By Ex Private X
EVERYTHING at Passchendaele was unique. The arrangement of our equipment’s "battle order" it used to be called - was all different from that of former and future occasions. We had to go over with our packs on. This was because we had to carry with us three days' rations, it being impossible for supplies to be sent up. We wore our entrenching tools in front instead of behind, to protect a part of the anatomy which it would be indelicate to mention. When we attacked every man carried a spade stuck down his back between his pack and equipment, so that he could consolidate any position in which he happened to find himself. Moreover, each of us carried a hundred and eighty rounds of extra ammunition hung round our necks and I - being a rifle- grenadier - had to carry twelve grenades in an extra haversack, perforated at the bottom to allow the rods to stick through.
A Mills grenade, if I remember rightly, weighs about five pounds, three hundred cartridges weigh a bit, and there was one's rifle and the usual accoutrements, so obviously one was not quite a feather-weight. Yet, burdened like pack-horses, we were expected to fight for our lives with the bayonet if the occasion arose. No wonder that Haig afterwards said that no troops in the whole history of war had ever fought under such conditions; and the square-headed Hindenburg smugly observed that "the British Army broke its teeth on Passchendaele Ridge." It may be added that we had to wade through mud of various depths and of consistencies varied between that of raw Bovril and weak cocoa.
We are to go over from tapes laid by the Engineers. The whole thing must be done with mathematical precision, for we are to follow a creeping barrage which is to play for four minutes only a hundred yards in front of the first "ripple" of our first "wave." I am in the second "ripple" fifty yards behind the first. The first "ripple" is to go over in extended order, four paces apart, the second "ripple "is to start in artillery formation - sections in single file at a given distance apart - changing to extended order after having covered two hundred yards. It is of the utmost importance that we should keep as close as possible to our own barrage and even risk becoming casualties from it. Well, if we know our own gunners we haven't much doubt about the risk!
The lance-corporal in charge of my section is a man named Edmonds, much junior in service but considerably older than I am, and quite rightly promoted over my head. He is a conscript, a teetotaller, a non-smoker, a non-swearer, a hater of smutty stories, but a damned fine fellow. He is the father of a family and the owner of a one-man business which has gone west. He has been dragged into the Army with a real grievance, and shows himself to be one of the stoutest-hearted fellows in the whole crowd.
The mentality of Edmonds, with his pluck and his queer Nonconformist conscience, is of some professional interest to me. He tells me that he hates stories relating to the deed of kind because he thinks there is "something sacred" in it. This shows that he is a sensualist, although he hasn't the brains to see it, because when a man considers that something is sacred he does quite a lot of thinking about it. My bawdy talk, which annoys him very much, is just the scum on the surface of my mind, but having spoken I don't go on thinking.
Edmonds doesn't take his rum ration, which is all the better for the rest of us. But he disapproves of rum. He has our ration in an extra water-bottle, but won't issue it overnight because he says we may need it in the morning. In the morning he gets wounded - and so the poor dogs have none!
We do not move up to the tapes until midnight, but crouch fidgeting behind our breastwork. Plenty of stuff comes over. Jerry treats us to quite a lot of petrol shells - containing liquid fire - but they don't do much harm and, in fact, provide us with a really beautiful firework display. They remind Edmonds of the Crystal Palace in the days of his youth. He must have gone there often, for a firework show was about the only kind of entertainment which wasn't considered immoral in the quaint creed in which he was reared.
D Company, in reserve, come up and dig in just behind us, and immediately they start they are plastered with shells, for all the world as if Jerry can see them. Then things quieten down and the other fellows in my section, wanting something to occupy their minds and remembering that I am a professional writer, ask me to tell them stories.
”Not your usual ones," says Edmonds, who does not want anything to upset his elaborate preparations to meet his Maker.
So I tell them, in my poor way, two of the finest stories in the language - Quiller-Couch's ”The Roll Call of the Reef" and Barry Pain's "A Lock of Hair." The former is of course well-known and highly esteemed, but Barry Pain's tale deserves to be taken out of its present obscurity. It is to be found in one of his books called Curiosities.
At midnight we move up to the tapes amid heavy shell-fire. Each section digs for itself a little pit in which to crouch. It is called intensive digging. Each man in turn digs like fury until he is fagged out and flops, the others meanwhile lying on their bellies and waiting their turn to seize the spade. In this way quite a big hole, like a small section of a trench, can be dug in a very few minutes.
All the while shells are screaming over our heads, throwing up great geysers of mud all around us and further mutilating the ruined landscape. Our better 'ole is about big enough to accommodate us when there is a cry for help. The section, which includes Dave Barney, has been buried by a shell. Dave has given up stretcher-bearing for the time being and is a rifleman or bomber-I forget which. We dig them out again, swear at them heartily, and get back to our own slot in the ground. Ten minutes later they are all blown up and buried again, with worse results than before. Dave is the only one of them left alive, and he is entirely unscathed but badly shaken and inclined to think that war is an over-rated pastime. I want some rest, and beg him not to make a hobby of getting himself buried. One could always say light-hearted and stupid things even when one was frightened to death.
We went back to our little slot in the wet earth and I crouched down and proceeded to sleep like a hog. It would have been rather amusing if everybody had slept as I did, for there wouldn't have been any attack. I don't think that even the barrage, terrific as it was, would have wakened me. And at the same time I was already the victim of tragedy.
While doing my share of intensive digging I heard an ominous snick behind me. When you are batting, and miss a ball, and hear that snick, you know that a bail has gone. In this instance I knew that it was my rear trousers button, the survivor of two. Only men with very strong chins, such as Sapper's heroes, can keep their trousers up by will-power alone. My braces were now a useless and invisible decoration, and I had to improvise a belt out of pack straps. This was very unsatisfactory, since there were no loops on the trousers to keep the belt in its place.
I was not allowed to sleep peacefully through the attack. Edmonds woke me at about a quarter to six by sticking an elbow into my ribs and we went forward to the tape. Ghostly figures ranged up on either side of us, and a dead silence was broken by mutterings and whisperings and the snap! snap! snap! of men jerking their bayonets on to their rifles. When one is in imminent peril some impressions are confused while others burn their way into one's consciousness. The first pale fingers of dawn were in the sky, just beginning to show above the horizon. Having regard to what I imagined to be our front, I had supposed that the sun would rise somewhere on my right. But evidently it intended to rise in front of me and half-left. This was very mysterious, and I haven't solved the problem to this day. Two thoughts occupied my mind while I waited for zero - the sun was rising in the wrong place and my trousers were in danger of leaving me - from at least one angle-naked to mine enemies.
I salute the artillery. At ten minutes to six, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of guns behind us went off like one gun. All the inhabitants of hell seemed to have been let loose and to be screaming and raving in the sky overhead. The darkness just in front of us was rent and sundered. Blinding flashes in a long and accurate line blazed and vanished, and blazed and vanished, while the guns which had at first roared in unison now drummed and bellowed and thumped and crashed in their own time. Their din was half drowned by the variegated noises of the exploding shells. No maniac ever dreamed anything like it.
Matters didn't improve. The German was not asleep, and within a minute his own barrage had multiplied the inferno by two, while machine-guns broke out with the rattling of a thousand typewriters. I stood dazed by the din and didn't notice that our own barrage had lifted until somebody shouted:
"Come on !"
I must say, without meaning to praise myself, that it was a good show. Nobody hesitated or looked back. I was simply a sheep and I went with the flock. We moved forward as if we were on the parade-ground
But it didn't last long. With shell-holes and impassable morasses we had to pick our way. It was no use looking for dressing to the section on the left-or right, which was either in the same predicament or had already been blotted out. Led by Edmonds my section made a detour, turning a little to the left and heading for some higher and drier ground. Unfortunately most of the battalion were compelled to do this.
I was in the rear of the section, and, through no fault of my own, kept ten yards behind the man in front of me. My burden of rifle-grenades pulled me lop-sided and I had to keep on hitching at my trousers. Edmonds kept on turning and waving me on, with the heroic gestures of a cavalry leader in the Napoleonic wars. I cursed him heartily, although he could not hear. Did the damned fool think I was funking it? No, my trousers were coming down.
My trousers seemed a positive curse to me, but I believe they were a blessing in disguise. They may have saved me from an extremity of terror. The human mind is not capable of concentrating on many things at once, and mine just then was principally concerned with my trousers. We fell into mud and writhed out again like wasps crawling out of plums, we passed a pill-box (which we thought was in British hands), we staggered between a few shell-blasted trees, passed another pill-box and came out on to a little plateau of about the size of a small suburban back garden. From there the ground sloped down to the bed of the Paddebeeke, but there was no stream left. It had been shelled into a bog. The Germans had left one long single plank bridge, and we should have known what was certain to happen if we attempted to cross it. But we went on to the edge of the plateau-and it was perhaps as well for us that we did-until Edmonds noticed that nobody else was standing up. Then he signalled to us to take cover. We fopped into a shell hole, lying around the lip, for there was about six feet of water in the middle.
We had already seen what had happened to the first "ripple." They had all made for that spot of higher and drier ground, and the Germans, having retired over it, knew exactly what must happen, and the sky rained shells upon it. Shrapnel was bursting not much more than face high, and the liquid mud from ground shells was going up in clouds and coming down in rain.
The first "ripple" was blotted out. The dead and wounded were piled on each other's backs, and the second wave, coming up behind and being compelled to cluster like a flock of sheep, were knocked over in their tracks and lay in heaving mounds.
The wounded tried to mark their places, so as to be found by stretcher-bearers, by sticking their bayonets into the ground, thus leaving their rifles upright with the butts pointing at the sky. There was a forest of rifles until they were uprooted by shell-bursts or knocked down by bullets like so many skittles.
The wounded who couldn't crawl into the dubious shelter of shell holes were all doomed. They had to lie where they were until a stray bullet found them or they were blown to pieces. Their heartrending cries pierced the incessant din of explosions. The stretcher-bearers, such as still survived, could do nothing as yet.
Well, I found myself in a shell hole with the rest of the section, strangely intact. I had lost merely a bit of skin from the bridge of my nose. I had been stung by something a minute after we started to advance and, having applied the back of my hand, found blood on it. This was a close shave, but a miss was as good as a mile. But a tragedy worse than the precariousness of my trousers had befallen me. I had lost my rations.
While crossing the plateau it had seemed to me that somebody had given the pack on my back a good hard shove, and I had looked all round, but there was nobody near. Then I was aware of things falling behind me. A piece of shell about the size of a dumb- bell had gone through my pack, and all my kit and food were dropping out. I didn't stop to pick anything up.
How my section had so far remained intact is a mystery which I shall never solve in this world. After a minute or two of stupor we discovered that we were all as thickly coated with mud from the shell-bursts as the icing on a Christmas cake. Our rifles were all clogged, and directly we tried to clean them more mud descended. If the Germans had counter-attacked we had nothing but our bayonets. In the whole battalion only one Lewis gun was got into action, and I don't think that more than half a dozen men in the three attacking companies were able to use their rifles during the first few hours.
We saw Germans rise out of the ground, and bolt like rabbits, and we had to let them bolt. They had been able to keep their rifles covered and clean, but we had bayonets on ours. Moreover their artillery knew just where we were, and our own gunners were now firing speculatively. We were getting the shells and the rain of mud and the German wasn't. Good soldier that he was, he soon took advantage of this, and we began to suffer from the most hellish sniping.
The mud which was our enemy was also our friend. But for the mud none of us could have survived. A shell burrowed some way before it exploded and that considerably decreased its killing power.
Edmonds decided that our shell hole was overcrowded, and told me to get into the next one. I didn't like exposing myself even for a second, but it was only like rolling out of one twin bed into another, and besides I wanted to get away from the awful man Rumbold who was quite likely, at any moment, to ask me if we were under fire. Half a dozen bullets spat at me in the one second it took to make the change.
There were two men in my new temporary abode, a fellow who was in the Bedfords-on our left-who had got himself lost, and a chap in my company, but not in my section, I knew his company by the red square on his shoulder.
This man lay with his rifle at his shoulder, in the attitude of one about to fire. I spoke to him and he didn't answer. Then I shoved him. Then I noticed that there was a jagged hole at the back of his tin hat and a thin trickle of blood down his neck. He had got it right through the head, and this-if I had needed it-was a warning to keep mine down. I addressed myself to the Bedford.
”Well," I said, "We're in a pretty nasty mess. Are we going to get out of it alive, do you - think ?" I did not say this lightly; I am trying to make it quite clear that I was no hero, and I was just then one of the most hot-and-bothered men in the universe.
The Bedford rolled his eyes. "I put my trust in Almighty God," he said.
The remark infuriated me. I prayed for myself-as I shall tell later-but I never "trusted " in God in the sense that I expected as a right that He should do as I asked. To beg for something is one thing; to " trust" you are going to get it is another. Thousands of us had to be killed, and it was damnably presumptuous of this fellow to say that he trusted in God to save his own wretched life.
I pointed to the shambles behind us where half a million pounds' worth of education was already beginning to rot.
"You bloody fool!" I said. "Do you think some of those fellows didn't put their trust in God, too ! He isn't up there just to look after you !“
The Bedford thought I was blasphemous-God knows I wasn't-and obviously didn't like my company, for he presently braved the hell which was raging outside the shell hole and went off to find his own people. I hope he did, but he was probably -dead in less than a minute. Anyhow he would probably have been killed if he had stayed, for I don't think two men in the same shell-hole could have survived the narrow squeak which came to me immediately afterwards.
There was still a tornado of shells raging around us, and one must have landed in the same shell-hole with me. I didn't hear it come, and I didn't hear it burst, but I suddenly found myself in the air, all arms and legs. It seemed to me that I rose to about the height of St. Paul's Cathedral, but probably I only went up about a couple of feet. The experience was not in the least rough, and I can't understand why it disturbed me so little. I think that by this time I was so mentally numb that even fear was atrophied. It was like being lifted by an unexpected wave when one is swimming in the sea. I landed on all fours in the shell-hole which Edmonds had told me to leave, sprawling across the backs of the rest of the section.
”And now," I said firmly, "I'm going to stop."
Edmonds didn't demur, and I asked him what about some rum. The Nonconformist conscience prevailed, and he said that we might need it presently. Merciful heavens ! didn't I need it now? We lit cigarettes and I began trying to think. I wondered if I could smile, and, still having control of my face muscles, found that I could.
After all, I was not very much afraid in that shell-hole, but I knew that I daren't move out of it. I dared not go out and try to do anything for the wounded-coward and hound that I was. After all, I wasn't a stretcher-bearer. A damned good excuse.
Nothing had stood up and lived on the space of ground between ourselves and the pill- box a hundred and fifty yards away. I saw a stretcher-bearer, his face a mask of blood, bending over a living corpse. He shouted to somebody and beckoned, and on the instant he crumpled and fell and went to meet his God. To do the enemy justice, I don't suppose for one moment that he was recognised as a stretcher-bearer.
Another man, obviously off his head, wandered aimlessly for perhaps ninety seconds. Then his tin hat was tossed into the air like a spun coin, and down he went. You could always tell when a man was shot dead. A wounded man always tried to break his own fall. A dead man generally fell forward, his balance tending in that direction, and he bent simultaneously at the knees, waist, neck and ankles.
Several of our men, most of whom had first been wounded, were drowned in the mud and water. One very religious lad with pale blue watery eyes died the most appalling death. He was shot through the lower entrails, tumbled into the water of a deep shell- hole, and drowned by inches while the coldness of the water added further torture to his wound. Thank God I didn't see him. But our C. of E. chaplain-who went over the top with us, the fine chap !-was killed while trying to haul him out.
I don't subscribe to the creed of the Church of England. The cognoscenti of my Church- when they can be got to speak frankly-are dubious about the post-mortem fate of heretics and less than dubious about the fate of heretic clergy. But I am very sure, if I am to believe in anything at all, that our dear Padre is in one of the Many Mansions. I like to think of him feasting with Nelson and Drake, Philip Sidney, Richard of the Lion Heart, Grenville, Wolfe, and Don Johne of Austria. And perhaps when these have dallied a little over their wine they go to join the ladies-such ladies as Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, and Edith Cavell. Requjescat - but he needs no prayer from a bad soldier and a worse sinner. Edmonds and I held a sort of council of war. If we were counter-attacked in our present circumstances we hadn't the chance of mice against cats. My theory was that we ought to make a bolt for the pill-box behind us, clean our rifles once we were inside, and thus have a defensive position and a chance to fight for our lives if Jerry decided that the bit of ground we had won was worth re-taking.
Edmonds agreed with me, but was loth to retire. I daresay he thought that an extra hundred yards or so of mud was going to make a material difference to the result of the war. If he had had a Union Jack with him I think he would have stuck it in the ground as a kind of announcement that we were there. He wouldn't go back on his own initiative and at last told me to go and find company headquarters and get an order from Captain Medville.
Company headquarters was any shell-hole that Captain Medville might be in if he happened to be still alive. I didn't want to wander about in an area in which nobody had been seen to stand up for much more than a minute, so I told Edmonds I didn't know where to look. He saw by my eyes that I was afraid to go, and before I could summon a little more resolution and stop him, he went himself.
By a miracle or an accident he found Medville, who seemed to have agreed with my suggestion. Edmonds came lumbering back and waved us towards the pill-box, himself starting in that direction. But he hadn't gone ten yards before he rolled over, clutching at one of his thighs. I saw him crawl into a shell-hole, and I am glad to be able to say that eventually he got back to safety.
That left me in command of the section.
I WAS the senior private, and I suppose by strict Army law the others were compelled to obey me. But not having the authority of even a single stripe, and knowing that whatever I decided was most likely to be wrong, I said that each of us ought td please himself as to what he did. I gave a brief harangue (without any " hear, hear's ") and, of course, I don't remember exactly what I said, but the gist of it was this
"Here we are, being shelled to Sodom and Gomorrah. If a small boy came over armed with a catapult he could pinch or murder the whole bloody lot of us. We've been directed to retire to the pill-box, but we haven't had an actual order. Once there we shall be fairly safe, but it's the getting there. I think now it's every man for himself, but what are you going to do?"
The general opinion, after a long argument, was that we should make for the pill-box one at a time. The next question that had to be decided was who should go first. Having Lance-Corporal Edmonds's wound on my conscience, I said that I would. I don't know if the others attempted to follow me or not. I saw only one of them again, and that was, of course, the awful man Rumbold, who was unable to give a coherent account of what had happened. I dumped everything except my rifle, and the extra ammunition hanging round my neck, and made a dash for it.
I ran and ducked and dodged like an international three-quarter, slipping, falling, rising and plunging, and getting somehow over the mud and the dead bodies and between the shell-holes. It amuses me now to think that during this mad dash It was quite possible that not a single shot was fired at me. Probably the spectators in field grey were laughing too heartily to begin to take aim. It used to amuse us to see some poor devil of a German dodging about like a stoned rat, and their humour was at least as grim as ours.
The little concrete blockhouse was approached by a sort of slide leading to its only entrance. I skidded on the seat of my trousers down a muddy incline and into a pool of water which swam in an open doorway not much higher or wider than the entrance to a dog's kennel. I saw at once that the place was uninhabitable, so far as I was concerned. There was about three feet of water inside, and the dead bodies of the late German garrison were floating about. I did not then know that it was in German hands when we passed it in the morning, that we owed a great many of our casualties to the machine-gun crew who were now safely dead, and that we had to thank our own C Company for a really magnificent deed of arms. Since I was not in C Company and wasn't even aware that this phase of the fight was going on, I can tell of it without being accused of boasting.
Thanks to our magnificent Staff-God bless them !-we had gone over from a jumping-off place which we knew nothing about. The two pill-boxes in front of us were supposed to have been vacated by the Germans. Nobody had orders to take them. C Company on our extreme left became painfully aware that one of them was in German hands but thought that the job of obliterating it belonged to the Bedfords - on their left-since they had had no orders. When the true state of affairs became known C Company went back and got that pill-box. It could only be got by being surrounded and by somebody heaving a few bombs through the kennel-like door. This was done. When C Company came out of the line it was twelve strong and led by a lance-corporal. The dead were found by a burial-party-from the R.M.L.I., I think-in an accurate circle around that pill- box.
I was fairly safe in the half-fathom of water into which I had slid, but I could not stay there and I was feeling rather homeless. I scrambled up again and dodged round to the other side of the premises, where there was a certain amount of cover. To my surprise I found a sort of family gathering. All the wounded who had managed to crawl so far were congregated there, and I was delighted to find that three of my old friends had "Blighty" ones.
One of them, a very old man of nearly forty and a Boer War veteran, had been shot sideways through the seat of the trousers. He was in considerable pain, but responded quite happily to badinage. I told him that he couldn't possibly show his honourable scars to his lady friends and that he might find it difficult to convince the pretty nurses that he was facing the right direction when the bullet found him. I pulled his leg to buck him up, not to annoy him, and the brave fellow, who was lying on his stomach, laughed quite happily. I hate to record that his wound turned septic, and that he died very shortly afterwards in a C.C.S.
Tim's Irish pal, who attributed all his misfortunes to the machinations of Protestants, had a bloody bandage around one arm instead of a sleeve. He couldn't very well blame the followers of that strange but business-like bookseller, Mr. Kensit, for what had happened to him, but I believe that even to this day he is sure that it was a Lutheran Prussian who shot him.
The boy with the almond eyes, who used to put me to bed in England when the bed revolved or miraculously multiplied itself, had one through the shoulder, and seemed not to be in very much pain. They were all waiting to be carried away, or for nightfall and the chance of crawling out on their own legs.
Captain Medville had evidently thought that my suggestion to make for the pill-box was a pretty sound one, for I found him already there. He had been wounded in the process of arriving, but not badly enough to necessitate his going down the line. He was calm but looked very worried and was, I suppose, being baffled by the problem of how to get together what remained of his company. I asked him what I should do and where I should go, and he told me to go and join D Company, which had been in reserve to the other three companies and was now strung out in a long line of shell-holes on either side of the rear pill-box. This was obviously to be our line of defence in the event of Jerry seeking to regain his lost ground.
D Company was lucky. It had lost only about half its men. I faded away in the direction indicated and found a D Company sergeant who was pained because I hadn't shaved. He told me to get into a shell-hole-any one would do-clean my rifle and shoot any one who couldn't properly pronounce the consonant "W." Like a fool, I got into a shell-hole just in front of the pill-box.
It was now about two in the afternoon. Time is supposed to drag when one is in misery. This is generally so, but to me the past eight hours seemed to have gone in one. I settled down alone in my shell-hole, and proceeded to have my "bad time," which, thank God, nobody witnessed.
The Germans started a really appalling bombardment, quite as bad as the one we had endured in the early hours of the morning. Shells fell around me like acorns dropping from a tree, and the shock of every explosion was like a punch over the solar plexus. I had been through a great deal already, and now I felt that I couldn't bear it. I crouched shivering and whimpering in my extremity, and cried out on God. I don't think it was altogether funk; I think my wits were being blasted out of me. I didn't realise at the time that the Germans were shelling the pill-box, and that I, being just in front, was getting the exclusive attention of a few batteries of field artillery.
I crouched, moaning, "Oh, Christ, make it stop ! Oh, Jesus, make it stop ! It must stop, because I can't bear it any more. I can't bear it !“
It was the only time in my life when, so far as I can be sure, I had a direct answer to prayer. I don't mean that the shelling stopped: that would have proved nothing to me, and besides the shelling hadn't. I may never again enter a branch of my infallible Church, and try to follow the Mass and go to Confession and Holy Communion. I can't quite believe in a lot of it. I wish I could, for I should be a better and a happier man. But I do believe in God, and I do know that God, the Father of us all, hears us and answers with a Father's gentleness when we cry out to Him in our last extremity.
I begged God to spare me for my mother's sake, while all the while I knew that I was only praying for the preservation of my own dirty hide. I made Him promises of the saintly life I would lead if I got through-promises which I didn't keep and He knew that I wasn't going to keep them. But He was merciful, and His mercy came to me like a sudden shaft of sunlight.
It happened all in a moment-a sudden change to peace and calm and perfect confidence. It was like a miracle, and perhaps it was one. All in a moment I was changed from a raving, gibbering idiot to a calm and serene man, utterly fearless for the time being, and quite confident that I was safe. A five-point-nine crashed down not more than five yards away, drenching me with mud, but I did not mind it. I knew that God was going to save me.
This, having regard to what I had said to the Bedford a few hours since, may seem paradoxical. But I only " trusted" God after He seemed to have spoken to me. I did not say in effect: " Well, I've prayed to You, and now it's up to you to get me out of this. Fair's fair." Believers and unbelievers may make what they like out of this. Snuffy little short-sighted doctors who attribute every malaise and cure of the mind to sex would probably give me some quite astounding explanation. I only know that if an angel had come and taken me by the hand I could not have been more assured of my present safety.
I don't mean that I was never afterwards afraid. I merely knew that just for the present I was safe. Physically I was still wretched enough, starving, mud-drenched and tortured by lice. My improvised belt kept slipping, and every time I moved, lying on the incline of the shell-hole, my trousers, slack at the waist, scooped up mud which ran down cold along my belly and thighs.
Strangely enough I thought of a girl I had loved as finely as I knew how some two or three years since. Wisely, she had not cared for me, and was now married to another man. I had stopped loving her, but I revered her, as I still do. I felt that if she saw me now, filthy and verminous, as I was, she could not but put her arms around me in compassion.
After this excursion into sticky sentiment, I thought I had better find some grub. There were plenty of fresh corpses lying about with food in their packs or haversacks. However, I hadn't to rob the dead, for I had no sooner started on my food-hunt when I found two D Company fellows in a shell-hole only a few yards away who had plenty to eat. The shelling had died down a bit, but I jumped into their shell-hole to dodge one which seemed to be coming uncomfortably close, and landed almost on top of them.
I didn't know them, but they were decent chaps who shared their food with me. Also they provided me with human society, which I needed more than food and drink. They seemed to think they had had a pretty rough time, and were horrified when I told them that I didn't think there were fifty officers and men left out of the three companies which had made the attack. Mine was a pretty good guess. When we eventually mustered we numbered forty-nine. My company (A) was eighteen strong, including two officers, there were nineteen of B, and twelve of C.
Just before nightfall I saw Lloyd threading his way towards us, and hailed him. Lloyd was a signaller in my company, a little rosy-cheeked Welsh boy aged about nineteen who had joined the Army straight from school. I asked him what had become of the rest of the company, and he told me that, so far as he knew, we were the only two who had not become casualties; and he looked at me out of the haggard eyes of an old man.
Lloyd and I both decided that it would be a good idea to spend the night in the pill-box a stone's throw away if it happened to be dry enough inside. It would be safer in there, and there would be shelter of a sort from the rather threatening weather. Since there were no shells coming over at the moment we went and prospected. It was beautifully dry inside, but a number of wounded had crawled there, and the place stank of blood worse than a slaughter-house. Still, we should have put up with that, but the loathly person Goatly (the ex-village schoolmaster officer) was in possession, and meant to spend the night there himself, so he turned us out, although there was plenty of room. I hated this vulgar and domineering' person, but I heard that he had behaved with the utmost gallantry, so all is now forgiven. He didn't worry us much longer, for he got a series of soft jobs and became, I believe, a chronic "town major." If he reads these lines in the intervals between teaching the Third Standard long division and how to control its water there is not the least chance that he will recognise himself, so he will not require my blood in a bottle. I salute him as the bravest cad with whom I ever had to be associated.
Lloyd and I began by camping in a shell-hole. I think it was the one in which I had had my "sticky time." We fired questions at each other, trying to get news, but neither of us seemed to know much. Then Lloyd answered unconsciously the question I had been afraid to ask. He told me that Dave had been killed.
That was the last straw. I was still pretty badly rattled, and I began to cry like a baby. A damned funny sight I must have looked. Oh, Dave, are you really gone? Shall we have no more meals and drinks together? Shan't I ever hear you sing Songs of Araby again? No more women for you? No more love-as you understand love since that wife of yours was taken from you ? Did God at the last moment stretch out His hand to you and re- unite you with her? Or are you wallowing somewhere in a worse hell than this ? Whatever the change, you have gone somewhere else, and here am I, a filthy oaf, with the tears running down my dirty cheeks because of you.
Owing to the conditions something like seventy per cent. of the casualties could be marked down as killed. Lloyd and I knew that it must be so. Nearly everybody that we knew and liked seemed to have gone west.
We did not find the slope of the shell-hole conducive to slumber, so we decided to sleep in the open if we could find a dry spot. We found a corrugated iron arch called a "baby elephant," and used for the support of shallow funk-holes and dug-outs. We crawled under this, and with no protection against the cold of a night which ushered in the month of November, except the clothes in which we lay-without even our overcoats- we slept like hogs until a red sun winked in our eyes and finally woke us.
Only twice did these mud-sodden, overgrown Babes in the Wood wake during the night. Once we were roused by the screams of a wounded man who was being carried to the pill box. He kept shrieking," Oh, God! Oh, Christ ! "-the same words over and over again. We were sorry for him, of course, but for our own sakes we wished he wouldn't do it. On the second occasion Lloyd nudged me and complained of the cold and asked me to lie closer.
The pill-box presented a queer sight in the morning. We went in to see if we could do anything for the wounded and found others trying to improvise a breakfast for them. Medville was feeding his own batman like a baby. The poor fellow had been badly hit and he died shortly afterwards. There was still that terrible stink of raw blood which smote our nostrils pretty hard as we came in from the fresh air.
The regimental Aid Post was a mile or so back, and it took time to get the wounded there. Our M.O.-whom I didn't particularly like-had worked like a slave, and when we passed the shelter on our way out that night there was a pyramid of shorn limbs standing outside. He had been busy with the casualties of other units besides our own, and had been rather a mark for stretcher-bearers because of the dimensions of the Red Cross Flag which floated above.
There were quite a lot of field guns near that Aid Post. Query: were the guns too near the Aid Post or was the Aid Post too near the guns?
Lloyd and I began to think rather wistfully about breakfast, but we hadn't so much as a crumb between us or a drop of water. I don't know what had happened to Lloyd's rations. However, he had a Tommy Cooker and a tin of coffee cubes, so we decided to risk making coffee with shell-hole water. Lloyd went out with our mess-tins to find the cleanest looking shell-hole, and came back with them full, and quaking like one about to vomit. He had found half a well-preserved Highlander lying just outside the shell-hole from which he had drawn the water, and had had a good look at him and wished he hadn't. He kept on saying: " I wish I hadn't looked at that damned Scotsman." It wasn't until after we had drunk the coffee that the horrid thought occurred to us that the other half of the Highlander might be in the shell-hole from which Lloyd had drawn the water. This was probably not so, for we suffered no after effects.
Soon after we had had our coffee Lloyd was sent for. There was a job of some sort for him. I remained in lonely glory for some hours. A few shells came over, and during this period a terrible scarecrow came running and dodging towards me. The face seemed to me to consist entirely of gold-rimmed spectacles and teeth. It was the awful man Rumbold.
I kept my head down, but with the unerring instinct of the bore, who has scented his victim from afar, he came straight to me, flopped down beside me and said cheerfully: "Hullo, is that you ?
I didn't tell him it wasn't, because he wouldn't have believed me, and he would have stayed all the same.
He didn't seem to know where he had been during the past twenty-four hours, what he had been doing, or what had happened to anybody else. Indeed, he was magnificently unconcerned with these things. Suddenly and quite chattily he asked me: "I say, X, what do you think of Lloyd George ?"
Now how could I tell him what I thought of Lloyd George? I didn't want to use such language. I might be killed at any moment and I wanted to die in a state of grace.
I suggested that there was another shell-hole over there which looked awfully comfortable, but of course I couldn't get rid of him. He stuck to me closer than a brother until we were relieved at night by a battalion of marines.
We learned during the day that the Canadians on our right, advancing at the same time as ourselves on the higher and drier ground, had taken their objectives. Subsequently we were told "unofficially" that we were not expected to get very far through the swamp and that we were merely being used to draw fire while the Canadians did the job. Well, it wasn't the last time that I was used as cannon-fodder.
The papers were loud in praise of the Canadians, but had practically nothing to say about us-except in the casualty lists. Officially we were told that we were" too brave," and had gone too far. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his History of the War dismissed us with the remark that we "seemed to find some difficulty in getting forward." The difficulty consisted mainly of being killed in heaps.
Now, I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without ever having met him. His stories delighted my youth, and he sent a charming letter to me - a practically unknown man complimenting me on one of mine. But he should have left the war alone. I should go to him if I wanted a really authentic photograph of a fairy or a trunk call through to one of my sleeping ancestors. But he should have left the war to the soldiers. You cannot write about the war by merely reading newspaper reports and looking at maps.
The remnants of us crawled out dead-beat along the eternal duckboard track. Some of us would have collapsed if we hadn't met a water-cart on the way. We got to Irish Farm and were greeted by a really hearty air-raid-as if we hadn't been through enough already.
When it was over and we started looking for the tents allotted to us I was struck by the kindness of the fellows who had remained behind. Our Q.M.S., whom I had always found rather military, met us and carried my rifle for me.
”You've had a hell of a time," he said with a catch in his voice.
”Pretty bad," I agreed, "But it might have been worse."
"Worse ! " he gasped.
”Yes," I said. "We didn't see any of the bloody Staff."
That at least made him laugh.