A Table of Contents, not present in the original, was added for the convenience of the reader.
NORMAN TEN HUNDRED
A. STANLEY BLICQ.
A Record of the —— 1st (Service) Bn. Royal Guernsey Light Infantry
Guernsey: Printed at The Guernsey Press Co., Ltd., Smith Street and Le Marchant Street. 1920.
This modest work is dedicated to:
Mrs. P. EREAUX,
in appreciation of her genial personality, strong moral courage and unhesitating adherence to duty as she conceived it.
And also to:
GEORGE W. CLARKE, Esq.,
in memory of those Great Days when we marched the Long Trail together; shared the same sorrows, the same mirth;—and now the same memories, far away, indistinct; laughter merged with the tears. A. STANLEY BLICQ. Guernsey, 1920.
NORMAN TEN HUNDRED.
A BATTALION OF THE OLDEST AND SMALLEST DEMOCRACY IN THE WORLD.
Guernsey—named Sarnia by the Romans—one of the Channel Isles from out the sun swathed romance of whose shores rallied a fierce band of Norman warriors to the aid of their Duke, William of Normandy; afterwards the Conqueror, at Hastings, 1066. In reward for their valour William granted the Isles the independence they maintain to this day. From Guernsey something approaching 7,000 men have gone out into the Great Undertaking. The Norman Ten Hundred is the 1st Royal Guernsey Light Infantry offered by the States of Guernsey for active participation side by side with the Mother Country's troops in any of the fighting areas. The narrative is authentic.
I SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER, 1917 II SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER, 1917 HENDECOURT III NOVEMBER, 1917 CAMBRAI REHEARSAL IV MOVING UP V NOVEMBER 20th, 1917 CAMBRAI OFFENSIVE THE ADVANCE VI MARCOING—MASNIERES VII HOLDING THE LINE MASNIERES VIII NOVEMBER 30th-DECEMBER 1st, 1917 GERMAN ONSLAUGHT IX DECEMBER-JANUARY, 1918 HOUVIN X DECEMBER-JANUARY, 1918 FLERS—LE PARCQ—VERCHOCQ XI DECEMBER-JANUARY, 1918 LEULENE—BRANDHOEK—YPRES XII PASSCHENDAELE SECTOR XIII PASSCHENDAELE SECTOR POPERINGHE—STEENVOORDE —BRANDHOEK XIV MARCH-APRIL, 1918 IN THE LINE XV APRIL 10-14, 1918 DOULIEU-ESTAIRES
By A. Stanley Blicq
Fed up! Every man of the Ten Hundred was fed up. Thirty-six hours cooped in cattle trucks, thirty or forty in a truck and inhaling an atmosphere that would have disgusted a pig—enough to feed anyone up.
The Belgian frontier was crossed at sunset and the fringe of war's devastation penetrated. Little interest or casual comment was aroused, although a reputable thirsty one remarked that he thought Jerry might have spared the village pub.
The long line of dirty trucks stopped with an abrupt jerk and noisy jarring of impact. Then it came! Grumbles ceased as if by common consent. There was something indefinable but pregnant, and in tense silence ears were strained intently. Was it only the rumble of a distant cart on hard cobbles or...? Faintly over the damp air came a long, insistent murmur. Hearts beat faster.... Guns!
Northward and then West the train panted up a slight grade, made a wide curve and then abruptly shut off steam. Long white tapering lights sprang up from nowhere, wavered and hesitated over the sky; caught in their glare a silvery bird and followed it across the night. Without warning an anti-aircraft gun launched with a deafening roar its whining shell heavenwards. Boom! In the sudden uproar Le Page fell off the train, jerking his tin of bully beef into Clarke's shaving water. The Jerry airman circled higher, dived again—and dropped his bomb, missing the train by hundreds of yards. He had spotted the smoke belching from the engine. Again he spiralled higher, slipped the converging net of searchlights and escaped ... ugh! The Ten Hundred breathed a sigh of relief.
Disembarkation from a train at a point a few miles in the rear of the Front Line always tends to put the wind up you. The mental survey of a thousand men en bloc conveys immediately to the mind what an obvious and unmistakable target a battalion forms. Eyes apprehensively search the sky for the danger that each one knows lurks somewhere up there in that black pall, the darker by contrast with the brilliant spearheads of light searching to and fro.
And of course in such windy moments the order to march off is delayed. Then when you ARE well on your way you wish you were not, for there is an unutterable weariness in those marches to bivouacs amid dead silence from end to end of the ranks; only ever present on the ear that unceasing booming of heavies or the nearer and unpleasant kr-ru-up of a not-far-distant German shell. Worn, sadly worn, beneath the staggering weight of packs on aching shoulders, where chafed skin smarts under the straps, head bent forward and downwards, one cared little for direction. Onward, always onward, feet burning with heavy going in clogging Belgian mud.... Sleep, one longs to lie down there and then to sleep, anyhow, anywhere!
Bivouacs are under the best of circumstances mere makeshifts. "Stoke Camp"—CAMP! The irony of it—was on a par with the average. Here and there a scattered tent, here and there a sheet or two of oilcloth, and everywhere an abundance of water.
Still it was a haven of rest. Men filed tiredly by in Companies, sorted themselves out, and cast down packs; boots were jerked off anyhow, rifles stacked. Each man wrapped around him that old and trusty friend—his overcoat, heads rested on the hard packs ... doze and dream....
Three headquarters scouts are turned out for guard!
Two hours swinging up and down, then four hours sleep: and then ... the mind of the overworn first sentry sickens. Again and again over the muddy uneven strip, watching fascinated the weird, mad shadows cast in gaunt trees from a perpetual red glow eastwards. From amid the bivouacs a lad cries fitfully in his uneasy sleep; a hardy few can be seen by the glow of cigarettes sitting beneath a solitary tarpaulin.
From the distance something high in the heavens hummed softly the while here and there far-off searchlights twinkled, one after another picking up the trail until the whole sky was ablaze with wavering shafts of light. The murmuring grew to a roar, accompanied by a deafening din of an Archie (anti-aircraft) barrage and the unceasing rattle of machine guns.
The enemy 'plane became visible, its sinister cross plainly discernible, and dived. The sentry heard something sizzle down and—a mighty flash lit up the woods: the whole earth trembled violently beneath a fierce concussion. The roar echoed and re-echoed, was followed by a continuous shower of litter tearing or trickling down through the trees. Unnerving cries rose from a score or more stampeding horses in the adjacent camp; but the subtler human ear caught on the damp night breezes a sound that froze the blood ... pitiful low sobs of men dying from the hot flying shrapnel.
The Guernseys slept on as if nothing had happened. Therein lies the strange psychological mystery of the human mind.... The bomb failed to disturb; but a solitary shot from the sentry would have roused half the Battalion and sent them seeking half-consciously for their rifles.
In the morning the news spread rapidly. In it they found occasion to accentuate a grousing born of the damp, uncheering vista around them.
"Bombed in the train, bombed first night up 'ere," said Ginger, "grub late, no water to wash in; no baccy, no matches—only a blasted ole rifle wot's gone too rusty to clean."
Washing WAS a complex problem, involving choice between half-a-mile's walk to a doubtful pool or a canteen full (about a pint and a half) of water obtained from a muddy puddle in the roadway. The latter method requiring a minimum of physical exertion was by far the more popular and each tin of valued water underwent utilisation to its very extreme limits, i.e., until reduced to something approaching a soup.
There are always days when the Ten Hundred arouse within themselves by their own exertions a shy, deep pride of their Regiment. It is a characteristic happy knack of the boys to give their very best during parades before the G.O.C., and that was undoubtedly a strong factor in building up the Battalion's fame at Bourne Park.
They visibly and agreeably impressed the G.O.C., 29th Division, at their initial appearance before him. Whether the Guernsey's exceptional steadiness solicits approval, or if the rapid rhythmical movements in handling arms—quicker than is customary with other regiments—pleases the Official Eye cannot be accurately gauged. It is a concrete certainty, however, that the unit composes an efficient, compact body comparing very favourably with its contemporaries.
Fritz carried on his genial bombing expeditions night and day over the surrounding district, thereby giving birth to defensive measures in the form of an excavation inside each tent two feet in depth. Outside a wall of similar height was constructed around the tent or bivouac—few have the luxury of a tent. A degree of protection from flying shrapnel is thereby obtained, unless, of course, Fritz registers a direct hit.
Miniature dug-out were cut down into the wet soil by the more enterprising, but proved ghastly failures, even in the dry hours ... if anything out there could be termed "dry." I doubt it, excepting the thirst of a few reputables. Twenty-four hours' rain gave the most ambitious dug-out an opportunity to demonstrate its exceptional capability of receiving and RETAINING water. The scene presented in the morning was unique.
A steel helmet sailed majestically behind an empty tin of bully, in turn twirling by a pair of sunken boots. Clinging desperately to a few wet sandbags, four marooned muddy individuals glared ferociously at the interested onlookers and developed fearful vocal powers of emphasis that shocked the genial enquirers who came in dozens to discover if: "A rain-drop or two had trickled in."
The peculiarity of being bombed is such that a sense of personal security takes a long while to outlive the insistent curiosity that compels one to stare fascinated at the death above. An up-stretched neck and straddle-legged attitude predominated—so did neck-ache.
White, during a raid, threw a stone upon Tubby's hat, causing the latter to drop his mess-tin of dinner in hasty fright ... but the sight of the stew sliding gracefully down White's blankets delighted the onlookers and made "honours easy."
The Ten Hundred, of course, attempted to bring a Jerry down. Sergeant Russel nightly pointed the muzzle of his Lewis-gun in the air and pulled the trigger, in the hope perhaps that Fritz might inadvertently sail into the track of his bullets. Unfortunately firing at so perpendicular an angle caused the lead to fall into the adjacent infantry lines and they—they returned the compliment, although neither Battalion inflicted any "Blighty's" on the other.
Two Companies had to go up the line on a hazardous task. The twist of the coin gave the honour to A. and D. And yet how forcible a factor was that coin in deciding the unfathomable wherefore of existence. It was thrown in the air; fell, wavered on edge, flattened out. And implicitly, blindly obeying the indict conveyed from its face this or that man passed from active, living phenomenon in the evolution of the cosmic process to mere insensible matter.
Life, then, is chance, luck; to which no guiding factors, laws, or binding principles can be adduced.
Before marching off from the bemudded "parade" ground we were fed up. Constant rain had rendered an always muddy surface into a slimy quagmire, in which every step forward was a conscious effort. There was little singing in either Companies (A. and D.), during the short march to the train conveying the party to near a shell-infested area where the said party would partake of its outdoor picnic. "Party"—the ironical humour of it!
Each lad was tired, wet, and hungry. Tempers easily ruffled. "Wot the 'ell do yer think year bumpin' into?" shouted Biffer at an unfortunate who had side-slipped into him.
"Bumpin' into?" the other grunted, "nothing much by the look of it." They glared at one another like fighting cats ... the contretemps fizzled out; both were too tired to argue.
Disembarkation during the night in a blinding storm of rain that had materially increased to a torrential downpour materially helped to damp spirits already none too high. Bumping wildly into this figure or that, slipping full-length into inches of water and thereby saturating what little dry clothing that had remained so, they peered vainly into the all absorbing blanket of night for the tents, bivouacs or shelters that were not there. We have all had our minds permeated with a strong fear of Hell.... After that night many will thank their stars that this abode of ill-omen is HOT and therefore apparently DRY.
Each man was told to do the best for himself with a ground sheet. To derive shelter in such a storm with a few feet of oilcloth, no props, no light, is a task to which sweeping back the Atlantic with a toothbrush is simple in comparison.
But they were up against it ... grumbles ceased. Someone by an extraordinary stroke of luck stumbled upon an R.E. dump from which sundry articles essential to the construction of shelters could be filched. Filched must be emphasised, for therein lay the ulterior reason for transformation from "fed-upity" to a genial anticipation of forthcoming trouble. The C.R.E. in the morning would raise Hell when he discovered half his dump appropriated and scattered by the Guernseys over a wide area. The O.C.'s of A and D Companies would be hauled over the coals.... There was the nucleus of the farce. The men pinched and the officers stood the racket. The very thought sent the whole ranks chuckling and up soared the high spirit barometer. There was, too, in these repeated silent visits to the dump a possibility of discovery that appealed to that venturesome spirit so characteristically a trait of the Ten Hundred. They chuckled gleefully at each nefarious trip, almost wished some interfering N.C.O. would appear from an R.E. depot and originate by his unpleasantries something of a rough house.
Shelters through which streams trickled were run up and the floors tiled with a queer assortment of tins, empty cartridge cases and odd bits of wood. Drenched to the very skin, shivering and sneezing with cold, they gave no heed to the rain tattooing on their faces or to the enemy shells. Within the rickety shelters damp figures, huddled together for warmth, closed tired eyes and in utter weariness of limbs fell into a fitful sleep.
Snatches of song, bursts of laughter, echoed here and there in the night. Laughter! What on earth was there to laugh at? The wretched improvised shelters on and into which rain crept, lashed earthwards by a howling wind? The cold, chilly feet, clinging clothes and wet skin? Or is there anything refreshingly humorous in the knowledge that Death groped about in the night for his own ... found them? Is there a mirth-provoking element in the ten to one chance that YOU may not see the morrow?
All honour to you, Normans! From Valhalla, in his high seat with the Anses, Rollo of old looked down on you with pride.
Langemarck, grim, windswept and desolate.
A few short weeks before it had by the flowing of British blood, by our own Division, been wrenched from the German grasp. There is everywhere about it an awesome sacredness. One hesitates to treat lightly over the soil that belongs to those whose eyes were closed in the taking, and whose warrior forms lie at rest beneath the pathetic white crosses dotted over the gruesome waste. Those sad little emblems of Supreme Sacrifice: "To the memory of a British Soldier." Simple but magnificent! A farewell to some unknown—to some mother's son.
The first shell that scatters you in all direction, secretly feeling yourself doubtfully all over, abruptly disperses any sentimentality that may cling to the mind. The two Companies found it so when they marched still further up the line and commenced work on two different sectors, shelled—but comparatively lightly—for the first day or two.
The first line over-attacked in the mud, swept over Poelcapelle and advanced on Passchendaele, pausing while the mobile artillery moved up to support over roads that were daily filled in and rebuilt by fatigue parties similar to the Guernseys. The German Headquarters concentrated their guns upon the immediate British rear, with the intention of hampering and impeding the movements of reinforcements and artillery.
The Guernseys got the cream of it. Ground was churned up for yards and bodies buried weeks before were blown from their resting places, grinning white and hideous at the sky. Work on the roads was one perpetually interrupted operation, men ducking every few minutes to the whine of a shell. Life was an unknown quantity—no man could gauge what moments were still left him. Streams of wounded ran, hobbled or limped painfully away from that sector of Hell. Artillery galloped steaming horses through, sighing with relief upon attaining the other end.
There comes a time after his first baptism of fire, after his first view of the shattered mutilated remnants of a shell-stricken body, that the infantryman turns towards where invisible German guns from comparative safety belch forth death, and shakes his impotent fist at this enemy. He picks himself up, white and shaken, from where the concussion has thrown him, and amid the cries of the dying, "Curse you," he sobs, "if ever the chance comes——!"
A battery of R.F.A. within a few hundred yards of the road opened salvoes lasting throughout every morning until the ears throbbed with each successive roar and the earth trembled violently beneath the 6-in.'s concussion. Jerry airmen endeavouring to spot the gun-positions swooped down unheard, pumping lead in heavy showers from machine-guns upon the Guernseys and scattering them broadcast.
Pike stopped a "Blighty" with his foot, and Pleton, a shrapnel bullet whistling clean through his chest, fell limply forward. Gas commenced, coming over in shells ... in response to the alarm, respirators were donned with an alacrity phenomenal in its hasty adjustment. De La Mare discovered one of the eye-pieces missing. Holding his nose with one hand, he spluttered: "Wa', wi' I do?" and instantly clapped his hand over his mouth, jumping from one foot to another in apprehensive uncertainty. From within every helmet choking bursts of laughter sounded muffled on the air. The unfortunate lad held his breath until black in the face, gasped in a frenzied intake of air, and gingerly felt himself. Ultimately instructed to change into the P.H. helmet, he did so nervously, succeeded, and sat down, inhaling deep breaths of relief.
"All Clear" was sounded, but from the moment he removed his mask and for days afterwards he was the recipient of sly solicitations from a chuckling platoon.
"I wonder why 'e was pullin' on 'is nose?" Le Page innocently inquired; "ain't it long enough?"
"Dunno," Ginger replied; "p'raps 'e 'as chronic catarrh!"
Day followed day, bringing little change in the task. Casualties were not exceptionally heavy, but the strenuous work and perpetual stress of the nerves told on them. For there is no more nerve-shattering task than to have to submit without active retaliation day after day to harassing shell-fire. It is during this early initiating into a general expectation of possible death that the young warrior has to conquer the psychological instinct impressed with fear upon his imagination from childhood that LIFE is his most valued asset, and must be safeguarded before all things. And now his conception is revolutionised. He must accept death as a daily possibility.
It is patent that dusk found them weary and worn, plodding and wading silently "homewards," shovel on shoulder, across four or five kilos of desolate mud; falling and tripping over stagnant bodies, masses of tangled wire, bricks and jagged wood-work everywhere impeding progress. And yet a consciousness of good work done reacted on their spirits. They reflected contentedly of the meal awaiting, of their pipes, their sleep.
The inscrutable ways of Chance—Destiny, call it what you will—brought about the greatest catastrophe that had so far obtained in the Guernsey ranks. Major Davey moved his party over an area—at about 11 in the morning of a warm, sunny Sunday—coming in for a spell of shelling extraordinary in intensity. A labour unit retired because of the exigencies of the precarious situation. Inflexible, the Normans carried on, then—s-i-iz-z ... kr-rupp!
The leading platoon caught it in their very midst, a ghastly heap of mangled flesh and shattered limbs were scattered to right and left. Two unhappy lads were blown to unrecognisable fragments. No words can convey the heart-rending cries of those whose bodies cringe and writhe from the hell-hot agony of searing shrapnel. There is an unmistakable appeal for pity that stirs the depth of feeling until a wild frenzy to right matters sends Berserk passion to the brain. Oh, you German gunners in your serene safety, if ever my chance comes...!
Thus the first of the Ten Hundred went over the Great Divide.
An order to retire was quietly obeyed. They marched back, some shaken, some bleeding from minor wounds: bearing the stretcher cases and dead with them. Some gazed eastwards, faces transfigured with impotent rage, a few white faced boys stared hypnotised before them; but the remainder, heads erect, looked grimly ahead ... they would not forget!
A day or so later the Normans came out. Cookie, black and grimy from head to foot—the only condition in which he really felt at home—prepared the removal of his cookers.
"I didn't 'alf 'ave the wind up," he confided me afterwards, "about that there last dinner; becos, you see, a Jerry shell wot burst close chucked a great chunk of mud into one of them cockers. Wot was I to do? Couldn't throw away the grub ... didn't 'ave no more, so I just stirred it all up. Anyhow," reflectively, "it made it thicker, and they sez it was 'tray bun.'"
And so they came away with out farewell glance across that tragic countryside, lonely and desolate as if God-forsaken in its very devastation. The eye took in the reflected light in a myriad pools, the white crosses, sinister wire treking right away to where a few solitary tree stumps stood up madly against the skyline. They thought with a pang of those who slept the long last sleep in the clinging wet soil, whose footsteps would no longer ring on the hard road in rythmic chorus with the old Ten Hundred, whose voices would ne'er again swell the Battalion's marching rallies....
Following a brief rest the 29th Division trained, from Poperinghe southwards. The same weary cooping in cattle-trucks, same monotonous crawl. And yet during a halt at Hazebrucke arose one of those moments that live long in memory, when patriotism rises high in the breast. The station was crowded with soldiers and civilians as the Guernseys' train drew up in the cool, dusky evening light. Someone played a cornet: "The long, long trail." From end to end of the train the Ten Hundred caught it up and sang low in their soft southern accent. A hush fell on the chattering onlookers, they turned and stared. The harmony enveloped them, stirred them ... and we, ah, how the blood stirs even now. But the memory saddens—for the voices of many are for ever still.
The mad rattle of strife in Belgium had throbbed on the ear-drums incessantly day and night, but on the frontage beyond Hendecourt and Arras little more than an occasional "Verey" light from the Fritz line played hesitatingly on the grotesque landscape. Even the guns were silent: the crack of a rifle-shot or far-off splutters from machine-guns were the only sounds to mingle with the harsh jumbled tread of the Royal Guernseys marching over cobbles and bad roads to the encampment of iron huts.
The going from Beaumetz, through shell-shattered villages, by roads twisting up and down long hills, commenced to tell on the men long before the first halt was due. Breathing became, in many cases, long and heavy; some stumbled blindly forward with heads strained down, and others impotently cursed at the Higher Command for not calling a halt. Sweat trickled over dust-begrimed countenances, feet were aching, the tongue clove parched to the mouth, the pack ... oh, the utter hell of it. And yet on the morrow you forgot!
On territory recaptured (during March, 1917) from Fritz and within a few hundred yards of his original reserve line, still intact and heavily protected with barbed wire, was the conglomeration of huts that formed for nearly three weeks the home of the Ten Hundred.
The Infantryman sees far more of the trenches than of Rest Camps, and therefore what precious days of absence from the joys of water-logged dug-outs comes his way are seized upon and lived to the very full. The Normans had not experienced very much—but they had had quite enough. Ginger Le Ray, basking his fair unshaven features in the sun and lovingly watching Lomar pulling at a fat (and dubious) cigar, aired the Battalion's sentiments with: "This is orlright. Anything except Paschendaele or my ole woman."
A Battalion offers widely divergent contrasts in the psychology of men composing its ranks, and it is with the intention of bringing the reader into intimate and personal touch with all these types of men that this chapter is penned. Nick names are as common as daisies in the Army and by this medium a large number of characters will be portrayed and the fate awaiting each one later recorded. To those who imagine that Death has set laws for claiming this or that type there will be ample argumentative data—but this is a factor upon which no scientific grounds can be used as a base for theories. Life is chance!
There are good, indifferent, and bad soldiers among the Normans. The first can be disposed of briefly: They are never adrift, never for Company Orders, always spotless and first on parade; perpetually shining and exhibiting glistening buttons before the Company-Sergeant-Major in vague hope of promotion. A detestable type, fortunately in the minority. Of "indifferent" in the above sense but inordinately proud of their Battalion on parade and who gave of their best when demanded, 80 per cent. of the Norman element was formed.
And the bad! Dare devils and schemers of the deepest dye, ever on the qui vive to dodge fatigues, caring not a brass button for the C.O. himself. Martel, Leman, White, Evans. Good fellows all. Afraid of nothing except hard work, shining-up and guards. Nebo, whose ankle when its owner was nabbed for a working party, would twist beneath him and features twisted in pain would murmur: "Can't—can't carry on." The Duo (Blicq and Clarke), imperturbable and calm, had strong aversion to exertion in any form. The appearance of a N.C.O. requiring "Four men for fatigue." sent the two flying headlong for the doorway with a great show of towels and soap. Always in trouble, they always wriggled out. Stumpy, also, too tired to slip away, too tired to be anything but a hindrance when they did put him on a job, but never too weary to eat a dinner not his own. But to them all, good, indifferent or bad, the Battalion's name and record came FIRST. To no unit, however famed, would they acknowledge superiority and every General who reviewed them was unable to repress appreciation of the outcome of this latent esprit de corps.
They tackled every Regiment in the Brigade at football and defeated one and all, fought their way by sheer tenacity into the Brigade Cup Final—and lost with good spirit.
Parades were few and light, sport compulsory. Moral and health were excellent although the genial company of the leech-like post of active service—lice—began to irritate some few and to send creepy sensations down the spine of those who were still unblessed. The Duo scrubbed each other daily in—a biscuit tin of water.
There were baths of course! You marched down in twenties to where a "room" was screened from the eyes of those who were not there to see by a bordering of sacking—this served also to "keep out" a shrieking cold wind that played up and down your bare body with icy persistence, and finally with a spiteful gust whisked away your solitary towel to the skies and caused you to ponder how Adam warmed himself in a snowstorm. To pass from this elaborate dressing-room to the actual torture-chamber necessitated a short walk OUTSIDE—ugh! Once inside the twenty Spartans waited for the water to be turned on them from the long spray pipes. Sometimes this water froze your marrow, but generally it scorched away the hair that should have been shaved off that morning. However, splashing and blindly soaping each other you would be half-way through the operations when steam was shut off with the order "clear out"—to make way for another twenty animals. Thus, eyes clenched tight to omit soap-suds, into the open again, a slip in the mud, and, forgetting, abrupt opening of the eyes—how wonderfully expressive and voluminous is our English tongue. Although I have heard a no more efficient flow of useful blasphemy than Duport's vitriolic patois.
Rations were certainly plentiful—with the exception of bread, of which one man's issue would not choke a winkle.
Breakfast was usually bacon or cheese and chah (tea)—the beverage slightly tainted with sugar; although there is on record one memorable occasion of exceptional sweetness of the drink—attributed to the fact that cookie was startled by the shout of "Raid on," and in went the whole bag—minus the quarter placed inside for himse—er, emergency.
Dinner, to-day, stew. To-morrow, stew, and the day after—stew! An awful white concoction called rice went with it. Tea finds jam on the menu—on your clothes too, because of a struggle with someone over disputed possession of a pot that did not rightly belong to either. A 1 lb. jar is shared among six—when it is not sixteen. Quantity and quality differ frequently. The variety (Apple and Plum) NEVER. Supper, rice. Less said....
Hendecourt proved a posh camp; memories of it and of the men who laughed the heavy days away are pleasant. The Army, despite the grousings that rise steadily to Tommy's lips, is a fine institution, and those who have emerged safely from the Great Undertaking cannot but look back with regretful pleasure upon those great days of the open, of bonne camaraderie, of willing sacrifice.
Nightly the 29th Divisional troupe performed before an over-crowded house of the most appreciative audience in the world. A cinema also threw its ardent cowboy lovers and pig-tailed heroines upon a screen whose far distant days may have been spotless and white. Tubby awaited outside the "stage-door" for an hour to interview Tootsie (of the Troupe) after the first night and found "she" wore Army boots, trousers, and chewed plug.
Old theatre house of memory! There on Sunday row on row of mute khaki forms bowed together in unspoken player or sang with quiet, earnest harmony the hymn that tells home every time on the rough warriors' heart: "Holy Father, in Thy keeping ... hear our anxious prayer," etc. God, how they sang it! Some knew, perhaps, what awaited.
The short November days sent the mud-clogged lads into their huts with the last pale glimmer of a weakly sun. Constructed of sloping corrugated iron, in which no outlet for fire-smoke had been cut, these huts were lined at the top with some substance of felt and through which the rain trickled into puddles and miniature lakes on the ground floor. Clarke had adjusted a tin like a sword of Damocles over his bed to catch the drops—and it certainly conveyed, after falling twice when full upon Stumpy, an apprehension akin to that wrought by the weapon. Over one of these puddles near—TOO near—his bed Ginger was wont to sit with melancholy mien, a rifle held out before him and from the muzzle a string hanging over the water with a mess-tin attached.
"Wot's doin', Gin?"
"Me ticket!" (Discharge).
Braziers were rampant in every Company, swelling and overflowing throughout the entire hutments in belching clouds of noxious smoke that permeated an atmosphere impenetrable by human eyes with an odour of smouldering wood, empty milk-tins and tobacco. Those nights!
Those nights of song and laughter, of anticipations, hope, and the yearning for LIFE: of long-drawn-out confabs over the glowing embers of a red-hot brazier, the crimson glow shining upon faces that showed so little of aches, fears, longings, masked behind the curling smoke from screening pipes. Silence fall oft-times upon the khaki figures clustered round the genial warmth. Each man to his own dire thoughts ... home, wife, or girl.
Tucked within blankets, heads propped on hands, pipes and cigarettes going, they peered with unseeing eyes into the mad crackle of burning timber. Softly would the melody of a song be hummed, caught up by chorus and wafted out into the indigo mystery of the night. Quiet for a few minutes, an occasional snore and then sure as fate a last parting shot from the Duo.
No. 1: "No one knows."
No. 2: "No—and the impossibility—"
No. 1: "Yes. Yet they must. If not, how do they exist?"
Pause and a soft chuckle.
No. 2: "Of course they have. Yet the agony—."
Curiosity overcoming the remainder a series of questions popped up. "What is impossible?", "Why must who?", "What agony?"
No. 1: "You see, no one knows?"
Exasperated chorus: "Knows what?"
No. 1: "Why, if flies have toothache."
And then oblivion claims into its own soundless peace the outstretched forms of rough warriors and removes them from grim reality into the passing realms of a fantastic dream—Arcadia.
Mail days are pleasant. Excited anticipation for your name as each parcel or letter is read out, dull disappointment if your issue is napoo.
Parcels. Oxo cubes, of course. Utilised because of adhesive qualities for throwing at a target as darts. Cafe au lait, a useful preparation for spreading on bread in lieu of posie (jam) that has mysteriously evaporated. A pair of silk socks, purple with gold spots. Will come in useful as a rifle rag. A long, wide woolly article resembling a cross between a scarf and a blanket ... do as a pillow. A large cake, two packets of chocolate and fifty fags. Hum, won't go far among ten. A pot of jam—go fine on the cake or may tackle it with a spoon. And a brief note hidden away at the bottom—"For my boy."
God, how it hurt. What surging memories of a mother's love, of a mother's eternal tender care, swarmed up mistily before the eyes. Secretly, half-ashamedly, are such missives carefully put away. The mind vividly pictures the animated packing by willing hands in the humble homestead—a lump forces its way into the throat. But WAR is WAR and in it sentiment has no place.
Uproar was rampant in one of D. Company's huts. Mingled laughter and arguments formed the base of a volume of sound materially assisted in high note effect by the banging of spoons on mess tins.
"An' now listen agin," said Tich, commanding and obtaining silence by turning over his "Press", "some more exemptions. Just listen to this 'ere summary. Six months' renewable. Six months 'ere again. An''ere's a poor blighter wots only got three months. Wot ARE the Tribunals doin' to give 'im so short a time before 'e goes to the cruel wars?" He paused to join in the ironical outburst that ensued and continued at the top of his lungs: "There are twenty cases 'ere an' eighteen of 'em 'as some more extensions. I ask you, boys, are they playin' fair to us at 'ome?"
"No! No! No!" in mighty chorus.
"But do we want them chaps out 'ere?"
"They would disgrace the Bat.?"
"Becos they ain't got any guts in 'em?"
One of the two Guernsey scouts from Headquarters pushed open the door and in the general pause said:
"Heard the latest?"
"Now, no funny games," Tich ejaculated.
"Not at all. We're going up the line again."
"Oh, 'ell," said Nabo, "wot for?"
"Stunt. Another Big Push."
"Oh, 'ell," repeated Nabo; "'ere, scout, goin' back to H.Q.?"
"Then tell 'em I'm indisposed—ain't 'ad a long enough rest yet. An', 'ere, lets 'ave a fag. Wot with that there news and my bad 'eart for war...."
Nothing is left to chance in the offensive movements undertaken by that unparalleled fighting mechanism disposed of in two words: British Army. In following out the general scheme of perfecting every minor detail, the Cambrai attack had more than its share of elaborate preparation. Beyond the fact that a "Push" was to be inaugurated upon an entirely new and experimental form of advance, nothing was disclosed even to the men. The utter importance of maintaining absolute secrecy of this meagre information was earnestly reiterated. The slightest inkling of the impending intentions escaping to Fritz would have cast upon the troops engaged a disaster perhaps unequalled in the annuals of even this Armaggedon.
Following customary procedure the offensive was rehearsed mile for mile even as in the actual undertaking; aeroplanes being allotted to Divisions for scouting and observation.
The whole cycle of operations outlined by the G.H.Q. can be briefly summarised as follows: The entire movement of troops, guns, and tanks by NIGHT and to remain under cover from enemy 'planes during daylight. An abrupt massing on a nine-mile front of the engaging force during the night prior to launching of tanks and infantry. A furious bombardment would be opened by artillery at daybreak. Three tanks per Battalion moving forward would crush gaps in the enemy barbed wire through which advancing lines of infantry would pour into the Fritz trenches. The forward movement throughout the day to be carried on in relays of three Divisions, the final Division attaining and digging in as its objective. The Ten Hundred, forming the place of honour on the left flank of the 29th Division had to carry an objective situated, of all difficult places, on the crest of a long rise in the ground—Nine Wood.
At Brigade Headquarters a huge map was built on the ground complete to the most minute of details. From aero photographs the entire area, confined to the activities of the 86th was plainly portrayed for inspection and explanation to the Platoons. Fritz trenches, wire, observation posts, lines of support and communication; the rise and fall of the ground; villages; were all emphasised upon until Tommy became to a certain degree familiar with the ground over which Fritz had to be bundled back five miles in one day. Points where, possibly, a stubborn resistance might be offered were indicated and the advisability of AVOIDING open breaks in enemy wire constantly reiterated. (Obviously, if openings are voluntarily left here and there in the second line of wire, to one cogent factor only can such procedure be attributed, i.e., men will for preference make in a body for a clear passage and machine guns trained from the rear into these breaches would account for a hundred or so casualties before the men realised a trap.)
To merely undertake an offensive "on paper" only would be fatuous. Actual rehearsal over country as similar as possible to the original has to be carried out; villages and towns having to be "imagined" on the training area in the very position they filled on the actual territory.
Tanks were to be used on a scale calculated to put the wind up whatever enemy units held that sector. Approximately three hundred of these cumbersome but doughty caterpillars were to line up on a nine-mile frontage. They would be "first over the top"—in itself a life-saving factor that, had it been adopted earlier in the war, would have by a large percentage reduced the British casualty roll.
The manner in which they would precede the infantry from zero (the hour at which the advance is timed to begin) was practised over an old stretch of trenches and wiring; infantry partaking in the manoeuvre.
Throughout the Norman camp a stir of suppressed excitement and slightly apprehensive anticipation was apparent during the three days' training, in conjunction with the remainder of the 86th Brigade, for the big stunt. They rapidly grasped, after a hitch during the first day, what was required of them, attaining on the completion of the rehearsals a strong confidence in their powers to carry through their schedule.
They became conscious of an eagerness to try their mettle, to do something "off their own bat." At the end of each day the Ten Hundred swung in a long swaying column behind their band along the pave roads homewards. Company after company sending up defiant echoes with the marching rallies peculiar to the Normans, they splashed noisily through the almost interconnected line of puddles. Upright, fine, free fellows: the very cream of Guernsey's manhood.
At night they were well content, after a late dinner, to crouch around the glowing brazier and talk, while Biffer surreptiously was wont to fry the bacon he had commandeered. His arch enemy—N.C.O.'s—invariably endeavoured to trap him.
"Ere, you, where'd you get that bacon?"
"Bacon?" Biffer looked up with baby-like innocence. "'Ad it sent—ain't 'alf got a scent, too."
"Oh, an' that piece yesterday was sent, too, I s'pose?"
"Yes, same animal. 'E's got pink eyes."
"Wot, the pig?"
"Course—think you get bacon off a canary? Want a bit?"
"Well (mollified), only fat left, I s'pose?"
"No—only rind. 'Ere you are."
Ten Hundred men stood faintly outlined in the purple pall of a starless night. Stripped to the very essentials of a battle—"Fighting Order" but carrying the valise on the shoulders and the haversack by the side. Steel helmets, gas masks and one hundred and seventy rounds of ammunition per man; no overcoats; no blankets; simply the rough, furry wolf-skin jacket for protection o' nights. Hoarse orders broke grotesquely on the damp air.
"Move to the right in fours ... right——!" By Companies the Normans moved away; glancing for the last time upon the dark bulk of old Hendecourt.
The Undertaking had begun.
They halted a few hours later in the semi-darkness of a siding where a great conglomeration of every corps stood leaning on rifles, awaiting instructions to board one of the grinding, jarring lines of trains that, shunting to and fro, emitted ghostly columns of white smoke high into the darkened heavens.
The Normans boarded their train, tumbling clumsily one into another over the dirty, evil-smelling floors of the cattle-trucks. Striking of matches and smoking were forbidden ... a babel of confusion and curses ensued while they sorted themselves out. It was impossible to wreak vengeance on the man who inadvertently placed his boot in your eye ... to turn abruptly in his direction would bring some other lad's rifle in your teeth. Sit tight and hold tight!
The Duo, with the scouts from other Battalions, attached Brigade Headquarters, succeeded in forcing their way into a genuine railway carriage—trust them! Almost immediately they were up to mischief. Having scrounged a tin of pork and beans they wanted to cook it. And cook it they did, despite orders re lights. A foot of rag was wrapped around a candle stump, placed in a tin (this paraphernalia they carried everywhere) and lit. For twenty minutes the "maconichie" boiled, and they then blew out the smouldering grease-saturated rag. The carriage was fitted with FASTENED windows and a icor of smouldering candle-rag with no outlet! The occupants were literally gassed. Coughing, spluttering, they almost choked.
"Phew," gasped Clarke, waving at the fumes, "it's aw-aw-awful." The other partner of the Duo could stand it no longer. Grasping his rifle he pushed it through the window. Crash! Then he laughed.
"Anybody want, want any beans?" he chuckled.
"Eat it, phew, yer bloomin' self."
"Ugh, not now after that—er—aroma." He threw the tin through the broken pane and added piously, "hope it hits someone."
PERONNE! To march after detraining during the morning along its deserted streets, to gaze on the devastation of its large buildings, sent the mind wandering over the past. Peronne: this was the town from which Fritz had retreated "according to plan"; this was the goal towards which the British had gazed undismayed through the black months of slow progress, infinite hardship, and fast-flowing blood. But to-day the khaki tread rang firm on its roads. They who had gone before had made easy the way, and you, who were carrying it on eastwards, ever eastward. The knowledge stirred something within you and you were glad.
The Ten Hundred swung out of the "suburbs" up the long incline of Mount St. Quentin, travelled a few hundred yards along the crest and came to a halt near a line of tents. At no point in the sky was there any indication of enemy airmen, nor from the line did much rattle of distant guns disturb the quiet of the day. From the concussion of some far-off muffled explosion the earth trembled slightly; but these visitations, at lengthy intervals, caused little comment. From 12 to 4.30 p.m. sleep was compulsory. No man or N.C.O. was permitted to be seen outside his tent or hut until dusk fell, and with it the command to fall in for the long march northward to Equancourt.
Along one perpetual straight road, lined on either side with endless rows of weird, sighing trees whose tops converged in faint outline against the sky at an ever distant point; along one continual rough surface of hard, slippery cobble paving an almost tail-less column of marching troops, rumbling artillery and jingling transport crawled on through the darkness. It went hard with the Normans that night. Night and the silence, the mystery. Only the ring of many feet and the neigh of a startled horse. On, ever onward to the Unknown that awaits. Aye. Tommy, worn, rugged, rough Tommy, straining forward beneath the burden that was yours—how little others know how staunch and true beat that sturdy heart throbbing under its hard exterior. Step by step; left, right, left; rigid and mechanical, controlled by a mind that ceased to act and fell prey to wild fancies. You could hear them: the cooling whispers of a sea upon your Sarnia's shore ... dear little country! God's own Isle! Mental anguish and physical pain. And yet you came up—smiling.
Monday passed quietly at Equancourt, although one or two Fritzy shells bursting some few miles away with the unmistakeable kru-ump of his heavies set the brain working and conjured up memories.
B. Company, without the customary O.C. (Captain Hutchinson, one of the most popular officers among the men) of Company-Sergeant-Major "Tug" Wilson (another splendid fellow) were temporarily under the command of a Buff officer (Chapman). A., C. and D. commands were unchanged. 13 Platoon, so fictitiously unlucky(?), was probably the most "pally" combination in the Battalion; both N.C.O.'s and men were on excellent terms—especially with Sergt. T. Allez, one of the finest and most courageous men in the Ten Hundred. Lieut. F. Arnold was in command—another good fellow. This Platoon emerged with a very small percentage of casualties.
Equancourt was disliked from the moment the Ten Hundred made the disagreeable discovery that fatigues were rampant. Men began to vanish in all directions. Mahy, doing the glide from one Quarter-Master-Sergeant (the Q.M.S. is an individual who allots ten of you to a one lb. loaf, and who endeavours to convince you that your clothing issue must last for ever, and that you are far better rationed than you deserve. P.S.—We are officially informed that there are no Q.M.S.'s among the angels!)—to resume, Mahy did the gaby from one exasperated Q.M.S. right into the yawning arms of another. An enormous box was instantaneously bundled on to his shoulders, nearly bending him double.
"You'd better be careful with that little lot," the N.C.O. advised.
"Why?" with a gasp.
"Becos (drily) it's full of bombs." The hair crinkled upwards into the lad's steel helmet and he carried that box to its destination with all the lavish care and tenderness of a mother for her babe. Placing it gingerly down and unable to overcome the strong trait of inquisitiveness latent in all soldiers, he forced up the lid and peeped upon—two heavy sets of large transport waggon implements!
The march from Equancourt up to the "jumping off" point of the advance was neither so long nor arduous as on the two previous nights. As mile after mile was reeled off the incessant thunder of guns ten or twelve miles northward became more and more distinct, but on the sector of the line towards which the miles of marching columns were heading not a sound disturbed the night from hour to hour. The rumble of that distant artillery mingled with the jingle of unseen harness and the pad, pad, of countless feet. Hazy starlight faintly lit up row upon row of men, glinted dimly on brighter portions of the equipment and distinctly silhouetted each breath on the damp night air. A tense, silent march: nerves highly strung. A march to live long in memory.
Within five minutes of leaving the road for the downs there enveloped you that indefinable sense that a fighting area has been entered. Nothing could be seen, heard or felt, yet the proximity of trenches and wire was frequently "scented," like the first approaches of a sea after a long march inland.
Brigade Headquarters marched on—and with it the Duo—to where a long line of duck-boards led into a line of wide trenches. The Ten Hundred came to a halt in the immediate rear, received the order to lie down—and waited.
A night of wondrous calm and quiet. Within one mile of a watchful foe and not a sound. Once or twice a machine gun awoke wild echoes with brief spluttering bursts ... in silence more acute for the interruption hearts beat faster, hands tightened involuntarily about rifles.
Thus the young, full-blooded Normans awaited their first fray. Even as the mighty Ragnar Lodbrok and his fierce men in mail launched merciless onslaught with the breaking of day, so did Sarnia's young warriors look eastward for the Dawn.
NOVEMBER 20th, 1917
It was just after six in the morning of November 20, 1917, and the dew lay thick on the soil. Men were quietly roused, rifles slung, and with fast tattooing pulse paused for orders. First wave "over" stamped feet impatiently in those interminable hours of waiting blended in what was only a few short minutes; an almost frenzy of anxiety to get through the waiting possessed them. Then the tanks, faintly outlined forms in the grey light, moved ponderously forward.
A nerve-straining silence held momentary sway.
From point to point at a few yards' interval a milliard blinding flashes of dull crimson flames leapt from out the gloom like one gigantic sunset, casting sinister glares in ceaseless succession upon the heavy mist. Roar upon roar, blending, echoing and re-echoing like unto the roll of countless mighty drums, throbbed in one great deafening crescendo. It was futile to count explosions: they all merged one into another. But words are fatuously inadequate and convey little.
"Stand by." Your pipe is in your mouth, unlit, empty. You don't want to smoke, really, but still ... the eye glances along the line of strained white faces. Someone MUST go under; still, it might not be you. Anyhow, if it is, funk will make no difference, so—one wild scramble over the top, an almost imperceptible pause and then forward. A cry, a fall here or there, and then on again. As in a dream you find yourself still carrying on unhurt ... it's not so bad.
The Undertaking had commenced.
The Ten Hundred moved forward grouped in artillery formation, C., D., and B. Companies moving onward in that line from right to left; A. Company and Battalion Headquarters followed in reserve.
The staggering surprise of the British attack completely shattered the morale of what German elements were holding the sector. They surrendered in twenties to the oncoming tanks and rapidly advancing lines of infantry. Hun artillery started into frenzied action by this phenomenal development commenced to hastily lob over an erratic series of shells.
The Normans, crossing a sunken road in column, fell again into correct formation on the higher ground, progressed a few hundred yards beyond what had an hour before constituted the Fritz front line, and halted. Four light shells burst around and about the reserve Company; no one stopped anything. One piece of iron crashed into a boulder near Le Page's foot. He sprang a yard into the air and nearly put two men out of mess with his bayonet. In the hot argument that ensued they almost forgot that there was a war on and that the advance was moving on without them.
A lad with half a leg hanging and placed by two bearers on a stretcher, rose from a lying posture as the Royal Guernseys passed.
"'Ere, Guernseys," he hailed, "I was with you at Canterbury—Buffs. Jus' got in the way of a Blighty. Anybody got a fag?" It was supplied and the party moved on. About to descend into the sunken road the bearers ducked to that fatal shell whine ... too late. Three blood-soaked figures were visible through the lifting-smoke stretched inert on the ground.
"If only 'e 'adn't stopped," muttered several hoarsely. Life is chance!
The first great onslaught of artillery fire slackened towards mid-day, sharper crack of rifles and wicked splutter of machine guns becoming for the first time noticeable. Enemy shells became fewer and fewer, his power of resistance—weak from the opening—deteriorated to little more than a rout. The prisoners were swelling an already long roll ... nine or ten thousand on the nine-mile front.
Ribecourt, on the Normans' front, had fallen after a brief skirmish, the German last line of defence reached and artillery support was still far to the rear when the Ten Hundred, passing through the Division ahead, took upon their own shoulders the responsibility to carry the Push through its last two miles and to force the capitulation of Nine Wood, now plainly visible at the top of the next long incline.
They went for it, hell for leather, in a long line of skirmishers. Their rifles cracked with the rapidity that tells the marksmen—and they COULD shoot. But Fritz would not have any. They did not like (those who had time to look back on their record sprint) the nasty gleam of those Norman bayonets. It was a soft thing; they moved onwards unchecked even as during the rehearsal. Tanks ahead reached the hill-crest and stood black and ugly against the sky; further to the right one was burning with high leaping flames. The Normans panted up the slope, poured into the two quarries in one bloodthirsty rush to find "nothing doing," scrambled out again, and reaching the Wood's edge calmly pushed their way through with all the phlegm of veterans to their objective some thirty yards beyond the last row of trees and commenced to dig in. Someone spotted a sniper post, coolly stretched himself out on the ground, muttered: "Three hundred yards," and squinted along the sights. Ping, ping ... two bodies fell limp from a platform—up a leafy tree. The Private slowly cut two notches on his rifle-butt.
Two black, charred figures grinned hideously from out of the smouldering remains of a British aeroplane as the two Guernsey Brigade Scouts hastened back to their Headquarters, to report the objective carried with ONLY TEN CASUALTIES. Away by the narrow bridge above Marcoing one living and three dead machine gunners were lying in a mangled heap. Still further back a shattered lad, unable to move, stretched out right in the track of an oncoming tank, shrieked frenziedly for succour ... then abrupt silence as of a whistle shut off even while the eyes were rivetted fascinated on the inexorable crushing machine. A ghastly heap of tangled, mutilated bodies, unrecognisable as such except by the grey German uniform, were lying beneath a tank blown in by a shell—the crew huddled inside in a gruesome mass.
At the bottom of a hollow a grey-cloaked figure was bunched in that strange posture bearing the hall-mark of fast approaching death. His dull eyes filled with terror at the sound of my footsteps ... strange ingrained knowledge of the Hunnish method of dealing with similar cases pervaded his mind.
"It is—finish," he whispered pitifully in bad English.
"Where are you hit?" He shook his head slowly.
"It is finish," he reiterated weakly.
"Want anything—any water?"
"No." A battery of artillery rumbled noisily down the adjacent roadway. His eyes brightened.
"You never win," he muttered, defiance strong in his tone. But one glance took in those stoic mounted Britishers, five miles deep in the enemy lines, yet unexcited, unmoved. Thus would they fall back thirty leagues if need be, phlegmatic and unconcerned—knowing not when defeated and therefore never beaten.
"I think we will if—"; but life had passed from out the other's tired body. A rush of pity surged over one on looking into the pale boyish face: eighteen, perhaps nineteen. Little grey, bloodstained German warrior in the first flush of Youth: honour to you for the life you gave your Fatherland; for the staunch patriotism so high in your breast. May the Dawn into which you were ushered while a foe watched your passing have great compensation.
Near the unscarred Crucifix a diminutive khaki figure, an inch or so shorter than his rifle with bayonet fixed, stood peering haughtily from beneath a steel helmet, several sizes too large, balanced on his ears.
"'Allo, Guernsey," he greeted, "what price my tame outangs?" indicating a dozen grubby prisoners, "this one yere swallowed 'is false teeth wiv fright an' this porker yere 'as got 'is knees out of joint wiv shaking."
"Why are they holding up their——?"
"Oh, becos I cut the braces. Even a prisoner won't run away if his trousers are COMING DOWN. Nar then, Jerry—march. No comprene? Pushey alongay roadie pour tootsie—see?" He, fag-end in mouth, helmet far on the back of his head, rifle slung and hands in pocket, swaggered along behind his "outangs" on their journey to the cages.
In Marcoing we of Brigade established comfortable Quarters with the plentiful material Fritz had good naturedly (?) left behind for the purpose. His blankets when you have none of your own are a decided advantage. His jam, butter and potatoes were excellent eating, his spring beds utilised especially for two German Staff Officers—made a delightful sofa for two dirty, unshaven and grinning Tommies.
But his BREAD! Ye saints, the nightmare of that one rancid mouthful, not three times the customary ration of rum could rinse out the flavour: Martin, however, was of the opinion that another pint would do much to save his life, and on being refused sadly observed that he could not believe anyone could be so heartless....
* * * * *
Drizzle, light during the afternoon, increased to a moderate downpour as the Normans were digging, not the elaborate sandbagged trenches so very familiar at home (and but little elsewhere), but mere shallow excavations providing just sufficient cover for the body. An interesting operation provided with a little mild excitement in the form of enemy snipers, who, however, greatly assisted in the rapid and hurried completion of the work. (N.B.—This undertaking in training required half a morning!) Stumpy crawled up and down the line for a yard or two in the vague hope that someone might have made a hole too large; nothing doing, he started on one himself, grumbling audibly.
"That's it ... poor Tommy. Making a 'ole," pessimistically, "diggin' a grave for his bloomin' self."
Normans gaze westward where the vague grey earth meets the overcast sky. Five miles deep in less than twelve hours. The thrill of it—and what you have you will HOLD.
With the coming of the night came the reaction. Wild excitement and vim of victorious advance gave way for calm reflection and with it the certain knowledge of counter-attack. They realised abruptly that they were physically and mentally worn, the body clamoured madly for food and drink, the mind for rest and sleep. Rain trickled incessantly down each man's face and glistened in dusty beads upon foreheads, clothing at last gave way to complete saturation, and water, collecting in pools until over ankle deep, oozed slushily in and out of the eyelet holes.
Cold rapidly fastened its grip; dull agony pervaded the entire being until nothing more than a mechanical row of figures staring tiredly out upon No Man's Land, grasping rust-flaked rifles in numb, stiff hands. Thinking not, caring not, moving not—only that uncertain stare into the void. And over all the night, the wild shrieking of lost spirits in the trees, the sharp crack of an occasional rifle or fitful bursts from the poorly-timed enemy shrapnel.
Patrols were sent out into No Man's Land, groped blindly to and fro for two hours and returned in the very last stage of complete exhaustion to report "All Clear." Simple, is it not, to go on patrol from a line you cannot see towards another line you also cannot see ... sometimes you lost touch with the others and gazed round into the blackness with that primordial fear of the unknown inspired by the night. Lost! God, it nearly unmans you. With fast-thumping heart you hear the approach of guttural Hun voices ... DOWN and QUIET. At last calm thinking points out that yon burning house is in your own lines. Make for it and all is well. Aye. Scouts, does the pulse quicken even now?
What is the thin veneer of a mere nine hundred years semi-civilisation? Two thousand years before the Conquest the fierce warrior Northmen lived by the might of the halbert, fighters one and all from the days when the war-inspired mother croned of the battle-axe to her babe. And in the Normans was that Norse spirit dormant; but one night of such hardship as yet undreamt of had sufficed for an awakening.
In the dawn they looked out with nearly bloodshot eyes towards the German front. He would counter-attack, would he? Let him come!
He came! They poured one long volley into the long-coated line. It wavered, broke, thinned. At the junction with the Middlesex an Englishman gazed in unfeigned astonishment at the ugly, set features of his Norman companion.
"But," he said, "they might have wanted to be prisoners."
"Oh." Ozanne grunted, "don't want none," and squinting down the sights let loose another trio. "This," he added, "is the Great Undertaking."
"I am the undertaker. For my job ... must 'ave bodies ... and I," grimly, "I'm getting 'em."
The other shuddered slightly. War is war, but these wild unkempt men of a strange tongue were something he could not quite grasp. Anyhow, they knew how to fight. That is all that matters.
Duggie Le Page went into No-Man's Land and pluckily brought in a wounded N.C.O. from one of the mounted regiments, but too late to save a life fast nearing its ebb.
A weakly sun crept up from amid thick grey clouds and shone wanly on the mud-spattered creatures lying each in his own water-logged trough. Hour followed hour without further sign of hostile movement from the enemy—nothing could be seen of him, and had the cavalry got through the attack could have been continued and Cambrai taken.
Casualties (the supreme sacrifice in two instances) began to trickle away from the Norman ranks, the majority from the attention of a sniper in the long grass who held on alone with plucky audacity. Unfortunately for his own welfare he was over-confident, exposed himself too long; and ten rifles cracked spitefully—all who fired hotly claiming the right to a notch.
Before mid-day it became apparent that Fritz had neither the heart nor the troops for launching a counter-attack on a scale large enough to make a definite impression on the newly-won area. His "strafing" was fitful, poorly sighted, and of small calibre. Here and there he still had the use of a machine gun or two and had concentrated a number of men at Noyelles. This village was attacked by a company of the Royal Fusiliers; fought for desperately in one brief, mad melee, during which blood ran freely, but remaining in the hands of the British, formed the nearest point in the Line to Cambrai.
At Nine Wood all was quiet—except for the unearthly sounds emanating from the nostrils of one Tich sleeping in the reserve troughs with one side of his features buried in an inch of brown mud. Desultory conversation came down from the wide trough "Old man Casey" had dug and had adorned with an empty whisky bottle found in the grass. He was looking at it lovingly where it stood mouth downwards: for the obvious reason, he observed, that its spirits were like his own—all run out.
The Ten Hundred were tired, dead-beat. Marching all Sunday night, fatigue for hours on Monday, again marching in the night. Finally the attack and its holding ... eyes were heavy with ache for sleep.
Between eight and nine they were relieved, stumbled away from the wood until feet rang noisily on the rough surface of a sunken road winding Marcoing-wards.
Near a side road a number of houses were used as billet—Marcoing was untouched by shells on that date—and into these buildings Ten Hundred unshaven, unwashed, worn-out Normans entered slowly, found corners for the long-wished-for rest and threw down equipment and packs. Some jerked off boots, some faked up pillows, but the majority turned on one side, head on valise, and fell straightway into an oblivion that nothing could disturb.
Lying across a doorway, his boots and equipment still on, a veritable boy breathed regularly in the same attitude into which he had sunk the moment he had passed inside. His pale, tired face was dimly visible in the hazy starlight and one wondered at the peaceful serenity.
The last boot clattered loudly on the floor, the last rattle of a rifle placed by the owner's side, the last long-drawn sigh of relief ... Silence. Above them all Woden wove the magic spell Oblivion, the Rest of the war-worn warrior.
Daybreak had long since passed and still no sound of movement from the rows of tangled sleeping MEN. Tangle! They were lying in all directions and at every angle; it was impossible to define whose feet were whose or what had become of the chest and head of a pair of long legs leading from a jumbled heap. Duport had his feet fast in the heel of someone untraceable further than the knee—the first-named had munchers of the star-like (removable) variety. No. 2, unfortunately, struck out in his sleep, awakening the other to the fact that his teeth were promenading about at the top of his throat. He struggled to a sitting posture with a gasp, felt frenziedly for his "adjustables" and looked round upon the mixture of dirty, frowsy figures. He stirred Nobby into wakefulness by the simple expedient of tickling him beneath the chin with a grimy big toe protruding from a rent in an obsolete and far from odourless sock.
"'Ere," he said, "got any change."
"Any wha'," sleepily, "any, phew, wot a bloomin' niff. Put them blessed feet of your out of the winder. Change, wot of?"
"This yere trouser button."
"Funny, ain't it, like your face? 'It ole Wiffles there over the 'ead wid your rifle an' tell 'im breakfus' is up." This kindly action having succeeded, the victim looked around.
"Breakfus', where? What is it?"
"Oh, tin of Brasso; what d'you expect, 'am an' eggs or a filleted sausage."
The Ten Hundred awoke, gazed about and laughed until the echoes rang from rafter to rafter as the eye took in each black-featured, bearded and grubby individual. Stumpy was requested to "leave that foot of fungus on his face, as it hid what for weeks had been an infliction," and to which he cuttingly replied that the other gentleman had features that would make a bomb burst.
But there could be detected in these rallies an undercurrent of strong mutual respect, of which they had all hitherto had no cognisance. They were each one intensely proud of what had been so efficiently carried out; although very little WAR was spoken they were keenly alive to the fact that personally and collectively the Ten Hundred had opened the innings with an abundance of "runs" as far as the enemy was concerned.
Rations came up fairly regularly in the advanced areas unless the ration-party becomes lost, drops a portion or makes an appointment with a 9.2. There is a constant daily issue of hard-wearing substance camouflaged as "biscuit," intended originally for the heel of concrete ships and for bomb-proof blockhouses. It can be further utilised as a body-shield, for paving roadways, or with the aid of a hammer and three chisels (why three? In case the first two break) this "biscuit" could be, and was, eaten.
Tea and sugar, enclosed in one tin, were soaked in water: boiled over a small round tin of a form of solidified paraffin, set alight beneath the mess tin.
Then bacon—Your issue might be red—and it might NOT. Perhaps the faintest suspicion of lean fringed it or you might moodily survey a square inch of fat—if there was not a buckshee inch of rind. The flowing locks of hair with which this bacon was sometimes adorned has convinced one that a number of farmers fatten their porkers on "Thatcho"—it could be combed with a fork!
Bully Beef is, ugh! IT was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be ... NEVER AGAIN.
"Something attempted, someone done, A one-pound loaf among twenty-one."
Had the biscuit been again as hard the famished Ten Hundred would have got their teeth deep into it. Hunger. A mad craving for food that cannot be swallowed, because of a dry stickiness in the mouth a tongue that somehow would not function; a moisture that would not come.
That tea! warm, refreshing, life-inspiring liquid. Drink, to drink long and thirstily ... the relief, the new vitality. Food vanishes with abnormal rapidity, every crumb, however minute, is carefully searched for, gathered into the hand and eaten.
And afterwards you are still hungry, still thirsty.
The "schemers" slipped away quietly from the billets, crossed into the main thoroughfare and commenced a scrounging expedition for grub. ("Scrounging," an exciting operation whereby the required article is obtained by any means otherwise than legal.)
Winterflood, Mace and the Duo found their way by instinct born of experience to an advanced dressing station where buckshee tea was being doled out. Cups were not to be had, a milk can having to deputise in three instances while the fourth dug his features deep into a foot long tin with a quarter-inch layer of tea. Then Fritz dropped a shell, kru-ump, clean into the centre of the courtyard. The jar caused a pint of the tea to run caressingly down two tunics then again the genial enemy sent over another. Si-izz-krump! One of the four scroungers grunted.
"Boo—want, want any more tea?"—chuckling. They didn't! A third, a fourth, and a fifth followed. Men looked significantly at each other.
"Bringin' his guns up."
"Yes—heavy stuff, too."
"Be as hot as Hades round 'ere soon."
It was. Hun artillery were adepts at "shooting off the map" (e.g., calculating the angle of elevation for concentration on a certain spot by means of a map), and began to drop near the roadways and cross-roads a series of heavy calibre shells. Here and there, as his guns went searching across the town, a house crumbled under with a grinding, spluttering crash. Hun aeroplanes, also, made an unpleasant announcement of their presence above Marcoing, directing their artillery fire upon a number of points.
Our Brigade Headquarters were situated, of all unhealthy spots, in a house the last of a row culminating at a four-cross-road. Phew—and he dropped one on it and got five of us. Wilshire (Royal Fusiliers) came in for a fearful gash, ten or twelve inches long and three wide, right across the spine. Conscious, but paralysed, he looked round on us with a piteous, hopeless appeal for succour in his eyes and made wild, inarticulate sounds for water. One of the signals (R.E.) fell face downward on the floor in a widening pool of his own blood, one part of his face blown away. Poor laddies, full of youth, vim, life—cursed artillery from your far-off safety! Aye, hands clench; if ever OUR chance comes....
He played on Marcoing throughout the night, inflicted a few light casualties on the Normans, deprived a few more house of rafters, and ploughed an occasional portion of the road.
One wondered grimly on looking up at a thin slate roof what protection it would form against a "heavy," and into how many unrecognisable fragments your person would be dispersed should he land one direct on you. Close your eyes and sleep; then if he does plump one in, you won't worry much about it.
We seemed to have no 'planes of our own to interfere with Fritz's evening gambols, nor were there any Archie guns in the sector to give the Hun aviators something with which to amuse themselves.
Coloured cavarly had ridden in, out and around Marcoing throughout the day, but apparently were not going through. The advance was ended and there was every indication of establishing this new line for the quieter period of winter.
The Normans, with the 80th Brigade, moved in the evening dusk out from Marcoing to Masnieres—a town that constituted almost the apex of the salient formed by the drive.
A strange march, although a mere couple of miles or so, in that throughout the entire line of companies there could be sensed some indefinable presentiment of a something to be feared. High above the direct line of march could be discerned the black puffs of enemy timed shrapnel bursting in the air. And you had to pass through it—it was inconceivable that everyone could get through unharmed. Again, it might not be you. The egotism of unconscious thought; the indisputable truth of Darwin's "Will to Life."
At Rues Vertes the Battalion halted. The nerves were highly strung, men gazed about with slight shudders as one is wont to do in the midst of weird ghost stories when someone comes softly, unexpectedly down the darkened stairs.
What was the unshakeable phenomenon? Was it the moaning of a lost wind in the dark woods that reacted so upon that rudimentary, instinctive Fear of the Unknown, the Night; inherited from the primitive man who watched trembling throughout the wakeful hours when Fear was his sole companion?
"I—I don't fancy this," Tich whispered hoarsely, "it puts a feelin' of death on me." Fatal prophecy!
The Ten Hundred carried on, crossed a swampy field, and moving up nearer the line, filed once again into the dismal occupation of trenches newly dug, affording inadequate cover and protected by wire that would have to be raised by their own efforts.
Winter was already getting a grip on the land, nights were cruelly cold and days but little better. And this first night at Masnieres was frequented with that sensation of ill-omen pervading the minds of many who felt—as Tich had said—somehow that their days were drawing to a close. They would lie unmoving for an hour obsessed by their thoughts; the brain flying with its lightning rapidity from picture to picture resurrected from a happy past. In words would some communicate their apprehensions.
"I feel—rotten to-night. Something's got on my nerves...."
But the rum ration soon soared the depressed spirits. Man is prey to his inherited instincts. Even Tich recovered his nerve.
"I only felt like that once before," he said, "that's when I was spliced."
"Wot, frightened of something?"
"Yes, and," gloomily in abrupt relapse, "it came right, too." The cherubic tones of Stumpy emanated from somewhere.
"Wot I say is, respect a man's principles. Any teetotalers about yere wot wants to find a 'appy 'ome for their rum ration? Wot I say is, respe—yes, yere I am, old son, pass the sinful liquor over."
Half an hour later he warbled a jumbled melody:
"In Ari—Arizona. It's there a girl in Ari—Ari...."
HOLDING THE LINE
The night was far more lively than any preceding. Fritz trench mortar batteries sending over a series of particularly nastily ranged shells. This is a type of shell that can be heard coming from far in the air and its flight, by an acute observer, can be gauged to within a dozen yards or so of the point of impact with the earth. Situated right up in the forward line this dangerous little weapon, at a range of one thousand or less (according to distance between opposing lines) yards, is fired at an almost perpendicular elevation and therefore descends again in approximately a direct line into the trenches: this factor naturally increases its probability of getting INTO the narrow excavation where a long-range shell at a more acute angle would merely dig itself into the parapet. And the havoc among human bodies confined within a small area that this small shell creates is conceivable only by those who have been of a party devastated by such a visitation. It must be borne in mind that three men can be almost obliterated by an explosion while the fourth may pick himself up dazedly, white and shaken, but unscathed. Take it as a concrete fact that any man, however courageous, who comes close enough into contact with a shell to be conscious of its hot breath on his face and to be violently thrown by its concussion, will regain his feet with shaken nerves to a degree necessitating half-hour or more before restoration to normal. Some few never recover—hence the term "shell shock."
There are tales of iron men who are unaffected by a dozen such experiences—perhaps! The writer was blown clean through an open door in Marcoing and had difficulty in keeping his hand steady afterwards to light a pipe—but he does not consider himself particularly brave. Quite the reverse. I could get round a corner with more rapidity than any man in the Battalion if a shell came my way.
Masnieres, if external and internal appearances of buildings is a criterion of financial status, must have been peopled by a moderately wealthy class. In fairness to Fritz it must be granted that in three years' occupation he had not purloined to any large extent from the larger houses—with the exception perhaps of a few dozen clocks, a piano or two, and a few similar articles.
Tho cause of this may, of course, be found in the knowledge that right up and during the British attack all these towns—Marcoing, Noyelles and Masnieres—unvisited by shell fire, were still occupied by their owners. Coming up from where they had hidden trembling in their cellars during our advance, they were immediately advised to go "down the line," and in accordance treked away from their old homes with what few personal belongings they could take with them. The road from Masnieres to Marcoing was strewn with the pitiful remnants of lost bundles, which, unable to carry further, sobbing women had cast down by the wayside.
They had crowded in tearful, grateful groups around a few of the Guernsey and other battalions. Young and old. Old! Bent of shoulder, white-haired old dames; from whose kindly care-lined faces grateful tears were fast flowing, poured out volumes of thanks to the Normans in their mother tongue. Upon old backs that had long since earned repose were bundles, sad little bundles, tied up in red handkerchiefs. Ambulances were used for the conveyance of the old and spent to safety zones. Rough, big Britishers picked up the frail old frames in muscular arms, carried them with infinite gentleness to the ambulance and esconsed them securely there.
"'Ow's that, mother. A bit of all right, eh?" And the ready tears would course again down the old withered cheeks; words would not come; she could only grasp tightly on the firm young hand. How that lump WOULD rise in the throat; how one fought to appear unconcerned.
Big, awkward phlegmatic Britishers; unhappy beneath all this honouring—it makes a man feel such a bally goat.
Thus the people returned to France, while on the ground near by the still figures smiled serenely at the sky. Perhaps they knew! Renouf, a plucky, good-humoured Private, walked down just afterwards with the blood dripping from his side.
The ensuing week, during which the Ten Hundred partook in wiring off the sector, completion of the poorly-dug trench system, and kindred work, was ardous not only in the physical sense, but from the constantly increasing attention of Hun airmen, artillery, and machine guns. Casualties increased, and of them Death claimed a singularly high proportion, one unfortunate Lewis-gun team coming in for a welter that shattered practically every man and ended two young lives in a fearful state of dismemberment.
Wiring constitutes in itself an operation of fatal possibilities. It has to be constructed at night, without sound; but posts have to be driven into the earth; someone will inevitably slip, accompanied by a loud clatter. Then—ping, ping, ping!!! A hundred rounds fly whining through the night from a Fritz machine-gun.
The utter wretchedness of that wiring; the sickening knowledge that any moment a trail of bullets may spring without warning at you—and if ONE machine-gun shot gets you, another FIVE will be somewhere in your body before you reach the turf. It appears an impossibility to carry on alive in such an undertaking from night to night; but still you DO IT. It is funny—afterwards.
Robin hated it, after falling and introducing twenty barbs to that portion of him utilised usually in a chair; he had to reline a little to one side for a couple of days. Then blood poisoning set in, he reported "sick," and was sent down the line as a casualty.
"Of all bloomin' luck." Stumpy growled; "'ere's me wots fallen down two shell 'oles and nearly twisted me bloomin' neck, been knocked over by a shell wot capsized all my rum issue—an' not a sign of a Blighty one."
"It's a pity you didn't," Le Huray observed.
"Twist yer bloomin' neck."
"Look 'ere, my lad, if I comes over there I'll twist yer tongue and tie it up behind yer 'ead, an' it wont be a Blighty yer'll 'ave—no, it'll be a blooming' corfin."
"Shut yer row, the two of you," Casey shouted, "yer like a couple wots been married a year, chewin' each others 'ead orf. Come yere an' give me a 'and, Stumpy." And he turned again to the task of clearing a layer of mud from his rifle bolt with a grimy piece of rag an inch square.
There is a refreshing originality (sic) in the al fresco meals partaken of in the fresh open air, in a comfortable trench—so comfortable that legs are twelve inches too long, knees in the way of your chin, and somebody's boots making doormats of your tiny bit of cheese. Water and tea—when you get it—has a most uncommon flavour of petrol due to being transported in petrol cans. Stumpy was of the opinion that the War Office should be advised to utilise rum jars instead.
Fritz has a gentlemanly knack of dropping a shell near you and depositing a mighty chunk of black filth in the very midst of your grub. Resultant language unprintable.
Slight falls of snow began to take place, the wind increased and nights in the trenches became one long vista of drawn-out agony. Hands and feet froze; maintain circulation was an absolute physical impossibility: but it had to be faced through the long, over long, hours of waiting, and there was no alternative, no remedy. You suffered, Royal Guernseys, men of a warm, sunny isle, who had not hitherto known the harsh winter of miles inland spots. But you stuck it well, rifle grasped in a hand gone stiff, face cut and blistered from the fierce wind; feet aching with inconceivable agony.
Gas, sent over in shells, made an unpleasant addition to the already numerous "attractions" of the picnic. There is in this form of gas two factors that materially assist in bringing about casualties. Firstly, this type of shell cannot usually be distinguished from a "dud" and therefore alarm is rarely given until three or four of these shells have landed, by which time, if the wind is in your direction, the gas is on you. Secondly, men are careless: "Oh, the wind won't blow it this way ... might only be a 'dud,' too."
Men regard and withstand all this hardship with varying moral. There are a few who sadly collapse before the onslaught of adverse circumstances, who give way without a fight to nervous prostration, and who are subject at times to wild spasms of uncontrolable trembling, finally going down the line with a form of shell-shock altogether distinct to shock from violent concussion.
Some are stoic, hanging on doggedly; characteristic of the quiet man from tiny Sark, who, failing to understand the why and wherefore of their presence in this Hell and yet individually conscious of a sacred duty to carry on, gave a constant example of philosophic acceptance of life as it was that indicated no lack of courage. Of very similar psychological tendency were the men from Alderney—a fine, physically, body of lads, if short—and from the more remote portions of Guernsey.
The town men were adept growlers, found something funny in everything and calmly palmed off all the arduous tasks upon the good-natured but less sly countrymen. It should be recalled, however, that a large percentage of these men were "old soldiers," had seen service at Guillemont with the Royal Irish, and were therefore au courant with every form of deep scheming.
The greater portion of the remnants of Guernsey's volunteer companies in the Royal Irish had after their first casualty been drafted into the Ten Hundred, a large proportion receiving—and rightly—promotion. They were fine types, born fighters, born soldiers, and, some of them, born schemers.
It would be futile to endeavour to convey that nowhere in the Ten Hundred were found men in whom a white streak was obviously apparent. White of face and faint of heart; the first to avoid any undertaking where their skin was endangered: crouched far below the parapet, and who at the least indication of enemy activity gazed frenziedly rearward at the nearest line for a headlong retreat. One in perhaps every hundred.
Fear, the instinct to guard life; the warning of danger; the all-absorbing sense of primitive ancestors who have handed down an almost uncontrollable Fear of the Unknown, indelibly imprinted upon the brain and imbibed into the very blood from centuries of fearful watch upon the Death that came out of the Darkness.
The fear of death overcome, there grasps the young warrior in a sudden frenzy the revelation that in some critical moment he "might funk it." There lies the crux of it. Afraid that he might BE AFRAID and bring upon him from the lips of those whose opinions he values most the fatal slur "Coward." For death is far better than that those men who have placed upon you—and you upon them—the implicit reliance of MAN for MAN, should find you wanting in the test and pass sentence upon you that a lifetime regret could not one whit abate.
Two hundred, perhaps three hundred, yards from the Front Line a Fritz blockhouse (a concrete, more or less shell-proof fortress, impervious to rifle and machine gun fire, utilised on a large scale by the Germans and garrisoned with machine guns) held an advantageous position bearing on the lines of communication leading up from Masnieres, thereby playing pretty havoc upon ration parties and all movement within focus of the enemy machine-gunners.
It HAD to be taken, without artillery support. The Ten Hundred were nearly let in for the job, but owing to alteration of date the Lancashire Fusiliers had the onus upon them.
Surprise was the great deciding factor.
It failed! Creeping over through the night one half of the journey was accomplished ... in one piercing whine of spiteful machine-gun fire Fritz almost wiped out the first wave. For an hour the British tried again and again with constantly refilling gaps, while upon them was turned every German machine gun in the area. From half a mile away the creeping line of advance could be gauged by the tone of firing. Higher, higher, in one mad high-pitched shriek, ten thousand shots in one minute from twenty or more enemy machine-guns sang and hummed in the inky pall. The high key lowered; the mind pictured the khaki line retreating, reforming—forward again. Then up again the shrill staccato; line drawing nearer. Higher, faster, louder the Satanic scream of lead. Higher, still higher! The head throbbed, beads glistened on the brow—surely the climax was reached. And then it lowered—failed again.
A minor operation, of no importance to Official Report!
In a field near Brigade Headquarters an unfortunate cow had investigated the explosive powers of a 9.2, with the result that it no longer had to waste its days chewing the cud. We cut away steaks by bringing the bayonet into service, but had no fat in which to fry the savoury article. The more tender portions were eaten raw—we were hungry—and the remainder fried with water and a tot of rum. A rum steak—it was "rum," inflicted us with gumboils for a week.
Some of the cheese now being issued found its way up without a ration party and upon approaching Brigade caused a false alarm of gas to be sounded. It has been found effective in poisoning lice. This little adherent is now in dozens upon every other fellow. Folk at home have a peculiar tendency for sending out powders, for the entertainment of these pests, upon which they wax fat: dying sometimes of constipation.
The mail had arrived on the Thursday night (November 28th) that the Ten Hundred came out of the line for the last time. The Division will move, out on the morrow after nearly two weeks' marching and fighting. Casualties had increased: the Lanes, and Royal Fusiliers numbering but little over 500 men. (They entered the action about 700 strong.)
The Normans had lost between forty and fifty, inclusive of several Supreme Sacrifices. Muray had one eye blown out by shrapnel from a trench mortar without losing consciousness.
A draft should have joined the Battalion, but halted for the night in Rue Vertes, coming in for a bout of shelling that put the wind up the entire party, with inflicting much bodily harm.
A strange non-appearance of British 'planes has caused comment, nor did there appear to be any heavy guns remaining on the sector apart from such artillery that forms a Brigade complement. Fritz, on the other hand, maintained uncomfortable concentration upon the towns and roads with a large number of guns brought up from somewhere (Lille—where an Army Corps had been awaiting transfer to Italy). The number of gas shells indicates that his supply in this direction is unlimited, for this type comes over regularly day and night. He concentrated, too, upon the canal lock in the probable vague hope of flooding the district. His shells fell by the scores around, above, short of and beyond the objective, everywhere except, by extraordinary bad luck, upon it.
NOVEMBER 30th-DECEMBER 1st, 1917
4.30 a.m., Friday, November 30th.—Quiet, comparative quiet everywhere. Gas shells came over with an ever increasing frequency, but men slept on without masks. A shell, heavy, unmistakably from a huge howitzer, crashed with a mighty uproar into a small house and demolished it at a stroke. Then another, and another, and still another ... phew, what was he "searching" for? From the doorway of Brigade Headquarters I looked into the night and listened to the whistle of shells passing overhead from eastward into our lines. Our own artillery was silent. No sound came from our near infantry lines, not the crack of a rifle, not the splutter of a machine-gun.