Kitchener's Mob: Ii. In the Trenches at Loos

I

WE were wet and tired and cold and hungry, for we left the train miles back of the firing-line and had been marching through the rain since early morning. But as the sergeant said, ‘A bloke stand-in’ by the side of the road watch-in’ this ’ere column pass would think we was goin’ to a Sunday-school picnic.’ The roads were filled with endless processions of singing, shouting soldiers. Seen from a distance, the long columns gave the impression of imposing strength. One thought of them impersonally, as battalions, brigades, divisions, cohesive parts of a great fighting machine; but when our lines of march crossed — when we halted to make way for each other — what an absorbing pageant of personality! Each rank was a series of intimate pictures. Everywhere was laughing, joking, singing, a merry minstrelsy of mouth organs. The jollity in my own part of the line was doubtless a picture in little of what was happening elsewhere. We were anticipating the exciting times just at hand. Gardner, who was blown to pieces by a shell three days later, was dancing in and out of the ranks singing,—

‘Oh! won’t it be joyful!
Oh! won’t it be joyful! ’

Mac, who had less than a week to live, was throwing his rifle in the air and catching it again in sheer excess of animal spirits. Three rollicking lads, all of whom we buried during the week in the same shell-hole, under the same wooden cross, stumbled along with an exaggerated show of utter exhaust ion, singing, —

' We never knew till now how muddy mud is,
We never knew how muddy mud could be.’

And little Sammy P., who had fibbed bravely about his age to the recruiting officers, trudged contentedly along, his rifle slung jauntily over his shoulder, munching army biscuit with the relish of an old campaigner. Several days later Sammy said good-bye to us, smiling bravely through his tears, and made the journey back along the same road — this time in a motor-ambulance. And as I write, he is hobbling about a London hospital ward, one trouser leg pathetically empty.

I remember that march in the light of our later experiences, in the light of the official report of the total British casualties at the battle of Loos. Sixty thousand British lads killed, wounded and missing! Marching four abreast, a column of casualties fifteen miles long! I see them plodding cheerily through the mud, their faces wet with the rain, ‘an’ a bloke standin’ by the side of the road would think they was goin’ to a Sunday-school picnic.’

I was marching with the sergeant — a favorite with the boys. They respected him as a soldier and liked him as a man. He was in a talkative mood.

‘ Lissen to them guns barkin’! We ’re in for it this time, stryght!’ Then turning to the boys behind, —

‘ ’Ave you got yer wills made out, you lads? You’re a-go’n’ to see a scrap this time, an’ it ain’t a-go’n’ to be no flea-bite, I give you my word!’

‘ Right you are, sergeant! I’m leavin’ me razor to ’is Majesty. ’Ope ’e ’ll tyke the ’int. I don’t like to see Royalty with ’air on their fyces.’

’Strike me pink, sergeant! You gettin’ cold feet?’

‘Less sing ’im “I want to go ’ome”! Get ’im to cryin’ like a byby!’

‘W’ere’s yer mouth organ, Ginger?’

‘Right-O! Myke it weepy now! Slow march! ’

’I want to go ’ome!
I want to go ’ome!
Jack Johnsons, coal-boxes and shrapnel, 0 Lor’!
I don’t want to go in the trenches no more.
Send me across the sea
W’ere the Allemand carn’t shoot me!
Oh my! I don’t want to die!
I want to go ’ome! ’

It is one of the most plaintive and yearning of soldiers’ songs. ‘Jack Johnsons’ and ‘ coal-boxes’ refer to two greatly dreaded types of high explosive shells. More than half of the boys who sang it to the sergeant on this occasion were killed within a fortnight.

‘Wyte,’ the sergeant said, smiling rather grimly; ‘just wyte till we reach the end of this ’ere march! You’ll be singin’ that song out o’ the other side o’ yer fyces.’

We halted in the evening at a little mining village, and were billeted for the night in houses, stables, and even in the water-soaked fields, for there was not sufficient accommodation for all of us. With a dozen of my comrades I slept on the floor in the kitchen of a miner’s cottage, and listened far into the night to the constant procession of motor-ambulances, the endless tramp of marching feet, the thunder of guns, the rattle of windows, and the sound of breaking glass.

The following day we spent in cleaning our rifles, which were badly caked with rust, and in washing our clothes. We had to put these still wet into our packs, for at dusk we fell in, in column of route, along the village street, and our officers told us what was before us. I remember how vividly and honestly one of them described the situation.

‘Listen carefully, men! We are moving off in a few minutes to take over captured German trenches in the neighborhood of Loos. No one knows yet just how the land lies there. The reports we’ve had are confused and rather conflicting. The boys you’re to relieve have been having a hard time. The trenches are full of dead. Those who are left are worn out with the strain, and they need sleep. They won’t want to stop long after you come in, so you must n’t expect much information from them. You’ll have to find out things for yourselvesBut I know you well enough to feel certain that you will. From now on you’ll not have it easy. You’ll have to sit tight under a heavy fire from the German batteries. You’ll have to repulse counter-attacks, for they’ll make every effort to retake those trenches. But remember, you’re British soldiers! Whatever happens, you’ve got to hang on!’

We marched off on a road nearly a foot deep in mud. It had been churned to a thick paste by thousands of feet and by all the heavy wheel-traffic incident to the business of war. The rain was still coming down steadily; it was pitch-dark, except for the reflected light on the low-hanging clouds of the flashes from the guns of our batteries and those from the bursting shells of the enemy. Every few moments we halted to make way for long files of motorambulances, which moved as rapidly as the darkness and the awful condition of the roads would permit. I counted twenty of them during one halt, and then stopped, thinking of the pain of the poor fellows inside, their wounds wrenched and torn by the constant jolting and pitching. We had vivid glimpses of them by the light from flashing guns, and of the Red Cross attendants at the rear of the cars, steadying the upper tiers of stretchers on either side. The heavy garrison artillery was by this time far behind us; but batteries of field artillery were concealed in the fields and in the ruins of houses on every side. They were firing at a tremendous rate. The big shells from the larger guns to the rear went over us with a hollow roar like that of an express train heard at a distance. They exploded several miles away with a sound of jarring thunderclaps.

In addition to the motor-ambulances there was a constant stream of outgoing traffic of other kinds: dispatchriders on motor-cycles, feeling their way cautiously along the side of the road; ammunition-supply and battalion-transport wagons, the horses rearing and plunging in the darkness. We approached a crossroad and halted for some batteries of field pieces moving to pass to new positions. They clattered by on the slippery cobbled road, the horses at a dead gallop. In the red lightnings of gun-fire they looked like a series of splendid sculptured groups.

We moved on and halted, moved on again, stumbled into ditches to get out of the way of headquarters cars and motor-lorries, jumped up, and pushed on. Every step through the thick mud was taken with an effort. We frequently lost touch with the troops ahead of us and had to march at the double to catch up. I was fast getting into the despondent, despairing frame of mind that often follows physical weariness, when I remembered a bit of wisdom in a book by William James which I had read several years before. He had said, in effect, that men have layers of energy, reserves of nervous force which they are rarely called upon to use but which are, nevertheless, assets of great value in times of strain. I had occasion to test the truth of this statement during that night march and at intervals later, when I felt that I had reached the end of my strength. And I found it to be practical wisdom which stood me in good stead on more than one occasion. How, I wonder, did Professor James learn it?

II

We halted to wait for our trench guides at the village of Vermelles, about three miles back of our lines. The men lay down thankfully in the mud, and many of them were soon asleep, despite the terrific noise. Our batteries, concealed in the ruins of the houses, were keeping up a steady fire, and the German guns were replying almost as hotly. The weird flashes lit up the shattered walls and revealed men asleep, with their heads thrown back over their pack sacks, their rifles leaning across their bodies; others standing in attitudes of suspended animation. The noise was deafening. One was thrown entirely upon his own resources for comfort and companionship, for it was impossible to converse. While we were waiting for the order to move, a homeless dog put his cold nose into my hand. I patted him and he crept up close beside me. Every muscle in his body was quivering. I wanted to console him in his own language, but I knew very little French, and I should have had to shout into his ear at the top of my voice to make myself heard. When we marched on I lost him, and I never saw him again.

There was a further march of two and a half miles over open country — the scene of the great battle. The terrain was a maze of abandoned trenches, and was pitted with shell-holes. We crossed what had been the first line of British trenches — which marked the starting-point of the advance — and from there the ground was covered with the bodies of our fallen comrades — men who had ‘done their bit,’ as Tommy says, and would never go home again. Some were huddled in pathetic little groups of two or three, as they might have crept together for companionship before they died. Some were lying face downward just as they had fallen; others in attitudes revealing dreadful suffering. Many were hanging on tangles of German barbed wire, which the heaviest of bombardments never completely destroys. We saw them only by the light of distant trenchrockets, and stumbled on and over them when the darkness returned.

Marching across country under fire is an unpleasant experience, even though it is dark and the enemy’s shelling is haphazard. We machine-gunners were always heavily loaded. In addition to the usual infantryman’s burden, we had our machine guns to carry, together with our ammunition, water-supply, tools, and instruments. We were very anxious to get under cover, but we had to go slowly. By the time we reached our trench we were nearly exhausted.

The men whom we relieved were packed up, ready to move out, when we arrived. We threw our rifles and equipment on the parapet and stood close to the side of the trench to allow them to pass. They were cased in mud. Their faces, seen by the glow of matches or lighted cigarettes, were haggard and worn. A week’s growth of beard gave them a wild, barbaric appearance. They talked eagerly. They were hysterically cheerful — voluble from sheer nervous reaction. They had the prospect of a short reprieve from the sickening horrors, the sight of maimed and shattered bodies, the deafening noise, the nauseating odor of decaying flesh. As they moved slowly along, there were the usual conversations which take place between incoming and outgoing troops.

‘ W’ot sort of a week you had, mate? '

‘It ain’t been a week, son; it’s been a lifetime!’

‘Lucky fer us you blokes come w’en you did. We’ve about reached the limit.’

‘’Ow far we got to go for water?’

‘’Bout two miles. Awful journey! Tyke you five hours to do it. You got to stop every minute, so much traffic along that trench. Go down Stanley Road about five ’unnerd yards, turn off to yer left on Essex Alley, then yer first right. Brings you right out by an old farm w’ere the pump is.’

‘’Ere’s a straight tip! Send yer water fatigue down early in the morning. Three o’clock at the latest. They’s thousands usin’ that well an’ she goes dry after a little w’ile.’

‘You blokes want any souvenirs, all you got to do is pick ’em up. ’Elmets, revolvers, German di’ries, rifles. You wyte till mornin’! You’ll see plenty.’

‘Is this the last line o’ Fritzie’s trenches ? ’

‘Can’t tell you, mate. All we know is, we got ’ere some’ow, an’ we been a-’oldin’ on. My Gawd, it’s been awful! They’ve calmed down a bit tonight. You blokes is lucky comin’ in just w’en you did.’

‘I ain’t got a pal left out o’ my section. You’ll see some of ’em. We ain’t ’ad time to bury ’em.’

They were soon gone, and we were left in ignorance of the situation. We knew only approximately the direction of the living enemy, and the dead spoke to us only in dumb show, telling us unspeakable things about the horrors of modern warfare.

Fortunately for us, the fire of the German batteries, during our first night in captured trenches, was directed chiefly upon the positions to our right and left. The shells from our own batteries were exploding far in advance of our position, and we judged from this that we were holding what had been the last line of German trenches, and that the British artillery was shelling the probable line along which a new German entrenchment would be made. We felt more certain of this later in the night when working parties were sent from the battalion to a point twelve hundred yards in advance of the trenches we were then holding. They were to dig a new line there to connect with entrenchments which had been pushed forward on either side of us.

At daybreak we learned that we were slightly to the left of Hill 70. Hulluch, a small village, still in the possession of the Germans, was to our left front. Midway between Hill 70 and Hulluch and immediately to the front of our position, there was a long stretch of open country, which sloped gently forward for six or eight hundred yards and then rose gradually toward the skyline. In the first assault, the British troops had pushed on past the trench which we were holding and had advanced up the opposite slope nearly a mile farther on. There they started to dig themselves in, but an unfortunate delay in getting forward had given the enemy time to collect a strong force of local reserves behind their second line, which was several hundred yards beyond. So heavy a fire had been concentrated upon the British troops that they had been forced to retire to the line we were then occupying, meeting with heavy losses both in advancing and retiring. The ground in front of us for the distance of nearly a mile was covered with bodies.

All of this we learned later. We knew nothing of our exact position during the first night; but as there appeared to be no enemy within striking distance of our immediate front, we stood on the firing benches vainly trying to get our bearings. About one o’clock, we witnessed the fascinating spectacle of a counter-attack at night.

It came with the dramatic suddenness, the striking spectacular display of a motion-picture battle. It was hard for me to realize that I was witnessing an actual attack. I had been anticipating this very thing for so many weeks. I had visualized it for myself time after time, but my imaginings had been woefully inadequate. I would not have believed such a stupendous pictorial effect was possible.

There was a sudden hurricane of rifleand machine-gun fire, and in an instant all the desolate landscape was revealed under the light of innumerable trench-rockets. We saw the enemy advancing in irregular lines to the attack. They were exposed to a pitiless infantry fire. I could follow the curve of our trenches on the left by the almost solid sheet of flame issuing from the rifles of our comrades against whom the assault was launched. The artillery ranged upon the advancing lines at once; the air was filled with the roar of bursting shells and the melancholy whing-g-g of flying shrapnel. I did not believe that any one could cross that fire-swept area alive, but before many moments we heard the staccato of bursting bombs and hand-grenades, which meant that some of the enemy at least were within striking distance. There was a sharp crescendo of deafening sound; then, little by little, the firing ceased, and word came down the line: ’Counter-attack against the ―Guards; and jolly well beaten off, too! ’ Another attack was attempted before daybreak, and again the same torrent of lead, the same hideous uproar, the same sickening smell of lyddite, the same ghastly noonday effect, the same gradual silence, the same result.

III

The brief respite which we enjoyed during the first night soon came to an end. We were given time, however, to make our trenches tenable. Early the following morning we set to work removing the wreckage of human bodies. Never before had death revealed itself so terribly to us. Many of the men had been literally blown to pieces. We had to gather the fragments in blankets. It was horrible beyond the power of words to express. For weeks we had to eat and sleep and work and think among such awful sights. We became hardened to them finally. It was absolutely essential that we should. Life would have been unbearable otherwise.

The trenches and dug-outs had been battered to pieces by the British artillery as a preliminary to the infantry assault; and since their capture the work of destruction had been carried on by the German gunners. Even in their wrecked condition we could see how skillfully these earthworks had been constructed. No labor had been spared to make them as nearly shellproof and as comfortable for living quarters as possible. Under a clayish surface soil from two to three feet in depth there was a stratum of solid chalk, and advantage had been taken of this by the German engineers who planned and supervised the work. Many of the shell-proof dug-outs were from fifteen to twenty feet below the surface of the ground; entrance to these was made in the front wall of the trench on a level with the floor. A stairway just large enough to permit the passage of a man’s body led down to them. The roofs were reinforced with heavy timbers, and so strongly were they built throughout that most of them were intact despite the heavy bombardments.

There were larger surface dug-outs with floors but slightly lower than that of the trench. These were evidently built for living quarters in times of comparative quiet. Many of them were six feet wide and from twenty to thirty feet long, and quite palatial compared to the wretched little ‘funkholes’ to which we were accustomed. They were roofed with logs a foot or more in diameter, placed one on top of the other in tiers of three, with a covering of earth three or four feet thick. But although they were solidly built, they had not been proof against the rain of high explosives. They were for the most part in ruins, the logs splintered like kindling-wood and strewn far and wide over the ground.

We found several dug-outs, evidently officers’ quarters, which were almost luxuriously furnished. The walls and the floors were of wood. There were rugs for the floors and pictures and mirrors for the walls; and in each of them there was the jolliest little stove, with a removable lid on the top. We discovered one of these underground palaces at the end of a blind alley leading off from the main trench. It was at least fifteen feet underground, with two stairways leading down to it, so that, if escape were cut off in one direction, by reason of the trench caving in and blocking the passageway, it was still possible to get out on the other side.

We immediately took possession, built a roaring fire, and were soon passing round canteens of hot tea. Life was worth while again. We agreed that there were less comfortable places than German officers’ dug-outs in which to have breakfast.

The respite was short, however. We were soon to have borne in on us that death comes swiftly in war; that one’s life hangs by a thread; that the most trivial circumstance saves or destroys. Shortly before noon, Mac came into the half-ruined dug-out where the offduty machine-gunners were making tea over a fire of splintered logs.

‘Jamie,’ he said, ‘take my place at sentry for a few minutes, will you? I’ve lost my water bottle. It’s ’ere in the dug-out somew’ere. I’ll only be a minute.’

I went out to the gun position a few yards away, and just as I did so the German batteries began a bombardment of our line. One’s ear becomes trained in distinguishing the size of shells by the sound they make in traveling through the air, and it is possible to judge the direction and probable place of their fall. Two of us were standing by the machine gun. We heard the terrifying sound which we knewmeant danger, possibly death : the awful whistling roar of a high explosive. We dropped to the floor at once. The explosion blackened our faces with lyddite and half blinded us. The dugout which I had left less than a moment before was a mass of wreckage. Seven of our comrades were inside.

One of them crawled out, pulling himself along with one arm. The other arm was terribly shattered and one leg was hanging by a tendon and a few shreds of flesh.

‘ My Gawd, Jamie, look wot they did to me!’

He kept saying it over and over while we cut the cords from our bandoliers, tied them about his leg and arm, and twisted them up to stop the flow of blood. He was a fine healthy lad; a moment before he had been telling us what he was going to do when he went home on furlough. Now his face was gray with pain; his voice grew weaker and weaker, and he died while we were working over him.

High-explosive shells were now bursting all along the line, throwing tons of earth high in the air. The ground rocked beneath us. Great masses of earth and chalk were blown in on top of men seeking protection where there was none. I heard frantic cries for ‘Picks and shovels!’ ‘Stretcher-bearers! Stretcher-bearers this way, for God’s sake!’ The voices sounded as weak and futile as the squeaking of rats in a thunderstorm. When the bombardment began, all off-duty men were ordered into the deepest of the shell-proof dug-outs, where they were really quite safe. But those English boys were no cowards. Orders or no orders, they came out to the rescue of their comrades. They worked without a thought of their own danger. I felt actually happy, for I was witnessing splendid heroic things. It was an experience which gave a man a new and unshakable faith in his fellows.

The sergeant and I rushed into the ruins of our machine-gun dug-out. The roof still held in one place. There we found Mac, his head split in two as though it had been done with an axe. Gardner’s head was blown completely off, and his body so terribly mangled that we did not know until later who he was. Preston was lying on his back, with a great jagged, bloodstained hole through his tunic. Bert Powell was wounded in so many places that we exhausted our supply of field-dressings in bandaging him. We found little Charlie Harrison lying close to the side of the wall, gazing at his crushed foot with a look of incredulity and horror pitiful to see. One of the men — he had been a Thames river-policeman in civilian life — gave him first-aid with all the deftness and tenderness of a woman.

The rest of us dug feverishly in a great heap of earth at the other end of the shelter. There we uncovered Walter, a lad who had kept us laughing at his drollery on many a rainy night. The earth had been heaped loosely on him and he was still conscious.

‘Good old boys!’ he said weakly, ‘I was about done for.’ In our haste we dislodged another heap of earth which completely buried him again, and it seemed a lifetime before we were able to remove it. I have never seen a finer display of pure courage than Walter’s.

‘Easy, boys! I can’t feel anything below me waist. I think I’m ’urt down there.’

We worked as swiftly and as carefully as we could. We knew that he was badly wounded, for the earth was soaked with blood; but when we saw, we turned away sick with horror. Fortunately, he lost consciousness while we were trying to disentangle him from the fallen timbers, and he died on the way to the field dressing-station. Of the seven in the dug-out, three were killed outright, three died within half an hour, and one escaped with a crushed foot which later had to be amputated.

What had happened to our little group was happening to others along the entire line. Americans may have read of the bombardment which took place that autumn morning. The dispatches, I believe, described it with the usual official brevity, giving all the information necessary from the point of view of the general public: —

‘Along the Loos-La Bassée sector there was a lively artillery action. We demolished some earthworks in the vicinity of Hulluch. Some of our trenches near Hill 70 were damaged.’

‘Damaged’! It was a guarded admission! Our line was a shambles of loose earth and splintered logs. At some places it was difficult to see just where the trench had been. Had the Germans launched a strong counterattack immediately after the bombardment, as we expected they would do, we should have had great difficulty in holding the position. But they failed to do this and we at once set to work rebuilding.

The loose earth was put into sandbags, parapets remade, the holes blasted out by shells filled in. The worst of it was that we could not get away from the sight of the mangled bodies of our comrades. Arms and legs stuck out of the wreckage, and on every side we saw ghastly distorted human faces — the faces of the men whom we had known, with whom we had laughed and joked and shared rations for months past. Those who have never had to undergo experiences of this sort cannot possibly know the horror of them. It is not in the heat of battle that men lose their reason. Battle-frenzy is, perhaps, a temporary madness; but when the fighting is ended there comes the real danger. The strain is relaxed. Men look about them and see the bodies of their comrades torn to pieces as though they had been hacked and butchered by fiends. One thinks of the human body as inviolate, a beautiful and sacred thing. The sight of it dismembered or disemboweled, lying in the bottom of a trench, tramped into the mud, smeared with blood and filth, is so revolting as to be almost unendurable.

And yet we had to endure it. It was impossible to escape it. The ground in front of our trenches was strewn with bodies. They were lying in the trenches and were scattered over the fields to the rear of us for more than a mile, for there had not yet been time to bury those who had fallen before reaching the German line. Worse even than the sight of the bodies were the cries and entreaties of wounded men, dying before our eyes while waiting to be taken back to the field dressing-stations. The stretcher-bearers were doing magnificent work, but there were so many wounded that some had to wait for hours before they could be carried back. We were compelled to listen to their groans and pleadings, knowing that we could do nothing more for them.

‘I’m shot through the stomach, matey! Can’t you get me back to the ambulance? Ain’t they some way you can take me back out o’ this?’

‘Stick it, old lad! You won’t ’ave much longer to wyte. They’ll be some o’ the Red Cross along ’ere in a jiffy now.’

‘Give me a lift, boys, can’t you? Look at my leg! Do you think it will ’ave to come off? Maybe they could save it if I could get back to ’ospital in time. Won’t some of you give me a lift? I can ’obble along with a little ’elp.’

‘Don’t you fret, sonny! You’re ago’n’ to ride back in a stretcher presently.’

Some of the men, in their suffering, forgot everyone but themselves, and it was not strange that they should do so. There were others with more iron in their natures, who endured fearful agony in silence. During memorable half hours, filled with danger and death, many of my gross misjudgments of character were made manifest to me. Men whom no one had credited with heroic qualities revealed them. Others failed rather pitiably to live up to one’s expectations. The most startling and unexpected revelations were made. It seemed clear to me that there was strength or weakness in men for which they were in no way responsible; but doubtless it had always been there, waiting to be called forth at just such crucial times.

During the afternoon I heard the hideous, hysterical laugh of the soldier whose nerve is gone. One of Lhe men picked up an arm and threw it far out in front of the trenches, shouting as he did so in a way that made my blood run cold. I knew what had happened. Then he sat down and started crying and moaning. He was taken back to the rear — one of the most pitiable victims of a war of unspeakable horrors. I heard of many instances of nervous breakdown, but I witnessed surprisingly few of them. Frequently I saw men trembling from head to foot; they pulled themselves together, however, under the taunts of less susceptible Tommies.

(To be concluded)