Obvious printer's errors have been corrected.
The original spelling has been retained.
The illustrations' captions have been moved out of paragraphs, and their corresponding page numbers changed in the List of Illustrations.
THE EMMA GEES
HERBERT W. McBRIDE Captain, U. S. A. Late Twenty-first Canadian Battalion
Illustrated with Photographs and Trench Maps
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers Copyright 1918 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Press of Braunworth & Co. Book Manufacturers Brooklyn, N. Y.
TO THE MEMORY OF
WILLIAM EMMANUEL BOUCHARD
Lance-Corporal Machine Gun Section Twenty-first Canadian Infantry Battalion
KILLED IN ACTION, AT COURCELLETTE SEPTEMBER 15TH 1916
In Flanders' fields the crosses stand— Strange harvest for a fertile land! Where once the wheat and barley grew, With scarlet poppies running through. This year the poppies bloom to greet Not oats nor barley nor white wheat, But only crosses, row by row, Where stalwart reapers used to go. Harvest in Flanders—Louise Driscoll
When the final history of this war is written, it is doubtful if any other name will so appeal to the Canadian as Ypres and the Ypres Salient; every foot of which is hallowed ground to French, Belgians, British and Colonials alike; not a yard of which has not been consecrated to the cause of human liberty and baptized in the blood of democracy.
Here the tattered remnants of that glorious "contemptible little army," in October, 1914, checked the first great onrush of the vandal hordes and saved the channel ports, the loss of which would have been far more serious than the capture of Paris and might, conceivably, have proved the decisive factor in bringing about a Prussian victory in the war.
Here the first Canadian troops to fight on the soil of Europe, the Princess Pat's, received their trial by fire and came through it with untarnished name, and here, also, the First Canadian Contingent withstood the terrible ordeal of poison gas in April, 1915, and, outnumbered four to one, with flank exposed and without any artillery support worthy of mention, hurled back, time after time, the flower of the Prussian army, and, in the words of the Commanding General of all the British troops: "saved the situation."
Here, too, as was fitting, we received our baptism of fire (Second Canadian Division), as did also the third when it came over.
For more than a year this salient was the home of the Canadian soldier and Langemarck, St. Julien, Hill 60, St. Eloi, Hooge, and a host of other names in this sector, have been emblazoned, in letters of fire, on his escutcheon.
Baffled in his attempts to capture the city of Ypres, the Hun began systematically to destroy it, turning his heaviest guns on the two most prominent structures: The Halles (Cloth Hall), and St. Martin's Cathedral, two of the grandest architectural monuments in Europe. Now there was no military significance in this; it was simply an exhibition of unbridled rage and savagery. With Rheims Cathedral, and hundreds of lesser churches and chateaux, these ruins will be perpetual monuments to the wanton ruthlessness of German kultur.
When we first went there the towers of both these structures were still standing and formed landmarks that could be seen for miles. Gradually, under the continued bombardment, they melted away until, when I last passed through the martyred city, nothing but small bits of shattered wall could be seen, rising but a few feet above the surrounding piles of broken stones.
Glorious Ypres! Probably never again will you become the city of more than two hundred thousand, whose "Red-coated Burghers" won the day at Courtrai, against the trained army of the Count d'Artois; possibly never again achieve the commercial prominence enjoyed but four short years since; but your name will be forever remembered in the hearts of men from all the far ends of the earth where liberty and justice prevail. H. W. McB.
NEW NAMES FOR OLD LETTERS
When reading messages sent by any "visual" method of signaling, such as flags, heliograph or lamp, it is necessary for the receiver to keep his eyes steadily fixed upon the sender, probably using binoculars or telescope, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to write down each letter as it comes, and as this is absolutely required in military work, where nearly everything is in code or cipher, the services of a second man are needed to write down the letters as the first calls them off.
As many letters of the alphabet have sounds more or less similar, such as "S" and "F," "M" and "N" and "D" and "T," many mistakes have occurred. Therefore, the ingenuity of the signaler was called upon to invent names for certain of the letters most commonly confused. Below is a list of the ones which are now officially recognized:
A pronounced ack B " beer D " don M " emma P " pip S " esses T " tock V " vick Z " zed
The last is, of course, the usual pronunciation of this letter in England and Canada, but, as it may be unfamiliar to some readers, I have included it.
After a short time all soldiers get the habit of using these designations in ordinary conversation. For instance, one will say: "I am going over to 'esses-pip seven,'" meaning "Supporting Point No. 7," or, in stating the time for any event, "ack-emma" is A.M. and "pip-emma" P.M.
As the first ten letters of the alphabet are also used to represent numerals in certain methods of signaling, some peculiar combinations occur, as, for instance: "N-ack-beer" meaning trench "N-12," or "O-don" for "O-4."
"Ack-pip-emma" is the Assistant Provost Marshal, whom everybody hates, while just "pip-emma" is the Paymaster, who is always welcome.
Thus, the Machine Gunner is an "Emma Gee" throughout the army.
I Headed for the Kaiser 1
II Straight to the Front 12
III In the Midst of a Battle-Field 31
IV Eight Days In 47
V At Captain's Post 60
VI Our Own Cheerful Fashion 74
VII Sniper's Barn 83
VIII Getting the Flag 99
IX Hunting Huns 111
X A Fine Day for Murder 126
XI Without Hope of Reward 133
XII The War in the Air 143
XIII The Battle of St. Eloi 150
XIV Fourteen Days' Fighting 166
XV Blighty and Back 179
XVI Out in Front Fighting 187
XVII Down and Out—For a While 209
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
French Hotchkiss Gun Firing at Aeroplane 11
Hotel Du Faucon 29
Light Vickers Gun in Action Against Aircraft 34
French Using an Ordinary Wine Barrel on Which a Wagon Wheel Is Mounted to Facilitate the Revolving Movement to any Desired Direction 45
French Paper War-Money, Issued by the Various Municipalities. Every Town Has its Bank of Issue. There are Practically no Coins in Circulation 56
Canadians with Machine Gun Taking Up New Positions 65
Wytschaete Map 85
Highlanders with a Maxim Gun 97
A Light Vickers Gun in Action 108
Canadian Machine Gun Section Getting Their Guns into Action 118
Canadian Soldiers in Action with Colt Machine Guns 128
British Machine Gun Squad Using Gas Masks 137
German Aeroplane Trophy—Jules Vedrine Examining the Machine Gun 145
St. Eloi Map 153
Lewis Gun in Action in Front-Line Trench 166
Canadian Machine Gunners Digging Themselves into Shell-Holes 177
A Shell Exploding in Front of a Dug-in Machine Gun 189
Hollebeke Map 195
Lewis Machine Gun Squad Observing with Periscope at Hill 60 203
Removing the German Wounded from Mont St. Eloi 212
THE EMMA GEES
HEADED FOR THE KAISER
The following somewhat disjointed narrative, written at the solicitation of numerous friends, follows the general course of my experience as a member of the Machine Gun Section of the Twenty-first Canadian Infantry Battalion. Compiled from letters written from the front, supplemented by notes and maps and an occasional short dissertation covering some phase of present-day warfare and its weapons and methods, it is offered in the hope that, despite its utter lack of literary merit, it may prove of interest to those who are about to engage in the "great adventure" or who have relatives and friends "over there." The only virtue claimed for the story is that it is all literally true: every place, name and date being authentic. The maps shown are exact reproductions of front-line trench maps made from airplane photographs. They have never before been published in this country.
I am sorry I can not truthfully say that the early reports of German atrocities, or the news of Belgium's wanton invasion impelled me to fly to Canada to enlist and offer my life in the cause of humanity.
No, it was simply that I wanted to find out what a "regular war" was like. It looked as though there was going to be a good scrap on and I didn't want to miss it. I had been a conscientious student of the "war-game" for a good many years and was anxious to get some real first-hand information. I got what I was looking for, all right.
The preliminaries can be briefly summarized. The battalion mobilized at Kingston, Ontario, October 19th, 1914, and spent the winter training at that place. The training was of the general character established by long custom but included more target practise and more and longer route marches than usual. The two things we really learned were how to march and how to shoot, both of which accomplishments stood us in good stead at a later date.
Leaving Kingston May 5th, 1915, we sailed from Montreal the following morning on the Metagama, a splendid ship of about twelve thousand tons. We had as company on board, several hospital units, including about one hundred and fifty Nursing Sisters, all togged up in their natty blue uniforms and wearing the two stars of First "Leftenant," which rank they hold. And, believe me, they deserve it, too. Of course they were immediately nicknamed the "Bluebirds." Many's the man in that crowd who has since had cause to bless those same bluebirds in the hospitals of France and England.
We ran into ice at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and for two days were constantly in sight of bergs. It was a beautiful spectacle but I'm afraid we did not properly appreciate it. We remembered the Titanic.
Then we got word by wireless that the Lusitania had been torpedoed. I think an effort was made to suppress this news but it soon ran throughout the ship. Personally, I did not believe it. I had had plenty of experience of "soldier stories," which start from nowhere and amount to nothing, and besides, I could not believe that any nation that laid any claims to civilization would permit or commit such an outrage. I began to believe it however when, next day, we received orders to go down in the hold and get out all our guns and mount them on deck. We had six guns; two more than the usual allotment for a battalion; two having been presented to our Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) W. St. Pierre Hughes, by old associates in Canada, just a few days before our departure.
Two of the guns were mounted on the forward deck, two on the flying bridge and two on the aft bridge. I'm not sure, to this day, just what we expected to do against a submarine with those machine guns, but at any rate they seemed to give an additional feeling of security to the others on board and of course we machine gunners put up an awful bluff to persuade them that we could sink any U-boat without the least difficulty. Of one thing we were sure. Being a troop ship we could expect no mercy from an enemy and we were at least prepared to make it hot for any of them who came fooling around within range provided they came to the surface. I was with the forward guns and, as we had several days of pretty rough weather, it was a wet job. Our wireless was continually cracking and sputtering so I suppose the skipper was getting his sailing orders from the Admiralty as we changed direction several times a day. We had no convoying war-ships and sighted but few boats, mostly Norwegian sailing vessels, until, one night about nine o'clock, several dark slim shadows came slipping up out of the blackness and established themselves in front, on both flanks and behind us. We gunners had been warned by the captain to look out for something of the kind, but I can assure any one who has not been through the experience that the sigh of relief which went up from those gun crews was sincere and deep. We were running without lights, of course, and none but the crew was allowed on deck. The destroyers (for such they were), were also perfectly dark and we could barely discern their outlines as they glided silently along, accommodating their pace to ours.
Just before sunrise we dropped anchor inside Plymouth breakwater. This was a surprise, as we had expected to land at Liverpool or Bristol. But you may depend on it, no one made any complaint; any port in England looked good to us. A few hours later we moved into the harbor and tied up at Devonport Dock where we lay all day, unloading cargo. Right next to us was a big transport just about to sail for the Dardanelles. The Dublin Fusiliers were aboard her and they gave us a cheer as we came in. Poor devils, they had a rough time of it down there; but I guess by this time they think the same about us; so we'll call it square.
It rained all day, but we finally got everything off the ship and on the trains and pulled out about dark. No one knew where we were going. The only training camp we had heard of in England was Salisbury Plain and what we had heard of that place did not make any of us anxious to see it. The First Canadian Division had been there and the reports they sent home were anything but encouraging. Our men were nearly all native-born Canadians and "Yankees," and they cracked many a joke about the little English "carriages," but they soon learned to respect the pulling power of the engines. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible with eight in a compartment, each man with his full kit, and soon after daylight the train stopped and we were told to get out. The name of the station was Westerhanger but that did not tell us anything. The native Britishers we had in our crowd were mostly from "north of the Tweed" so what could they be expected to know about Kent. For Kent it was, sure enough, and after a march of some two or three miles we found ourselves "at home" in West Sandling Camp. And how proudly we marched up the long hill and past the Brigade Headquarters, our pipers skirling their heartiest and the drummers beating as never before. For we were on exhibition and we knew it. The roads were lined with soldiers and they cheered and cheered as we came marching in. We were tired, our loads were heavy and the mud was deep, but never a man in that column would have traded his place for the most luxurious comforts at home.
There came a time when we hated that hill and that camp as the devil hates holy water, but that Sunday morning, marching into a British camp, with British soldiers, eager to keep right on across the channel and clean up Kaiser Bill and feeling as though we were able to do it, single-handed—why, the meanest private in the Twenty-first Canadians considered himself just a little bit better than any one else on earth.
Thus we came to our home in England, where we worked and sweated and swore for four solid months before we were considered fit to take our place in the firing-line. All that time, from the top of Tolsford Hill, just at the edge of our camp, we could see France, "the promised land"; we could hear the big guns nearly every night, and we, in our ignorance, could not understand why we were not allowed to go over and settle the whole business. We marched all over Southern England. I know I have slept under every hedge-row in Kent. We dug trenches one day and filled them up the next. We made bombs and learned to throw them. We mastered every kind of signaling from semaphore to wireless, and we nearly wore out the old Roman stone roads hiking all the way from Hythe to Canterbury. We carried those old Colt guns and heavy tripods far enough to have taken us to Bagdad and back.
But, oh, man! what a tough lot of soldiers it made of us. Without just that seasoning we would never have been able to make even the first two days' marches when we finally did go across. The weaklings fell by the wayside and were replaced until, when the "great day" came and we embarked for France, I verily believe that that battalion, and especially the "Emma Gees," was about the toughest lot of soldiers who ever went to war.
(Emma Gee is signaler's lingo for M. G., meaning machine gunner.)
It must not be inferred that our four months in England were all work and worry. Personally, I derived great pleasure from them. We were right in the midst of a lot of old and interesting places which figure largely in the early history of England. Within a mile of our camp was Saltwood Castle, built in 499 by the Romans and enlarged by the Normans. It was here that the conspirators met to plan the assassination of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury, only sixteen miles away, and which we had ample opportunities to visit. Hythe, one of the ancient "Cinque Ports," was but a mile or so distant, with its old church dating from the time of Ethelbert, King of Kent. In its crypt are the bones of several hundred persons which have been there since the time of the Crusaders, and in the church, proper, are arms and armor of some of the old timers who went on those same Crusades. Among numerous tablets on the walls is one "To the memory of Captain Robert Furnis, Commanding H. M. S. Queen Charlotte: killed at the Battle of Lake Erie: 1813"—Perry's victory. About three miles away was "Monk's Horton, Horton Park and Horton Priory," the latter church dating from the twelfth century and remaining just about as it was when it was built. Then there was Lympne Castle, another Roman stronghold; Caesar's Plain and Caesar's Camp, where Julius is said to have spent some time on his memorable expedition to England; and, within easy reach by bicycle, Hastings and Battle Abbey where William the Norman defeated Harold and conquered England. The very roads over which we marched were, many of them, built by the Romans. Every little town and hamlet through which we passed has a history running back for hundreds of years. We took our noon rest one day in the yard of the famous "Chequers Inn," on the road to Canterbury. We camped one night in Hatch Park, where the deer scampered about in great droves. On Sundays we could charter one of the big "rubber-neck" autos and make the round trip to Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Deal and Dover.
But, just the same, when we were told, positively, that we were going to leave, there were no tears shed. We had gone over there to fight and nothing else would satisfy us.
STRAIGHT TO THE FRONT
The Machine Gun Section, having its own transport, traveled via Southampton, as there were better facilities for loading horses and wagons there than at the ports from which the remainder of the troops embarked. After we had everything aboard ship it was an even bet among the crowd as to whether we were going to France, the Dardanelles or Mesopotamia. There were other ships there, loading just as we were, some of which were known to be destined for the eastern theater; so how could we know? As a matter of fact, our officers did not know any more about it than the men.
On the dock I discovered a box containing blank post-cards given out by "The Missions to Seamen." I wrote one to my mother and stuck it in a mail-box, on the chance that it might go through. I had no stamps and didn't really expect it to be taken up, but some one "with a heart" inscribed on it "O. H. M. S.," and, sure enough, On His Majesty's Service it went, straight to Indianapolis.
After having everything nicely stowed in the hold, Sandy McNab and I had to go down and dig out a couple of guns to mount on deck. It required quite a lot of acrobatic stunts to get down in the first place and then to get the guns and ammunition up, but we managed to finish the job just before dark and got the guns mounted, mine on the starboard and Sandy's on the port side, before we steamed out. It was a black drizzly night and the cold wind cut like a knife, but we "stood to" until dawn, expecting anything or nothing. After an hour or so we didn't care much what happened.
Everything was dark, not a light showing aboard ship or elsewhere until, about midnight, I saw a glow on the horizon, nearly dead ahead. As the ship's lookouts said nothing, I did likewise, but I assure you I was mightily puzzled. I knew we could not be near enough to shore to see a lighthouse and, anyway, there was too much light for any ordinary shore signal. I finally concluded that it must be a ship burning and wondered what we would do about it, but the thing gradually took on the appearance of a gigantic Christmas tree and then I felt sure that I was going "plumb nutty." I sneaked over to McNab's side and found him in about the same frame of mind. We were both too proud to ask questions, so we simply stood there and watched—what do you suppose?—a hospital ship! lighted from water line to truck with hundreds of electric lights; strings of them running from mast-head to mast-head and dozens along the sides, fitted with reflectors to throw the light down so as to show the broad green stripe which is prescribed by the Geneva Convention. Then we both laughed. Little did we think then that we would both be coming back to "Blighty" on just such a ship; Sandy within a few weeks and I more than a year later.
Before daylight we picked up a string of beacons, red and white, and dropped anchor. As soon as it was light we could see the harbor of Le Havre. I had been there before and recognized it quickly enough. Then we knew that France was our destination.
After waiting for the proper stage of the tide, the anchor was weighed, and with a lot of fussy little tugs buzzing about, now pushing at one end and then scurrying around to give a pull at the other, we finally tied up to the dock at our appointed place and prepared to disembark. The docks were thronged with men, mostly in some sort of uniform and all busy. Many of the French soldiers were wearing the old uniforms of blue and red, while others were clothed in corduroy. The new "horizon blue" had not yet been adopted. There were many English soldiers, mostly elderly men of the so-called "Navvie's Battalions," but among all the others, was quite a number whose uniform was the subject for much speculation until some one happened to notice that they were always working in groups and were, invariably, accompanied by a poilu carrying a rifle with bayonet fixed. It was our first sight of German prisoners and it gave us a genuine thrill. The war was coming closer to us every minute.
Disembarking was nothing more than common, every-day, hard labor, relieved, occasionally, by the antics of some of the horses that did not want to go down the steep narrow gangway. It was the devil's own job to get them aboard in the first place and equally difficult to persuade them to go ashore. Such perversity, I have noticed, is not confined to horses: the average soldier can give exhibitions of it that would shame the wildest mustang.
We had been living, since leaving Sandling, on "bully beef" and biscuits, but here on the dock we found one of those wonderful little coffee canteens, maintained and operated by one of the many thousands of noble English women who, from the beginning of the war, have managed, God knows how, always to be at the right place at the right time, to cheer the soldier on his way; working, apparently, night and day, to hand out a cup of hot coffee or tea or chocolate to any tired and dirty Tommy who happened to come along. If you have any money, you pay a penny; if you are broke, it doesn't make the least bit of difference; you get your coffee just the same, and the smile that always accompanies the service is as cheerful and genuine in the one case as in the other. Many women of the oldest and most aristocratic families of England have given, and are still giving, not only their money but their personal labor to this work; making sandwiches, boiling tea, yes, and washing the dishes, too, day after day and month after month. You do not often hear of them; they are too busy to advertise. But Tommy knows and I venture the assertion that no single sentence or "slogan" has been as often used among the soldiers in France as "God bless the women."
So we finally got everything off, wagons loaded and teams hitched up, and about mid-afternoon made our way through the quaint old city to a "rest camp" on the outskirts where we had time to wash and shave and eat another biscuit before we received orders that we were to march, at midnight, and entrain at Station No.—. It commenced to rain about this time and never let up until we had entrained the next morning.
That was a night of horrors. Sloshing through the mud, over unknown roads and streets, soaked to the skin. Oh! well, it was a very good initiation for what was to follow, all right, all right.
Polite language is not adequate to describe the loading of our train: getting all the wagons on the dinky little flat-cars and the horses aboard. The horses fared better than the men for, while they were only eight to a car, we were forty or more; and in the same kind of cars, too. They look like our ordinary cattle cars but are only about one-half as big. Forty men, with full equipment, have some difficulty to crowd into one, let alone to sit or lie down. And, of course, everything we had was soaked through. When I come to think of it, the strangest thing about the whole business was that there were no genuine complaints. The usual "grousing," of course, without which no soldier could remain healthy, but I never heard a word that could have been taken to indicate that any one was really unhappy. While we were loading, our cooks had managed to make up a good lot of hot tea and that helped some. We also got an issue of cheese and more bully and biscuits and, after filling up on these, everybody joined in a "sing-song" which continued for hours.
This subject of soldier's songs would make an interesting study for a psychologist. Not being versed in this science I can only note some of the peculiarities which impressed me from time to time.
The first thing that one notices is the fact that the so-called soldier's songs, written by our multitudinous army of "popular" song-smiths to catch the fleeting-fancy of the patriotically aroused populace, are conspicuous by their absence. No matter how great a popularity they may achieve among the home-folk and even the embryo soldiers, during the early days of their training, they seldom survive long enough to become popular with the soldiers in the field. When in training, far away from the field of battle, soldiers appear very fond of all the "Go get the Kaiser" and "On to Berlin" stuff and are not at all averse to complimenting themselves on their heroism and invincibility, with specific declarations of what they are going to do. Sort of "Oh, what a brave boy I am," you know. But as they come closer to the real business of war, while their enthusiasm and determination may be not a whit less, they become more reserved and less prone to self-advertisements; so, as they must sing something, they fall back on the old-timers, such as Annie Laurie or My Old Kentucky Home when they feel particularly sentimental, and for marching songs, any nonsensical music-hall jingle with a "swing" to it will serve.
Our crowd was what might be called "a regular singing bunch" and had a large and varied repertoire, including everything from religious hymns to many of that class of peculiar soldier's songs which although vividly expressive and appropriate to the occasion are, unfortunately, not for publication. Among the most popular were The Tulip and the Rose, Michigan and There's a Long, Long Trail Awinding, together with several local compositions set to such airs as John Brown's Body and British Grenadiers. You might hear Onward, Christian Soldier sandwiched between some of the worst of the "bad ones" or Calvary followed by The Buccaneers. You never heard that last one, and never will, unless you "go for a soldier."
I've heard men singing doleful songs, such as I Want to Go Home, when everything was bright and cheerful with no sign of war, and I have heard them, in the midst of the most deadly combat, shouting one of Harry Lauder's favorites, as I Love a Lassie. I once saw a long line "going over the top" in the gray of the morning, and when they had got lined up, outside the wire, and started on their plodding journey which is the "charge" of now-a-days, one waved to his neighbor who happened to be on a slight ridge above him and sang out: "You tak the High Road an' I'll tak the Low Road." And immediately the song spread up and down the line; even above the tremendous roar of the guns you could hear that battalion going into action to the tune of Loch Lomond.
So, you see, there is a difference between "songs about soldiers" and "soldier's songs," the latter being the ones he sings because they appeal to his fancy and the former including the long and constantly growing list of cheaply-sentimental airs intended for home consumption. The difference between the two classes is as great as that between war as it really is and war as the people at home think it is. This is a difference which will never be understood by any excepting those who have been over there. Those so unfortunate as to be unable to learn it at first hand will be forever ignorant of the real meaning of war. There is no language which can adequately describe it; no artist can paint it; no imagination can conceive it. It is just short of the knowledge of one who has died and returned to life. So, by all means, let us have songs if they serve to cheer or amuse any one, whether at home or abroad.
It will probably do the soldier no harm to have people think he is a "little tin god on wheels" any more than it will hurt him to be belittled by the sickly mollycoddling name of "Sammie," no matter how deeply he resents it. It is astonishing to me that our newspapers persist in the use of this appellation in the face of the fact, which they should know, that it is obnoxious to the American soldier himself. Would they call a Canadian or Australian or Scotch soldier a "Tommy"? If they do, I advise them to hide out and do it by telephone. Such sobriquets, to be of any real value, must come spontaneously; perhaps by accident; possibly conferred by an enemy. They can never be "invented."
But, to get back to our story. This country through which we passed is an historical pageant,—from the very port of Harfleur, which figures largely in the stories of both Norman and English invasion, all the way up the valley of the Seine. Who could see Rouen, for the first time, without experiencing a thrill of sentiment as the memories of Jeanne d'Arc, Rollo the Norman, Duke William, Harold and many others come forth from their hiding-places in the back of one's brain? Although we passed through without a stop, we could see the wonderful cathedral and the hospice on the hill and, crossing the river, we had a fleeting glimpse of the delightful little village of St. Adrien, with its curious church, cut out of the face of the chalk cliff; where the maidens come to pray the good Saint Bonaventure to send them a husband within the year.
On, past the field of Crecy, across the Somme which was to us only a name at that time but to become "an experience" at a later date, we made our slow progress across northern France. At a certain junction we were joined by the rest of the battalion which had traveled from England by a different and shorter route.
In the early hours of the morning we came to our stopping place, St. Omer, which was then the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in France. We did not tarry, however, but before daylight were on the march—eastward. We stopped for a couple of hours, near some little town, long enough to make tea, and then went on again. This was the hardest day we had had. Every one was overloaded, as a new soldier always is, and, moreover, our packs and clothing had not dried and we were carrying forty or fifty pounds of water in addition to the regulation sixty-one-pound equipment. Then, too, the roads were of the kind called pave; that is, paved with what we know as cobble-stones or Belgian blocks. On the smooth stone or macadamized roads of England we would not have minded it so much, but this kind of going was new to us: ankles were continually turning, our iron-shod soles eternally slipping on the knobbed surface of the cobbles and, take it all in all, I consider it the hardest march I have ever done, and I have made forty-eight miles in one day over the snow in the Northwest, too.
About dark we were halted at a farm and told that we were to go into bivouac and would probably remain there for a week or more. Now, one characteristic of the good machine gunner is that he is always about two jumps ahead of the other fellow, so, there being a big barn with lots of clean straw in it, we just naturally took possession while the rest of the troops were patiently waiting for the Quartermaster to assign them to billets. Of course we had a fight on our hands a little later but, by a compromise which let the signalers and scouts come in with us, we were enabled to hang on to the best part of the place. From names inscribed on the beams we learned that the Princess Pat's had once occupied the same place, and from the people who lived there we heard tales of how the Germans had carried off all their stock when they made their first great advance. All this was the next day, however, as we were too tired even to eat that night; we simply dropped on the straw and slept.
Next morning was bright and fair and everybody got busy, drying kits, overhauling and cleaning the guns and ammunition and fixing up our quarters for the promised week's rest. About four o'clock in the afternoon we were ordered to form up and march to a place about two miles distant, where, we were told, General Alderson, Commander-in-Chief of the Canadians, was to give us a little talk.
We arrived at the appointed place ahead of time, and while we were lying about waiting we had our first glimpse of real war. It was a long way off and high up in the air but it was a thrilling sight for us. A couple of German airplanes were being shelled by some of our anti-aircraft guns, and as we watched the numerous shell-bursts, apparently close to the planes, we expected, every moment, to see the flyers come tumbling down. However, none was hit and they went on their way. It was only later we learned that it is the rarest thing in the world for an airplane to be brought down by guns from the ground. I suppose I have seen several hundred thousand shots fired at them and have yet to see one hit by a shell from an "Archie" and only one by machine-gun fire from the ground. The majority of planes destroyed are shot down by machine guns in combat with other flyers.
When the General finally came, he looked us over and told us what a fine body of troops we appeared to be, and just for that, he was going to let us go right into the front line, instead of putting us through the usual preliminary stages in reserve and support. Of course we felt properly "swelled up" about it and considered it a great compliment. We did not know, what we now know, that they were about to start the big offensive which is known as the Battle of Loos and that the British had not enough troops in France to be able to afford such luxuries as reserves. It was a case of everybody get in and "get your feet wet."
As we were to march at daybreak, we had a busy night getting our scattered belongings together and repacked. This was our first experience of what shortly became a common occurrence and we soon learned that, in the field, a soldier never knows one day where he will be the next, and thus he is always "expecting the unexpected."
We moved out at dawn and had another heart-breaking march as the weather had turned very warm. Through Hazebrouck and numerous small towns we continued our eastward way to Bailleul, stopping there for an hour's rest. Our section happened to be right in the market square so had a good opportunity to see some of the principal points of interest in this famous and ancient city. The Hotel de Ville with its curious weather-vane of twelfth-century vintage and the Hotel Faucon particularly interested me: the former because I had read of it and the latter because it had real beer on ice. This is the place which Bairnsfather speaks of as the hotel at which one could live and go to war every day and I afterward did that very thing, for one day; leaving the front-line trenches in the morning, having a good dinner at the Faucon and being back in the front line at night. That happened to be Thanksgiving Day; November 25, 1915.
After our rest we continued on our way and arrived at the little town of Dranoutre, in Flanders, about five o'clock in the evening and went into bivouac. On this day's march we saw more evidence of war. Here and there a grave beside the road; occasionally a house that showed the effect of shell or rifle fire and, almost continually, firing at airplanes, both Allied and German.
At our camp we found detachments of the East Kents (The Buffs), and the Second East Surrey Regiment, from whom we were to take over a sector of the line. They said that it was comparatively quiet at that point but had been pretty rough a few months earlier.
The Machine Gun Section went in the next morning, two days ahead of the infantry, and the East Surreys remained during the two days to show us the ropes. They were a splendid lot of soldiers and I am sorry to say that when they left us it was to go to Loos, where they were badly cut up at the Hohenzollern redoubt. We never connected up with them again.
IN THE MIDST OF A BATTLE-FIELD
It was a bright warm Sunday morning, that nineteenth day of September, when we made our first trip to the front-line trenches. Only the Number Ones, lance corporals, of each gun went in ahead, the guns and remainder of the section to come up after dark. I was a "lance-jack" at that time, in charge of No. 6 gun; and had a crew of the youngest boys in the section, two of whom were under seventeen when they enlisted and not one of whom was twenty at that time. Subsequent events proved them to be the equals of any in the whole section; a section of which a general officer afterward wrote: "I consider it the best in France." They were strong and healthy, keen observers, always ready for any duty and during all the time I was with them I never saw one of them weaken. They played the game right up to the finish, in fair weather and foul, during the easy times and the "rough," each until his appointed time came to "go West." One, in particular, named Bouchard, a boy who enlisted when but sixteen, developed into the brightest and most efficient machine gunner I have ever known. His zeal and eagerness to learn so impressed me that it became my greatest pleasure to give him all the assistance in my power, and, despite the difference in our ages, there grew up between us such a friendship as can only be achieved between kindred spirits sharing the vicissitudes of war. Small of stature and slight of frame, it was only by sheer grit and determination that he was able to endure the terrible strain of that first winter. At times, when the mud was nearly waist deep, he would throw away his overcoat, blanket and other personal effects, but never would he give up his beloved gun. When trenches were absolutely impassable he would climb up on top, scorning bullets and shells, intent on the one job in hand—to get to his appointed station without delay. He was a constant source of inspiration to all of us, often inciting the older heads to undertake and achieve the apparently impossible by daring them to follow his lead.
Our sector was made up of what were then known as the "C" trenches, running north from the Neuve Eglise-Messines road and directly between Wulverghem and Messines. To the south of the road was the Douve River and just beyond that "Plugstreet" (Ploegstert). There had been some very hard fighting all along the Messines Ridge during the preceding year, but for several months things had been quiet. Now, by "quiet" I do not mean that there was any cessation of hostilities for there is always artillery firing and sniping going on, with a fair amount of rifle grenade and trench-mortar activity. It simply means that there is no attempt being made, by either side, to attack in force and to capture and hold captured ground.
Our route, that first morning, was rather a roundabout one, by way of Lindhoek, taken, as explained by our guide, because it was less exposed to enemy observation than a much shorter road which we used when moving at night. When a short distance out from town, we passed in front of one of our howitzer batteries which decided that then was just the proper time to cut loose with a salvo, right over our heads. We were not more than fifty yards from the guns and the result was that we were all "scared stiff," to say nothing of being almost deafened. This appears to be a characteristic and never-ending joke with artillerymen and so we soon learned to "spot" their emplacements and go behind them, when possible.
At all cross-roads ("Kruisstraat," in Flemish), sentries were stationed who acted as guides and also gave warning of the approach of enemy aircraft. At a long blast of the whistle every person was supposed to stop and not make a move until the signal "all clear," indicated by two blasts, was given. It appears that, while the airmen have no difficulty in seeing moving objects on the ground it is next to impossible for them to locate stationary ones.
As we progressed, the signs of war were multiplied. Numerous graves along the road, each marked by a cross, houses and barns torn by shells, a bridge and railroad track blown up and trees shattered and rent, until, finally, everything was desolation. When we arrived at Wulverghem, we had our first sight of a really "ruined" town. Of course we saw many worse ones later, but at that time, we could not conceive more complete destruction than had been wrought here by the German shells. Every building had been hit, perhaps several times; some had one or more walls standing, while many were totally destroyed and were nothing but piles of broken brick and mortar. Part of the church tower remained and one hand of the clock still hung to the side facing the German lines. This seemed to aggravate the boche as, every day, he would send from a dozen to forty or fifty shells over, all seemingly directed at the church tower.
As Messines Ridge is now "ours" I think there can be no objection to my going into details about our dispositions. Our Battalion Headquarters was located in the St. Quentin Cabaret, about two hundred yards south of Wulverghem and we had a supporting gun, with infantry, at Souvenir Farm and also at a redoubt near by, called "S-5." Our front-line guns were distributed from the Neuve Eglise road to the northern end of our battalion frontage, about "C-3."
These numbers refer to certain locations on the map, and the cabarets are not exactly such as one is accustomed to seeing in American cities. They are, or were, inns, such as in England would be called public houses and in America, road houses. In Flemish they are herbergs, but these happened to bear French names, hence were called cabarets. One can not help wondering at the indiscriminate manner in which French and Flemish names are used in this corner of the world. Neuve Eglise, Bailleul, Dranoutre and Locre are all mixed up with Wolverghem, Ploegstert, Wytschaete and Lindhoek: Ypres and Dickebusch are neighbors; while St. Julian and Langemarck lie side by side, as do Groot Vierstraat and LaClytte. Look at a map of West Flanders and the adjoining parts of France and you will see what I mean.
Just as we arrived at the Battalion Headquarters the signal was sounded, "German up," which is the short way of saying that an enemy airplane is approaching, so we were obliged to take cover and remain quiet for some time. We were near a group of farm buildings and, going inside, found that former occupants had left elaborate records of their visits. Among other mural decorations were some rough sketches drawn by Captain Bairnsfather, which afterward became famous as "Fragments from France."
This suggests another interesting field for speculation. Why is it that all men, regardless of race, creed or color, have an inborn craving to inscribe their names on walls and trees and rocks, especially on walls other than those of their own home? Wherever you go, all over the world, you will find the carved or written record stating that, at such and such a date, John Doe, of Oskaloosa, Iowa, honored the place with his presence. The buildings of Flanders and France are storehouses of historical records. From them the historian could almost reconstruct the campaigns of the war. Would it not not be an interesting task to make a thorough search of all the old buildings and dug-outs, just as the archeologists have been doing in Egypt and all the ancient habitations of mankind? The prehistoric caves of Spain or the cliff dwellings of the Colorado could not be more interesting than a compilation of these records, including the drawings and sketches, some of which are real works of art. Regimental crests and badges are often shown with the utmost attention to detail and, in one place which we afterward occupied, one of the walls bore an elaborately carved tablet enumerating the campaigns and battles of one of the oldest British line regiments, together with a list of the honors, V. C's. and so on, won by members thereof. On one of the walls at Captain's Post one of my boys, Charlie Wendt, carved a large maple leaf upon which he inscribed the names of all our squad. He was killed a few days later and others at various times and of that whole list, I am the sole survivor. I would give a great deal to have that bit of wall here in my own home.
Meantime, the Allemand has gone away and we are free to continue our journey to the front line.
In an orchard behind the house we entered a communication trench and after a few final words of advice from the guide as to the necessity of keeping our heads down wherever the walls were low, started on the mile-long trip. We learned that the trench by which we were going in was named Surrey Lane, in honor of the West Surreys who constructed it. At various points we came upon intersecting trenches, most of which were marked with the name of the point to which they led. One, I remember, was "Wipers Road"; not that it ran all the way to Ypres but led in the direction of that place.
Except for an occasional large shell, whispering overhead, consigned from Kemmel to Warneton or vice versa, and the distant muttering of the French guns away to the south, everything was quiet and peaceful, and had it not been for the ruined buildings and torn-up roads it would have been difficult to imagine that we were in the midst of a battle-field.
Passing through all the maze of cross trenches, we finally reached the front line which we found to be what we afterward called a "half-and-half" trench; that is, it was dug down to a depth of perhaps four feet and built up about the same with sand-bags, making it possibly eight feet from the bottom of trench to top of parapet. It was quite dry and clean and comfortable and proved that the Buffs and Surreys had not been loafing during the summer. I'm afraid we did not properly appreciate it at that time, but as I look back over all the time that has passed since, I am compelled to admit that it was the finest bit of trench we ever occupied.
We had no more than arrived in the line than the cook of the first gun crew we struck brought out a "dixie" of tea and an unlimited supply of bread and butter and jam and invited us to fill up. ("Dixie" is the soldier's name for the camp kettle used in the British army.) Now if you have been paying attention to the story of our movements since leaving England, I think you can readily imagine that we were hungry. These soldiers had been out, some of them, since the beginning of the war and had become inured to all the hardships which are a necessary part of the game, and, splendid fellows that they were, the first thing they thought of was our comfort. From that time on I never met up with any body of British Imperial soldiers who did not show this same consideration and solicitude for the stranger. And they do it so unostentatiously and naturally that they challenge the admiration of all, especially of Colonials such as we, who were, I fear, very apt to forget the little niceties of manner which are inbred in the native Briton. While we afterward became the best of friends there was never any danger of our becoming "alike." We secretly admired their perfect and unalterable observance of all orders even though we were, at the same time, scheming to evade a lot of those same restrictions which appeared to us to be unnecessary. They, on their part, could not help admitting that the dash and "devil-may-care" spirit shown by our men often accomplished results not otherwise attainable but from the emulation of which they were barred by "traditions." The discipline of the one and the discipline of the other are based on two entirely different modes of life; the former carefully trained to rely on and obey implicitly the orders of any superior officer, while the latter looks only for initial direction, depending upon his own initiative and ingenuity to see him through any trouble that might arise.
From this line we could see the whole valley which separated us from the famous Messines Ridge. The enemy was firmly established on its crest, with his advance lines in the valley and even, at some places, on the sides of the slope below us. The town of Messines, directly opposite, was in plain sight but nearly a mile away, the church and hospice, or infirmary, being conspicuous landmarks on the sky-line. Our front lines were from about one hundred and fifty to three hundred yards apart. Numerous ruined farms and cabarets were scattered along the line, sometimes in our territory and sometimes belonging to the enemy. These were, as a rule, converted into redoubts or "strong-points," and defended by both infantry and machine guns. To the northward, within the German lines, was the town of Wytschaete, while we had Mont Kemmel, a prominent hill which gave our artillery good observation all the way from Ypres to "Plugstreet."
Several of the prominent roads within the German lines were in plain sight from our position and, while the artillery devoted considerable attention to harassing the enemy, we were not sufficiently supplied with ammunition at that time to strafe them as was desirable. This was especially true of several "dumps," which is the colloquial word designating the points where the wagons and motor transports deposit ammunition, food and other trench stores and whence they are carried up to the front line by the men. Thus an ammunition dump means a point where ammunition is stored, while a ration dump is a place where the ration carrying parties repair at night to procure the rations for the following day. At some points the field cookers or "rolling kitchens" come up at night and the cooked food is carried from there to the front. One such place at Messines, we called "Cooker's Halt."
The machine gun officer of the outgoing Surreys had begun to develop some ideas of his own as to the feasibility of strafing enemy transports and dumps at night and had selected a tentative position behind a slight crest, about one hundred and fifty yards N. E. of "In den Kraatenberg Cabaret" and immediately adjacent to a disused communication trench called "Plum Avenue." Now I had been a crank on long range, indirect fire in England, so I had no difficulty in persuading our M. G. officer to turn this job over to me. We improved the position and also established another one, about one hundred yards down the trench for daylight work against aircraft. In those days the planes would come over at altitudes of two thousand feet and less and we had some splendid opportunities to practise on them. We succeeded in bringing one down with his petrol tank on fire, and we turned back a good many more until they began to fly so high that we could not reach them. At night, by using information obtained from our artillery and our own forward observers, we were able to cut up a lot of their transports. At first they would drive down to a place called the Barricade, but after we caught them there two or three times they came only to the top of the hill, to "Cooker's Halt." We soon chased them out of that, however, and then I guess poor Fritz had to carry his stuff all the way from behind the Ridge. On two occasions we caught large working parties, in broad daylight, and cut them up and dispersed them. Our position in front of the group of buildings (In den Kraatenberg) naturally led the enemy to believe that we were using the building for cover, so he shelled the poor inoffensive houses and barns most industriously but never put anything close enough to our real position to do any damage. This taught me a lesson which I put into operation, later on, at Sniper's Barn, with the best of results.
From that time on, strafing was an important part of machine gunnery until, now, together with barrage fire, it comprises about all there is to machine-gun work, proper, for the automatic rifle has taken over the greater part of the front-line offensive work.
EIGHT DAYS IN
As the subject of machine guns is one of great interest at this time, it may not be amiss to devote a little space to explaining some of the salient features of the most commonly used types.
All automatic arms are divided into classes, as determined by the following characteristics:
1st. Method of applying the power necessary to operate: (gas or recoil).
2nd. Method of supplying ammunition: (belt, magazine or clip).
3rd. Method of cooling: (water or air).
Another well-defined distinction is made between the true machine gun and the automatic rifle; the former being so heavy that it must be mounted on a substantial tripod or other base, while the latter is so light that it may be carried and operated by a single man. Of the former class, the Colt, (35 lbs.), the Vickers, (38 lbs.) and the Maxim, (63 lbs.) may be taken as representative. They are all mounted, for field work, on tripods weighing fifty pounds or more. In the latter class, the Lewis, Benet-Mercie, and Hotchkiss, running from 17 to 25 lbs., are fair examples. They are all equipped with light, skeleton "legs" or tripods, which, by the way, are never used in the field although they are still considered essential for training purposes.
In the gas-operated arms, a small hole is drilled in the under side of the barrel, six to eight inches from the muzzle, so that, when the bullet has passed this point, and during the time it takes it to traverse the remaining few inches to the muzzle, a certain portion of the enclosed gas is forced through this hole, where it is "trapped," in a small "gas-chamber" and its force directed against a piston or lever which, being connected with the necessary working parts of the gun by cams, links or ratchets, performs the functions of removing and ejecting the empty cartridge case, withdrawing a new cartridge from the belt, clip or magazine, and "cocking" the gun: that is, forcing the "hammer" or striker back and compressing its spring. As the pressure generated in the barrel by our ammunition is not less than 50,000 lbs. to the square inch, very little gas is required to do all this. There must also be sufficient force to compress or coil a strong spring or springs called "main-springs" or retracting springs which, in their turn, force the mechanism forward to its original position, seating the new cartridge in the chamber and releasing the striker, thus firing another shot. This action continues as long as the "trigger" is kept pressed or until the belt or magazine is emptied. The Colt, Benet-Mercie, Hotchkiss and Lewis are in this class. They are all of the air-cooled type.
In the recoil operated guns, the barrel itself is forced to the rear by the "kick," as we commonly call it, and the force applied directly to the working parts, thus performing the same operations above described. The Maxim, Vickers, Vickers-Maxim and Maxim-Nordenfeldt belong to this class. They are all water-cooled, having a water-jacket of sheet metal entirely surrounding the barrel.
All the last-mentioned class, and also the Colt, have the ammunition loaded in belts containing two hundred and fifty rounds each. The Hotchkiss and Benet-Mercie use clips of from twenty to thirty rounds, while the Lewis is fed from a round, flat, pan-shaped magazine holding forty-seven rounds. (For aircraft guns these magazines are made larger; about double this capacity, I think.)
During the early part of the war, before the advent of the Lewis and other automatic rifles, the only machine guns in general use were of the heavy, tripod-mounted type and it was necessary for them to advance with or even ahead of attacking troops. As the guns and tripods were very conspicuous objects they naturally became the especial targets for enemy riflemen and snipers and the casualties among machine gunners ran far above the average for other troops. It was this that caused the Emma Gee sections to be named Suicide Clubs.
Now, however, the Lewis gun, being light and inconspicuous, can be carried by advancing troops and used effectively in the attack without its operators suffering excessively, and at the same time it has been demonstrated that the true machine gun, of the heavier type, mounted on its firm base, can effectively cooperate with the artillery in maintaining protective or other barrages and in delivering harassing fire upon the enemy at points behind his front line. As this fire is, necessarily, over the heads of our own troops, sometimes but a few feet over them, it must be extremely accurate and dependable and it has been proved that guns of the lighter, automatic-rifle type, can not be safely used for this purpose, even when mounted on the heavy tripods of the other guns. This is probably due to the excessive vibration of the lighter barrels.
For the benefit of any who are not familiar with the word, I might say, in passing, that "barrage" is a French word meaning a "barrier" or a "dam" and when used in a military sense it means a veritable barrier or wall of fire, where the shells or bullets, or both, are falling so thickly as to make it impossible for any body of troops to go through without suffering great loss.
I know nothing of the Browning gun, as it is a new invention and has never been used in the field. We can only hope that it will prove as good as the Vickers and Lewis which are giving perfect satisfaction on the battle-fields of Flanders and France. No real machine gunner expects or requires anything better, but I can not imagine any one type of gun that can replace both of them, any more than a single class of artillery can combine the functions of both the light field guns and the heavy howitzers.
The Germans evidently had good spies within our lines as they always knew when we changed over; that is, when we took over a new line. At first they would call out: "Hello, Canadians, how are you," sometimes even naming the battalion. Later on, however, they used much stronger language but they knew who we were, just the same. Their methods of communicating information from our lines were many and very ingenious. For instance, at one time it was learned by our intelligence department that spies were making use of the many windmills to signal messages across the line. They did this by stopping the sails of the mills at certain angles and moving them about from time to time. When this was discovered the orders went out for all windmills to be stopped in such a position that the arms should always be at an exact forty-five degree angle whenever the mill was not running, with the understanding that failure to observe this regulation would result in our artillery in the immediate vicinity turning their guns on the offending mill. At one place we discovered a large periscope with a heliographic attachment by which a seemingly inoffensive Belgian peasant kept in constant communication with the boche. This periscope was concealed in the chimney of a partially ruined farm building within our lines. At other places underground cables were discovered, with telephones or field telegraph instruments concealed in cellars or old buildings. Carrier pigeons were also much used and, without a doubt, many men passed back and forth between the lines, some of them, as we learned from time to time, regularly enlisted in our armies. At several places we had men shot down and killed by snipers masquerading as farmers, behind our lines. Needless to say, such affairs were promptly attended to, on the spot, "tout de suite" as the French say.
So, although that part of the line had been very quiet for a long time, they began at once to give us a reception. While the shelling was as nothing compared to bombardments we went through later, still it gave us an opportunity to make the acquaintance of the various kinds of shells from "whizz-bangs" up to something of about eight-inch caliber.
The first casualty in the battalion was a scout named Boyer who was killed on his initial trip into No Man's Land the first night in the trenches. Next day Starkey decided he could not see enough with a periscope, so took a look over the parapet. Both men are buried in the garden back of the St. Quentin Cabaret together with many from the best and most famous British Line Regiments.
The Emma Gees came out pretty lucky, having but one man seriously wounded. His name was Mangan, a Yankee, who had served in the U. S. Army in the Philippines. He was badly wounded by shrapnel and was sent back to England. We used to hear from him occasionally until about a year later the letters stopped.
After eight days we were relieved by the Twentieth Battalion and went back to Dranoutre for our first "rest." We went by way of Neuve Eglise but, as it was night, we could see but little of that much shot-up city. It commenced to rain before we started out and kept it up until we went back again, four days later. At that time it was customary to carry in and out everything, including ammunition, and we soon learned to dread the days when we had to move. We would have preferred to stay in the front line for a month at a time rather than carry all that heavy stuff in and out so often. However, we managed to get a bath and some clean clothes, which made everybody feel better. We had no regular billets at Dranoutre but rigged up little shelter tents, somewhat similar to those used in the U. S. Army, by lacing two or more rubber sheets together. Our cooking was done by gun crews, somewhat on the order of a lot of Boy Scouts, in that no two crews had the same ideas or used the same methods. My squad dug out a nice little "stove" in a bank, and by covering it with flattened-out biscuit tins and making a pipe of tin cans of various sorts, managed to get along very well. Here we received our first pay since arriving in France; fifteen francs each. It doesn't sound like much but, believe me, we made those "sous" go a long way and bought lots of little delicacies we could not otherwise have had.
While at Dranoutre we associated with the inhabitants, in the stores and estaminets. The Germans had taken of whatever they needed in the way of live stock and foodstuffs, but the town itself happened to be one of the many scattered up and down the line, which had miraculously escaped even an ordinary bombardment.
There were refugees, hundreds of them; from the towns and cities farther to the eastward, whence they had fled with little or nothing besides the clothes on their backs. There were children who had lost their parents; wives who knew not what had become of their husbands, and men whose wives and families were somewhere back in the German-occupied territory. They told of enduring the direst hardships and suffering; of cold and hunger.
Every town behind the lines that had escaped destruction was crowded with these poor homeless people. Every habitable house sheltered all who could find no room to lie on the floor. Those who could, worked on the roads or in the neighboring fields. Many of the women worked in the military laundries. They all received some assistance from the French Government and from the many charitable societies. When talking with them they would tell their stories in a monotonous sort of way, seldom making any complaint; seeming to think that all these things were to be endured as a matter of course.
I have read all the available reports on the subject of atrocities and have no doubt that they are true, but none ever came under my personal observation.
In the midst of a battle many men do things which would, at other times, fill them with horror. The excitement of combat seems to breed a lust for killing and the sight of blood is like a red flag to a bull. This, unfortunately, is not confined to Germans. One of our officers who had had a brother killed a few days before deliberately shot and killed several unarmed prisoners. He was, himself, killed the same day. On another occasion, a wounded German, lying in a shell-hole, stabbed and killed one of our wounded and attacked another only to be beaten at his own game and killed with his own knife. A soldier of the Royal Fusiliers, at St. Eloi, was detected by his sergeant in the act of shooting an unarmed prisoner, whereupon the sergeant immediately shot and killed the soldier. I saw this, myself.
But the deliberate shooting of wounded men and stretcher-bearers has been, so far as I know, confined to the Hun. On numerous occasions, some of which are mentioned elsewhere in this story, German snipers deliberately and in cold blood shot down our helpless wounded and the men who were endeavoring to succor them.
AT CAPTAIN'S POST
The Battle of Loos had opened on the twenty-fifth of September and, although it was a considerable distance to the south of us, we had been hearing the continuous rumble of the guns ever since we had come up to the line. It was the first time we had heard "drum-fire," as the French call it. It is such an incessant bombardment, with such a large number of guns, that you can not distinguish any single reports, but the whole makes a continual "rumble," something like the roll of heavy thunder in the distance; never slacking, night or day. I have forgotten just how many days they kept it up, but it was something like two weeks.
To create a diversion, and prevent the enemy from taking troops from other parts of the line to strengthen the attacked point, our artillery, all along the line, was doing its best and our infantry made feint attacks at several places. We had gone back in the line on the first of October and, early the next morning, our brigade, Fourth Canadian, took part in one of these attacks. Our battalion did not go "over the top," but Bouchard and I stuck our gun up on the parapet and helped support the advance, which was made by the Nineteenth Battalion. It was our first experience of that kind and was, to say the least, interesting. The enemy kept up an incessant rifle and machine-gun fire on our position, the bullets were snapping around our heads like a bunch of fire-crackers and the mud was flying everywhere, but that little seventeen-year-old "kid" kept feeding in belts and all the while whooping and laughing like a maniac. It certainly cheered me up to have him there. The whole thing was over in about twenty minutes but, during that short time, we had learned something which can be learned in no other way—that it is possible for thousands of bullets to come close to you without doing any harm. From that time on, neither Bouchard nor I ever felt the least hesitation about slipping over the parapet at night to "see what we could see."
During this tour we were subjected to considerably more shelling than on the first occasion, and one morning Fritz made a mistake with one of his shells intended for "our farm," as we called the buildings in the rear, and dropped it "ker-plunk" right into one of our dug-outs. It was a place we had fixed up for cooking, and we were all outside, but it certainly made a mess of our "kitchen furniture." Then they shot up our communication trench until it was positively dangerous to go up and down it for rations and ammunition. Narrow escapes were numerous, but our luck held, and we went out the night of the eighth without having sustained a casualty. The battalion did not fare so well, having quite a number of wounded, but none killed.
That was our last visit to those trenches, as we marched, that night, away to the northward. "Eeps" was the word that went up and down the line, that being the Flemish pronunciation of Ypres, (in French pronounced "Ee-pr" and in Tommy's English, "Wipers"). We had a hard march; in the rain, as usual; and, about daylight, stopped at the town of LaClytte, which was to be the battalion's billeting place for several months. The rest of the battalion remained there a few days, resting, but the Emma Gees went on ahead and took over some support positions at Groot Vierstraat and along the Ypres-Neuve Eglise road. We relieved the King Edward Horse who were acting, as was all the cavalry, as infantry.
My crew, together with Sandy McNab's, was assigned to an old Belgian farm called Captain's Post. The place was pretty well shot up but we managed to clear out enough room to give us very good quarters; by far the best we had had since leaving England. We were some 1,250 yards from the enemy lines but in plain sight of them, hence it was necessary to be very careful not to allow any one to move about outside the buildings in daytime, nor to make any smoke.
No doubt some one got careless, for about noon the next day we heard the long-drawn-out "who-o-o-o-i-s-s-s-h" of a big shell coming. It struck about twenty-five yards behind our building and failed to explode; in soldier's parlance, it was a "dud." We were eating dinner and refused to be disturbed. Then came a steady stream of the big fellows; to the right, to the left, in front of the building and, finally, "smack," right into the house. Altogether, they put thirty-two "five-point-nine" (150 mm.) shells into that one old building and all the damage they did was to ruin our dinner by filling the "dixie" with mud. How in the world we escaped has always been a mystery to me, but later on, after other and worse affairs, the men called it "McBride's luck." They shelled us pretty regularly, after that, sometimes just two or three shells, but on at least one occasion, they evidently had made up their minds to put the place out of business entirely, for they kept up a continuous bombardment, with guns of at least three calibers, for more than an hour. At that time I was a corporal and had twelve men, with two guns at this place, yet, although nearly every one was hit by pieces of brick and mud and covered with dust, not a man was hurt nor a gun injured.
One morning, just after daylight and during a fog, I was up in an old hay-loft where we had a gun, when I heard a cock pheasant "squawking" (that's the only word that describes it), out in front. Looking from the gun position I saw him, standing on the parapet of an abandoned French trench across the road. I could not resist the temptation, so took a shot at him, with the result that we had pheasant stew for dinner that day.
It was a source of never-ceasing wonder to me that the birds and other forms of wild life seemed to be so little affected by the continual noise of guns and shells. So far as I could notice they did not pay the slightest attention to it. Pheasants, partridges and rabbits were numerous at one point in and behind our lines and I have seen them running about, feeding or playing where shells were falling and bursting all about them, without showing any sign of fear. Indeed they were sometimes killed by the shells, especially shrapnel, but those unhit would "carry on" with the business in hand, indifferent to the fate of their companions.
The little robin redbreasts (the English robin and the French rouge-gorge) were abundant, as were the ubiquitous English sparrows, which, sitting out in front on the barbed wire, were often used as targets by men firing experimental shots.
A pair of swallows reared a family of young in a dug-out which I once occupied, the nest being within a few feet of my head when I was in my bunk. They would come in and go out through a small hole which we left in the burlap curtain and the old bird would sit on the nest and look at me in such a confidential, unafraid sort of way that she made a friend for life and I would have fought any one who had attempted to disturb or injure her. But, of course, no such thing was possible. All the men seemed to take a kindly interest in the birds and, except for the occasional shot at the English sparrows (which never hit them, anyhow), they rarely, if ever, molested any of them unless it was for the purpose of getting a meal of pheasant or partridge, which was considered perfectly legitimate although forbidden by "orders." It was all right if you could "get away with it," as the saying is. One morning, after an unusually intense bombardment of a wood called the Bois Carre, I found many dead birds; killed either by direct hits or by the concussion of the heavy shells. This same morning I watched a pair of magpies who were building a nest in a tree near our station. A shell had struck the tree, below the nest, and had cut it in half while a large branch had lodged just above the nest. The whole thing was swaying dangerously in the light breeze and a strong wind would surely bring it down, but that pair of chattering magpies appeared to be debating whether to continue their work or move elsewhere. One would hop down to the place where the shell had hit and, cocking his head this way and that, would let loose a flow of magpie talk that would bring his mate to him and then they would both investigate, flying to the shattered place, clinging to the bark and picking out splinters and pieces of wood. Then they would go up aloft and consult about the nest itself. I watched them for the better part of an hour when the verdict appeared to be to "take a chance" and go ahead with the building. We left that place soon after and I never learned the final outcome.
At one point, where our lines were about one hundred yards from the enemy, there was a small pond in No Man's Land just outside our wire, and a pair of ducks, teal, I think, made it their home during the entire winter of 1915-16. In spite of the fact that shells were continually falling all around and sometimes bursting squarely in the pond itself, they never showed the least inclination to abandon the place. As this pond was surrounded by a fringe of small willows we often made use of the cover they afforded to make night reconnoissances, but soon learned that it was impossible to approach the pool without alarming the ducks and drawing from them a low scolding note of protest, accompanied by a splashing of water. This was carefully noted and, thereafter, all sentries at that point were especially warned to listen intently for these noises as it would probably mean that an enemy patrol was exploring in the vicinity. The abandoning of so many of the farms and villages left a great many cats without homes. Nearly every ruined barn or house sheltered one or more of them and they were, as a rule, quite wild. Some, however, had been caught and tamed by the soldiers who made great pets of them. Frequently a soldier would be seen going in or out of the front line with a kitten perched contentedly on top of his pack. There was one big brindle "madame" cat who adopted our machine gun outfit when we first went in. She traveled up and down the line but never stayed anywhere except in one of the machine gun emplacements. On bright days she would hop up on top of the parapet and sit there, making her toilet, and then stretch out on the sand-bags for a nap. At this point it was not possible to show a hand or a periscope or any other small object without drawing the fire of some alert boche, but they never shot at the cat I don't know why, superstition, perhaps.
This old cat had two litters of kittens while she was a "member" of our section and they were all grabbed up as soon as weaned, by both officers and men alike. It is simply human nature to want to have a pet of some kind and, as it was forbidden to take dogs into the lines, the soldiers turned to the cats. Of course they were of some use in killing mice, but the real scourge of the trenches, the giant rats, were too big and strong for any cat to tackle. There were literally millions of these rats. At night they appeared to be everywhere. They would eat up any rations that were left within reach and, boldly entering the dug-outs, would run about all over the sleeping men. It is decidedly unpleasant to be awakened to find one of these fellows perched on your chest and "sniff-sniff-sniffing" in your face. The men killed them in all sorts of ways, one of the most popular of which was to stick a bit of cheese on the end of the bayonet and, holding it down along the bottom of the trench, wait until Mr. Rat went after the cheese and then fire the rifle. Needless to say that rat was "na-poo," which is soldier-French, meaning "finis."
At Captain's Post a cat had a family of kittens, just learning to walk, hidden in a haymow, when we were shelled unmercifully. After the bombardment ceased, upon going up into the mow to inspect the damage, I found them. They were all covered with brick-dust but unhurt. By actual count, no less than five shells had burst within ten feet of the nest in which they were hidden; in fact, the whole place was an utter ruin, yet they came through it untouched. Then, at Sniper's Barn there was a big black cat, wild as a fox, which had a hiding-place somewhere among the ruins of the upper story. I had a sniping nest, burrowed under a lot of tobacco which had been stored there, and was occupying it one day when the Germans shelled the place. They put several shells into that part of the building, cutting the legs off the tripod of my telescope and burying the whole works, including myself. But what interested and amused me most was when a shell rooted out that cat and sent it flying down into my quarters, unhurt but so plastered with dust from the bricks and mortar that no one would have ever suspected it of being black. It was an entirely new variety—a red cat. It sat and looked at me for a long time. Disgust, just plain, every-day disgust, was written all over that animal's face. I don't know what would have happened had I not laughed. I simply could not help it, the sight was so funny. With my first shout the cat seemed to "come to" and, with a terrified yowl, sped through a narrow opening and took to the woods.
To change the subject: Many of our men will, doubtless, be comforted to know that in one respect Flanders is like Ireland—there are no snakes.
One of our guns on this line was in the upper story of an old brewery at Vierstraat, about seven hundred yards from my position, and we occasionally exchanged visits. One day, I was down there talking with the boys when a five-inch (sixty pounder) shrapnel shell burst in front of the building, the case coming right on through, into the room where we were. It "scooted," glanced, ricochetted, or whatever you want to call it, all around that room and you never saw such a scampering to get out. It finally stopped, however, and one of the boys dragged it out into the light for an examination. On the side it was branded "BEARDMORE, SCOTLAND." Now, how do you suppose Heinie got that?
OUR OWN CHEERFUL FASHION
On October twelfth there was a general attack along our front, to try out some new "smoke bombs" and shells. It was the first time the smoke barrage was used. We took our guns down about half-way to the front line and set them up in hedge-rows and other places where we could sweep the front in case the enemy made a counter-attack and got into our lines. However, we were not needed, so remained spectators of about as pretty a show as I have ever seen. At a given signal, every gun behind our lines dropped smoke shells in a continuous row along the line, just in front of the enemy's parapet. As each shell struck, it burst, sending out great streamers of white smoke that soon became a dense wall through which no one could see. Under cover of this, our bombers advanced, threw hand grenades into the enemy trenches and then retired. No attempt was made to take any part of the line; it was more in the nature of a try-out for the new shells and also for the purpose of harassing the enemy.
Naturally, the boche, expecting a general attack, commenced to shell everything in that part of the country and also opened up a heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, a good deal of which came our way, but no one was hit. On the way back to the barn, Bouchard and I were walking side by side, perhaps three or four feet apart, when a "whizz-bang" came right between us and struck the ground not more than ten feet in front. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand that would have spelled our finish, but the shell struck on the edge of a little hump, at the side of a ditch, turned sidewise and spun round like a top. We stood there, speechless, fascinated by the peculiar antics of the thing, until it stopped. It was a pretty toy, a 105 mm., painted red and with a beautiful brass fuse-cap. I picked it up but as it was too hot to handle I put on my asbestos gloves, used for changing barrels of machine guns, and carried it "home" where I put it away, intending to get some artilleryman to remove the fuse and explosive so that I might keep it as a souvenir; but a bunch of boys from the Eighteenth Battalion found it, and taking it back to their dug-out at Ridgewood, tried to unload it themselves. Some were killed and several wounded when the thing exploded. I afterward saw one of those who had been wounded and he told me about it.
At this stage of the soldier's career he is always a "souvenir hunter," picking up and carrying around with him all sorts of things, from German bullets to big shells. I was a fiend of the first magnitude and collected enough stuff to stock a museum, only to have to abandon it whenever we moved. I had French rifles, bayonets and other equipment; German ditto and about every size and type of shell and fuse that was used on our front. Whenever we moved I would bury or cache the whole lot, in the hope that I could get back for it some day. But the fever finally wore off, and I got so that I would not even pick up a German helmet. Now, of course, I wish I had some of that stuff to show the folks.
On the fifteenth of October we went into the front line; a line which we, alternating with the Twentieth Battalion, were destined to hold until the following April. About this time the rains set in "for keeps" and we were seldom dry or warm or clean for nearly six months. Mud, mud, nothing but mud—mud without any bottom. We had no trenches, proper; they were simply sand-bag barricades between us and the enemy and it was a continual struggle to keep them built up. They would ooze away like melting butter.
When the deadlock came, in the fall of 1914, and the opposing armies lay entrenched, from the North Sea to Switzerland, it found the Germans occupying the dominating heights, with our forces hanging on, as best they could, to positions on the lower ground.
This was the case at the point where we were located. Our sector (about eleven hundred yards for the battalion frontage) extended from the Voormezeele-Wytschaete road, northward to the bottom of the hill at the top of which was the village of St. Eloi. Directly opposite our left was Piccadilly Farm, located on a hill about ten meters higher than our lines. From there toward the right, the enemy line gradually descended until, at the right of our line, it was only about two meters higher. The distance between the front lines varied from about seventy yards, at the right, to about two hundred and fifty yards at the left. The net result of this situation was that the Germans could dig trenches of considerable depth, draining the water out under their parapets or into two small streams which ran from their lines to ours. They had a playful habit of damming up these streams until an unusually hard rain would come, when they would open the gates and give us the benefit of the whole dose. I have seen the water in these streams rise seven feet within less than an hour and there were times when in one of our communication trenches it was over a man's head. A soldier of the West York's regiment was drowned in this trench one night.
Under such conditions, it was impossible for us to dig. All we could do was to construct sand-bag parapets or barricades, while our so-called "dug-outs" consisted of huts constructed of sand-bags, roofed with corrugated iron and covered with more sand-bags. They afforded protection from shrapnel and small shell fragments, but, of course, not against direct hits from any kind of shells. Even a little "whizz-bang" would go through them as though they were egg-shells. All the earth thereabouts was of the consistency of thick soup and our parapet had a habit of sloughing away just about as fast as we could build it up. As a matter of fact, our communication trenches did become completely obliterated and we had no recourse but to go in and out of the trenches "overland." At night this was not so bad, although we were continually losing men from stray bullets. But when it was necessary, as it sometimes was, to go in or out in daylight why, it was a cinch that some one was going to get hit, as the enemy had had many good snipers watching for just such opportunities. At one time, for over two weeks more than two hundred yards of our parapet were down, and if you went from one end of the line to the other you must expose yourself to the full view of enemy snipers. My duties required me to cover this stretch of trench at least twice a day.
Our conduct in taking short cuts across the fields when the trenches were knee-deep with mud, was scandalous in the eyes of our neighbors of the Imperial army, as the troops from the British Isles are known. Quite frequently we were subjected to the most scathing tongue-lashing from officers of the old school, but we won the astonished admiration of the Tommies by our disregard of instructions and advice. I well remember one day when a party of us were going out through the P. & O. communication trench and, finding the mud too deep, we climbed out and walked across the open, whereat an old Colonel of some Highland regiment gave us a "beautiful calling." His discourse was a masterpiece of fluent soldier talk and, as a Scot usually does when excited, he lapsed into the "twa-talk" of his native Hielans. I can remember his last words, which were to the effect that: "Ye daft Cany-deens think ye're awfu' brave but I tell ye the noo it's no bravery; it's sheer stupidity." Of course he was right, but we could not allow the small matter of a bullet or two to stand in the way of our getting out in time for tea, and finally they gave it up in disgust and allowed us to "go to hell in our own cheerful fashion," as they said.
With the assistance of the engineers, we finally succeeded in constructing a new line, slightly in the rear of the old one which was abandoned except for a couple of machine-gun positions and a listening post. We also managed to get out a fairly good barbed-wire entanglement along most of the front. Fritz appeared to be having his troubles, too, so did not bother us much at night. We always got a few shells every day and usually quite a number of rifle grenades and "fish-tail" aerial torpedoes, but they did very little damage. Here was where the mud was our friend, for, unless a shell dropped squarely on the top of you, it would do no harm.
Just as streets and roads must have their names, so must all trenches have official designations. This applies also to localities, farms, cross-roads, woods and such places which have no "regular" names or which possess Flemish or French names difficult of pronunciation by the soldiers.
Front-line trenches are usually designated by letters or numbers, running in regular order, from right to left in each sector. Certain important points may have special names. Communication trenches are always given distinctive names. Probably the majority of these names are those of prominent streets and roads in England, especially in London. At Messines we had "Surrey Lane," "Stanley Road" and "Plum Avenue" for communication trenches, while our front line embraced the whole series of "C" trenches. During the winter we occupied the "N" and "O" front-line trenches, while our communication trenches bore such names as "Poppy Lane," "Bois Carre" (afterward called "Chicory Trench" because it ran through a chicory field), and the "P. & O." so named because it entered the front line at the junction of the "O" and "P" trenches and P. & O. is so much easier to say than O. & P. At St. Eloi, "Convent Lane" and "Queen Victoria Street" were examples of the communication trenches, while the front-line positions were designated by numbers, as elsewhere explained. Originally, they were called the "O" and "R" trenches. Opposite Hill 60 (so named because it is sixty meters above sea level), the numbering method was continued in the front line, while the communication trenches included "Petticoat Lane," "Fleet Street" and "Rat Alley." At various places along the lines you would find "Marble Arch," "Highgate," "Piccadilly Circus," and so on.
Supporting points were generally designated as "S. P. 7" (or other number), or as "Redoubts" with identifying names. In one place we had the "Southern, Eastern and Western" redoubts along the edges of a certain wood.
The reproduction on the opposite page is a section from the map known as Wytschaete. Here are Shelley Farm, White Horse Cellars and St. Eloi, with the British front line shown by faint dashes, crossing the road that runs through White Horse Cellars, at figure 2. The German trenches, indicated by irregular black lines, are close to the British front at this point, but run sharply away down to Piccadilly Farm and beyond on the left. The trenches on this map are corrected to February 20th, 1916. Sniper's Barn that figures so thrillingly in Captain McBride's experiences is shown at the extreme left of the map, only the word Barn appearing.
Sometimes the original Flemish names were retained for the farms, chateaux and cross-roads, but more often they would be Anglicized by our map makers. Thus we had "Moated Grange," "Bus House," "Shelley Farm," "Beggar's Rest," "Dead Dog Farm," "Sniper's Barn," "Captain's Post," "Maple Copse," the "White Chateau" and the "Red Chateau," "Dead Horse Corner," "White Horse Cellars" and so on, indefinitely. "Scottish Wood" was so named for the London Scottish who made a famous charge there in the early part of the war. Hallebast Corner was changed by the soldier to "Hell-blast" Corner, just as Ypres became "Wipers" and Ploegstert was translated into "Plugstreet." As to the estaminets, (drinking places), while many retained their original names, such as "Pomme d'Or," "Repos aux Voyageurs" or "Herberg in der Kruisstraat," such names as "The Pig & Whistle" and "Cheshire Cheese" were not uncommon.