Bullets & Billets
By Bruce Bairnsfather
TO MY OLD PALS, "BILL," "BERT," AND "ALF," WHO HAVE SAT IN THE MUD WITH ME
CHAPTER I Landing at Havre—Tortoni's—Follow the tram lines—Orders for the Front.
CHAPTER II Tortuous travelling—Clippers and tablets—Dumped at a siding—I join my Battalion.
CHAPTER III Those Plugstreet trenches—Mud and rain—Flooded out—A hopeless dawn.
CHAPTER IV More mud—Rain and bullets—A bit of cake—"Wind up"—Night rounds.
CHAPTER V My man Friday—"Chuck us the biscuits"—Relieved—Billets.
CHAPTER VI The Transport Farm—Fleeced by the Flemish—Riding—Nearing Christmas.
CHAPTER VII A projected attack—-Digging a sap—An 'ell of a night—The attack—Puncturing Prussians.
CHAPTER VIII Christmas Eve—A lull in hate—Briton cum Boche.
CHAPTER IX Souvenirs—A ride to Nieppe—Tea at H.Q.—Trenches once more.
CHAPTER X My partial escape from the mud—The deserted village—My "cottage."
CHAPTER XI Stocktaking—Fortifying—Nebulous Fragments.
CHAPTER XII A brain wave—Making a "funk hole"—Plugstreet Wood—Sniping.
CHAPTER XIII Robinson Crusoe—That turbulent table.
CHAPTER XIV The Amphibians—Fed-up, but determined—The gun parapet.
CHAPTER XV Arrival of the "Johnsons"—"Where did that one go?"—The First Fragment dispatched—The exodus—Where?
CHAPTER XVI New trenches—The night inspection—Letter from the Bystander.
CHAPTER XVII Wulverghem—The Douve—Corduroy boards—Back at our farm.
CHAPTER XVIII The painter and decorator—Fragments forming—Night on the mud prairie.
CHAPTER XIX Visions of leave—Dick Turpin—Leave!
CHAPTER XX That Leave train—My old pal—London and home—The call of the wild.
CHAPTER XXI Back from leave—That "blinkin' moon"—Johnson 'oles—Tommy and "frightfulness"—Exploring expedition.
CHAPTER XXII A daylight stalk—The disused trench—"Did they see me?"—A good sniping position.
CHAPTER XXIII Our moated farm—Wulverghem—The Cure's house—A shattered Church—More "heavies"—A farm on fire.
CHAPTER XXIV That ration fatigue—Sketches in request—Bailleul—Baths and lunatics—How to conduct a war.
CHAPTER XXV Getting stale—Longing for change—We leave the Douve—On the march—Spotted fever—Ten days' rest.
CHAPTER XXVI A pleasant change—Suzette, Berthe and Marthe—"La jeune fille farouche"—Andre.
CHAPTER XXVII Getting fit—Caricaturing the Cure—"Dirty work ahead"—A projected attack—Unlooked-for orders.
CHAPTER XXVIII We march for Ypres—Halt at Locre—A bleak camp and meagre fare—Signs of battle—First view of Ypres.
CHAPTER XXIX Getting nearer—A lugubrious party—Still nearer—Blazing Ypres—Orders for attack.
CHAPTER XXX Rain and mud—A trying march—In the thick of it—A wounded officer—Heavy shelling—I get my "quietus!"
CHAPTER XXXI Slowly recovering—Field hospital—Ambulance train—Back in England.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Bruce Bairnsfather: a photograph
The Birth of "Fragments": Scribbles on the farmhouse walls
That Astronomical Annoyance, the Star Shell
A Hopeless Dawn
The usual line in Billeting Farms
"Chuck us the biscuits, Bill. The fire wants mendin'"
"Shut that blinkin' door. There's a 'ell of a draught in 'ere"
A Memory of Christmas, 1914
A Messines Memory: "'Ow about shiftin' a bit further down the road, Fred?"
"Old soldiers never die"
Photograph of the Author. St. Yvon, Christmas Day, 1914
Off "in" again
"Poor old Maggie! She seems to be 'avin' it dreadful wet at 'ome!"
"They're devils to snipe, ain't they, Bill?"
Down South, in the Valley of the Somme, far from the spots recorded in this book, I began to write this story.
In billets it was. I strolled across the old farmyard and into the wood beyond. Sitting by a gurgling little stream, I began, with the aid of a notebook and a pencil, to record the joys and sorrows of my first six months in France.
I do not claim any unique quality for these experiences. Many thousands have had the same. I have merely, by request, made a record of my times out there, in the way that they appeared to me.
LANDING AT HAVRE—TORTONI'S—FOLLOW THE TRAM LINES—ORDERS FOR THE FRONT
Gliding up the Seine, on a transport crammed to the lid with troops, in the still, cold hours of a November morning, was my debut into the war. It was about 6 a.m. when our boat silently slipped along past the great wooden sheds, posts and complications of Havre Harbour. I had spent most of the twelve-hour trip down somewhere in the depths of the ship, dealing out rations to the hundred men that I had brought with me from Plymouth. This sounds a comparatively simple process, but not a bit of it. To begin with, the ship was filled with troops to bursting point, and the mere matter of proceeding from one deck to another was about as difficult as trying to get round to see a friend at the other side of the ground at a Crystal Palace Cup final.
I stood in a queue of Gordons, Seaforths, Worcesters, etc., slowly moving up one, until, finally arriving at the companion (nearly said staircase), I tobogganed down into the hold, and spent what was left of the night dealing out those rations. Having finished at last, I came to the surface again, and now, as the transport glided along through the dirty waters of the river, and as I gazed at the motley collection of Frenchmen on the various wharves, and saw a variety of soldiery, and a host of other warlike "props," I felt acutely that now I was in the war at last—the real thing! For some time I had been rehearsing in England; but that was over now, and here I was—in the common or garden vernacular—"in the soup."
At last we were alongside, and in due course I had collected that hundred men of mine, and found that the number was still a hundred, after which I landed with the rest, received instructions and a guide, then started off for the Base Camps.
These Camps were about three miles out of Havre, and thither the whole contents of the ship marched in one long column, accompanied on either side by a crowd of ragged little boys shouting for souvenirs and biscuits. I and my hundred men were near the rear of the procession, and in about an hour's time arrived at the Base Camps.
I don't know that it is possible to construct anything more atrociously hideous or uninteresting than a Base Camp. It consists, in military parlance, of nothing more than:—
Fields, grassless 1 Tents, bell 500
In fact, a huge space, once a field, now a bog, on which are perched rows and rows of squalid tents.
I stumbled along over the mud with my troupe, and having found the Adjutant, after a considerable search, thought that my task was over, and that I could slink off into some odd tent or other and get a sleep and a rest. Oh no!—the Adjutant had only expected fifty men, and here was I with a hundred.
Consternation! Two hours' telephoning and intricate back-chat with the Adjutant eventually led to my being ordered to leave the expected fifty and take the others to another Base Camp hard by, and see if they would like to have them there.
The rival Base Camp expressed a willingness to have this other fifty, so at last I had finished, and having found an empty tent, lay down on the ground, with my greatcoat for a pillow and went to sleep.
I awoke at about three in the afternoon, got hold of a bucket of water and proceeded to have a wash. Having shaved, washed, brushed my hair, and had a look at the general effect in the polished back of my cigarette case (all my kit was still at the docks), I emerged from my canvas cave and started off to have a look round.
I soon discovered a small cafe down the road, and found it was a place used by several of the officers who, like myself, were temporarily dumped at the Camps. I went in and got something to eat. Quite a good little place upstairs there was, where one could get breakfast each morning: just coffee, eggs, and bread sort of thing. By great luck I met a pal of mine here; he had come over in a boat previous to mine, and after we had had a bit of a refresher and a smoke we decided to go off down to Havre and see the sights.
A tram passed along in front of this cafe, and this we boarded. It took about half an hour getting down to Havre from Bleville where the Camps were, but it was worth it.
Tortoni's Cafe, a place that we looked upon as the last link with civilization: Tortoni's, with its blaze of light, looking-glass and gold paint—its popping corks and hurrying waiters—made a deep and pleasant indent on one's mind, for "to-morrow" meant "the Front" for most of those who sat there.
As we sat in the midst of that kaleidoscopic picture, formed of French, Belgian and English uniforms, intermingled with the varied and gaudy robes of the local nymphs; as we mused in the midst of dense clouds of tobacco smoke, we could not help reflecting that this might be the last time we should look on such scenes of revelry, and came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to make the most of it while we had the chance. And, by Gad, we did....
A little after midnight I parted from my companion and started off to get back to that Base Camp of mine.
Standing in the main square of the town, I realized a few points which tended to take the edge off the success of the evening:
No. 1.—It was too late to get a tram.
No. 2.—All the taxis had disappeared.
No. 3.—It was pouring with rain.
No. 4.—I had three miles to go.
I started off to walk it—but had I known what that walk was going to be, I would have buttoned myself round a lamp-post and stayed where I was.
I made that fatal mistake of thinking that I knew the way.
Leaning at an angle of forty-five degrees against the driving rain, I staggered along the tram lines past the Casino, and feeling convinced that the tram lines must be correct, determined to follow them.
After about half an hour's walk, mostly uphill, I became rather suspicious as to the road being quite right.
Seeing a sentry-box outside a palatial edifice on the right, I tacked across the road and looked for the sentry.
A lurid thing in gendarmes advanced upon me, and I let off one of my curtailed French sentences at him:
"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"
I can't give his answer in French, but being interpreted I think it meant that I was completely on the wrong road, and that he wasn't certain as to how I could ever get back on it without returning to Havre and starting again.
He produced an envelope, made an unintelligible sketch on the back of it, and started me off again down the way I had come.
I realized what my mistake had been. There was evidently a branch tram line, which I had followed, and this I thought could only have branched off near the Casino, so back I went to the Casino and started again.
I was right about the branch line, and started merrily off again, taking as I thought the main line to Bleville.
After another half-hour of this, with eyes feverishly searching for recognizable landmarks, I again began to have doubts as to the veracity of the tram lines. However, pretending that I placed their honesty beyond all doubt, I plodded on; but round a corner, found the outlook so unfamiliar that I determined to ask again. Not a soul about. Presently I discovered a small house, standing back off the road and showing a thin slit of light above the shutters of a downstairs window. I tapped on the glass. A sound as of someone hurriedly trying to hide a pile of coverless umbrellas in a cupboard was followed by the opening of the window, and a bristling head was silhouetted against the light.
I squeezed out the same old sentence:
"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"
A fearful cataract of unintelligible words burst from the head, but left me almost as much in the dark as ever, though with a faint glimmering that I was "warmer." I felt that if I went back about a mile and turned to the left, all would be well.
I thanked the gollywog in the window, who, somehow or other, I think must have been a printer working late, and started off once more.
After another hour's route march I came to some scattered houses, and finally to a village. I was indignantly staring at a house when suddenly, joy!—I realized that what I was looking at was an unfamiliar view of the cafe where I had breakfasted earlier in the day.
Another ten minutes and I reached the Camp. Time now 2.30 a.m. I thought I would just take a look in at the Orderly Room tent to see if there were any orders in for me. It was lucky I did. Inside I found an orderly asleep in a blanket, and woke him.
"Anything in for me?" I asked. "Bairnsfather's my name."
"Yes, sir, there is," came through the blanket, and getting up he went to the table at the other end of the tent. He sleepily handed me the wire: "Lieutenant Bairnsfather to proceed to join his battalion as machine-gun officer...."
"What time do I have to push off?" I inquired.
"By the eight o'clock from Havre to-morrow, sir."
Time now 3 a.m. To-morrow—THE FRONT! And then I crept into my tent and tried to sleep.
TORTUOUS TRAVELLING—CLIPPERS AND TABLETS—DUMPED AT A SIDING—I JOIN MY BATTALION
Not much sleep that night, a sort of feverish coma instead: wild dreams in which I and the gendarme were attacking a German trench, the officer in charge of which we found to be the Base Camp Adjutant after all.
However, I got up early—packed my few belongings in my valise, which had mysteriously turned up from the docks, and went off on the tram down to Havre. That hundred men I had brought over had nothing to do with me now. I was entirely on my own, and was off to the Front to join my battalion. Down at Havre the officials at the station gave me a complicated yellow diagram, known as a travelling pass, and I got into a carriage in the train bound for Rouen.
I was not alone now; a whole forest of second lieutenants like myself were in the same train, and with them a solid, congealed mass of valises, packs, revolvers and haversacks. At last the train started, and after the usual hour spent in feeling that you have left all the most important things behind, I settled down on a mound of equipment and tried to do a bit of a sleep.
So what with sleeping, smoking and talking, we jolted along until we pulled up at Rouen. Here I had to leave the train, for some obscure reason, in order to go to the Palais de Justice to get another ticket. I padded off down over the bridge into Rouen, found the Palais, went in and was shown along to an office that dealt in tickets.
In this dark and dingy oak-panelled saloon, illuminated by electric light and the glittering reflections from gold braid, there lurked a general or two. I was here given another pass entitling me to be deposited at a certain siding in Flanders.
Back I went to the station, and in due course rattled off in the train again towards the North.
A fearfully long journey we had, up to the Front! The worst of it was that nobody knew—or, if they did, wouldn't tell you—which way you were going, or how long it would take to get to your destination. For instance, we didn't know we were going to Rouen till we got there; and we didn't know we were going from Rouen to Boulogne until, after a night spent in the train, the whole outfit jolted and jangled into the Gare de Something, down by the wharf at that salubrious seaport.
We spent a complete day and part of an evening at Boulogne, as our train did not leave until midnight.
I and another chap who was going to the next railhead to mine at the Front, went off together into the town and had lunch at a cafe in the High Street. We then strolled around the shops, buying a few things we needed. Not very attractive things either, but I'll mention them here to show how we thought and felt.
We first went to a "pharmacie" and got some boxes of morphia tablets, after which we went to an ironmonger's (don't know the French for it) and each bought a ponderous pair of barbed wire cutters. So what with wire clippers and morphia tablets, we were gay. About four o'clock we calmed down a bit, and went to the same restaurant where we had lunched.
Here we had tea with a couple of French girls, exceeding good to look upon, who had apparently escaped from Lille. We got on splendidly with them till a couple of French officers, one with the Legion of Honour, came along to the next table. That took all the shine out of us, so we determined to quit, and cleared off to the Hotel de Folkestone, where we had a bath to console us. Dinner followed, and then, feeling particularly hilarious, I made my will. Not the approved will of family lawyer style, but just a letter announcing, in bald and harsh terms that, in the event of my remaining permanently in Belgium, I wanted my total small worldly wealth to be disposed of in a certain way.
Felt better after this outburst, and, rejoining my pal, we went off into the town again and by easy stages reached the train.
At about one a.m. the train started, and we creaked and groaned our way out of Boulogne. We were now really off for the Front, and the situation, consequently, became more exciting. We were slowly getting nearer and nearer to the real thing. But what a train! It dribbled and rumbled along at about five miles an hour, and, I verily believe, stopped at every farmhouse within sight of the line. I could not help thinking that the engine driver was a German in disguise, who was trying to prevent our ever arriving at our destination. I tried to sleep, but each time the train pulled up, I woke with a start and thought that we'd got there. This went on for many hours, and as I knew we must be getting somewhere near, my dreams became worse and worse.
I somehow began to think that the engine driver was becoming cautious—(he was a Frenchman again)—thought that, perhaps, he had to get down occasionally and walk ahead a bit to see if it was safe to go on.
Nobody in the train had the least idea where the Front was, how far off, or what it was like. For all we knew, our train might be going right up into the rear of the front line trenches. Somewhere round 6 a.m. I reached my siding. All the others, except myself and one other, had got out at previous halts. I got down from the carriage on to the cinder track, and went along the line to the station. Nobody about except a few Frenchmen, so I went back to the carriage again, and sat looking out through the dimmed window at the rain-soaked flat country. The other fellow with me was doing the same. A sudden, profound depression came over me. Here was I and this other cove dumped down at this horrible siding; nothing to eat, and nobody to meet us. How rude and callous of someone, or something. I looked at my watch; it had stopped, and on trying to wind it I found it was broken.
I stared out of the window again; gave that up, and stared at the opposite seat. Suddenly my eye caught something shiny under the seat. I stooped and picked it up; it was a watch! I have always looked upon this episode as an omen of some sort; but of what sort I can't quite make out. Finding a watch means finding "Time"—perhaps it meant I would find time to write this book; on the other hand it may have meant that my time had come—who knows?
At about eight o'clock by my new watch I again made an attack on the station, and at last found the R.T.O., which, being interpreted, means the Railway Transport Officer. He told me where my battalion was to be found; but didn't know whether they were in the trenches or out. He also added that if he were me he wouldn't hurry about going there, as I could probably get a lift in an A.S.C. wagon later on. I took his advice, and having left all my tackle by his office, went into the nearest estaminet to get some breakfast. The owner, a genial but garrulous little Frenchman, spent quite a lot of time explaining to me how those hateful people, the Boches, had occupied his house not so long before, and had punched a hole in his kitchen wall to use a machine-gun through. After breakfast I went to the station and arranged for my baggage to be sent on by an A.S.C. wagon, and then started out to walk to Nieppe, which I learnt was the place where my battalion billeted. As I plodded along the muddy road in the pouring rain, I became aware of a sound with which I was afterwards to become horribly familiar.
"Boom!" That was all; but I knew it was the voice of the guns, and in that moment I realized that here was the war, and that I was in it.
I ploughed along for about four miles down uninteresting mud canals—known on maps as roads—until, finally, I entered Nieppe.
The battalion, I heard from a passing soldier, was having its last day in billets prior to going into the trenches again. They were billeted at a disused brewery at the other end of the town. I went on down the squalid street and finally found the place.
A crowd of dirty, war-worn looking soldiers were clustered about the entrance in groups. I went in through the large archway past them into the brewery yard. Soldiers everywhere, resting, talking and smoking. I inquired where the officers' quarters were, and was shown to the brewery head office. Here I found the battalion officers, many of whom I knew, and went into their improvised messroom, which, in previous days, had apparently been the Brewery Board room.
I found everything very dark, dingy and depressing. That night the battalion was going into the trenches again, and last evenings in billets are not generally very exhilarating. I sat and talked with those I knew, and presently the Colonel came in, and I heard what the orders were for the evening. I felt very strange and foreign to it all, as everyone except myself had had their baptism of trench life, and, consequently, at this time I did not possess that calm indifference, bred of painful experience, which is part of the essence of a true trench-dweller.
The evening drew on. We had our last meal in billets—sardines, bread, butter and cake sort of thing—slung on to the bare table by the soldier servants, who were more engrossed in packing up things they were taking to the trenches than in anything else.
And now the time came to start off. I found the machine-gun section in charge of a sergeant, a most excellent fellow, who had looked after the section since the officer (whose place I had come to fill) had been wounded. I took over from him, and, as the battalion moved off along the road, fell in behind with my latest acquisition—a machine-gun section, with machine guns to match. It was quite dusk now, and as we neared the great Bois de Ploegstert, known all over the world as "Plugstreet Wood," it was nearly night. The road was getting rougher, and the houses, dotted about in dark silhouettes against the sky-line, had a curiously deserted and worn appearance. Everything was looking dark, damp and drear.
On we went down the road through the wood, stumbling along in the darkness over the shell-pitted track. Weird noises occasionally floated through the trees; the faint "crack" of a rifle, or the rumble of limber wheels. A distant light flickered momentarily in the air, cutting out in bold relief the ruins of the shattered chateau on our left. On we went through this scene of dark and humid desolation, past the occasional mounds of former habitations, on into the trenches before Plugstreet Wood.
THOSE PLUGSTREET TRENCHES—MUD AND RAIN—FLOODED OUT—A HOPELESS DAWN
An extraordinary sensation—the first time of going into trenches. The first idea that struck me about them was their haphazard design. There was, no doubt, some very excellent reason for someone or other making those trenches as they were; but they really did strike me as curious when I first saw them.
A trench will, perhaps, run diagonally across a field, will then go along a hedge at right angles, suddenly give it up and start again fifty yards to the left, in such a position that it is bound to cross the kitchen-garden of a shattered chateau, go through the greenhouse and out into the road. On getting there it henceforth rivals the ditch at the side in the amount of water it can run off into a row of dug-outs in the next field. There is, apparently, no necessity for a trench to be in any way parallel to the line of your enemy; as long as he can't shoot you from immediately behind, that's all you ask.
It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches. Everything was strange, and wet and horrid. First of all I had to go and fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dug-outs had fallen in and floated off down stream.
In this, and subsequent descriptions of the trenches, I may lay myself open to the charge of exaggeration. But it must be remembered that I am describing trench life in the early days of 1914, and I feel sure that those who had experience of them will acquit me of any such charge.
To give a recipe for getting a rough idea, in case you want to, I recommend the following procedure. Select a flat ten-acre ploughed field, so sited that all the surface water of the surrounding country drains into it. Now cut a zig-zag slot about four feet deep and three feet wide diagonally across, dam off as much water as you can so as to leave about a hundred yards of squelchy mud; delve out a hole at one side of the slot, then endeavour to live there for a month on bully beef and damp biscuits, whilst a friend has instructions to fire at you with his Winchester every time you put your head above the surface.
Well, here I was, anyway, and the next thing was to make the best of it. As I have before said, these were the days of the earliest trenches in this war: days when we had none of those desirable "props," such as corrugated iron, floorboards, and sand bags ad lib.
When you made a dug-out in those days you made it out of anything you could find, and generally had to make it yourself. That first night I was "in" I discovered, after a humid hour or so, that our battalion wouldn't fit into the spaces left by the last one, and as regards dug-outs, the truth of that mathematical axiom, "Two's into one, won't go," suddenly dawned on me with painful clearness. I was faced with making a dug-out, and it was raining, of course. (Note.—Whenever I don't state the climatic conditions, read "raining.") After sloshing about in several primitive trenches in the vicinity of the spot where we had fixed our best machine-gun position, my sergeant and I discovered a sort of covered passage in a ditch in front of a communication trench. It was a sort of emergency exit back from a row of ramshackle, water-logged hovels in the ditch to the communication trench. We decided to make use of this passage, and arranged things in such a way that by scooping out the clay walls we made two caves, one behind the other. The front one was about five yards from the machine gun, and you reached the back cave by going through the outer one. It now being about 11 p.m., and having been for the last five hours perpetually on the scramble, through trenches of all sorts, I drew myself into the inner cave to go to sleep.
This little place was about 4 feet long, 3 feet high, and 3 feet wide. I got out my knife, took a scoop out of the clay wall, and fishing out a candle-end from my pocket, stuck it in the niche, lit it and a cigarette. I now lay down and tried to size up the situation and life in general.
Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity, somewhere in Belgium, miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud. This was the first day; and, so far as I could see, the future contained nothing but repetitions of the same thing, or worse.
Nothing was to be heard except the occasional crack of the sniper's shot, the dripping of the rain, and the low murmur of voices from the outer cave.
In the narrow space beside me lay my equipment; revolver, and a sodden packet of cigarettes. Everything damp, cold and dark; candle-end guttering. I think suddenly of something like the Empire or the Alhambra, or anything else that's reminiscent of brightness and life, and then—swish, bang—back to the reality that the damp clay wall is only eighteen inches in front of me; that here I am—that the Boche is just on the other side of the field; and that there doesn't seem the slightest chance of leaving except in an ambulance.
My machine-gun section for the gun near by lay in the front cave, a couple of feet from me; their spasmodic talking gradually died away as, one by one, they dropped off to sleep. One more indignant, hopeless glare at the flickering candle-end, then I pinched the wick, curled up, and went to sleep.
* * * * *
A sudden cold sort of peppermint sensation assailed me; I awoke and sat up. My head cannoned off the clay ceiling, so I partially had to lie down again.
I attempted to strike a match, but found the whole box was damp and sodden. I heard a muttering of voices and a curse or two in the outer cavern, and presently the sergeant entered my sanctum on all fours:
"We're bein' flooded out, sir; there's water a foot deep in this place of ours."
That explains it. I feel all round the back of my greatcoat and find I have been sleeping in a pool of water.
I crawled out of my inner chamber, and the whole lot of us dived through the rapidly rising water into the ditch outside. I scrambled up on to the top of the bank, and tried to focus the situation.
From inquiries and personal observation I found that the cause of the tide rising was the fact that the Engineers had been draining the trench, in the course of which process they had apparently struck a spring of water.
We accepted the cause of the disaster philosophically, and immediately discussed what was the best thing to be done. Action of some sort was urgently necessary, as at present we were all sitting on the top of the mud bank of the ditch in the silent, steady rain, the whole party being occasionally illuminated by a German star shell—more like a family sitting for a flashlight photograph than anything else.
We decided to make a dam. Having found an empty ration box and half a bag of coke, we started on the job of trying to fence off the water from our cave. After about an hour's struggle with the elements we at last succeeded, with the aid of the ration box, the sack of coke and a few tins of bully, in reducing the water level inside to six inches.
Here we were, now wetter than ever, cold as Polar bears, sitting in this hygroscopic catacomb at about 2 a.m. We longed for a fire; a fire was decided on. We had a fire bucket—it had started life as a biscuit tin—a few bits of damp wood, but no coke. "We had some coke, I'm sure! Why, of course—we built it into the dam!" Down came the dam, out came the coke, and in came the water. However, we preferred the water to the cold; so, finally, after many exasperating efforts, we got a fire going in the bucket. Five minutes' bliss followed by disaster. The fire bucket proceeded to emit such dense volumes of sulphurous smoke that in a few moments we couldn't see a lighted match.
We stuck it a short time longer, then one by one dived into the water and out into the air, shooting out of our mud hovel to the surface like snakes when you pour water down their holes.
Time now 3 a.m. No sleep; rain, water, plus smoke. A board meeting held immediately decides to give up sleep and dug-outs for that night. A motion to try and construct a chimney with an entrenching tool is defeated by five votes to one ... dawn is breaking—my first night in trenches comes to an end.
MORE MUD—RAIN AND BULLETS—A BIT OF CAKE—"WIND UP"—NIGHT ROUNDS
The rose-pink sky fades off above to blue, The morning star alone proclaims the dawn. The empty tins and barbed wire bathed in dew Emerge, and then another day is born.
I wrote that "poem" in those—trenches, so you can see the sort of state to which I was reduced.
Well, my first trench night was over; the dawn had broken—everything else left to break had been seen to by the artillery, which started off generally at about eight. And what a fearful long day it seemed, that first one! As soon as it was light I began scrambling about, and having a good look at the general lie of things. In front was a large expanse of root field, at the further side of which a long irregular parapet marked the German trenches. Behind those again was more root field, dented here and there with shell holes filled with water, beyond which stood a few isolated remnants which had once been cottages. I stood at a projection in one of our trenches, from where I could see the general shape of our line, and could glimpse a good view of the German arrangements. Not a soul could be seen anywhere. Here and there a wisp of smoke indicated a fire bucket. Behind our trenches, behind the shattered houses at the top of a wooded rise in the ground, stood what once must have been a fine chateau. As I looked, a shrieking hollow whistle overhead, a momentary pause, then—"Crumph!" showed clearly what was the matter with the chateau. It was being shelled. The Germans seemed to have a rooted objection to that chateau. Every morning, as we crouched in our mud kennels, we heard those "Crumphs," and soon got to be very good judges of form. We knew they were shelling the chateau. When they didn't shell the chateau, we got it in the trenches; so we looked on that dear old mangled wreck with a friendly eye—that tapering, twisted, perforated spire, which they never could knock down, was an everlasting bait to the Boche, and a perfect fairy godmother to us.
Oh, those days in that trench of ours! Each day seemed about a week long. I shared a dug-out with a platoon commander after that first night. The machine-gun section found a suitable place and made a dug-out for themselves.
Day after day, night after night, my companion and I lay and listened to the daily explosions, read, and talked, and sloshed about that trench together.
The greatest interest one had in the daytime was sitting on the damp straw in our clay vault, scraping the mud off one's saturated boots and clothes. The event to which one looked forward with the greatest interest was the arrival of letters in the evening.
Now and again we got out of our dug-out and sloshed down the trench to scheme out some improvement or other, or to furtively look out across the water-logged turnip field at the Boche trenches opposite. Occasionally, in the silent, still, foggy mornings, a voice from somewhere in the alluvial depths of a miserable trench, would suddenly burst into a scrap of song, such as—
Old soldiers never die, They simply fade away.
—a voice full of "fed-upness," steeped in determination.
Then all would be silence for the next couple of hours, and so the day passed.
At dusk, my job was to emerge from this horrible drain and go round the various machine-gun positions. What a job! I generally went alone, and in the darkness struck out across the sodden field, tripping, stumbling, and sometimes falling into various shell holes on the way.
One does a little calling at this time of day. Having seen a gun in another trench, one looks up the nearest platoon commander. You look into so-and-so's dug-out and find it empty. You ask a sergeant where the occupant is.
"He's down the trench, sir." You push your way down the trench, dodging pools of water and stepping over fire buckets, mess tins, brushing past men standing, leaning or sitting—right on down the trench, where, round a corner, you find the platoon commander. "Well, if we can't get any sandbags," he is probably saying to a sergeant, "we will just have to bank it up with earth, and put those men on the other side of the traverse," or something like that. He turns to me and says, "Come along back to my dug-out and have a bit of cake. Someone or other has sent one out from home."
We start back along the trench. Suddenly a low murmuring, rattling sound can be heard in the distance. We stop to listen, the sound gets louder; everyone stops to listen—the sound approaches, and is now distinguishable as rifle-fire. The firing becomes faster and faster; then suddenly swells into a roar and now comes the phenomenon of trench warfare: "wind up"—the prairie fire of the trenches.
Everyone stands to the parapet, and away on the left a tornado of crackling sound can be heard, getting louder and louder. In a few seconds it has swept on down the line, and now a deafening rattle of rifle-fire is going on immediately in front. Bullets are flicking the tops of the sandbags on the parapet in hundreds, whilst white streaks are shooting up with a swish into the sky and burst into bright radiating blobs of light—the star shell at its best.
A curious thing, this "wind up." We never knew when it would come on. It is caused entirely by nerves. Perhaps an inquisitive Boche, somewhere a mile or two on the left, had thought he saw someone approaching his barbed wire; a few shots are exchanged—a shout or two, followed by more shots—panic—more shots—panic spreading—then suddenly the whole line of trenches on a front of a couple of miles succumbs to that well-known malady, "wind up."
In reality it is highly probable that there was no one in front near the wire, and no one has had the least intention of being there.
Presently there comes a deep "boom" from somewhere in the distance behind, and a large shell sails over our heads and explodes somewhere amongst the Boches; another and another, and then all becomes quiet again. The rifle fire diminishes and soon ceases. Total result of one of these firework displays: several thousand rounds of ammunition squibbed off, hundreds of star shells wasted, and no casualties.
It put the "wind up" me at first, but I soon got to know these affairs, and learnt to take them calmly.
I went along with the platoon commander back to his lair. An excellent fellow he was. No one in this war could have hated it all more than he did, and no one could have more conscientiously done his very best at it. Poor fellow, he was afterwards killed near Ypres.
"Well, how are things going with you?" I said.
"Oh, all right. They knocked down that same bit of parapet again to-day. I think they must imagine we've got a machine gun there, or something. That's twice we've had to build it up this week. Have a bit of cake?"
So I had a bit of cake and left him; he going back to that old parapet again, whilst I struck off into the dark, wet field towards another gun position, falling into an unfamiliar "Johnson 'ole" on the way.
No one gets a better idea of the general lie of the position than a machine-gun officer. In those early, primitive days, when we had so few of each thing, we, of course, had few machine guns, and these had to be sprinkled about a position to the best possible advantage. The consequence was that people like myself had to cover a considerable amount of ground before our rambles in the dark each night were done.
One machine gun might be, say, in "Dead Man Farm"; another at the "Barrier" near the cross roads; whilst another couple were just at some effective spot in a trench, or in a commanding position in a shattered farm or cottage behind the front line trenches.
I would leave my dug-out as soon as it was dark and do the round of all the guns every night. Just as a sample, I will carry on from where I left the platoon commander.
I slosh across the ploughed field at what I feel to be a correct angle to bring me out on the cross roads, where, about two hundred yards away, I have another gun. I scramble across a broken gateway and an old bit of trench, and close behind come to a deep cutting into which I jump. About five yards along this I come to a machine-gun emplacement, with a machine-gun sentry on guard.
"Where's the corporal?"
"I'm 'ere, sir," is emitted from the slimy depths of a narrow low-roofed dug-out, and the corporal emerges, hooking back the waterproof sheet as he comes out to prevent the light showing.
"How about this gun, Corporal—is everything all right?"
"Yes, sir; but I was looking around to-day, and thought that if we was to shift the gun over there, where the dead cow is, we'd get a better field of fire."
Meeting adjourned to inspect this valuable site from the windward side.
After a short, blood-thirsty conversation relative to the perforating of the enemy, I leave and push off into the bog again, striking out for another visit. Finally, after two hours' visiting, floundering, bullet dodging, and star shell shirking, accompanied by a liberal allowance of "narrow squeaks," I get back to my own bit of trench; and tobogganing down where I erroneously think the clay steps are, I at last reach my dug-out, and entering on all fours, crouch amongst the damp tobacco leaves and straw and light a cigarette.
MY MAN FRIDAY—"CHUCK US THE BISCUITS"—RELIEVED—BILLETS
It was during this first time up in the trenches that I got a soldier servant.
As I had arrived only just in time to go with the battalion to the trenches, the acquisition had to be made by a search in the mud. I found a fellow who hadn't been an officer's servant before, but who wanted to be. I liked the look of him; so feeling rather like Robinson Crusoe, when he booked up Friday, "I got me a man."
He lived in a dug-out about five yards away, and from then onwards continued with me right to the point where this book finishes. This fellow of mine did all my cooking, such as it was, and worked in conjunction with my friend, the platoon commander's servant. Cooking, at the times I write about, consisted of making innumerable brews of tea, and opening tins of bully and Maconochie. Occasionally bacon had to be fried in a mess-tin lid. One day my man soared off into culinary fancies and curried a Maconochie. I have never quite forgiven him for this; I am nearly right again now.
These two soldier servants never had to leave the trench. It was their job to try and find something to make a fire with, and to do all they could to keep the water out of our dug-out, a task which not one of us succeeded in doing. My plan for sustaining life under these conditions was to change my boots as often as possible. If there wasn't time for this I used to try and boil the water in my boots by keeping my feet to the fire bucket. I always put my puttees on first and then a pair of thick socks, and finally a pair of boots. I could, by this means, hurriedly slip off the sodden pair of boots and socks and slip on another set which had become fairly dry by the fire. We lived perpetually damp, if not thoroughly wet. My puttees, which I rarely removed, were more like long rolls of the consistency of nougat than anything else, thanks to the mud. Dug-outs had no wooden linings in those days; no corrugated iron roofs; no floorboards. They were just holes in the clay side of the fire trench, with any old thing for a roof, and old straw or tobacco leaves, which we pinched from some abandoned farm, for a floor. So, you see, there was not much of a chance of dodging the moisture.
The cold was what got me. Personally, I would far rather have gone without food than a fire. A fire of some sort was the only thing to cheer. Coke was scarce and always wet, and it was by no means uncommon to over-hear a remark of this sort: "Chuck us the biscuits, Bill; the fire wants mendin'."
At night I would frequently sally forth to a cracked up village behind, and perhaps procure half a mantelpiece and an old clog to stoke our "furnace" with.
Well, after the usual number of long days and still longer nights spent under these conditions, we came to the day when it was our turn to go out to rest billets, and a relieving battalion to come in. What a splendid day that is! You start "packing" at about 4 p.m. As soon as it is dusk the servants slink off across that turnip morass behind and drag our few belongings back to where the limbers are. These limbers have come up from about three to four miles away, from the Regimental Transport headquarters, to take all the trench "props" back to the billets.
We don't leave, ourselves, until the "incoming" battalion has taken over.
After what seems an interminable wait, we hear a clinking of mess tins and rattling of equipment, the sloshing of feet in the mud, and much whispered profanity, which all goes to announce to you that "they're here!" Then you know that the other battalion has arrived, and are now about to take over these precious slots in the ground.
When the exchange is complete, we are free to go!—to go out for our few days in billets!
The actual going out and getting clear of the trenches takes a long time. Handing over, and finally extricating ourselves from the morass, in the dark, with all our belongings, is a lengthy process; and then we have about a mile of country which we have never been able to examine in the day time, and get familiar with, to negotiate. This is before we get to the high road, and really start for billets.
I had the different machine-gun sections to collect from their various guns, and this not until the relieving sections had all turned up. It was a good two hours' job getting all the sections with their guns, ammunition and various extras finally collected together in the dark a mile back, ready to put all the stuff in the limbers, and so back to billets. When all was fixed up I gave the order and off we started, plodding along back down the narrow, dreary road towards our resting-place. But it was quite a cheerful tramp, knowing as we did that we were going to four days' comparative rest, and, anyway, safety.
On we went down the long, flat, narrow roads, occasionally looking round to see the faint flicker of a star shell showing over the tops of the trees, and to think momentarily of the "poor devils" left behind to take our place, and go on doing just what we had been at. Then, finally, getting far enough away to forget, songs and jokes took us chirping along, past objects which soon became our landmarks in the days to come. On we went, past estaminets, shrines and occasional windmills, down the long winding road for about four miles, until at last we reached our billets, where the battalion willingly halted and dispersed to its various quarters. I and my machine-gun section had still to carry on, for we lived apart, a bit further on, at the Transport Farm. So we continued on our own for another mile and a half, past the estaminet at Romerin, out on towards Neuve Eglise to our Transport Farm. This was the usual red-tiled Belgian farm, with a rectangular smell in the middle.
THE TRANSPORT FARM—FLEECED BY THE FLEMISH—RIDING—NEARING CHRISTMAS
It was about 9 p.m. when we turned into the courtyard of the farm. My sergeant saw to the unlimbering, and dismissed the section, whilst I went into the farm and dismantled myself of all my tackle, such as revolver, field-glass, greatcoat, haversacks, etc.
My servant had, of course, preceded me, and by the time I had made a partial attempt at cleaning myself, he had brought in a meal of sorts and laid it on the oilcloth-covered table by the stove. I was now joined by the transport officer and the regimental quartermaster. They lived at this farm permanently, and only came to the trenches on occasional excursions. They had both had a go at the nasty part of warfare though, before this, so although consumed with a sneaking envy, I was full of respect for them.
We three had a very merry and genial time together. We now had something distinctly resembling a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner, each day. The transport officer took a lively interest in the efforts of Messrs. Fortnum and Mason, and thus added generously to our menus. It was a glorious feeling, pushing open the door of that farm and coming in from all the wet, darkness, mud and weariness of four days in the trenches. After the supper, I disappeared into the back kitchen place and did what was possible in the shaving and washing line. The Belgian family were all herded away in here, as their front rooms were now our exclusive property. I have never quite made out what the family consisted of, but, approximately, I should think, mother and father and ten children. I am pretty certain about the children, as about half a platoon stood around me whilst shaving, and solemnly watched me with dull brown Flemish eyes. The father kept in the background, resting, I fancy, from his usual day's work of hiding unattractive turnips in enormous numbers, under mounds of mud—(the only form of farming industry which came under my notice in Flanders).
The mother, however, was "all there," in more senses than one. She was of about observation balloon proportions, and had an unerring eye for the main chance. Her telegraphic address, I should imagine, was "Fleecem." She had one sound commercial idea, i.e., "charge as much as you can for everything they want, hide everything they do want, and slowly collect any property, in the way of food, they have in the cellar; so that, in the future, there shall be no lack of bully and jam in our farm, at any rate."
They had one farm labourer, a kind of epileptic who, I found out, gave his services in return for being fed—no pay. He will regret this contract of his in time, as the food in question was bully beef and plum and apple jam, with an occasional change to Maconochie and apple and plum jam. That store in the cellar absolutely precludes him from any change from this diet for many years to come. Of course, I must say his work was not such as would be classed amongst the skilled or intellectual trades; it was, apparently, to pump all the accumulated drainage from a subterranean vault out into the yard in front, about twice a week, the rest of his time being taken up by assisting at the hiding of the turnips.
After I had washed and shaved under the critical eyes of Angele, Rachel, Andre and Co., I retired into an inner chamber which had once been an apple store, and went to bed on a straw mattress in the corner. Pyjamas at last! and an untroubled sleep. Occasionally in the night one would wake and, listening at the open window, would hear the distant rattle of rifle fire far away beyond the woods.
These four days at the Transport Farm were days of wallowing in rest. There was, of course, certain work to be done in connection with the machine-gun department, such as overhauling and cleaning the guns, and drilling the section at intervals; but the evenings and nights were a perfect joy after those spent in the trenches.
One could walk about the fields near by; could read, write letters, and sleep as much as one liked. And if one wished, walk or ride over to see friends at the other billets. Ah, yes! ride—I am sorry to say that riding was not, and is not, my forte. Unfortunate this, as the machine-gun officer is one of the few privileged to have a horse. I was entitled to ride to the trenches, and ride away from them, and during our rest, ride wherever I wanted to go; but these advantages, so coveted by my horseless pals in the regiment, left me cold. I never will be any good at the "Haute Ecole" act, I'm sure, although I made several attempts to get a liking for the subject in France. When the final day came for our departure to the trenches again, I rode from that Transport Farm.
Riding in England, or in any civilized country, is one thing, and riding in those barren, shell-torn wastes of Flanders is another. The usual darkness, rain and mud pervaded the scene when the evening came for our return journey to the trenches. My groom (curse him) had not forgotten to saddle the horse and bring it round. There it was, standing gaunt and tall in front of the paraded machine-gun section. With my best equestrian demeanour I crossed the yard, and hauling myself up on to my horse, choked out a few commands to the section, and sallied forth on to the road towards the trenches.
Thank Heaven, I didn't go into the Cavalry. The roads about the part we were performing in were about two yards wide and a precipitous ditch at each side. In the middle, all sorts and conditions of holes punctuated their long winding length. Add to this the fact that you are either meeting, or being passed by, a motor lorry every ten minutes, and you will get an idea of the conditions under which riding takes place.
Well, anyway, during the whole of my equestrian career in France, I never came off. I rode along in front of my section, balancing on this "Ship of the Desert" of mine, past all the same landmarks, cracked houses, windmills, estaminets, etc. I experienced innumerable tense moments when my horse—as frequently happened—took me for a bit of a circular tour in an adjacent field, so as to avoid some colossal motor lorry with one headlight of about a million candle-power, which would suddenly roar its way down our single narrow road. At last we got to the dumping-ground spot again—the spot where we horsemen have to come to earth and walk, and where everything is unbaled from the limbers. Here we were again, on the threshold of the trenches.
This monotonous dreary routine of "in" and "out" of the trenches had to be gone through many, many times before we got to Christmas Day. But, during that pre-Christmas period, there was one outstanding feature above the normal dangerous dreariness of the trenches: that was a slight affair in the nature of our attack on the 18th of December, so in the next chapter I will proceed to outline my part in this passage of arms.
A PROJECTED ATTACK—-DIGGING A SAP— AN 'ELL OF A NIGHT—THE ATTACK— PUNCTURING PRUSSIANS
One evening I was sitting, coiled up in the slime at the bottom of my dug-out, toying with the mud enveloping my boots, when a head appeared at a gap in my mackintosh doorway and said, "The Colonel wants to see you, sir." So I clambered out and went across the field, down a trench, across a road and down a trench again to where the headquarter dug-outs lay all in a row.
I came to the Colonel's dug-out, where, by the light of a candle-end stuck on an improvised table, he was sitting, busily explaining something by the aid of a map to a group of our officers. I waited till he had finished, knowing that he would want to see me after the others, as the machine-gunner's job is always rather a specialized side-line. Soon he explained to me what he wished me to do with my guns, and gave me a rough outline of the projected attack. He pointed out on the map where he wished me to take up positions, and closed the interview by saying that he thought I should at once proceed to reconnoitre the proposed sites, and lay all my plans for getting into position, as we were going to conduct an operation on the Boches at dawn the next day.
I left, and started at once on my plans. The first thing was to have a thorough good look at the ground, and examine all the possibilities for effective machine-gun co-operation. I determined to take my sergeant along with me, so that he would be as familiar with the scheme in hand as I was. It was raining, of course, and the night was as black as pitch when we both started out on our Sherlock Holmes excursion. I explained the idea of the attack to him, and the part we had to play. The troops on our right were going to carry out the actual attack, and we, on their left flank, were going to lend assistance by engaging the Deutschers in front and by firing half-right to cover our men's advance. My job was clear enough. I had to bring as many machine guns as I could spare down to the right of our own line to assist as much as possible in the real attack. My sergeant and I went down to examine the ground where it was essential for us to fix up. We got to our last trench on the right, and clambering over the parapet, did what we could to find out the nature of the ground in front, and see how we could best fix our machine guns to cover the enemy. We soon saw that in order to get a really clear field of fire it was necessary for us to sap out from the end of our existing right-hand trench and make a machine-gun emplacement at the end.
This necessitated the digging of a sap of about ten yards in length, collecting all the materials for making an emplacement, and mounting our machine gun. It was now about 11 p.m., and all this work had to be completed before dawn.
Having rapidly realized that there was not the slightest prospect of any sleep, and that the morrow looked like being a busy day, we commenced with characteristic fed-up vigour to carry out our nefarious design.
A section, myself and the sergeant, started on digging that sap, and what a job it was! The Germans were particularly restless that night; kept on squibbing away whilst we were digging, and as it was some time before we had the sap deep enough to be able to stand upright without fear of a puncture in some part of our anatomy, it was altogether most unpleasant. At about an hour before dawn we had got as far as making the emplacement. This we started to put together as hard as we could. We filled sandbags with the earth excavated from the sap, and with frenzied energy tried to complete our defences before dawn. The rain and darkness, both very intense that night, were really very trying. One would pause, shovel in hand, lean against the clay side of the sap, and hurriedly contemplate the scene. Five men, a sergeant and myself, wet through and muddy all over; no sleep, little to eat, silently digging and filling sandbags with an ever-watchful eye for the breaking of the dawn.
Light was breaking across the sky before the job was done, and we had still to complete the top guard of our emplacement. Then we had some fireworks. The nervy Boches had spotted our sap as something new, and their bullets, whacking up against our newly-thrown-up parapet, made us glad we had worked so busily.
We were bound to complete that emplacement, so, at convenient intervals, we crept to the opening, and after saying "one, two, three!" suddenly plumped a newly-filled sandbag on the top. Each time we did this half a dozen bullets went zipping through the canvas or just past overhead. This operation had to be done about a dozen times.
A warm job! At last it was finished, and we sank down into the bottom of the sap to rest. The time for the artillery bombardment had been fixed to begin at about 6 a.m., if I remember rightly, so we got a little rest between finishing our work and the attack itself.
Of course the whole of this enterprise, as far as the bombardment and attack were concerned, cannot be compared with the magnitude of a similar performance in 1915. All the same, it was pretty bad, but not anything like so accurately calculated, or so mechanically efficient as our later efforts in this line. The precise time-table methods of the present period did not exist then, but the main idea of giving the Opposition as much heavy lyddite, followed by shrapnel, was the same.
At about half-past six, as we sat in the sap, we heard the first shell go over. I went to the end of the traverse alongside the emplacement, and watched the German trenches. We were ready to fire at any of the enemy we could see, and when the actual attack started, at the end of the bombardment, we were going to keep up a perpetual sprinkling of bullets along their reserve trenches. A few isolated houses stood just in line with the German trenches. Our gunners had focussed on these, and they gave them a good pasting.
"Crumph! bang! bang! crumph!"—hard at it all the time, whilst shrapnel burst and whizzed about all along the German parapet. The view in front soon became a sort of haze of black dust, as "heavy" after "heavy" burst on top of the Boche positions. Columns of earth and black smoke shot up like giant fountains into the air. I caught sight of a lot of the enemy running along a shallow communication trench of theirs, apparently with the intention of reinforcing their front line. We soon had our machine gun peppering up these unfortunates, and from that moment on kept up an incessant fire on the enemy.
On my left, two of our companies were keeping up a solid rapid fire on the German lines immediately in front.
At last the bombardment ceased. A confused sound of shouts and yells on our right, intermingled with a terrific crackle of rifle fire, told us the attack had started. Without ceasing, we kept up the only assistance we could give: our persistent firing half-right.
How long it all lasted I can't remember; but when I crept into a soldier's dug-out, back in one of our trenches, completely exhausted, I heard that we had taken the enemy trench, but that, unfortunately, owing to its enfiladed position, we had to abandon it later.
Such was my first experience of this see-saw warfare of the trenches.
A few days later, as I happened to be passing through poor, shattered Plugstreet Wood, I came across a clearance 'midst the trees.
Two rows of long, brown mounds of earth, each surmounted by a rough, simple wooden cross, was all that was inside the clearing. I stopped, and looked, and thought—then went away.
CHRISTMAS EVE——A LULL IN HATE— BRITON CUM BOCHE
Shortly after the doings set forth in the previous chapter we left the trenches for our usual days in billets. It was now nearing Christmas Day, and we knew it would fall to our lot to be back in the trenches again on the 23rd of December, and that we would, in consequence, spend our Christmas there. I remember at the time being very down on my luck about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was obviously knocked on the head. Now, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.
Well, as I said before, we went "in" again on the 23rd. The weather had now become very fine and cold. The dawn of the 24th brought a perfectly still, cold, frosty day. The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us all; we tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas, different in some way to others. Invitations from one dug-out to another for sundry meals were beginning to circulate. Christmas Eve was, in the way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be.
I was billed to appear at a dug-out about a quarter of a mile to the left that evening to have rather a special thing in trench dinners—not quite so much bully and Maconochie about as usual. A bottle of red wine and a medley of tinned things from home deputized in their absence. The day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of an invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two lines, which said "This is Christmas Eve for both of us—something in common."
About 10 p.m. I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful. There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:
"You can 'ear 'em quite plain, sir!"
"Hear what?" I inquired.
"The Germans over there, sir; 'ear 'em singin' and playin' on a band or somethin'."
I listened;—away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The singing seemed to be loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.
"Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?" I said.
"Yes," he replied; "they've been at it some time!"
"Come on," said I, "let's go along the trench to the hedge there on the right—that's the nearest point to them, over there."
So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing a precarious version of "Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles," at the conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again. A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, "Come over here!" A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, "Come over here!"
"You come half-way—I come half-way," floated out of the darkness.
"Come on, then!" shouted the sergeant. "I'm coming along the hedge!"
"Ah! but there are two of you," came back the voice from the other side.
Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches. He was quickly out of sight; but, as we all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic conversation taking place out there in the darkness.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochie's and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him. The seance was over, but it had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve—something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.
After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our ardour or determination; but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate. Just on the right day, too—Christmas Eve! But, as a curious episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the following day.
On Christmas morning I awoke very early, and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards—the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.
"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this!" I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!" And I wasn't far wrong; it did around us, anyway, and I have always been so glad to think of my luck in, firstly, being actually in the trenches on Christmas Day, and, secondly, being on the spot where quite a unique little episode took place.
Everything looked merry and bright that morning—the discomforts seemed to be less, somehow; they seemed to have epitomized themselves in intense, frosty cold. It was just the sort of day for Peace to be declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should like to have suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say, "What was that?" Siren blowing again: appearance of a small figure running across the frozen mud waving something. He gets closer—a telegraph boy with a wire! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I open it: "War off, return home.—George, R.I." Cheers! But no, it was a nice, fine day, that was all.
Walking about the trench a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over their parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked about itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take "Our Bert" long to be up on the skyline (it is one long grind to ever keep him off it). This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied to by all our Alf's and Bill's, until, in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in no-man's land.
A strange sight, truly!
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the German trenches.
It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.
This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match. The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted headdresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a light-hearted, open, humorous collection as opposed to the sombre demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
The shortest effect I can give of the impression I had was that our men, superior, broadminded, more frank, and lovable beings, were regarding these faded, unimaginative products of perverted kulture as a set of objectionable but amusing lunatics whose heads had got to be eventually smacked.
"Look at that one over there, Bill," our Bert would say, as he pointed out some particularly curious member of the party.
I strolled about amongst them all, and sucked in as many impressions as I could. Two or three of the Boches seemed to be particularly interested in me, and after they had walked round me once or twice with sullen curiosity stamped on their faces, one came up and said "Offizier?" I nodded my head, which means "Yes" in most languages, and, besides, I can't talk German.
These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting.
I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons.
We both then said things to each other which neither understood, and agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.
Whilst this was going on a babbling of guttural ejaculations emanating from one of the laager-schifters, told me that some idea had occurred to someone.
Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several photographs, and have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement for getting a copy. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are reposing on some Hun mantelpieces, showing clearly and unmistakably to admiring strafers how a group of perfidious English surrendered unconditionally on Christmas Day to the brave Deutschers.
Slowly the meeting began to disperse; a sort of feeling that the authorities on both sides were not very enthusiastic about this fraternizing seemed to creep across the gathering. We parted, but there was a distinct and friendly understanding that Christmas Day would be left to finish in tranquillity. The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.
SOUVENIRS—A RIDE TO NIEPPE—TEA AT H.Q.—TRENCHES ONCE MORE
A couple of days after Christmas we left for billets. These two days were of a very peaceful nature, but not quite so enthusiastically friendly as the day itself. The Germans could be seen moving about in their trenches, and one felt quite at ease sitting on the top of our parapet or strolling about the fields behind our lines.
It was during these two days that I managed to get a German rifle that I had had my eye on for a month. It lay out in the open, near one or two corpses between our trenches and theirs, and until this Christmas truce arrived, the locality was not a particularly attractive one to visit. Had I fixed an earlier date for my exploit the end of it would most probably have been—a battered second-lieutenant's cap and a rusty revolver hanging up in the ingle-nook at Herr Someone-or-other's country home in East Prussia. As it was, I was able to walk out and return with the rifle unmolested.
When we left the trenches to "go out" this time I took the rifle along with me. After my usual perilous equestrian act I got back to the Transport Farm, and having performed the usual routine of washing, shaving, eating and drinking, blossomed forth into our four days' rest again.
The weather was splendid. I went out for walks in the fields, rehearsed the machine-gun section in their drill, and conducted cheery sort of "Squire-of-the-village" conversations with the farmer who owned our farm.
At this period, most of my pals in the regiment used to go into Armentieres or Bailleul, and get a breath of civilized life. I often wished I felt as they did, but I had just the opposite desire. I felt that, to adequately stick out what we were going through, it was necessary for me to keep well in the atmosphere, and not to let any exterior influence upset it.
I was annoyed at having to take up this line, but somehow or other I had a feeling that I could not run the war business with a spot of civilization in it. Personally, I felt that, rather than leave the trenches for our periodic rests, I would sooner have stayed there all the time consecutively, until I could stick it out no longer.
During this after-Christmas rest, however, I so far relapsed from these views as to decide to go into Nieppe to get some money from the Field Cashier. That was my first fall, but my second was even more strange. In a truculent tone I said I would ride!
"Smith, go and tell Parker to get my horse ready!" It just shows how reckless warfare makes one.
A beautiful, fine, still afternoon. I started off. Enormous success. I walked and trotted along, past all sorts of wagons, lorries, guns and despatch riders. Nearly decided to take up hunting, when the time came for me to settle in England once more. However, as I neared the outskirts of Nieppe, and saw the flood of interlacing traffic, I decided to leave well alone—to tie this quadruped of mine up at some outlying hostelry and walk the short remaining distance into the town where the cashier had his office. I found a suitable place and, letting myself down to the ground, strode off with a stiff bandy-legged action to the office. Having got my 100 francs all right I made the best of my short time on earth by walking about and having a good look at the town. A squalid, uninteresting place, Nieppe; a dirty red-brick town with a good sprinkling of factory chimneys and orange peel; rather the same tone as one of the Potteries towns in England. Completing my tour I returned to the horse, and finally, stiff but happy, I glided to the ground in the yard of the Transport Farm.
Encouraged by my success I rode over to dinner one night with one of the Companies in the Battalion which was in billets about a mile and a half away. Riding home along the flat, winding, water-logged lane by the light of the stars I nearly started off on the poetry lines again, but I got home just in time.
During these rests from the trenches I was sometimes summoned to Brigade Headquarters, where the arch machine gunner dwelt. He was a captain of much engineering skill, who supervised the entire machine-gun outfit of the Brigade. New men were being perpetually trained by him, and I was sent for on occasion to discuss the state and strength of my section, or any new scheme that might be on hand.
This going to Brigade Headquarters meant putting on a clean bib, as it were; for it was here that the Brigadier himself lived, and after a machine-gun seance it was generally necessary to have tea in the farm with the Brigade staff.
I am little or no use on these social occasions. The red and gold mailed fist of a General Staff reduces me to a sort of pulverized state of meekness, which ends in my smiling at everyone and declining anything to eat.
As machine-gun officer to our Battalion I had to go through it, and as everyone was very nice to me, it all went off satisfactorily.
On this time out we were wondering how we should find the Boches on our return, and pleasant recollections of the time before filled us with a curious keenness to get back and see. A wish like this is easily gratified at the front, and soon, of course, the day came to go into trenches again, and in we went.
MY PARTIAL ESCAPE FROM THE MUD—THE DESERTED VILLAGE—MY "COTTAGE"
Our next time up after our Christmas Day experiences were full of incident and adventure. During the peace which came upon the land around the 25th of December we had, as I mentioned before, been able to stroll about in an altogether unprecedented way. We had had the courage to walk into the mangled old village just behind our front line trenches, and examine the ruins. I had never penetrated into this gloomy wreck of a place, even at night, until after Christmas. It had just occasionally caught our attention as we looked back from our trenches; mutilated and deserted, a dirty skeleton of what once had been a small village—very small—about twelve small houses and a couple of farms. Anyway, during this time in after Christmas we started thinking out plans, and in a few days we heard that it had been decided to put some men into the village, and hold it, as a second line.
The platoon commander with whom I lived happened to be the man selected to have charge of the men in the village. Consequently one night he left our humble trench and, together with his servant and small belongings from the dug-out, went off to live somewhere in the village.
About this time the conditions under which we lived were very poor. The cold and rain were exceedingly severe, and altogether physical discomfort was at its height. When my stable companion had gone I naturally determined to pay him a call the next night, and to see what sort of a place he had managed to get to live in. I well remember that next night. It was the first on which I realized the chances of a change of life presented by the village, and this was the start of two months' "village" life for me. I went off from our old trench after dusk on my usual round of the machine guns. When this was over I struck off back across the field behind our trench to the village, and waded up what had been the one and only street. Out of the dozen mangled wrecks of houses I didn't know which one my pal had chosen as his residence, so I went along the shell-mutilated, water-logged road, peering into this ruin and that, until, at the end of the street, about four hundred yards from the Germans and two hundred yards from our own trenches, I came across a damp and dark figure lurking in the shadows: "'Alt! 'oo goes there?" "Friend!" "Pass, friend, all's well." The sentry, evidently posted at end of village.
I got a tip from him as to my friend's new dwelling-place. "I say, Sentry, which house does Mr. Hudson live in?" "That small 'un down t'other end on the left, sir." "Thanks." I went back along the deserted ruin of a street, and at the far end on the left I saw the dim outline of a small cottage, almost intact it appeared, standing about five yards back from the road. This was the place the sentry meant right enough, and in I went at the hole in the plaster wall. The front door having apparently stopped something or other previously, was conspicuous by its absence.
All was dark. I groped my way along round to the back, stumbling over various bits of debris on the ground, until I found the opening into what must be the room where Hudson had elected to live. Not a light showed anywhere, which was as it should be, for a light would be easily seen by the Boches not far away, and if they did see one there would be trouble.
I came to an opening covered with an old sack. Pulling this a little to one side I was greeted with a volume of suffocating smoke. I proceeded further, and diving in under the sack, got inside the room. In the midst of the smoke, sitting beside a crushed and battered fire-bucket, sat a man, his face illuminated by the flickering light from the fire. The rest of the room was bathed in mysterious darkness. "Where's Mr. Hudson?" I asked. "He's out havin' a look at the barbed wire in front of the village, I think, sir; but he'll be back soon, as this is where 'e stays now." I determined to wait, and, to fill in the time, started to examine the cottage.
It was the first house I had been into in the firing line, and, unsavoury wreck of a place as it was, it gave one a delightful feeling of comfort to sit on the stone-flagged floor and look upon four perforated walls and a shattered roof. The worst possible house in the world would be an improvement on any of those dug-outs we had in the trenches. The front room had been blown away, leaving a back room and a couple of lean-tos which opened out from it. An attic under the thatched roof with all one end knocked out completed the outfit. The outer and inner walls were all made of that stuff known as wattle and daub—sort of earth-like plaster worked into and around hurdles. A bullet would, of course, go through walls of this sort like butter, and so they had. For, on examining the outer wall on the side which faced the Germans, I found it looking like the top of a pepper-pot for holes.
A sound as of a man trying to waltz with a cream separator, suggested to my mind that someone had tripped and fallen over that mysterious obstacle outside, which I had noticed on entering, and presently I heard Hudson's voice cursing through the sack doorway.
He came in and saw me examining the place. "Hullo, you're here too, are you?" he exclaimed. "Are you going to stay here as well?"
"I don't quite know yet," I replied. "It doesn't seem a bad idea, as I have to walk the round of all the guns the whole time; all I can and have to do is to hitch up in some central place, and this is just as central as that rotten trench we've just come from."
"Of course it is," he replied. "If I were you I'd come along and stay with me, and go to all your places from here. If an attack comes you'll be able to get from one place to another much easier than if you were stuck in that trench. You'd never be able to move from there when an attack and bombardment had started."
Having given the matter a little further consideration I decided to move from my dug-out to this cottage, so I left the village and went back across the field to the trench to see to the necessary arrangements.
I got back to my lair and shouted for my servant. "Here, Smith," I said, "I'm going to fix up at one of the houses in the village. This place of ours here is no more central than the village, and any one of those houses is a damn sight better than this clay hole here. I want you to collect all my stuff and bring it along; I'll show you the way." So presently, all my few belongings having been collected, we set out for the village. That was my last of that fearful trench. A worse one I know could not be found. My new life in the village now started, and I soon saw that it had its advantages. For instance, there was a slight chance of fencing off some of the rain and water. But my knowledge of "front" by this time was such that I knew there were corresponding disadvantages, and my instinct told me that the village would present a fresh crop of dangers and troubles quite equal to those of the trench, though slightly different in style. I had now started off on my two months' sojourn in the village of St. Yvon.
Hudson, myself, his servant and my servant, all crushed into that house that night. What a relief it was! We all slept in our greatcoats on the floor, which was as hard as most floors are, and dirtier than the generality; but being out of the water and able to stretch oneself at full length made up for all deficiencies. Hudson and I both slept in the perforated room; the servants in the larger chamber, near the fire bucket.
I got up just before dawn as usual, and taking advantage of the grey light, stole about the village and around the house, sizing up the locality and seeing how my position stood with regard to the various machine-gun emplacements. The dawn breaking, I had to skunk back into the house again, as it was imperative to us to keep up the effect of "Deserted house in village." We had to lurk inside all day, or if we went out, creep about with enormous caution, and go off down a slight slope at the back until we got to the edge of the wood which we knew must be invisible to the enemy. I spent this day making a thorough investigation of the house, creeping about all its component parts and thinking out how we could best utilize its little advantages. Hudson had crept out to examine the village by stealth, and I went on with plots for fortifying the "castle," and for being able to make ourselves as snug as we could in this frail shell of a cottage. I found a hole in the floor boards of the attic and pulled myself up into it thereby.
This attic, as I have said before, had all one end blown away, but the two sloping thatched sides remained. I cut a hole in one of these with my pocket-knife, and thus obtained a view of the German trenches without committing the error of looking out through the blown-out end, which would have clearly shown an observer that the house was occupied. Looking out through the slit I had made I obtained a panoramic view, more or less, of the German trenches and our own. The view, in short, was this: One saw the backs of our own trenches, then the "No man's land" space of ground, and beyond that again the front of the German trenches. This is best explained by the sketch map which I give on the opposite page. I saw exactly how the house stood with regard to the position, and also noticed that it had two dangerous sides, i.e., two sides which faced the Germans, as our position formed two sides of a triangle.
I then proceeded to explore the house. In the walls I found a great many bullets which had stuck in between the bricks of the solitary chimney or imbedded themselves in the woodwork of the door or supporting posts at the corners. Amongst the straw in the attic I found a typical selection of pathetic little trifles: two pairs of very tiny clogs, evidently belonging to some child about four or five years old, one or two old and battered hats, and a quantity of spinning material and instruments. I have the small clogs at my home now, the only souvenir I have of that house at St. Yvon, which I have since learnt is no more, the Germans having reduced it to a powdered up mound of brick-dust and charred straw. Outside, and lying all around, were a miscellaneous collection of goods. Half a sewing machine, a gaudy cheap metal clock, a sort of mangle with strange wooden blades (which I subsequently cut off to make shelves with), and a host of other dirty, rain-soaked odds and ends.
Having concluded my examination I crept out back to the wood and took a look at it all from there. "Yes," I thought to myself, "it's all very nice, but, by Gad, we'll have to look out that they don't see us, and get to think we're in this village, or they'll give us a warm time." It had gone very much against my thought-out views on trench warfare, coming to this house at all, for I had learnt by the experiences of others that the best maxim to remember was "Don't live in a house."
The reason is not far to seek. There is something very attractive to artillery about houses. They can range on them well, and they afford a more definite target than an open trench. Besides, if you can spot a house that contains, say, half a dozen to a dozen people, and just plop a "Johnson" right amidships, it generally means "exit house and people," which, I suppose, is a desirable object to be attained, according to twentieth century manners.
However, we had decided to live in the house, but as I crept back from the wood, I determined to take a few elementary and common-sense precautions. Hudson had returned when I got back, and together we discussed the house, the position, and everything we could think of in connection with the business, as we sat on the floor and had our midday meal of bully beef and biscuits, rounded up by tea and plum and apple jam spread neat from the tin on odd corners of broken biscuits. We thoroughly talked over the question of possible fortifications and precautions. I said, "What we really want is an emergency exit somewhere, where we can stand a little chance, if they start to shell us."
He agreed, and we both decided to pile up all the odd bricks, which were lying outside at the back of the house, against the perforated wall, and then sleep there in a little easier state of mind. We contented ourselves with this little precaution to begin with, but later on, as we lived in that house, we thought of larger and better ideas, and launched out into all sorts of elaborate schemes, as I will show when the time comes.
Anyway, for the first couple of sessions spent in that house in St. Yvon, we were content with merely making ourselves bullet proof. The whole day had to be spent with great caution indoors; any visit elsewhere had to be conducted with still greater caution, as the one great thing to be remembered was "Don't let 'em see we're in the village." So we had long days, just lying around in the dirty old straw and accumulated dirt of the cottage floor.
We both sat and talked and read a bit, sometimes slept, and through the opening beneath the sack across the back door we watched the evenings creeping on, and finally came the night, when we stole out like vampires and went about our trench work. It was during these long, sad days that my mind suddenly turned on making sketches. This period of my trench life marked the start of Fragments from France, though it was not till the end of February that a complete and presentable effort, suitable for publication in a paper, emerged. It was nothing new to me to draw, as for a very long time before the war I had drawn hundreds of sketches, and had spent a great amount of time reading and learning about all kinds of drawing and painting. I have always had an enormous interest in Art; my room at home will prove that to anyone. Stacks of bygone efforts of mine will also bear testimony to this. Yet it was not until January, 1915, that I had sufficiently resigned myself to my fate in the war, to let my mind turn to my only and most treasured hobby. In this cottage at St. Yvon the craving came back to me. I didn't fight against it, and began by making a few pencil scribbles with a joke attached, and pinned them up in our cracked shell of a room. Jokes at the expense of our miserable surroundings they were, and these were the first "Fragments." Several men in the local platoon collared these spasms, and soon after I came across them, muddy and battered, in various dug-outs near by. After these few sketches, which were done on rough bits of paper which I found lying about, I started to operate on the walls. With some bits of charcoal, I made a mess on all the four walls of our back room. There was a large circular gash, made by a spent bullet I fancy, on one of the walls, and by making it appear as though this mark was the centre point of a large explosion, I gave an apparent velocity to the figure of a German, which I drew above.
These daubs of mine provoked mirth to those who lived with me, and others who occasionally paid us visits. I persisted, and the next "masterpiece" was the figure of a soldier (afterwards Private Blobs, of "Fragments") sitting up a tree staring straight in front of him into the future, whilst a party of corpulent Boches are stalking towards him through the long grass and barbed wire. He knows there's something not quite nice going on, but doesn't like to look down. This was called "The Listening Post," and the sensation described was so familiar to most that this again was apparently a success. So what with scribbling, reading and sleeping, not to mention time occupied in consuming plum and apple jam, bully, and other delicacies which a grateful country has ordained as the proper food for soldiers, we managed to pull through our days. Two doses of the trenches were done like this, and then came the third time up, when a sudden burst of enthusiasm and an increasing nervousness as to the safety of ourselves and our house, caused us to launch out into really trying to fortify the place. The cause of this decision to do something, to our abode was, I think, attributable to the fact that for about a fortnight the Germans had taken to treating us to a couple of dozen explosions each morning—the sort of thing one doesn't like just before breakfast; but if you've got to have it, the thing obviously to do is to try and defend yourself; so the next time, up we started.
A BRAIN WAVE—MAKING A "FUNK HOLE" —PLUGSTREET WOOD—SNIPING
On arriving up at St. Yvon for our third time round there, we—as usual now—went into our cottage again, and the regiment spread itself out around the same old trenches. There was always a lot of work for me to do at nights, as machine guns always have to be moved as occasion arises, or if one gets a better idea for their position. By this time I had one gun in the remnant of a house about fifty yards away from our cottage. This was a reserve gun, and was there carrying out an idea of mine, i.e., that it was in a central position, which would enable it to be rapidly moved to any threatened part of the line, and also it would form a bit of an asset in the event of our having to defend the village.
The section for this gun lived in the old cellar close by, and it was this cellar which gave me an idea. When I went into our cottage I searched to see if we had overlooked a cellar. No, there wasn't one. Now, then, the idea. I thought, "Why not make a cellar, and thus have a place to dive into when the strafing begins." After this terrific outburst of sagacity I sat down in a corner and, with a biscuitload of jam, discussed my scheme with my platoon-commander pal. We agreed it was a good idea. I was feeling energetic, and always liking a little tinkering on my own, I said I would make it myself.
So Hudson retired into the lean-to and I commenced to plot this engineering project. I scraped away as much as necessary of the accumulated filth on the floor, and my knife striking something hard I found it to be tiles. Up till then I had always imagined it to be an earth floor, but tiled it was right enough—large, square, dark red ones of a very rough kind. I called for Smith, my servant, and telling him to bring his entrenching tool, I began to prize up some of the tiles. It wasn't very easy, fitting the blade of the entrenching tool into the crevices, but once I had got a start and had got one or two out, things were easier.
I pulled up all the tiles along one wall about eight feet long and out into the room a distance of about four feet. I now had a bare patch of hard earth eight feet by four to contend with. Luckily we had a pickaxe and a shovel lying out behind the house, so taking off my sheepskin jacket and balaclava, I started off to excavate the hole which I proposed should form a sort of cellar.
It was a big job, and my servant and I were hard at it, turn and turn about, the whole of that day. A dull, rainy day, a cold wind blowing the old sack about in the doorway, and in the semi-darkness inside yours truly handing up Belgian soil on a war-worn shovel to my servant, who held a sandbag perpetually open to receive it. A long and arduous job it was, and one in which I was precious near thinking that danger is preferable to digging. Mr. Doan, with his back-ache pills, would have done well if he had sent one of his travellers with samples round there that night. However, at the end of two days, I had got a really good hole delved out, and now I was getting near the more interesting feature, namely, putting a roof on, and finally being able to live in this under-ground dug-out.
This roof was perhaps rather unique as roofs go. It was a large mattress with wooden sides, a kind of oblong box with a mattress top. I found it outside in a ruined cottage. Underneath the mattress part was a cavity filled with spiral springs. I arranged a pile of sandbags at each side of the hole in the floor in such a way as to be able to lay this curiosity on top to form a roof, the mattress part downwards. I then filled in with earth all the parts where the spiral springs were placed. Total result—a roof a foot thick of earth, with a good backbone of iron springs. I often afterwards wished that that mattress had been filleted, as the spiral springs had a nasty way of bursting through the striped cover and coming at you like the lid of a Jack-in-the-box. However, such is war.
Above this roof I determined to pile up sandbags against the wall, right away up to the roof of the cottage.
This necessitated about forty sandbags being filled, so it may easily be imagined we didn't do this all at once.