Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 2

Albert in peace times, I should think, was a fairly prosperous town. Now it is merely a heap of ruins, the railway station being about the best preserved structure. The most remarkable feature is the modern red cathedral, nearly battered to pieces. Here and there, however, there is a portion strangely preserved, notably a very fine mosaic of St. Joseph over one of the doors, and then most wonderful of all the great gilt Madonna and Child that once surmounted the tower, now hanging horizontally over the road in an attitude of appeal to all that pass beneath to hearken to the counsel given at the advent of the Christ Child, “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.” Everywhere we travelled on active service we met with the same experience, the wonderful preservation of crucifixes and other religious emblems, and it has made a profound impression on Tommy.

After breakfast, partaken of in a ruined cellar, we marched out of Albert along the main road on to Bricoust Wood. Nothing that I have since experienced has effaced the impression made on me by all I observed on that march. The road had been kept in good condition by a Navvy’s Battalion, but on either side was ruin and devastation. On our way we passed companies of many regiments returning from the line for a brief rest. The men looked weary, and is some cases dragged rather than marched along, their expression “puzzled looking” as H.G. Wells would term it, and appropriately too, for what greater riddle than the problem of life and death as they had encountered it? They were smothered in mud and dust, yet not too weary to scan us curiously, as if to ascertain what manner of men were to their place in the hell they had left behind. Now one came across a huge ammunition dump, where hundreds of shells were being unloaded from railway trucks or into motor lorries, and then at intervals one walked across level crossings of the railways that seem to run everywhere behind the British front, following up every advance we make.

A little further along was a cemetery that, in common with all around it, had suffered the ravages of war, and whose desecrated monuments cried to heaven for vengeance. Still more pathetic are the clusters of white crosses that mark the last resting places of those who in the early stages of the war gave up their lives with a quiet heroism that will be immortal. On we marched through arcades of waiting lorries, a perpetual procession of motor vans plying at a swift pace past us, a motor carrying staff officers relieving the monotony at times, and the ever present Red Cross ambulance speeding on its humanitarian errand. One vehicle we encountered at which we gazed with wistful eyes, the sight of it opening the floodgates of memory, the old Blighty motor bus. At intervals, too, traction engines drawing huge guns plod along slowly but surely. On every side, one was overawed by the organisation, marvelling at the intelligence that thought it out, and staggered by the finances necessary to carry it into practice. All is bustling life, every man busy at his appointed task.

It was a long march, and we had to rest frequently. The long marches are often the most severe test of endurance to Tommy staggering beneath the weight of some 96 pounds, often more. As we proceeded the appearance of the country became more ravaged and ruined, save perhaps for an untouched oasis here and there. One of these, Bricoust Wood, was our destination, which we at length reached. Our draft was immediately paraded by the Regimental Sergeant Major, who with cruel disregard of our feelings split us up into different companies, separating in almost every instance bosom friends. As with everything else in the Army, we had to grin and bear it. Here more than anywhere else is the philosophical temperament a God-send. After being issues with steel helmets, ugly in appearance and an additional seven pounds in weight, we were dismissed. We spent the rest of the day in fashioning for ourselves a rude shelter made of twigs and tree stumps, overlaid with leaves, sufficient to hold four of us. However, we were but amateurs, and during the night we were awakened by heavy rain, which had thoroughly drenched us, and reduced our shelter to a skeleton. Our spirits were slightly damped also, but the morning breakfast and bright sunshine restored us to ourselves.

Our rations at this period were four in a loaf, a portion of cheese each, and a tin of jam between six. The jam, nearly always apricot, gave rise to the famous Bairnsfather cartoon, “When the —— is it going to be strawberry?” Then for breakfast there was the additional course of a rasher of bacon, and for dinner the eternal stew, not too bad, considering! The morning the battalion left Bricoust, and, headed by the pipers, we marched through miles of devastated country to Mametz Wood. How much the British Tommy owes to his band, that accompanies him within a few miles of the battle front, helping him to forget the fatigues of his journey, nerving him to action, and when it is over bringing balm to his distracted and weary spirit! Not for the first time had the battle grounds of Europe heard the lilt of Irish pipers leading to victory or death the men of a fighting race, for

On far foreign fields from Dunkirk to Belgrade, Lie the soldiers and chiefs of the Irish Brigade.

Barely had we settled in Mametz Wood when I was appointed to my first “working party”, chosen as one of five to clear the historic battle field of High Wood. We started off at once, tramping through indescribable filth for miles, till we reached the great expanse that had witnessed one of the most sanguinary battles of the world war.

Picture a desolate waste that extends as far as the eye can reach, pock-marked with countless shell holes, interrupted at intervals with trenches, or rather breastworks, that wind serpent like along till lost to sight, littered with every form of salvage and strewn with human bodies. But reader! CAN you picture it? It has to be seen to be realised.

We settled in a rude trench, digging funk holes for ourselves. The funk holes vary in kind, from the cavity into which Tommy thrusts his head ostrich-like to the more roomy space in which he can lie at length, his waterproof sheet forming an excellent covering for the entrance. For most of the night it was drizzling with rain, and we were soon standing in churned up mud. Going very carefully to work, for smoke might be observed by the Boche with unpleasant results, we lit a small fire in a scooped out hole and made ourselves a meal. There was something familiar to me about the appearance of a neighbour a few funk holes away, and moved half by generosity and half by curiosity I invited him to a drink of tea. I soon discovered that I had been a regular client of his at his little book shop in Charing Cross Road, in the spacious days of peace. He remarked how life as he was at present living it had supplemented the written word in broadening is outlook and extending his sympathies. His wife – admirable woman – is carrying on in his absence. I have not seen him since, but I cherish the hope of meeting him again in the dim little shop with all our friends that stand mute now upon the shelves awaiting the return of their master.

All that night the cannonade was terrific, and a comrade and I sat huddled together uncomfortably, for there was barely room for one, unable to sleep because of our fears and the terrible din. Yet the Boche was some distance away, and was not sending many shells over, the noise being chiefly from our own guns. Recollect, though, that we were new to it all. My companion trembled, but it affected me differently, a wretched faint feeling possessing me. The following day, an October Sunday morning, we left the trench and walked out across the battlefield towards the spot where we were to commence our task of burying the dead. The chaplain and officers had not arrived yet, and there was ample food for reflection in all that lay around. It was a scene of the most appalling horror and human dereliction. Even the torn and mangled ground seemed to suggest that mother earth had sickened at the sight. The lifeless bodies of friend and foe lay side by side in the kinship of death, their feuds ceased, never to be resumed. Some had lain there a fortnight nearly, and their blackened remains lent an additional horror to the circumstances of death, others had still upon their faces the colour of life. One was filled with love and pity for them all, British and Boche alike, and Lowell’s lines came to our mind: – “Salute the sacred dead, beautiful evermore and with rays of morn on their white shields of expectation”.

Few more touching sights were there than that of two young German boys lying face downwards in a shell hole, their arms round each other’s necks as if in brotherly embrace. Often beside the poor stricken bodies lie photos of their dear ones, rudely shaken from their pockets. Thank God that the womenfolk cannot see what the sad, but decent phrase, “killed in action”, often means. Yet I think that intuitively they know more than we suppose. Their eyes see further than the brave flash of steel, their ears hear other shouts than the noise of victory. The officers having arrived, we set to work digging a huge pit, and in other respects were proceeding with our task when we were shelled by the Germans, who had observed us. We had the narrowest of escapes, and experienced the ghastly feeling that sickens the heart when a shell bursts close. We made a dash for a distant trench held, I think, by a North Country regiment, which we reached in safety. When quieter we returned to our task, only to be greeted with further shells which compelled us to return to our trenches. Frankly, I was not sorry to escape from a duty which, however noble and Christian, was always particularly painful to me, intimacy with death even in its more natural and less horrible form filling me with a curious dread. From a sense of duty and by sheer force of will I have long since conquered this weakness.

Under cover of darkness we moved that evening to the second line trenches. At a junction in the trenches we lost our guide and, realising the danger of proceeding with our limited knowledge of the geography of those parts, we remained at the point we had reached, securing the nearest funk holes. In our long journey through the tortuous zig-zag of trenches – or more correctly breastworks, for I saw no trenches worthy of the name on the Somme – we walked through mud and filth, often treading on mangled portions of human remains, which gave to the atmosphere a dull stench, climbing at intervals over mounds created by shells that had hit the breastworks. Here and there bodies of men killed in the great advance, disturbed by shell fire, slid back like dummies into the trench. It was a terrible experience for a new draft man, but that night there was no time for reflection. Even as one passed along, the ominous shriek of shells whizzing through the air told one that such horrors would be magnified a thousand fold ere this insensate slaughter had run its course. Early the following morning we proceeded under fire to dressing station, where we were picked out for stretcher bearers. Here again that strange revulsion to any task connected with human suffering which I have alluded to above took possession of me, but as before Christian principles and human pity helped me to conquer it. After all perhaps it was only “nerves”.

We carried one poor wounded fellow across miles of the battlefield, over craters and trenches which rendered our task extremely difficult and the journey yet more painful to the man we carried. At one point where we rested the poor fellow begged for water which, even had it been easy of access, we would not have given him because of the doubt as to its purity. He looked at us with an expression of reproach when we refused him his request, but softened a little when we gave him a cigarette. Oh, weed more than fragrant! Let no one ever again in my presence besmirch your fair name. Yours has been no insignificant part in this hell of war, steadying the nerve, bringing calm to the mind, and comforting the couch of pain.

To be continued…

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