Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 5

How much could be written about trench life, revelation in human endurance, and sublime heroism, lit by flashes of humour, but grim tragedy predominating – full to the brim, pressed down, and overflowing. Surely no dwelling ever held such a mixed assembly as gathered beneath the sand bagged-roof of a dugout, adversity indeed bringing strange bedfellows. Here all barriers of caste and calling were broken down, and common danger had brought common fellowship. Your solicitor’s clerk rubbed shoulders with a brewer’s drayman, and the commercial traveller found an excellent comrade in a coster. “Cook’s son, duke’s son, son of a belted earl” had once again met in a glorious comradeship.

There was J—-, whose nature was steeped in poetry, who brought refinement and romance into an atmosphere too often sordid and whose ideals were undimmed by the grim horrors of war. There was little B—-, inclined to be a pessimist and often given furiously to grumble, yet in his merry moments the best of companions. There was Patrick, the rebel, lacking suavity but staunch and true, who denounced the Saxon to the Saxon’s unending delight. Then Chris, philosopher and man of action, whose inventive genius added to the comfort and convenience of dugout or hut.  Also Peter, the man of moods, difficult to understand, admitted sensualist, unorthodox in everything yet found his soul’s expression in song. The hearts he moved to tears or turned to laughter with his glorious singing will ever regard his memory with affection. Then T—-, who carried Gibbon in his haversack, and was learned in literary lore. Resting one night by the roadside, on a journey up the line that to him was momentous, for its brought him a “Blighty”, he told me with impassioned eloquence how he hated the mechanism of war. Yet love of liberty had called him to the colours. The God of Battles protect them all!

Winter severity proved to us how terrible an enemy climatic conditions can be. Often as I stood vigil on the firestep for my hour of sentry, knocking my feet together to excite warmth, or paced to and fro on the duckboards, have I recalled that terribly realistic picture drawn by Tolstoy of the sufferings of the men in the trenches of Sebastopol. I am not for a moment, of course, comparing our modern conditions to the terrible rigours of the Crimea, but when it is remembered that the Russian soldiers were seasoned troops, while ours are drawn from civil life, whose calling in most cases ill prepares them for hardships, we must marvel at the endurance of the khaki-clad legions. No man’s land looked strangely romantic and full of mystery when covered in snow. On these occasions those going out on patrol wore white smocks with cowls, the more easily to escape observation, and it was weird to see them depart like a file of Carthusian monks.

At length winter drew to a close, and one experienced that indefinable feeling of spring in the air that makes the blood course through the veins, and makes one feel glad to be alive. On one sector poppies and daisies grew on parapets and parados, and between our front and support trenches was an orchard with trees of apple blossom. Often during a “strafe”, with death-dealing shells dropping perilously near, I have gazed fixedly at these evidences of life and beauty and realised as never before how dear life was, and prayed the God of Infinite Mercy to spare me to enjoy it another decade. At all moments though the dainty colouring of flowers and the refreshing green leaves were a joy and an inspiration. It reminded one of Omar’s lines:-

I sometimes think that never grows so red
The rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

Spring brought other things besides flowers – “offensives”, “increased activities”, and suchlike! Raids were the order of the day, freely indulged in by both sides along the wide spread battle front. Eventually our battalion had one all to itself. It was elaborately thought out, and for some weeks rehearsed daily. Eastertide was the time chosen, and accordingly on Good Friday night we entered the line at a given sector. The following day was spent in resting and making final preparations. The Lewis gunners and the bombers knew their place in the scheme of things, and every man knew his job. Bombs, ammunition, spikes, sacks and scaling ladders were issued out, and distinguishing badges pinned to the back of every man. Zero was at 8 o’clock in the evening, and as the day advanced one felt a strange excitement in the blood and a nervous tension in the atmosphere which manifested itself in the faces of one’s comrades. About a quarter to eight men were brought up from support and reserve trenches, and soon the front line was full, the men leaning motionless against the parapet to avoid being observed by aircraft, which are generally active in the between lights of a day’s close.

It was a unique a moment for a study of human expression. One saw men mad with fear, or impervious to it. The dread possibilities of the moment had touched chords that responded to the whole gamut of human emotions. I shall never forget the faces of those who stood beside me, with a grim look of determination, clutching their rifles. Some were young, others long past the fighting age, all bound by the strongest of human ties to some home, and some loved one. Oh, the pity, and yet the grandeur of it all!  I noticed C—-, a refined intellectual young man, frail in body but strong in purpose. In features he was wonderfully like the famous “Portrait of Cardinal Newman at the age of 19”. He was looking at a glorious sunset behind our lines, and on my questioning him as to his thoughts he quietly answered, “I was wondering if I should witness tomorrow’s.”

While active, man has renewed nerve and energy, but inactivity paralyses, and the tedium was becoming insupportable. With dramatic suddenness our bombardment began, heralded by signals of golden rain fountains, and pillars of white smoke on the flanks of the battalion front. The earth trembled, and the skies seemed to belch forth fire. The noise was terrific, and the air was full of the odour of cordite and noxious gases. The trench rocked with the concussion of the exploding shells, and splinters of shrapnel were hurtling through space. The traverse of machine gun bullets swept the parapets that in a moment would be mounted by the waiting men below. At last the barrage lifted from the German front line, and the order came galvanising the lines of hidden men into life. “Up and over!” And they climbed over, dashing with a sublime heroism into the veritable hell I have attempted so feebly to describe.

If any faltered it was but for a moment. The example of their fellows restored their courage, and with a wild cry they followed into the grim uncertainties of no man’s land. They followed on in the wake of our barrage, penetrating to the third and fourth German line. Having gained their objective, they remained nearly an hour capturing prisoners and gaining valuable information, after which “all that was left of them” returned to our lines. The leadership and courage of our officers that night were magnificent. Within two hours the raid was over, and silence reigned in no man’s land, broken only by the cries of the wounded.

I remember as I stood in our trench after the raid wondering if the people at home could ever dimly realise all we were enduring. London at that moment was flocking into the theatres and cafes, more interested probably in the latest society scandal than the war. It is horrible to reflect, yet very human, I suppose, seeing the battles are served up twice daily. Other interests have almost obscured the war. People think of casualties as if they were runs at cricket or figures in a game book. We know them as synonymous for poor shattered humanity, broken for life, or in its death agonies calling upon its Maker. In the early hours of Easter day we plodded from the line, along the tortuous, shell ridden roads, back to the camp. Many of us felt the influence of reaction, all of us were weary.

Since that memorable Easter I have gone from sensation to sensation and taken a humble part in the series of advances that began with the great battle of Messines and continues to the present moment, engagements besides which our raid pales into insignificance. At some future date I may records these experiences, but for the present I conclude my narrative. I have written sufficient to give those at home at least a slight glimpse into the life of Tommy on “Active Service”, and the thoughts that occupy his mind. I have taken no fiendish pleasure in sickening the reader with an orgy of blood lust, but I have given sufficient detail to make him realise the ferocity of war, and how unutterably loathsome it is. I have impressed upon him also the debt he owes to the khaki-clad legion who hold the front line, keeping vigil through long days and in the lonely watches of the night, standing between him and the horror and desolation that have laid waste the plains of France and Belgium. Upon the sacrifices of these heroes will be built the victory that ultimately will assuredly be ours. And victory once over, let us work for the permanent peace of the world, enriching it with the rewards of industry and enterprise, that when our children’s children visits the plains now ravaged and desolate they may be able to say with R.L.S.:

We travelled in the print of olden wars,
Yet all the land was green,
And love we found and peace,
Where fire and war had been.
They pass and smile, the children of the sword;
No more the sword they wield.
And, oh, how deep the corn
Along the battlefield!

THE END

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