Extracts from Iron in the Fire by Edgar Morrow:
Iron in the Fire
Mr E. Morrow has forwarded the manuscript of this book to me with a request to read it, and if, after reading, I think it worth while, to write a foreword for it.
I have read the manuscript with very great interest and gladly comply with Mr Morrow's request—and with additional interest and pleasure, because Mr Morrow was a corporal in the 28th Battalion (a Western Australian unit) of the A.I.P. He appears, during his war service, to have been naturally observant; to have kept a diary; and to have written "descriptive" letters home to which he has had access in compiling his book. Iron in the Fire stands apart from any other war book I have read. Mr Morrow was apparently an extremely sensitive youngster—at all events, during the earlier part of his service, and some things seared his soul which had little effect on older and more sophisticated men. In that respect the book will be a specially interesting study; for the sensitive type was fairly numerous and formed an important, if not very articulate cross section of an army that was made up of all types. Mr Morrow is an analyst; he analyses himself, his mates, his officers and his surroundings. He sees very little of the glories of war; and he is intensely critical. He may be wrong in some of his conclusions, but he gives his reasons for them and shows what they are based on.
The book does not pretend to give much historical detail of any sort. It is the record of the reactions of one individual to the storm and stress of war—what he did; how he and his comrades lived; and how they died.
I think the book will be found to be one of the most interesting of the Australian war books. To date we have had Red Dust, The Desert Column (both Light Horse), Hell's Bells and Mademoiselles, Jacka's Mob, and The Gallant Company (Infantry). To this excellent quintette I think Iron in the Fire will be a worthy addition. And it will be the only contribution by a Western Australian to Australia's literary record of the war, apart from battalion histories, which are in a different category.
I can with confidence strongly recommend this book, particularly to the younger generation of Australians to-day.
J. Talbot Hobbs.
"The Bungalow," Peppermint Grove, Perth, W.A.
BLACKBOY CAMP AND EGYPT
Nowadays I have an easy chair, but it belongs to me only when I am supposed to be working in the office to which the chair belongs. Between spasms of work or during periods of wakefulness I pick up my diary and live again those critical and vital four years ended sixteen years ago. My memory of these events is not so clear as it used to be; the once intimate names of comrades in stress are not so familiar now.
In my heart I wish time were not so great a healer; for as he heals he kills the memory, and some memories are too precious to be killed, even though they live to hurt.
Perhaps I am foolish, but as Harry Allan, who left with me for the Great Adventure so many years ago, said once: "Even fools desire some compensation for their folly." And so it is with me, and many more of us. The compensation I desire for that great folly is the memory of it all. I am prepared to accept the memory of the destruction and death, of the suffering and the heart-break, if only I can retain the memory of the friendship and comradeship of the dead and of the living.
But, to my sorrow, the past is receding slowly into forgetfulness. I look back upon it all, even with the help of my diary and letters, as if I were gazing into a misted mirror.
From early in 1915 when I was a lad of nineteen, fresh from the bush and entirely unsophisticated in the ways of men—and women, to now when I am what I am, is a far cry. Then I was no different from the rest of my class, except that I endeavoured to keep diaries and wrote letters of all the events and commonplace thoughts and incidents that startled my fresh young mind into new and novel points of view.
Even now as I read those first early letters written from our first camp at Blackboy Hill, I feel a wonderful sympathy for myself; a sympathy as of a parent for his son. Sometimes I find it difficult to realize that I was the lad who wrote them. My blushes rise at their innocence. Many who were in those first camps will live again, as they read, the novelty of the new life and the fresh exhilarating sensations necessarily connected with the sinking of one's identity beneath a mere number.
My brother, Albert, was a year younger than I, but we joined up together early in 1915. Memory is still clear of our thirty-mile drive into town to see the doctor, and of our elation when we both passed with ease. And then the "Good-byes" to parents and brothers which, I realized later, was not the wrench to us that it was to the old people.
Shyly we entered the camp. Never before had we seen so many men together. We skirted the camp several times before plucking up courage to ask a man with three stripes on his sleeve where we should go to report. I think we both quivered a little with fear when he said, without smiling, to go to a certain marquee which he pointed out. "He must be very stern," we told each other as we went there.
Eventually we were signed up and lectured a little. We went to our allotted tents feeling for the first time in our lives the depressing weight of the loss of liberty. Albert was put into a different tent, and I was particularly homesick as I entered the one which was to be my home for a month. All the other occupants, I now know, were feeling like myself. I had never before camped or lived with strangers; and the close proximity of so many men, all older than myself, caused me to suffer mental agonies such as only kindred spirits can experience.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to find how quickly we became adapted to the new conditions. Very rapidly we settled down and chose our friends; those of like natures seemed to come together unerringly . . .
GALLIPOLI—BILLETS IN PRANCE—THE FIRING LINE
Finally we went to Gallipoli. First to Lemnos on a troopship; then crowded into the fast sailing Sarnia. How well I remember the cheers we got from the crews of the warships lying there at anchor, and the thrill that ran through me as at last I realized I was going to war! But as we got into the open sea and the dark and cold settled down, the exhilaration left me, and I found myself wishing I was back on the island again. This feeling was accentuated as we drew close to the landing-place at Anzac Cove. Bullets were whistling over the ship, and the sound of cracking rifles was distinctly heard.
I remember wondering if this was war, how long a man was expected to last. It was a crumb of comfort when someone said there was a demonstration going on. I didn't know what that meant, but it seemed to indicate that the present racket was not the usual everyday occurrence, and that we had just been unlucky to strike this one. I had a feeling of coldness and emptiness in my stomach, and was horrified and disappointed to realize that I was feeling frightened. To reassure myself, I spoke as nonchalantly as I could to a sailor standing close by me: "There seems to be a war on over there," I said with a wry smile. He was gazing towards the shore when I spoke, and he didn't smile back at me when he turned to reply: "Yes, there's a war on, son," was all he said. But later I heard him murmur as he steadied the gangway for us to descend into the lighters: "Poor devils!"
Memories of my three months on the Peninsula are strangely blurred, faint, and broken. I can remember the scarcity of food and water, the tormenting vermin; the long hours in the front line and the long spells of work behind—if there was any "behind the lines" in Gallipoli. I can remember my horror of the broomstick bombs and the shattered body of a man as a result of one bursting in a narrow latrine on the Apex, but generally my recollections of this period of my war-life are very shadowy. Evidently, I wrote very few letters from there, and my diary of incidents and events was lost when I left for Lemnos, invalided with consumption and jaundice.
Prom Lemnos to Lunar Park Hospital, Egypt, where good food and plenty was piled into me, and where they wouldn't allow me out of the ward on a damp morning, or out of bed if the day was foggy. Later Colonel Ryan sent me to Helouan, and from there to Gaza, and so back to the battalion at Tel-el-Kebir. Then followed our spell of duty at Ferry Post on the Suez Canal.
Never shall I forget those lonely patrols at night, along the canal bank. From dark till sunrise two of us did a two-mile patrol each way; one of us walked along the narrow path near the water's edge, and the other on the-, desert side of the high sandy bank. We took turns about to do these patrols; I hated the desert part. Along the water the path was hard and walking easy. The lazy lapping of the water did not make the silence so hard to bear, and we appreciated its company after the quiet of the desert side. For there the sand was deep and dry, and walking to keep a moderate pace was extremely difficult work. The sand was not smooth; in the pitch darkness one was apt—and often did—to put a foot down on a little hill where only smoothness was expected, or step into an unseen hollow, to almost fall with a grunt and a smothered curse. In a very short while sweat would be pouring from me.
But the silence was worse. On my frequent stops to rest I would listen for something— anything: the cry of a bird, or even an insect; the hoot of a steamer at Ismailia, or voices on the other side of the bank. But I heard nothing. The silence pressed down upon me, and I began only then to realize how vast and unmerciful the desert could be. At such times I became afraid, and resuming my heavy walk, would do so with finger on trigger ready to jump or fire at the slightest movement. In a letter from there I said that I knew men who would not, at night, do that patrol alone; then the two men walked together along the water's edge, and returned together by the desert route.
The life there was much better during the day. At that time we were in ignorance of our next move; but I remember how our destination was finally settled beyond doubt by the "mob" generally. One day we received an issue of, I think, Black Cat cigarettes, and every packet contained a small booklet of common phrases in French translated into English. This, to us, was proof positive that we were going to France; to some of us it appeared a very subtle way the "heads" had of breaking the news gently.
Meanwhile, we were basking in the sun, and disporting ourselves in the waters of the canal. Sometimes Harry Allan and I would row across in one of the pontoons the Turk had left behind when he made his abortive attack on the canal. A pleasant walk would then take us into Ismailia. We considered it had nice houses in the European section; but generally was not much of a place. Books, which we wanted badly, were exceptionally dear, and far beyond the power of our pay-books. Generally we ended up by buying a large tin of fruit and a tin of condensed milk. Half-way back we would stop, open them, mix one with the other, and eat the mixture. Now I find it hard to realize that it is only nineteen years since I could do a thing like that to my stomach without any effects other than good.
And so to France on the good ship Themistocles. I count this a particularly good ship because it was about the only one which didn't make me sick. I have known the times when I would have welcomed a blasting torpedo, or a nice friendly mine eager to make gentle con- , tact with the monster that was carrying me.
France at last—Marseilles. First from a new world into one of the oldest, and from there into the not quite so old. To me it was like coming home again. It smelt and felt like the home of my childhood in the north of England. There were a few French people on the wharf as we drew near, and our small battalion band endeavoured to play the "Marseillaise" but made a sad mess of it. The people cheered, however, and seemingly appreciated the efforts of our drummer. Most of us tried our French on the men engaged in tying up the ship; they replied with smiles and, presumably, little jokes of their own at our expense.
Personally, I don't remember having seen any place, either before or since, which looked as beautiful as France did to me that day in March 1916. We had ample time to view the scenery however, for the fifty-seven hours we spent in a crowded train took us through France to Morbecque. Snow fell during most of the journey, and. at every stop the men left the train to bombard each other with snowballs. Occasionally, one or two were thrown at a watching civilian Frenchman.
When we left the train at Morbecque it was dark, and snowing hard. The men were a little irritable after being so long in the train; but the curses and complaints increased when biscuits and tinned meat began to be issued. Can you imagine, we said to each other, the kind of brain that can conceive the idea of issuing biscuits and "dog" to a thousand men who were standing in the snow with full pack up, after two and a half days in a rotten train % We were two hours at that station before we moved off. Somehow we got to know we had five miles to march; but unfortunately—we often thought later it was the general rule— the leaders got lost and we made a ten mile journey of it.
It was 2 a.m. when we reached our camping ground. The little villages we passed through had looked so peaceful and homely that it was difficult to realize there was a war on only thirty miles away. Our camp was pitched in a muddy field, and we slept little in the tents that first night. Shortly after daylight the whole camp was out looking for breakfast.
Jim Strong and I went foraging together he-cause he could speak better French than I. (Poor Jim was killed at Pozieres.) We found a little shop in Hazebrouck, where we broke our fast with six eggs and plenty of toast apiece. It was a wonderful sensation to sit in the substantial cosy little kitchen, warmed by the first coal fire I had seen for years. And decidedly pleasant to try and converse with a motherly old lady while a pretty girl got breakfast for us. White women, these, women of our own colour and different from us only by reason of their language! The whole place so smelled like home, that I was content to sit there and absorb the atmosphere while Jim did all the talking. The old lady told us the Germans had been in the town and when they left took fifty girls with them. (I doubt the truth of that now; but I was only too eager to believe it then.) We were sorry when Hazebrouck was put out of bounds. We said the "heads" wanted it for themselves.
The second day we were billeted at Steen-becque in houses and stables. There were fourteen of us in my own little crowd, and we i had a nice warm stable to ourselves. The people at the house used to ask us in to sit round the fire at night. Some would play cards with the two pretty daughters of the house, and the rest would talk or sing. I forget now the name of the elder girl, but I thought her the better, and often wished I had the nerve to talk to her. I think I was very near to falling in love with her. On our final night there I felt she was watching me. I did not want to reveal that I thought so, or make my glance too conspicuous, so I turned my head as casually as I could towards her. Unerringly our eyes met—and held. It seemed ages before her eyes dropped, and I felt everybody in the room must have noticed the little incident. Silly, simple lad that, perhaps, I was! The "good nights" were said as usual, and I never saw her again. Eye meeting eye in an old farmhouse in France nineteen years ago was nothing, yet I cannot forget it.
We marched to Armentieres by easy stages, the twenty-five miles taking two days. The night we took over our particular sector lingers in my memory without the aid of letters. The regiment we relieved were Tyneside Scottish, a bantam battalion. Their average size against the strapping young fellows relieving them was ludicrous. Their dialect sounded strange and barbarous; few understood all they tried to tell us. We gathered that we had to keep our heads down every time a flare went up, and only to shoot every ten minutes just to let the enemy know we were still there. Immediately the change over was complete, almost every rifle began to crack as if by common consent. The new-comers were eager to let Fritz know we had arrived.
Our hardships commenced at once; that first spell in the line in Prance lasted live days without blankets. It was bitterly cold. Charlie Pamell contracted pneumonia, which kept him away from hostilities for three months.
After the five days we were relieved, and went back to Armentieres during the night. The following morning there was a rush for shops. The ration breakfast was ignored except for those poor unfortunates who happened to be broke. Some went to bakers; some to farms for eggs and milk; a wild few went straight to the estaminets. Jim and I made for the butcher's shop. We bought two pounds of steak and six eggs, got the lot cooked at the shop, and had breakfast there. After that we felt better able to sleep. The following day we were taken to a dye works for a bath in the large vats, and received a change of fresh underclothing.
I was very reluctant at first to put on second-, or third-, or even fourth-hand underclothing ; especially when we knew it had not been properly fumigated, and the livestock therein was in a state of coma, waiting only for body warmth to return to eager action. With time, however, this fastidiousness died down, and I became immune to scrupulous thoughts about second-hand clothing; just as I got used to undressing, bathing, and dressing again in a large room separated only by a semi-transparent hessian partition from a roomful of chattering, giggling, sophisticated girls. Looking back upon that period, it is wonderful what we did get used to!
We stayed three months in the Armentieres sector, carrying on a dreary routine: in and out of the line, casualties and reinforcements coming and going slowly, for this was a quiet area. Then we moved up to Messines, which we thought a horrible place. The front line could only be approached by walking over about one and a half miles of open ground, swept conscientiously at frequent intervals by Fritzie machine-gunners.
I can find nothing exciting or extraordinary happening there. Just the same monotonous round of front line, supports, and reserve duty; constant fatigues, and a few more casualties than happened in the Armentieres period.
After a while we moved down to the Somme, marching nearly all the way. We boarded a train at Wizernes, forty to a truck, and after eleven hours of jolting and stopping we were detrained, but I never have Pound out where. It was night, however, and we walked the rest of the night (getting lost, of course) and three parts of the next day. Finally we halted at Bertangles, three miles from Amiens. The last few miles of the march had been punctuated by tired and irritated voices asking loudly, "What about a rest?" and "Who is the ---- in front on horseback?" Worn out and at their last gasp apparently, they no sooner had been allotted their billets than they downed their packs and began the three miles' walk to Amiens. I did not. I had a blistered heel. And by the feel of my shoulders it seemed as if the webbing had permanently stopped the circulation of my blood.
While camped at Bertangles I was made one of the guard billeted at Anzac headquarters at Contay. The chateau was a magnificent place from the outside, and Sir William Birdwood became as familiar a sight almost as one of the guard. We had a good time there; and thought it extremely bad luck, and a rotten trick on the part of old Coincidence, that it should terminate just in time for us to go in for the Pozieres battle.
The tragic night of 29 July 1916! I wonder how many are left now of those who reached that uncut barbed wire, only to return again nerve-shattered, sobbing, torn, and wounded. Many gallant lads and men were left that night hanging tragically, pathetically still, among the twisted strands. I cannot remember how I got back, but I do remember my sense of loss when I realized that Jim Strong was not with the remnants. I remember, too, the sorry spectacle we made as we came out of the line the following morning, a wretched, shattered few of the cheery eight or nine hundred who had passed that way only a few hours before. Our colonel stood on the side of the road as we passed, and he was not ashamed of the tears that were plainly visible on his face. Pathetic, too, was the issuing of rations that morning. Normally it was three to a loaf and a scarcity of bacon; but that morning we could have had two loaves each and as much bacon as we could eat. The quartermaster had arranged for those who would never return.
See WW1 ebooks for sale at www.ozebook.com