The Adventures of an American in the British Army
James Norman Hall
Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company The Riverside Press Cambridge 1916
COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY JAMES NORMAN HALL ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published May 1916
TO TOMMY OF THE GREAT WAR WHO IS ADDING IMMORTAL LUSTER TO THE NAME OF ATKINS
This brief narrative is by no means a complete record of life in a battalion of one of Lord Kitchener's first armies. It is, rather, a story in outline, a mere suggestion of that life as it is lived in the British lines along the western front. If those who read gain thereby a more intimate view of trench warfare, and of the men who are so gallantly and cheerfully laying down their lives for England, the purpose of the writer will have been accomplished.
The diagram which appears on the front and rear covers of the book is a partially conventionalized design illustrating some features of trench construction mentioned in Chapter VI. For obvious reasons it is not drawn to scale, and although it is a truthful representation of a typical segment of the British line, it is not an exact sketch of any existing sector.
I. Joining Up 1
II. Rookies 9
III. The Mob in Training 17
IV. Ordered Abroad 39
V. The Parapet-etic School 55
VI. Private Holloway, Professor of Hygiene 69
VII. Midsummer Calm 92
VIII. Under Cover 108
IX. Billets 129
X. New Lodgings 144
XI. "Sitting Tight" 177
"Kitchener's Mob" they were called in the early days of August, 1914, when London hoardings were clamorous with the first calls for volunteers. The seasoned regulars of the first British expeditionary force said it patronizingly, the great British public hopefully, the world at large doubtfully. "Kitchener's Mob," when there was but a scant sixty thousand under arms with millions yet to come. "Kitchener's Mob" it remains to-day, fighting in hundreds of thousands in France, Belgium, Africa, the Balkans. And to-morrow, when the war is ended, who will come marching home again, old campaigners, war-worn remnants of once mighty armies? "Kitchener's Mob."
It is not a pleasing name for the greatest volunteer army in the history of the world; for more than three millions of toughened, disciplined fighting men, united under one flag, all parts of one magnificent military organization. And yet Kitchener's own Tommies are responsible for it, the rank and file, with their inherent love of ridicule even at their own expense, and their intense dislike of "swank." They fastened the name upon themselves, lest the world at large should think they regarded themselves too highly. There it hangs. There it will hang for all time.
It was on the 18th of August, 1914, that the mob spirit gained its mastery over me. After three weeks of solitary tramping in the mountains of North Wales, I walked suddenly into news of the great war, and went at once to London, with a longing for home which seemed strong enough to carry me through the week of idleness until my boat should sail. But, in a spirit of adventure, I suppose, I tempted myself with the possibility of assuming the increasingly popular alias, Atkins. On two successive mornings I joined the long line of prospective recruits before the offices at Great Scotland Yard, withdrawing each time, after moving a convenient distance toward the desk of the recruiting sergeant. Disregarding the proven fatality of third times, I joined it on another morning, dangerously near to the head of the procession.
"Now, then, you! Step along!"
There is something compelling about a military command, given by a military officer accustomed to being obeyed. While the doctors were thumping me, measuring me, and making an inventory of "physical peculiarities, if any," I tried to analyze my unhesitating, almost instinctive reaction to that stern, confident "Step along!" Was it an act of weakness, a want of character, evidenced by my inability to say no? Or was it the blood of military forebears asserting itself after many years of inanition? The latter conclusion being the more pleasing, I decided that I was the grandson of my Civil War grandfather, and the worthy descendant of stalwart warriors of a yet earlier period.
I was frank with the recruiting officers. I admitted, rather boasted, of my American citizenship, but expressed my entire willingness to serve in the British army in case this should not expatriate me. I had, in fact, delayed, hoping that an American legion would be formed in London as had been done in Paris. The announcement was received with some surprise. A brief conference was held, during which there was much vigorous shaking of heads. While I awaited the decision I thought of the steamship ticket in my pocket. I remembered that my boat was to sail on Friday. I thought of my plans for the future and anticipated the joy of an early home-coming. Set against this was the prospect of an indefinite period of soldiering among strangers. "Three years or the duration of the war" were the terms of the enlistment contract. I had visions of bloody engagements, of feverish nights in hospital, of endless years in a home for disabled soldiers. The conference was over, and the recruiting officer returned to his desk, smiling broadly.
"We'll take you, my lad, if you want to join. You'll just say you are an Englishman, won't you, as a matter of formality?" Here was an avenue of escape, beckoning me like an alluring country road winding over the hills of home. I refused it with the same instinctive swiftness of decision that had brought me to the medical inspection room. And a few moments later, I took "the King's shilling," and promised, upon my oath as a loyal British subject, to bear true allegiance to the Union Jack.
During the completion of other, less important formalities, I was taken in charge by a sergeant who might have stepped out of any of the "Barrack-Room Ballads." He was true to type to the last twist in the s of Atkins. He told me of service in India, Egypt, South Africa. He showed me both scars and medals with that air of "Now-I-would-n't-do-this-for-any-one-but-you" which is so flattering to the novice. He gave me advice as to my best method of procedure when I should go to Hounslow Barracks to join my unit.
"'An 'ere! Wotever you do an' wotever you s'y, don't forget to myke the lads think you're an out-an'-outer, if you understand my meaning,—a Britisher, you know. They'll tyke to you. Strike me blind! Be free an' easy with 'em,—no swank, mind you!—an' they'll be downright pals with you. You're different, you know. But don't put on no airs. Wot I mean is, don't let 'em think that you think you're different. See wot I mean?"
I said that I did.
"An' another thing; talk like 'em."
I confessed that this might prove to be rather a large contract.
"'Ard? S'y! 'Ere! If I 'ad you fer a d'y, I'd 'ave you talkin' like a born Lunnoner! All you got to do is forget all them aitches. An' you don't want to s'y 'can't,' like that. S'y 'cawrn't.'"
I said it.
"Now s'y, 'Gor blimy, 'Arry, 'ow's the missus?'"
"That's right! Oh, you'll soon get the swing of it."
There was much more instruction of the same nature. By the time I was ready to leave the recruiting offices I felt that I had made great progress in the vernacular. I said good-bye to the sergeant warmly. As I was about to leave he made the most peculiar and amusing gesture of a man drinking.
"A pint o' mild an' bitter," he said confidentially. "The boys always gives me the price of a pint."
"Right you are, sergeant!" I used the expression like a born Englishman. And with the liberality of a true soldier, I gave him my shilling, my first day's wage as a British fighting man.
The remainder of the week I spent mingling with the crowds of enlisted men at the Horse Guards Parade, watching the bulletin boards for the appearance of my name which would mean that I was to report at the regimental depot at Hounslow. My first impression of the men with whom I was to live for three years, or the duration of the war, was anything but favorable. The newspapers had been asserting that the new army was being recruited from the flower of England's young manhood. The throng at the Horse Guards Parade resembled an army of the unemployed, and I thought it likely that most of them were misfits, out-of-works, the kind of men who join the army because they can do nothing else. There were, in fact, a good many of these. I soon learned, however, that the general out-at-elbows appearance was due to another cause. A genial Cockney gave me the hint.
"'Ave you joined up, matey?" he asked.
I told him that I had.
"Well, 'ere's a friendly tip for you. Don't wear them good clo'es w'en you goes to the depot. You won't see 'em again likely, an' if you gets through the war you might be a-wantin' of 'em. Wear the worst rags you got."
I profited by the advice, and when I fell in, with the other recruits for the Royal Fusiliers, I felt much more at my ease.
"A mob" is genuinely descriptive of the array of would-be soldiers which crowded the long parade-ground at Hounslow Barracks during that memorable last week in August. We herded together like so many sheep. We had lost our individuality, and it was to be months before we regained it in a new aspect, a collective individuality of which we became increasingly proud. We squeak-squawked across the barrack square in boots which felt large enough for an entire family of feet. Our khaki service dress uniforms were strange and uncomfortable. Our hands hung limply along the seams of our pocketless trousers. Having no place in which to conceal them, and nothing for them to do, we tried to ignore them. Many a Tommy, in a moment of forgetfulness, would make a dive for the friendly pockets which were no longer there. The look of sheepish disappointment, as his hands slid limply down his trouser-legs, was most comical to see. Before many days we learned the uses to which soldiers' hands are put. But for the moment they seemed absurdly unnecessary.
We must have been unpromising material from the military point of view. That was evidently the opinion of my own platoon sergeant. I remember, word for word, his address of welcome, one of soldier-like brevity and pointedness, delivered while we stood awkwardly at attention on the barrack square.
"Lissen 'ere, you men! I've never saw such a raw, roun'-shouldered batch o' rookies in fifteen years' service. Yer pasty-faced an' yer thin-chested. Gawd 'elp 'Is Majesty if it ever lays with you to save 'im! 'Owever, we're 'ere to do wot we can with wot we got. Now, then, upon the command, 'Form Fours,' I wanna see the even numbers tyke a pace to the rear with the left foot, an' one to the right with the right foot. Like so: 'One-one-two!' Platoon! Form Fours! Oh! Orful! Orful! As y' were! As y' were!"
If there was doubt in the minds of any of us as to our rawness, it was quickly dispelled by our platoon sergeants, regulars of long standing, who had been left in England to assist in whipping the new armies into shape. Naturally, they were disgruntled at this, and we offered them such splendid opportunities for working off overcharges of spleen. We had come to Hounslow, believing that, within a few weeks' time, we should be fighting in France, side by side with the men of the first British expeditionary force. Lord Kitchener had said that six months of training, at the least, was essential. This statement we regarded as intentionally misleading. Lord Kitchener was too shrewd a soldier to announce his plans; but England needed men badly, immediately. After a week of training, we should be proficient in the use of our rifles. In addition to this, all that was needed was the ability to form fours and march, in column of route, to the station where we should entrain for Folkestone or Southampton, and France.
As soon as the battalion was up to strength, we were given a day of preliminary drill before proceeding to our future training area in Essex. It was a disillusioning experience. Equally disappointing was the undignified display of our little skill, at Charing Cross Station, where we performed before a large and amused London audience. For my own part, I could scarcely wait until we were safely hidden within the train. During the journey to Colchester, a re-enlisted Boer War veteran, from the inaccessible heights of South African experience, enfiladed us with a fire of sarcastic comment.
"I'm a-go'n' to transfer out o' this 'ere mob, that's wot I'm a go'n' to do! Soldiers! S'y! I'll bet a quid they ain't a one of you ever saw a rifle before! Soldiers? Strike me pink! Wot's Lord Kitchener a-doin' of, that's wot I want to know!"
The rest of us smoked in wrathful silence, until one of the boys demonstrated to the Boer War veteran that he knew, at least, how to use his fists. There was some bloodshed, followed by reluctant apologies on the part of the Boer warrior. It was one of innumerable differences of opinion which I witnessed during the months that followed. And most of them were settled in the same decisive way.
Although mine was a London regiment, we had men in the ranks from all parts of the United Kingdom. There were North-Countrymen, a few Welsh, Scotch, and Irish, men from the Midlands and from the south of England. But for the most part we were Cockneys, born within the sound of Bow Bells. I had planned to follow the friendly advice of the recruiting sergeant. "Talk like 'em," he had said. Therefore, I struggled bravely with the peculiarities of the Cockney twang, recklessly dropped aitches when I should have kept them, and prefixed them indiscriminately before every convenient aspirate. But all my efforts were useless. The imposition was apparent to my fellow Tommies immediately. I had only to begin speaking, within the hearing of a genuine Cockney, when he would say, "'Ello! w'ere do you come from? The Stites?" or, "I'll bet a tanner you're a Yank!" I decided to make a confession, and I have been glad, ever since, that I did. The boys gave me a warm and hearty welcome when they learned that I was a sure-enough American. They called me "Jamie the Yank." I was a piece of tangible evidence of the bond of sympathy existing between the two great English-speaking nations. I told them of the many Americans of German extraction, whose sympathies were honestly and sincerely on the other side. But they would not have it so. I was the personal representative of the American people. My presence in the British army was proof positive of this.
Being an American, it was very hard, at first, to understand the class distinctions of British army life. And having understood them, it was more difficult yet to endure them. I learned that a ranker, or private soldier, is a socially inferior being from the officer's point of view. The officer class and the ranker class are east and west, and never the twain shall meet, except in their respective places upon the parade-ground. This does not hold good, to the same extent, upon active service. Hardships and dangers, shared in common, tend to break down artificial barriers. But even then, although there was good-will and friendliness between officers and men, I saw nothing of genuine comradeship. This seemed to me a great pity. It was a loss for the officers fully as much as it was for the men.
I had to accept, for convenience sake, the fact of my social inferiority. Centuries of army tradition demanded it; and I discovered that it is absolutely futile for one inconsequential American to rebel against the unshakable fortress of English tradition. Nearly all of my comrades were used to clear-cut class distinctions in civilian life. It made little difference to them that some of our officers were recruits as raw as were we ourselves. They had money enough and education enough and influence enough to secure the king's commission; and that fact was proof enough for Tommy that they were gentlemen, and, therefore, too good for the likes of him to be associating with.
"Look 'ere! Ain't a gentleman a gentleman? I'm arskin' you, ain't 'e?"
I saw the futility of discussing this question with Tommy. And later, I realized how important for British army discipline such distinctions are.
So great is the force of prevailing opinion that I sometimes found myself accepting Tommy's point of view. I wondered if I was, for some eugenic reason, the inferior of these men whom I had to "Sir" and salute whenever I dared speak. Such lapses were only occasional. But I understood, for the first time, how important a part circumstance and environment play in shaping one's mental attitude. How I longed, at times, to chat with colonels and to joke with captains on terms of equality! Whenever I confided these aspirations to Tommy he gazed at me in awe.
"Don't be a bloomin' ijut! They could jolly well 'ang you fer that!"
THE MOB IN TRAINING
The Nth Service Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, on the march was a sight not easily to be forgotten. To the inhabitants of Colchester, Folkestone, Shorncliffe, Aldershot, and other towns and villages throughout the south of England, we were well known. We displayed ourselves with what must have seemed to them a shameless disregard for appearances. Our approach was announced by a discordant tumult of fifes and drums, for our band, of which later, we became justly proud, was a newly fledged and still imperfect organization. Windows were flung up and doors thrown open along our line of march; but alas, we were greeted with no welcome glances of kindly approval, no waving of handkerchiefs, no clapping of hands. Nursemaids, who are said to have a nice and discriminating eye for soldiery, gazed in amused and contemptuous silence as we passed. Children looked at us in wide-eyed wonder. Only the dumb beasts were demonstrative, and they in a manner which was not at all to our liking. Dogs barked, and sedate old family horses, which would stand placidly at the curbing while fire engines thundered past with bells clanging and sirens shrieking, pricked up their ears at our approach, and, after one startled glance, galloped madly away and disappeared in clouds of dust far in the distance.
We knew why the nursemaids were cool, and why family horses developed hysteria with such startling suddenness. But in our pride we did not see that which we did not wish to see. Therefore we marched, or, to be more truthful, shambled on, shouting lusty choruses with an air of boisterous gayety which was anything but genuine.
"You do as I do and you'll do right, Fall in and follow me!"
was a favorite with number 12 platoon. Their enthusiasm might have carried conviction had it not been for their personal appearance, which certainly did not. Number 15 platoon would strive manfully for a hearing with
"Steadily, shoulder to shoulder, Steadily, blade by blade; Marching along, Sturdy and strong, Like the boys of the old brigade."
As a strictly accurate historian I must confess that none of these assertions were quite true. We marched neither steadily, nor shoulder to shoulder, nor blade by blade. We straggled all over the road, and kept step only when the sergeant major doubled forward, warning us, with threats of extra drills, to keep in our fours or to "pick it up!" In fact, "the boys of the old brigade," whoever they may have been, would have scornfully repudiated the suggestion that we resembled them in any respect.
They would have been justified in doing so had any of them seen us at the end of six weeks of training. For, however reluctantly, we were forced to admit that Sergeant Harris was right when he called us "a raw batch o' rookies." Unpromising we were not. There was good stuff in the ranks, the material from which real soldiers are made, and were made; but it had not yet been rounded into shape. We were still nothing more than a homogeneous assembly of individuals.
We declined to accept the responsibility for the seeming slowness of our progress. We threw it unhesitatingly upon the War Office, which had not equipped us in a manner befitting our new station in life. Although we were recruited immediately after the outbreak of war, less than half of our number had been provided with uniforms. Many still wore their old civilian clothing. Others were dressed in canvas fatigue suits, or the worn-out uniforms of policemen and tramcar conductors. Every old-clothes shop on Petticoat Lane must have contributed its allotment of cast-off apparel.
Our arms and equipment were of an equally nondescript character. We might easily have been mistaken for a mob of vagrants which had pillaged a seventeenth-century arsenal. With a few slight changes in costuming for the sake of historical fidelity, we would have served as a citizen army for a realistic motion-picture drama depicting an episode in the French Revolution.
We derived what comfort we could from the knowledge that we were but one of many battalions of Kitchener's first hundred thousand equipped in this same makeshift fashion. We did not need the repeated assurances of cabinet ministers that England was not prepared for war. We were in a position to know that she was not. Otherwise, there had been an unpardonable lack of foresight in high places. Supplies came in driblets. Each night, when parades for the day were over, there was a rush for the orderly room bulletin board, which was scanned eagerly for news of an early issue of clothing. As likely as not we were disappointed, but occasionally jaded hopes revived.
"Number 15 platoon will parade at 4 P.M. on Thursday, the 24th, for boots, puttees, braces, and service dress caps."
Number 15 is our platoon. Promptly at the hour set we halt and right-turn in front of the Quartermaster Stores marquee. The quartermaster is there with pencil and notebook, and immediately takes charge of the proceedings.
"All men needing boots, one pace step forward, March!"
The platoon, sixty-five strong, steps forward as one man.
"All men needing braces, one pace step back, March!"
Again we move as a unit. The quartermaster hesitates for a moment; but he is a resourceful man and has been through this many times before. We all need boots, quite right! But the question is, Who need them most? Undoubtedly those whose feet are most in evidence through worn soles and tattered uppers. Adopting this sight test, he eliminates more than half the platoon, whereupon, by a further process of elimination, due to the fact that he has only sizes 7 and 8, he selects the fortunate twelve who are to walk dry shod.
The same method of procedure is carried out in selecting the braces. Private Reynolds, whose trousers are held in place by a wonderful mechanism composed of shoe-laces and bits of string, receives a pair; likewise, Private Stenebras, who, with the aid of safety pins, has fashioned coat and trousers into an ingenious one-piece garment. Caps and puttees are distributed with like impartiality, and we dismiss, the unfortunate ones growling and grumbling in discreet undertones until the platoon commander is out of hearing, whereupon the murmurs of discontent become loudly articulate.
"Kitchener's Rag-Time Army I calls it!" growls the veteran of South African fame. "Ain't we a 'andsome lot o' pozzie wallopers? Service? We ain't never a-go'n' to see service! You blokes won't, but watch me! I'm a-go'n' to grease off out o' this mob!"
No one remonstrated with this deservedly unpopular reservist when he grumbled about the shortage of supplies. He voiced the general sentiment. We all felt that we would like to "grease off" out of it. Our deficiencies in clothing and equipment were met by the Government with what seemed to us amazing slowness. However, Tommy is a sensible man. He realized that England had a big contract to fulfill, and that the first duty was to provide for the armies in the field. France, Russia, Belgium, all were looking to England for supplies. Kitchener's Mob must wait, trusting to the genius for organization, the faculty for getting things done, of its great and worthy chief, K. of K.
* * * * * *
Our housing accommodations, throughout the autumn and winter of 1914-15, when England was in such urgent need of shelter for her rapidly increasing armies, were also of the makeshift order. We slept in leaky tents or in hastily constructed wooden shelters, many of which were afterward condemned by the medical inspectors. St. Martin's Plain, Shorncliffe, was an ideal camping-site for pleasant summer weather. But when the autumnal rains set in, the green pasture land became a quagmire. Mud was the great reality of our lives, the malignant deity which we fell down (in) and propitiated with profane rites. It was a thin, watery mud or a thick, viscous mud, as the steady downpour increased or diminished. Late in November we were moved to a city of wooden huts at Sandling Junction, to make room for newly recruited units. The dwellings were but half-finished, the drains were open ditches, and the rains descended and the floods came as usual. We lived an amphibious and wretched existence until January, when, to our great joy, we were transferred to billets in the Metropole, one of Folkestone's most fashionable hotels. To be sure, we slept on bare floors, but the roof was rainproof, which was the essential thing. The aesthetically inclined could lie in their blankets at night, gazing at richly gilded mirrors over the mantelpieces and beautifully frescoed ceilings refurnishing our apartments in all their former splendor. Private Henry Morgan was not of this type. Henry came in one evening rather the worse for liquor and with clubbed musket assaulted his unlovely reflection in an expensive mirror. I believe he is still paying for his lack of restraint at the rate of a sixpence per day, and will have canceled his obligation by January, 1921, if the war continues until that time.
* * * * * *
Although we were poorly equipped and sometimes wretchedly housed, the commissariat was excellent and on the most generous scale from the very beginning. Indeed, there was nearly as much food wasted as eaten. Naturally, the men made no complaint, although they regretted seeing such quantities of food thrown daily into the refuse barrels. I often felt that something should be done about it. Many exposes were, in fact, written from all parts of England. It was irritating to read of German efficiency in the presence of England's extravagant and unbusinesslike methods. Tommy would say, "Lor, lummy! Ain't we got no pigs in England? That there food won't be wasted. We'll be eatin' it in sausages w'en we goes acrost the Channel"; whereupon he dismissed the whole question from his mind. This seemed to me then the typical Anglo-Saxon attitude. Everywhere there was waste, muddle-headedness, and apparently it was nobody's business, nobody's concern. Camps were sited in the wrong places and buildings erected only to be condemned. Tons of food were purchased overseas, transported across thousands of miles of ocean, only to be thrown into refuse barrels. The Government was robbed by avaricious hotel-keepers who made and were granted absurd claims for damages done to their property by billeted troops. But with vast new armies, recruited overnight, it is not strange that there should be mismanagement and friction at first. As the months passed, there was a marked change for the better. British efficiency asserted itself. This was made evident to us in scores of ways—the distribution of supplies, the housing and equipping of troops, their movements from one training area to another. At the last, we could only marvel that a great and complicated military machine had been so admirably and quickly perfected.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile our rigorous training continued from week to week in all weathers, even the most inclement. Reveille sounded at daybreak. For an hour before breakfast we did Swedish drill, a system of gymnastics which brought every lazy and disused muscle into play. Two hours daily were given to musketry practice. We were instructed in the description and recognition of targets, the use of cover, but chiefly in the use of our rifles. Through constant handling they became a part of us, a third arm which we grew to use quite instinctively. We fired the recruit's, and later, the trained soldier's course in musketry on the rifle ranges at Hythe and Aldershot, gradually improving our technique, until we were able to fire with some accuracy, fifteen rounds per minute. When we had achieved this difficult feat, we ceased to be recruits. We were skilled soldiers of the proud and illustrious order known as "England's Mad-Minute Men." After musketry practice, the remainder of the day was given to extended order, company, and battalion drill. Twice weekly we route-marched from ten to fifteen miles; and at night, after the parades for the day were finished, boxing and wrestling contests, arranged and encouraged by our officers, kept the red blood pounding through our bodies until "lights out" sounded at nine o'clock.
The character of our training changed as we progressed. We were done with squad, platoon, and company drill. Then came field maneuvers, attacks in open formation upon intrenched positions, finishing always with terrific bayonet charges. There were mimic battles, lasting all day, with from ten to twenty thousand men on each side. Artillery, infantry, cavalry, air craft—every branch of army service, in fact—had a share in these exciting field days when we gained bloodless victories or died painless and easy deaths at the command of red-capped field judges. We rushed boldly to the charge, shouting lustily, each man striving to be first at the enemy's position, only to be intercepted by a staff officer on horseback, staying the tide of battle with uplifted hand.
"March your men back, officer! You're out of action! My word! You've made a beastly mess of it! You're not on church parade, you know! You advanced across the open for three quarters of a mile in close column of platoons! Three batteries of field artillery and four machine guns have blown you to blazes! You haven't a man left!"
Sometimes we reached our objective with less fearful slaughter, but at the moment when there should have been the sharp clash and clang of steel on steel, the cries and groans of men fighting for their lives, we heard the bugles from far and near, sounding the "stand by," and friend and enemy dropped wearily to the ground for a rest while our officers assembled in conference around the motor of the divisional general.
All this was playing at war, and Tommy was "fed up" with play. As we marched back to barracks after a long day of monotonous field maneuvers, he eased his mind by making sarcastic comments upon this inconclusive kind of warfare. He began to doubt the good faith of the War Office in calling ours a "service" battalion. As likely as not we were for home defense and would never be sent abroad.
"Left! Right! Left! Right! Why did I join the army? Oh! Why did I ever join Kitchener's Mob? Lor lummy! I must 'ave been balmy!"—
became the favorite, homeward-bound marching song. And so he "groused" and grumbled after the manner of Tommies the world over. And in the mean time he was daily approaching more nearly the standard of efficiency set by England's inexorable War Lord.
* * * * * *
It was interesting to note the physical improvement in the men wrought by a life of healthy, well-ordered routine. My battalion was recruited largely from what is known in England as "the lower middle classes." There were shop assistants, clerks, railway and city employees, tradesmen, and a generous sprinkling of common laborers. Many of them had been used to indoor life, practically all of them to city life, and needed months of the hardest kind of training before they could be made physically fit, before they could be seasoned and toughened to withstand the hardships of active service.
Plenty of hard work in the open air brought great and welcome changes. The men talked of their food, anticipated it with a zest which came from realizing, for the first time, the joy of being genuinely hungry. They watched their muscles harden with the satisfaction known to every normal man when he is becoming physically efficient. Food, exercise, and rest, taken in wholesome quantities and at regular intervals, were having the usual excellent results. For my own part, I had never before been in such splendid health. I wished that it might at all times be possible for democracies to exercise a beneficent paternalism over the lives of their citizenry, at least in matters of health. It seems a great pity that the principle of personal freedom should be responsible for so many ill-shaped and ill-sorted physical incompetents. My fellow Tommies were living, really living, for the first time. They had never before known what it means to be radiantly, buoyantly healthy.
There were, as well, more profound and subtle changes in thoughts and habits. The restraints of discipline and the very exacting character of military life and training gave them self-control, mental alertness. At the beginning, they were individuals, no more cohesive than so many grains of wet sand. After nine months of training they acted as a unit, obeying orders with that instinctive promptness of action which is so essential on the field of battle when men think scarcely at all. But it is true that what was their gain as soldiers was, to a certain extent, their loss as individuals. When we went on active service I noted that men who were excellent followers were not infrequently lost when called upon for independent action. They had not been trained to take the initiative, and had become so accustomed to having their thinking done for them that they often became confused and excited when they had to do it for themselves.
Discipline was an all-important factor in the daily grind. At the beginning of their training, the men of the new armies were gently dealt with. Allowances were made for civilian frailties and shortcomings. But as they adapted themselves to changed conditions, restrictions became increasingly severe. Old privileges disappeared one by one. Individual liberty became a thing of the past. The men resented this bitterly for a time. Fierce hatreds of officers and N.C.O.s were engendered and there was much talk of revenge when we should get to the front. I used to look forward with misgiving to that day. It seemed probable that one night in the trenches would suffice for a wholesale slaughtering of officers. Old scores were to be paid off, old grudges wiped out with our first issue of ball ammunition. Many a fist-banged board at the wet canteen gave proof of Tommy's earnestness.
"Shoot 'im?" he would say, rattling the beer glasses the whole length of the table with a mighty blow of his fist. "Blimy! Wite! That's all you got to do! Just wite till we get on the other side!"
But all these threats were forgotten months before the time came for carrying them out. Once Tommy understood the reasonableness of severe discipline, he took his punishment for his offenses without complaint. He realized, too, the futility of kicking against the pricks. In the army he belonged to the Government body and soul. He might resent its treatment of him. He might behave like a sulky school-boy, disobey order after order, and break rule after rule. In that case he found himself check-mated at every turn. Punishment became more and more severe. No one was at all concerned about his grievances. He might become an habitual offender from sheer stupidity, but in doing so, he injured no one but himself.
A few of these incorrigibles were discharged in disgrace. A few followed the lead of the Boer warrior. After many threats which we despaired of his ever carrying out, he finally "greased off." He was immediately posted as a deserter, but to our great joy was never captured. With the disappearance of the malcontents and incorrigibles the battalion soon reached a high grade of efficiency. The physical incompetents were likewise ruthlessly weeded out. All of us had passed a fairly thorough examination at the recruiting offices; but many had physical defects which were discovered only by the test of actual training. In the early days of the war, requirements were much more severe than later, when England learned how great would be the need for men. Many, who later reenlisted in other regiments, were discharged as "physically unfit for further military service."
If the standard of conduct in my battalion is any criterion, then I can say truthfully that there is very little crime in Lord Kitchener's armies either in England or abroad. The "jankers" or defaulters' squad was always rather large; but the "jankers men" were offenders against minor points in discipline. Their crimes were untidy appearance on parade, inattention in the ranks, tardiness at roll-call, and others of the sort, all within the jurisdiction of a company officer. The punishment meted out varied according to the seriousness of the offense, and the past-conduct record of the offender. It usually consisted of from one to ten days, "C.B."—confined to barracks. During the period of his sentence the offender was forbidden to leave camp after the parades for the day were ended. And in order that he might have no opportunity to do so, he was compelled to answer his name at the guard-room whenever it should be sounded.
Only twice in England did we have a general court-martial, the offense in each case being assault by a private upon an N.C.O., and the penalty awarded, three months in the military prison at Aldershot. Tommy was quiet and law-abiding in England, his chief lapses being due to an exaggerated estimate of his capacity for beer. In France, his conduct, in so far as my observation goes, has been splendid throughout. During six months in the trenches I saw but two instances of drunkenness. Although I witnessed nearly everything which took place in my own battalion, and heard the general gossip of many others, never did I see or hear of a woman treated otherwise than courteously. Neither did I see or hear of any instances of looting or petty pilfering from the civilian inhabitants. It is true that the men had fewer opportunities for misconduct, and they were fighting in a friendly country. Even so, active service as we found it was by no means free from temptations. The admirable restraint of most of the men in the face of them was a fine thing to see.
Frequent changes were made in methods of training in England, to correspond with changing conditions of modern warfare as exemplified in the trenches. Textbooks on military tactics and strategy, which were the inspired gospel of the last generation of soldiers, became obsolete overnight. Experience gained in Indian Mutiny wars or on the veldt in South Africa was of little value in the trenches in Flanders. The emphasis shifted from open fighting to trench warfare, and the textbook which our officers studied was a typewritten serial issued semiweekly by the War Office, and which was based on the dearly bought experience of officers at the front.
We spent many a starry night on the hills above Folkestone digging trenches and building dug-outs according to General Staff instructions, and many a rainy one we came home, covered with mud, but happy in the thought that we were approximating, as nearly as could be, the experience of the boys at the front. Bomb-throwing squads were formed, and the best shots in the battalion, the men who had made marksmen's scores on the rifle ranges, were given daily instruction in the important business of sniping. More generous provision for the training of machine-gun teams was made, but so great was the lack in England of these important weapons, that for many weeks we drilled with wooden substitutes, gaining such knowledge of machine gunnery as we could from the study of our M.G. manuals.
These new duties, coming as an addition to our other work, meant an increased period of training. We were impatient to be at the front, but we realized by this time that Lord Kitchener was serious in his demand that the men of the new armies be efficiently trained. Therefore we worked with a will, and at last, after nine months of monotonous toil, the order came. We were to proceed on active service.
One Sunday morning in May we assembled on the barrack square at Aldershot for the last time. Every man was in full marching order. His rifle was the "Short Lee Enfield, Mark IV," his bayonet, the long single-edged blade in general use throughout the British Army. In addition to his arms he carried 120 rounds of ".303" caliber ammunition, an intrenching-tool, water-bottle, haversack, containing both emergency and the day's rations, and his pack, strapped to shoulders and waist in such a way that the weight of it was equally distributed. His pack contained the following articles: A greatcoat, a woolen shirt, two or three pairs of socks, a change of underclothing, a "housewife,"—the soldiers' sewing-kit,—a towel, a cake of soap, and a "hold-all," in which were a knife, fork, spoon, razor, shaving-brush, toothbrush, and comb. All of these were useful and sometimes essential articles, particularly the toothbrush, which Tommy regarded as the best little instrument for cleaning the mechanism of a rifle ever invented. Strapped on top of the pack was the blanket roll wrapped in a waterproof ground sheet; and hanging beneath it, the canteen in its khaki-cloth cover. Each man wore an identification disk on a cord about his neck. It was stamped with his name, regimental number, regiment, and religion. A first-aid field dressing, consisting of an antiseptic gauze pad and bandage and a small vial of iodine, sewn in the lining of his tunic, completed the equipment.
Physically, the men were "in the pink," as Tommy says. They were clear-eyed, vigorous, alert, and as hard as nails. With their caps on, they looked the well-trained soldiers which they were; but with caps removed, they resembled so many uniformed convicts less the prison pallor. "Oversea haircuts" were the last tonsorial cry, and for several days previous to our departure, the army hairdressers had been busily wielding the close-cutting clippers.
Each of us had received a copy of Lord Kitchener's letter to the troops ordered abroad, a brief, soldierlike statement of the standard of conduct which England expected of her fighting men:—
You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience. Remember that the honor of the British Army depends upon your individual conduct. It will be your duty not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness under fire, but also to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping in this struggle. The operations in which you are engaged will, for the most part, take place in a friendly country, and you can do your own country no better service than in showing yourself, in France and Belgium, in the true character of a British soldier.
Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind. Never do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted; and your conduct must justify that welcome and that trust. Your duty cannot be done unless your health is sound. So keep constantly on your guard against any excesses. In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both temptations, and while treating all women with perfect courtesy, you should avoid any intimacy.
Do your duty bravely. Fear God. Honor the King.
It was an effective appeal and a constant reminder to the men of the glorious traditions of the British Army. In the months that followed, I had opportunity to learn how deep and lasting was the impression made upon them by Lord Kitchener's first, and I believe his only, letter to his soldiers.
The machinery for moving troops in England works without the slightest friction. The men, transport, horses, commissariat, medical stores, and supplies of a battalion are entrained in less than half an hour. Everything is timed to the minute. Battalion after battalion and train after train, we moved out of Aldershot at half-hour intervals. Each train arrived at the port of embarkation on schedule time and pulled up on the docks by the side of a troop transport, great slate-colored liners taken out of the merchant service. Not a moment was lost. The last man was aboard and the last wagon on the crane swinging up over the ship's side as the next train came in.
Ship by ship we moved down the harbor in the twilight, the boys crowding the rail on both sides, taking their farewell look at England—home. It was the last farewell for many of them, but there was no martial music, no waving of flags, no tearful good-byes. Our farewell was as prosaic as our long period of training had been. We were each one a very small part of a tremendous business organization which works without any of the display considered so essential in the old days.
We left England without a cheer. There was not so much as a wave of the hand from the wharf; for there was no one on the wharf to wave, with the exception of a few dock laborers, and they had seen too many soldiers off to the front to be sentimental about it. It was a tense moment for the men, but trust Tommy to relieve a tense situation. As we steamed away from the landing slip, we passed a barge, loaded to the water's edge with coal. Tommy has a song pat to every occasion. He enjoys, above all things, giving a ludicrous twist to a "weepy" ballad. When we were within hailing distance of the coal barge, he began singing one of this variety, "Keep the Home Fires Burning," to those smutty-faced barge hands. Every one joined in heartily, forgetting all about the solemnity of the leave-taking.
Tommy is a prosaic chap. This was never more apparent to me than upon that pleasant evening in May when we said good-bye to England. The lights of home were twinkling their farewells far in the distance. Every moment brought us nearer to the great adventure. We were "off to the wars," to take our places in the far-flung battle line. Here was Romance lavishly offering gifts dearest to the hearts of Youth, offering them to clerks, barbers, tradesmen, drapers' assistants, men who had never known an adventure more thrilling than a holiday excursion to the Isle of Man or a week of cycling in Kent. And they accepted them with all the stolidity native to Englishmen. The eyes of the world were upon them. They had become the knights-errant of every schoolgirl. They were figures of heroic proportions to every one but themselves.
French soldiers are conscious of the romantic possibilities offered them by the so-called "divine accident of war." They go forth to fight for Glorious France, France the Unconquerable! Tommy shoulders his rifle and departs for the four corners of the world on a "bloomin' fine little 'oliday!" A railway journey and a sea voyage in one! "Blimy! Not 'arf bad, wot?" Perhaps he is stirred at the thought of fighting for "England, Home, and Beauty." Perhaps he does thrill inwardly, remembering a sweetheart left behind. But he keeps it jolly well to himself. He has read me many of his letters home, some of them written during an engagement which will figure prominently in the history of the great World War. "Well, I can't think of anything more now," threads its way through a meager page of commonplaces about the weather, his food, and his personal health. A frugal line of cross-marks for kisses, at the bottom of the page, is his only concession to sentiment.
There was, however, one burst of enthusiasm, as we started on our journey, which struck me as being spontaneous, and splendid, and thoroughly English. Outside the harbor we were met by our guardians, a fleet of destroyers which was to give us safe convoy across the Channel. The moment they saw them the men broke forth into prolonged cheering, and there were glad shouts of—
"There they are, me lads! There's some o' the little old watch dogs wot's keepin' 'em bottled up!"
"Good old navy! That's w'ere we got 'em by the throat!"
"Let's give 'em 'Sons of the Sea!'"
And they did. They sang with a spirit of exaltation which Englishmen rarely betray, and which convinced me how nearly the sea and England's position as Mistress of the Seas touch the Englishman's heart of hearts.
"Sons of the sea, All British born, Sailing the ocean, Laughing foes to scorn. They may build their ships, my lads, And think they know the game; But they can't beat the boys of the bulldog breed Who made old England's name!"
It was a confession of faith. On the sea England can't be beaten. Tommy believes that with his whole soul, and on this occasion he sang with all the warmth of religious conviction.
Our Channel voyage was uneventful. Each transport was guarded by two destroyers, one on either side, the three vessels keeping abreast and about fifty yards apart during the entire journey. The submarine menace was then at its height, and we were prepared for an emergency. The boats were swung ready for immediate launching, and all of the men were provided with life-preservers. But England had been transporting troops and supplies to the firing-line for so many months without accident that none of us were at all concerned about the possibility of danger. Furthermore, the men were too busy studying "Tommy Atkins's French Manual" to think about submarines. They were putting the final polish on their accent in preparation for to-morrow's landing.
"Alf, 'ow's this: 'Madamaselly, avay vu dee pang?'"
"Wot do you s'y for 'Gimme a tuppenny packet o' Nosegay'?"
"'Bonjoor, Monseer!' That ain't so dusty, Freddie, wot?"
"Let's try that Marcelase again. You start it, 'Arry."
"Let Nobby. 'E knows the sounds better'n wot I do."
"'It 'er up, Nobby! We gotta learn that so we can sing it on the march."
"Wite till I find it in me book. All right now—
Allons infants dee la Pat-ree, La joor de glory is arrivay."
Such bits of conversation may be of little interest, but they have the merit of being genuine. All of them were jotted down in my notebook at the times when I heard them.
The following day we crowded into the typical French army troop train, eight chevaux or forty hommes to a car, and started on a leisurely journey to the firing-line. We traveled all day, at eight or ten miles an hour, through Normandy. We passed through pleasant towns and villages lying silent in the afternoon sunshine, and seemingly almost deserted, and through the open country fragrant with the scent of apple blossoms. Now and then children waved to us from a cottage window, and in the fields old men and women and girls leaned silently on their hoes or their rakes and watched us pass. Occasionally an old reservist, guarding the railway line, would lift his cap and shout, "Vive l'Angleterre!" But more often he would lean on his rifle and smile, nodding his head courteously but silently to our salutations. Tommy, for all his stolid, dogged cheeriness, sensed the tragedy of France. It was a land swept bare of all its fine young manhood. There was no pleasant stir and bustle of civilian life. Those who were left went about their work silently and joylessly. When we asked of the men, we received, always, the same quiet, courteous reply: "A la guerre, monsieur."
The boys soon learned the meaning of the phrase, "a la guerre." It became a war-cry, a slogan. It was shouted back and forth from car to car and from train to train. You can imagine how eager we all were; how we strained our ears, whenever the train stopped, for the sound of the guns. But not until the following morning, when we reached the little village at the end of our railway journey, did we hear them, a low muttering like the sound of thunder beyond the horizon. How we cheered at the first faint sound which was to become so deafening, so terrible to us later! It was music to us then; for we were like the others who had gone that way. We knew nothing of war. We thought it must be something adventurous and fine. Something to make the blood leap and the heart sing. We marched through the village and down the poplar-lined road, surprised, almost disappointed, to see the neat, well-kept houses, and the pleasant, level fields, green with spring crops. We had expected that everything would be in ruins. At this stage of the journey, however, we were still some twenty-five miles from the firing-line.
During all the journey from the coast, we had seen, on every side, evidences of that wonderfully organized branch of the British military system, the Army Service Corps. From the village at which we detrained, everything was English. Long lines of motor transport lorries were parked along the sides of the roads. There were great ammunition bases, commissariat supply depots, motor repair shops, wheel-wright and blacksmith shops, where one saw none but khaki-clad soldiers engaged in all the noncombatant business essential to the maintenance of large armies. There were long lines of transport wagons loaded with supplies, traveling field-kitchens, with chimneys smoking and kettles steaming as they bumped over the cobbled roads, water carts, Red Cross carts, motor ambulances, batteries of artillery, London omnibuses, painted slate gray, filled with troops, seemingly endless columns of infantry on foot, all moving with us, along parallel roads, toward the firing-line. And most of these troops and supply columns belonged to my own division, one small cog in the British fighting machine.
We advanced toward the war zone in easy stages. It was intensely hot, and the rough, cobbled roads greatly increased the difficulty of marching. In England we had frequently tramped from fifteen to twenty-five miles in a day without fatigue. But the roads there were excellent, and the climate moist and cool. Upon our first day's march in France, a journey of only nine miles, scores of men were overcome by the heat, and several died. The suffering of the men was so great, in fact, that a halt was made earlier than had been planned, and we bivouacked for the night in the fields.
Life with a battalion on the march proceeds with the same orderly routine as when in barracks. Every man has his own particular employment. Within a few moments, the level pasture land was converted into a busy community of a thousand inhabitants. We made serviceable little dwellings by lacing together two or three waterproof ground-sheets and erecting them on sticks or tying them to the wires of the fences. Latrines and refuse pits were dug under the supervision of the battalion medical officer. The sick were cared for and justice dispensed with the same thoroughness as in England. The day's offenders against discipline were punished with what seemed to us unusual severity. But we were now on active service, and offenses which were trivial in England were looked upon, for this reason, in the light of serious crimes.
Daily we approached a little nearer to our goal, sleeping, at night, in the open fields or in the lofts of great rambling farm-buildings. Most of these places had been used for soldiers' billets scores of times before. The walls were covered with the names of men and regiments, and there were many penciled suggestions as to the best place to go for a basin of "coffay oh lay," as Tommy called it. Every roadside cottage was, in fact, Tommy's tavern. The thrifty French peasant women kept open house for soldiers. They served us with delicious coffee and thick slices of French bread, for the very reasonable sum of twopence. They were always friendly and hospitable, and the men, in turn, treated them with courteous and kindly respect. Tommy was a great favorite with the French children. They climbed on his lap and rifled his pockets; and they delighted him by talking in his own vernacular, for they were quick to pick up English words and phrases. They sang "Tipperary" and "Rule Britannia," and "God Save the King," so quaintly and prettily that the men kept them at it for hours at a time.
And so, during a week of stifling heat, we moved slowly forward. The sound of the guns grew in intensity, from a faint rumbling to a subdued roar, until one evening, sitting in the open windows of a stable loft, we saw the far-off lightenings of bursting shells, and the trench rockets soaring skyward; and we heard bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire, very faintly, like the sound of chestnuts popping in an oven.
THE PARAPET-ETIC SCHOOL
"We're going in to-night."
The word was given out by the orderly sergeants at four in the afternoon. At 4.03 every one in camp had heard the news. Scores of miniature hand laundries, which were doing a thriving business down by the duck pond, immediately shut up shop. Damp and doubtfully clean ration bags, towels, and shirts which were draped along the fences, were hastily gathered together and thrust into the capacious depths of pack-sacks. Members of the battalion's sporting contingent broke up their games of tuppenny brag without waiting for "just one more hand," an unprecedented thing. The makers of war ballads, who were shouting choruses to the merry music of the mouth-organ band, stopped in the midst of their latest composition, and rushed off to get their marching order together. At 4.10 every one, with the exception of the officers' servants, was ready to move off. This, too, was unprecedented. Never before had we made haste more gladly or less needfully, but never before had there been such an incentive to haste. We were going into the trenches for the first time.
The officers' servants, commonly called "batmen," were unfortunate rankers who, in moments of weakness, had sold themselves into slavery for half a crown per week. The batman's duty is to make tea for his officer, clean his boots, wash his clothes, tuck him into bed at night, and make himself useful generally. The real test of a good batman, however, is his carrying capacity. In addition to his own heavy burden he must carry various articles belonging to his officer: enameled wash-basins, rubber boots, bottles of Apollinaris water, service editions of the modern English poets and novelists, spirit lamps, packages of food, boxes of cigars and cigarettes,—in fact, all of his personal luggage which is in excess of the allotted thirty-five pounds which is carried on the battalion transport wagons.
On this epoch-marking day, even the officers' servants were punctual. When the order, "Packs on! Fall in!" was given, not a man was missing. Every one was in harness, standing silently, expectantly, in his place.
The bolts clicked open with the sound of one as we loaded our rifles with ball ammunition. Five long shiny cartridges were slipped down the charger guide into the magazine, and the cut-off closed.
"Move off in column of route, 'A' company leading!"
We swung into the country road in the gathering twilight, and turned sharply to our left at the crossroad where the signboard read, "To the Firing-Line. For the Use of the Military Only."
Coming into the trenches for the first time when the deadlock along the western front had become seemingly unbreakable, we reaped the benefit of the experience of the gallant little remnant of the first British Expeditionary Force. After the retreat from Mons, they had dug themselves in and were holding tenaciously on, awaiting the long-heralded arrival of Kitchener's Mob. As the units of the new armies arrived in France, they were sent into the trenches for twenty-four hours' instruction in trench warfare, with a battalion of regulars. This one-day course in trench fighting is preliminary to fitting new troops into their own particular sectors along the front. The facetious subalterns called it "The Parapet-etic School." Months later, we ourselves became members of the faculty, but on this first occasion we were marching up as the meekest of undergraduates.
It was quite dark when we entered the desolate belt of country known as the "fire zone." Pipes and cigarettes were put out and talking ceased. We extended to groups of platoons in fours, at one hundred paces interval, each platoon keeping in touch with the one in front by means of connecting files. We passed rows of ruined cottages where only the scent of the roses in neglected little front gardens reminded one of the home-loving people who had lived there in happier days. Dim lights streamed through chinks and crannies in the walls. Now and then blanket coverings would be lifted from apertures that had been windows or doors, and we would see bright fires blazing in the middle of brick kitchen floors, and groups of men sitting about them luxuriously sipping tea from steaming canteens. They were laughing and talking and singing songs in loud, boisterous voices which contrasted strangely with our timid noiselessness. I was marching with one of the trench guides who had been sent back to pilot us to our position. I asked him if the Tommies in the houses were not in danger of being heard by the enemy. He laughed uproariously at this, whereupon one of our officers, a little second lieutenant, turned and hissed in melodramatic undertones, "Silence in the ranks there! Where do you think you are!" Officers and men, we were new to the game then, and we held rather exaggerated notions as to the amount of care to be observed in moving up to the trenches.
"Blimy, son!" whispered the trench guide, "you might think we was only a couple o' 'unnerd yards away from Fritzie's trenches! We're a good two an' a 'arf miles back 'ere. All right to be careful arter you gets closer up; but they's no use w'isperin' w'en you ain't even in rifle range."
With lights, of course, it was a different matter altogether. Can't be too careful about giving the enemy artillery an aiming mark. This was the reason all the doors and windows of the ruined cottages were so carefully blanketed.
"Let old Fritzie see a light,—''Ello!' 'e says, 'blokes in billets!' an' over comes a 'arf-dozen shells knockin' you all to blazes."
As we came within the range of rifle fire, we again changed our formation, and marched in single file along the edge of the road. The sharp _crack! crack!= of small arms now sounded with vicious and ominous distinctness. We heard the melancholy song of the ricochets and spent bullets as they whirled in a wide arc, high over our heads, and occasionally the less pleasing _phtt! phtt!_ of those speeding straight from the muzzle of a German rifle. We breathed more freely when we entered the communication trench in the center of a little thicket, a mile or more back of the first-line trenches.
We wound in and out of what appeared in the darkness to be a hopeless labyrinth of earthworks. Cross-streets and alleys led off in every direction. All along the way we had glimpses of dugouts lighted by candles, the doorways carefully concealed with blankets or pieces of old sacking. Groups of Tommies, in comfortable nooks and corners, were boiling tea or frying bacon over little stoves made of old iron buckets or biscuit tins.
I marveled at the skill of our trench guide who went confidently on in the darkness, with scarcely a pause. At length, after a winding, zigzag journey, we arrived at our trench where we met the Gloucesters.
There isn't one of us who hasn't a warm spot in his heart for the Gloucesters: they welcomed us so heartily and initiated us into all the mysteries of trench etiquette and trench tradition. We were, at best, but amateur Tommies. In them I recognized the lineal descendants of the line Atkins; men whose grandfathers had fought in the Crimea, and whose fathers in Indian mutinies. They were the fighting sons of fighting sires, and they taught us more of life in the trenches, in twenty-four hours, than we had learned during nine months of training in England. An infantryman of my company has a very kindly feeling toward one of them who probably saved his life before we had been in the trenches five minutes. Our first question was, of course, "How far is it to the German lines?" and in his eagerness to see, my fellow Tommy jumped up on the firing-bench for a look, with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. He was pulled down into the trench just as a rifle cracked and a bullet went zing-g-g from the parapet precisely where he had been standing. Then the Gloucester gave him a friendly little lecture which none of us afterward forgot.
"Now, look 'ere, son! Never get up for a squint at Fritz with a fag on! 'E's got every sandbag along this parapet numbered, same as we've got 'is. 'Is snipers is a-layin' fer us same as ours is a-layin' fer 'im." Then, turning to the rest of us, "Now, we ain't arskin' to 'ave no burial parties. But if any of you blokes wants to be the stiff, stand up w'ere this guy lit the gas."
There weren't any takers, and a moment later another bullet struck a sandbag in the same spot.
"See? 'E spotted you. 'E'll keep a-pottin' away at that place for an hour, 'opin' to catch you lookin' over again. Less see if we can find 'im. Give us that biscuit tin, 'Enery."
Then we learned the biscuit-tin-finder trick for locating snipers. It's only approximate, of course, but it gives a pretty good hint at the direction from which the shots come. It doesn't work in the daytime, for a sniper is too clever to fire at it. But a biscuit tin, set on the parapet at night in a badly sniped position, is almost certain to be hit. The angle from which the shots come is shown by the jagged edges of tin around the bullet holes. Then, as the Gloucester said, "Give 'im a nice little April shower out o' yer machine gun in that direction. You may fetch 'im. But if you don't, 'e won't bother you no more fer an hour or two."
We learned how orders are passed down the line, from sentry to sentry, quietly, and with the speed of a man running. We learned how the sentries are posted and their duties. We saw the intricate mazes of telephone wires, and the men of the signaling corps at their posts in the trenches, in communication with brigade, divisional, and army corps headquarters. We learned how to "sleep" five men in a four-by-six dugout; and, when there are no dugouts, how to hunch up on the firing-benches with our waterproof sheets over our heads, and doze, with our knees for a pillow. We learned the order of precedence for troops in the communication trenches.
"Never forget that! Outgoin' troops 'as the right o' way. They ain't 'ad no rest, an' they're all slathered in mud, likely, an' dead beat fer sleep. Incomin' troops is fresh, an' they stands to one side to let the others pass."
We saw the listening patrols go out at night, through the underground passage which leads to the far side of the barbed-wire entanglements. From there they creep far out between the opposing lines of trenches, to keep watch upon the movements of the enemy, and to report the presence of his working parties or patrols. This is dangerous, nerve-trying work, for the men sent out upon it are exposed not only to the shots of the enemy, but to the wild shots of their own comrades as well. I saw one patrol come in just before dawn. One of the men brought with him a piece of barbed wire, clipped from the German entanglements two hundred and fifty yards away.
"Taffy, 'ave a look at this 'ere. Three-ply stuff wot you can 'ardly get yer nippers through. 'Ad to saw an' saw, an' w'en I all but 'ad it, lummy! if they didn't send up a rocket wot bleedin' near 'it me in the 'ead!"
"Tyke it to Captain Stevens. I 'eard 'im s'y 'e's wantin' a bit to show to one of the artill'ry blokes. 'E's got a bet on with 'im that it's three-ply wire. Now, don't forget, Bobby! Touch 'im fer a couple o' packets o' fags!"
I was tremendously interested. At that time it seemed incredible to me that men crawled over to the German lines in this manner and clipped pieces of German wire for souvenirs.
"Did you hear anything?" I asked him.
"'Eard a flute some Fritzie was a-playin' of. An' you ought to 'ave 'eard 'em a-singin'! Doleful as 'ell!"
Several men were killed and wounded during the night. One of them was a sentry with whom I had been talking only a few moments before. He was standing on the firing-bench looking out into the darkness, when he fell back into the trench without a cry. It was a terrible wound. I would not have believed that a bullet could so horribly disfigure one. He was given first aid by the light of a candle; but it was useless. Silently his comrades removed his identification disk and wrapped him in a blanket. "Poor old Walt!" they said. An hour later he was buried in a shell hole at the back of the trench.
One thing we learned during our first night in the trenches was of the very first importance. And that was, respect for our enemies. We came from England full of absurd newspaper tales about the German soldier's inferiority as a fighting man. We had read that he was a wretched marksman: he would not stand up to the bayonet: whenever opportunity offered he crept over and gave himself up: he was poorly fed and clothed and was so weary of the war that his officers had to drive him to fight, at the muzzles of their revolvers. We thought him almost beneath contempt. We were convinced in a night that we had greatly underestimated his abilities as a marksman. As for his all-round inferiority as a fighting man, one of the Gloucesters put it rather well:—
"'Ere! If the Germans is so bloomin' rotten, 'ow is it we ain't a-fightin' 'em sommers along the Rhine, or in Austry-Hungry? No, they ain't a-firin' wild, I give you my word! Not around this part o' France they ain't! Wot do you s'y, Jerry?"
Jerry made a most illuminating contribution to the discussion of Fritz as a fighting man:—
"I'll tell you wot! If ever I gets through this 'ere war; if I 'as the luck to go 'ome again, with me eyesight, I'll never feel syfe w'en I sees a Fritzie, unless I'm a-lookin' at 'im through me periscope from be'ind a bit o' cover."
* * * * * *
How am I to give a really vivid picture of trench life as I saw it for the first time, how make it live for others, when I remember that the many descriptive accounts I had read of it in England did not in the least visualize it for me? I watched the rockets rising from the German lines, watched them burst into points of light, over the devastated strip of country called "No-Man's-Land" and drift slowly down. And I watched the charitable shadows rush back like the very wind of darkness. The desolate landscape emerged from the gloom and receded again, like a series of pictures thrown upon a screen. All of this was so new, so terrible, I doubted its reality. Indeed, I doubted my own identity, as one does at times when brought face to face with some experiences which cannot be compared with past experiences or even measured by them. I groped darkly, for some new truth which was flickering just beyond the border of consciousness. But I was so blinded by the glamour of the adventure that it did not come to me then. Later I understood. It was my first glimmering realization of the tremendous sadness, the awful futility of war.
PRIVATE HOLLOWAY, PROFESSOR OF HYGIENE
The following morning we wandered through the trenches listening to the learned discourse of the genial professors of the Parapet-etic School, storing up much useful information for future reference. I made a serious blunder when I asked one of them a question about Ypres, for I pronounced the name French fashion, which put me under suspicion as a "swanker."
"Don't try to come it, son," he said. "S'y 'Wipers.' That's wot we calls it."
Henceforth it was "Wipers" for me, although I learned that "Eeps" and "Yipps" are sanctioned by some trench authorities. I made no further mistakes of this nature, and by keeping silent about the names of the towns and villages along our front, I soon learned the accepted pronunciation of all of them. Armentieres is called "Armenteers"; Balleul, "Bally-all"; Hazebrouck, "Hazy-Brook"; and what more natural than "Plug-Street," Atkinsese for Ploegsteert?
As was the case wherever I went, my accent betrayed my American birth; and again, as an American Expeditionary Force of one, I was shown many favors. Private Shorty Holloway, upon learning that I was a "Yank," offered to tell me "every bloomin' thing about the trenches that a bloke needs to know." I was only too glad to place myself under his instruction.
"Right you are!" said Shorty; "now, sit down 'ere w'ile I'm goin' over me shirt, an' arsk me anything yer a mind to." I began immediately by asking him what he meant by "going over" his shirt.
"Blimy! You are new to this game, mate! You mean to s'y you ain't got any graybacks!"
I confessed shamefacedly that I had not. He stripped to the waist, turned his shirt wrong side out, and laid it upon his knee.
"'Ave a look," he said proudly.
The less said about my discoveries the better for the fastidiously minded. Suffice it to say that I made my first acquaintance with members of a British Expeditionary Force which is not mentioned in official communiques.
"Trench pets," said Shorty. Then he told me that they were not all graybacks. There is a great variety of species, but they all belong to the same parasitical family, and wage a non-discriminating warfare upon the soldiery on both sides of No-man's-Land. Germans, British, French, Belgians alike were their victims.
"You'll soon 'ave plenty," he said reassuringly; "I give you about a week to get covered with 'em. Now, wot you want to do is this: always 'ave an extra shirt in yer pack. Don't be a bloomin' ass an' sell it fer a packet o' fags like I did! An' the next time you writes to England, get some one to send you out some Keatings"—he displayed a box of grayish-colored powder. "It won't kill 'em, mind you! They ain't nothin' but fire that'll kill 'em. But Keatings tykes all the ginger out o' 'em. They ain't near so lively arter you strafe 'em with this 'ere powder."
I remembered Shorty's advice later when I became a reluctant host to a prolific colony of graybacks. For nearly six months I was never without a box of Keatings, and I was never without the need for it.
Barbed wire had a new and terrible significance for me from the first day which we spent in the trenches. I could more readily understand why there had been so long a deadlock on the western front. The entanglements in front of the first line of trenches were from fifteen to twenty yards wide, the wires being twisted from post to post in such a hopeless jumble that no man could possibly get through them under fire. The posts were set firmly in the ground, but there were movable segments, every fifty or sixty yards, which could be put to one side in case an attack was to be launched against the German lines.
At certain positions there were what appeared to be openings through the wire, but these were nothing less than man-traps which have been found serviceable in case of an enemy attack. In an assault men follow the line of least resistance when they reach the barbed wire. These apparent openings are V-shaped, with the open end toward the enemy. The attacking troops think they see a clear passageway. They rush into the trap, and when it is filled with struggling men, machine guns are turned upon them, and, as Shorty said, "You got 'em cold."
That, at least, was the presumption. Practically, man-traps were not always a success. The intensive bombardments which precede infantry attacks play havoc with entanglements, but there is always a chance of the destruction being incomplete, as upon one occasion farther north, where, Shorty told me, a man-trap caught a whole platoon of Germans "dead to rights."
"But this is wot gives you the pip," he said. "'Ere we got three lines of trenches, all of 'em wired up so that a rat couldn't get through without scratchin' hisself to death. Fritzie's got better wire than wot we 'ave, an' more of it. An' 'e's got more machine guns, more artill'ry, more shells. They ain't any little old man-killer ever invented wot they 'aven't got more of than we 'ave. An' at 'ome they're a-s'yin', 'W'y don't they get on with it? W'y don't they smash through?' Let some of 'em come out 'ere an' 'ave a try! That's all I got to s'y."
I didn't tell Shorty that I had been, not exactly an armchair critic, but at least a barrack-room critic in England. I had wondered why British and French troops had failed to smash through. A few weeks in the trenches gave me a new viewpoint. I could only wonder at the magnificent fighting qualities of soldiers who had held their own so effectively against armies equipped and armed and munitioned as the Germans were.
After he had finished drugging his trench pets, Shorty and I made a tour of the trenches. I was much surprised at seeing how clean and comfortable they can be kept in pleasant summer weather. Men were busily at work sweeping up the walks, collecting the rubbish, which was put into sandbags hung on pegs at intervals along the fire trench. At night the refuse was taken back of the trenches and buried. Most of this work devolved upon the pioneers whose business it was to keep the trenches sanitary.
The fire trench was built in much the same way as those which we had made during our training in England. In pattern it was something like a tesselated border. For the space of five yards it ran straight, then it turned at right angles around a traverse of solid earth six feet square, then straight again for another five yards, then around another traverse, and so throughout the length of the line. Each five-yard segment, which is called a "bay," offered firing room for five men. The traverses, of course, were for the purpose of preventing enfilade fire. They also limited the execution which might be done by one shell. Even so they were not an unmixed blessing, for they were always in the way when you wanted to get anywhere in a hurry.
"An' you are in a 'urry w'en you sees a Minnie [Minnenwerfer] comin' your w'y. But you gets trench legs arter a w'ile. It'll be a funny sight to see blokes walkin' along the street in Lunnon w'en the war's over. They'll be so used to dodgin' in an' out o' traverses they won't be able to go in a straight line."
As we walked through the firing-line trenches, I could quite understand the possibility of one's acquiring trench legs. Five paces forward, two to the right, two to the left, two to the left again, then five to the right, and so on to Switzerland. Shorty was of the opinion that one could enter the trenches on the Channel coast and walk through to the Alps without once coming out on top of the ground. I am not in a position either to affirm or to question this statement. My own experience was confined to that part of the British front which lies between Messines in Belgium and Loos in France. There, certainly, one could walk for miles, through an intricate maze of continuous underground passages.
But the firing-line trench was neither a traffic route nor a promenade. The great bulk of inter-trench business passed through the traveling trench, about fifteen yards in rear of the fire trench and running parallel to it. The two were connected by many passageways, the chief difference between them being that the fire trench was the business district, while the traveling trench was primarily residential. Along the latter were built most of the dugouts, lavatories, and trench kitchens. The sleeping quarters for the men were not very elaborate. Recesses were made in the wall of the trench about two feet above the floor. They were not more than three feet high, so that one had to crawl in head first when going to bed. They were partitioned in the middle, and were supposed to offer accommodation for four men, two on each side. But, as Shorty said, everything depended on the ration allowance. Two men who had eaten to repletion could not hope to occupy the same apartment. One had a choice of going to bed hungry or of eating heartily and sleeping outside on the firing-bench.
"'Ere's a funny thing," he said. "W'y do you suppose they makes the dugouts open at one end?"
I had no explanation to offer.
"Crawl inside an' I'll show you."
I stood my rifle against the side of the trench and crept in.
"Now, yer supposed to be asleep," said Shorty, and with that he gave me a whack on the soles of my boots with his entrenching tool handle. I can still feel the pain of the blow.
"Stand to! Wyke up 'ere! Stand to!" he shouted, and gave me another resounding wallop.
I backed out in all haste.
"Get the idea? That's 'ow they wykes you up at stand-to, or w'en your turn comes fer sentry. Not bad, wot?"
I said that it all depended on whether one was doing the waking or the sleeping, and that, for my part, when sleeping, I would lie with my head out.
"You wouldn't if you belonged to our lot. They'd give it to you on the napper just as quick as 'it you on the feet. You ain't on to the game, that's all. Let me show you suthin'."
He crept inside and drew his knees up to his chest so that his feet were well out of reach. At his suggestion I tried to use the active service alarm clock on him, but there was not room enough in which to wield it. My feet were tingling from the effect of his blows, and I felt that the reputation for resourcefulness of Kitchener's Mob was at stake. In a moment of inspiration I seized my rifle, gave him a dig in the shins with the butt, and shouted, "Stand to, Shorty!" He came out rubbing his leg ruefully.
"You got the idea, mate," he said. "That's just wot they does w'en you tries to double-cross 'em by pullin' yer feet in. I ain't sure w'ere I likes it best, on the shins or on the feet."
This explanation of the reason for building three-sided dugouts, while not, of course, the true one, was none the less interesting. And certainly, the task of arousing sleeping men for sentry duty was greatly facilitated with rows of protruding boot soles "simply arskin' to be 'it," as Shorty put it.
All of the dugouts for privates and N.C.O.s were of equal size and built on the same model, the reason being that the walls and floors, which were made of wood, and the roofs, which were of corrugated iron, were put together in sections at the headquarters of the Royal Engineers, who superintended all the work of trench construction. The material was brought up at night ready to be fitted into excavations. Furthermore, with thousands of men to house within a very limited area, space was a most important consideration. There was no room for indulging individual tastes in dugout architecture. The roofs were covered with from three to four feet of earth, which made them proof against shrapnel or shell splinters. In case of a heavy bombardment with high explosives, the men took shelter in deep and narrow "slip trenches." These were blind alleyways leading off from the traveling trench, with room for from ten to fifteen men in each. At this part of the line there were none of the very deep shell-proof shelters, from fifteen to twenty feet below the surface of the ground, of which I had read. Most of the men seemed to be glad of this. They preferred taking their chances in an open trench during heavy shell fire.
Realists and Romanticists lived side by side in the traveling trench. "My Little Gray Home in the West" was the modest legend over one apartment. The "Ritz Carlton" was next door to "The Rats' Retreat," with "Vermin Villa" next door but one. "The Suicide Club" was the suburban residence of some members of the bombing squad. I remarked that the bombers seemed to take rather a pessimistic view of their profession, whereupon Shorty told me that if there were any men slated for the Order of the Wooden Cross, the bombers were those unfortunate ones. In an assault they were first at the enemy's position. They had dangerous work to do even on the quietest of days. But theirs was a post of honor, and no one of them but was proud of his membership in the Suicide Club.
The officers' quarters were on a much more generous and elaborate scale than those of the men. This I gathered from Shorty's description of them, for I saw only the exteriors as we passed along the trench. Those for platoon and company commanders were built along the traveling trench. The colonel, major, and adjutant lived in a luxurious palace, about fifty yards down a communication trench. Near it was the officers' mess, a cafe de luxe with glass panels in the door, a cooking stove, a long wooden table, chairs,—everything, in fact, but hot and cold running water.
"You know," said Shorty, "the officers thinks they 'as to rough it, but they got it soft, I'm tellin' you! Wooden bunks to sleep in, batmen to bring 'em 'ot water fer shavin' in the mornin', all the fags they wants,—Blimy, I wonder wot they calls livin' 'igh?"
I agreed that in so far as living quarters are concerned, they were roughing it under very pleasant circumstances. However, they were not always so fortunate, as later experience proved. Here there had been little serious fighting for months and the trenches were at their best. Elsewhere the officers' dugouts were often but little better than those of the men.
The first-line trenches were connected with two lines of support or reserve trenches built in precisely the same fashion, and each heavily wired. The communication trenches which joined them were from seven to eight feet deep and wide enough to permit the convenient passage of incoming and outgoing troops, and the transport of the wounded back to the field dressing stations. From the last reserve line they wound on backward through the fields until troops might leave them well out of range of rifle fire. Under Shorty's guidance I saw the field dressing stations, the dugouts for the reserve ammunition supply and the stores of bombs and hand grenades, battalion and brigade trench headquarters. We wandered from one part of the line to another through trenches, all of which were kept amazingly neat and clean. The walls were stayed with fine-mesh wire to hold the earth in place. The floors were covered with board walks carefully laid over the drains, which ran along the center of the trench and emptied into deep wells, built in recesses in the walls. I felt very much encouraged when I saw the careful provisions for sanitation and drainage. On a fine June morning it seemed probable that living in ditches was not to be so unpleasant as I had imagined it. Shorty listened to my comments with a smile.
"Don't pat yerself on the back yet a w'ile, mate," he said. "They looks right enough now, but wite till you've seen 'em arter a 'eavy rain."
I had this opportunity many times during the summer and autumn. A more wretched existence than that of soldiering in wet weather could hardly be imagined. The walls of the trenches caved in in great masses. The drains filled to overflowing, and the trench walks were covered deep in mud. After a few hours of rain, dry and comfortable trenches became a quagmire, and we were kept busy for days afterward repairing the damage.
As a machine gunner I was particularly interested in the construction of the machine-gun emplacements. The covered battle positions were very solidly built. The roofs were supported with immense logs or steel girders covered over with many layers of sandbags. There were two carefully concealed loopholes looking out to a flank, but none for frontal fire, as this dangerous little weapon best enjoys catching troops in enfilade owing to the rapidity and the narrow cone of its fire. Its own front is protected by the guns on its right and left. At each emplacement there was a range chart giving the ranges to all parts of the enemy's trenches, and to every prominent object both in front of and behind them, within its field of fire. When not in use the gun was kept mounted and ready for action in the battle position.
"But remember this," said Shorty, "you never fires from your battle position except in case of attack. W'en you goes out at night to 'ave a little go at Fritzie, you always tykes yer gun sommers else. If you don't, you'll 'ave Minnie an' Busy Bertha an' all the rest o' the Krupp childern comin' over to see w'ere you live."
This was a wise precaution, as we were soon to learn from experience. Machine guns are objects of special interest to the artillery, and the locality from which they are fired becomes very unhealthy for some little time thereafter.
We stopped for a moment at "The Mud Larks' Hairdressing Parlor," a very important institution if one might judge by its patronage. It was housed in a recess in the wall of the traveling trench, and was open to the sky. There I saw the latest fashion in "oversea" hair cuts. The victims sat on a ration box while the barber mowed great swaths through tangled thatch with a pair of close-cutting clippers. But instead of making a complete job of it, a thick fringe of hair which resembled a misplaced scalping tuft was left for decorative purposes, just above the forehead. The effect was so grotesque that I had to invent an excuse for laughing. It was a lame one, I fear, for Shorty looked at me warningly. When we had gone on a little way he said:—
"Ain't it a proper beauty parlor? But you got to be careful about larfin'. Some o' the blokes thinks that 'edge-row is a regular ornament."
I had supposed that a daily shave was out of the question on the firing-line; but the British Tommy is nothing if not resourceful. Although water is scarce and fuel even more so, the self-respecting soldier easily surmounts difficulties, and the Gloucesters were all nice in matters pertaining to the toilet. Instead of draining their canteens of tea, they saved a few drops for shaving purposes.
"It's a bit sticky," said Shorty, "but it's 'ot, an' not 'arf bad w'en you gets used to it. Now, another thing you don't want to ferget is this: W'en yer movin' up fer yer week in the first line, always bring a bundle o' firewood with you. They ain't so much as a match-stick left in the trenches. Then you wants to be savin' of it. Don't go an' use it all the first d'y or you'll 'ave to do without yer tea the rest o' the week."
I remembered his emphasis upon this point afterward when I saw men risking their lives in order to procure firewood. Without his tea Tommy was a wretched being. I do not remember a day, no matter how serious the fighting, when he did not find both the time and the means for making it.
Shorty was a Ph.D. in every subject in the curriculum, including domestic science. In preparing breakfast he gave me a practical demonstration of the art of conserving a limited resource of fuel, bringing our two canteens to a boil with a very meager handful of sticks; and while doing so he delivered an oral thesis on the best methods of food preparation. For example, there was the item of corned beef—familiarly called "bully." It was the piece de resistance at every meal with the possible exception of breakfast, when there was usually a strip of bacon. Now, one's appetite for "bully" becomes jaded in the course of a few weeks or months. To use the German expression one doesn't eat it gern. But it is not a question of liking it. One must eat it or go hungry. Therefore, said Shorty, save carefully all of your bacon grease, and instead of eating your "bully" cold out of the tin, mix it with bread crumbs and grated cheese and fry it in the grease. He prepared some in this way, and I thought it a most delectable dish. Another way of stimulating the palate was to boil the beef in a solution of bacon grease and water, and then, while eating it, "kid yerself that it's Irish stew." This second method of taking away the curse did not appeal to me very strongly, and Shorty admitted that he practiced such self-deception with very indifferent success; for after all "bully" was "bully" in whatever form you ate it.
In addition to this staple, the daily rations consisted of bacon, bread, cheese, jam, army biscuits, tea, and sugar. Sometimes they received a tinned meat and vegetable ration, already cooked, and at welcome intervals fresh meat and potatoes were substituted for corned beef. Each man had a very generous allowance of food, a great deal more, I thought, than he could possibly eat. Shorty explained this by saying that allowance was made for the amount which would be consumed by the rats and the blue-bottle flies.
There were, in fact, millions of flies. They settled in great swarms along the walls of the trenches, which were filled to the brim with warm light as soon as the sun had climbed a little way up the sky. Empty tin-lined ammunition boxes were used as cupboards for food. But of what avail were cupboards to a jam-loving and jam-fed British army living in open ditches in the summer time? Flytraps made of empty jam tins were set along the top of the parapet. As soon as one was filled, another was set in its place. But it was an unequal war against an expeditionary force of countless numbers.