HAROLD R. PEAT
Ex-Third Battalion First Canadian Contingent
Profusely Illustrated with Photographic Reproductions Taken at the Front. Also with Scenes from the Photo-Play of the Same Name Released by Famous Players—Lasky Corporation
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers The Bobbs-Merrill Company
To the boys who will never come back
In this record of my experiences as a private in the great war I have tried to put the emphasis on the things that seemed to me important. It is true I set out to write a book of smiles, but the seriousness of it all came back to me and crept into my pages. Yet I hope, along with the grimness and the humor, I have been able to say some words of cheer and comfort to those in the United States who are sending their husbands, their sons and brothers into this mighty conflict. The book, unsatisfactory as it is to me now that it is finished, at least holds my honest and long considered opinions. It was not written until I could view my experiences objectively, until I was sure in my own mind that the judgments I had formed were sane and sound. I give it to the public now, hoping that something new will be found in it, despite the many personal narratives that have gone before, and confident that out of that public the many friends I have made while lecturing over the country will look on it with a lenient and a kindly eye.
To my wife, who has helped me greatly and who has been my inspiration in this, as in all else, I should have inscribed this volume had she not urged the present dedication. But she prefers it as it is, for "the boys who will never come back" gave themselves for her and for all sister-women the world over.
I THE CALL—TO ARMS
II IN THE OLD COUNTRY
III BACK TO CANADA—I DON'T THINK
IV ARE WE DOWNHEARTED? NO!
V UNDER FIRE
VI THE MAD MAJOR
VII WHO STARTED THE WAR?
VIII "AND OUT OF EVIL THERE SHALL COME THAT WHICH IS GOOD"
IX ALL FUSSED UP AND NO PLACE TO GO
X HELLO! SKY-PILOT!
XI VIVE LA FRANCE ET AL BELGE!
XII CANADIANS—THAT'S ALL
XIII TEARS AND NO CHEERS
XIV "THE BEST O' LUCK—AND GIVE 'EM HELL!"
XV OUT OF IT
XVI GERMAN TERMINOLOGICAL INEXACTITUDES
XVII THE LAST CHAPTER
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF A SOLDIER WHILE ON ACTIVE SERVICE
SOME THINGS THAT WE OUGHT AND OUGHT NOT TO SEND
THE CALL—TO ARMS
"Well," said old Bill, "I know what war is ... I've been through it with the Boers, and here's one chicken they'll not catch to go through this one."
Ken Mitchell stirred his cup of tea thoughtfully. "If I was old enough, boys," said he, "I'd go. Look at young Gordon McLellan; he's only seventeen and he's enlisted."
That got me. It was then that I made up my mind I was going whether it lasted three months, as they said it would, or five years, as I thought it would, knowing a little bit of the geography and history of the country we were up against.
We were all sitting round the supper table at Mrs. Harrison's in Syndicate Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta. War had been declared ten days before, and there had been a call for twelve hundred men from our city. Six hundred were already with the colors.
Now, to throw up a nice prosperous business and take a chance at something you're not sure of getting into after all, is some risk, and quite an undertaking as well. But I had lived at the McLellens' for years and knew young Gordon and his affairs so well that I thought if he could tackle it, there was no reason why I shouldn't.
"Well, Bill, I'm game to go, if you will," I said. Bill had just declared his intention rather positively, so I was a bit surprised when he replied in his old familiar drawl:
"All right, but you'll have to pass the doctor first. I'm pretty sure I can get by, but I'm not so certain about you."
Ken Mitchell looked up at that and, smiling at me, said, "I can imagine almost anything in this world, but I can't imagine Peat a soldier."
"Well, we'll see about that, Ken," I replied, and with that the supper came to an end.
That evening Bill and I went over to the One-Hundred-and-First Barracks, but there was nothing doing, as word had just come from Ottawa to stop recruiting. It was on the twenty-second of August, 1914, before the office was opened again, and on that day we took another shot at our luck.
The doctor gave me the "once over" while Bill stood outside.
"One inch too small around the chest," was the verdict.
"Oh, Doc, have a heart!"
"No," he said, "we have too many men now to be taking a little midget like you." That was disappointment number two. I walked out and reported to Bill, and I need not say that that loyal friend did not try to pass without me.
That night—August twenty-second—I slept very little. I had made up my mind that I was going to the war, and go I would, chest or no chest. Before morning I had evolved many plans and adopted one. I counted on my appearance to put me through. I am short and slight. I'm dark and curly-haired. I can pass for a Frenchman, an American, a Belgian; or at a pinch a Jew.
I had my story and my plan ready when the next day I set out to have another try. At twelve-thirty I was seated on Major Farquarhson's veranda where I would meet him and see him alone when he came home to lunch.
"Excuse me, Doctor," I said when he appeared, "but I'm sure you would pass me if you only knew my circumstances."
"Well?" snapped the major.
"You see, sir, my two brothers have been killed by the Germans in Belgium, and my mother and sisters are over there. I must go over to avenge them."
I shivered; I quaked in my shoes. Would the major speak to me in French? I did not then know as much as Bon jour.
But luck was with me. To my great relief Major Farquarhson replied, as he walked into the house, "Report to me this afternoon; I will pass you."
August 28, 1914, saw old Bill—Bill Ravenscroft—and me enlisted for the trouble.
A few days later Bill voiced the opinion of the majority of the soldiers when he said, "Oh, this bloomin' war will be over in three months." Not alone was this Bill's opinion, or that of the men only, but the opinion of the people of Canada, the opinion of the people of the whole British Empire.
And right here there lies a wrong that should be righted. From the days of our childhood, in school and out, we are taught what WE can do, and not what the other fellow can do. This belief in our own strength and this ignorance of our neighbor's follows us through manhood, aye, and to the grave.
It was this over-confidence which brought only thirty-three thousand Canadian men to the mobilization camp at Valcartier, in answer to the first call to arms, instead of the one hundred thousand there should have been.
Not many days passed before we boarded the train at Edmonton for our journey to Valcartier. The first feeling of pride came over me, and I am sure over all the boys on that eventful Thursday night, August 27, 1914, when thousands of people, friends and neighbors, lined the roadside as we marched to the station.
Only one or two of us wore the khaki uniform; the rest were in their oldest and poorest duds. A haphazard, motley, rummy crowd, we might have been classed for anything but soldiers. At least, we gathered this from remarks we overheard as we marched silently along to the waiting troop-train.
Strangely enough no one was crying. Every one was cheered. Little did hundreds of those women, those mothers, dream that this was the last look they would have at their loved ones. Men were cheering; women were waving. Weeping was yet to come.
On that same August night, not only from Edmonton, but from every city and town in Canada men were marching on their way to Valcartier.
We traveled fast, and without event of importance. There were enthusiastic receptions at each town that we passed through. There was Melville and there was Rivers, and there was Waterous, where the townsfolk declared the day a public holiday, and Chapelou in Northern Ontario, where we had our first parade of the trip. There was a tremendous crowd to meet us here, a great concourse of people to welcome these stalwarts of the West. We lined up in as good formation as possible, and our sergeant, who was very proud of himself and of us—mostly himself—majestically called us to attention.
"From the left, number!" he gave the command. Such a feat, of course, is an impossibility.
"From the right, Sergeant," yelled old Bill.
"No," answered the sergeant, "from the left." The crowd roared and the sergeant raved. Finally our captain straightened us out, but the sergeant to this day has never forgotten the incident.
North Bay passed, then Ottawa, Montreal, and at last we arrived at Valcartier. So far the life of a soldier had been anything but a pleasant one. My body was black and blue from lying on the hard boards, and I was eager, as was every other man, to leave the train at once; but as our camp was not quite ready we had to stay in the cars another night.
It was a relief, I assure you, when on the morning of September first we marched into Valcartier. Such a sight: tents everywhere one looked; all around little white marquees. I said to Bill, "Is this the regular training ground?" To my surprise he informed me that this great camp had been organized within the last two weeks.
I marveled at this for I did not believe we had a man in Canada with the organizing ability to get a camp of this size in such splendid shape in so short a time. We were finally settled in our quarters and told that we were to be known as the Ninth Battalion, One-Hundred-and-First Edmonton Fusiliers.
The second day we were in camp the bugle sounded the assembly. Of course I did not know an "assembly" from a mess call, but the others ran for the parade ground and so I followed.
Gee! what a mob! There was a big man sitting on a horse. Bill said he was the colonel. He made a speech to us. He told us we were fine men.
"You are a fine body of men," said he ... "but we are unorganized, and we have no non-commissioned officers."
I whispered to Bill, "What's a non-commissioned officer?"
Bill looked to see if I really meant it. "A sergeant, a corporal—anything but a private," he replied.
"Will all the men who have had former military experience fall out," commanded the colonel; "the rest of you go back to quarters."
"Have I had any former military experience, Bill?" I was eager for anything.
"Sure you have," said Bill. "We'll just stay here and maybe we'll be made sergeants."
About six hundred of us stayed! But, believe me, if they had all had as much military experience as I, we wouldn't have been soldiers yet. When the adjutant came around, he gave me a look as much as to say: "That kid certainly has got a lot of nerve." He offered to make Bill a corporal, but as that would have transferred him from D Company to F Company he declined rather than leave me.
This will give you some idea of the kind of organization or non-organization when the First Contingent Canadians was formed. Not only in our own battalion but nearly anywhere in the regiment almost anybody could have been a non-commissioned officer—certainly anybody that had looks and the nerve to tell the adjutant that he had had former military experience.
It was not very long before we began to realize that soldiering, after all, was no snap. There was the deuce of a lot to learn, and the deuce of a lot to do.
To the rookie one of the most interesting things are the bugle calls. The first call, naturally, that the new soldier learns is "the cook-house," and possibly the second is the mail-call. The call that annoyed me most at first was "reveille." I had been used to getting up at nine o'clock in the morning; rising now at five-thirty wasn't any picnic. This, especially when it took a fellow half the night to get warm, because all we had under us was Mother Earth, one blanket and a waterproof.
It was the second day at camp that we started in to work good and hard. Reveille at five-thirty A.M.; from six to seven Swedish exercise, then one hour for breakfast when we got tea, pork and beans, and a slice of bread. From eight to twelve saw us forming fours and on the right form companies. From twelve to half past one more pork and beans, bread and tea. Rifle practise, at the butts, followed until five-thirty, and ... yes, it did ... pork and beans, bread and tea appeared once more.
Neither officers nor non-coms knew very much at the start, but they were a bunch of good scouts. And we were all very enthusiastic, there is no doubt about that. Soon we began to realize that if we would put our shoulders to the wheel and work hard we would certainly see service overseas.
As a private soldier and no matter how humble my opinion may be, I must give the greatest praise and credit to the organizer and founder of Camp Valcartier, at that time Colonel Sir Sam Hughes ... the then minister of militia for Canada. We had about three miles of continuous rifle range; and good ranges they were, considering they were got together in less than two weeks. I will admit that the roads leading to the ranges were nothing to brag about, yet, taking it all in all, even they were pretty good.
By this time the majority of us had received our uniforms and our badges, and had been given a number, and instructed to mark this number on everything we had. Mine was 18535.
We had no "wet" canteens at Valcartier, so we were a very sober camp. Each battalion had a shower bath, and there was no excuse for any man to be dirty. Even at that it was not very long before those little "somethings" which are no respecters of persons, be he private, non-com, commissioned officer or general, found their way into the camp. I'll never forget the first gray-back I found on me. I cried like a baby, and old Bill sympathized with me, saying in consoling tones that I'd soon get used to them. Bill knew.
For amusement at Valcartier, we had free shows and pay shows, also moving pictures. The pay show got to be so amusing that we made a bonfire out of it one bright September night, and found it more entertaining as a conflagration than it ever had been as an entertainment. At all events, that was how one of the boys of the Fifteenth Battalion put it.
The second week in camp we were inoculated, and again examined for overseas service. Through some very fine work, I escaped the examination, but could not get out of the inoculation. We were promised three shots in the arm, but after the first I resolved that one was more than enough for me. German bullets could not be worse, I thought, and when I got one I didn't change my mind.
As the days wore on we grew more and more enthusiastic. Already rumors were spreading that we would be leaving "any time now" for France. The excitement certainly told on some of the boys. In my regiment no less than nine, I guess they were ex-homesteaders, went "nutty." One chap, I recall, killed hundreds of Germans on the bloody battle-fields of Valcartier. The surgeon assured us the mania was temporary.
We were pretty thoroughly equipped by the end of the third week, when we were given puttees instead of leggings. It was sure funny the way some of the boys looked when they first put them on, for many of them got the lower part of the leg much bigger than the upper part, but of course that might happen to any one who had never seen puttees before.
There was considerable grumbling about these same puttees, because, at first, they were undoubtedly very uncomfortable. However, before many days the majority of us were ready to vote for puttees permanently, as they proved warmer, a greater support to the leg on long marches and more nearly waterproof than their more aristocratic brother leggings.
It was during the third week of camp life that we had our first review. We gave the salute to the Duke of Connaught, who was accompanied by Sir Sam Hughes. After this review, we were told that we might expect to leave for France at two hours' notice.
The following days we spent on the rifle ranges and in making fake departures. I wrote home to my friends more than once that "we were leaving for the front to-day," but when the next day arrived we were still leaving. I sent my mother six telegrams on six different days to say that I would start for France within the next hour, but at the end of it we were still to be found in the same old camp.
Finally, on the first day of October, 1914, our regiment boarded the S.S. Zeeland at Quebec. The comment of the people looking on was that they had never seen a finer body of men. And that was about right. Physically we were perfect; morally, we were as good as the next, and, taken all in all, there were no better shots on earth. Equipped to the minute, keen as hunting dogs, we were "it." Surely a wonderful change this month's training had wrought. And I say again if the credit for it all must be given to any one man, that man is Sir Sam Hughes.
In a few hours we were steaming down the St. Lawrence, and the next day we slipped into Gaspe Bay on the eastern coast of Canada, where we joined the other transports. Here thirty-two ships with as many thousand men aboard them were gathered together, all impatiently waiting the order to dash across the Atlantic.
We did not have to wait very long. On Sunday, October the fourth, at three o'clock in the afternoon, we steamed slowly out of the harbor in three long lines. Each ship was about a quarter of a mile from her companion ahead or behind, and guarded on each side by cruisers. I have memorized the names of the transports, and at this time it is interesting to know that very few of them have been sunk by the German submarines.
The protecting cruisers were: H.M.S. Eclipse, Diana, Charybdis, Glory, Talbot and Lancaster. The transports were in Line Number One: S.S. Manatic, Ruthenian, Bermudian, Alaunia, Irvenia, Scandinavian, Sicilia, Montzuma, Lapland, Casandia;
Line Number Two: Carribean, Athenia, Royal Edward, Franconia, Canada, Monmouth, Manitou, Tyrolia, Tunissian, Laurentic, Milwaukee; Line Number Three: The Scotian, Arcadian, Zeeland, Corinthian, Virginian, Andania, Saxonia, Grampian, Laconia, Montreal, The Royal George.
All the way across the Atlantic we were in sight of each other and of the cruisers. Personally, the scene thrilled me through and through. Here was the demonstrated fact that we, an unmilitary people, with a small population to draw on, had made a world record in sending the greatest armada that had ever sailed from one port to another in the history of man. Personally, I felt very proud because of the thirty-three thousand soldiers on these boats only seventeen per cent. were born Canadians; five per cent. Americans, and the other seventy-eight were made up of English, Irish and Scotch residing in Canada at the outbreak of the war.
There were no exciting scenes on the way over, except when some wild and woolly Canadian tried to jump overboard because of seasickness. We were a long time crossing, because the fastest transport had to cut her speed down to that of the slowest, and the voyage was anything but a pleasant one. When we finally steamed into Plymouth, the gray-backs outnumbered the soldiers by many thousands. The invasion of England!
IN THE OLD COUNTRY
We were the first of the British Colonial soldiers to come to the aid of the Motherland. Judging from the wonderful reception given us, it was easy to see that the people were very pleased at our coming, to put it mildly.
My first night on English soil I shall never forget. After three weeks on ship coming over, we were all pretty stiff. The night we landed in England we marched many miles, and as a result my feet were awfully sore. So, when we finally arrived at Salisbury Plain and were immediately ordered to march across the Plain another ten miles to Pond Farm, I knew I shouldn't be able to do it, and confided my troubles to Bill and another fellow named Laughlin. After we had gone about four miles we came to an inviting haystack; it was too much for us and all three of us slipped out of line, but before we could reach the stack we were caught by Major Anderson. Bully old major! He volunteered to carry my pack. In turn, I carried his greatcoat, and we continued the march.
It wasn't very long before another haystack came in view and again we couldn't resist the temptation. This time we made our goal, and there we slept until early morning. Thus I passed my first night on English soil. Two days later we landed in camp, after visiting Devizes, Lavington and Salisbury City on the way. Laughlin wore the major's coat, and by this device got through where otherwise we should have been pinched.
After the first two days in England it began to rain, and it kept on raining all the time we were there. The people round about the country told us that never before in their lives had they seen such rains, but this must be characteristic of people the world over. In Western Canada when strangers come and it gets really cold, we tell the same story of never having seen the like before.
We hadn't been in camp long when they began to issue passes to us. The native-born Englishmen were the first to get leave, and the Canadians next. At last my turn came, but unfortunately I had to go alone. Personally, I think the English people made too big a fuss over us. The receptions we got at every turn of the way were stupendous; and I am certain a majority of the men had more money than was really good for them. As one young Canadian boy said afterward: "Why, they treated us as if we were little tin gods."
But from a military view-point, we, the boys of the First Canadian Division, did not make such a tremendous hit with British officials. It was not long before they even criticized us openly, and looking at it from a distance I do not blame them. Never in their lives had they seen soldiers like us. They had been used to the fine, well-disciplined, good-looking English Tommy. Of course I will admit that we were good-looking all right, but as far as discipline was concerned, we did not even know it by name. The military authorities could not understand how it was that a major or a captain and a private could go on leave together, eat together and in general chum around together.
The English people, I dare say, had read a lot about the wild and woolly West, but now in many instances they had it brought right home to Piccadilly and the Strand. With a band of young Canadians on pass, I assisted once in giving Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square the "once over" with a monocle in my left eye. A few hours later this same crowd commandeered a dago's hurdy-gurdy, and it was sure funny to see three Canadian Highlanders turning this hand organ in Piccadilly Circus.
The folks, of course, took all these little pranks good-naturedly; and, as a Canadian, I can not speak too highly of the treatment handed out to us by the Britishers. If there ever was a possibility before this war of Canada's breaking away from the Motherland, such a possibility has been shot to the winds. No two peoples could be more closely allied than we of the West and they of this tiny but magnificent island.
The little training we had had in Canada was good, as far as it went, and we had devoured it all. But the most vital part of a soldier's up-bringing was absolutely forgotten by our officers—discipline! As I've said before, as far as discipline was concerned, we were a joke. Certainly we were looked upon as such by the Imperial officers.
In one of the leading British weeklies there appeared a series of comments reflecting rather seriously on our discipline. One of the most humorous yet caustic, it seemed to me, was of an English soldier on guard at a post just outside of London. His instructions were to stop all who approached. In the darkness it was impossible for him to distinguish one person from another. Before long he heard footsteps coming toward him:
"Halt! Who goes there?" demanded the sentry.
"The Irish Fusiliers," was the answer.
"Pass, Irish Fusiliers; all's well."
Before long some more steps sounded....
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"The London Regiment."
"Pass, Londons; all's well."
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Hic ... mind your own damn business...."
"Pass, Canadians; all's well."
At a parade, one bright November morning, when we were at Salisbury, a certain brigadier-general from Ontario, since killed in action, while reviewing the soldiers of a particular battalion, made a unique speech to the boys when he said:
"Lads, the king and Lord Kitchener and all the big-bugs are coming down to review us to-day, and for once in your lives, men, I want to see you act like real soldiers. When they get here, for the love o' Mike, don't call me Bill ... and, for God's sake, don't chew tobacco in the ranks."
There is no doubt about it, the authorities probably looked on us as a bunch of good fellows, but that's about all.
While still in England, all the men of the First Canadian Contingent were issued a cloth lapelette or small shoulder strap; the infantry, blue; the cavalry, yellow with two narrow blue stripes; the artillery, scarlet, and the medical corps, maroon. I was told that these lapelettes were given to distinguish us from other contingents. To-day there are only a few hundred men entitled to wear what now amounts to a badge distinction. Personally, I feel prouder of my blue lapelette than of anything else I possess in the world.
The so-called training that we were supposed to have in England was not really any training at all. The rain was almost continuous, we were constantly being moved from one camp to another, and training, as training is understood to-day, was out of the question.
As I have said, our first camp in England was Pond Farm. It was well named. Later we moved to Sling Plantation. However, it was at Pond Farm we had some of our most grueling experiences. Many a night, owing to the awful rains, we would have to move our tents sometimes in the middle of the night. If any minister of the gospel—except our chaplain—had been standing around on these occasions he might well have thought from the sulphurous perfume of the air that every soldier was doomed to everlasting Hades. But, after all, "cussing" is only a small part of a soldier's life, and who would not swear under such extraordinary circumstances? Again, we have authority for it. It is a soldier's commandment on active service—the third commandment—and here is how it reads:
"Thou shalt not swear unless under extraordinary circumstances."
An "extraordinary circumstance" can be defined as moving your tent in the middle of the night under a downpour of rain, seeing your comrade shot, or getting coal oil in your tea. As a matter of fact, all minor discomforts in the army are counted as "extraordinary circumstances."
Despite the weather conditions, and the fact that we did very little training, the men in our battalion were enthusiastic and did their best to keep fit. However, we all went to pieces when we were told, early in December, that it was a cinch our battalion would never get to France as a unit.
I'll never forget the day our captain broke the news to us. The tears ran down his cheeks, and he wasn't the only man who cried. We were almost broken-hearted to know we were to be divided, because Captain Parkes (now Colonel) was a real and genuine fellow. He had taught us all to love him. For instance, when after a long march we would come in with our feet blistered, he would not detail a sergeant to look after us. He would, himself, kneel down on the muddy floor and bathe our feet. If at any time we were "strapped" and wanted a one-pound note, we always knew where to go for it. It was always Captain Parkes, and he never asked for an I.O.U. either. On the gloomy wet nights of the winter he would play games with us, and it was common to hear the boys remark that if we should ever get to France as a unit, and our captain got out in front, it would not be one man who would rescue him, but the whole company.
The day at Pond's Farm was more than a sad one when the old Ninth was made into a Reserve Battalion. The men were so greatly discouraged and the sergeants so grouchy that at times it became almost humorous.
One day, in late December, while at the butts, we were shooting at six hundred yards, with Sergeant Jones in command of the platoon. We had targets from Number One to Number Twenty inclusive, and the men were numbered accordingly. At this distance we all did fairly well, except Number One, who missed completely. For the sake of Number One the sergeant moved us down to four hundred yards, and at this distance every man got a bull's eye except Number One. He was off the target altogether. Our sergeant, after a few very pungent remarks, commanded the section to move to one hundred yards. Here again each one of us had a bull to his credit but Number One. Again he had missed, and again we moved, this time to fifty yards.
At fifty yards I can not begin to describe the look on the sergeant's face—to say that his eyes, nose and mouth were twitching is putting it mildly. Nevertheless, Number One missed. Then, something that never happened before on a rifle range on this earth electrified us all. Sergeant Jones shouted at the top of his voice: "Number One, attention! Fix bayonet! Charge! That's the only d——d hope you've got."
Disappointments were frequent enough in camp. Take the case of the Fifth Western Cavalry, who could sport the honor of their full title on their shoulder straps in bold yellow letters. It was they who had to leave horses behind and travel to France to fight in what they termed "mere" infantry. To this day we know them as the "Disappointed Fifth." There was also the Strathcona Horse of Winnipeg who were doomed to disappointment and much foot-slogging with their horses left behind.
Among those made into reserve units we of the Ninth had for companions the Sixth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Seventeenth Battalions. It was obvious that somebody had to be kept in reserve, and we were the unlucky dogs. We cursed our fate, but that didn't mend matters. We had nothing for it but to trust to a better fortune which should draft us into a battalion going soon to the fighting front.
The First Brigade consisted of men of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Battalions of Infantry. All of these battalions came from Ontario. The Second Brigade was made up of men from the West, including Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Vancouver. They were in the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Battalions, all infantry.
The Third Brigade was commonly known as the Highland Brigade and was made up of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Battalions. This last brigade included such splendid old regiments as the Forty-Eighth Highlanders of Toronto, the Ninety-First Highlanders of Hamilton and Vancouver, and the Black Watch of Montreal. There were also some of the far eastern men in this brigade.
After all this rearrangement had been made, it was only a few days till the rumor flew about that the battalions might leave for France at any time now. It seemed to us poor devils of the old Ninth that everything was going wrong. The unit lying next to us, the Seventeenth Battalion, was quarantined with that terrible disease, cerebro-spinal-meningitis. For a few days we buried our lads by the dozen. Speaking for myself, my nerves were absolutely unstrung, and I am sure that most of the men were in the same condition. It can be easily understood then that when drafts were asked for, to bring up the regiments leaving for France to full strength, there was a mad scramble to get away.
Without even passing the surgeon, I finally drifted into the Third Battalion, ordinarily known as the "Dirty Third." This battalion was made up of the Queen's Own, the Bodyguards and Grenadier Regiments of Toronto.
I landed in on a Sunday afternoon about three o'clock and was immediately told by the quartermaster that we were leaving for France in a few hours. He told me that I needed a complete change of equipment. At this news I rejoiced, because so far we had all worn, in our battalion, the leather harness known as the "Oliver torture." I knew that the active service, or web, equipment could not be worse.
The rush for equipment issue was like a melee on the front line after a charge, as I found out later on. There were some three hundred men newly drafted into the Third Battalion; there were some three hours in which we had to get our equipment and learn to adjust it. As it was, many of the extreme greenhorn type marched away garbed in most sketchy fashion. Some had parts of their equipment in bags; others utilized their pockets as holders for unexplained, and to them inexplicable, parts of the fighting kit.
Another of our trials was the new army boot. In Canada we had been issued a light-weight, tan-colored shoe, more practicable for dress purposes than for active service. Now we had the heavy English ammunition boot. This is of strong—the strongest—black leather. The soles are half-inch, and they are reenforced by an array of hobnails. These again are supplemented by tickety-tacks, steel or iron headed nails with the head half-moon shape. Each heel is outlined with an iron "horse shoe." Until the leather has been softened and molded with much rubbing and the unending use of dubbing, I would say, mildly, that these boots are not of the easiest.
Our departure for France was thrilling in its contrasts. Before setting out we cleaned camp, and then we had a fine speech from our new commander, Colonel Rennie, of Toronto, of whom much was to be heard in the hard days to come.
We slipped out of the camp in silence and utter darkness. Troops were being moved through England and into France with the utmost secrecy. We dare not sing as we marched; we dare not speak to a neighbor. On and on, it seemed endless, through mud and water and mud again. At times it reached to our knees as we plowed our way to the railway, where trains with drawn blinds awaited us.
Before we were half through our march a terrific electrical storm broke over us; the thunder roared and the lightning split the sky open as though Heaven itself were making a protest against war.
We finally embarked on His Majesty's Transport Glasgow.
BACK TO CANADA—I DON'T THINK
It was seven in the evening before we were ready to start. At that hour we quietly slipped our anchor and glided out of the harbor. We all thought we would be in France before midnight. The trip across the Channel in ordinary times is not often more than two and a half hours. We had no bunks allotted to us, and didn't think that any would be needed. We all lay around in any old place, and in any old attitude. I, for one, devoted most of the time during that evening to learning the art of putting my equipment together. The majority of the boys were at the old familiar game, poker.
We had not been on this transport very long when we had our first introduction to bully beef and biscuits. Bully beef is known to civilians the world over as corned beef, and to the new Sammy as "red horse." But even bully beef and biscuits aren't so bad, and our thoughts were not so much on what we were getting to eat as on when we were getting to France.
As the hours went by we more and more eagerly craned our necks over the deck rails, trying to pierce the darkness of the deep for one flash of light that might mean France hard ahead. But nothing happened, and one after another the watchers dropped off to sleep.
When dawn broke we woke and rubbed our eyes. We were mystified and not a little mortified. Where was France? There was nothing but water, blue as heaven itself, around us. We were still at sea, and still going strong.
The hours of that day dragged out to an interminable length. No one spoke of the matter—the question of land in sight was not discussed. Some of the boys went back to poker. Others decided to be seasick, and subsequently wished for a storm and the consequent wrecking of the ship, with a watery death as relief.
Bully beef and biscuits at noon; bully beef and biscuits at our evening meal, and no sight of land. Night came. The more hopeful of us did the craning business over the deck rails for a few more hours. The pessimistic, deciding France had ceased to be, returned to poker. We slept. We woke. We watched the sun rise—over the sea!
About noon that day after the ration of bully beef had gone its round and we, in consequence, were feeling pretty blue, there was a group of us standing around doing nothing. Suddenly Tom King came rushing up in great excitement. He had had an idea.
"Say, you fellows, I don't care a darn what any of you may say, I believe these blinkin' English are sick of us and are sending us back to Canada!"
No such luck. Before sundown that evening we sighted land. We steamed slowly into the port of St. ——. This is a large seaport town near the Bay of Biscay, on the southwest coast of France. Why in the world they wanted to take us all the way round there, I don't know. I was told that we were among the first British troops to be landed at this port.
As soon as we disembarked from the boats that evening, before we left the docks, we were issued goat-skin coats. The odor which issued from them made us believe that they, at least in some former incarnation, had belonged to another little animal family known as the skunk. Ugh! The novelty of these coats occupied us for a while, and if a sergeant or a comrade addressed us we answered in "goat talk": "Ba-a-a, ba-a-a-a...."
It was apparent that the secrecy of troop transportation which held in England held also in France. The populace could not have known of our coming, for there was no scene, nor was there a reception. We were to meet with that later on.
Here, however, we did meet the French "fag." When Tommy gets one puff of this article of combustion he never wants another. It is one puff too many. Of course our first race was to buy cigarettes—but, napoo!
Before entraining we were all shocked by the dreadful tidings that the transport carrying the Forty-Eighth Highlanders had been sunk. This news was soon discredited and the truth was established when the Forty-Eighth came up the line in a few days and reported that they had heard we, the Third, had been sunk and all drowned. Apparently it was a part of certain propaganda to publish that all transports of British soldiers were destroyed. So far none had even been attacked.
The evening of our arrival we boarded the little trains. To our surprise and to our intense disgust, we had not even the passenger coaches provided in England and Canada. I say little trains, because they were little, and in addition the coaches were not coaches, but box cars. Painted on the side of the "wheeled box" was "Huit chevaux par ordinaire."
But these are not ordinary times, so instead of eight horses they put forty-eight of us boys in each car. Forty-eight boys all my size might have worked out well enough, though in full fighting trim even I was quite a husky, but the average Canadian soldier is a much bigger man. Take into consideration what we have to carry. There is our entrenching tool which we use for digging in. To look at it the uninitiated might well think that it was a toy, but, as I learned afterward, when bullets are flying around you by the thousand you can get into the ground with even a toy—or less.
There is our pack. A soldier's pack on active service in the British Army is supposed to weigh approximately forty-five pounds, but when the average Tommy lands in France his pack weighs nearer seventy-five pounds than forty-five. Tommy does not feel like throwing away that extra pair of boots, two or three suits of extra underwear, and so many of the little things sent from home or given him just before setting out for France. As a consequence when he arrives in France he carries a very heavy load, though it does not stay heavy for long. After being on a route march or two the weight will mysteriously disappear. Then Tommy carries one pair of boots, one suit of underwear, one shirt, one pair of socks, and they are all on him.
There is a mess tin to cook in, wash in, shave in and do all manner of things with. There is the haversack in which is stuffed a three-day emergency ration. The emergency ration of the early days of the war was much different from the emergency ration of to-day. These rations are intended to be used only in an emergency, and, believe me, only in an emergency are they used. There was compressed beef—compressed air, we called it; there were Oxo cubes and there was tea. In addition there were a few hardtacks.
Then there is the bandoleer, and the soldier on active service in this war never carries less than one hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition at any one time, and sometimes he carries much more. As a final, there is our rifle and bayonet. At that time of which I am speaking we Canadians carried the now famous, or infamous, Ross rifle. This weighed nine and three-quarters pounds.
With all this equipment to a man, and forty-eight men to each small box car, it doesn't demand much imagination to picture our journey. We could not sit down. If we attempted it we sat on some one, and then there was a howl. We tried all manner of positions, all sorts of schemes. In the daytime we sought the roof of the cars, or leaned far out the open doors. If the country had not been so lovely, and if all our experiences had not been new and out of the ordinary, there would have been more grousing.
The second day on the train—we were three days and three nights—while passing through a city near Rouen, we had a glimpse of our first wounded French soldiers. It seemed as though war came home to a lot of us then for the first time. I was fairly sick at heart when I saw one Frenchman with both arms bound up, and with blood pouring over his face. I understood that these wounded men were coming back from the battle of Soissons. From the glimpses we caught of them in their train they seemed a funny lot of fighting men, these poilous, with their red breeches, their long blue coat pinned back from the front, the little blue peaked cap, and their long black whiskers. I was horrified at the whole sight. For the first time I asked myself, "What in the world are you out here for?"
There must have been many of the boys who indulged in the same vein of thought, to judge by the seriousness of the faces as we proceeded and left the French hospital train behind.
On the evening of the third day, as we pulled slowly into the station at Strazeele, we could hear in the distance the steady rumbling of the big guns at the front.
ARE WE DOWNHEARTED? NO!
"Hush, boys,... we're in enemy country!" our second in command whispered ominously. We shivered. The sound of the guns seemed to grow louder. Captain Johnson repeated his warning:
"Not a word, men," he muttered, and we stumbled out of the station in silence that could be cut with a knife. Sure enough the enemy was near. He couldn't have been less than twenty-two miles away! We could hear him. There was no disposition on our part to talk aloud. Captain Johnson said: "Whisper," and whisper we did.
We trekked over mud-holes and ditches, across fields and down through valleys. We had many impressions—and the main impression was mud. The main impression of all active service is—mud. It was silent mud, too, but we knew it was there. Once in a while during that dark treading through an unfamiliar country one of the boys would stumble and fall face down. Then the mud spoke ... and it did not whisper. There were grunts and murmurings, there were gurgling expletives and splutterings which sent the army, and all fools who joined it, to places of unmentionable climatic conditions. We were in it up to our necks, more or less literally.
All the way along we could see the flashes of star shells. When one went up we could fancy the battalion making a "duck" in perfect unison. The star shells seemed very close. It was still for us to learn that they always seem close.
After about seven miles of this trekking, we reached billets. This was our first experience of French billets. The rest-house was a barn and we were pretty lucky. We had straw to lie on.
Notwithstanding our distance from the enemy, as Captain Johnson had said, we were in his country, and in consequence there had to be a guard. Four of the boys were picked for the job. There was no change in my luck. I was one of the chosen four.
The guardroom, whether for good or ill, was set in a chicken house. And thereby hangs a tale—feather. Corporal of the guard was a sport. He was a young chap from Red Deer, Alberta. Now, figure the situation for yourself. For days past we had been feeding on bully beef—bully beef out of a tin. Four men on guard, a dozen chickens perched not a dozen feet away. Would abstemiousness be human? Ask yourselves, mes amies.
We drew lots. My luck had turned. But I ate of it. It was tender; it was good; it was roasted to a turn.
They say dead men tell no tales. Of dead chicken there is no such proverb. Wish there had been. We buried those feathers deep. Alas, that Monsieur, in common with all the folk in Northern France, was so thorough in his cataloguing of his properties. I don't blame him. He had dealt with Germans when they overran the territory. He had met with Belgians when they hastened forward. He had had experience of his own countrymen when they endeavored to drive back the enemy. He had billeted the Imperial British soldier. Now he was confronted with a soldier of whom he had no report, save only the name—Canadian. Monsieur had counted his chickens before they were perched.
We had not yet had read or explained to us the laws and penalties attaching to such a crime while on active service. Of course, no one killed that chicken. No one ate it. No one knew anything about it. We were perfectly willing, if need be, to pay double price for the chicken rather than have such a term as "chicken thief" leveled at us. We of the guard, however, protested, but paid five francs each to smooth the matter over. This totaled about four dollars.
The next morning the whole battalion was lined up before the colonel while the adjutant read aloud the law which we boys term the "riot act." This document informed us very clearly that if any soldier was found to have taken anything from the peasantry for his own use; if any man was found drunk on active service, or if he committed any other crime or offense which might be counted as minor to these two, the punishment for a first offense would be six months first field punishment. For any offense of a similar nature thereafter the man would be liable to court martial and death.
While this paper was being read, I shook in my boots, to think that I had been—innocently or at least ignorantly—associated with what was probably the first crime of our battalion.
We went back to billets a very subdued lot of soldiers.
Later in the day I noticed a lot of boys talking to a young Belgian girl. I had no opportunity to speak to her then, but after a time I found her alone, and with the little English Mademoiselle Marie B—— had picked up from British soldiers lately billeted there, and with the small amount of French I had stored away, we held quite a long conversation.
I should judge that she was about fifteen. She told me she was sixteen. She was piquant and pretty in appearance, but her features were drawn and her expression was sad. She had a questioning wistfulness in her eyes, but she showed no fear of the many British soldiers round.
This young girl, little over a child, was all alone. She awaited in terror the coming of her baby, and the fiends who had outraged her had brutally cut off her right arm just a little above the elbow.
"How did this happen to you, Mademoiselle?" I asked in French.
"Ah, Monsieur," she replied, "les Allemands, they did—chop it off."
"Why, Mademoiselle, surely no German would do such a hideous thing as that without some reason."
At that time I believed, as apparently do the majority of people in this country to-day believe, that the Germans did not commit the atrocities that were attributed to them. But it is all true.
"But, oui, Monsieur,... les Allemands, they have no reason. They kill my two brothers ... my father I have not seen, my mother I have not seen ... no, not for five months. Les Allemands, they have taken them also ... they are dead also, peutetre."
"And you?" I continued. "Where was your home?"
"Ah, but it is the long story. We live close by Liege. It is a small village. The Uhlans come and we are sorely frightened. We hide in the cellar, and do not go out at all. While there les Allemands post a notice in the village. It is that every person who has a gun, a pistol, a shell, an explosive, must hand such over to the burgomaster. We do not know of this, and do nothing. At last, Monsieur, the Uhlans come to our house to search, and there they see a shotgun and some shot. It is such a gun as you must know in the house of British, in the house of American. It is the common gun. We did not know. But there is no pardon for ignorance in war. My brothers were roughly pulled to the market place and shot dead." Little Marie choked down a sob. "My mother and my father," she continued, "were carried away. I refuse. I fight, I bite, I scratch, I scream with frenzy, I tear. One of les Allemands ... perhaps he was mad, Monsieur, he slash ... so, and so ... he cut off my arm.
"I remember no more, Monsieur. After a day ... two days, I find that I can walk. I walk and walk. It is now one hundred and fifty miles from my home ... it is that I stay here until...."
I grasped the girl's left hand and turned away. I was sick. What if she had been my sister?
And then I thought of the laws read aloud to us that morning. We soldiers, fighting under the flag of the British Empire, were we to violate one little rule ... were we to take any property, no matter how small, without just payment to its owner; were we to drink one glass of beer too much ... were we to overstep by a hair's breadth the smallest rule of the code of a "soldier and a gentleman," we were liable to be shot.
What of the German who had ruined this young girl and maimed her body? Believe me, I realized then, if never before, what we were fighting for. I was ready to give every drop of blood in my veins to avenge the great crimes that this little girl, in her frail person, typified.
We passed another night in the same billets. Next morning at five-thirty we were roused to make a forced march, across country, of some twenty-two miles. This was the hardest march of the entire time I was at the front. Those ammunition boots! Those gol-darned, double distilled, dash, dash, dash, dashed boots!
It was winter. There was heavy traffic over the roads. There were no road builders, and precious little organization for the traffic. Part of the way the surface had been cobblestones; now it was broken flints.
We started out gallantly enough with full packs, very full packs. Then, a few miles out, one would see out of the corner of his eye, a shirt sail quietly across the hedge-row; an extra pair of boots in the other direction; another shirt, a bundle of writing paper; more shirts, more boots. Packs were lightening. Down to fifty pounds now; forty, thirty, twenty, ten ... the road was getting worse.
No one would give up. Half a dozen men stooped and slashed at their boots to get room for a pet corn or a burning bunion. But every man pegged ahead. This was the first forced march. We were on our way to the trenches. No man dare run the risk of being dubbed a piker. We agonized, but persevered.
Armentieres was our objective. A fine city, this, and one which we might have enjoyed under happier circumstances. It was under fire, but not badly damaged, and consequently many thousands of the Imperial soldiers were "resting" there while back from the trenches.
We were the First Canadians. We were expected, and the English Tommies determined to give us right royal welcome and a hearty handshake. We had a reputation to keep up, for in England the Cockney Tommy and his brother "civvies" had named us the "Singing Can-ydians."
But on the road to Armentieres ... oh, ma foi! There was no singing. Call us rather the "Swearing Can-ydians," as we stumbled, bent double, lifting swollen feet, like Agag, treading on eggs through the streets of the city.
Tommy Atkins to right of us; Tommy Atkins to left of us, cobblestones beneath us, we staggered and swayed. The English boys cheered and yelled a greeting. It was rousing, it was thrilling, it was a welcome that did our hearts good; but we could not rise to the occasion.
Suddenly from out of the crowd of khaki figures there came a voice—that of a true son of the East End—a suburb of Whitechapel was surely his cappy home.
"S'y, 'ere comes the Singin' Can-ydians ... 'Ere they come ... 'Ear their singin'."
Not a sound from our ranks. Silence. But it was too much. No one can offer a gibe to a man of the West without his getting it back. Far from down our column some one yelled:
"Are we downhearted?" "No!" We peeled back the answer raucously enough, and then on with the song:
Are we downhearted? No, no, no. Are we downhearted? No, no, no. Troubles may come and troubles may go, But we keep smiling where'er we go, Are we downhearted? Are we downhearted? No, no, NO!
"No, Gor'blimey, y'er not down'earted, but yer look bally well broken-'earted," chanted our small Cockney comrade, with sarcasm ringing strong in every clipped tone of his voice.
Broken-hearted! Gee! We sure were—nearly; but not quite. No. This was bad; there was worse to come, and still we kept our hearts whole.
But there was another trial now, and we were directed to rest billets in what presumably had been a two-story schoolhouse or seminary. As soon as we reached this shelter we flopped down on the hard bare floor and lay just as we were, not even loosening our harness.
We were less than three miles from the front lines. Even at this short distance Armentieres, as a whole, had not suffered greatly from shell fire, though the upper floors of this old seminary had been shattered almost to ruins long before our arrival.
The city itself was a good strategic point for the artillery. Behind houses, stores, churches, anywhere that offered concealment, our guns were hidden. Our artillery officers used every available inch of cover, for they had to screen our guns from the observation of enemy aircraft which flew with irritating irregularity over the town, and they had to avoid the none too praiseworthy attention of spies, in which Armentieres was rich.
Armentieres in those days was practically a network of our gun emplacements. The majority were howitzers. These fire high; they have a possible angle of forty-five degrees. There was no danger of their damaging our own immediate positions.
The ordinary infantry man knows less than nothing about artillery. If ever a bunch of greenhorns landed in France, frankly, we of the First Contingent were that same bunch.
As we had marched through the city there had been no sound of gun-fire. All was quiet except for the welcoming cheers of our British brothers. Silence reigned for the two hours we had spent in resting on the floor of the schoolhouse, and consequently we thought we had a snap as far as position went.
Our self-congratulations were somewhat rudely disturbed. Of a sudden, one of our young officers rushed through the door of our shelter. Poor laddie, he was very young and his anxiety exceeded even his nervousness. Nervousness is very natural, I can assure you. It is natural in a private; it is more so in the officer who feels responsibility for the lives of his men.
"Lads," said he, with upraised hand, and obviously trying desperately to be calm, "lads, I've just been told that the enemy has the range of this building. 'Twas shelled yesterday, and we are likely to be blown up any minute ... any minute, men! I'd advise you to stay where you are. Don't any of you go outside, and if you don't want to lose your lives, don't go fooling around up-stairs." With that he pointed to the rickety steps that led to the second floor and disappeared through the door as fast as he had come.
For a few moments there was dead silence. "Blow up any minute!" We looked at one another. We sat tense. Our very thoughts seemed petrified. From the far corner of the room there came a sound:
"Gee whiz!... Gee whiz!" the voice gathered confidence. "Gee whiz, guys"—it was a boy from the Far West who spoke—"I've come six thousand miles, and to be blown up without even seeing a German is more than I can swallow."
"Gosh!" said I, "I wouldn't mind being shot to-morrow morning at sunrise if I could have the satisfaction of seeing one of them first."
Bob Marchington looked up. He was a droll youth, and curiosity was his besetting sin. "Say, fellows, I wonder why he told us not to go up-stairs. I bet you there's something to be seen from up there, or he would not have told us not to go. Any of you boys willing to come up with me?"
No one took up the challenge. We lay around a little longer. Then the braver spirits commenced to deliberate on the suggestion. Why not go up-stairs? At last half a dozen of us decided to embark on the risky enterprise. We were three miles from the enemy, to be sure, but a German at three miles seemed to us then something formidable. Many a good laugh have we had since, in trench and out, at this expedition considered with so much careful thought!
We crept up the shaky steps one by one. We crawled along the upper floor, skirting the gaping shell holes in the woodwork. We raised our hands and shaded our eyes from the glare of the light. We scanned the horizon. We had an idea, I think, that we'd see a German blocking the landscape somewhere. We were three miles away. What was three miles to us?
We were deeply engrossed when there came a terrific crash. It seemed almost under our feet ... Rp-p-p-p-p-p bang, BANG! The next thing I remembered was landing at the foot of those narrow stairs, the other five boys on top of me. That is a feat impossible of repetition. When we disentangled ourselves, got to our feet and gathered our scattered wits, we found the men who had remained below tremendously excited. Their hair was on end; their eyes were like saucers. "Who's killed, fellows," they yelled, "who's killed?"
Of course no one was hurt. Our own battery was just dropping a few over the Boches, but it was our first experience under fire. Behind the building a battery of our six-inch howitzers was concealed. When they "go off" they make a fearful racket; very likely any other bunch of fellows, not knowing the guns were there, would do as we did. I don't know. At all events, we stayed very quietly where we were thereafter.
Later in the evening we found out the true and inner meaning of the excited order not to go outdoors or on the roof. It was a simple device to keep us from exploring the boulevards of the city. We might have been tempted to do that, for we had seen none of the charming French girls as yet, and they are—tres charmante.
About six o'clock that evening we got the customary—the eternal—bully beef and biscuits. At seven we were ordered to advance to the front line trenches. Our captain gathered us around him. He wanted to talk to us before we went "in" for the first time. He was, possibly, a little uncertain of our attitude. He knew we were fighters all right, but our discipline was an unknown quantity. Captain Straight, I understand, was American-born, from Detroit, Michigan. We liked him. Later we almost worshiped him. We took all he said to heart. We listened intently; not a word did we miss. I can repeat from memory that pre-trench speech of his.
"Boys," the captain's voice was solemnity itself. "Boys, to-night we are going into the front line trenches. We are going in with soldiers of the regular Imperial Army. We are going in with seasoned troops. We are going in alongside men who have fought out here for weeks. We've got to be very careful, boys."
Our captain was obviously excited. We strained closer to him.
"You don't know a darn thing about war, lads ... I know you don't."
We fell back a pace somewhat abashed. We had been under fire that very afternoon; but the captain (fortunately) did not know it.
"You don't know the first thing about this war. You've not had opportunities of asking about it from wounded men. Now, boys, I know exactly what you are going to do to-night when you get in those trenches. You're going to ask questions of those English chaps. YOU ARE NOT." He emphasized every one of those three words with a blow of one fist on the other.
"You are not. Why, men, you know what the authorities think of our discipline. How are we to know that this is not a device to try our mettle. How are we to know that those boys already in are not there to watch us, to report our behavior ... and, by heaven, men, if we don't make a good showing perhaps they will report unfavorably on us; perhaps we will be shipped out of here, shipped back to Canada, and become the laughing stock of the world."
Captain Straight strode up and down. "It won't do, my lads. You must not ask questions. Why, men, let those English fellows ask you the questions. Don't you speak at all ... just you be brave. I know you are brave ... stick out your chests." The captain gave us an illustration. We all drew ourselves up; we almost burst the buttons from our tunics in our endeavor to expand ... with bravery.
"Keep your heads high," the captain went on, one word tripping the other in the eagerness of his speech. "March right in. Don't stop for anything. Get close to the parapet. Look at the British boys; throw them 'Hello, guys!' and begin to shoot right away."
We were ready for anything. Were we not brave? Hadn't we shown our bravery by creeping up a ruined stairway only three miles from the enemy? We promised our captain, and then we commenced our march to the front.
The green soldier is always put into the first line at the start. The general idea is that he should be put in reserves and worked up gradually, but, save under exceptional circumstances, he is put in the front line and worked back.
It has been demonstrated that shell fire is much more severe on a man's nerves than rifle fire. Reserve trenches suffer more from shell fire than do the front line trenches. The reason is obvious. Sometimes the front line is but a stone's throw from the front line of the enemy. Sometimes we can converse with the enemy from one trench to the other. In such cases it is impossible for heavy artillery to be trained on the front. Rifles and bombs are the only explosives under these conditions.
Again, the green soldier is never put into the trenches alone. A company of raw arrivals is sandwiched in with seasoned men. As we were the first Canadians to arrive, and there was none of our own men to help acclimatize us, we went in with an English regiment. There was one English, one Canadian and so on down the line. These boys belonged to the Notts and Derbys. Jolly fine boys, too. We became fast friends. They chummed to us as they would to their own. They showed us the ropes. They gave us tips on this thing and that. They told us the best way to cook, the various devices for snatching a few minutes' rest. They described the most effective "scratching" methods for the elimination of "gray-backs," "red-stripes," "cooties," "crawlies"—any name you like to give those hosts of insect enemies that infest every trench.
Now, "going in" isn't so easy as it sounds. We don't advance in companies four deep. We don't have bands. We don't have pipes to inspire our courage and rouse the fighting spirit inherited from long dead ancestors. It is a very—a vastly different matter. We go into the trenches in single file, each man about six paces from his nearest comrade. There is no question about keeping behind. Instinct takes care of that.
A man may have a touch of lumbago; he may have a rheumatic pain. None of these things matters to him on the way "in." He can bend his back quickly enough as he passes along. There are always a few bullets dropping near by. One will hit the mud somewhere around his feet. The boy nearest springs as from a catapult until he is close to the comrade ahead of him. No; he never springs back. If he did ... he would be the man ahead. He would be in front. Nuffin' doin'—the whole idea is to keep behind; there is no doubt of that.
But the guide is very vigilant. All troops are guided to their positions, and the man on this ticklish job is nearly always a sergeant. He has an eagle eye, and a feline sense of hearing. He will note your skip forward.
"Keep your paces, lads ... keep your paces." His voice booms altogether too loud for us.
"Hush! for the love o' Mike, Sergeant, not so loud." He chuckles. He knows that feeling so well, so awfully well now. He has been a guide these many times. But we skip back to our position, six paces behind. Then another bullet drops and the whole dance-step is repeated with little variation. The sergeant booms once more, and in desperation that the Boches will hear him, we obey.
'Tis pretty how we step, too, on that first time "in." We lift each foot like a trotting thoroughbred. We step high, we step lightly. We tread as daintily as does a gray tomcat when he encounters a glass topped wall on a windy night.
THE MAD MAJOR
This first night in, had the commander-in-chief, had any one who questioned the discipline of the First Canadians, seen us, he would have been proud of our bearing, our behavior.
The Tommy who has been there before, when on guard never shows above the parapet more than his head to the level of his eyes. When he has had his view on the ground ahead, he ducks. He looks and ducks frequently. But we—we were not real soldiers; we were super-soldiers. We were not brave; we were super-brave. We went into those trenches; we returned the greeting of the English boys; we lined up to the parapet; we stretched across it to the waistline, and then rose on tippy-toe. I do admit it was a very dark night; at least it appeared so to me. Oh, we were on the brave act, all right, all right.
We stood there staring steadily into the blackness. Suddenly a bullet would come "Zing-g-g-g," hit a tin can behind us, and then we would duck, exclaim "Good lord! that was a close one," then resume the old position. But we soon learned not to have many inches of our bodies displayed, target-fashion, for the benefit of the Dutchies.
The first night in we fired more bullets than on any other night we were at the front. We saw more Germans that night. They sprang up by dozens; they grew into hundreds as the minutes passed and the darkness deepened. We felt like the prophet Ezekiel as he viewed the valley of dry bones. There was the shaking, there was the noise, and my imagination, at least, supplied the miraculous warriors. It was an awful night, that first night in.
Any one knows that if frightened in the dark (we were not frightened, of course; only a little nervous), the worst thing to do is to keep the eyes on one spot. Then one begins to see things. It is not necessary to be a soldier, and it is not necessary to go to the front line in France to make sure of that statement. Stare ahead into the dark anywhere and something will move.
We had our eyes set, and we peppered away. An English officer strolled by, and addressed a fellow near me. "What the ... what the blinkety-blank are you shooting at?"
"Me, sir ... m-me, sir? Germans, sir...." And he went on pumping bullets from his old Ross. The officer smiled.
For myself, I was detailed for guard. I stood there on the firestep with my body half exposed. I did not feel very comfortable. I thought if I could get any other job to do, I would like it better. The longer I stayed, the more certain I became that I would be killed that night. I did not want to be killed. I thought it would be a dreadful thing to be killed the first night in. A few bullets had come fairly close—within a yard or two of my head. I determined there and then, should opportunity offer, I would not stay on guard a minute longer than I could help.
My chance came sooner than I had hoped for. I hadn't realized, what I discovered after a few more turns in the trenches, that guard duty is the easiest job there is. I was eager for a change, and when I heard an English sergeant call out: "I want a Canadian to go on listening-post duty," I hopped down from my little perch and volunteered: "I'll go, Sergeant. Take me."
I had my job transferred in a few minutes. I honestly did not know the duty for which I was wanted. I knew there was a ration back in the town. I had a vague idea that we would go back to the town for more bread or something of the kind.
I had heard of an outpost, but a listening-post was a new one on me. These were very early days in the war. The Imperial soldiers had recently established this new system, and as yet it was not a matter of common knowledge.
This war is either so old-fashioned in its methods or so new-fashioned—in my opinion it is both—that it is continuously changing. The soldier may be drilled well in his own land, if he comes from overseas; he may be additionally trained in England; he may have a couple of weeks at the base in France, but it is all the same—when he reaches the front line trenches there will have been a change, an improvement, in some thing or other. It may be but a detail, it may be but a new name for an old familiar job, but changed it is.
The best soldier in the fighting to-day is the type of man who can adapt himself to anything. He must have initiative; he must have resource; he must have individuality; he must be a distinct and complete unit in himself, ready for any emergency and any new undertaking.
I started promptly to hike down the communication trench, following back the way we had come. An English private soldier was detailed to go on listening-post with me. Again, the raw soldier is never left to his own devices on first coming in. He is given the support of a veteran on all occasions, unless under some very special condition.
"Hie!" called the private to me, "where're yer goin' to?"
"Back, ye bally ass!"
He looked his contempt. "'Ave yer b'ynet fixed?" he asked, by way of answer.
"Yes," said he, "'urry up! We're late."
"Late?" I repeated.
"For Gawd's syke," he exclaimed, "don't yer know as 'ow we are goin' hout? Goin' over to the German trenches—goin' hout!"
I gulped. "Going to make a charge?"
"No ... goin' HOUT ... listenin'-post." And that private started out across No Man's Land as nonchalantly as though he were strolling along his native strand. I followed. I followed cautiously. I don't know how I got out. I don't remember. I can't say that I was frightened ... no, I was just scared stiff. Five paces out I put my hand on the Englishman's shoulder ... I was quite close to him; don't doubt it. He stopped.
"How far is it to the German trenches?" I whispered.
I raised my voice just a trifle. I didn't know who might hear me: "How far is it to the German trenches?"
"Five 'undred yards." My companion started off again. He stepped on a stick. I jumped. I jumped high. We continued, then I stopped him once more.
"Are we alone out here? Are there any Germans likely to be out too?"
"Why, yes ... plenty of 'em out here."
"Do they go in pairs, like us; or have they squads of them...."
"Pairs, my son, pairs, brace, couples...." The private strode on.
"Do our boys ever meet any of the Boches?"
"Sure! Many a time."
"What do we do?"
"Do? Stick 'em, matey, stick 'em! You've learnt to use yer b'ynet, 'aven't yer? Well, stick 'em ... kill 'em! Don't use yer rifle ... the flash would give you away, and then ye'd be a corpse."
I felt I was a corpse already. I felt that if there was any killing to be done that night he would have to do it, not I.
We crept more cautiously now. My comrade did not tread on sticks. I whispered to him for the last time: "What are we out here for, anyway?"
Then he explained. He was a good-hearted chap. "Don't yer know w'ot listenin'-post is? W'y, there's a couple of us fellows hout at intervals all along the line. We get as close to the enemy parapet as is possible. We watch and listen, lyin' flat on the ousey ground hall the while. We are the heyes of the harmy. The Germans raid us on occasions. Were these posts not hout, the raids would be more frequent. They'd come hover and inflict severe casualties on hour men. They can't see the Boche. We can. Should one Boche, or five 'undred try to come hover that parapet, one of us must immediately set hout and run back to hour trenches and give the warnin' for hour boys to be ready. The other one of us stays back 'ere, and with cold steel keeps back the rush."
I nodded. "What happens afterward to the man who stays back here?"
"Mentioned in despatches ... sometimes," Tommy returned casually.
I thought over the matter. Tommy whispered further.
"Oh, yer needn't be a bit nervous. There's two of us lads about every forty or fifty yards. This is the w'y. 'Ere we are, 'ere the Boches are ... there the boys are"—he flicked an expressive thumb backward. "Those Boches thinks as 'ow they 'as to get to our trenches, but before they gets to our trenches, they 'as to pass us ... they 'as to pass US ... see?"
I saw. "Say," I touched him gently, "a while before I joined up, I did the hundred yards in eleven seconds flat ... those Boches may pass you to-night, but never, on your life, will they pass me."
Tommy chuckled. He had been through it all himself. Every man has it the first time that he goes on any of these dangerous duties. I can frankly say I disliked the listening-post duty that first time. Nothing happened of course. There was no killing, but it was nervy work. Later, in common with other fellows, I was able to go on listening-post with the same nonchalance as my first coster friend. It lies in whether one is used to the thing or not. Nothing comes easy at first, especially in the trenches. Later on, it is all in the day's work.
When our relief came we crawled back to our trench and spent the night in our dugouts. Next day we got a change of rations. We had "Maconochie." "He" is by way of a stew. Stew with a tin jacket. It bears the nomenclature of its inventor and maker, although Maconochie's is a firm. This is an English ration and after bully beef for weeks, it is a pleasant enough change.
The weather was fine: clear overhead, blue sky and just a hint of frost, though it was not very cold. After dinner the first day in the trenches, I suddenly noticed an excitement among the English soldiers. We became excited, too, and strained to see what was happening.
There, sheer ahead of us, darting, twisting, turning, was a monoplane right over the German trench. It was a British plane, and taking inconceivably risky chances. We could see the airman on the steering seat wave to us. He seemed like a gigantic mosquito, bent on tormenting the Huns. Their bullets spurted round him. He spiraled and sank, sank and spiraled. Nothing ever hit him. The Boches got wildly hysterical in their shooting. Every rifle pointed upward. They forgot where they were; they forgot us; they fired rapidly, round after round. And still the plane rose and fell, flitted higher and looped lower. It was a magnificent display. We could see the aviator wave more clearly now; his broad smile almost made us imagine we heard his exultant laugh.
"Who is it? What is it?" We boys gasped out the questions breathlessly.
"'Ere he comes; watch 'im, mate; watch 'im. 'E's the Mad Major. Look, look—he's looping! Gawd in 'eaven, they've got 'im. No, blimey, 'e's blinkin' luck itself. 'E's up again."
"Who is the Mad Major?" I asked, but got no answer. Every eye was on the wild career of the plane.
The Germans got more reckless. They stood in their trenches. We fired. We got them by the ones and twos. They ducked, then—swoop—again the major was over them, and again they forgot. Up went their rifles, and spatter, spatter, the bullets went singing upward.
It was about an hour after that we heard a voice cry down to us: "Cheer up, boys, all's well." There, overhead, was the Mad Major in his plane. Elusive as was the elusive Pimpernel, he flitted back of the lines to the plane-base.
"Who is he?" We crowded round the English Tommies when all was quiet.
"The Mad Major, Canuck," they answered. "The Mad Major."
"Never 'eard of 'im, 'ave yer?" It was a sergeant who spoke, and we closed round, thinking to hear a tale.
"'E comes round 'ere every evenin', 'e does. 'E 'as no fear, that chap, 'e 'asn't. Does it to cheer us up. Didn't yer 'ear 'im as 'e went? 'E 'arries them, 'e does, 'arries them proper. Down 'e'll go, up 'e'll go, and ne'er a bullet within singing distance of 'im. 'E's steeped in elusion!" The sergeant finished, proud of having found a phrase, no matter what might be its true meaning, that illustrated what he wished to convey.
The Mad Major certainly appeared immune from all of the enemy's fire.
The sergeant went on. He, himself, had been with the Imperial forces since August, 1914. He had fought through the Aisne, the Marne, and the awful retreat from Mons.
'Twas at Mons, he told us, that the Mad Major earned his sobriquet, and first showed his daring. During those awful black days when slowly, slowly and horribly, French and British and Belgians fought a backward fight, day after day and hour after hour, losing now a yard, now a mile, but always going back—then it was that with the dreadful weight of superior numbers—maybe twenty to one—the Germans had a chance to win. Then it was they lost, and lost for all time.
All through this rearguard action there was the Mad Major. Mounted on his airy steed, he flitted above the clouds, below the clouds. Sometimes swallowed in the smoke of the enemy's big guns; sometimes diving to avoid a shell; sometimes staggering as though wounded, but always righting himself. There would be the Mad Major each day, over the rearguard troops, seeming to shelter them. He would harry the German line; he would drop a bomb, flit back, and with a brave "We've got them, boys," cheer the sinking spirits of the wearied foot soldiers.
The Mad Major was a wonder. Every part of the line he visited, and was known the length and breadth of the Allied armies.
Though for the moment the Mad Major had disappeared from our view, we were to hear more of him later on.
WHO STARTED THE WAR?
The wisest thing that our commanders did was to sandwich the Canadian boys in with the British regulars. Without a doubt we of the First Division were the greenest troops that ever landed in France.
In two short turns that we spent with the British, we learned more than we could have otherwise in a month's training. We also became inspired with that "Keep cool and crack a joke" spirit that is so splendidly Anglo-Saxon.
I am not an Englishman, and I did not think very much of an Englishman before going overseas. I regarded him more or less as not "worth while." It did not take a year to convince me that the Englishman is very much "worth while."
The English soldier chums up quickly. The traditional formality and conventionality of the English are traditions only. There is none of it in the trenches.
Discipline there is, strict discipline, among men and officers. Between officer and man there is a marked respect, and a marked good fellowship which never degenerates into familiarity.
There is love between the English officer and the English soldier. A love that has been proved many times, when the commissioned man has sacrificed his life to save the man of lower rank; when the private has crossed the pathway of hell itself to save a fallen leader.
The English soldier, and when I say English I mean to include Welsh, Scotch and Irish, reserves to himself the right to "grouse." He grouses at everything great or small which has no immediate or vital bearing on the situation. As soon as anything arises that would really warrant a grouse—napoo! Tommy Atkins then begins to smile. He grouses when he has to clean his buttons; he grouses loudly and fiercely when a puttee frays to rags, and he grouses when his tea is too hot.
But when Tommy runs out of ammunition, is partly surrounded by the enemy, is almost paralyzed by bombardment; when he is literally in the last ditch, with a strip of cold steel the only thing between him and death—then Tommy smiles, then he cracks a joke. Without a thought of himself, without a murmur, he faces any desperate plight.
He smiles as he rattles his last bullet into place; he grins as his bayonet snaps from the hilt, and he goes to it hand-to-hand with doubled fists, a tag of a song on his lips, for "Death or Glory."
That is Tommy Atkins as I saw him. That is the real Britisher of the Old Country. We shall know him from now on in his true light, and the knowledge will make for a better understanding among the peoples of the English-speaking world.
It was Sandy Clark who, eating a hunch of bread and bully beef in a dugout, got partly buried when an H.E. (high explosive) came over. Sandy crawled out unhurt, his sandwich somewhat muddy but intact, and made his way down the trench to a clear space. Here he sat down beside a sentry, finished his bully beef and muddy bread, wiped his mouth, and remarked some ten minutes after the explosion: "That was a close one."
Imperturbable under danger; certain of his own immediate immunity from death; confident of his regiment's invincibility; with a deep-rooted love of home and an unalterable belief in the might and right of Britain—there is Tommy Atkins.
Looking back from the vantage point of nearly two years, it seems to me that we were somewhat like young unbroken colts. We were restless and untrained, with an overplus of spirits difficult to control. Gradually the English Tommy influenced us until we gained much of his steadiness of purpose, his bulldog tenacity and his insouciance.
Tommy never instructed us by word of mouth. He lived his creed in his daily rounds. He never knows that he is beaten, therefore a beating is never his. We have gained the same outlook, simply by association with him.
Were I a general and had I a position to take, I would choose soldiers of one nation as quickly as another—French, Australians, Africans, Indians, Americans or Canadians. Were I a general and had I a position to retain, to hold against all odds, then, without a moment's hesitation, I would send English troops and English troops only.
Now and again an American or a Canadian newspaper would come our way. "Anything to read" is a never-ending cry at the front, and every scrap of newspaper is read, discussed and read again. In the early days of 1914-15, these newspapers would have long and weighty editorials which called forth longer and weightier letters from "veritas" and "old subscriber." We boys read those editorials and letters, and wondered; wondered how sane men could waste time in writing such stuff, how sane men could set it in type and print it, and more than all we wondered how sane men could read it. "Who started the war?" they asked.
"Bah!" we would say to one another, "who started the war? If only those folks who write and print and read such piffle, no matter what their nationality, could have had five minutes' look at the German trenches and another five minutes' look at the French and British trenches—never again would they query, 'Who started the war?'"
We of the Allied army knew nothing of trench warfare. After the fierce onslaught on Paris, which failed, the Germans entrenched. Thank God, they did. They entrenched, and by entrenching they have won the war for us. They made a mistake then that they can never now retrieve.
They were in a position to choose, and they chose to entrench in the high dry sections, leaving the low-lying swamps, the damp marshy lands, for us. We had no alternative. It was either to take a stand there on what footing was left or be wiped off the map. We stood.
On that sector between La Bassee and Armentieres it was practically an impossibility to dig in. The muddy water was of inconceivable thickness along the greater length of the whole front. It oused and eddied, it seemed to swirl and draw as though there were a tide. We did not attempt to dig. We raised sandbag breastworks some five or six feet high and lay behind them day in and day out for an eternity, as it seemed.
Our shift in the trenches was supposed to be four days and four nights in. It never was shorter, sometimes much longer. Once we spent eleven days and nights in the trenches without a shift, because our reinforcing battalion was called away to another sector of the front. I know of a Highland Battalion that was in twenty-eight days and nights without a change.
We were unequipped as to uniform. We were in the regulation khaki of other days. We had no waterproof overcoats. We had puttees, but the greater number of us had no rubber boots. A very few of the men had boots of rubber that reached to the knees. At first we envied the possessors of these, but not for long. The water and mud, and shortly the blood, rose above the top and ran down inside the leg of the boot. The wearers could not remove the mud, and trench feet, frost bite, gangrene, was their immediate portion. We lost as many men, that first winter of the war, by these terrible afflictions as we did by actual bullets and shell fire.
To us who had come from the Far Northwest the weather was a terrible trial. Our winters were possibly more severe, but we could stand them so much better, with their sharp dry cold in contrast to the damp, misty, soaking chill of this non-zero country. Possibly, at night, the thermometer would register some two or three degrees below freezing. A thin shell of ice would form on the ditch which we called a trench. This would crackle round our legs and the cold would eat into the very bone. At dawn the ice would begin to break up and a steady sleet begin to fall. Later the sleet would turn to rain, and so the day would pass till we were soaked through to the skin. At night the frost would come again and stiffen our clothes to our tortured bodies, next day another thaw and rain, and so to the end of our turn, or to the time when an enemy bullet would finish our physical suffering.
We could have borne all this without a murmur, and did bear it in a silence that was grim, but we had a greater strain, a mental one, with which to contend. We knew—we knew without a doubt that we were out there alone. We had not a reserve behind us. We had not a tithe of the gun power which we should have had. Our artillery was not appreciable in quantity. What there was of it was effective, but as compared to the enemy gun power we were nowhere. They had possibly ten to our one. They were very considerably stronger than they are to-day. We, to-day, can say with truth that we are where they were in 1914-15. We, with our two years of hurried and almost frenzied work, and they, with their forty years of crafty preparation!
And they knew how to use those guns, too. Our engineering and pioneer corps at that time were non-existent. We had practically none. The Germans would put over a few shells during the day. They would level our sandbag breastworks and blow our frail shelters to smithereens. We had no dugouts and no communication trenches. With a shell of tremendous power they would rip up yards of our makeshift defenses and kill half a dozen of our boys. Sometimes we would groan aloud and pray to see a few German legs and arms fly to the four winds as compensation. But no. We would wire back to artillery headquarters: "For God's sake, send over a few shells, even one shell, to silence this hell!" And day after day the same answer would come back: "Heaven knows we are sorry, but you've had your allotment of shells for to-day."