Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Steven desJardins, and Distributed
Bullets & Billets
By Bruce Bairnsfather
TO MY OLD PALS,
"BILL," "BERT," AND "ALF,"
WHO HAVE SAT IN THE MUD WITH ME
Landing at Havre--Tortoni's--Follow the tram lines--Orders
for the Front.
Tortuous travelling--Clippers and tablets--Dumped at a
siding--I join my Battalion.
Those Plugstreet trenches--Mud and rain--Flooded out--A
More mud--Rain and bullets--A bit of cake--"Wind up"--Night
My man Friday--"Chuck us the biscuits"--Relieved--Billets.
The Transport Farm--Fleeced by the Flemish--Riding--Nearing
A projected attack---Digging a sap--An 'ell of a night--The
Christmas Eve--A lull in hate--Briton cum Boche.
Souvenirs--A ride to Nieppe--Tea at H.Q.--Trenches once more.
My partial escape from the mud--The deserted village--My
A brain wave--Making a "funk hole"--Plugstreet Wood--Sniping.
Robinson Crusoe--That turbulent table.
The Amphibians--Fed-up, but determined--The gun parapet.
Arrival of the "Johnsons"--"Where did that one go?"--The
First Fragment dispatched--The exodus--Where?
New trenches--The night inspection--Letter from the
Wulverghem--The Douve--Corduroy boards--Back at our farm.
The painter and decorator--Fragments forming--Night on the
Visions of leave--Dick Turpin--Leave!
That Leave train--My old pal--London and home--The call of
Back from leave--That "blinkin' moon"--Johnson 'oles--Tommy
and "frightfulness"--Exploring expedition.
A daylight stalk--The disused trench--"Did they see me?"--A
good sniping position.
Our moated farm--Wulverghem--The Cure's house--A shattered
Church--More "heavies"--A farm on fire.
That ration fatigue--Sketches in request--Bailleul--Baths and
lunatics--How to conduct a war.
Getting stale--Longing for change--We leave the Douve--On the
march--Spotted fever--Ten days' rest.
A pleasant change--Suzette, Berthe and Marthe--"La jeune
Getting fit--Caricaturing the Cure--"Dirty work ahead"--A
projected attack--Unlooked-for orders.
We march for Ypres--Halt at Locre--A bleak camp and meagre
fare--Signs of battle--First view of Ypres.
Getting nearer--A lugubrious party--Still nearer--Blazing
Ypres--Orders for attack.
Rain and mud--A trying march--In the thick of it--A wounded
officer--Heavy shelling--I get my "quietus!"
Slowly recovering--Field hospital--Ambulance train--Back in
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Bruce Bairnsfather: a photograph
The Birth of "Fragments": Scribbles on the farmhouse walls
That Astronomical Annoyance, the Star Shell
A Hopeless Dawn
The usual line in Billeting Farms
"Chuck us the biscuits, Bill. The fire wants mendin'"
"Shut that blinkin' door. There's a 'ell of a draught in 'ere"
A Memory of Christmas, 1914
A Messines Memory: "'Ow about shiftin' a bit further down the road, Fred?"
"Old soldiers never die"
Photograph of the Author. St. Yvon, Christmas Day, 1914
Off "in" again
"Poor old Maggie! She seems to be 'avin' it dreadful wet at 'ome!"
"They're devils to snipe, ain't they, Bill?"
_Down South, in the Valley of the Somme, far
from the spots recorded in this book, I began
to write this story._
_In billets it was. I strolled across the old
farmyard and into the wood beyond. Sitting
by a gurgling little stream, I began, with the
aid of a notebook and a pencil, to record the
joys and sorrows of my first six months in
_I do not claim any unique quality for these
experiences. Many thousands have had the
same. I have merely, by request, made a
record of my times out there, in the way that
they appeared to me_.
LANDING AT HAVRE--TORTONI'S--FOLLOW
THE TRAM LINES--ORDERS FOR THE FRONT
Gliding up the Seine, on a transport crammed to the lid with troops, in
the still, cold hours of a November morning, was my debut into the war.
It was about 6 a.m. when our boat silently slipped along past the great
wooden sheds, posts and complications of Havre Harbour. I had spent most
of the twelve-hour trip down somewhere in the depths of the ship,
dealing out rations to the hundred men that I had brought with me from
Plymouth. This sounds a comparatively simple process, but not a bit of
it. To begin with, the ship was filled with troops to bursting point,
and the mere matter of proceeding from one deck to another was about as
difficult as trying to get round to see a friend at the other side of
the ground at a Crystal Palace Cup final.
I stood in a queue of Gordons, Seaforths, Worcesters, etc., slowly
moving up one, until, finally arriving at the companion (nearly said
staircase), I tobogganed down into the hold, and spent what was left of
the night dealing out those rations. Having finished at last, I came to
the surface again, and now, as the transport glided along through the
dirty waters of the river, and as I gazed at the motley collection of
Frenchmen on the various wharves, and saw a variety of soldiery, and a
host of other warlike "props," I felt acutely that now I was _in_ the
war at last--the real thing! For some time I had been rehearsing in
England; but that was over now, and here I was--in the common or garden
vernacular--"in the soup."
At last we were alongside, and in due course I had collected that
hundred men of mine, and found that the number was still a hundred,
after which I landed with the rest, received instructions and a guide,
then started off for the Base Camps.
These Camps were about three miles out of Havre, and thither the whole
contents of the ship marched in one long column, accompanied on either
side by a crowd of ragged little boys shouting for souvenirs and
biscuits. I and my hundred men were near the rear of the procession, and
in about an hour's time arrived at the Base Camps.
I don't know that it is possible to construct anything more atrociously
hideous or uninteresting than a Base Camp. It consists, in military
parlance, of nothing more than:--
Fields, grassless 1
Tents, bell 500
In fact, a huge space, once a field, now a bog, on which are perched
rows and rows of squalid tents.
I stumbled along over the mud with my troupe, and having found the
Adjutant, after a considerable search, thought that my task was over,
and that I could slink off into some odd tent or other and get a sleep
and a rest. Oh no!--the Adjutant had only expected fifty men, and here
was I with a hundred.
Consternation! Two hours' telephoning and intricate back-chat with the
Adjutant eventually led to my being ordered to leave the expected fifty
and take the others to another Base Camp hard by, and see if they would
like to have them there.
The rival Base Camp expressed a willingness to have this other fifty, so
at last I had finished, and having found an empty tent, lay down on the
ground, with my greatcoat for a pillow and went to sleep.
I awoke at about three in the afternoon, got hold of a bucket of water
and proceeded to have a wash. Having shaved, washed, brushed my hair,
and had a look at the general effect in the polished back of my
cigarette case (all my kit was still at the docks), I emerged from my
canvas cave and started off to have a look round.
I soon discovered a small cafe down the road, and found it was a place
used by several of the officers who, like myself, were temporarily
dumped at the Camps. I went in and got something to eat. Quite a good
little place upstairs there was, where one could get breakfast each
morning: just coffee, eggs, and bread sort of thing. By great luck I met
a pal of mine here; he had come over in a boat previous to mine, and
after we had had a bit of a refresher and a smoke we decided to go off
down to Havre and see the sights.
A tram passed along in front of this cafe, and this we boarded. It took
about half an hour getting down to Havre from Bleville where the Camps
were, but it was worth it.
Tortoni's Cafe, a place that we looked upon as the last link with
civilization: Tortoni's, with its blaze of light, looking-glass and gold
paint--its popping corks and hurrying waiters--made a deep and pleasant
indent on one's mind, for "to-morrow" meant "the Front" for most of
those who sat there.
As we sat in the midst of that kaleidoscopic picture, formed of French,
Belgian and English uniforms, intermingled with the varied and gaudy
robes of the local nymphs; as we mused in the midst of dense clouds of
tobacco smoke, we could not help reflecting that this _might_ be the
last time we should look on such scenes of revelry, and came to the
conclusion that the only thing to do was to make the most of it while we
had the chance. And, by Gad, we did....
A little after midnight I parted from my companion and started off to
get back to that Base Camp of mine.
Standing in the main square of the town, I realized a few points which
tended to take the edge off the success of the evening:
No. 1.--It was too late to get a tram.
No. 2.--All the taxis had disappeared.
No. 3.--It was pouring with rain.
No. 4.--I had three miles to go.
I started off to walk it--but had I known what that walk was going to
be, I would have buttoned myself round a lamp-post and stayed where I
I made that fatal mistake of thinking that I knew the way.
Leaning at an angle of forty-five degrees against the driving rain, I
staggered along the tram lines past the Casino, and feeling convinced
that the tram lines must be correct, determined to follow them.
After about half an hour's walk, mostly uphill, I became rather
suspicious as to the road being quite right.
Seeing a sentry-box outside a palatial edifice on the right, I tacked
across the road and looked for the sentry.
A lurid thing in gendarmes advanced upon me, and I let off one of my
curtailed French sentences at him:
"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"
I can't give his answer in French, but being interpreted I think it
meant that I was completely on the wrong road, and that he wasn't
certain as to how I could ever get back on it without returning to Havre
and starting again.
He produced an envelope, made an unintelligible sketch on the back of
it, and started me off again down the way I had come.
I realized what my mistake had been. There was evidently a branch tram
line, which I had followed, and this I thought could only have branched
off near the Casino, so back I went to the Casino and started again.
I was right about the branch line, and started merrily off again, taking
as I thought the main line to Bleville.
After another half-hour of this, with eyes feverishly searching for
recognizable landmarks, I again began to have doubts as to the veracity
of the tram lines. However, pretending that I placed their honesty
beyond all doubt, I plodded on; but round a corner, found the outlook so
unfamiliar that I determined to ask again. Not a soul about. Presently I
discovered a small house, standing back off the road and showing a thin
slit of light above the shutters of a downstairs window. I tapped on the
glass. A sound as of someone hurriedly trying to hide a pile of
coverless umbrellas in a cupboard was followed by the opening of the
window, and a bristling head was silhouetted against the light.
I squeezed out the same old sentence:
"Pour Bleville, Monsieur?"
A fearful cataract of unintelligible words burst from the head, but left
me almost as much in the dark as ever, though with a faint glimmering
that I was "warmer." I felt that if I went back about a mile and turned
to the left, all would be well.
I thanked the gollywog in the window, who, somehow or other, I think
must have been a printer working late, and started off once more.
After another hour's route march I came to some scattered houses, and
finally to a village. I was indignantly staring at a house when
suddenly, joy!--I realized that what I was looking at was an unfamiliar
view of the cafe where I had breakfasted earlier in the day.
Another ten minutes and I reached the Camp. Time now 2.30 a.m. I thought
I would just take a look in at the Orderly Room tent to see if there
were any orders in for me. It was lucky I did. Inside I found an orderly
asleep in a blanket, and woke him.
"Anything in for me?" I asked. "Bairnsfather's my name."
"Yes, sir, there is," came through the blanket, and getting up he went
to the table at the other end of the tent. He sleepily handed me the
wire: "Lieutenant Bairnsfather to proceed to join his battalion as
"What time do I have to push off?" I inquired.
"By the eight o'clock from Havre to-morrow, sir."
Time now 3 a.m. To-morrow--THE FRONT! And then I crept into my tent and
tried to sleep.
TORTUOUS TRAVELLING--CLIPPERS AND
TABLETS--DUMPED AT A SIDING--I JOIN
Not much sleep that night, a sort of feverish coma instead: wild dreams
in which I and the gendarme were attacking a German trench, the officer
in charge of which we found to be the Base Camp Adjutant after all.
However, I got up early--packed my few belongings in my valise, which
had mysteriously turned up from the docks, and went off on the tram down
to Havre. That hundred men I had brought over had nothing to do with me
now. I was entirely on my own, and was off to the Front to join my
battalion. Down at Havre the officials at the station gave me a
complicated yellow diagram, known as a travelling pass, and I got into a
carriage in the train bound for Rouen.
I was not alone now; a whole forest of second lieutenants like myself
were in the same train, and with them a solid, congealed mass of
valises, packs, revolvers and haversacks. At last the train started, and
after the usual hour spent in feeling that you have left all the most
important things behind, I settled down on a mound of equipment and
tried to do a bit of a sleep.
So what with sleeping, smoking and talking, we jolted along until we
pulled up at Rouen. Here I had to leave the train, for some obscure
reason, in order to go to the Palais de Justice to get another ticket. I
padded off down over the bridge into Rouen, found the Palais, went in
and was shown along to an office that dealt in tickets.
In this dark and dingy oak-panelled saloon, illuminated by electric
light and the glittering reflections from gold braid, there lurked a
general or two. I was here given another pass entitling me to be
deposited at a certain siding in Flanders.
Back I went to the station, and in due course rattled off in the train
again towards the North.
A fearfully long journey we had, up to the Front! The worst of it was
that nobody knew--or, if they did, wouldn't tell you--which way you
were going, or how long it would take to get to your destination. For
instance, we didn't know we were going to Rouen till we got there; and
we didn't know we were going from Rouen to Boulogne until, after a night
spent in the train, the whole outfit jolted and jangled into the Gare de
Something, down by the wharf at that salubrious seaport.
We spent a complete day and part of an evening at Boulogne, as our train
did not leave until midnight.
[Illustration: having a smoke]
I and another chap who was going to the next railhead to mine at the
Front, went off together into the town and had lunch at a cafe in the
High Street. We then strolled around the shops, buying a few things we
needed. Not very attractive things either, but I'll mention them here to
show how we thought and felt.
We first went to a "pharmacie" and got some boxes of morphia tablets,
after which we went to an ironmonger's (don't know the French for it)
and each bought a ponderous pair of barbed wire cutters. So what with
wire clippers and morphia tablets, we _were_ gay. About four o'clock we
calmed down a bit, and went to the same restaurant where we had
Here we had tea with a couple of French girls, exceeding good to look
upon, who had apparently escaped from Lille. We got on splendidly with
them till a couple of French officers, one with the Legion of Honour,
came along to the next table. That took all the shine out of us, so we
determined to quit, and cleared off to the Hotel de Folkestone, where we
had a bath to console us. Dinner followed, and then, feeling
particularly hilarious, I made my will. Not the approved will of family
lawyer style, but just a letter announcing, in bald and harsh terms
that, in the event of my remaining permanently in Belgium, I wanted my
total small worldly wealth to be disposed of in a certain way.
Felt better after this outburst, and, rejoining my pal, we went off into
the town again and by easy stages reached the train.
At about one a.m. the train started, and we creaked and groaned our way
out of Boulogne. We were now really off for the Front, and the
situation, consequently, became more exciting. We were slowly getting
nearer and nearer to the real thing. But what a train! It dribbled and
rumbled along at about five miles an hour, and, I verily believe,
stopped at every farmhouse within sight of the line. I could not help
thinking that the engine driver was a German in disguise, who was trying
to prevent our ever arriving at our destination. I tried to sleep, but
each time the train pulled up, I woke with a start and thought that we'd
got there. This went on for many hours, and as I knew we must be getting
somewhere near, my dreams became worse and worse.
I somehow began to think that the engine driver was becoming
cautious--(he was a Frenchman again)--thought that, perhaps, he had to
get down occasionally and walk ahead a bit to see if it was safe to go
Nobody in the train had the least idea where the Front was, how far off,
or what it was like. For all we knew, our train might be going right up
into the rear of the front line trenches. Somewhere round 6 a.m. I
reached my siding. All the others, except myself and one other, had got
out at previous halts. I got down from the carriage on to the cinder
track, and went along the line to the station. Nobody about except a few
Frenchmen, so I went back to the carriage again, and sat looking out
through the dimmed window at the rain-soaked flat country. The other
fellow with me was doing the same. A sudden, profound depression came
over me. Here was I and this other cove dumped down at this horrible
siding; nothing to eat, and nobody to meet us. How rude and callous of
someone, or something. I looked at my watch; it had stopped, and on
trying to wind it I found it was broken.
I stared out of the window again; gave that up, and stared at the
opposite seat. Suddenly my eye caught something shiny under the seat. I
stooped and picked it up; it was a watch! I have always looked upon this
episode as an omen of some sort; but of what sort I can't quite make
out. Finding a watch means finding "Time"--perhaps it meant I would find
time to write this book; on the other hand it may have meant that my
time had come--who knows?
At about eight o'clock by my new watch I again made an attack on the
station, and at last found the R.T.O., which, being interpreted, means
the Railway Transport Officer. He told me where my battalion was to be
found; but didn't know whether they were in the trenches or out. He also
added that if he were me he wouldn't hurry about going there, as I could
probably get a lift in an A.S.C. wagon later on. I took his advice, and
having left all my tackle by his office, went into the nearest estaminet
to get some breakfast. The owner, a genial but garrulous little
Frenchman, spent quite a lot of time explaining to me how those hateful
people, the Boches, had occupied his house not so long before, and had
punched a hole in his kitchen wall to use a machine-gun through. After
breakfast I went to the station and arranged for my baggage to be sent
on by an A.S.C. wagon, and then started out to walk to Nieppe, which I
learnt was the place where my battalion billeted. As I plodded along the
muddy road in the pouring rain, I became aware of a sound with which I
was afterwards to become horribly familiar.
"Boom!" That was all; but I knew it was the voice of the guns, and in
that moment I realized that here was the war, and that I was in it.
I ploughed along for about four miles down uninteresting mud
canals--known on maps as roads--until, finally, I entered Nieppe.
The battalion, I heard from a passing soldier, was having its last day
in billets prior to going into the trenches again. They were billeted at
a disused brewery at the other end of the town. I went on down the
squalid street and finally found the place.
A crowd of dirty, war-worn looking soldiers were clustered about the
entrance in groups. I went in through the large archway past them into
the brewery yard. Soldiers everywhere, resting, talking and smoking. I
inquired where the officers' quarters were, and was shown to the brewery
head office. Here I found the battalion officers, many of whom I knew,
and went into their improvised messroom, which, in previous days, had
apparently been the Brewery Board room.
I found everything very dark, dingy and depressing. That night the
battalion was going into the trenches again, and last evenings in
billets are not generally very exhilarating. I sat and talked with those
I knew, and presently the Colonel came in, and I heard what the orders
were for the evening. I felt very strange and foreign to it all, as
everyone except myself had had their baptism of trench life, and,
consequently, at this time I did not possess that calm indifference,
bred of painful experience, which is part of the essence of a true
The evening drew on. We had our last meal in billets--sardines, bread,
butter and cake sort of thing--slung on to the bare table by the soldier
servants, who were more engrossed in packing up things they were taking
to the trenches than in anything else.
And now the time came to start off. I found the machine-gun section in
charge of a sergeant, a most excellent fellow, who had looked after the
section since the officer (whose place I had come to fill) had been
wounded. I took over from him, and, as the battalion moved off along the
road, fell in behind with my latest acquisition--a machine-gun section,
with machine guns to match. It was quite dusk now, and as we neared the
great Bois de Ploegstert, known all over the world as "Plugstreet
Wood," it was nearly night. The road was getting rougher, and the
houses, dotted about in dark silhouettes against the sky-line, had a
curiously deserted and worn appearance. Everything was looking dark,
damp and drear.
On we went down the road through the wood, stumbling along in the
darkness over the shell-pitted track. Weird noises occasionally floated
through the trees; the faint "crack" of a rifle, or the rumble of limber
wheels. A distant light flickered momentarily in the air, cutting out in
bold relief the ruins of the shattered chateau on our left. On we went
through this scene of dark and humid desolation, past the occasional
mounds of former habitations, on into the trenches before Plugstreet
THOSE PLUGSTREET TRENCHES--MUD AND
RAIN--FLOODED OUT--A HOPELESS DAWN
An extraordinary sensation--the first time of going into trenches. The
first idea that struck me about them was their haphazard design. There
was, no doubt, some very excellent reason for someone or other making
those trenches as they were; but they really did strike me as curious
when I first saw them.
A trench will, perhaps, run diagonally across a field, will then go
along a hedge at right angles, suddenly give it up and start again fifty
yards to the left, in such a position that it is bound to cross the
kitchen-garden of a shattered chateau, go through the greenhouse and out
into the road. On getting there it henceforth rivals the ditch at the
side in the amount of water it can run off into a row of dug-outs in the
next field. There is, apparently, no necessity for a trench to be in any
way parallel to the line of your enemy; as long as he can't shoot you
from immediately behind, that's all you ask.
It was a long and weary night, that first one of mine in the trenches.
Everything was strange, and wet and horrid. First of all I had to go and
fix up my machine guns at various points, and find places for the
gunners to sleep in. This was no easy matter, as many of the dug-outs
had fallen in and floated off down stream.
In this, and subsequent descriptions of the trenches, I may lay myself
open to the charge of exaggeration. But it must be remembered that I am
describing trench life in the early days of 1914, and I feel sure that
those who had experience of them will acquit me of any such charge.
To give a recipe for getting a rough idea, in case you want to, I
recommend the following procedure. Select a flat ten-acre ploughed
field, so sited that all the surface water of the surrounding country
drains into it. Now cut a zig-zag slot about four feet deep and three
feet wide diagonally across, dam off as much water as you can so as to
leave about a hundred yards of squelchy mud; delve out a hole at one
side of the slot, then endeavour to live there for a month on bully beef
and damp biscuits, whilst a friend has instructions to fire at you with
his Winchester every time you put your head above the surface.
Well, here I was, anyway, and the next thing was to make the best of it.
As I have before said, these were the days of the earliest trenches in
this war: days when we had none of those desirable "props," such as
corrugated iron, floorboards, and sand bags _ad lib_.
[Illustration: "ullo! 'Arry"]
When you made a dug-out in those days you made it out of anything you
could find, and generally had to make it yourself. That first night I
was "in" I discovered, after a humid hour or so, that our battalion
wouldn't fit into the spaces left by the last one, and as regards
dug-outs, the truth of that mathematical axiom, "Two's into one, won't
go," suddenly dawned on me with painful clearness. I was faced with
making a dug-out, and it was raining, of course. (_Note._--Whenever I
don't state the climatic conditions, read "raining.") After sloshing
about in several primitive trenches in the vicinity of the spot where we
had fixed our best machine-gun position, my sergeant and I discovered a
sort of covered passage in a ditch in front of a communication trench.
It was a sort of emergency exit back from a row of ramshackle,
water-logged hovels in the ditch to the communication trench. We decided
to make use of this passage, and arranged things in such a way that by
scooping out the clay walls we made two caves, one behind the other. The
front one was about five yards from the machine gun, and you reached the
back cave by going through the outer one. It now being about 11 p.m.,
and having been for the last five hours perpetually on the scramble,
through trenches of all sorts, I drew myself into the inner cave to go
This little place was about 4 feet long, 3 feet high, and 3 feet wide. I
got out my knife, took a scoop out of the clay wall, and fishing out a
candle-end from my pocket, stuck it in the niche, lit it and a
cigarette. I now lay down and tried to size up the situation and life
Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity, somewhere in Belgium, miles
and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud. This was
the first day; and, so far as I could see, the future contained nothing
but repetitions of the same thing, or worse.
Nothing was to be heard except the occasional crack of the sniper's
shot, the dripping of the rain, and the low murmur of voices from the
In the narrow space beside me lay my equipment; revolver, and a sodden
packet of cigarettes. Everything damp, cold and dark; candle-end
guttering. I think suddenly of something like the Empire or the
Alhambra, or anything else that's reminiscent of brightness and life,
and then--swish, bang--back to the reality that the damp clay wall is
only eighteen inches in front of me; that here I am--that the Boche is
just on the other side of the field; and that there doesn't seem the
slightest chance of leaving except in an ambulance.
My machine-gun section for the gun near by lay in the front cave, a
couple of feet from me; their spasmodic talking gradually died away as,
one by one, they dropped off to sleep. One more indignant, hopeless
glare at the flickering candle-end, then I pinched the wick, curled up,
and went to sleep.
* * * * *
A sudden cold sort of peppermint sensation assailed me; I awoke and sat
up. My head cannoned off the clay ceiling, so I partially had to lie
I attempted to strike a match, but found the whole box was damp and
sodden. I heard a muttering of voices and a curse or two in the outer
cavern, and presently the sergeant entered my sanctum on all fours:
"We're bein' flooded out, sir; there's water a foot deep in this place
That explains it. I feel all round the back of my greatcoat and find I
have been sleeping in a pool of water.
I crawled out of my inner chamber, and the whole lot of us dived through
the rapidly rising water into the ditch outside. I scrambled up on to
the top of the bank, and tried to focus the situation.
From inquiries and personal observation I found that the cause of the
tide rising was the fact that the Engineers had been draining the
trench, in the course of which process they had apparently struck a
spring of water.
We accepted the cause of the disaster philosophically, and immediately
discussed what was the best thing to be done. Action of some sort was
urgently necessary, as at present we were all sitting on the top of the
mud bank of the ditch in the silent, steady rain, the whole party being
occasionally illuminated by a German star shell--more like a family
sitting for a flashlight photograph than anything else.
We decided to make a dam. Having found an empty ration box and half a
bag of coke, we started on the job of trying to fence off the water from
our cave. After about an hour's struggle with the elements we at last
succeeded, with the aid of the ration box, the sack of coke and a few
tins of bully, in reducing the water level inside to six inches.
Here we were, now wetter than ever, cold as Polar bears, sitting in this
hygroscopic catacomb at about 2 a.m. We longed for a fire; a fire was
decided on. We had a fire bucket--it had started life as a biscuit
tin--a few bits of damp wood, but no coke. "We had some coke, I'm sure!
Why, of course--we built it into the dam!" Down came the dam, out came
the coke, and in came the water. However, we preferred the water to the
cold; so, finally, after many exasperating efforts, we got a fire going
in the bucket. Five minutes' bliss followed by disaster. The fire bucket
proceeded to emit such dense volumes of sulphurous smoke that in a few
moments we couldn't see a lighted match.
We stuck it a short time longer, then one by one dived into the water
and out into the air, shooting out of our mud hovel to the surface like
snakes when you pour water down their holes.
Time now 3 a.m. No sleep; rain, water, _plus_ smoke. A board meeting
held immediately decides to give up sleep and dug-outs for that night. A
motion to try and construct a chimney with an entrenching tool is
defeated by five votes to one ... dawn is breaking--my first night in
trenches comes to an end.
MORE MUD--RAIN AND BULLETS--A BIT OF
CAKE--"WIND UP"--NIGHT ROUNDS
The rose-pink sky fades off above to blue,
The morning star alone proclaims the dawn.
The empty tins and barbed wire bathed in dew
Emerge, and then another day is born.
I wrote that "poem" in those--trenches, so you can see the sort of state
to which I was reduced.
Well, my first trench night was over; the dawn had broken--everything
else left to break had been seen to by the artillery, which started off
generally at about eight. And what a fearful long day it seemed, that
first one! As soon as it was light I began scrambling about, and having
a good look at the general lie of things. In front was a large expanse
of root field, at the further side of which a long irregular parapet
marked the German trenches. Behind those again was more root field,
dented here and there with shell holes filled with water, beyond which
stood a few isolated remnants which had once been cottages. I stood at a
projection in one of our trenches, from where I could see the general
shape of our line, and could glimpse a good view of the German
arrangements. Not a soul could be seen anywhere. Here and there a wisp
of smoke indicated a fire bucket. Behind our trenches, behind the
shattered houses at the top of a wooded rise in the ground, stood what
once must have been a fine chateau. As I looked, a shrieking hollow
whistle overhead, a momentary pause, then--"Crumph!" showed clearly what
was the matter with the chateau. It was being shelled. The Germans
seemed to have a rooted objection to that chateau. Every morning, as we
crouched in our mud kennels, we heard those "Crumphs," and soon got to
be very good judges of form. _We_ knew they were shelling the chateau.
When they didn't shell the chateau, we got it in the trenches; so we
looked on that dear old mangled wreck with a friendly eye--that
tapering, twisted, perforated spire, which they never could knock down,
was an everlasting bait to the Boche, and a perfect fairy godmother to
Oh, those days in that trench of ours! Each day seemed about a week
long. I shared a dug-out with a platoon commander after that first
night. The machine-gun section found a suitable place and made a dug-out
Day after day, night after night, my companion and I lay and listened to
the daily explosions, read, and talked, and sloshed about that trench
The greatest interest one had in the daytime was sitting on the damp
straw in our clay vault, scraping the mud off one's saturated boots and
clothes. The event to which one looked forward with the greatest
interest was the arrival of letters in the evening.
Now and again we got out of our dug-out and sloshed down the trench to
scheme out some improvement or other, or to furtively look out across
the water-logged turnip field at the Boche trenches opposite.
Occasionally, in the silent, still, foggy mornings, a voice from
somewhere in the alluvial depths of a miserable trench, would suddenly
burst into a scrap of song, such as--
Old soldiers never die,
They simply fade away.
--a voice full of "fed-upness," steeped in determination.
Then all would be silence for the next couple of hours, and so the day
[Illustration: The Knave of Spades.]
At dusk, my job was to emerge from this horrible drain and go round the
various machine-gun positions. What a job! I generally went alone, and
in the darkness struck out across the sodden field, tripping,
stumbling, and sometimes falling into various shell holes on the way.
One does a little calling at this time of day. Having seen a gun in
another trench, one looks up the nearest platoon commander. You look
into so-and-so's dug-out and find it empty. You ask a sergeant where the
"He's down the trench, sir." You push your way down the trench, dodging
pools of water and stepping over fire buckets, mess tins, brushing past
men standing, leaning or sitting--right on down the trench, where, round
a corner, you find the platoon commander. "Well, if we can't get any
sandbags," he is probably saying to a sergeant, "we will just have to
bank it up with earth, and put those men on the other side of the
traverse," or something like that. He turns to me and says, "Come along
back to my dug-out and have a bit of cake. Someone or other has sent one
out from home."
We start back along the trench. Suddenly a low murmuring, rattling sound
can be heard in the distance. We stop to listen, the sound gets louder;
everyone stops to listen--the sound approaches, and is now
distinguishable as rifle-fire. The firing becomes faster and faster;
then suddenly swells into a roar and now comes the phenomenon of trench
warfare: "wind up"--the prairie fire of the trenches.
Everyone stands to the parapet, and away on the left a tornado of
crackling sound can be heard, getting louder and louder. In a few
seconds it has swept on down the line, and now a deafening rattle of
rifle-fire is going on immediately in front. Bullets are flicking the
tops of the sandbags on the parapet in hundreds, whilst white streaks
are shooting up with a swish into the sky and burst into bright
radiating blobs of light--the star shell at its best.
A curious thing, this "wind up." We never knew when it would come on. It
is caused entirely by nerves. Perhaps an inquisitive Boche, somewhere a
mile or two on the left, had thought he saw someone approaching his
barbed wire; a few shots are exchanged--a shout or two, followed by more
shots--panic--more shots--panic spreading--then suddenly the whole line
of trenches on a front of a couple of miles succumbs to that well-known
malady, "wind up."
In reality it is highly probable that there was no one in front near
the wire, and no one has had the least intention of being there.
Presently there comes a deep "boom" from somewhere in the distance
behind, and a large shell sails over our heads and explodes somewhere
amongst the Boches; another and another, and then all becomes quiet
again. The rifle fire diminishes and soon ceases. Total result of one of
these firework displays: several thousand rounds of ammunition squibbed
off, hundreds of star shells wasted, and no casualties.
It put the "wind up" me at first, but I soon got to know these affairs,
and learnt to take them calmly.
I went along with the platoon commander back to his lair. An excellent
fellow he was. No one in this war could have hated it all more than he
did, and no one could have more conscientiously done his very best at
it. Poor fellow, he was afterwards killed near Ypres.
"Well, how are things going with you?" I said.
"Oh, all right. They knocked down that same bit of parapet again to-day.
I think they must imagine we've got a machine gun there, or something.
That's twice we've had to build it up this week. Have a bit of cake?"
So I had a bit of cake and left him; he going back to that old parapet
again, whilst I struck off into the dark, wet field towards another gun
position, falling into an unfamiliar "Johnson 'ole" on the way.
No one gets a better idea of the general lie of the position than a
machine-gun officer. In those early, primitive days, when we had so few
of each thing, we, of course, had few machine guns, and these had to be
sprinkled about a position to the best possible advantage. The
consequence was that people like myself had to cover a considerable
amount of ground before our rambles in the dark each night were done.
One machine gun might be, say, in "Dead Man Farm"; another at the
"Barrier" near the cross roads; whilst another couple were just at some
effective spot in a trench, or in a commanding position in a shattered
farm or cottage behind the front line trenches.
I would leave my dug-out as soon as it was dark and do the round of all
the guns every night. Just as a sample, I will carry on from where I
left the platoon commander.
I slosh across the ploughed field at what I feel to be a correct angle
to bring me out on the cross roads, where, about two hundred yards away,
I have another gun. I scramble across a broken gateway and an old bit of
trench, and close behind come to a deep cutting into which I jump. About
five yards along this I come to a machine-gun emplacement, with a
machine-gun sentry on guard.
"Where's the corporal?"
"I'm 'ere, sir," is emitted from the slimy depths of a narrow low-roofed
dug-out, and the corporal emerges, hooking back the waterproof sheet as
he comes out to prevent the light showing.
"How about this gun, Corporal--is everything all right?"
"Yes, sir; but I was looking around to-day, and thought that if we was
to shift the gun over there, where the dead cow is, we'd get a better
field of fire."
Meeting adjourned to inspect this valuable site from the windward side.
After a short, blood-thirsty conversation relative to the perforating of
the enemy, I leave and push off into the bog again, striking out for
another visit. Finally, after two hours' visiting, floundering, bullet
dodging, and star shell shirking, accompanied by a liberal allowance of
"narrow squeaks," I get back to my own bit of trench; and tobogganing
down where I erroneously think the clay steps are, I at last reach my
dug-out, and entering on all fours, crouch amongst the damp tobacco
leaves and straw and light a cigarette.
MY MAN FRIDAY--"CHUCK US THE
It was during this first time up in the trenches that I got a soldier
As I had arrived only just in time to go with the battalion to the
trenches, the acquisition had to be made by a search in the mud. I found
a fellow who hadn't been an officer's servant before, but who wanted to
be. I liked the look of him; so feeling rather like Robinson Crusoe,
when he booked up Friday, "I got me a man."
He lived in a dug-out about five yards away, and from then onwards
continued with me right to the point where this book finishes. This
fellow of mine did all my cooking, such as it was, and worked in
conjunction with my friend, the platoon commander's servant. Cooking, at
the times I write about, consisted of making innumerable brews of tea,
and opening tins of bully and Maconochie. Occasionally bacon had to be
fried in a mess-tin lid. One day my man soared off into culinary fancies
and curried a Maconochie. I have never quite forgiven him for this; I am
nearly right again now.
These two soldier servants never had to leave the trench. It was their
job to try and find something to make a fire with, and to do all they
could to keep the water out of our dug-out, a task which not one of us
succeeded in doing. My plan for sustaining life under these conditions
was to change my boots as often as possible. If there wasn't time for
this I used to try and boil the water in my boots by keeping my feet to
the fire bucket. I always put my puttees on first and then a pair of
thick socks, and finally a pair of boots. I could, by this means,
hurriedly slip off the sodden pair of boots and socks and slip on
another set which had become fairly dry by the fire. We lived
perpetually damp, if not thoroughly wet. My puttees, which I rarely
removed, were more like long rolls of the consistency of nougat than
anything else, thanks to the mud. Dug-outs had no wooden linings in
those days; no corrugated iron roofs; no floorboards. They were just
holes in the clay side of the fire trench, with any old thing for a
roof, and old straw or tobacco leaves, which we pinched from some
abandoned farm, for a floor. So, you see, there was not much of a chance
of dodging the moisture.
The cold was what got me. Personally, I would far rather have gone
without food than a fire. A fire of some sort was the only thing to
cheer. Coke was scarce and always wet, and it was by no means uncommon
to over-hear a remark of this sort: "Chuck us the biscuits, Bill; the
fire wants mendin'."
At night I would frequently sally forth to a cracked up village behind,
and perhaps procure half a mantelpiece and an old clog to stoke our
Well, after the usual number of long days and still longer nights spent
under these conditions, we came to the day when it was our turn to go
out to rest billets, and a relieving battalion to come in. What a
splendid day that is! You start "packing" at about 4 p.m. As soon as it
is dusk the servants slink off across that turnip morass behind and drag
our few belongings back to where the limbers are. These limbers have
come up from about three to four miles away, from the Regimental
Transport headquarters, to take all the trench "props" back to the
We don't leave, ourselves, until the "incoming" battalion has taken
[Illustration: soldier at rest]
After what seems an interminable wait, we hear a clinking of mess tins
and rattling of equipment, the sloshing of feet in the mud, and much
whispered profanity, which all goes to announce to you that "they're
here!" Then you know that the other battalion has arrived, and are now
about to take over these precious slots in the ground.
When the exchange is complete, we are free to go!--to go out for our few
days in billets!
The actual going out and getting clear of the trenches takes a long
time. Handing over, and finally extricating ourselves from the morass,
in the dark, with all our belongings, is a lengthy process; and then we
have about a mile of country which we have never been able to examine in
the day time, and get familiar with, to negotiate. This is before we get
to the high road, and really start for billets.
I had the different machine-gun sections to collect from their various
guns, and this not until the relieving sections had all turned up. It
was a good two hours' job getting all the sections with their guns,
ammunition and various extras finally collected together in the dark a
mile back, ready to put all the stuff in the limbers, and so back to
billets. When all was fixed up I gave the order and off we started,
plodding along back down the narrow, dreary road towards our
resting-place. But it was quite a cheerful tramp, knowing as we did that
we were going to four days' comparative rest, and, anyway, safety.
On we went down the long, flat, narrow roads, occasionally looking round
to see the faint flicker of a star shell showing over the tops of the
trees, and to think momentarily of the "poor devils" left behind to take
our place, and go on doing just what we had been at. Then, finally,
getting far enough away to forget, songs and jokes took us chirping
along, past objects which soon became our landmarks in the days to come.
On we went, past estaminets, shrines and occasional windmills, down
the long winding road for about four miles, until at last we reached our
billets, where the battalion willingly halted and dispersed to its
various quarters. I and my machine-gun section had still to carry on,
for we lived apart, a bit further on, at the Transport Farm. So we
continued on our own for another mile and a half, past the estaminet at
Romerin, out on towards Neuve Eglise to our Transport Farm. This was the
usual red-tiled Belgian farm, with a rectangular smell in the middle.
THE TRANSPORT FARM--FLEECED BY THE
It was about 9 p.m. when we turned into the courtyard of the farm. My
sergeant saw to the unlimbering, and dismissed the section, whilst I
went into the farm and dismantled myself of all my tackle, such as
revolver, field-glass, greatcoat, haversacks, etc.
My servant had, of course, preceded me, and by the time I had made a
partial attempt at cleaning myself, he had brought in a meal of sorts
and laid it on the oilcloth-covered table by the stove. I was now joined
by the transport officer and the regimental quartermaster. They lived at
this farm permanently, and only came to the trenches on occasional
excursions. They had both had a go at the nasty part of warfare though,
before this, so although consumed with a sneaking envy, I was full of
respect for them.
We three had a very merry and genial time together. We now had something
distinctly resembling a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner, each day. The
transport officer took a lively interest in the efforts of Messrs.
Fortnum and Mason, and thus added generously to our menus. It was a
glorious feeling, pushing open the door of that farm and coming in from
all the wet, darkness, mud and weariness of four days in the trenches.
After the supper, I disappeared into the back kitchen place and did what
was possible in the shaving and washing line. The Belgian family were
all herded away in here, as their front rooms were now our exclusive
property. I have never quite made out what the family consisted of, but,
approximately, I should think, mother and father and ten children. I am
pretty certain about the children, as about half a platoon stood around
me whilst shaving, and solemnly watched me with dull brown Flemish eyes.
The father kept in the background, resting, I fancy, from his usual
day's work of hiding unattractive turnips in enormous numbers, under
mounds of mud--(the only form of farming industry which came under my
notice in Flanders).
The mother, however, was "all there," in more senses than one. She was
of about observation balloon proportions, and had an unerring eye for
the main chance. Her telegraphic address, I should imagine, was
"Fleecem." She had one sound commercial idea, _i.e._, "charge as much as
you can for everything they want, hide everything they _do_ want, and
slowly collect any property, in the way of food, they have in the
cellar; so that, in the future, there shall be no lack of bully and jam
in our farm, at any rate."
They had one farm labourer, a kind of epileptic who, I found out, gave
his services in return for being fed--no pay. He will regret this
contract of his in time, as the food in question was bully beef and plum
and apple jam, with an occasional change to Maconochie and apple and
plum jam. That store in the cellar absolutely precludes him from any
change from this diet for many years to come. Of course, I must say his
work was not such as would be classed amongst the skilled or
intellectual trades; it was, apparently, to pump all the accumulated
drainage from a subterranean vault out into the yard in front, about
twice a week, the rest of his time being taken up by assisting at the
hiding of the turnips.
After I had washed and shaved under the critical eyes of Angele, Rachel,
Andre and Co., I retired into an inner chamber which had once been an
apple store, and went to bed on a straw mattress in the corner. Pyjamas
at last! and an untroubled sleep. Occasionally in the night one would
wake and, listening at the open window, would hear the distant rattle of
rifle fire far away beyond the woods.
[Illustration: boy and bird]
These four days at the Transport Farm were days of wallowing in rest.
There was, of course, certain work to be done in connection with the
machine-gun department, such as overhauling and cleaning the guns, and
drilling the section at intervals; but the evenings and nights were a
perfect joy after those spent in the trenches.
One could walk about the fields near by; could read, write letters, and
sleep as much as one liked. And if one wished, walk or ride over to see
friends at the other billets. Ah, yes! ride--I am sorry to say that
riding was not, and is not, my forte. Unfortunate this, as the
machine-gun officer is one of the few privileged to have a horse. I was
entitled to ride to the trenches, and ride away from them, and during
our rest, ride wherever I wanted to go; but these advantages, so coveted
by my horseless pals in the regiment, left me cold. I never will be any
good at the "Haute Ecole" act, I'm sure, although I made several
attempts to get a liking for the subject in France. When the final day
came for our departure to the trenches again, I rode from that Transport
Riding in England, or in any civilized country, is one thing, and riding
in those barren, shell-torn wastes of Flanders is another. The usual
darkness, rain and mud pervaded the scene when the evening came for our
return journey to the trenches. My groom (curse him) had not forgotten
to saddle the horse and bring it round. There it was, standing gaunt and
tall in front of the paraded machine-gun section. With my best
equestrian demeanour I crossed the yard, and hauling myself up on to my
horse, choked out a few commands to the section, and sallied forth on to
the road towards the trenches.
Thank Heaven, I didn't go into the Cavalry. The roads about the part we
were performing in were about two yards wide and a precipitous ditch at
each side. In the middle, all sorts and conditions of holes punctuated
their long winding length. Add to this the fact that you are either
meeting, or being passed by, a motor lorry every ten minutes, and you
will get an idea of the conditions under which riding takes place.
[Illustration: kit and kaboodle]
Well, anyway, during the whole of my equestrian career in France, I
never came off. I rode along in front of my section, balancing on this
"Ship of the Desert" of mine, past all the same landmarks, cracked
houses, windmills, estaminets, etc. I experienced innumerable tense
moments when my horse--as frequently happened--took me for a bit of a
circular tour in an adjacent field, so as to avoid some colossal motor
lorry with one headlight of about a million candle-power, which would
suddenly roar its way down our single narrow road. At last we got to the
dumping-ground spot again--the spot where we horsemen have to come to
earth and walk, and where everything is unbaled from the limbers. Here
we were again, on the threshold of the trenches.
This monotonous dreary routine of "in" and "out" of the trenches had to
be gone through many, many times before we got to Christmas Day. But,
during that pre-Christmas period, there was one outstanding feature
above the normal dangerous dreariness of the trenches: that was a slight
affair in the nature of our attack on the 18th of December, so in the
next chapter I will proceed to outline my part in this passage of arms.
A PROJECTED ATTACK---DIGGING A SAP--
AN 'ELL OF A NIGHT--THE ATTACK--
One evening I was sitting, coiled up in the slime at the bottom of my
dug-out, toying with the mud enveloping my boots, when a head appeared
at a gap in my mackintosh doorway and said, "The Colonel wants to see
you, sir." So I clambered out and went across the field, down a trench,
across a road and down a trench again to where the headquarter dug-outs
lay all in a row.
I came to the Colonel's dug-out, where, by the light of a candle-end
stuck on an improvised table, he was sitting, busily explaining
something by the aid of a map to a group of our officers. I waited till
he had finished, knowing that he would want to see me after the others,
as the machine-gunner's job is always rather a specialized side-line.
Soon he explained to me what he wished me to do with my guns, and gave
me a rough outline of the projected attack. He pointed out on the map
where he wished me to take up positions, and closed the interview by
saying that he thought I should at once proceed to reconnoitre the
proposed sites, and lay all my plans for getting into position, as we
were going to conduct an operation on the Boches at dawn the next day.
I left, and started at once on my plans. The first thing was to have a
thorough good look at the ground, and examine all the possibilities for
effective machine-gun co-operation. I determined to take my sergeant
along with me, so that he would be as familiar with the scheme in hand
as I was. It was raining, of course, and the night was as black as pitch
when we both started out on our Sherlock Holmes excursion. I explained
the idea of the attack to him, and the part we had to play. The troops
on our right were going to carry out the actual attack, and we, on their
left flank, were going to lend assistance by engaging the Deutschers in
front and by firing half-right to cover our men's advance. My job was
clear enough. I had to bring as many machine guns as I could spare down
to the right of our own line to assist as much as possible in the real
attack. My sergeant and I went down to examine the ground where it was
essential for us to fix up. We got to our last trench on the right, and
clambering over the parapet, did what we could to find out the nature of
the ground in front, and see how we could best fix our machine guns to
cover the enemy. We soon saw that in order to get a really clear field
of fire it was necessary for us to sap out from the end of our existing
right-hand trench and make a machine-gun emplacement at the end.
[Illustration: 'Ere, you leave that ---- rum jar alone.]
This necessitated the digging of a sap of about ten yards in length,
collecting all the materials for making an emplacement, and mounting our
machine gun. It was now about 11 p.m., and all this work had to be
completed before dawn.
Having rapidly realized that there was not the slightest prospect of any
sleep, and that the morrow looked like being a busy day, we commenced
with characteristic fed-up vigour to carry out our nefarious design.
A section, myself and the sergeant, started on digging that sap, and
what a job it was! The Germans were particularly restless that night;
kept on squibbing away whilst we were digging, and as it was some time
before we had the sap deep enough to be able to stand upright without
fear of a puncture in some part of our anatomy, it was altogether most
unpleasant. At about an hour before dawn we had got as far as making the
emplacement. This we started to put together as hard as we could. We
filled sandbags with the earth excavated from the sap, and with frenzied
energy tried to complete our defences before dawn. The rain and
darkness, both very intense that night, were really very trying. One
would pause, shovel in hand, lean against the clay side of the sap, and
hurriedly contemplate the scene. Five men, a sergeant and myself, wet
through and muddy all over; no sleep, little to eat, silently digging
and filling sandbags with an ever-watchful eye for the breaking of the
Light was breaking across the sky before the job was done, and we had
still to complete the top guard of our emplacement. Then we had some
fireworks. The nervy Boches had spotted our sap as something new, and
their bullets, whacking up against our newly-thrown-up parapet, made us
glad we had worked so busily.
We were bound to complete that emplacement, so, at convenient intervals,
we crept to the opening, and after saying "one, two, three!" suddenly
plumped a newly-filled sandbag on the top. Each time we did this half a
dozen bullets went zipping through the canvas or just past overhead.
This operation had to be done about a dozen times.
A warm job! At last it was finished, and we sank down into the bottom of
the sap to rest. The time for the artillery bombardment had been fixed
to begin at about 6 a.m., if I remember rightly, so we got a little rest
between finishing our work and the attack itself.
Of course the whole of this enterprise, as far as the bombardment and
attack were concerned, cannot be compared with the magnitude of a
similar performance in 1915. All the same, it was pretty bad, but not
anything like so accurately calculated, or so mechanically efficient as
our later efforts in this line. The precise time-table methods of the
present period did not exist then, but the main idea of giving the
Opposition as much heavy lyddite, followed by shrapnel, was the same.
At about half-past six, as we sat in the sap, we heard the first shell
go over. I went to the end of the traverse alongside the emplacement,
and watched the German trenches. We were ready to fire at any of the
enemy we could see, and when the actual attack started, at the end of
the bombardment, we were going to keep up a perpetual sprinkling of
bullets along their reserve trenches. A few isolated houses stood just
in line with the German trenches. Our gunners had focussed on these,
and they gave them a good pasting.
"Crumph! bang! bang! crumph!"--hard at it all the time, whilst shrapnel
burst and whizzed about all along the German parapet. The view in front
soon became a sort of haze of black dust, as "heavy" after "heavy" burst
on top of the Boche positions. Columns of earth and black smoke shot up
like giant fountains into the air. I caught sight of a lot of the enemy
running along a shallow communication trench of theirs, apparently with
the intention of reinforcing their front line. We soon had our machine
gun peppering up these unfortunates, and from that moment on kept up an
incessant fire on the enemy.
On my left, two of our companies were keeping up a solid rapid fire on
the German lines immediately in front.
At last the bombardment ceased. A confused sound of shouts and yells on
our right, intermingled with a terrific crackle of rifle fire, told us
the attack had started. Without ceasing, we kept up the only assistance
we could give: our persistent firing half-right.
How long it all lasted I can't remember; but when I crept into a
soldier's dug-out, back in one of our trenches, completely exhausted, I
heard that we had taken the enemy trench, but that, unfortunately, owing
to its enfiladed position, we had to abandon it later.
Such was my first experience of this see-saw warfare of the trenches.
A few days later, as I happened to be passing through poor, shattered
Plugstreet Wood, I came across a clearance 'midst the trees.
Two rows of long, brown mounds of earth, each surmounted by a rough,
simple wooden cross, was all that was inside the clearing. I stopped,
and looked, and thought--then went away.
CHRISTMAS EVE----A LULL IN HATE--
BRITON CUM BOCHE
Shortly after the doings set forth in the previous chapter we left the
trenches for our usual days in billets. It was now nearing Christmas
Day, and we knew it would fall to our lot to be back in the trenches
again on the 23rd of December, and that we would, in consequence, spend
our Christmas there. I remember at the time being very down on my luck
about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was
obviously knocked on the head. Now, however, looking back on it all, I
wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.
Well, as I said before, we went "in" again on the 23rd. The weather had
now become very fine and cold. The dawn of the 24th brought a perfectly
still, cold, frosty day. The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us
all; we tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas,
different in some way to others. Invitations from one dug-out to another
for sundry meals were beginning to circulate. Christmas Eve was, in the
way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be.
I was billed to appear at a dug-out about a quarter of a mile to the
left that evening to have rather a special thing in trench dinners--not
quite so much bully and Maconochie about as usual. A bottle of red wine
and a medley of tinned things from home deputized in their absence. The
day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that
the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of an invisible,
intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two
lines, which said "This is Christmas Eve for both of us--_something_ in
About 10 p.m. I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of
our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of
trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful.
There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes
on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were
thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:
"You can 'ear 'em quite plain, sir!"
"Hear what?" I inquired.
"The Germans over there, sir; 'ear 'em singin' and playin' on a band or
I listened;--away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I
could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some
unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The
singing seemed to be loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I
popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.
"Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?" I said.
"Yes," he replied; "they've been at it some time!"
"Come on," said I, "let's go along the trench to the hedge there on the
right--that's the nearest point to them, over there."
So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on
to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on
the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing
a precarious version of "Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles," at the
conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with
snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we
heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen.
The shout came again. A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a
strong German accent, "Come over here!" A ripple of mirth swept along
our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter.
Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, "Come
"You come half-way--I come half-way," floated out of the darkness.
"Come on, then!" shouted the sergeant. "I'm coming along the hedge!"
"Ah! but there are two of you," came back the voice from the other side.
Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from
both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles
to the two lines of trenches. He was quickly out of sight; but, as we
all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic
conversation taking place out there in the darkness.
Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars
and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochie's and a
tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him. The seance was over, but it
had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve--something a
little human and out of the ordinary routine.
After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode
came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily
monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our ardour or determination;
but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and
humid hate. Just on the right day, too--Christmas Eve! But, as a curious
episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the
On Christmas morning I awoke very early, and emerged from my dug-out
into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky.
The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin
low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists
on Christmas cards--the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.
"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this!" I thought
to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so
that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this
Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the
situation here to-day!" And I wasn't far wrong; it did around us,
anyway, and I have always been so glad to think of my luck in, firstly,
being actually in the trenches on Christmas Day, and, secondly, being on
the spot where quite a unique little episode took place.
Everything looked merry and bright that morning--the discomforts seemed
to be less, somehow; they seemed to have epitomized themselves in
intense, frosty cold. It was just the sort of day for Peace to be
declared. It would have made such a good finale. I should like to have
suddenly heard an immense siren blowing. Everybody to stop and say,
"What was that?" Siren blowing again: appearance of a small figure
running across the frozen mud waving something. He gets closer--a
telegraph boy with a wire! He hands it to me. With trembling fingers I
open it: "War off, return home.--George, R.I." Cheers! But no, it was a
nice, fine day, that was all.
Walking about the trench a little later, discussing the curious affair
of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we were
seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and
showing over their parapet in a most reckless way, and, as we looked,
this phenomenon became more and more pronounced.
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet, and looked
about itself. This complaint became infectious. It didn't take "Our
Bert" long to be up on the skyline (it is one long grind to ever keep
him off it). This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed,
and this was replied to by all our Alf's and Bill's, until, in less time
than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents
were outside their trenches and were advancing towards each other in
A strange sight, truly!
I clambered up and over our parapet, and moved out across the field to
look. Clad in a muddy suit of khaki and wearing a sheepskin coat and
Balaclava helmet, I joined the throng about half-way across to the
It all felt most curious: here were these sausage-eating wretches, who
had elected to start this infernal European fracas, and in so doing had
brought us all into the same muddy pickle as themselves.
This was my first real sight of them at close quarters. Here they
were--the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not
an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a
moment was the will to war and the will to beat them relaxed. It was
just like the interval between the rounds in a friendly boxing match.
The difference in type between our men and theirs was very marked. There
was no contrasting the spirit of the two parties. Our men, in their
scratch costumes of dirty, muddy khaki, with their various assorted
headdresses of woollen helmets, mufflers and battered hats, were a
light-hearted, open, humorous collection as opposed to the sombre
demeanour and stolid appearance of the Huns in their grey-green faded
uniforms, top boots, and pork-pie hats.
The shortest effect I can give of the impression I had was that our men,
superior, broadminded, more frank, and lovable beings, were regarding
these faded, unimaginative products of perverted kulture as a set of
objectionable but amusing lunatics whose heads had _got_ to be
"Look at that one over there, Bill," our Bert would say, as he pointed
out some particularly curious member of the party.
I strolled about amongst them all, and sucked in as many impressions as
I could. Two or three of the Boches seemed to be particularly interested
in me, and after they had walked round me once or twice with sullen
curiosity stamped on their faces, one came up and said "Offizier?" I
nodded my head, which means "Yes" in most languages, and, besides, I
can't talk German.
These devils, I could see, all wanted to be friendly; but none of them
possessed the open, frank geniality of our men. However, everyone was
talking and laughing, and souvenir hunting.
I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and
being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy
to some of his buttons.
We both then said things to each other which neither understood, and
agreed to do a swap. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft
snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then
gave him two of mine in exchange.
Whilst this was going on a babbling of guttural ejaculations emanating
from one of the laager-schifters, told me that some idea had occurred to
Suddenly, one of the Boches ran back to his trench and presently
reappeared with a large camera. I posed in a mixed group for several
photographs, and have ever since wished I had fixed up some arrangement
for getting a copy. No doubt framed editions of this photograph are
reposing on some Hun mantelpieces, showing clearly and unmistakably to
admiring strafers how a group of perfidious English surrendered
unconditionally on Christmas Day to the brave Deutschers.
Slowly the meeting began to disperse; a sort of feeling that the
authorities on both sides were not very enthusiastic about this
fraternizing seemed to creep across the gathering. We parted, but there
was a distinct and friendly understanding that Christmas Day would be
left to finish in tranquillity. The last I saw of this little affair was
a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur
hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile
Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic
clippers crept up the back of his neck.
SOUVENIRS--A RIDE TO NIEPPE--TEA AT
H.Q.--TRENCHES ONCE MORE
A couple of days after Christmas we left for billets. These two days
were of a very peaceful nature, but not quite so enthusiastically
friendly as the day itself. The Germans could be seen moving about in
their trenches, and one felt quite at ease sitting on the top of our
parapet or strolling about the fields behind our lines.
It was during these two days that I managed to get a German rifle that I
had had my eye on for a month. It lay out in the open, near one or two
corpses between our trenches and theirs, and until this Christmas truce
arrived, the locality was not a particularly attractive one to visit.
Had I fixed an earlier date for my exploit the end of it would most
probably have been--a battered second-lieutenant's cap and a rusty
revolver hanging up in the ingle-nook at Herr Someone-or-other's
country home in East Prussia. As it was, I was able to walk out and
return with the rifle unmolested.
When we left the trenches to "go out" this time I took the rifle along
with me. After my usual perilous equestrian act I got back to the
Transport Farm, and having performed the usual routine of washing,
shaving, eating and drinking, blossomed forth into our four days' rest
The weather was splendid. I went out for walks in the fields, rehearsed
the machine-gun section in their drill, and conducted cheery sort of
"Squire-of-the-village" conversations with the farmer who owned our
At this period, most of my pals in the regiment used to go into
Armentieres or Bailleul, and get a breath of civilized life. I often
wished I felt as they did, but I had just the opposite desire. I felt
that, to adequately stick out what we were going through, it was
necessary for me to keep well in the atmosphere, and not to let any
exterior influence upset it.
I was annoyed at having to take up this line, but somehow or other I had
a feeling that I could not run the war business with a spot of
civilization in it. Personally, I felt that, rather than leave the
trenches for our periodic rests, I would sooner have stayed there all
the time consecutively, until I could stick it out no longer.
During this after-Christmas rest, however, I so far relapsed from these
views as to decide to go into Nieppe to get some money from the Field
Cashier. That was my first fall, but my second was even more strange. In
a truculent tone I said I would ride!
"Smith, go and tell Parker to get my horse ready!" It just shows how
reckless warfare makes one.
A beautiful, fine, still afternoon. I started off. Enormous success. I
walked and trotted along, past all sorts of wagons, lorries, guns and
despatch riders. Nearly decided to take up hunting, when the time came
for me to settle in England once more. However, as I neared the
outskirts of Nieppe, and saw the flood of interlacing traffic, I decided
to leave well alone--to tie this quadruped of mine up at some outlying
hostelry and walk the short remaining distance into the town where the
cashier had his office. I found a suitable place and, letting myself
down to the ground, strode off with a stiff bandy-legged action to the
office. Having got my 100 francs all right I made the best of my short
time on earth by walking about and having a good look at the town. A
squalid, uninteresting place, Nieppe; a dirty red-brick town with a good
sprinkling of factory chimneys and orange peel; rather the same tone as
one of the Potteries towns in England. Completing my tour I returned to
the horse, and finally, stiff but happy, I glided to the ground in the
yard of the Transport Farm.
Encouraged by my success I rode over to dinner one night with one of the
Companies in the Battalion which was in billets about a mile and a half
away. Riding home along the flat, winding, water-logged lane by the
light of the stars I nearly started off on the poetry lines again, but I
got home just in time.
During these rests from the trenches I was sometimes summoned to Brigade
Headquarters, where the arch machine gunner dwelt. He was a captain of
much engineering skill, who supervised the entire machine-gun outfit of
the Brigade. New men were being perpetually trained by him, and I was
sent for on occasion to discuss the state and strength of my section,
or any new scheme that might be on hand.
This going to Brigade Headquarters meant putting on a clean bib, as it
were; for it was here that the Brigadier himself lived, and after a
machine-gun seance it was generally necessary to have tea in the farm
with the Brigade staff.
I am little or no use on these social occasions. The red and gold mailed
fist of a General Staff reduces me to a sort of pulverized state of
meekness, which ends in my smiling at everyone and declining anything to
As machine-gun officer to our Battalion I had to go through it, and as
everyone was very nice to me, it all went off satisfactorily.
On this time out we were wondering how we should find the Boches on our
return, and pleasant recollections of the time before filled us with a
curious keenness to get back and see. A wish like this is easily
gratified at the front, and soon, of course, the day came to go into
trenches again, and in we went.
MY PARTIAL ESCAPE FROM THE MUD--THE
DESERTED VILLAGE--MY "COTTAGE"
Our next time up after our Christmas Day experiences were full of
incident and adventure. During the peace which came upon the land around
the 25th of December we had, as I mentioned before, been able to stroll
about in an altogether unprecedented way. We had had the courage to walk
into the mangled old village just behind our front line trenches, and
examine the ruins. I had never penetrated into this gloomy wreck of a
place, even at night, until after Christmas. It had just occasionally
caught our attention as we looked back from our trenches; mutilated and
deserted, a dirty skeleton of what once had been a small village--very
small--about twelve small houses and a couple of farms. Anyway, during
this time in after Christmas we started thinking out plans, and in a few
days we heard that it had been decided to put some men into the
village, and hold it, as a second line.
The platoon commander with whom I lived happened to be the man selected
to have charge of the men in the village. Consequently one night he left
our humble trench and, together with his servant and small belongings
from the dug-out, went off to live somewhere in the village.
About this time the conditions under which we lived were very poor. The
cold and rain were exceedingly severe, and altogether physical
discomfort was at its height. When my stable companion had gone I
naturally determined to pay him a call the next night, and to see what
sort of a place he had managed to get to live in. I well remember that
next night. It was the first on which I realized the chances of a change
of life presented by the village, and this was the start of two months'
"village" life for me. I went off from our old trench after dusk on my
usual round of the machine guns. When this was over I struck off back
across the field behind our trench to the village, and waded up what had
been the one and only street. Out of the dozen mangled wrecks of houses
I didn't know which one my pal had chosen as his residence, so I went
along the shell-mutilated, water-logged road, peering into this ruin and
that, until, at the end of the street, about four hundred yards from the
Germans and two hundred yards from our own trenches, I came across a
damp and dark figure lurking in the shadows: "'Alt! 'oo goes there?"
"Friend!" "Pass, friend, all's well." The sentry, evidently posted at
end of village.
I got a tip from him as to my friend's new dwelling-place. "I say,
Sentry, which house does Mr. Hudson live in?" "That small 'un down
t'other end on the left, sir." "Thanks." I went back along the deserted
ruin of a street, and at the far end on the left I saw the dim outline
of a small cottage, almost intact it appeared, standing about five yards
back from the road. This was the place the sentry meant right enough,
and in I went at the hole in the plaster wall. The front door having
apparently stopped something or other previously, was conspicuous by its
All was dark. I groped my way along round to the back, stumbling over
various bits of debris on the ground, until I found the opening into
what must be the room where Hudson had elected to live. Not a light
showed anywhere, which was as it should be, for a light would be easily
seen by the Boches not far away, and if they did see one there would be
[Illustration: "Someone's been at this blinkin Strawberry"]
I came to an opening covered with an old sack. Pulling this a little to
one side I was greeted with a volume of suffocating smoke. I proceeded
further, and diving in under the sack, got inside the room. In the midst
of the smoke, sitting beside a crushed and battered fire-bucket, sat a
man, his face illuminated by the flickering light from the fire. The
rest of the room was bathed in mysterious darkness. "Where's Mr.
Hudson?" I asked. "He's out havin' a look at the barbed wire in front
of the village, I think, sir; but he'll be back soon, as this is where
'e stays now." I determined to wait, and, to fill in the time, started
to examine the cottage.
It was the first house I had been into in the firing line, and,
unsavoury wreck of a place as it was, it gave one a delightful feeling
of comfort to sit on the stone-flagged floor and look upon four
perforated walls and a shattered roof. The worst possible house in the
world would be an improvement on any of those dug-outs we had in the
trenches. The front room had been blown away, leaving a back room and a
couple of lean-tos which opened out from it. An attic under the thatched
roof with all one end knocked out completed the outfit. The outer and
inner walls were all made of that stuff known as wattle and daub--sort
of earth-like plaster worked into and around hurdles. A bullet would, of
course, go through walls of this sort like butter, and so they had. For,
on examining the outer wall on the side which faced the Germans, I found
it looking like the top of a pepper-pot for holes.
A sound as of a man trying to waltz with a cream separator, suggested
to my mind that someone had tripped and fallen over that mysterious
obstacle outside, which I had noticed on entering, and presently I heard
Hudson's voice cursing through the sack doorway.
He came in and saw me examining the place. "Hullo, you're here too, are
you?" he exclaimed. "Are you going to stay here as well?"
"I don't quite know yet," I replied. "It doesn't seem a bad idea, as I
have to walk the round of all the guns the whole time; all I can and
have to do is to hitch up in some central place, and this is just as
central as that rotten trench we've just come from."
"Of course it is," he replied. "If I were you I'd come along and stay
with me, and go to all your places from here. If an attack comes you'll
be able to get from one place to another much easier than if you were
stuck in that trench. You'd never be able to move from there when an
attack and bombardment had started."
Having given the matter a little further consideration I decided to move
from my dug-out to this cottage, so I left the village and went back
across the field to the trench to see to the necessary arrangements.
I got back to my lair and shouted for my servant. "Here, Smith," I said,
"I'm going to fix up at one of the houses in the village. This place of
ours here is no more central than the village, and any one of those
houses is a damn sight better than this clay hole here. I want you to
collect all my stuff and bring it along; I'll show you the way." So
presently, all my few belongings having been collected, we set out for
the village. That was my last of that fearful trench. A worse one I know
could not be found. My new life in the village now started, and I soon
saw that it had its advantages. For instance, there was a slight chance
of fencing off some of the rain and water. But my knowledge of "front"
by this time was such that I knew there were corresponding
disadvantages, and my instinct told me that the village would present a
fresh crop of dangers and troubles quite equal to those of the trench,
though slightly different in style. I had now started off on my two
months' sojourn in the village of St. Yvon.
Hudson, myself, his servant and my servant, all crushed into that house
that night. What a relief it was! We all slept in our greatcoats on the
floor, which was as hard as most floors are, and dirtier than the
generality; but being out of the water and able to stretch oneself at
full length made up for all deficiencies. Hudson and I both slept in the
perforated room; the servants in the larger chamber, near the fire
I got up just before dawn as usual, and taking advantage of the grey
light, stole about the village and around the house, sizing up the
locality and seeing how my position stood with regard to the various
machine-gun emplacements. The dawn breaking, I had to skunk back into
the house again, as it was imperative to us to keep up the effect of
"Deserted house in village." We had to lurk inside all day, or if we
went out, creep about with enormous caution, and go off down a slight
slope at the back until we got to the edge of the wood which we knew
must be invisible to the enemy. I spent this day making a thorough
investigation of the house, creeping about all its component parts and
thinking out how we could best utilize its little advantages. Hudson had
crept out to examine the village by stealth, and I went on with plots
for fortifying the "castle," and for being able to make ourselves as
snug as we could in this frail shell of a cottage. I found a hole in the
floor boards of the attic and pulled myself up into it thereby.
This attic, as I have said before, had all one end blown away, but the
two sloping thatched sides remained. I cut a hole in one of these with
my pocket-knife, and thus obtained a view of the German trenches without
committing the error of looking out through the blown-out end, which
would have clearly shown an observer that the house was occupied.
Looking out through the slit I had made I obtained a panoramic view,
more or less, of the German trenches and our own. The view, in short,
was this: One saw the backs of our own trenches, then the "No man's
land" space of ground, and beyond that again the front of the German
trenches. This is best explained by the sketch map which I give on the
opposite page. I saw exactly how the house stood with regard to the
position, and also noticed that it had two dangerous sides, _i.e._, two
sides which faced the Germans, as our position formed two sides of a
[Illustration: clogs and bucket]
I then proceeded to explore the house. In the walls I found a great many
bullets which had stuck in between the bricks of the solitary chimney or
imbedded themselves in the woodwork of the door or supporting posts at
the corners. Amongst the straw in the attic I found a typical selection
of pathetic little trifles: two pairs of very tiny clogs, evidently
belonging to some child about four or five years old, one or two old and
battered hats, and a quantity of spinning material and instruments. I
have the small clogs at my home now, the only souvenir I have of that
house at St. Yvon, which I have since learnt is no more, the Germans
having reduced it to a powdered up mound of brick-dust and charred
straw. Outside, and lying all around, were a miscellaneous collection of
goods. Half a sewing machine, a gaudy cheap metal clock, a sort of
mangle with strange wooden blades (which I subsequently cut off to make
shelves with), and a host of other dirty, rain-soaked odds and ends.
[Illustration: map of village]
Having concluded my examination I crept out back to the wood and took a
look at it all from there. "Yes," I thought to myself, "it's all very
nice, but, by Gad, we'll have to look out that they don't see us, and
get to think we're in this village, or they'll give us a warm time." It
had gone very much against my thought-out views on trench warfare,
coming to this house at all, for I had learnt by the experiences of
others that the best maxim to remember was "Don't live in a house."
The reason is not far to seek. There is something very attractive to
artillery about houses. They can range on them well, and they afford a
more definite target than an open trench. Besides, if you can spot a
house that contains, say, half a dozen to a dozen people, and just plop
a "Johnson" right amidships, it generally means "exit house and people,"
which, I suppose, is a desirable object to be attained, according to
twentieth century manners.
However, we had decided to live in the house, but as I crept back from
the wood, I determined to take a few elementary and common-sense
precautions. Hudson had returned when I got back, and together we
discussed the house, the position, and everything we could think of in
connection with the business, as we sat on the floor and had our midday
meal of bully beef and biscuits, rounded up by tea and plum and apple
jam spread neat from the tin on odd corners of broken biscuits. We
thoroughly talked over the question of possible fortifications and
precautions. I said, "What we really want is an emergency exit
somewhere, where we can stand a little chance, if they start to shell
He agreed, and we both decided to pile up all the odd bricks, which were
lying outside at the back of the house, against the perforated wall, and
then sleep there in a little easier state of mind. We contented
ourselves with this little precaution to begin with, but later on, as we
lived in that house, we thought of larger and better ideas, and launched
out into all sorts of elaborate schemes, as I will show when the time
Anyway, for the first couple of sessions spent in that house in St.
Yvon, we were content with merely making ourselves bullet proof. The
whole day had to be spent with great caution indoors; any visit
elsewhere had to be conducted with still greater caution, as the one
great thing to be remembered was "Don't let 'em see we're in the
village." So we had long days, just lying around in the dirty old straw
and accumulated dirt of the cottage floor.
We both sat and talked and read a bit, sometimes slept, and through the
opening beneath the sack across the back door we watched the evenings
creeping on, and finally came the night, when we stole out like vampires
and went about our trench work. It was during these long, sad days that
my mind suddenly turned on making sketches. This period of my trench
life marked the start of _Fragments from France_, though it was not till
the end of February that a complete and presentable effort, suitable for
publication in a paper, emerged. It was nothing new to me to draw, as
for a very long time before the war I had drawn hundreds of sketches,
and had spent a great amount of time reading and learning about all
kinds of drawing and painting. I have always had an enormous interest in
Art; my room at home will prove that to anyone. Stacks of bygone efforts
of mine will also bear testimony to this. Yet it was not until January,
1915, that I had sufficiently resigned myself to my fate in the war, to
let my mind turn to my only and most treasured hobby. In this cottage at
St. Yvon the craving came back to me. I didn't fight against it, and
began by making a few pencil scribbles with a joke attached, and pinned
them up in our cracked shell of a room. Jokes at the expense of our
miserable surroundings they were, and these were the first "Fragments."
Several men in the local platoon collared these spasms, and soon after I
came across them, muddy and battered, in various dug-outs near by. After
these few sketches, which were done on rough bits of paper which I found
lying about, I started to operate on the walls. With some bits of
charcoal, I made a mess on all the four walls of our back room. There
was a large circular gash, made by a spent bullet I fancy, on one of the
walls, and by making it appear as though this mark was the centre point
of a large explosion, I gave an apparent velocity to the figure of a
German, which I drew above.
These daubs of mine provoked mirth to those who lived with me, and
others who occasionally paid us visits. I persisted, and the next
"masterpiece" was the figure of a soldier (afterwards Private Blobs, of
"Fragments") sitting up a tree staring straight in front of him into the
future, whilst a party of corpulent Boches are stalking towards him
through the long grass and barbed wire. He knows there's something not
quite nice going on, but doesn't like to look down. This was called "The
Listening Post," and the sensation described was so familiar to most
that this again was apparently a success. So what with scribbling,
reading and sleeping, not to mention time occupied in consuming plum and
apple jam, bully, and other delicacies which a grateful country has
ordained as the proper food for soldiers, we managed to pull through our
days. Two doses of the trenches were done like this, and then came the
third time up, when a sudden burst of enthusiasm and an increasing
nervousness as to the safety of ourselves and our house, caused us to
launch out into really trying to fortify the place. The cause of this
decision to do something, to our abode was, I think, attributable to the
fact that for about a fortnight the Germans had taken to treating us to
a couple of dozen explosions each morning--the sort of thing one doesn't
like just before breakfast; but if you've got to have it, the thing
obviously to do is to try and defend yourself; so the next time, up we
A BRAIN WAVE--MAKING A "FUNK HOLE"
On arriving up at St. Yvon for our third time round there, we--as usual
now--went into our cottage again, and the regiment spread itself out
around the same old trenches. There was always a lot of work for me to
do at nights, as machine guns always have to be moved as occasion
arises, or if one gets a better idea for their position. By this time I
had one gun in the remnant of a house about fifty yards away from our
cottage. This was a reserve gun, and was there carrying out an idea of
mine, _i.e._, that it was in a central position, which would enable it
to be rapidly moved to any threatened part of the line, and also it
would form a bit of an asset in the event of our having to defend the
The section for this gun lived in the old cellar close by, and it was
this cellar which gave me an idea. When I went into our cottage I
searched to see if we had overlooked a cellar. No, there wasn't one.
Now, then, the idea. I thought, "Why not make a cellar, and thus have a
place to dive into when the strafing begins." After this terrific
outburst of sagacity I sat down in a corner and, with a biscuitload of
jam, discussed my scheme with my platoon-commander pal. We agreed it was
a good idea. I was feeling energetic, and always liking a little
tinkering on my own, I said I would make it myself.
So Hudson retired into the lean-to and I commenced to plot this
engineering project. I scraped away as much as necessary of the
accumulated filth on the floor, and my knife striking something hard I
found it to be tiles. Up till then I had always imagined it to be an
earth floor, but tiled it was right enough--large, square, dark red ones