S.O.S. STAND TO!
SERGEANT REGINALD GRANT 1ST FIELD ARTILLERY BRIGADE, 1ST CANADIAN DIVISION
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK LONDON 1918
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Printed in the United States of America
IN HUMBLE, REVERENT SPIRIT I DEDICATE THESE PAGES TO THE MEMORY OF THE LADS WHO SERVED WITH ME IN THE "SACRIFICE BATTERY," AND WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES THAT THOSE BEHIND MIGHT LIVE, AND, ALSO, IN BROTHERLY AFFECTION AND ESTEEM TO MY BROTHERS, GORDON AND BILLY, WHO ARE STILL FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT AND KEEPING THE FAITH.
The general purpose and scope of the rehearsal of my three years' personal experience while in the artillery arm of the First Division of Canada's overseas forces is to lay before the reader an outline of the movement of our Division as it may be gathered from the performance of my own specific duties, with especial reference to the battles of Ypres (the 2nd), Givenchy, Sanctuary Woods (Ypres 3rd), the Somme and Vimy Ridge.
Very little attention or space has been devoted to the detail of initiatory camp life, drill, rations and the like; even had I the space to do so, those features have been liberally covered by a number of earlier writers; besides, I am of the opinion that the average reader is more concerned with the desire to be imaginably transported as nearly as possible to the heart of the struggle,—to live in his own mind the strain and turmoil of the individual soldier in the desperate conflict which now rages, the decision of which will determine whether democracy or military autocracy shall be the predominating factor in the governments of the peoples of the earth.
The devastating rush of the gray-clad hordes of Huns into the peace-loving lands of Belgium and France has demonstrated conclusively that to win this or any other war the one thing necessary is superiority in artillery. Without this, an enemy sufficiently strong in numbers and other equipment, can drive ahead, overcoming and crushing all obstacles.
The average lay reader is too apt to lose sight of the supreme importance of this arm of the service, to which all other movements are subsidiary; the dash of the charge by the infantry over the top, magnificent in its appeal, submerges to a degree the real factor upon which success or failure of the charge depends, i.e., the blazing of the trail by the guns. Little thought is devoted to the man who, with hell bursting on and around him, has to get his shell home in a certain number of seconds so that the charge can be made.
Neither is it generally known that the percentage of loss in units is greater in the unit known as the sacrifice battery than in any other branch of the fighting machine.
Therefore, I may be pardoned if I feel a certain human pride in the fact that it was my honorable lot to serve in this unit nearly a score of times during my work over there, and I can account for my failure to be seriously injured (a dislocation or a little gassing is comparatively trivial) to nothing other than, as my Major emphatically expressed it, "Damned horseshoe luck!"
I. CAN'T KILL ME 1
II. THE FIRST NIGHT 17
III. YPRES 30
IV. MY HORSE SHOE WORKING 48
V. HUN HELPERS 58
VI. BITS OF BATTLE 87
VII. SANCTUARY WOODS 101
VIII. A BATH UNDER DIFFICULTIES 129
IX. HAM BONE DAVIS 143
X. BEES, HONEY AND HELL 157
XI. SCOTTY COMES BACK AT THE SOMME 170
XII. BEHEMOTH 185
XIII. THE FAMILY LUCK 203
XIV. THE DEAD SHELL 210
XV. SATAN'S SHELLS AND SCENTED GAS 235
XVI. BEFORE VIMY 262
XVII. VIMY 275
XVIII. BACK TO GOD'S COUNTRY 284
S.O.S. STAND TO!
CAN'T KILL ME
"Hello, Central, give me Queen 4000. Is that you, Burt? You are going, aren't you?"
Burt Young was one of my pals and I had just learned from the morning paper that enlistments for Canada's first overseas contingent were being taken that day and I had called up to inquire if he were going.
"Sure, I am going. Where will I meet you?"
We arranged to meet at the exhibition ground and, taking French leave of the office, I hastened to the camp where the recruiting was going on, picking up Burt on the way.
It was as if a baseball championship series were on; the crowd good-naturedly swayed and jammed as each man struggled to get to the door and signed up before the quota was full. With only the loss of a hat and some slight disarrangement of my collar and tie, I was one of the lucky ones.
And we were lucky! Although visions of lands to be seen and adventures to be had flitted rapidly through my mind, and although I believe none of us on that day dreamed of what we were getting into, yet, looking back over it all, I would not have missed my place in Canada's First Division for anything I ever hope to have on earth.
In two hours I was in khaki and in another hour I had bade the folks farewell and was standing on the station platform waiting for the train that would take us to Valcartier, the greatest gathering place of soldiers that Canada has ever known.
Some idea of my knowledge of things military may be gleaned from the following:—chatting with Burt, he suddenly espied a large car, with two girls, shooting up the street to the station, and called my attention to it. One of the girls was my sister. I immediately scented trouble. I skipped across to the other side of the depot, intending to board the train from the other side when it came in; I was not going to have my soldiering interfered with if I could help it. Standing in the shelter of a pillar, I did not notice two husky recruits in khaki behind me. "Is your name Grant?" they asked. "Yes." "The Colonel wants to see you at once," they informed me, and they marched me back.
As I approached, my sister was talking earnestly and energetically to the Colonel and I could plainly see I was the object of the conversation. I waited.
"How is this, Grant, this lady says you are not of age. Is that so?" asked the Colonel.
"I am of age and—"
"Stand to attention!" snapped the Colonel. I straightened up and folded my arms respectfully across my chest.
"Stand to attention, damn you! Don't you know how to stand to attention?" I shifted my feet a little uneasily, wondering how he wanted me to stand.
"Put those heels together," he snorted. I did so. "Keep your toes apart," he half hissed and half shouted. I spread my toes apart. I still had my arms folded. Almost purple in the face with his violence, he roared, "Put those damned hands of yours down!" and he grabbed my wrists and flopped them down. "Young lady, you'll have to take this matter up at Valcartier; there is no time to do anything now. You can go," this to me. I turned on my heel.
"Here," he roared. "Don't you know enough to salute your superior officer? Salute!" I gingerly raised my hand to my forehead and held it there, much after the fashion, I think, of a man shading his eyes from the sun, or a nautical chap gazing intently seaward.
"You idiot!" he bellowed, as he grabbed my hand and fiercely flung it down. "Don't you know how to salute? Here, do this"—and he saluted. I followed as well as I was able, but the utter disgust that was plastered all over his visage as he turned on his heel would not have left much hope for soldierly qualifications in one any less hopeful and enthusiastic than I was.
My sister, in spite of her tears, could not keep back the smile as I again kissed her good-by.
It was about noon next day when I reached Valcartier and after a month of solid work, the like of which I had never before experienced, I was as hard as a nail, and as tough, as indeed was every man in that honor division of Canada's expeditionary forces.
We received orders to leave for England on the 14th day of September, 1914. I was detailed on a gun limber of my subsection of the First Battery, the artillery being the arm of the service to which I was assigned. Starting about 4:30 in the afternoon, in torrents of rain, we headed for the city of Quebec. Along the way the people had thoughtfully built large bonfires on either side of the road, serving the double purpose of lighting our way during the night and enabling us to jump off and warm ourselves, as we were thoroughly chilled.
The road was in a horribly bad condition and the rain did not improve it any, and while the limber was lurching from side to side, like a ship staggering in a storm, it was the better part of wisdom for me to keep my eyes open to save myself from being thrown off and having my precious neck broken.
To prevent in some measure the rain trickling down my neck, I took a rubber sheet, used to cover the horses, tied the two corners together, making a sort of cape of it, and put it round my neck.
Then I settled myself down to hold on to the limber and think at the same time of the great game of which I had become an infinitesimal part. I was sitting on the right hand side of the limber close to the wheel and, before long, the effort to think and hold on at the same time was too much for me, and I fell into a fairly sound sleep, Sergeant Johnson, my companion, doing likewise.
While dozing, the string from the end of the cape engaged itself with the axle, wound itself round and round and started pulling me down. When I awoke it had a grip on me and every moment I was being drawn closer to the wheel. I yelled to the driver to stop the horse, but the rattling and rumble of the limber and the gun carriage drowned my call; neither he nor the Sergeant heard me. Numb with cold, absolutely helpless, my head almost down to the wheel, I gave one more yell for dear life. The Sergeant suddenly and providentially woke up; he thought he had a nightmare. I was almost choked and could hardly breathe, but managed to make him understand, and he whipped out his knife, cut the string and released me from what in a couple of seconds more would have been instant death, as I would have been pulled from my seat and crushed to a jelly between the wheels. This was my first close shave from death. I had no horseshoe or four-leaf clover with me, and I can account for my escape in no other way than that it was my lucky star that has accompanied me throughout the long months of times that try men's souls and that has never deserted me.
No further mishaps befell until I was safely aboard ship. I was in charge of a fatigue party, bringing hay from the bulkheads of the ship up on to the different decks for the horses; there was a pulley leading to the bottom of the boat by means of which the hay was hoisted up, and in going down each man gripped it and was slowly lowered. On the trip down the men would cling to the rope, two or three at a time, with about ten to twenty feet of space between them. In making a downward trip I was second; the man ahead of me going down was over twenty feet from me; and the rope suddenly slipping off the pulley and out of the hands of the men running it, I dropped fifty feet. The man below on the rope broke his leg and on top of him I fell. Although my drop was twenty or thirty feet longer than his, on account of the space between us being that much greater, I was none the worse except for a bad shaking-up. Like all the men in Canada's First Division, my pal was in excellent physical shape, and it was not long before his leg mended and he was himself again. Nothing of further moment happened until we heard the welcome call of land!
The different batteries were ordered to remove their guns, limbers and horses from the boat, and I had charge of one party unloading guns and limbers. A derrick and cable was used to lift our pets from the vessel's hold, swing them up across the side of the boat and over on to the dock. In my duty I was stationed on the dock, catching hold of the guns and wagons as they were swung out and over by the derrick, and pulling them across on to the dock. While pulling over a gun, the cable skidded and the gun, coming on top of me, caught me partly under it, knocking me unconscious. Luckily the weight of the gun did not fall on me in its entirety; if it had, I would not be telling this story; it caught me on the hip, dislocating the hip bone. I was removed to the ship's hospital and was under the doctor's care till morning, and from there I went to a hospital in Plymouth City for six weeks. From there I was removed to the field general hospital in Salisbury Plain, where I tarried an additional ten days. While here I had a two-fold adventure.
The hospital was in a tent where I reclined with forty other patients, and directly opposite our tent was another in which were confined under guard a number of patients who were subject to fits, some of a very serious nature. Lying in bed, my leg encased in its plaster-of-paris cast, about ten o'clock one night, when just dozing off, I was frightened into wakefulness by a scream. A man, who turned out to be an escaped epileptic, was standing in the doorway screaming, his eyes bulging out of his head. He had escaped by striking the sentry over the head with the fire brazier, used to keep the sentry warm. Staring wildly about the room for a couple of seconds, he made a leap for the nearest man and bit him in the arm; he then jumped at the next patient, biting him; I was the following recipient of his devotions, getting a bite on the wrist. Utterly unable to help or defend myself, as I was bound down in my plaster-of-paris cast, I had to content myself with landing a couple of punches on his mad mug, but he didn't seem to mind them in the least,—rather enjoyed them, I fancy.
By way of diversion he then took hold of the beds and started upsetting them, rolling the patients out on to the floor, causing a tremendous amount of excitement, as well as pain and suffering to the men upset who, some of them, like myself, had casts on their limbs. In the midst of his mad capers the guard and orderlies rushed in, but before he was subdued he managed to fasten his molars in the arm of a guard.
A bite from a man in his condition is no laughing matter and the doctors took no chances; every man who was bitten had the wound immediately and thoroughly cauterized and was inoculated.
My other adventure was the honor and pleasure of receiving a handshake from their Majesties, the King and Queen of England, who were on a visit of inspection to the camp. The visit of their Majesties was concluded by a splendid little speech from Queen Alexandra in which she complimented us and thanked us for our loyalty.
After my release from the hospital due to the effects of the accident at Plymouth, I set to work looking after our horses and performing general battery work. After my narrow escape from the gun wheel, the fall into the hold of the vessel and the close shave I had had on the dock, I was commencing to wonder whether I was destined ever to get to France.
Thus musing, I was riding one of the horses bare-back to a small creek to give it a watering, and the rein, which was a long one, I held in my right hand. I had to pass the targets where shooting practice was going on, and the brute, taking fright, gave a sudden leap and threw me off his back. I fell backwards and on the left side, and as I fell the long rein wound itself round my right arm, keeping me tied as it were to the horse; and my head came dangerously close to the animal's front hoofs which he was kicking up every other second; with each jump he took, those hoofs, in their upward motion of making a spring, almost struck my face. I was dragged helpless for about twenty feet when, providentially, the rein broke and I dropped to the ground, the horse dashing on in his fright until he was finally captured.
I was picked up for dead and a stretcher was sent for; but, while on the way, consciousness returned and in a few minutes I was able to navigate without assistance. I then and there decided that I surely was preserved for France and was not doomed to die an ignominious or untimely death behind the front line trenches.
After supper that night I listened to the remarkable story of a man whose lot was destined to be woven with mine to a degree:—"Aye, laddie, they came on thick at Mons! There was one time there when there was only Sandy MacFarlane and mysel' left out o' the whole company, and for two or three hours we lay behind a wee bank, no higher'n your knee, fighting them off. Lord how we plugged them! They died like flies! And then puir Sandy got his, an' there was naething left for me tae do but tae beat an honorable retreat, an' I grabbed Sandy's rifle an' retired on to the main body, wi' the bullets buzzin' like bees around me. On my way back I loaded both rifles as quick as I could and dropped every noo an' again to let them hae it, and I was carefu' not to waste a damn shot; every bullet told."
The speaker was Scotty Henderson, late of the Seaforth Highlanders, as he informed us, and he was relating his experiences during the world memorable retreat at Mons, when Britain's little regular army, denominated by His Majesty, Wilhelm II, "The contemptible little English army," was practically wiped out.
In the cookhouse we listened, open-mouthed, to the wonderful exploits of this Scotch fighting man. "Were you wounded?" asked Lawrence. "Aye, laddie, you're damned right I was," and he rolled up his trouser leg and exhibited a large, broad scar on the inside of his right leg. "There's where I got it."
"That's a funny looking wound,—looks like a burn," said Lawrence.
"You're damned right it's a burn," said Scotty, "it was the shell that burned me as it grazed my leg."
The probable reason, I thought, why the shell could graze the inside of one of his legs without injury to the other was because the fighter was blessed with a pair of bow-legs that couldn't have stopped the proverbial pig in the proverbial alley. In addition to this decided detraction from his manly beauty, he was short, squatty, thick-necked, a nose of the variety commonly known as a stub, and a couple of little eyes that had a constant twinkle, half-shrewd and half-humorous, the whole surmounted with a shock of shaggy red hair. But these detractions from his beauty did not in the least lessen our admiration for his personal bravery; he was in our eyes a first-class fighting man; he had proven it by his work at Mons and had the scar to show for it.
"But how did you come to get into a Canadian unit?" asked another.
"Well, you see, after I was wounded in the leg and got my honorable discharge, as soon as I was well, I wanted to do my bit again, and knowing that you laddies get bigger pay than in the British army, I thought I would kill two birds wi' the one stone,—get more money and get into the game again. So I ups and goes to the Colonel and says I, 'Colonel, I'd like to get into the game again.' 'Well,' says he, 'I hae na room for any more men in my command, but I do want a gude cook,' an' it just happened that I was a cook by trade, and a gude one too, and told him so, and says he, 'Well, you're just the man I want,' and he signed me up there and then, and here I am."
He was a good cook and he was proud of it too; we had no reason to complain of the way our meals were prepared. There was only one thing about Scotty that caused a shade of dissatisfaction,—he was so scrupulously careful to see that no man got more than his just share of the grub that many a fellow grumbled about not getting enough to eat and, in many cases, that they did not get what was coming to them. But Scotty would shut them with the authority of an old soldier and, besides, in his cookhouse he was monarch of all he surveyed. In a half-humorous, half-scolding voice he would say, "Mon, what do you want to be a hog for? Do you want to let someone else gang hungry? Tak' what's given ye and thank God you're alive to eat it, because it won't be long maybe before you'll be where ye won't need any grub—although undoubtedly you'll need water."
This was an allusion to our probable future abode. So we had to be content with what he chose to serve us. But there were speculations by some as to whether or not Scotty really served us all the grub given him by the quartermaster's department, and someone was so unjust, I thought, as to venture the suggestion that he believed "the damned Scotch runt is selling the grub to men in other units." "How does it happen," said he, in support of his suspicion, "that he always has a little change when the rest of us are broke?"
"Oh, nonsense," said I, "a good soldier wouldn't do such a thing, and we all know he is a good soldier; there is no getting away from that."
THE FIRST NIGHT
I arrived in France early in February, 1915, and for three weeks we were put into the hands of an Imperial battery, the Warwicks. They had taken part in the battle of Mons, and the tales of the veterans of this world's memorable retreat, told in their own modest way, gave me my first clear impression as to what the boys of the Imperial Army really had endured for civilization in that campaign.
At first I thought they were trying to bluff us Colonials, but the first night I was in the lines I realized in the largest degree of human intensity the fearful truth of their experiences.
The tuition given us by these warriors could not be excelled. They took us to Fleurbaix, where their batteries were located on the outskirts of the town, in cellars in the back part of a building destroyed by German fire. There they had skillfully transformed the cellar into a gun pit, with a loophole four feet in diameter overlooking an orchard at the rear. Each time the gun spoke it would first be shoved into the hole and the brush and sandbags removed, and as quickly as the message was sent, the camouflage was replaced.
The color of the sandbags was a rusty gray and this, in conjunction with the brushwood, prevented the spot taking on a dark appearance, which, next to white, is the most easily distinguishable to an airplane; the air birds are always on the lookout for these dark spots, watching them intently to discover if any signs of activity are there, and immediately anything smacking of life appears, the exact location is wired to their trenches and the place is whirlwinded with showers of death and destruction.
When the Warwicks had completed our educational course, there was no detail of handling the guns with which we were not acquainted, and thoroughly so, and I had the honor of being in charge of my gun, due to the accuracy in my work. I think my chest expansion increased a trifle, but my cap did not get any smaller.
At the end of ten days we left Meteren, arriving there February 28. It was on the way from Meteren that I received my battle christening; the ceremony was performed by a bevy of six airplanes, two of them flying low and doing the sprinkling honors with a fusillade of bombs, dropped on the road round about us. They left twenty or twenty-five of these calling cards, but two of the batteries of anti-aircraft guns handled by the Warwicks greeted them so warmly that they quickly decided they had overstaid their welcome and made a hurried departure.
When the battery arrived at its designated point, we proceeded to camouflage the guns with the artistry we had derived from our instruction, covering them securely with grass and brushwood.
It was at this time that I lost not only my increased chest expansion, but also a trifle more, because I was ordered to take my gun to a position known as the sacrifice gun position, three hundred yards back of the front line trench. It derives its name, "sacrifice gun," from the fact that rarely, if ever, in case of a heavy enemy raid, does the gun or any of its crew escape. This "honor" I was destined to receive many times throughout my career in the Great Adventure.
I was in charge of the gun and I installed it in a hedge. The only time we were to fire was when the enemy broke through and when our men in retreating were on a line even with us; and we could not fire until we got orders from the officer commanding or from headquarters.
The idea of a sacrifice gun is this: if the enemy broke through on either or both flanks, pushing our men back, we had to wait for orders from the commanding officer or from headquarters before firing; All the ammunition carried was fifty shells; it was all we could get in those days. In daytime the gun was covered with brush and other means of concealment to keep it from the ever watchful eye of the Hun. At night the crew consisted of two men, one on each side of the gun, and three more in a ruined building a hundred yards in the rear of the gun. Our shifts were two hours on and four off. The purpose pursued by the sacrifice gun is to surprise the enemy when in full view and exposed, killing as many of them as possible, blasting gaps through their line and enabling our men to dig in in the position to which they have retired, we knowing all the while that there is not one chance in a thousand that the men connected with the sacrifice gun will escape either death or capture. Our orders were under no circumstances to leave the gun as long as a shell remained and a man lived. Deuced pleasant! The ground in front of us was well drilled with concealed holes all the way from four to six feet deep, in each of which strands of barbed wire had been placed and the opening carefully concealed with clumps of grass, brush and the like.
Blaisdell and I volunteered to take first shift on the gun on the first night, about 10 o'clock. We had to take a narrow path on the way, with Fritz sniping us every step; he had registered the path and it was a constant target for his machine guns and snipers. Our pet was well hidden in the hedge, with its nose poking through a hole in the leafage and so cunningly camouflaged that it was absolutely impossible to be noticed.
While lying stretched on each side of the gun between the muzzle and wheel, any talking we did was to whisper cautiously to each other, as the very grass beneath our feet contained spies in those days; the country-side round about was as thickly infested with them as cells in a honeycomb; and thus we waited.
Presently we heard the crackle of a piece of brushwood immediately out in our front. The intruder had gotten into our entanglement. "Halt! Who goes there?" No answer. I repeated the challenge; still no answer. We made our way cautiously through the hedge, unclicked our safety catches and were just about to fire in the direction of the sound when someone yelled, "Where's the Durham Light Infantry lying?" We ordered them to advance until within ten feet.
"Who are you?"
"Durham Light Infantry."
In the darkness we could not tell who they were but they spoke English like natives.
"What are you doing out here wandering around in this fashion?"
"Well," one of them answered, "we were taking a stroll and got lost and we want to find our way back."
We directed them and when they were lost sight of in the darkness, we resumed our places on each side of the gun and thought no more of the incident for the time. We again installed ourselves comfortably and were comparatively safe from the sniping in front, which was going on more or less all the time we were there, and about thirty minutes had elapsed when, in the silence of the night, I thought I again heard the crackling of a twig. Blaisdell heard it too. "Hist! Did you hear that, Grant?"
"Yes," I whispered.
We listened intently and heard it again, this time a little closer. We jumped up.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
No answer. Bang! Blaisdell fired, and these same fellows called, "Don't shoot! We're looking for the Durhams." We emerged through the hedge.
"What in hell are you fellows doing around here again?" I asked.
"Well, we can't find the Durham Light Infantry."
"Well, you find some place away from here if you want to live to eat your breakfast. If I find you around here again I'll shoot without warning."
Again they asked us the way and again we directed them, and saw them started on their way to the rear.
Once more we took our places on the gun between the wheels and were hardly settled down when a sniper opened up on us from the rear, taking a chip out of the wheel to my right. Ping! Ping! Ping! and the tree standing ten feet in our rear was nipped. Ping! Ping! and the shield of the gun got it this time. We were concealed behind the gun shield, which protected us pretty thoroughly from the front fire and were congratulating ourselves on our haven of safety when Ping! Ping! again from our rear came the messages from a sniper hidden there. In glancing back over my shoulder I noticed in the pitchy blackness the flash of a rifle simultaneously with the report, and it seemed to come from a haystack about 200 yards to our right.
"Blais, look back for a minute and tell me what you see."
Black darkness again for a few minutes, then another flare; we both watched intently.
"By God!" exclaimed Blaisdell simultaneously with another report. "Right out of the stack!" There was nothing for us to do but to lie there and watch, and we absolutely confirmed our convictions that we were being sniped at from this particular haystack.
When our watch was up I made my way to the ruin occupied by our relief, woke them and told them to keep their eyes open for the haystack and make themselves as small as midgets. Shortly after they started, Blaisdell came in. He told me that the relief party had been sniped at every step of the way to the gun. As Blaisdell entered, the open door threw out a fitful glare of light from our flickering candle, and a report from this particular haystack was followed by a bullet that knocked off a chip of brick just above the doorway. Our friend was certainly industrious, but I hoped to go him one better in the morning. I grabbed the phone and called up headquarters, informing them of what I had seen from the stock. The O.C. said the matter would be looked into immediately.
There was no sleeping that night; we were too excited and chattered away like school girls over our experiences, and to pass the time the inevitable card game started. During the game the sniping was active and continuous, the bullets chipping the building in all quarters. Our light was from a candle jammed into a jam tin and set between a couple of sand bags that we used for a table. Our mate, who had not yet taken his turn on the gun-watch, was inclined to be rather skeptical about our story of the sniper, declaring it couldn't be possible that Fritzie could be carrying on such work in the very midst of our lines, and that our imaginations had been running riot with us. We had been playing about three-quarters of an hour when a gust of wind blew the door open, throwing the faint gleam of the candle out in front. I jumped to close the door, the light blowing out as I did so, and at the same instant I heard a report from the same direction as before. I closed the door, telling Blaisdell to light the candle. He fumbled for his matches and lit it, and we were both stricken dumb for the moment; our chum was lying stone dead with a hole squarely in his forehead. The gentleman in the haystack was surely doing good work for his Kaiser.
Just before daylight we had a call from the O.C., accompanied by three or four men; he had phoned us he was coming. He wanted all particulars regarding my previous message. Under cover of the hedge we got to within fifty yards of the stack and everybody was convinced of the certainty of the information I had given, for, as we watched, two more flashes came from the stack. Not a particle of doubt was left and the officer ordered a bomb thrown into the haystack. Inside of a minute the red flames began shooting out from all sides, in another minute it was ablaze, and in five minutes we had the joy and satisfaction of hearing the muffled shriek of the soldier who had so well served his Kaiser.
This ended for me a busy first night in the front line.
When the ashes of the fire were searched we found the charred body of a man, the remains of a rifle and a complete set of telephone apparatus, which was traced to our trenches, and from there to the German lines.
Wilhelm for a certainty lost an ace in the haystack. Besides our chum and heavens knows what others, he had sniped the road along which relief parties were passing up and down; and that same night one of the soldiers of an infantry battalion of the Warwicks, winding its way to the front trenches, got his death from a bullet squarely in the neck; and the Germans having through him gotten an absolutely accurate range, our gun was wiped out by a single shell, together with two members of the crew.
Next afternoon, while resting in billets to where I had been ordered, a shell struck the building, a splinter knocking out the eye of Ed. Jackson, who was sitting beside me. He was not killed, but his wound was a blighty, taking him out of the game for good. The unwelcome visitors continuing to come, we were rushed to our battery of three guns in an orchard near by; a curtain of sandbags was placed in front to prevent the flash being seen. As soon as we started firing, rifle shots from our left scattered the mud on all sides, coming at intervals of five or ten minutes. Speculation was aroused and we set a man to watch, and suspicion fastened on a farmer who was working his plow. Nothing was found on him. Next day the same thing happened and again the watch was set. This time our efforts were rewarded; the scout saw the farmer shoot and throw the rifle down. He reported to the officer and we went over. The horny-handed son of toil was very busy at the plow as he saw us coming. He couldn't speak English. The officer sent to the nearest French battery and presently a French soldier came who interpreted the officer's questions and the man's replies. He knew nothing, whatever, he said, about the rifle shots coming from his direction.
A search was then made for the rifle where the scout had seen him throw it and not only one rifle, but several, including English, French and German makes, were found in various parts of the field, partly buried in the soil. When the guns were discovered the farmer threw up his hands, wildly gesticulating and vehemently protesting that he knew nothing whatever as to how they came there. His was a short shrift. He was tried on the spot, tied to the pump of his own farm and shot.
I remained in this spot with the guns until March, when the costly victory of Neuve Chapelle was fought. My battery was playing on their northern flank. The objective of the British Tommies was the city, which they took, but at a terrible toll; 6,000 Indian troops, mostly Ghurkas, were slain. The fearful mortality exacted from these troops was due to their impetuosity; they do not know fear; it was impossible to hold them; they rushed out before their time and some of them suffered from the fire of our own guns. It was in this fight that our own famous and gallant regiment, the "Princess Pats," was decimated, sustaining a loss of over 700 men. This magnificent body of fellows went into the war 1,150 strong and at the last roll call but 22 of the original men answered. The price paid was too much for what was accomplished.
We were then ordered to billets and stayed there until April 20th, when we were ordered to Ypres, arriving there April 21. My battery was stationed at St. Julien, one and a half miles northwest of the city. Here I was detailed as observer, my duty being to get into the front-line trench and from the most advantageous nook that I could find, try to discover whatever I could about the movement of the enemy, communicate my knowledge to the telephonist who would in turn send it to headquarters.
Late in the afternoon I reported to the telephonist that a big fire was in progress somewhere on our left, as an immense smoke cloud was rising there and coming toward us. As shells had burst his wire, rendering it useless, he started out to deliver the message by word of mouth, running on top of the parapet as he started. That was the last I ever saw of him; he did not come back; Fritz was coming and ahead of him rolled the sinister-looking cloud on our left. Then happened the strangest thing! The line trembled from one end to the other, as the Algerian troops immediately on our left, jumped out of their trenches, falling as they ran. The whole thing seemed absolutely incomprehensible—until I got a whiff of the gas. They ran like men possessed, gasping, choking, blinded and dropping with suffocation. They could hardly be blamed. It was a new device in warfare and thoroughly illustrative of the Prussian idea of playing the game.
When the great yellow clouds came rolling toward us, orders were roared to wet our handkerchiefs and stuff them in our mouths, and half choked and blinded we held for a day and a half. The buttons on our uniforms were tinged yellow and green from the gas, so virulent was the poison.
Cooks and everybody else had been ordered into the line, as the giving way of the Algerians necessitated our lengthening out so as to take over their ground. Scotty of Mons fame was in the trench bay a few yards away from me, and when the cloud had passed by I saw him rolling on the ground, apparently blinded, tears streaming from his eyes. I helped him to his feet and when he got his voice back his courage returned and, yelling, "Let the barbarians come," he seized his rifle, rushed to the parapet and fired point blank every cartridge in his rifle in the direction of Fritz.
At the end of the second day another wave of hell's atmosphere came across, more deadly than any of the others, followed by a smothering fire from the German batteries, and the Germans broke in upon us on our right and left. Yard by yard we retreated, fighting as we went, and they occupied some of our front trenches—for a time.
That night Scotty and I received orders to report to a French dressing station for treatment. I half-dragged and half-walked him to the doctor; I had a feeling that he ought to have been able to make the trip without my help as I was certain he wasn't suffering any more than I was. After we left the doctor and got outside the dressing station, Scotty swayed from side to side, groaning like a man who had lost his last hope on earth, and the doctor told him to get away as quickly as he could as he was playing the devil with the nerves of the men who were lying around there half-dead from the poison fumes. He staggered over and sat down beside me on the side of the road, still wringing his hands. I remonstrated with him and told him that bad as it was it could not be anything like Mons, and to my amazement he stopped his moaning all at once and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Let's beat it to the dugout; the doc won't see us." We took the chance and started. On the way Fritz shot up the road and with a spring like an india-rubber man, Scotty jumped behind a tree. We finally reached our destination and Scotty proceeded to get something to eat. He lit a fire while I brought the water. The cookhouse here was in the house of a farmer who had vacated, and as the smoke coming from the chimney got thicker every moment, I was apprehensive lest Fritz would see it and send over a shell message, but Scotty pooh-poohed the idea.
Dinner was almost ready when—Kr-kr-kr-p! Kr-kr-kr-p! Bang! and a shell shot clean through the joint. The concussion threw me to the floor, covering me with lime and plaster-of-paris from the walls and ceiling. I got up and looked around for the cook. The hero of Mons had been knocked down, with the stove on top of him, and he was lying in the corner praying like a good fellow. "Oh, Lord! look down in pity and save me! Thou knowest, Lord, I am unworthy o' thy mercy, but please control the shells o' those barbarians and send them in anither direction, and Thine shall be a' the glory." Then he saw me standing there and he yelled, "Do you think there'll be any more?" "No, that was merely a stray shell. Let's get this grub, I'm starving." "Stray shell be damned," said he, "they've seen the smoke and they'll be putting more over."
No sooner said than Kr-kr-kr-p! Kr-kr-kr-p! Kr-kr-kr-p! and three or four more shells banged about the place, one of them blowing the pump from outside through the shack past Scotty, out through the other wall, and Scotty, ducking and dodging like a man trying to buck the line in a football game, shot through the door and vanished in the night.
The pan of bacon he had been cooking was still intact except that it had a coating of plaster-of-paris from the walls and ceiling of the room, and I proceeded to put it under my belt as fast as my jaws would work, and then made for my dugout. I was just settling down to a quiet smoke when I heard the Major calling for Scotty at the top of his voice. Getting no response, he called for me and I hastened to his quarters.
"Grant, go down and see if that Scotch cook has fallen in the soup; find out if cookhouse is ready." "Yes, sir." I said nothing about what had happened and returned to the cookhouse to find six Algerians devouring the officers' rations in such fashion as to make one think of the man in the side show who was advertised in letters twenty feet deep as the original snake-eater of South America; there wasn't enough left for a one-man meal. I reported to the O.C. that there were no signs of Scotty but that the cookhouse had been hit by a shell.
"Go and see if he is at the dressing station." I went back to the station. For nearly a mile the wounded and gassed men were lying on each side of the road waiting for conveyances to remove them. I spoke to a Tommy who had met with a peculiar accident; he had two plates in his mouth and the concussion of a shell explosion in his immediate vicinity had broken the plates into four pieces, leaving him practically toothless.
Strongly suspecting by that time that if Scotty were anywhere on earth he was at the rear in the wagon line, I waited around the station just long enough to lend plausibility to my search before reporting to the O.C. The Major was in a towering rage over our losses, and, damning the cook, he dismissed me. The officers that night had to look to another cookhouse for their evening meal.
Next morning I was sent for by the Major and dispatched to the wagon lines on an errand;—at that time I was fulfilling the duties of a runner for our unit;—he also told me to have a lookout for the cook while there and make some inquiries about him. I saluted and left. The first place I went to in the wagon lines was the cookhouse and as I got there I thought I noticed the swish of someone quickly disappearing round the corner and the cockney-cook there informed me that Scotty had spent the previous evening with them and had only left a minute ago.
"'E's no slouch, that cook of yours," he said, "'e's a fighter, 'e is."
"You're right, 'e is. Wy, where 'e was stationed, when the Germans rushed 'em in the trench, 'e 'eld 'em back, killin' two of 'em single-handed until the others had retreated. 'E ought to get the D.C.M., 'e ought; that's what hi say. By Gawd! when it comes to the real thing, give me the Scotch! An' honly last night 'e was in his cookhouse with some blighter by the name of Grant when the shells came along, and this fellow must have 'ad a streak of yellow for he promised to 'elp Scotty with the meal, but bolted like a bullet at the first shell."
"How did he come to be down here?" I asked.
"Wy, he got relieved."
"Where is he now?"
"Hover in the dugout."
I learned that the hero of Mons had regaled them with accounts of his feats of valor in the trenches, very similar to the tales he had recounted to us at Salisbury Plain of his achievements in the Great Retreat, and the cook had given him a meal befitting a hero of his caliber, which Scotty had devoured with the relish and avidity of four heroes, while the others had shown him the due and necessary deference becoming a man of action.
For the benefit of the cook I informed him that Scotty was a damned liar; that it was I who had been with him; that he ran like a white-livered cur under fire from his cookhouse and didn't stop until he had reached the wagon lines; that he was there without being relieved and that he would shortly have another tale to tell.
I hastened to the dugout he had indicated as Scotty's retreat and found him in the innermost corner, pretending to be asleep; he didn't answer until I called him three or four times.
"Scotty, the O.C. wants to know why you left the cookhouse without guard permitting some Algerians to eat up his bacon and stuff, and, further, why you ran away under fire. You are in for hell as sure as there is heather in your hair." His countenance took on a greenish hue and he mumbled something about being shell-shocked and refused to come. I persuaded him, however, to come over to the Quartermaster of the wagon line, and that officer asked him what he was doing there.
"Weel,—I was wounded and couldna' fight anither stroke; I was jeest tired oot wi' killin' Boches and hadna' the strength to stand anither minute; I jeest had to get away."
"Well, you've had a damned good rest now and you can get back to the O.C. and tell him what you have told me and he will see that you get a fitting decoration." This latter was spoken very grimly, and I could see the great fighter's face fall. "You will see to it, Grant," said the Q.M. "that Henderson doesn't hide his heroism from the O.C.; that he gives it to him in detail, just as he has to me." "Yes, sir," and I left with my prisoner.
We hurried along as night was falling and the German flares were commencing to fly. On the way back we met two Algerian troopers and in the gleam of a star shell and the fading twilight they looked more like two escaped denizens of the chamber of horrors than anything I could well imagine. Indeed, their appearance was so ghastly under the weird light of the flares and the fading day, that I involuntarily shivered, hardened though I was by that time to grim sights. Each of them carried on his shoulder the hind-quarter of a cow that had been killed by a shell at a nearby farm, and the dripping blood from the beast had slopped all over their uniforms; under each arm was tucked a ham they had "swiped" from the farmhouse and each had a young suckling pig running ahead, squealing and grunting, tied by a string on the hind leg and held by the left hand, while in the right hand each man carried a sharply pointed stick to prod the pig when it veered from a straight line, which was about every other step or so.
Just as we got immediately opposite the looters a burst of shell fire from the German guns, followed by a hail of shrapnel, blazed all about us, and the hero-cook jumped like a bullfrog, bumping plumb into one of the Algerians, and he and the cook and the pig tumbled over and over, the pig squealing like mad, the Algerian rolling out deep-throated oaths in his native tongue, and Scotty cursing as only a redheaded gabby Scotchman can, all amid an ear-splitting din of shrieking shells and flare-gleams completing a mise en scene as striking as anything ever created by a master artist of stagecraft.
When Scotty extricated himself from the tangle his face and clothes were smeared from the blood of the dripping beast, so that he could indeed have passed for the blood-stained hero he had proclaimed himself in the cookhouse, and in spite of his plight Scotty grinned as I suggested the thought to him and the twinkle returned to his eye, and his spirits took a decidedly upward turn until we reached the Major's quarters.
The Major was still cursing mad over the loss of the trenches in the gas attack and I felt the moment he spoke that Scotty's fate looked black.
"Where have you been, Henderson?"
"I was in the cookhouse, sir, when a shell struck it, smashing everything in sight, and I lost complete control o' my nerves and started for the wagon lines wi'out knowing what I was doing or where I was going, and didna' come to mysel' until Grant ran across me in the dugout."
"That won't go, Henderson. Orderly room at ten-thirty in the morning. It's the first case of cowardice in this unit and I'll take damned good care that it will be the last. Grant, escort the prisoner back to the wagon lines."
I could not help feeling sorry for the poor devil because, coward though he was, his was one of those personalities that carried with it a sort of likeableness, somewhat after the fashion of our time-honored Falstaff, and his funk under fire made him liable to the extreme penalty,—a firing squad. His teeth chattered like the keys of a typewriter as he asked me, "What do you think will come o' it, Grant? Do you think he really means it?"
I hadn't the heart to tell him what I really thought and strove to jolly him by saying that the Major would feel in a better humor in the morning, "and besides," said I, "when we take back those trenches tomorrow, he will get over his flurry."
I turned my prisoner over to the guard of the wagon lines, first informing the Quartermaster, and when he asked me what the trouble was, I had to tell him of the variance of the prisoner's story told him and that he told the Major, and that the Major directed that he be up for orderly room in the morning. Without any further ceremony Scotty was jammed in the clink.
It was now almost daybreak of the morning of the third day following our first gas attack and, almost ready to drop with fatigue, I went over to the wagon lines, gathered some straw and bags together under an ammunition wagon, and was in a dead sleep in less time than it takes to tell it.
At ten-thirty I reported to the orderly room to attend Scotty's trial. The Major was in his appointed place and in due course the guard marched in with the prisoner. His ammunition pouches and cap had been removed and he stood to attention as well as the contour of his legs and the thickness of his yellow streak permitted. Still I could not help remembering what he had done at Mons; there was no doubt about that because I had seen his scar and I knew that the ranks of the Seaforth Highlanders had never held a coward; and I mentally concluded that he must really have been suffering from shell shock or he would never have left his post as he did, and I sincerely hoped that he would in some way get through. The evidence was short and conclusive and the verdict was curt and decisive:—"held in close confinement for general field court martial at Steenwercke, May 12." And Scotty was led out looking as if he hadn't a friend in the world; there was very little sympathy for him from anyone.
The same evidence was repeated at the field court martial trial, but the twinkle in Scotty's eye must have reached the heart of the commanding officer for he was ordered deported to England, pending dishonorable discharge. There he was sent to the military camp at Shorncliffe, put under open arrest and utilized around the camp in a number of ways for over a year.
That afternoon Colonel Morrison sent for me. "Grant, run to Colonel Curry and find out how strong the Forty-eighth Highlanders and the Third Brigade are, and how soon he can get the men together for attack." "Yes, sir," and I started. I was running along the top of the canal bank in broad daylight and in the open, expecting every second that one of the missiles from the shower that was pattering the ground everywhere would get me. In that race through that bullet-swept zone I felt a common bond of kinship with the Irish soldier who was running as fast as his legs could carry him from the Battle of the Wilderness in the American Civil War and General Sherman, noticing him, turned his horse in the direction of the fleeing soldier and halted him up.
"Here, you soldier, what are you running away for?"
"Because, Gineral—because I can't fly."
How I longed for wings! The Colonel later recommended me for a commission and many times since have I wondered how he would feel about that recommendation if he ever learned the real state of my feelings at that moment. He did me the honor of requesting Colonel Morrison to permit me to enter his unit and Colonel Morrison did me the additional honor of refusing to let me go. I had gotten a somewhat painful scalp wound on the way over, and I made my way to the French dressing station in a half-unconscious condition. The French doctor nearly completed matters by spilling the iodine in my eye and nearly blinding me. Some dope was then administered that brought me to my full senses shortly after.
When I was getting fixed up at the dressing station—I had a hard time as the wounded men were swarming everywhere—I saw two women in the station carrying baskets and speaking to the soldiers. They seemed to be peasant women, but spoke very good English. They left after some little time and wended their way up the road; but something in their appearance directed attention to them and they were watched! After they had gone a little bit up the road one of them was seen to open her basket and let a pigeon go. They were at once arrested, handed over to the French police and taken to Ypres.
The work of the gendarmerie was unexcelled; they were everywhere they were needed; had it not been for their lightning-like acumen and prompt service, the Lord only knows what would have become of us poor Britishers in that country, as we were practically at the mercy of the spies, not knowing who was who.
The two women were taken to Ypres and were treated to their deserved fate—shot. But the pigeon did its work. Within an hour after their arrest the hospital was shelled; it was packed with patients and in one of the wards one of those flying ministers of death exploded, leaving not a single living man.
MY HORSESHOE WORKING
It was the fourth day of the second battle of Ypres. I was in charge of my subsection at the guns and the men wanted water. I volunteered and went to a farmhouse 150 yards off, got the water and had started back for the guns. I had just stepped outside the door of the farmhouse when Kr-kr-kr-p! a huge shell came over and blew the gun and gun crew into kingdom come. A French captain was standing twenty feet from the door and, following the report, I started for our gun. I had just taken a step or two when another monster of death came hurtling through the air, straight for me, as I thought, but, instead, it was a message for the French soldier; it got him squarely, leaving not a fragment of his body to be seen.
Immediately after the death of our gun crew and the French captain our gun position was moved, and that same evening after supper, consisting of the usual bread, jam and tea, Walter Hope and I were on our way to the dugout. When half-way there a sudden emptiness entered into my life and the next thing I knew I was being lifted on to a stretcher. I rebelled and got to my feet. What had happened was this, as told me by one of the boys who was standing a short distance off,—a shell had come and exploded almost at my feet, throwing me in the air for a distance, as he said, of fully twenty feet. It is impossible for me to personally make an estimate of the distance, as I was unconscious when I went up and when I came down.
When I recovered my senses, Hope was hopping around holding his right hand with his left and exclaiming like a madman. His hand had been almost severed by a fragment from the shell and was hanging to the wrist by a shred. He ran to the cookhouse and the cook advised him to go at once to the dressing station, as he couldn't do anything for him; instead, in his frenzy, he ran to the gun pits, going from one to the other, looking for help. Every man there wanted to help him, but he wouldn't and couldn't stand still; the concussion of the shell had affected his brain and this accounted for his ungovernableness. Then a few of us grabbed him and I bandaged it as best I could, walked over to the road with him and started him on his way to the dressing station; I could go no further, as we had commenced firing, and he made his way alone. When nearing the station his senses completely left him for the time and he plucked off his hanging hand and threw it from him. The poor lad was then taken into the station, properly attended to and sent to England.
Thankful am I to tell that he came through all right and is now working in Toronto earning his living by writing with his left hand, which he has learned to manipulate with practically the same agility the lost member possessed. We were deeply regretful at the loss of Hope from the crowd—fearless Hope, as he was known, and, sometimes, hopeless Hope—because never in all my experience have I seen a man who was so utterly regardless of danger; he would expose himself to what seemed certain death, and, as luck would have it, he got his blighty at a place that ordinarily would be considered about as safe from harm as could be found.
On the fifth day of the second battle of Ypres, April 25, 1915, McKay, an orderly, came up the line with ammunition for the guns as our supply was exhausted. As soon as the shells were delivered it was his duty to report at once to the Captain for further orders. The poor fellow was starving for something to eat and he thought he would steal the time to slip up to the cookhouse and get a bite of grub. He rode his horse across and was in the act of leaning over to get a couple of hardtacks the cook was handing him, when a splinter of a shell that had exploded at his horse's feet, struck him in the neck, killing him instantly, slightly wounding his horse and destroying the rations and vessels in the cookhouse. The Captain yelled, "Ammunition orderly wanted," and I volunteered. I jumped on the horse, galloped him as well as his limping leg would permit, and weathered the storm of shells through the fire zone, making my way to the wagon lines, where I gave the Quartermaster the order.
Then I had the pleasure of witnessing for the first time the admirable celerity and effectiveness with which an order of this kind is carried out.
"Ten loads of ammunition wanted at once, sir; ammunition pretty nearly exhausted at the guns," was the message I delivered. The Quartermaster blew his whistle—"Stand to! ammunition up!" he yelled. The Sergeant then carried on; the men were standing easy by their horses waiting for the word. In these days, when a battle is on, the men are always ready for the word at a moment's notice, with their horses fully harnessed, nothing being removed from the animals except the bit to enable them to take their feed from the bag, and in no case is an ammunition wagon left without its guard; at night when the guard would lie down to snatch an hour's sleep, another one was there ready to carry on. "Prepare to mount! Mount! Walk—march! Trot!" yelled the Sergeant in quick succession, each command being executed with clock-like exactness, and they trotted from under cover of the trees where they were concealed from the airplanes and proceeded rapidly up the road under shell fire, bumping and stumbling along.
I was guide for the party. We passed through Breeland, but could not make the best kind of speed as the traffic was terribly congested. On the left hand side of the road long lines of ambulances bearing wounded men were going down, stretcher bearers were carrying their suffering burdens and wounded men who were able to walk were making their way around and through the wagons as best they could, among them being men from every branch of the Imperial service, together with French and Algerians; on the other side of the road supply wagons of all descriptions were going forward. In the course of our journey the harness of one of the horses rubbed the animal until he was lame, stopping up the wagon. Immediately the Sergeant who was riding alongside ordered the wagon to one side, removed the horse, installed his own, jumped on the wagon and caught up with the others. The speed with which he did the trick almost made me gasp with astonishment; in all my life I never saw work of the kind handled so smoothly and swiftly. A dash of the picturesque was added to the scene by the Algerian ration-bearers winding their way in and out of the wagons, carrying trays of hot food on their heads and shoulders. It was nothing short of marvelous, the skillful manner in which they carried their precious burden of food, for never did they have a spill unless killed or wounded.
One of the funniest sights a man can see was the way my chums of the ammunition wagons defied the explicit and peremptory order, "No smoking on the road at or around Ypres." There is something in the rise and fall of the lighted cigarette when being smoked that attracts the attention at long distances and many a man has had to pay the penalty, which was most severe,—28 days field punishment, which means 28 days without pay and breaking your back at fatigue duty around the camp, the cookhouse and the wagon lines, in addition to four hours extra drill each day. The temptation to smoke is so compelling that the punishment does not deter most men and they take the chance. By taking the collar of their coat and tucking it around their faces, lighting the match under their coat next to their ribs, burying their faces in their coat, they get a light without much danger of detection. In puffing it a man will hold the fag in his closed fist to his mouth, take the inhale, and, if there should happen to be a provo or other suspicious guardian of the rules in sight, down into his stomach would go the smoke. I don't know why it is but it has always seemed to me that the more stringent the rules are against the forbidden luxury, the more chances men will take to get their smoke.
We made the run to Ypres Square in an hour and a half. As soon as we entered I noticed a woman clinging tightly to a little girl and hugging the wall of the Nunshouse, a building standing immediately opposite the town hall in the square. The square itself was a large open place in the city about 350 feet long by 150 wide. I jumped off my horse, gave it to the driver and went over. In broken English I learned they wanted to cross, but on account of the fire continually bursting the woman would not, so I picked up the child and carried her across to a cellar about five doors out of the square. A chunk had been blown out of the building and there was no difficulty in getting into the cellar, and as soon as I got to this place the child murmured, "Bon! bon!" and indicated she would go in there. I set her down and she turned her pretty little face to me for a kiss. She then caught my arm as I was about to go and slipping off a tiny locket from her little neck, handed it to me, indicating that she wanted me to keep it. I have it to this day and I prize it tenderly. It has a small picture of the patron saint of France, Joan of Arc.
I ran back to her mother, pointed out where the child was, but she still seemed afraid to venture across. Although my little adventure did not occupy over three minutes, I could wait no longer, and jumped on my horse and the train of wagons trotted sharply out of the square. As the last wagon was leaving, I heard a sound like a train leaving a depot—choo! choo! choo! choo! growing louder each instant, and as the tail-end of the last wagon was trotting out of the square a shell, the largest ever employed by the German command and called the Ypres Express, landed full in the square, killing every living thing there and destroying ambulances and wagons of every kind, catching our rear wagon and blowing it up, wounding the driver and destroying the magnificent Cloth Hall, the last vestige of this most beautiful piece of architecture being destroyed by the resulting fire. That shell was from one of two guns that were expressly manufactured for the purpose of destroying the city of Ypres, a couple of months being taken to build cement platforms in which to set the ordnance, and the death-dealing monsters started on their mission of destruction from Dixmude, about 22 miles distant.
Not long after, an airplane located these monsters and succeeded in destroying one by a downpour of explosives he dropped on it, and the other one, a couple of days following, when being fired by its crew, the shell exploded in the gun itself, tearing it from its cement foundation and destroying itself and crew. These were the only guns of that caliber that have ever been used, so far as is known. The passage through the air of those missiles of death, heralded by their choo! choo! sent a shiver of dread up and down the lines as far as the sound would reach, and deep and lasting was the satisfaction of all ranks when the last of these mammoths of destruction wended its final flight.
On the sixth day after the first gas attack on the Canadians at Ypres, we took up a new position in a hedge about three-quarters of a mile north and a quarter of a mile east of Ypres, and about a thousand yards from the German trenches. We galloped like mad over the shell-swept road, taking just exactly an hour and a half to get the guns placed and blazing. We had four guns when we pulled into this position, but were latterly reinforced by two more from another battery, their sisters having been smashed and the crews bayoneted, including their commanding officers, and like friendless children they came to us looking for a home and were gladly taken in, thus increasing our battery to six guns.
The hedge of the thickly growing thorn bushes ranged to the height of four feet, making it incumbent upon us to continually assume a stooping position when walking, involving a crick in the back for a good part of the time while there, but the bush was as thick as could be and formed an admirable shelter.
The beauty of these hedges in blossoming time is charming and the buds were now coming out, their fragrance filling the air with sweet nectar. To our right was a large farmhouse, of two stories and a gable roof, and the nearest gun to the house was not over 30 feet off. The house was occupied by a farmer, his wife and two young children, a boy and a girl.
The farmer's demeanor toward us was that of a systematic grouch and his appearance did not belie his disposition—as surly and sulky looking as a whipped criminal. He would stand in the doorway, watching us continually, as if he feared we were going to steal his house from over his head, and about the only thing he would say was to warn us not to destroy the hedge. But our love for the shelter, to say nothing of our love for the fragrant blossoms, made this injunction needless.
Over on the other side of the house, 40 feet to the right of it, was another hedge behind which was a French battery of .75's. This battery had been through the Marne and they were veterans of the finest order, the very cream of the French artillery service, and their Captain was an educated gentleman, speaking English as fluently as his native tongue. They had come up from the Champagne district to reinforce the position at Ypres and their battery also consisted of six guns, each gun capable of 24 shells a minute.
In appearance these guns are the last in the world to give one the impression of supreme efficiency; when we saw them coming down the road we wondered what they could be and were amazed when informed that they were the famous .75's that had made the work of the French guns ring throughout the world; we couldn't at first bring ourselves to believe that these were the famous guns until we saw them at work, because there is nothing in the general aspect of the piece to make one think that they are any better, if as good, as our old field pieces.
The secret of these magnificent guns lies in the buffer and in the ability of the muzzle of the gun to cool off; after discharging 24 rounds they are just as ready to discharge another 24 as when they started, while in the case of our pieces we have to let them cool, and 15 or 18 per minute is the limit of our effort, because any more would cause them to jam from the heat. There is no gun on earth that can compare with the .75's.
Our ammunition was supplied to us at this spot over a road running between our wagon lines, half way between Flamingad and Breevland, about a thousand yards away, but they had to go in a roundabout way, traveling fully 800 yards out of the direct route on account of the ditches. It was a physical impossibility for the horses to bring up sufficient ammunition for the guns during the night, and they had to make the perilous trip many times during the day, and with the German shells pounding the road every foot of the way, their fire being guided by the wireless directions from their planes, the number of horses that had their lives smashed out on this road was something enormous. At one spot is the famous Hell's Corner, so named because of the fierce fire that continually rained upon it, and here I counted 40 dead horses, as fine looking animals as ever were harnessed. Such is the toll of war.
On the day that we arrived, our attention was drawn to an Algerian who seemed to be an inmate of the house. He could speak some English and seemed to spend most of his time cleaning his revolver. On the first afternoon I asked him why he was there and to what regiment he belonged.
"The Algerian-African troop."
"I understood they were in the trenches," I said. "Are you with the infantry?"
"Yes," he replied, "I am."
"Are you wounded?"
"Then why are you not with your men?" I insisted.
"I was lost in the retreat," he answered.
"Why don't you go and look them up?"
"I did, but I can't find them."
Then he asked me if we were getting ammunition up.
"Oh, yes, lots of it," I said.
"When are you going to fire?"
"Oh, pretty soon," I said.
"What are you going to shoot at?" he asked.
I told him we were going to plug the German trenches and the buildings around there, that we had orders to blow them up as they were filled with machine guns. He grinned from ear to ear, saying, "Good! Good! Shoot them all! Which ones you shoot first? I want to see them fall."
I pointed out the ones my battery was going to demolish and his big white teeth were exposed in another grin, as he nodded approvingly, and walked off.
That same afternoon my gun leveled the buildings assigned to me for demolishment and knowing beyond all shadow of a doubt that they were filled with men and machine guns, I watched through the glasses to see the gray-clad inmates popping out of the doors and windows. Judge of my astonishment! Not a solitary soul left the building my gun had destroyed. I watched each one of them in turn and in turn was awarded nothing for my pains. From others, however, hundreds of men rushed and as they scurried away our guns shrapneled them, dropping them by the score.
A sort of a subconscious connection between my conversation with the Algerian and the effect of my gun fire found lodging in the back of my head, but it was not until later that it became a direct consciousness. Another thing that set me thinking was what seemed to me to be an undue familiarity between this Algerian trooper and our farmer; he had the entree of the house, apparently could go and come as he pleased, drinking coffee with the inmates, sleeping there nights and making himself generally at home. I didn't think much of it at the time, but later events made these trivialities very significant indeed.
The bombardment was now commencing to have its effect on me, and McLean and I were both tired out; we were dead beat and looked around for a quiet spot where we could rest. Billy McLean was my especial pal ever since I had set foot in France.
"Here is what the doctor ordered," he said, as we went off down the hedge a bit and came to a little opening in the bush into which we both crawled. It requires no effort for a man who has been sustaining the sound, shock and work of a bombardment, to fall asleep anywhere, any time, and we were soon Murphyized, as Mac expressed it.
The rain now commenced falling heavily and in the midst of our slumbers, an orderly happened along and woke me up. I gave Mac a shove and he too woke up. We were drenched and made for the barn. We found the Old Man there with a lantern and told him we were going up in the loft, but he scowled and said we were not to go. "To hell with you!"—and up we went, finding five or six of the boys there taking advantage of the lull to snatch an hour's sleep. We quickly followed suit, getting hold of some straw and grain bags for a bed, and resumed our interrupted slumbers.
In the midst of our dreams "S.O.S. Stand to!" was ordered, but we did not hear. One of our fellows, as we later learned, came running up to the farmhouse and asked the farmer if he had seen any of our men.
"No," he scowled, "there are none here."
When we had our sleep out we made for the guns. It did not take us long to see that a pretty thorough strafing had been going on, yet so dead beat to the utter exhaustion point were we, that we had failed to hear them.
"Where the hell were you fellows?" asked one.
"Asleep up there in the barn," said I; "why didn't you call us?"
"I did, I asked that old blankety-blank and he told me he hadn't seen any of you fellows around there."
"Well," said I, "he knew that Mac and I were up there, because we told him we were going, although he didn't want to let us go."
Here the incident dropped and was forgotten for the time. That afternoon Fritz attempted to come over our way and on a "Stand to" we jumped to the guns and drove him back, sending across 200 expressions of our good will in record time. Then we "stood down." Following this we went through the usual routine of cleaning up our pet and making her ready for the next visitation, and while working away, friend farmer came along with one of his cows, a large white animal, leading it with a rope and permitting her to graze. He walked along in front of my gun where it stopped and grazed awhile; going in like manner in front of each of the guns. Then he led the animal over to the other side of the house, where it grazed in front of the French .75's.
In the meantime we were working hard, getting our pets in shape, and someone asked who would volunteer for water. We were all dirty, thirsty, greasy and tired, and I offered to go. I ambled over to the farmhouse, stopping to speak to the Captain for a moment on the way, when I heard a shell explode; it had demolished No. 2 gun.
"Stand to!" yelled the Captain; then to the farmer, "Take that damned cow away." He hurried the cow off and put it in the barn, but he had no sooner gone than Kr-kr-kr-p! Kr-kr-kr-p! and the Captain and I were knocked off our feet. The water bottle was broken and I did not take time to get another but made for the guns. They were hammering our batteries thoroughly now and I was told to take shelter. I ran over to the farmhouse and asked the farmer's wife for a cup of coffee,—to sell me a cup, which she refused; in fact, her husband would not permit any of us to enter the house again. Then a smothering fire smashed the French battery, the destruction being so accurate and complete that it was done while I was asking and being refused the coffee! Just leaving the house, I met one of the French captains. "Did you notice anything peculiar in the farmer's actions?" he asked me; "I mean, with his white cow?"
"I told him I hadn't noticed anything peculiar, that I had noticed he had taken his white cow out in front of our battery, grazing her there just before the battery was shot up.
"Did the cow stop in front of your gun?"
"Yes, it stopped before each one of them."
"So it did at ours," he said.
"Merci Monsieur, you will hear from this." And he left in a hurry. He phoned the gendarmes in the city of Ypres and in less than half-an-hour they came. They entered the farmhouse and searched it thoroughly. Upstairs they found parts of a heliograph lamp and a complete telephone apparatus; there was also in his stove a system that had been inaugurated for forcing up a shower of sparks; this apparatus had been found in the houses of a number of spies who had paid the penalty for their work. Then they made a search of the cellar in which were found hundreds of tins of beef and jam, all of which had come from our rations, and then was explained the mysterious disappearance of our grub. There was no trace to be found of our Algerian trooper; he had made a hasty exit.
Friend farmer and his wife were arrested, taken away with the children and placed in the coop, and there the traitorous couple got their deserts—they were taken to the square and shot.
After they had gone we made ourselves at home in the building, and the comforts that awaited us there made us feel almost glad that they had turned out to be spies. Among the rations we found that they had taken stuff that had been purloined from other units as far back as three months before. After a thorough ransacking and a feed that filled us to our heart's content, we made for the battery, being greeted with a fresh outburst on our arrival, and under the fire we pulled our remaining guns away to another hedge 200 yards off, and waited for the storm to settle.
While lying there the brains of one of our geniuses got to working and his ideas were quickly resolved into action. We went down to the barn, took a couple of wagons, taking off the wheels and the poles, and made up three dummy guns and placed them in the spot we had left, and in a few minutes' time we had the satisfaction of seeing Fritz spend three or four hundred good shells on our dummy battery.
A consuming thirst was parching my mouth and I took a chance and ran along the open to the house for a drink. Then it was that the disadvantageous side of our good work with the dummy guns was exemplified; just as I was stepping out of the door, a shell tore a hole in one corner of the building, knocking it out as clean as if it had been drilled.
The customary methods employed by the Germans to get information as to our guns, our troops, our supplies around Ypres, was to send a disguised soldier to the different farmhouses and threaten them with instant demolition by their guns if they did not furnish the information sought for, and thus did Fritz make good his promise to the farmer. By reason of our dummy guns and the strafing they got, and the fact that our guns still were firing, he believed that the farmer had given him a bunco steer, and he lost no time in making good his word.
Remaining in the hedge for a few hours, we dug holes for the guns, covered them with tarpaulins and grass on top, giving them the usual scenic shelter. We did this work in the open but only one man at a time exposed; it was as much as life was worth for more than one to be seen working. That evening, in the midst of our meal at cookhouse,—"Stand to!" and we raced for our pets. When the concert was well under way, Munsey noticed a light three or four hundred yards off that was acting somewhat peculiarly; it would flare up and down oddly and seemed to be in a farmhouse straight at our rear, but not much attention was paid to it at the time. Next morning Munsey and I were in the cookhouse, trying to moisten a couple of hardtack biscuits with what juice we could extract from a piece of bacon rind, when an airplane hummed overhead and the attention of one of our anti-aircraft guns was immediately diverted to the bird. The cookhouse had formerly been a French dressing station, dismantled by the fire of those devils that know no law of God or man, composed of three huts in a row made of half-inch board. While eating, one of our own shells, a shrapnel, that had been sent up at a German stork and did not explode, dropped squarely into the middle of the cookhouse, frightened the cook out of his wits and hit the dixies, scattering them around our feet. "Stand to!" and we made our way carefully, keeping out of sight as much as possible from the watching bird overhead.
When I got to the gun the shell fire was commencing to get dangerously close. "By God, there must be somebody giving our battery away," said Munsey. A number of our men had been wounded at this time and the airplane still buzzing above, made it impossible for us to fire, and we got a "Stand down!"
"Come on over," Munsey proposed, "and we'll see what's in that building where I saw the light." We found a family of civilians living there and they were at once very solicitous about giving us coffee. "Never mind the coffee," said Munsey; "we have come to examine the house." The old man seemed quite willing to have us do so and pointed the way upstairs, starting himself to go out the door. Munsey grabbed him by the arm,—"Come along and show us the way." He indicated that we could find the way ourselves, but my mate was insistent and he forced the old man along and upstairs we went.
At first nothing resulted from our thorough search, but Munsey's eye lighted on an Algerian serge lying in the corner of the room, and almost at the same time I noticed some bricks in the chimney that seemed to be loose. An old table in the middle of the room I pulled over to the chimney, tugged at some of the brick that I had noticed, and the whole thing caved in, part of a heliograph outfit falling out. The old fellow made a dart for the door, but was peremptorily intercepted. "Damn you, stay where you are!" I pulled out the rest of the stuff; there was a complete heliograph apparatus, and a little red cap, such as the Algerians wear, satisfying us both that the man doing the work used the uniform of an Algerian.
On leaving the room, carrying the stuff with us and going down stairs, we saw a box against the wall and I heard a funny noise from it as if it contained something alive. I pulled it out and found it full of pigeons. "Who owns these?" I asked.
"An Algerian soldier left them there," he answered.
We then examined the cellar and entire basement, but found nothing further. We took the old fellow over to the gendarme who immediately took charge of him, and returned to the battery where we imparted the news of our find. It was the consensus of opinion that the spy was the farmer himself, and that the Algerian uniform was a blind. We were chatting away, discussing the matter, when the shells commenced flying as thick as peas in a pod; so swift and smashing was the fusillade that for awhile I thought hell's gate had opened wide. In less than no time one of our guns was knocked out and, getting a "Stand to!" we replied as fast as our legs and arms and heads would work.
The excellent quality of the work that Fritz did here made the fellows unanimous that his information came from the farmer. Presently the duel cooled down and we resumed our chat.
About a hundred yards off from the farmhouse where we had found the heliograph and Algerian uniform, was a windmill of the kind commonly seen in the farmhouses of the country, with large wings, and it happened that while firing, one of the boys, Boxer, noticed that the mill was going around in an irregular fashion,—going first one way and then another, and then stopping, and he called our attention to it and we all noticed it, and almost simultaneously with our observation of the mill, four shells came over, knocking another of our guns into uselessness and wiping out the crew, and after we got "Stand down!" and had cleaned up, Boxer suggested that we go over and see what was in the windmill.
Together we went, going first to the house, and found the children crying with fright; some of them tried to tell us something, but we couldn't make out what they were saying. We crossed over to the windmill and a phenomenon indeed met our eyes,—the wheel was turning in the opposite direction from that in which the wind was blowing. We started up the steps and—Ping! Ping! and Boxer fell with an oath and a bullet in his leg. I assisted him to the farmhouse and then scooted over and communicated with the O.C. I also informed a French battery that had been terrifically shelled.
In the meantime a stretcher had been sent for, and Boxer was brought back to the dressing station, where he had his wound dressed, which luckily turned out to be slight.
That night I was filled full of the spirit of adventure and I wanted to visit the windmill again. I got a pal to go with me and endeavored to make it, but the flares were steadily burning and the snipers were so busy we had to lie low. Again I went to the French battery and told the officer commanding of my suspicions about the windmill. A smile of intelligence and gratefulness lighted up his fine face. "Monsieur, we shall see what we shall see," and he ordered a shell into the heart of the structure, bringing it down in splinters. Then we made for the ruins and found the body of a man dressed in an Algerian uniform; I looked him over carefully; he was the artist I had met in the farmhouse at our former station.
There remained still the case of the old man in whose house we had discovered the heliograph and the pigeons. And the gendarmes were again sent for and the Belgian farmer was haled before the officer. With white face and streaming eyes he told the French Captain of the gendarmes that this man had come to him and told him that if he didn't permit him to go into his home, he would instantly signal for the shells and he and his family and buildings would be blown to eternity. The old man was permitted to go, as the French officer was satisfied he was sincere, but that he was utterly powerless to prevent the spy carrying out his plans.
In conversation with us later, the farmer told us that the Algerian had brought pigeons with him; that he had written notes, put them in the little cup fastened to the bird's foot and sent some of them off, the others remaining in the box when the Algerian went upstairs. "I could hear the bricks falling, but he called to us not to come upstairs," went on the old man. "Shortly afterwards a man dressed in the uniform of a British soldier came, and he too went upstairs; he was carrying a bag. When he came in he asked if I wanted coffee and I answered 'No.' When he came in the Algerian called down to send him up, and he too went up. Presently the British soldier left and a few minutes afterwards your battery started firing. Then out ran the Algerian, saying he was going to the windmill and warned all of us on pain of losing our lives, not to come near the mill. That is the last I saw of him, Messieurs, until this evening when I see his dead body.
"I am heart and soul with you, Messieurs; I know what you are doing for us and for Belgium; but you can see that I had no chance whatever to communicate with you; my life would have been the price, and what would have become of my family? If there had been anything I could have done, Messieurs, I would most gladly have done it, but I couldn't do anything, and the spy would have accomplished his purpose just the same had I made an attempt."
It was now about 6:30 and on our way back to the gun pit we met a woman who seemed to be in the depths of despair, accompanied by a little girl. The woman was weeping bitterly. Our nerves were on edge and we were suspicious of everybody; trickery, deceit, traitor-work seemed to be in the very air itself, and we made a resolve that we would shoot anybody, man, woman or child, whom we saw loitering around our guns who had no business there; that very day the O.C. had sworn that he would ask no questions, but would shoot on sight. The woman's story was pitiful in the extreme.
"Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do! My home is gone! My husband is gone! My children are gone! And for what?"—wringing her hands and gesticulating wildly. "For what, Messieurs? For being quiet, inoffensive, loyal people!"
In my clumsy fashion I succeeded in somewhat calming the poor creature, and she proceeded a little more coherently.
"Well, Messieurs, a man in Algerian uniform came to our house this morning. He asked permission of my husband, who was a loyal Belgian, to use our house—for what? To do spy work. My husband ran for a gun and warned him off. He said, 'You had better think it over; if you don't let me use your house you have not another day to live!' In spite of this, my husband presented the gun at him and he made off, but as he was leaving he called back, 'Do not on any account leave the house today, any of you, or you will be killed.'
"We watched him and saw him go towards the hedge, and two or three men with bags met him, and they made off in the direction of your battery. Then, then—Mon Dieu! How can I tell it!—a shell came and destroyed our home, killing my dear husband and my two babies."
And again the poor woman burst into a paroxysm of weeping and sank to the ground in an utterly exhausted condition, moaning aloud in the despair of her misery. Her little daughter was screaming in terror at the plight of her mother, and we all set about to comfort them as best we could, but ah! God! how comfortless our words.
The thought that perhaps the child would be quieted if she had something to eat suggested itself to me, but I had nothing except my iron rations, and our orders are very stern that under no circumstances must these be consumed except at the time designated, namely, when our supply wagons are destroyed and cannot reach us, and the order is issued from headquarters that we may use them. These rations are 16 ounces of bully beef, two hardtack biscuits, some tea and sugar in small wax envelopes. Each man must carry his own iron rations at all times and the penalty for eating them without orders is 28 to 90 days, first field punishment; therefore, I was taking a chance, but I hadn't the heart to resist the pitiful wail of that kiddie, and I felt that the risk I took was amply repaid by the cessation of her childish grief. The mother also had had nothing to eat all day, and she partook of some of the nourishment and was the better for it.
There was nothing more for them that we could do and they departed, the poor creature with an expression in her eyes that plainly said, she didn't know where on earth she was going, and cared less.
This was only an individual instance of the tens of thousands of blasted and stricken homes and families, resulting from the rule or ruin policy of the German "man of God."
Half an hour after they had departed a train of ammunition wagons came galloping up, the driver telling us that in passing Hell's Corner they were given an exceptionally heavy dose by Fritz. "His aim the nicht was damn puir, however," said one of the Scotch drivers; "he never gave us a scratch; but I noticed on the road a woman wi' a little bairn, a wee thing, hardly higher than your knee, and as we were racing by them, a shell exploded on the side of the road, right alongside o' them, blawin' the puir things to their doom."
From the description furnished by the driver, I was convinced it was the poor woman and child for whom I had taken the risk of punishment, and I could not help thinking what a blessing it was that death had come to them in the way it did, so soon after her inextinguishable sorrow.
Another evidence testamentary of the industry of the German agents came to us that very night from the driver. After the wagons were loaded up at the wagon lines, someone undid the locks of the wagons and on the way to the guns the shells dropped out from time to time, scattering over the cobble stones, causing them to lose more than half of their precious loads.
"Aye," said the Scotch driver who had told us about the woman and her child, "and a French battery coming up behind us, the horse kicked one shell that we dropped, and I'm damned if it did na' explode and blaw the puir beggars to the deil. By the Lord! They're doing gude work!" Good work, indeed, Fritz, but your day is coming!
Next morning about ten o'clock we got a "Stand to!" as a bombardment had begun and Fritz had started coming over. We stopped him, but no sooner had we ceased firing than Kr-kr-kr-p! Kr-kr-kr-p! Bang! Bang! coming down so fast that we made off for shelter at the cookhouse. While there, Munsey thought he would like to have a look at the situation generally in the surrounding country, through the medium of a hole in the side of the cookhouse up near the roof and he hopped on top of a box and looked out in the direction of Ypres. The most notable object there was the town clock, and he had not been looking long before he noticed the hands moving this way and that; he watched closely and then called, "Come here, fellows, quick. Come and watch the clock!" We all jumped to a point of vantage and watched, and in few minutes we were satisfied that the shell fire that was raining upon us was being directed by the hands of the clock. We observed that when the long hand moved right, the rain of fire would increase; when it moved left, it decreased; each jump of the hand five minutes meant 25 yards increase or decrease, as the case might be. Every time the small hand moved one minute right, it meant three yards right; two minutes, six yards, and so on; and the same if it veered to the left. And when both hands turned at once to 12:00 o'clock we deduced from their fire that some object was registered and when that was done the large hand would go all the way around and the fire would increase to a regular hurricane; if it went half way round, it would decrease. The small hand going all the way round, the fire ceased.