Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 4

“A Chiel’s amang you takin’ notes and, faith, he’ll prent it.” – Burns

Our trek ended some few miles beyond the Belgian frontier at a camp of crude, draughty huts.  The whole district for miles around was full of such camps, a kind of headquarters from which we went at regular intervals up the line.  The huts were built quadrangle fashion round a field that did duty as a parade ground.  Here while out on rest routine was pretty much as I have earlier described, drills, inspections and route marches during the morning, with the evenings left to ourselves. Passes to the neighbouring villages or the nearest town were easy to obtain, while scattered along adjoining roads were numerous estaminets and coffee shops. With a keen eye to business, the Belgian peasant has erected in close proximity to every camp his rude wooden shanty with dainties for Tommy. It is astonishing how the peasant has clung to his native hearth, even when it lay levelled in the dust, and beside it often he has raised a humble structure of wood or tin and torso to assert his inalienable right to the soil. It matters not if the district be still within shelling distance, he is willing to take the risk. During the winter evenings we lit braziers in the centre of the hut, and sat around reading, writing or chatting.  But without, on the parade square, the pipers play their evening selection of Irish areas, while the officers dine. About 9 o’clock we filed up for our rum issue to the Sergeants’ mess, after which we returned to the hut, put down our waterproof sheet, coiled ourselves up in a blanket, and often before “Lights out” were sound asleep. During our term at the camp days were set apart for sports, general inspections and special parades, while Sunday was free after church parade. Our period at the camp was rarely longer than eight days, after which we went into the line for a term of eight days in the reserve, and eight in the frontline trenches.

It must be confessed that our journeys to the line were weary pilgrimages, a long trudge bearing our heavy pack and equipment, the terrible roads were pockmarked with shell holes, full of water and mud. As we approached the trenches we walked in single file, with intervals of fifty yards between the platoons, in order to minimize the danger from shelling. The very lights appeared to nearer, the ground yet more ravaged and presently we descended into of communication trench. As with nearly all communication trenches it was tortuous and seemingly endless. I was at once impressed by the total difference between the conditions here and those prevailing in the war area we left. On the Somme there had been recent fighting and great advances, but on the Belgian sector there had been no offensive for nearly two years. Both sides had had time to consolidate, and entrench themselves, much of the land had been mined and tunnelled, and advantage had been taken of every point of observation. The trenches were well made, with dugouts at intervals, and filled with duck boards. Here and there support trenches branched off, having such romantic names as Lovers’ Lane, Hedge Row and Convent Lane; some, with even less regard for the truth, proclaiming themselves Regent Street, Fleet Street, and such like. Now and again a stronger and better built dugout betrayed its importance as GHQ. Nearly always at such a centre or at the junction of two or more trenches, a sentry was posted whose chief duty was gas guard, to sound the gong at the first signs of gas. The telephone wires crossed and recrossed the trenches, constituting at times a veritable nuisance pinging against one’s helmets or clinging to the swivels of your rifle.

You trudge along single file, wearied and morose, turning the corners of innumerable traverses, tripping here and there over wires or a broken duck board. Those journeys to and from the line on dark winter nights constitute the most dismal of memories.  Tommy will always tell you they got him down more than actual residence in the line.  The man in front of you passes down the warning messages, “Hole left”, “Mind the rails”, or “Wire right”, but the odds are that you will step into the very trap you are most anxious to avoid, with disastrous results. While you are struggling to extricate yourself, knee deep in water or slime, the raucous voice of an NCO bids you “Get along there”, and the air behind you is blue with language more forcible than polite, for Fritz may shell at any moment. Most trying experience of all after a long trudge is to confront in a narrow trench another company of men who have to pass you. You press close to the side of the trench, while the men wriggle through, their equipment getting entangled in yours, to your mutual annoyance.  They, however, are inclined to be tolerant, for their steps are bent towards rest billets, while our goal being the front line, our temper is at breaking point.

At some length we reach the frontline trench, with its parapet and a parados piled high with sandbags. At places the trench is not in the good condition of those in support and reserve and one wades through water ankle deep. Fritz has been unkind enough to draw up an occasional shell there, and we have not had time, perhaps, to repair it. On arriving we immediately “take over” from the battalion holding the line, post sentries, and settle down in the nearest dugout. After the more active warfare of the Somme, this section was surprisingly quiet, occasioned to some extent, of course, by the advent of winter.  Sentry-go lasted for two hours and was an ordeal that strained the nerves to an extent that cannot be imagined. In our sector the Boche was but 25 yards away, and one had to be all alert. When one has gazed fixedly into the darkness of no man’s land for even an hour, the eyes become dim and wearied and apt to be deceived as to the nature of the object that lies before them. Just the reverse of the Scriptural observation, one can see trees like men walking. At moments like these it is advisable to get the officer on duty to send up a Verey light, when for a brief moment darker patch of no man’s land is lit up, and you settle that little doubt of yours.

What a relief to come down off sentry and coil oneself up in the dugout and sleep. I have known nights to pass without any shellfire, but generally there were minor strafes at intervals. Fritz’s shells were chiefly directed at the supports and reserves, because of the close proximity of our front line to his own. For the front line he reserved rifle grenades, trench mortars, and suchlike. During our stay on this sector we lost almost as many men from spasmodic shelling and sniping as if we had taken part in an advance. At one time the regiment facing us must have been a regiment of sharpshooters, for their shooting was remarkably good. They frequently riddled our periscopes, and at night they swept our parapets, and also accounted for many of our men. Their aim seemed deadly, even uncanny. Perhaps the most anxious moment of the day, weird almost in the effect they had on the nervous system, were the “stand-to” in the grey hours of the morning, watching the sun rise over the German trenches, and the “stand-to” at eventide, when it sank in a blaze of colour behind our own. Dawn and dusk were the times to be feared, for usually those hours are chosen for an attack. Every man turned out of his dugout, donned his equipment, and fixed bayonets. At the “stand-to” at dawn a sergeant came round with a rum issue, badly needed those bitterly cold mornings, as a tonic to the nerves. Before my army career I had never touched the spirit and, if anything, was prejudiced against its issue to the troops, but a week in the trenches gave me a broader outlook.

Occasionally we light a brazier, and a discreet glance through the periscope shows that Fritz a quarter of a hundred yards away is similarly engaged, for a blue wreath of smoke arises from the line of trenches. At rare intervals our friends the enemy could be seen hastily passing by a gap in the trenches or flitting from tree to tree on the horizon. Our dugouts were rarely up to the standard set by Fritz, for we knew that our stay was temporary, while he hoped for a permanent residence. Making due allowance for this most excellent of reasons, my attitude towards our dugouts is anything but friendly. Memories of irksome crawls into darksome holes over damp ground, the nostrils assailed meanwhile with pungent odours, have embittered me.  In such dwellings we lived, moved and had our being for days and nights, our “home from home”.  Oh, the pleasure of crawling out, assuming once more the erect posture natural to the genus homo, for often these habitations were barely three feet high!  In the trenches too, the little man can strut along at natural stature, while the tall man walks with bowed head and bent back to avoid the little winged messengers of death that skim the top of the parapet. Even in the rest billets out of the line, height is a disadvantage, for when weight-lifting for fatigues are about the NCO generally regards it as synonymous with strength.

To those who outlive this conflict, how strange it will be to recall the days and nights without number spent in the weird, wonderful atmosphere of the trenches. Days of wearisome boredom, for even shelling “thrills” can become monotonous! Nights of anxious alertness, amid uncanny stillness, developing at times into excited nerveiness as the silence is broken by an outbreak of gunfire and the sky lit by an ever increasing succession of flashes. Meal times were the long looked for breaks in the day’s monotony, when we filed up with our mess tins for our tea and bacon, or the never failing stew. Curiously enough, or as we thought designedly, Fritz always began a half hour’s “strafe” at meal times, much to our annoyance. Once this was over we could rely almost for a certainty on a few hours peace and quietness, during which we “cleaned up”, performing our ablutions in a shell hole, wrote letters, read a book, or curled ourselves up in the dugout and had a sleep. This may read strange to those at home, after being informed that but 25 yards separated us from the Boche, but it must be remembered that winter held the land in its thrall and rendered advances, or anything of an active nature, impossible. One chiefly had to guard against bombing raids.

As I have pointed out the almost timed regularity of Fritz’s shelling in this particular sector was most convenient to us. We were not nearly so considerate to our friends the enemy, for our “strafes” began with dramatic suddenness, at all manner of odd moments. Our artillery was marvellous for power and accuracy. While on sentry one afternoon I watched through the periscope the work of our shells on the German front line. Beginning on the left they travelled with deadly aim the whole trench, leaving it a line of shell holes and broken earthworks, almost useless for occupation.  For every shell Fritz sent over he received a dozen in return, a decided improvement on our unhappy position twelve months previous.

Fifth and final part to follow soon…

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