, flap, flapping above me.
I thought it was all up with me. I had seen a couple of parachute accidents, and I knew what to expect. I could do nothing but curse at the damned bad luck I was having. I have read that face after face of one's friends and scenes of one's past haunt one when in danger. It is perfectly true, because I actually experienced it.
Crash! I had shut my eyes, I thought I had struck the ground. No; in a slanting, rushing dive, I had struck poor old H.'s parachute, and the force of my fall had caused his parachute to collapse.
"Sorry," I shouted. One had to shout I remember, for the wind seemed to be blowing a gale, although actually it was a calm, sunny day. "Sorry, but I couldn't help it."
"It's all right, old man," he shouted, "but couldn't you find some other bloody patch to fall on? Millions of bloody acres about you, yet you must pick me to fall on." "It looks like finish," he continued. It did.
Suddenly his parachute began to bellow out with a flapping roar, tumbling me off like a feather, but I was too inextricably bound up with his cords to shoot away altogether; incidentally, I was hanging like grim death to something or other. What it was I don't know, but I imagine it was about half a dozen of his parachute cords. And so we landed, two on one parachute. At least, I landed first, because I seemed to slip down just before we landed, and he landed full weight on top of me.
I know nothing of what happened immediately after, but I heard subsequently that we had landed almost on the support trenches, and scores of Canadians had rushed out and gathered round us, and that the enemy thought it was a fine opportunity to drop a few shells around.
Flight-Sergeant W. S. Lewis served with the R.F.C. and R.A.F. from June 1915 to March 1919. A good deal of that time was spent in France on the Vimy Ridge sector. He entered the Civil Service in May I919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--A boy at Gallipoli
A Boy at Gallipoli
When the Territorials in 1914 were asked to volunteer for active service, I went with the others. I left England in September 1914, when I was seventeen years old. We embarked at Southampton in the S.S. Corsican, and reached Alexandria seventeen days later.In Alexandria and Cairo eight months went by and my experiences were varied. War seemed very distant, the Egyptians themselves appeared to be quite unmoved by our presence or the reason of our coming. I am afraid we didn't get their true opinions.
It seemed to me in those days that the main idea in the Army was to get you as fed-up as possible, so that you welcomed any change. They caught us in this mood when orders came to embark for Gallipoli; so lustily we sang all the way from Cairo to Alexandria, sitting in cattle trucks, regulating the beat of the song to the clip of the wheels.
At Alexandria, after hours of delay, we embarked on a captured German liner, the Derflinger. Iron plates above, iron plates below, and riveted iron plates each side, bordered our bedroom. Closed and covered portholes kept out light and air, the darkness being partially relieved by a few electric globes in cages.
In this half-light confusion attended the hanging of our hammocks as we tripped and fell over bits of unfamiliar ship's tackle. All this appeared more ridiculous when we slept on deck owing to the heat down below. We slept as we were. Nobody thought of undressing.
For three days and three nights four men lived where one would have been cramped in that iron-cased floating stink-hole, eating badly-cooked food and drinking warm water. By the night of the third day, as we neared Gallipoli, we were in the mood for anything. We'd fight anybody for anything; we didn't care what.
Looking towards the land, we could see flashes here and there and hear intermittent firing, punctuated occasionally by the boom of heavy guns. Rumours were numerous, but the only one that proved true was that we disembarked that night.
With all lights out, we crept slowly in towards the land, alongside the River Clyde, and were taken ashore in flat-bottomed barges. Everything was quiet, as though the guns were silenced to give us welcome. It was raining. Raining as it can only in the East.
The barges grounded and we got no wetter by wading ashore. Everything was in a wonderful state of chaos. Nobody met us. Friend or foe could have done what we did. It was May 1915, and the Gallipoli campaign was new.
Soaked kits are heavier than dry ones, and we were glad to lie down on the top of a cliff, in the pouring rain and mud, and sleep.
The sun shone in the morning and we looked round. We were all eager for information, and this was given to us readily by a few wounded Lancashire Fusiliers from the front line.
Cape Helles, where we had landed, was the general stepping-off place, and a mile of land had been taken. The loss of life had been out of all proportion to this gain, due to the prepared positions of the Turks right down to the water edge, which enabled them to mow down our men with ridiculous ease.
Very bitter were our informants as they related the hurried preparations for battle, the taking of practically impregnable positions, and the terrific hardships endured under constant bombardment.
That morning we were treated to a new sight: a Turkish prisoner, bandaged about the head, lying on the ground, his face, hands, and arms painted green, and wearing a green uniform. He had been shot down from a gun-nest in a tree, and, before he had been located, his accurate sniping had accounted for a considerable number of officers.
Now he was slowly dying. His eyes searched our faces, and no doubt read pity there - the pity that goes out to a dog with a broken leg. We had not yet acquired the callousness of war veterans.
Enemy aircraft kept us on the move all that morning. They seemed to have command of the skies. No airmen of ours challenged their activities. A few anti-aircraft guns tried to bring them down, but did no apparent damage.
More troops arrived during the day and it was interesting to watch them land under heavy shell-fire that sank a few barges and scattered us on land as they fell short of the water. The daily bathing parade in the sea continued, however, and the shelling did not seem to upset the troops swimming about near the beach.
That afternoon we paraded ready for a move up towards the front line. A shell blew away a few of our men in the rear company, then, regardless of procedure, we turned right and "Follow me!" was sufficient for the moment. The leading officer was an old hand. He knew the way or we might have marched straight into the enemy.
A series of gullies, about 50 feet deep, one joining with another, ran in all directions, and up and down these we twisted and turned for about three hours, stopping occasionally for rest. At dusk we were told to stand easy until further orders were received. We were then on a lip on one side of a gully about 500 yards from the front line.
As night advanced the flies left us. Then the shelling became more intense and rifles and machine guns helped to swell the noise. After an hour this subsided and the gully became full of other sounds. The small stream that ran in the bed, full of slime and blood-coloured in patches, was full of frogs. Hundreds of them, all croaking together. Very weird and uncanny this was in the darkness and unnatural silence. We trod on them as we moved off, but the croaking continued.
We now heard officially that we were to relieve the New Zealanders in the front-line trench, and, led by the same officer, we pushed off in a long single file.
The communication trenches from the front line went back about 10 yards, then a dash over open country before one reached the shelter of a gully. Leaving the gully we had now to cross this open space before we could drop into the communication trenches. Only about 200 yards. Not far, we thought, but a long way when under fire.
Here we got our first small taste of war. The enemy guessed a relief was taking place, for their machine guns found us, and as the whine of bullets became more marked, we were ordered to lie down. I lost my first friend at that moment, and it was hard to realize he would never again share with me the things we both enjoyed. As I flopped down, my equipment falling on top of me, I felt the handle of a spade on the ground.
Instinctively I covered my head with the spade end and burying my ear in the mud, felt very well protected. I saw the man in front of me lying still with head well down, and waited with him for the next move. It came in the shape of a sergeant, who, crawling up to both of us, wanted to know why the hell we didn't follow the others - we were keeping back all the men behind.
I realized then my mistake in waiting for the man in front, and, crawling over him, I caught up with the others, who had waited after the break had been noticed. One by one we dropped into the communication trench with a splash. Last night's rain still lingered, finding no outlet. No comfort or safety was to be found in the trenches in those early days. Sand-bags had not arrived.
Dug-up dirt thrown out served as a shield from bullets, a shield that fell in when rain came, and a roughly cut step in the side of the trench served for a seat. We slept on the floor of the trench or propped up along the side.
In the blackness of the night we stumbled and splashed along the trench. All we could do was to obey orders and if we received none, we thought we were doing right. We didn't know where we were or what might happen next.
There was an awful din and the order for absolute silence had to be shouted from man to man. A stream of men going in the opposite direction ploughed their way through the mud past us - the New Zealanders going out. It was a tight squeeze and many a curse followed us as we tripped over one another or bumped them into the sides of the trench.
The guns were silent again now, and upon arriving at our appointed stations word came down the line to fire "fifteen rounds rapid" at the enemy trench. With fingers cold, wet, and fumbling we loaded, fired as quickly as we could and got a volley in reply. This was our first shooting at the enemy even if we could see nothing, and proved so exciting that our discomfort was forgotten.
The New Zealanders had now gone and we Territorials held the line, or rather our part of it, for the first time. A great honour, and we meant, if possible, to do all we could to uphold that honour.
By dawn, having "stood to" all the night, we were tired and hungry, and thought nothing much of the honour thrust upon us, but as the day became brighter we found interest enough in having a peep over the thrown-up dirt at the part of the landscape occupied by the Turk, and at the chaotic condition of No Man's Land.
Barbed wire there certainly was, but it hung in shreds from wooden posts, and nearer to us a small trickle of water flowed alongside the trench, coming through the trench side a little lower down. In this, opposite to where I stood, lay a couple of dead Turks. There was no need to tell us not to drink this water, but we had to later, after it had been boiled.
That day our time was taken up chiefly with making more comfortable the trench that served as a home, and in the days that followed there was no great excitement. Only a few big shells and sniping.
Then a fifteen-hour bombardment by our guns commenced. The noise we now heard was terrific. A continual roar; thousands of big shells hurtling through the air at the same time. If more noise had been added it would have passed unnoticed, so great was the din, but the Turks did reply, as our casualties that night were very heavy.
I was losing most of my friends. We were in the support trench at the time and received an order to carry ammunition for the gunners from the dumps. Dozens of us carried heavy shells through mud that was impassable for mules. Instead of the fifteen hours, the bombardment lasted only seven hours.
Ammunition had run out. There was only sufficient left for desultory shelling by our guns for one more day. The ammunition boats had not arrived according to schedule, and the bombardment took place, as we afterwards learned, to impress upon the enemy how well supplied we were with shells. A peculiar thing is war. The Turks could, this night, have driven us into the sea.
A week later we advanced about 50 yards, half way into No Man's Land, under a full moon. Our hectic digging with entrenching tools into rock-like earth as we lay flat on the ground was a sporting chance given to the Turk to try a little sniping.
Our barrage did not cover us well enough and a large proportion of our men were killed. By dawn we were out of sight if we knelt down and we did a lot of kneeling that day.
We had no time that day to complete communication trenches back to the old line, so when the counter-attack came, no way of retreat was possible except over the intervening open high ground. Our guns got the range soon after the Turks attacked, but that didn't stop them, and, after a short hand-to-hand struggle, we had to give way.
It was a sorry retreat and our casualties, if not heavy, were ugly. I was surprised at what man is capable of enduring in a semi-conscious state; how he can stagger to safety, leaving parts of himself behind. When we got back our machine guns opened fire and we laughed like maniacs as the Turkish advance crumpled and fell. That attack had failed.
So it went on, day after day, week after week; a bit forward here, a bit back there; very little ground gained and very little lost, but death always. Disease helped to swell the death roll, but still the senseless game went on.
New blood came from England but was soon spilt, and old blood faced days with hope of quick release. We became infected with the spirit of hopelessness. Such was the state of things when I was forced to crawl 100 yards to the nearest dressing station to have a shrapnel wound plugged. Two days later I found myself on a hospital ship. I saw no more fighting.
Private Fred T. Wilson enlisted 16th Battalion Manchester Regt. (Territorial Force), January 26th, 1914. Demobilized, March 31st, 1920. Active service, 4.5 years. Foreign service, Egypt and Gallipoli.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--destructive war technology
Destructive Technology at the Somme
In respect to new methods and machines, the present French and British offensive is the last word.The aim of any offensive in modern warfare is the destruction of the enemy. This is the object of the present offensive, the idea being to enclose us in a tactical ring by simultaneous bombardment with long-range guns from the front and the rear.
Accordingly the greedy beast began eating at the back lines of the German front. First of all our third and second trenches were incessantly bombarded, mostly by heavy artillery, of which the enemy had concentrated unprecedented masses in the sector of attack.
It was dugouts which had to be battered down, so that at the moment of assault all the defenders, except a few survivors, and all the machine guns might be buried. Our second and third trenches were bombarded in order to prevent our bringing up reserves.
For the same reason all the communication trenches leading from the rear to the front position were kept under incessant fire. On the Somme every one of our columns had a good communication trench which led from the headquarters of the battalion to the front trench.
But the attack against our front from the rear extended still further. All the main and side roads and all the crossroads were kept under fire so that approaching troops, munitions, supplies, and provisions had to pass through several lines of fire.
Bombarding villages and places behind the front where the various reserves are supposed to be quartered is an old trick of the British and French, but this time the principle was carried out more consistently and recklessly than ever. All places up to a distance of 10 miles behind the front were brought under incessant heavy artillery bombardment, which often started actual fires, thanks to the incendiary shells used by the enemy.
The battering down of our advanced trenches was almost exclusively left to the heavy artillery and trench mortars, especially the latter. The French have made great improvements in this weapon lately. For the destruction of our trenches they exclusively employed those of the heaviest calibre, and they now throw their mines with greater accuracy and over longer ranges than formerly.
Opposite my company no fewer than six mortars were placed. They were worked uninterruptedly, throwing hundreds of aerial torpedoes on our position from the first to the third trenches. They tore up our wire obstacles from the ground, poles and all, and threw them all over the place, crushing the dugouts if they fell on them, and damaging the trenches.
In a very short time great portions of our trenches had been flattened out, partly burying their occupants. This fire lasted for seven days, and finally there came a gas attack, also of an improved kind.
The deepest impression left on me was not a feeling of horror and terror in face of these gigantic forces of destruction, but an unceasing admiration for my own men. Young recruits who had just come into the field from home, fresh twenty-year-old boys, behaved in this catastrophic ploughing and thundering as if they had spent all their life in such surroundings, and it is partly thanks to them that the older married men also stood the test so well.
Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
Memoir--Rations and food
It was our third day "in". The front line was no longer well-made trenches - or trenches at all, in fact - but merely small "posts" a few yards distant from each other, each holding about half a dozen men.These "posts" were actually strips of trench with a rather high parapet - open at the rear, made up with very little sand-bagging, protected in front with the usual rows of barbed-wire. The defences here had been made hurriedly: this, the region of the Lys Canal, had been the latest scene of German thrust. Thus we were on ground that had but lately been in civilian occupation, and still retained much of its peaceful country atmosphere, even trees were still standing.
I found myself in charge of a "post", some distance to the right of where the main road ran from St. Floris. Immediately behind our position was some rough ground, showing where, at later seasons, a little stream evidently ran, but which was now apparently only a ditch.
All movement on this sector was impossible by day. "Jerry" held slightly higher ground, but even he seemed content to rest after day-break, for with the exception of his artillery at intermittent intervals and a very occasional burst of some machine gun, daylight to dusk was a period of peacefulness.
Just now we were very glad that the weather was in our favour. Some of us at least (though the battalion was mostly young kiddies, newly out from home) knew what it meant to carry on war in pouring rain and always mud - interminable mud.
Now after some weeks of hot, dry weather it was dust we were struggling with - at all costs, to keep it out of the rifle, even if it was impossible to keep it out of one's mouth. Dust and grit had replaced slush! There always seemed to be one amongst us, at all times and all places even, who could give expression to our troubles, whatever they might be, and at the Front they were certainly pretty numerous.
Surely we must have thrived on troubles! Such a fellow at this time was Bert. Bert had come to us from the Liverpool Scottish, I think it was. Anyway, he was anything but a dour Scot, and always reminded one of East London. Language was always unparliamentary with us.
"Gor' blimy" was Bert's preliminary, and its force had to be heard to be realized. That expressive opening always seemed to call for some attention.
"Gor' blimy," he would say. "Wonder what the 'ell they'd say to this lot at home. Blast, it's dust all the bloody time. If you get a bit of 'rooti' to eat, it's all dust while you eat it. When the stew comes up, it's got a layer of blasted dust on it thicker than drippin'!"
Another voice broke in: "Yes, and how many times have we chivvied the ol' wife about a speck of something in the Sunday dinner." "Here, who's that talking about Sunday dinners?" "Gor' blimy! put a sock in it," was Bert's reply of course.
What happened in this post on our third morning in was the prelude to the experience I shall relate here. We had seen dawn gradually break through - and yet no sign of the ration-men, who must be up before daybreak, in order to reach us safely.
Someone said, "That's b-- it now! They'll never get across that road once it gets light." Feeling that to be true, all eyes watch alternately the streaks of daylight above, and behind us the faint line of that strip of road that connects us with the supports. Uncovered road (and the only place with a movable "spider" in the barbed wire that permits getting through) every inch of it "marked" by a German gun, which opens at the slightest movement after daybreak.
It is a bad spot, evidently covered by some "observation post" on jerry's side. "Here they come, look!" hushed voices - words almost unsaid. Inwardly one cheers up. Thank goodness the rations are coming up!
Heads first appear indistinctly, then slightly clearer outlines: one carrying something that makes him appear dwarf-like in that half-light; the other, more upright, has something beside him. They seem to hesitate; they must be through the wire; they separate. Then the first one moves forward quicker, followed on his right by the dixie carrier. "Gor' blimy! They'll never get up here. Them bloody Jerries have got eyes like --'awks on that roadway." Bert is always a fatalist, but we realize the truth in his expression.
"Wonder what it is this morning?" someone asks. "Stew - 'corse it is. We had' char' last time up" - the words are said briefly by men inwardly cold and hungry, yet tense with quiet excitement for the safety of the men carrying those rations, as well as concern for the anticipated meal.
"Those blarsted cooks again, you can bet - keeping the carriers too late, or they'd have been here by now," and Bert spat vigorously. Evidently his mind was working savagely about cooks and field-kitchens.
"Blimy! They're moving, anyway. Jerry ain't spotted them yet." Only one man ventured that remark; fear kept others silent - double fear-for pals and for rations, and yet we must stand here helpless and watch. Why were they so late - we wondered!
Only for a second did it seem that Jerry hadn't seen them. "Zim-Boom," and a shell has burst only a few yards from the two figures, now being watched - watched more keenly than ever two runners on a sports-ground, or even two horses on a course.
Two men burdened with our rations, yet even for sake of their own lives racing with time and death to reach the nearest post! They are our pals, too, and those damned cooks must have made them late getting away. Curse these wallahs behind the line; we forget that they are necessary to feed us; only now they are thought of as the cause of the danger in which our mates and our grub seemed doomed!
We stand and watch - helpless to render any aid to those figures struggling over that ground about twenty yards away. And they cannot race for it - a dixie full of stew is, I suppose, the most awkward thing imaginable - certainly impossible to run with. They are quite clear now.
Surely it's got broad daylight in the last few seconds; yet really its only half-light, but enough for some Jerry's glasses to spot a movement on that road. Someone overstrung with the tense excitement of all of us who watch shouts, almost yells: "Run, jock, run for Christ's sake!" just as one supposes he had yelled to some player on a football ground: "Go on, shoot! Shoot! Now!"
Then "Oh-h-h !" in a cry of dismay from the crowd that the ball had gone wide perhaps - that is the sound now from us, as a second shell, ranged with greater precision, bursts almost in front of those two!
The platoon officer's shouted order to us to "Keep down there!" was half lost at that moment. The explosion cleared. There was only one man now, dragging a sack, he could be seen to rise from the ground. The other is gone, but that looks like a dixie there in the road - on its side!
And how cold it is at dawn too! We shiver and almost turn away in silence. There goes all hopes of "something hot," anyway, and we don't speak about the carrier - yet.
The voice of Bert, that had merely swore about cooks and those behind the line, broke the silence again and cursed now.
"Bloody --cooks and all the --rest. what do they care? Wait till I --well get out of this." It's a decent mouthful, but we know Bert's sentiments are right, and if we don't all use those words we agree, and under those conditions out there we all become "Berts" now and then. It did ease things a bit to have a good "blind" about somebody.
"Look! That's 'Chunky'!" and we turn to see someone climb out from the post on our left and race madly towards the man with the sack coming on, but slowly. Another shell bursts, full in the road again, but just a little too far back. Involuntarily some of us have ducked - it became sheer habit out there.
When we look up again, 'Chunky' has reached the other, and together they are covering the last few yards like mad, carrying the sack between them. Yes, they're there. We only see two bodies disappear unto the nearest post, and someone voices "Good old Chunky".
We learnt afterwards why the ration carriers were late starting back out there. One of them has doubtless "Gone West," the other slightly wounded in the leg. It is lighter now. There's something lying doubled up in the road, and the stew dixie is quite clear - mocking us as it lays empty on its side. The ration sack "caught" a lump of shrapnel, and two loaves are now lying out there somewhere too - so near - yet not one of us dare risk life to get them until dark!
For twelve hours at least, more probably eighteen, we must "carry on" with what has reached us, bully, some cheese (mostly broken) jam, biscuits, and a loaf between six of us. Nothing hot! - nothing to drink at all, and yet they tell us how they had to wait in Blighty for hours, perhaps, to get their rations of butter or meat! And the bread was half-black they say!! So we must carry on another day, and only hope that the carriers are sent off early enough to reach us safely next time.
The day developed hot, terribly hot, with the sun blazing down on that unsheltered trench-post, in which some of us tried to snatch some sleep in various curled-up positions. Finding rest in that heat impossible - it burnt our face and eyes, it seemed, while we slept - we dug forward: lay there digging out holes with entrenching tools-holes that would go in under the parapet sufficiently big enough to get one's head into at least.
Anything for shelter. Somewhere about midday we decided to eat what we had if only to alleviate our misery for half an hour. Two pals and myself opened up a tin of bully between us. One only wanted a little, he said. "Awful bloody stuff anyway to eat without bread or drink" was his opinion.
Bottles were empty and bread had been eaten for "breakfast". Iron ration biscuits were turned out, and so we managed a "meal," only to feel more parched than we had done before.
At last it came to my turn to keep a look-out. This meant standing up in one place, watching through the periscope, and readiness to sound the gas alarm if necessary. I didn't spend all my hour looking Jerry's way, however. I had a good view of the country behind me, and I looked round in all directions at intervals.
"Where the hell could one get some water?" was all that seemed to matter. What about that ditch I had nearly broke my leg in last night, when we were moving about. I could see the irregular ground. The nearest point was about 15 or 20 yards away. Wonder if it was quite dry. I remembered when I had half fallen one foot had squelched in wet mud. Apparently it was a decent stream in the wet season; it shouldn't be quite dry yet.
That ditch was all I could think of till the next one took over the look-out. "D'ye hear, Wally. I wonder if there's any water left in that ditch over there." He stirred uneasily. "I shouldn't think so after this heat. Besides it would be pretty blasted dirty, anyway. What good's that?" "Come and lie down," said Reggie, moving sideways a little.
I persisted, however, "Well, we could boil it. You've got a 'Tommy' cooker, Reg." "And I hope you'll remember Reg has got some sense too," that worthy exclaimed slowly.
"That ditch is filthy, man. Don't you know what some of them used it for at night." "Oh, Gord! there goes windy Reggie again," broke in Bert.
Reggie's voice always seemed to move Bert. "We're at the bloody War now, not in your --fancy restaurants." But I cut hi, short. Wally appeared to be interested, anyway, and we appeared to be the only two who could seriously consider any hope of water from that ditch. But how to reach it? Could we get out there over the exposed ground?
These pros and cons continued, and so did our parched throats. Enough is it to say, that thirst overcame fear or caution or even orders to "keep down all day." One of us took two mess-tins, and crawled out and worked towards that ditch on belly and face almost, got there, and started back, which was slower work. How long it took we never knew, but it seemed hours before we were in possession of one can nearly full, and the other about half-full of liquid thick with green scum, just exactly what one finds in any stagnant pool or ditch in the country.
We surveyed that capture, for which life had been risked, and perhaps we made little comment beyond one who said - "And now what the devil will we do with that?" To me occurred the notion that if we strained it and then boiled it it might not be so bad. We could then make some tea. Several of us had tea and sugar ready for any chance of a "drum up." I was doubted and besides we hadn't got "any damn thing to strain it with!"
I produced a khaki handkerchief that had washed a bit thin by now, and was not too dirty. I had probably rinsed it out about a week ago, though, of course, it had doubtless wiped other things than my nose since then - principally my rifle!
I cannot give the debate that took place between us over this except the general opinion: it couldn't be any worse! Would it strain through that rag?
It remains with me as an outstanding experience, because I was the one to think of this particular "outfit," that somehow we did with great care and expenditure of time strain off the thickest of that green scum growth!
My handkerchief was used. Then the "Tommy" cooker was fitted up in one of the holes we had scooped out earlier in the day, the "water" was boiled and the tea brewed. That drink of tea was shared out between four of us and I remember we continually assured each other that "anyway the boiling would have killed the germs!"
It was drunk, by Reggie and Bert alike, in comparative silence. And we thought of homes that afternoon (I wrote to my wife on the pages of a little notebook), and the grumbles some of us had made in old days in those homes over little things at meal-times!
I remarked that the "tea" we drank could do us no more harm than a "packet from Jerry" would probably.
That night Wally was killed outright. The following night, going out of the line, I was severely wounded, and never went back again.
C. Goddard-Chead volunteered August 1914. Actual service did not commence until fourteen months later, because he was three times rejected - unfit. Served over three and a half years with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at home, in France and Near East (Turkey). Twice wounded, slight shell-shock, once blown up in France. Returned to Blighty, May 1918 - wounded in thigh by bomb dropped by night bomber just behind lines.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Memoir--A soldier and his horse
The Devil - My Friend
The first time we tried to saddle him he sent two men to hospital. It wasn't viciousness: he was young; he had never been backed before; he didn't understand.He only knew an unmolested life on a South African farm, and the sudden change upset him. The herding down to the coast and the long stifling sea voyage up to German East must have been unpleasantly strange.
He landed at a malarial little port called Kilwa Kissiwani, and, the day after, was handed over with a batch of remounts to an Indian cavalry regiment. He came to my squadron, and I picked him out as a charger because his head and ears, fine muzzle, and wide nostrils showed breeding.
My orderly christened him Shaitan (the Devil), mainly, I think, because the first thing the horse did was to bite him in the seat of the breeches.
He certainly was a devil at the beginning. His was the nervous kind of temperament one should have coaxed. But we hadn't time for that; we had to be ruthless. We had to throw him. All horses hate that, and he soon gave in. In three days he was ridable, and when, on the fourth, we started off, I took him as my charger.
The country was unlike anything I had seen before. In places we came across open grassland, but most of it was dense. Oppressive. It shut one in. One longed to push it all away and hold up one's head and breathe.
All around huge trees towered up out of the ground, bent and twisted into grotesque shapes as they fought each other for the space to live.
Here and there thin, gnarled branches hung down like the withered tentacles of some great forest octopus groping in the earth. Up above the canopy of leaves and inter-twining branches almost blotted out the sky.
One learnt, for the first time in one's life, to value water. Through those long weary days of striving Shaitan and I got to know each other, though he often did try to give me a nip in the seat of the breeches when I mounted. And he had a great heart. He never slacked. He never spared himself. He was always willing. When everyone else was worn out and weary, he'd hold up his eager head and stride along as if he never knew fatigue.
But the strain told. It was a very different Devil that stood beside me somewhere south of the Rufiji four months later.
We had had a hard day. A night without water or fodder, a long march round behind the German position to cut off the retreat, and some fighting. Late in the afternoon we were waiting to rejoin the column.
It was a remnant of the squadron that rested, the men silent, dirty, and dejected, the horses with drooping heads. Tunics were torn. Many men looked ill, with sunken eyes and thin, pinched faces. The horses were like skeletons.
Rawlins, the adjutant, had gone to find out where we were to camp, and we were waiting for him to come back. I felt dreadfully weary and sat down on the ground. Jackson came and sat beside me.
"Bedford is pretty bad," he said.
"Really? I thought he was only hit on the arm?"
"Yes, but it's a ghastly hole. Must have been a soft-nosed bullet."
"Quite likely.... The sods!..."
For a while we sat silent. Behind us a man started spewing. I looked round. He was leaning up against a tree holding his stomach and being violently sick. The malaria there must have been a particularly virulent type; it seemed to knock the men out altogether.
Jackson lay back and shut his eyes. After awhile Rawlins returned and told us we were to camp inside the old German perimeter.
We marched in. The ground was undulating, and intersected here and there by deep trenches. A strong boma of twisted branches enclosed the whole position.
Most of the other units of the column were already in camp and several fires had been lighted, at which men were cooking. We led up the main centre road and turned off on to the site that we were to occupy.
As the men were putting up the long line from tree to tree to which head ropes are fastened, the C.O. came over and spoke to me, and Rawlins joined us.
"I've just seen Colonel Stone, sir. He says we can't water to-night."
"Can't water! But that's preposterous!"
"I know, sir. I told him. I--"
"But-- Good Lord! Doesn't he realize we were out on the flank last night? He must be mad. I'll go and see him myself."
He hurried off towards the Column Headquarters tent. Rawlins shook his head.
"It won't do any good," he said glumly.
"But 'C' Squadron has had practically no water for thirty-six hours," I protested.
"I know. But I don't think we shall get any. It isn't that Stone doesn't realize. He was quite upset about it. But apparently there are 3,000 porters who haven't had water yet."
The C.O. came back. If we must have water we could clear the water-hole, but we should probably have to use bayonets.
"Which sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?" he said. "You'd better go and see what is happening there, Rawlins."
I went along with Rawlins. We found out from a gunner that the water-hole was behind a low ridge, which he pointed out at the far comer of the camp.
As we approached we heard an incessant babel, quite distinct above the hum of the camp noises. It grew louder as we got nearer. We found ourselves in a jostling mob of porters.
The crowd of them on the road was so dense that it was impossible to force one's way along. We climbed up on to the low ridge and looked over.
The ground in front of us was alive - a great crawling mass of black heads and khaki bodies, pushing and struggling, like maggots crowding about a rotting carcass.
No water-hole was visible, only a sea of moving bodies. In the dusk it looked like a huge heaving blanket and one could hardly realize it was composed of human beings - porters mad with thirst.
In the middle of the mass an arm would stretch up, the hand holding a chaghul. Immediately a dozen arms would snatch at it, pulling and jerking until the water spilt down on upturned faces with mouths gaping open to catch the splashes.
Those in the centre must have been standing in water up to their thighs, while those at the edge stood in mud, but their bodies were packed so tightly together they could hardly bend down.
I saw a man struggling to get out. In one hand he held his dripping water bottle pressed to his body, with his other hand he shoved and pushed the bodies near him.
He heaved and writhed, but he hardly moved a yard. Then his arm got wedged, and another man grabbed the bottle and drank. The first man tried to wrench it back, beating the other's face, but he went on drinking even though his nose was torn.
As we watched, I believe a man was trampled into the mud. His body was down amongst a mass of legs. I couldn't see properly what happened, but it looked as if they just stamped on him. It was impossible to do anything.
We came away. It was not an edifying sight. To water the horses that evening was obviously out of the question, so when I went along to Shaitan I took my water bottle.
He looked round when he heard me coming and gave a low whinney, as he always did, pushing his soft velvety muzzle into my hand when I went up to pat him. I pulled his ear. Usually he pretended he didn't like it and gave a playful nip at my leg, but to-night he was too utterly weary to play. He just rubbed his nose against me.
I took up my water bottle and, while my orderly held up Shaitan's head, I pulled out his lip and poured a little water into his mouth. Poor old thing, he got so excited. I could feel him trembling. I'm not sure it was a kindness really; I could only spare such a very little and he was so frantically thirsty.
And the smell of it made the horses near him restless. But they quietened down after a bit, and then I gave him his dope - a sprinkle of white powder on a handful of grain. Arsenic.
We dosed all the horses with it every night because we were in a tsetse belt, and it was supposed to be a prophylactic for "horse sickness." But I doubt if it really did much good. They looked dreadful, poor brutes; their withers and hip bones stuck right out, and the flesh had fallen away from their backs, leaving backbones standing up like ridges.
Of course the fatigue, the lack of fodder, and the long spells without water had a lot to do with it, but it was the "sickness" that made them seem to fade away.
I went back and sat down on my valise. Brent was opening a tin of melon jam by the light of our hurricane lamp, turned very low because we had no spare oil.
I got my tin of bully beef and started to eat, scooping it out with a pocket knife. I expect it tasted rather tinny, it usually did, and possibly it was a bit mouldy, but one didn't notice that in the dark.
We were very low in food just then: bully beef, jam, and ration biscuits - the latter so hard that one had to saw off pieces with a knife because one couldn't bite them. And we were nearly always hungry - so hungry that if anybody took a little more than his share of jam it made the rest of us angry.
I can see that scene now: Around us the dim forms of the horses, the trees, the camp fires flickering out of the darkness. Jackson stretched on his back with his eyes shut; Brent beside him munching.
On the ground the lamp, burning in that absolutely still air without a flicker, showed dimly their sweat-stiff shirts, their cropped heads, their scrubby beards, and the hollows on their dirty faces. It made them look like Russian prisoners.
As we ate, a noise in the bushes behind made me look round. Two figures were moving slowly through the undergrowth beyond our light.
"Kaun hai (Who's there)?" I called out.
"Do admi aur ek mard."
Two men and one corpse. I don't know who they were, I suppose they were trying to find some spot where, undisturbed, they could perform the last rites for a brother killed in the attack. Nobody seemed to heed them. We went on eating.
When we had finished we put up our mosquito nets. Jackson had thrown his away, but Brent and I still had ours.
They were small - just big enough to lie under - and dyed a dark brown. We tied the four top corners to sticks stuck in the earth. Brent's was quite good, but mine was torn and full of holes.
It didn't keep out the mosquitoes, but I imagined it kept out the horrid things that slid to and fro in the undergrowth - snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and huge warrior ants. In the dark one never knew that they were not creeping about over one's body. They did sometimes. Once in the middle of the night something slimy crawled over my throat.
Jackson had a high temperature that evening. He took fifteen grains of quinine, and Brent gave him some aspirin, but it didn't seem to ease him much, because I heard his teeth chattering as we lay there in the dark. I got up and collected a couple of horse blankets and wrapped them round him. He looked worse next morning.
I told him he'd better report sick, but he tried to make out it was nothing.
"Only one of my goes of fever, old thing. I'll be all right in a couple of days."
But I fetched Doc. And Doc shook his head. He sent Jackson down the line straight away by the empty ration convoy that left before we marched. Poor Jackson. He was the kind who never gives in, but the beastly country got him down in the end. He seemed awfully weak when we said good-bye. I felt it was unlikely that I would see him again.
I wasn't feeling too great myself. As I was thinking about opening my bully beef, I felt a pain in my stomach; a sharp gnawing pain. I knew what that meant. I'd had dysentery twice already. I decided to give meat a miss for a day or two.
"It's an ill wind--" Brent philosophically remarked when I gave him my ration.
Shaitan got water all right, though it was very muddy. But he had a fairly easy day in front of him, as we only had to march fifteen miles to join another column.
The Intelligence Officer attached to my squadron came along as we were forming up - a lean, dark-skinned fellow called Van Ponk, a Dutchman, with a scar across his left cheek which was the result of a bullet wound he received fighting against us in the Boer War.
He had collected a couple of local bush inhabitants to act as our guides, and I found them waiting at the corner of the camp as we moved out. They were a comic couple; a thin wiry old man with curly iron-grey hair and a young boy.
The boy was naked except for a strip of the fibrous bark of a tree wrapped round his middle, but the old man was more dressy. He had a two-piece suit made out of a couple of grain sacks. He'd cut holes for his legs in one, which was pulled up and fastened round his waist with a thong, and the other had holes cut for head and arms, and was worn like a shirt.
It might have been quite an effective shirt, but, unfortunately, he had only been able to get hold of a very small sack, so it looked like a very coarse little brown vest that had shrunk in the wash. Rawlins grinned at me as we started off.
"If in doubt," he said, "rely on the fellow in the plus fives."
At first the air was fresh, almost cold, but as the sun got up it became hot, and one's skin dried up as if there was no moisture in one's body at all. Those hot, dry marches always made me long for wet pavements. I used to picture Piccadilly in the evening when it was drizzling, with all the lights reflected in the wet.
The bush we went through varied: sometimes it was more or less open, like a thickly tree'd park; sometimes the undergrowth was so thick the flankers could not keep in touch; sometimes the path led through a dense forest of bamboos. Never could one see more than 100 yards ahead.
It was like playing a fierce, relentless game of hide-and-seek in a strange garden in the dark.
And though one might march from dawn to dusk without meeting any enemy at all, without even hearing a shot fired, one was utterly worn out with the mental strain of it at the end. One's mind could never relax.
After we had been marching for four hours or so, we got on to a road down which a squadron had raided a few weeks previously. One couldn't help knowing it. The dead-horse smell was nauseating. It made Brent sick. Several were lying quite near the road, their legs sticking straight up in the air, their bodies swollen like balloons. The stench was quite awful. Thank goodness it only lasted for about a mile!
Shaitan began to get very sluggish. I had to keep urging him on, a thing I had never had to do before. I guessed he must be feeling pretty rotten, because, though for the last three weeks I'd missed the eager springing step of old, he had never slacked. Worn out as I knew he must have been at times, that great spirit of his would never let him rest.
Today I hated riding him. It was cruel having to urge when I could feel the effort it was to him to keep going, and I knew how bravely he was trying.
Twice he stumbled badly, and at the second time I called up my orderly and told him to bring me one of the spare horses at the next halt.
"Old Shaitan's tired out," I said. "We'll give him a rest." But the rest came sooner.
A few minutes before we were due to halt he suddenly stopped, turned off the path, walked a few paces, and stood still. And then he sank. I only just had time to slip off before he collapsed. We got his girth undone and pulled the saddle away and slipped the bit out of his mouth. And he lay there on his side, a poor worn shadow of what he used to be.
I rubbed the velvet muzzle gently with my knuckles, I pulled an ear that was cold and damp with sweat... and said goodbye to him.
There was nothing else for it. I brushed aside a wisp of forelock and put my revolver to his temple - and shot him.
Captain C. H. Trehane entered the Army from Sandhurst in 1912. Attached 2nd King's Regt. and 8th Hussars, and joined 25th Cavalry (Frontier Force), I.A., in 1913. 1914-1915, operations at Miramshah, North-West Frontier; 1917, German East Africa; 1918, Mesopotamia and Persia (attached 5th Cavalry). Eventually invalided from the service.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line
To their hunger war, the Entente forces intended to add a new offensive of which the hell of Verdun and the bloody horror of the Somme were to be only foretastes. Once more they wanted to try it; they felt it must succeed. Therefore they armed themselves anew.They set up new divisions after divisions, new batteries after batteries; heaped up ammunition on ammunition all winter. America and Japan kept sending over their iron-freighted giant ships. Our foes gathered together all possible war material for their colossal army. They had the whole world in its service to be strong for the decisive struggle.
Our enemies did more. For months past they had built and built. A thick network of railroads and roads was constructed from deep in their country to their positions. At one word of command fresh material from the depots in the hinterland and fresh masses of troops could pour through a thousand arteries to the fire front. And they supplemented these lines of approach by a system of tracks paralleling their lines.
The idea was to give their front an almost unlimited inner mobility. For example, the troop masses that yesterday stood on the English left wing were to be able suddenly to appear today in the centre or south of the Somme and be thrown into battle there to our consternation.
A network of communications at their back was to make it possible for them at any time in this second Somme battle, which was finally to break our wall in the spring, to rapidly shift their forces and with completely surprising power to change the point of attack according to the conditions of battle.
And not only the troops but artillery ammunition depots and war material depots were through this system of railways to receive unprecedented mobility.
The working strength of millions of men in France, England, and overseas has for months had only one creative goal - to build the foundation for the crushing blow - and the thought that the enemy might be able to avert this fate probably never occurred to them.
The German highest leadership, which had no intention of leaving the initiative to the foe, thought otherwise, however.
The aim of our leadership was to create a wholly new situation and thereby be spared the colossal bloodshed which an offensive against the enemy's Somme positions would have entailed. Our leadership found the way to render null and void all the preparations of our enemies, and which in front of the new rearward positions at the same time gave us a free, wide-open battleground.
Our retreat from the old positions on the Ancre and the Somme [note: the retreat to the Hindenburg Line] has frustrated the whole of the planned great French and English spring offensive against our centre. The enemy, advancing behind us, finds a zone which has been prepared by us as a battle glacis in front of our new positions.
Every German who knows the character and sensibilities of our highest leaders knows that it was no easy decision for them to make the terrain, which for two and a half years we had carefully spared, now ruthlessly serviceable for military purposes. But here there were greater things at stake than considerations for part of a country which had refused us peace. Here the guiding principle for our military decisions could only be that which would bring us the greatest advantages, and for the enemy the most frightful disadvantage.
Therefore, in the course of the last month great strips of France were converted by us into a dead land, which, ten, twelve to fifteen kilometres broad, stretches in front of the whole length of our new positions and offers a ghastly wall of emptiness for every enemy who designs to get at them.
No village, no hamlet, remains standing in this glacis - no street remains traversable; no bridge, no railway tracks, no railroad embankment, remains. Where once were woods, only stumps are left. The wells have been blown up; wires and cables destroyed.
Like a vast band, a kingdom of death stretches before our new positions. And this is the terrain over which the enemy must now attack us.
No cellar that might serve his troops for shelter remains from which he might build. All our own material was long ago removed, and all local sources from which they might be obtained have been annihilated. The giant trees lining the chaussees have been felled and lie across the roads, and the meadows were ploughed up in the early rain; cannon that would attempt to pass here would be swallowed up.
To be sure, this had to entail hardship for the once beautiful country and for its inhabitants. The men who are leading us through the last phase of the war to victory have done everything humanly possible to soften the lot of the inhabitants. Many of them, including all men and youths capable of working, were sent to the rear, for no man capable of carrying arms was to be allowed to swell the line of enemy forces.
On the other hand, such women, children and old men as desired to return to France were brought to a number of villages, including Noyon and Roye, lying beyond the devastated area, which were spared by us as much as possible.
In my visit, I entered at Ham upon the Empire of Death - a Death which lays the shrivelled hands of destruction upon all the works of men and all the bloom of Nature. We are in that broad zone of devastation which stretches from the Scarpe to the Aisne.
A year back and earlier I was so often in this country - and I do not know it again. The war has set its mark upon it. Old giant trees once stood here on either side of the road - they are no more. There were houses by the road and farms. There is nothing left of all that, and nothing of the bloom and prosperity of the countryside.
As far as the eye can see, the land is bare and desert, a uniform, forbidding, open field of fire, through which the ribbon of road we are following runs as a last remnant of extinct civilization. And even the road will only give passage for a few days longer across the desert. At the crossways it is mined.
Troops meet us on the march and wagons piled high with the men's kit and properties. They have packed up at the front and have left those who will succeed them in the abandoned places nothing, nothing whatever, not a tub, not a bench. And what they could not take with them they have burnt or smashed. They have blown up behind them the shelter in which they had lodged; they have filled up or made undrinkable the wells that gave them water; they have destroyed the lighting and set the barracks on fire.
We push on further into the undulating distance caught in the paralysis of death, and its horror knows no end. Here there once stood villages on either hand, estates, chateaux - all gone. Burnt-out ruins with a spark glowing here and there are the only vestige left of the past that has been swept away - and in the air a sharp, pungent smoke from green wood, beds, dung-heaps, still smouldering.
Occasionally, in the distance, the fires still flicker on into the light of day - yellow flames, which now and then veil themselves completely in murky smoke, and then shoot up again, hungry yet almost colourless in the bright light. Any piece of wall that still stands after the burning, is blown up or battered down by engineers.
The enemy, when they come, shall not find here so much as a miserable half-burnt wall to shelter them from the wind. Even the cellars have been blown up. But all this is not the work of a few days; it was carried out systematically for weeks and months on end - it had to take months, if it was to pass unnoticed by the enemy. A zone of burning villages would have shown the enemy airmen in a flash what was afoot.
No, one village was burnt somewhere one day, and the next day, if the weather was hazy and there was low visibility, two more somewhere else went up in smoke and flames. For the final days nothing was left but what was needed up to the last moment for the accommodation of the troops.
And now the sorry remnant goes to ruin, that this stern work of destruction may be complete.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
On Sunday, May 21st, 1916, the battalion was in camp Camblain-l'Abbe, behind Vimy Ridge. Recent spells in the line had been quiet, the weather was warm and sunny, and everyone was in good spirits. I was on camp-cleaning fatigue, but, the camp being in a good condition, there was nothing to do beyond picking up an odd piece of paper or two.After dinner most of the men settled down in the hut to sleep or write letters; it was all very pleasant and happy, something like Sunday at home.
During the afternoon, when I happened to be near the officers' hut, the company commander put his head out of a window (he was having a bath) and told me to let him know at once if any message came from Battalion Headquarters.
I did not think much about the matter and, so far as I knew no message came. About five o'clock we sat down to tea.
In my hut we had just drawn our rations from the dixies when the company commander appeared at the door and said in a strange voice, "Pack up immediately! Pack up immediately!" We swallowed our tea, put on our equipment and fell in outside. In half an hour the battalion was on the road, marching in the direction of the line.
When we met the other companies it was obvious from the faces of officers and men that something serious was afoot. The old hands, I suppose, guessed what was coming, but to me it was all new.
We came to the hamlet of Villers-au-Bois, and there rested in a field for perhaps an hour in the evening sunlight. The officers went away to receive orders. When they came back we took the road once more, my company leading the battalion.
As we left the hamlet some Engineers ran across the road in front of us and climbed a bank on the side, apparently to get a better view of something. One of them shouted to his comrades as we passed, "This way for the orchestra stalls!"
Emerging from a belt of trees, we saw what they were looking at. Across a level stretch of country, two or three miles wide, we saw the Ridge. I do not suppose that it is much of a height as hills go, but it dominated the landscape at all times, and that evening it was as awful a sight as could be imagined.
From end to end it was covered with a thick cloud of grey smoke, lit here and there by the twinkling flashes of shell-bursts. Seen across that peaceful-looking countryside it seemed unreal, fantastic, but there was no one so new to warfare that he did not know what it meant.
Before long the sun set, and in the twilight we left the road and began to make our way across country towards the Ridge.Half-way across we halted again and waited for some time for a guide who was being sent down by the battalion which was holding the line.
He came at length, and in the fading light we set off again. Presently I began to notice a smell which reminded me of pear-drops, and a smarting of the eyes which became so painful that I had to shut them at frequent intervals. I soon found that everybody else was suffering in the same way, and we concluded that the cause of the trouble was tear-gas.
The battalion had not experienced gas before, which accounted for our slowness in recognizing it. As soon as it was diagnosed we put on our goggles, but, what with the deepening gloom about us, the mist which gathered on the eye-pieces, and the roughness of the ground, we found that it was impossible to keep them on.
After a while, when we had passed through the "dosed" area, the symptoms passed off. Another stop, and a lot of argument in front. I heard the company commander say, with an intensity of feeling that only those who have been through such an experience will understand, "The bloody b-- of a guide has lost us!"
At length worn was passed along to move on again. We entered a shallow communication-trench. Night had fallen; we had to go in single file and soon experienced the usual trials of men moving in single file in darkness. The trench climbed a gentle rise; then we ran into an obstacle, a high step or sort of stile made of earth.
In daylight it would have been a trifle, no doubt, but that night it caused a great deal of anxiety and swearing. By this time it was obvious that we were nearing the line.
On the other side of the obstacle the ground fell away again, and ahead of us was another rise, the main Ridge, above which the enemy's flares rose every now and again and threw a sickly greenish light over the landscape for a few seconds.
The night was as black as ink; it was impossible to see more than a yard or so, except when a flare went up. Imagine a long line of hot and angry men stumbling along in utter blackness, everyone doing his best to keep up with the fellow in front yet not quite able to ignore the anxious cries from behind, "Where are you? We're losing touch!"
None of us was familiar with the country, and every man knew that on him rested responsibility for all those behind him.
The man in front of me was a little fellow about fifteen years older than most of us and several degrees above us in social standing. He was said to be a First Division Civil Servant. Being short, he found even greater difficulty than the rest of us.
I well remember seeing him climb the step and almost fall down the other side into the darkness. It may be said that that was my last sight of him, for he was killed that night. The valley between us and the front line was being bombarded pretty heavily. We could hear shell after shell hurtling down into it, the scream of its passage and the roar of its explosion magnified by the echoes. On the height a couple of machine guns kept up a rat-tat-tat-tat.
Somehow the company got across the valley at last, and found itself lined up under a rise which led away up into the darkness. Here we halted again, while the Company Commander went into a small hut made of sand-bags, which served, I suppose, as the headquarters of the battalion in the line.
Shells thudded down and burst on the slope in front of us or shrieked over our heads. Presently word was passed along that every man was to take two bandoliers of ammunition in addition to the 120 rounds that were always carried. Boxes of ammunition appeared from somewhere and were opened; we each took a couple of bandoliers and hung the things round our necks. When all had been served word came along to fix bayonets. We fixed.
Then the order "Advance!" These orders were, of course, passed down from man to man in the good old Army fashion; we did not know from whom they came. We were somewhat bunched up at the start, so someone gave the order, "High Port!" The "high port" is a way of carrying a rifle above one's head, so that the bayonet fixed on it shall not accidentally stab one's neighbour.
It is used in drilling with bayonets fixed, but, of course, was not intended to be used under fire. The order may have come from anyone, a corporal or even some officious private, but we obeyed it. None of us, apart from the two officers and :he sergeant-major, knew what was happening.
Opening out as we moved up the slope, we came to a trench, which I knew later was the British front line; to us it was simply an obstacle to be jumped into and scrambled out of in the dark.
By this time we had come under machine-fire; the night seemed alive with bullets, whose crack, crack was almost deafening. As I got out of the trench I saw, by the light of a flare, our platoon-sergeant cursing some men who wanted to stop in it. He was threatening them with his bayonet and shouting, "Get out, you b--s!"
In front of the trench the attacking party seemed to melt away, and I soon began to feel rather lost, and strongly disinclined to go any further. I dropped into a shell hole with a half-hearted suggestion to myself that I only wanted to take stock of things for a minute. Another man got down into it at the same time who turned out to be my best chum. We exchanged some sort of greeting, and I soon discovered that he had no more desire to leave the hole than I had, which was some comfort for my conscience.
We crouched against the forward lip. Another minute or so, and the night seemed to turn red. Looking up, I saw almost over our heads a rocket which had burst into three red lights. I knew what that meant. It was the German S.O.S. signal to the artillery at that period.
I said "Good God! we're for it now!" The barrage came down on us. This time the shells were not going over, but coming close to us, and their shrieks rose to an almost unbearable pitch before they burst. Around us the world seemed to be shattered by explosion after explosion; the hellish crack of bullets went on unabated, and in front the lights danced continually up and down.
We cowered in our hole, our one object at the moment to take up as little space as possible. Bits of steel hummed over us, and dirt seemed to fall in showers. We heard afterwards that the enemy had a hundred batteries concentrated on a short bit of the line there; where the information came from I do not know, but I have never doubted it.
During the bombardment something hit me in the back, and on putting my hand round to feel the place I found it damp. I thought I had been wounded, but found that the moisture was merely sweat, which was pouring down me as a result of excitement.
How long it went on I do not know-not many minutes, I suppose. When it had died down we peered out of our hole and discovered a few more fellows close by. It was necessary to decide what we were to do, for the darkness had begun to diminish. We held a consultation. You can imagine us lying there and looking anxiously at each other in the first dead light of dawn.
Some were for staying where we were, most for going back. We crawled out in the direction of our own lines and soon fell in with a lance-corporal who, to everybody's relief, endorsed the decision. So back we went over the broad crest of the Ridge to our front line and got into it. There we found two or three more of our fellows, with another lance-corporal, a big Devonian who was quite cool after the events of the night.
Under his encouragement we made a show of holding the line, though as far as we knew there were only thirteen of us. There were others away to right and left, but we did not see them until later in the morning.
When the sun rose I went exploring along the trench and found a short sap running forward from it; looking into this I saw another of my chums, a boy from Dublin, lying face downwards in the bottom and almost unconscious. He begged feebly for a drink. I believe I managed to moisten his lips, but I could not do much for him, because every time I tried to move him he groaned piteously.
There was a large hole in the upper part of his back, which I tried to cover with one of my field dressings. What I did was not of much avail, I fear, but it was the best I could do, as he kept begging me to leave him alone, and I suspected that in moving him I was doing more harm than good. I took out his pocket-book and copied the address on one of his letters from home, with the purpose of writing to his people, as it did not seem likely that he would be able to write letters for a long while.
By this time the sun shone brightly and we were in comparative peace; only the occasional crack of a sniper's bullet reminded us that there was an enemy, and after what we had just been through, snipers' bullets did not seem worth worrying about. Later in the morning our little party was given permission to go down to the valley again.
On the way we passed a number of wounded men whom we knew, waiting to be carried out. One of them, I was glad to see, was our platoon sergeant, a man I had always disliked. He had a wound in one of his feet. During the day we rested in holes and dug-outs under the lee of the hill and, apart from an hour's bombardment with high-explosive shells in the afternoon, the time passed pleasantly enough.
In the evening occurred two little incidents which have always puzzled me and will now, I suppose, never be explained. The first was a glimpse that I had of a headless corpse, or what appeared to be a headless corpse, sitting alone in a shallow dug-out. Looking for someone I knew, I put my head in and saw this thing; it gave me such a shock that I did not look again. How a headless corpse could be in that position and that place I cannot imagine.
The other incident occurred after dark. I was sitting in a big dug-out when a few more of the company came in. They had been lying in a shell hole in "No Man's Land" all day, expecting every moment to be blown to atoms by a trench-mortar. They did not dare to show a finger until nightfall, of course. One of them, who, though he had known me a long time, was not a chum of mine, was so moved at seeing me that he kissed me on the forehead.
The same night the battalion was relieved and returned to Camblain-l'Abbe. When the newspapers came up during the next few days, we looked eagerly for the official report of our adventure, but were bitterly disappointed, for the communiqué merely said that the situation on Vimy Ridge remained unchanged.
It became known afterwards that when the company commander reported at the headquarters of the battalion holding the line on the fatal night he was told that the line of resistance and the support line had been captured by the enemy and that he was to deliver a counter-attack in half-an-hour.
There was no time to make any reconnaissance, and no information was forthcoming as to the exact position of affairs. The company commander did his best, but it is not astonishing that the counter-attack was a failure. The commander and his only subaltern, their servants and the sergeant-major disappeared and were never heard of again. The company went into action 104 strong and came out with forty-eight.
My Dublin chum died in hospital in France about a month later, as I learnt from a letter sent by his brother.
Frank Wilfrid Watts enlisted June 1915 in 15th Battalion, The London Regt. (Civil Service Rifles). Lance-Corporal, October 1915. Corporal, December 1915. Lance-Sergeant, March 1916. Wounded at High Wood on September 15th, 1916. Commissioned in the same battalion, October 1917. To Palestine, March 1918. Returned to Belgium, July 1918. Wounded at Messines in September and sent home again. Discharged from hospital, March 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
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