Part 2 out of 3
of a very rough kind. I called for Smith, my servant, and telling him to
bring his entrenching tool, I began to prize up some of the tiles. It
wasn't very easy, fitting the blade of the entrenching tool into the
crevices, but once I had got a start and had got one or two out, things
I pulled up all the tiles along one wall about eight feet long and out
into the room a distance of about four feet. I now had a bare patch of
hard earth eight feet by four to contend with. Luckily we had a pickaxe
and a shovel lying out behind the house, so taking off my sheepskin
jacket and balaclava, I started off to excavate the hole which I
proposed should form a sort of cellar.
It was a big job, and my servant and I were hard at it, turn and turn
about, the whole of that day. A dull, rainy day, a cold wind blowing the
old sack about in the doorway, and in the semi-darkness inside yours
truly handing up Belgian soil on a war-worn shovel to my servant, who
held a sandbag perpetually open to receive it. A long and arduous job it
was, and one in which I was precious near thinking that danger is
preferable to digging. Mr. Doan, with his back-ache pills, would have
done well if he had sent one of his travellers with samples round there
that night. However, at the end of two days, I had got a really good
hole delved out, and now I was getting near the more interesting
feature, namely, putting a roof on, and finally being able to live in
this under-ground dug-out.
This roof was perhaps rather unique as roofs go. It was a large mattress
with wooden sides, a kind of oblong box with a mattress top. I found it
outside in a ruined cottage. Underneath the mattress part was a cavity
filled with spiral springs. I arranged a pile of sandbags at each side
of the hole in the floor in such a way as to be able to lay this
curiosity on top to form a roof, the mattress part downwards. I then
filled in with earth all the parts where the spiral springs were placed.
Total result--a roof a foot thick of earth, with a good backbone of iron
springs. I often afterwards wished that that mattress had been filleted,
as the spiral springs had a nasty way of bursting through the striped
cover and coming at you like the lid of a Jack-in-the-box. However, such
Above this roof I determined to pile up sandbags against the wall, right
away up to the roof of the cottage.
This necessitated about forty sandbags being filled, so it may easily be
imagined we didn't do this all at once.
However, in time, it was done--I mean after we had paid one or two more
visits to the trenches.
We all felt safer after these efforts. I think we were a bit safer, but
not much. I mean that we were fairly all right against anything but a
direct hit, and as we knew from which direction direct hits had to come,
we made that wall as thick as possible. We could, I think, have smiled
at a direct hit from an 18-pounder, provided we had been down our funk
hole at the time; but, of course, a direct hit from a "Johnson" would
have snuffed us completely (mattress and all).
Life in this house and in the village was much more interesting and
energetic than in that old trench. It was possible, by observing great
caution, to creep out of the house by day and dodge about our position a
bit, crawl up to points of vantage and survey the scene. Behind the
cottage lay the wood--the great Bois de Ploegstert--and this in itself
repaid a visit. In the early months of 1915 this wood was in a pretty
mauled-about state, and as time went on of course got more so. It was
full of old trenches, filled with water, relies of the period when we
turned the Germans out of it. Shattered trees and old barbed wire in a
solution of mud was the chief effect produced by the parts nearest the
trenches, but further back "Plugstreet Wood" was quite a pretty place to
walk about in. Birds singing all around, and rabbits darting about the
tangled undergrowth. Long paths had been cut through the wood leading to
the various parts of the trenches in front. A very quaint place, take it
all in all, and one which has left a curious and not unpleasing
impression on my mind.
This ability to wander around and creep about various parts of our
position, led to my getting an idea, which nearly finished my life in
the cottage, village, or even Belgium. I suddenly got bitten with the
sniping fever, and it occurred to me that, with my facilities for
getting about, I could get into a certain mangled farm on our left and
remain in the roof unseen in daylight. From there I felt sure that, with
the aid of a rifle, I could tickle up a Boche or two in their trenches
hard by. I was immensely taken with this idea. So, one morning (like
Robinson Crusoe again) I set off with my fowling-piece and ammunition,
and crawled towards the farm. I got there all right, and entering the
dark and evil-smelling precincts, searched around for a suitable sniping
post. I saw a beam overhead in a corner from which, if I could get on to
it, I felt sure I should obtain a view of the enemy trenches through a
gap in the tiled roof. I tied a bit of string to my rifle and then
jumping for the beam, scrambled up on it and pulled the rifle up after
me. When my heart pulsations had come down to a reasonable figure I
peered out through the hole in the tiles. An excellent view! The German
parapet a hundred yards away! Splendid!
Now I felt sure I should see a Boche moving about or something; or I
might possibly spot one looking over the top.
I waited a long time on that beam, with my loaded rifle lying in front
of me. I was just getting fed up with the waiting, and about to go away,
when I thought I saw a movement in the trench opposite. Yes! it was. I
saw the handle of something like a broom or a water scoop moving above
the sandbags. Heart doing overtime again! Most exciting! I felt
convinced I should see a Boche before long. And then, at last, I saw
one--or rather I caught a glimpse of a hat appearing above the line of
the parapet. One of those small circular cloth hats of theirs with the
two trouser buttons in front.
Up it came, and I saw it stand out nice and clear against the skyline. I
carefully raised my rifle, took a steady aim, and fired. I looked:
disappearance of hat! I ejected the empty cartridge case, and was just
about to reload when, whizz, whistle, bang, crash! a shell came right at
the farm, and exploded in the courtyard behind. I stopped short on the
beam. Whizz, whistle, bang, crash! Another, right into the old cowshed
on my left. Without waiting for any more I just slithered down off that
beam, grabbed my rifle and dashing out across the yard back into the
ditch beyond, started hastily scrambling along towards the end of one of
our trenches. As I went I heard four more shells crash into that farm.
It was at this moment that I coined the title of one of my sketches,
"They've evidently seen me," for which I afterwards drew the picture
near Wulverghem. I got back to our cottage, crawled into the hole in the
floor, and thought things over. They must have seen the flash of my
rifle through the tiles, and, suspecting possible sniping from the farm,
must have wired back to their artillery, "Snipingberg from farmenhausen
hoch!" or words to that effect.
Altogether a very objectionable episode.
ROBINSON CRUSOE--THAT TURBULENT TABLE
By this time we had really got our little house quite snug. A hole in
the floor, a three-legged chair, and brown paper pushed into the largest
of the holes in the walls--what more could a man want? However, we did
want something more, and that was a table. One gets tired of balancing
tins of pl--(nearly said it again)--marmalade on one's knee and holding
an enamel cup in one hand and a pocket-knife in the other. So we all
said how nice a table would be. I determined to say no more, but to show
by deeds, not by words, that I would find a table and have one there by
the next day, like a fairy in a pantomime. I started off on my search
one night. Take it from me--a fairy's is a poor job out there, and when
you've read the next bit you'll agree.
Behind our position stood the old ruined chateau, and beyond it one or
two scattered cottages. I had never really had a good look at all at
that part, and as I knew some of our reserve trenches ran around there,
and that it would be a good thing to know all about them, I decided to
ask the Colonel for permission to creep off one afternoon and explore
the whole thing; incidentally I might by good luck find a table. It was
possible, by wriggling up a mud valley and crawling over a few scattered
remnants of houses and bygone trenches to reach the Colonel's
headquarter dug-out in daytime. So I did it, and asked leave to go off
back to have a look at the chateau and the land about it. He gave me
permission, so armed with my long walking-stick (a billiard cue with the
thin part cut off, which I found on passing another chateau one night) I
started off to explore.
I reached the chateau. An interesting sight it was. How many shells had
hit it one couldn't even guess, but the results indicated a good few.
What once had been well-kept lawns were now covered with articles which
would have been much better left in their proper places. One suddenly
came upon half a statue of Minerva or Venus wrapped in three-quarters of
a stair carpet in the middle of one of the greenhouses. Passing on, one
would find the lightning conductor projecting out through the tapestried
seat of a Louis Quinze chair. I never saw such a mess.
Inside, the upstairs rooms were competing with the ground-floor ones, as
to which should get into the cellars first. It was really too terrible
to contemplate the fearful destruction.
I found it impossible to examine much of the interior of the chateau, as
blocks of masonry and twisted iron girders closed up most of the doors
and passages. I left this melancholy ruin, full of thought, and
proceeded across the shell-pitted gardens towards the few little
cottages beyond. These were in a better state of preservation, and were
well worth a visit. In the first one I entered I found a table! the very
thing I wanted. It was stuck away in a small lean-to at the back. A nice
little green one, just the size to suit us.
I determined to get it back to our shack somehow, but before doing so
went on rummaging about these cottages. In the second cottage I made an
enormously lucky find for us. Under a heap of firewood in an outhouse I
found a large pile of coal. This was splendid, and would be invaluable
to us and our fire-bucket. Nothing pleased me more than this, as the
cold was very severe, and a fire meant so much to us. When I had
completed my investigations and turned over all the oddments lying about
to see if there was anything else of use to us, I started off on the
return journey. It was now dark, and I was able to walk along without
fear of being seen. Of course, I was taking the table with me. I decided
to come back later for the coal, with a few sandbags for filling, so I
covered it over and hid it as much as possible. (Sensation: Ali Baba
returns from the forest.) I started off with the table. I had about
three-quarters of a mile to go. Every hundred yards I had to sit down
and rest. A table is a horrible thing to accompany one on a mile walk.
I reached the chateau again, and out into the fields beyond, resting
with my burden about three times before I got to the road which led
straight on to our trenches. My task was a bit harder now, as I was in
full view of the German trenches. Had it been daylight they could have
seen me quite easily.
Fortunately it was dark, but, of course, star shells would show one up
quite distinctly. I staggered on down the road with the green table on
my back, pausing as little as possible, but a rest had to be taken, and
this at a very exposed part of the road. I put the table down and sat
panting on the top. A white streak shot into the air--a star shell.
Curse! I sprang off the green top and waltzed with my four-legged wooden
octopus into the ditch at the side, where I lay still, waiting for the
light to die out. Suspense over. I went on again.
At last I got back with that table and pushed it into our hovel under
the sack doorway.
Immense success! "Just the thing we wanted!"
We all sat down to dinner that night in the approved fashion, whilst I,
with the air of a conspirator, narrated the incredible story of the vast
Eldorado of coal which I had discovered, and, over our shrimp paste and
biscuits we discussed plans for its removal.
[Illustration: "Take away me rank and honour, but give me a bag of
THE AMPHIBIANS--FED UP, BUT DETERMINED
--THE GUN PARAPET
So you see, life in our cottage was quite interesting and adventurous in
its way. At night our existence was just the same as before; all the
normal work of trench life. Making improvements to our trenches led to
endless work with sandbags, planks, dug-outs, etc. My particular job was
mostly improving machine-gun positions, or selecting new sites and
carrying out removals,
MACHINE GUNS REMOVED AT SHORTEST NOTICE.
ATTACKS QUOTED FOR."
And so the long dark dreary nights went on. The men garrisoning the
little cracked-up village lived mostly in cellars. Often on my rounds,
during a rainy, windy, mournful night, I would look into a cellar and
see a congested mass of men playing cards by the light of a candle stuck
on a tin lid. A favourite form of illumination I came across was a lamp
made out of an empty tobacco tin, rifle oil for the illuminant, and a
bit of a shirt for a wick!
People who read all these yarns of mine, and who have known the war in
later days, will say, "Ah, how very different it was then to now." In my
last experiences in the war I have watched the enormous changes creeping
in. They began about July, 1915. My experiences since that date were
very interesting; but I found that much of the romance had left the
trenches. The old days, from the beginning to July, 1915, were all so
delightfully precarious and primitive. Amateurish trenches and rough and
ready life, which to my mind gave this war what it sadly needs--a touch
Way back there, in about January, 1915, our soldiers had a perfectly
unique test of human endurance against appalling climatic conditions.
They lived in a vast bog, without being able to utilize modern
contrivances for making the tight against adverse conditions anything
like an equal contest. And yet I wouldn't have missed that time for
anything, and I'm sure they wouldn't either.
Those who have not actually had to experience it, or have not had the
opportunity to see what our men "stuck out" in those days, will never
fully grasp the reality.
One night a company commander came to me in the village and told me he
had got a bit of trench under his control which was altogether
impossible to hold, and he wanted me to come along with him to look at
it, and see if I could do anything in the way of holding the position by
machine guns. His idea was that possibly a gun might be fixed in such a
place behind so as to cover the frontage occupied by this trench. I came
along with him to have a look and see what could be done. He and I went
up the rain-soaked village street and out on to the field beyond. It was
as dark as pitch, and about 11 p.m. Occasional shots cracked out of the
darkness ahead from the German trenches, and I remember one in
particular that woke us up a bit. A kind of derelict road-roller stood
at one side of the field, and as we passed this, walking pretty close
together, a bullet whizzed between us. I don't know which head it was
nearest to, but it was quite near enough for both of us. We went on
across the field for about two hundred yards, out towards a pile of
ruins which had once been a barn, and which stood between our lines and
Near this lay the trench which he had been telling me about. It was
quite the worst I have ever seen. A number of men were in it, standing
and leaning, silently enduring the following conditions. It was quite
dark. The enemy was about two hundred yards away, or rather less. It was
raining, and the trench contained over three feet of water. The men,
therefore, were standing up to the waist in water. The front parapet was
nothing but a rough earth mound which, owing to the water about, was
practically non-existent. Their rifles lay on the saturated mound in
front. They were all wet through and through, with a great deal of their
equipment below the water at the bottom of the trench. There they were,
taking it all as a necessary part of the great game; not a grumble nor a
The company commander and I at once set about scheming out an
alternative plan. Some little distance back we found a cellar which had
once been below a house. Now there was no house, so by standing in the
cellar one got a view along the ground and level with it. This was the
very place for a machine gun. So we decided on fixing one there and
making a sort of roof over a portion of the cellar for the gunners to
live in. After about a couple of hours' work we completed this
arrangement, and then removed the men, who, it was arranged, should
leave the trenches that night and go back to our billets for a rest,
till the next time up. We weren't quite content with the total safety of
our one gun in that cellar, so we started off on a further idea.
Our trenches bulged out in a bit of a salient to the right of the rotten
trench, and we decided to mount another gun at a certain projection in
our lines so as to enfilade the land across which the other gun would
On inspecting the projected site we found it was necessary to make
rather an abnormally high parapet to stand the gun on. No sandbags to
spare, of course, so the question was, "What shall we make a parapet
We plodded off back to the village and groped around the ruins for
something solid and high enough to carry the gun. After about an hour's
climbing about amongst debris in the dark, and hauling ourselves up into
remnants of attics, etc., we came upon a sewing machine. It was one of
that sort that's stuck on a wooden table with a treadle arrangement
underneath. We saw an idea at a glance. Pull off the sewing machine, and
use the table. It was nearly high enough, and with just three or four
sandbags we felt certain it would do. We performed the necessary
surgical operation on the machine, and taking it in turns, padded off
down to the front line trench. We had a bit of a job with that table.
The parapet was a jumbled assortment of sandbags, clay, and old bricks
from the neighbouring barn: but we finally got a good sound parapet
made, and in about another hour's time had fixed a machine gun, with
plenty of ammunition, in a very unattractive position from the Boche
point of view. We all now felt better, and I'm certain that the men who
held that trench felt better too. But I am equally certain that they
would have stayed there _ad lib_ even if we hadn't thought of and
carried out an alternative arrangement. A few more nights of rain,
danger and discomfort, then the time would come for us to be relieved,
and those same men would be back at billets, laughing, talking and
smoking, buoyant as ever.
ARRIVAL OF THE "JOHNSONS"--"WHERE
DID THAT ONE GO?"--THE FIRST FRAGMENT
Shortly after these events we experienced rather a nasty time in the
village. It had been decided, way back somewhere at headquarters, that
it was essential to hold the village in a stronger way than we had been
doing. More men were to be kept there, and a series of trenches dug in
and around it, thus forming means for an adequate defence should
disaster befall our front line trenches, which lay out on a radius of
about five hundred yards from the centre of the village. This meant
working parties at night, and a pretty considerable collection of
soldiers lurking in cavities in various ruined buildings by day.
Anyone will know that when a lot of soldiers congregate in a place it is
almost impossible to prevent someone or other being seen, or smoke from
some fire showing, or, even worse, a light visible at night from some
imperfectly shuttered house.
At all events, something or other gave the Boches the tip, and we soon
knew they had got their attention on our village.
Each morning as we clustered round our little green table and had our
breakfast, we invariably had about half a dozen rounds of 18-pounders
crash around us with varying results, but one day, as we'd finished our
meal and all sat staring into the future, we suddenly caught the sound
of something on more corpulent lines arriving. That ponderous, slow
rotating whistle of a "Johnson" caught our well-trained ears; a pause!
then a reverberating, hollow-sounding "crumph!" We looked at each other.
"Heavies!" we all exclaimed.
"Look out! here comes another!" and sure enough there it was, that
gargling crescendo of a whistle followed by a mighty crash, considerably
We soon decided that our best plan was to get out of the house, and stay
in the ditch twenty yards away until it was over.
A house is an unwholesome spot to be in when there's shelling about. Our
funk hole was all right for whizz-bangs and other fireworks of that
sort, but no use against these portmanteaux they were now sending along.
Well, to resume; they put thirteen heavies into that village in pretty
quick time. One old ruin was set on fire, and I felt the consequent
results would be worse than just losing the building; as all the men in
it had to rush outside and keep darting in and out through the flames
and smoke, trying to save their rifles and equipment.
After a bit we returned into the house--a trifle prematurely, I'm
afraid--as presently a pretty large line in explosive drainpipes landed
close outside, and, as we afterwards discovered, blew out a fair-sized
duck pond in the road. We were all inside, and I think nearly every one
said a sentence which gave me my first idea for a _Fragment from
France_. A sentence which must have been said countless times in this
war, _i.e._, "Where did that one go?"
We were all inside the cottage now, with intent, staring faces, looking
outside through the battered doorway. There was something in the whole
situation which struck me as so pathetically amusing, that when the
ardour of the Boches had calmed down a bit, I proceeded to make a pencil
sketch of the situation. When I got back to billets the next time I
determined to make a finished wash drawing of the scene, and send it to
some paper or other in England. In due course we got back to billets,
and the next morning I fished out my scanty drawing materials from my
valise, and sitting at a circular table in one of the rooms at the farm,
I did a finished drawing of "Where did that one go," occasionally
looking through the window on to a mountain of manure outside for
The next thing was to send it off. What paper should I send it to? I had
had a collection of papers sent out to me at Christmas time from some
one or other. A few of these were still lying about. A _Bystander_ was
amongst them. I turned over the pages and considered for a bit whether
my illustrated joke might be in their line. I thought of several other
papers, but on the whole concluded that the _Bystander_ would suit for
the purpose, and so, having got the address off the cover, I packed up
my drawing round a roll of old paper, enclosed it in brown paper, and
put it out to be posted at the next opportunity. In due course it went
to the post, and I went to the trenches again, forgetting all about the
Next time in the trenches was full of excitement. We had done a couple
of days of the endless mud, rain, and bullet-dodging work when suddenly
one night we heard we were to be relieved and go elsewhere. Every one
then thought of only one thing--where were we going? We all had
different ideas. Some said we were bound for Ypres, which we heard at
that time was a pretty "warm" spot; some said La Bassee was our
destination--"warm," but not quite as much so as Ypres. Wild rumours
that we were going to Egypt were of course around; they always are.
There was another beauty: that we were going back to England for a rest!
The night after the news, another battalion arrived, and, after handing
over our trenches, we started off on the road to "Somewhere in France."
It was about 11.30 p.m. before we had handed over everything and finally
parted from those old trenches of ours. I said good-bye to our little
perforated hovel, and set off with all my machine gunners and guns for
the road behind the wood, to go--goodness knows where. We looked back
over our shoulders several times as we plodded along down the muddy road
and into the corduroy path which ran through the wood. There, behind us,
lay St. Yvon, under the moonlight and drifting clouds; a silhouetted
mass of ruins beyond the edge of the wood. Still the same old
intermittent cracking of the rifle shots and the occasional star shell.
It was quite sad parting with that old evil-smelling, rain-soaked scene
of desolation. We felt how comfortable we had all been there, now that
we were leaving. And leaving for what?--that was the question. When I
reached the road, and had superintended loading up our limbers, I got
instructions from the transport officer as to which way we were to go.
The battalion had already gone on ahead, and the machine-gun section was
the last to leave. We were to go down the road to Armentieres, and at
about twelve midnight we started on our march, rattling off down the
road leading to Armentieres, bound for some place we had never seen
before. At about 2 a.m. we got there; billets had been arranged for us,
but at two in the morning it was no easy task to find the quarters
allotted to us without the assistance of a guide. The battalion had got
there first, had found their billets and gone to bed. I and the
machine-gun section rattled over the cobbles into sleeping Armentieres,
and hadn't the slightest idea where we had to go. Nobody being about to
tell us, we paraded the town like a circus procession for about an hour
before finally finding out where we were to billet, and ultimately we
reached our destination when, turning into the barns allotted to us, we
made the most of what remained of the night in well-earned repose.
NEW TRENCHES--THE NIGHT INSPECTION--
LETTER FROM THE "BYSTANDER"
Next day we discovered the mystery of our sudden removal. The battle of
Neuve Chapelle was claiming considerable attention, and that was where
we were going. We were full of interest and curiosity, and were all for
getting there as soon as possible. But it was not to be. Mysterious
moves were being made behind the scenes which I, and others like me,
will never know anything about; but, anyway, we now suddenly got another
bewildering order. After a day spent in Armentieres we were told to
stand by for going back towards Neuve Eglise again, just the direction
from which we had come. We all knew too much about the war to be
surprised at anything, so we mutely prepared for another exit. It was a
daylight march this time, and a nice, still, warm day. Quite a cheery,
interesting march we had, too, along the road from Armentieres to Neuve
Eglise. We were told that we were to march past General Sir Horace Smith
Dorrien, whom we should find waiting for us near the Pont de Nieppe--a
place we had to pass _en route_. Every one braced up at this, and keenly
looked forward to reaching Nieppe. I don't know why, but I had an idea
he would be in his car on the right of the road. To make no mistake I
muttered "Eyes right" to myself for about a quarter of a mile, so as to
make a good thing of the salute. We came upon the Pont de Nieppe
suddenly, round the corner, and there was the General--on the left! All
my rehearsing useless. Annoying, but I suppose one can't expect Generals
to tell you where they are going to stand.
We reached Neuve Eglise in time, and went into our old billets. We all
thought our fate was "back into those ---- old Plugstreet trenches
again," but _mirabile dictu_--it was not to be so. The second day in
billets I received a message from the Colonel to proceed to his
headquarter farm. I went, and heard the news. We were to take over a new
line of trenches away to the left of Plugstreet, and that night I was to
accompany him along with all the company commanders on a round of
A little before dusk we started off and proceeded along various roads
towards the new line. All the country was now brand new to me, and full
of interest. After we had gone about a mile and a half the character of
the land changed. We had left all the Plugstreet wood effect behind, and
now emerged on to far more open and flatter ground. By dusk we were
going down a long straight road with poplar trees on either side. At the
end of this stood a farm on the right. We walked into the courtyard and
across it into the farm. This was the place the battalion we were going
to relieve had made its headquarters. Not a bad farm. The roof was still
on, I noticed, and concluded from that that life there was evidently
passable. We had to wait here some time, as we were told that the enemy
could see for a great distance around there, and would pepper up the
farm as sure as fate if they saw anyone about. Our easy-going entry into
the courtyard had not been received with great favour, as it appeared we
were doing just the very thing to get the roof removed. However, the
dusk had saved us, I fancy.
[Illustration: Comin' on down to the Estaminet tonight, Arry?]
As soon as it was really dark we all sallied forth, accompanied by
guides this time, who were to show us the trenches. I crept along behind
our Colonel, with my eyes peeled for possible gun positions, and
drinking in as many details of the entire situation as I could.
We walked about ten miles that night, I should think, across unfamiliar
swamps and over unsuspected antique abandoned trenches, past dead cows
and pigs. We groped about the wretched shell-pitted fields, examining
the trenches we were about to take over. You would be surprised to find
how difficult a simple line of trenches can seem at night if you have
never seen them before.
You don't seem able to get the angles, somehow, nor to grasp how the
whole situation faces, or how you get from one part to another, and all
that sort of thing. I know that by the time I had been along the whole
lot, round several hundred traverses, and up dozens of communication
trenches and saps, all my mariner-like ability for finding my way back
to Neuve Eglise had deserted me. Those guides were absolutely necessary
in order to get us back to the headquarter farm. One wants a compass,
the pole star, and plenty of hope ever to get across those enormous
prairies--known as fields out there--and reach the place at the other
side one wants to get to. It is a long study before you really learn the
simplest and best way up to your own bit of trench; but when it comes to
learning everybody else's way up as well (as a machine gunner has to),
it needs a long and painful course of instruction--higher branches of
this art consisting of not only knowing the way up, but the _safest_ way
The night we carried out this tour of inspection we were all left in a
fog as to how we had gone to and returned from the trenches. After we
had got in we knew, by long examination of the maps, how everything
lay, but it was some time before we had got the real practical hang of
Our return journey from the inspection was a pretty silent affair. We
all knew these were a nasty set of trenches. Not half so pleasant as the
Plugstreet ones. The conversations we had with the present owners made
it quite clear that warm times were the vogue round there. Altogether we
could see we were in for a "bit of a time."
We cleared off back to Neuve Eglise that night, and next day took those
trenches over. This was the beginning of my life at Wulverghem. When we
got in, late that night, we found that the post had arrived some time
before. Thinking there might be something for me, I went into the back
room where they sorted the letters, to get any there might be before
going off to my own billets. "There's only one for you, sir, to-night,"
said the corporal who looked after the letters. He handed me an
envelope. I opened it. Inside, a short note and a cheque.
"We shall be very glad to accept your sketch, 'Where did that one go
to?' From the _Bystander_"--the foundation-stone of _Fragments from
BOARDS--BACK AT OUR FARM
We got out of the frying-pan into the fire when we went to Wulverghem--a
much more exciting and precarious locality than Plugstreet. During all
my war experiences I have grown to regard Plugstreet as the unit of
tranquillity. I have never had the fortune to return there since those
times mentioned in previous chapters. When you leave Plugstreet you take
away a pleasing memory of slime and reasonable shelling, which is more
than you can say for the other places. If you went to Plugstreet after,
say, the Ypres Salient, it would be more or less like going to a
convalescent home after a painful operation.
But, however that may be, we were now booked for Wulverghem, or rather
the trenches which lie along the base of the Messines ridge, about a
mile in front of that shattered hamlet. Two days after our tour of
inspection we started off to take over. The nuisance about these
trenches was that the point where one had to unload and proceed across
country, man-handling everything, was abnormally far away from the
firing line. We had about a mile and a half to do after we had marched
collectively as a battalion, so that my machine-gunners were obliged to
carry the guns and all the tackle we needed all that distance to their
trenches. This, of course, happened every time we "came in."
The land where these trenches lay was a vast and lugubrious expanse of
mud, with here and there a charred and ragged building. On our right lay
the River Douve, and, on our left, the trenches turned a corner back
inwards again. In front lay the long line of the Messines ridge. The
Boches had occupied this ridge, and our trenches ran along the valley at
its foot. The view which the Boches got by being perched on this hill
rendered them exactly what their soul delights in, _i.e._, "uber alles."
They can see for miles. However, those little disadvantages have not
prevented us from efficiently maintaining our trenches at the far end of
the plain, in spite of the difficulty of carrying material across this
I forget what night of the week we went in and took over those trenches,
but, anyhow, it was a precious long one. I had only seen the place once
before, and in the darkness of the night had a long and arduous job
finding the way to the various positions allotted for my guns, burdened
as I was with all my sections and impedimenta. I imagine I walked about
five or six miles that night. We held a front of about a mile, and,
therefore, not only did I have to do the above-mentioned mile and a
half, but also two or three miles going from end to end of our line. It
was as dark as could be, and the unfamiliar ground seemed to be pitted
like a Gruyere cheese with shell holes. Unlimbering back near a farm we
sloshed off across the mud flat towards the section of trench which we
had been ordered to occupy. I trusted to instinct to strike the right
angles for coming out at the trenches which henceforth were to be ours.
In those days my machine guns were the old type of Maxim--a very weighty
concern. To carry these guns and all the necessary ammunition across
this desert was a long and very exhausting process. Occasional bursts of
machine-gun fire and spent bullets "zipping" into the mud all around
hardly tended to cheer the proceedings. The path along to the right-hand
set of trenches, where I knew a couple of guns must go, was lavishly
strewn with dead cows and pigs. When we paused for a rest we always
seemed to do so alongside some such object, and consequently there was
no hesitation in moving on again. None of us had the slightest idea as
to the nature of the country on which we were now operating. I myself
had only seen it by night, and nobody else had been there at all.
The commencement of the journey from the farm of disembarkation lay
along what is known as corduroy boards. These are short, rough, wooden
planks, nailed crossways on long baulks of timber. This kind of path is
a very popular one at the front, and has proved an immense aid in saving
the British army from being swallowed up in the mud.
The corduroy path ran out about four hundred yards across the grassless,
sodden field. We then came suddenly to the beginning of a road. A small
cottage stood on the right, and in front of it a dead cow. Here we
unfortunately paused, but almost immediately moved on (gas masks weren't
introduced until much later!).
From this point the road ran in a long straight line towards Messines.
At intervals, on the right-hand side only, stood one or two farms, or,
rather, their skeletons. As we went along in the darkness these farms
silhouetted their dreary remains against the faint light in the sky, and
looked like vast decayed wrecks of antique Spanish galleons upside down.
On past these farms the road was suddenly cut across by a deep and ugly
gash: a reserve trench. So now we were getting nearer to our
destination. A particularly large and evil-smelling farm stood on the
right. The reserve trench ran into its back yard, and disappeared
amongst the ruins. From the observations I had made, when inspecting
these trenches, I knew that the extreme right of our position was a bit
to the right of this farm, so I and my performing troupe decided to go
through the farmyard and out diagonally across the field in front. We
did this, and at last could dimly discern the line of the trenches in
front. We were now on the extreme right of the section we had to
control, close to the River Douve, and away to the left ran the whole
line of our trenches. Along the whole length of this line the business
of taking over from the old battalion was being enacted. That old
battalion made a good bargain when they handed over that lot of slots to
us. The trenches lay in a sort of echelon formation, the one on the
extreme right being the most advanced. This one we made for, and as we
squelched across the mud to it a couple of German star shells fizzed up
into the air and illuminated the whole scene. By their light I could see
the whole position, but could only form an approximate idea of how our
lines ran, as our parapets and trenches merged into the mud so
effectively as to look like a vast, tangled, disorderly mass of
sandbags, slime and shell holes. We reached the right-hand trench. It
was a curious sort of a trench too, quite a different pattern to those
we had occupied at St. Yvon, The first thing that struck me about all
these trenches was the quantity of sandbags there were, and the
geometrical exactness of the attempts at traverses, fire steps, bays,
etc. Altogether, theoretically, much superior trenches, although very
cramped and narrow. I waited for another star shell in order to see the
view out in front. One hadn't long to wait around there for star shells.
One very soon sailed up, nice and white, into the inky sky, and I saw
how we were placed with regard to the Germans, the hill and Messines. We
were quite near a little stream, a tributary of the Douve, in fact it
ran along the front of our trenches. Immediately on the other side the
ground rose in a gradual slope up the Messines hill, and about
three-quarters way up this slope were the German trenches.
When I had settled the affairs of the machine guns in the right-hand
trench I went along the line and fixed up the various machine-gun teams
in the different trenches as I came to them. The ground above the
trenches was so eaten away by the filling of sandbags and the cavities
caused by shell fire, that I found it far quicker and simpler to walk
along in the trenches themselves, squeezing past the men standing about
and around the thick traverses. Our total frontal length must have been
three-quarters of a mile, I should think. This, our first night in, was
a pretty busy one. Dug-outs had to be found to accommodate every one;
platoons arranged in all the sections of trench, all the hundred-and-one
details which go to making trench life as secure and comfortable as is
possible under the circumstances, had to be seen to and arranged. I had
fixed up all the sections by about ten o'clock and then started along
the lines again trying to get as clear an idea as possible of the entire
situation of the trenches, the type of land in front of each, the means
of access to each trench, and possible improvements in the various gun
positions. All this had to be done to the accompaniment of a pretty
lively mixture of bullets and star shells. Sniping was pretty severe
that night, and, indeed, all the time we were in those Douve trenches.
There was an almost perpetual succession of rifle shots, intermingled
with the rapid crackling of machine-gun fire. However, you soon learn
out there that you can just as easily "get one" on the calmest night by
an accidental spent bullet as you can when a little hate is on, and
bullets are coming thick and fast. The first night we came to the Douve
was a pretty calm one, comparatively speaking; yet one poor chap in the
leading platoon, going through the farm courtyard I mentioned, got shot
right through the forehead. No doubt whatever it was an accidental
bullet, and not an aimed shot, as the Germans could not have possibly
seen the farm owing to the darkness of the night.
Just as I was finishing my tour of inspection I came across the Colonel,
who was going round everything, and thoroughly reconnoitring the
position. He asked me to show him the gun positions. I went with him
right along the line. We stood about on parapets, and walked all over
the place, stopping motionless now and again as a star shell went up,
and moving on again just in time to hear a bullet or two whizz past
behind and go "smack" into a tree in the hedge behind, or "plop" into
the mud parados. When the Colonel had finished his tour of inspection he
asked me to walk back with him to his headquarters. "Where are you
living, Bairnsfather?" said the Colonel to me. "I don't know, sir," I
replied. "I thought of fixing up in that farm (I indicated the most
aromatized one by the reserve trench) and making some sort of a dug-out
if there isn't a cellar; it's a fairly central position for all the
The Colonel thought for a moment: "You'd better come along back to the
farm on the road for to-night anyway, and you can spend to-morrow
decorating the walls with a few sketches," he said. This was a decidedly
better suggestion, a reprieve, in fact, as prior to this remark my
bedroom for the night looked like being a borrowed ground sheet slung
over some charred rafters which were leaning against a wall in the yard.
I followed along behind the Colonel down the road, down the corduroy
boards, and out at the old moated farm not far from Wulverghem. Thank
goodness, I should get a floor to sleep on! A roof, too! Straw on the
floor! How splendid!
It was quite delightful turning into that farm courtyard, and entering
the building. Dark, dismal and deserted as it was, it afforded an
immense, glowing feeling of comfort after that mysterious, dark and
wintry plain, with its long lines of grey trenches soaking away there
under the inky sky.
Inside I found an empty room with some straw on the floor. There was
only one shell hole in it, but some previous tenant had stopped it up
with a bit of sacking. My word, I was tired! I rolled myself round with
straw, and still retaining all my clothes, greatcoat, balaclava,
muffler, trench boots, I went to sleep.
THE PAINTER AND DECORATOR--FRAGMENTS
FORMING--NIGHT ON THE MUD PRAIRIE
Had a fairly peaceful night. I say fairly because when one has to get up
three or four times to see whether the accumulated rattle of rifle fire
is going to lead to a battle, or turn out only to be merely "wind up,"
it rather disturbs one's rest. You see, had an attack of some sort come
on, yours truly would have had to run about a mile and a half to some
central spot to overlook the machine-gun department. I used to think
that to be actually with one gun was the best idea, but I subsequently
found that this plan hampered me considerably from getting to my others;
the reason being that, once established in one spot during an open
trench attack, it is practically impossible to get to another part
whilst the action is on.
At the Douve, however, I discovered a way of getting round this which I
will describe later.
On this first night, not being very familiar with the neighbourhood, I
found it difficult to ignore the weird noises which floated in through
the sack-covered hole. There is something very eerie and strange about
echoing rifle shots in the silence of the night. Once I got up and
walked out into the courtyard of the farm, and passing through it came
out on to the end of the road. All as still as still could be, except
the distant intermittent cracking of the rifles coming from away across
the plain, beyond the long straight row of lofty poplar trees which
marked the road. A silence of some length might supervene, in which one
would only hear the gentle rustling of the leaves; then suddenly, far
away on the right, a faint surging roar can be heard, and then louder
and louder. "Wind up over there." Then, gradually, silence would assert
itself once more and leave you with nothing but the rustling leaves and
the crack of the sniper's rifle on the Messines ridge.
My first morning at this farm was, by special request, to be spent in
decorating the walls.
There wasn't much for anyone to do in the day time, as nobody could go
out. The same complaint as the other place in St. Yvon: "We mustn't look
as if anyone lives in the farm." Drawing, therefore, was a great aid to
me in passing the day. Whilst at breakfast I made a casual examination
of the room where we had our meals. I was not the first to draw on the
walls of that room. Some one in a previous battalion had already put
three or four sketches on various parts of the fire-place. Several large
spaces remained all round the room, however; but I noticed that the
surface was very poor compared with the wall round the fire-place.
The main surface was a rough sort of thing, and, on regarding it
closely, it looked as if it was made of frozen porridge, being slightly
rough, and of a grey-brown colour. I didn't know what on earth I could
use to draw on this surface, but after breakfast I started to scheme out
something. I went into the back room, which we were now using as a
kitchen, and finding some charcoal I tried that. It was quite
useless--wouldn't make a mark on the wall at all. Why, I don't know; but
the charcoal just glided about and merely seemed to make dents and
scratches on the "frozen porridge." I then tried to make up a mixture.
It occurred to me that possibly soot might be made into a sort of ink,
and used with a paint brush. I tried this, but drew a blank again. I was
bordering on despair, when my servant said he thought he had put a
bottle of Indian ink in my pack when we left to come into the trenches
this time. He had a look, and found that his conjecture was right; he
had got a bottle of Indian ink and a few brushes, as he thought I might
want to draw something, so had equipped the pack accordingly.
I now started my fresco act on the walls of the Douve farm.
I spent most of the day on the job, and discovered how some startling
effects could be produced.
Materials were: A bottle of Indian ink, a couple of brushes, about a
hundredweight of useless charcoal, and a G.S. blue and red pencil.
Amongst the rough sketches that I did that day were the original
drawings for two subsequent "Fragments" of mine.
One was the rough idea for "They've evidently seen me," and the other
was "My dream for years to come." The idea for "They've evidently seen
me" came whilst carrying back that table to St. Yvon, as I mentioned in
a previous chapter, but the scenario for the idea was not provided for
until I went to this farm some time later. In intervals of working at
the walls I rambled about the farm building, and went up into a loft
over a barn at the end of the farm nearest the trenches. I looked out
through a hole in the tiles just in time to hear a shell come over from
away back amongst the Germans somewhere, and land about five hundred
yards to the left. The sentence, "They've evidently seen me," came
flashing across my mind again, and I now saw the correct setting in my
mind: _i.e._, the enthusiastic observer looking out of the top of a
narrow chimney, whilst a remarkably well-aimed shell leads "him of the
binoculars" to suppose that they _have_ seen him.
I came downstairs and made a pencil sketch of my idea, and before I left
the trenches that time I had done a wash drawing and sent it to England.
This was my second "Fragment."
The other sketch, "My dream for years to come," was drawn on one wall
of a small apple or potato room, opening off our big room, and the
drawing occupied the whole wall.
I knocked off drawing about four o'clock, and did a little of the
alternative occupation, that of looking out through the cracked windows
on to the mutilated courtyard in front. It was getting darker now, and
nearing the time when I had to put on all my tackle, and gird myself up
for my round of the trenches. As soon as it was nearly dark I started
out. The other officers generally left a bit later, but as I had such a
long way to go, and as I wanted to examine the country while there was
yet a little light, I started at dusk. Not yet knowing exactly how much
the enemy could see on the open mud flat, I determined to go along by
the river bank, and by keeping among the trees I hoped to escape
observation. I made for the Douve, and soon got along as far as the row
of farms. I explored all these, and a shocking sight they were. All
charred and ruined, and the skeleton remains slowly decomposing away
into the unwholesome ground about them. I went inside several of the
dismantled rooms. Nearly all contained old and battered bits of
soldiers' equipment, empty tins, and remnants of Belgian property. Sad
relics of former billeting: a living reminder of the rough times that
had preceded our arrival in this locality. I passed on to another farm,
and entered the yard near the river. It was nearly full of black wooden
crosses, roughly made and painted over with tar. All that was left to
mark the graves of those who had died to get our trenches where they
were--at the bottom of the Messines ridge. A bleak and sombre winter's
night, that courtyard of the ruined farm, the rows of crosses--I often
think of it all now.
As the darkness came on I proceeded towards the trenches, and when it
had become sufficiently dark I entered the old farm by the reserve
trench and crossed the yard to enter the field which led to the first of
our trenches. At St. Yvon it was pretty airy work, going the rounds at
night, but this was a jolly sight more so. The country was far more
open, and although the Boches couldn't see us, yet they kept up an
incessant sniping demonstration. Picking up my sergeant at Number 1
trench, he and I started on our tour.
We made a long and exhaustive examination that night, both of the
existing machine-gun emplacements and of the entire ground, with a view
to changing our positions. It was a long time before I finally left the
trenches and started off across the desolate expanse to the Douve farm,
and I was dead beat when I arrived there. On getting into the big room I
found the Colonel, who had just come in. "Where's that right-hand gun of
yours, Bairnsfather?" he asked. "Down on the right of Number 2 trench,
sir," I answered; "just by the two willows near the sap which runs out
towards Number 1." "It's not much of a place for it," he said; "where we
ought to have it is to the right of the sap, so that it enfilades the
whole front of that trench." "When do you want it moved, sir?" I asked.
"Well, it ought to be done at once; it's no good where it is."
That fixed it. I knew what he wanted; so I started out again, back over
the mile and a half to alter the gun. It was a weary job; but I would
have gone on going back and altering the whole lot for our Colonel, who
was the best line in commanding officers I ever struck. Every one had
the most perfect confidence in him. He was the most shell, bullet, and
bomb defying person I have ever seen. When I got back for the second
time that night I was quite ready to roll up in the straw, and be lulled
off to sleep by the cracking rifle fire outside.
VISIONS OF LEAVE--DICK TURPIN--LEAVE!
Our first time in the Douve trenches was mainly uneventful, but we all
decided it was not as pleasant as St. Yvon. For my part, it was fifty
per cent. worse than St. Yvon; but I was now buoyed up by a new light in
the sky, which made the first time in more tolerable than it might
otherwise have been. It was getting near my turn for leave! I had been
looking forward to this for a long time, but there were many who had to
take their turn in front of me, so I had dismissed the case for a bit.
Recently, however, the powers that be had been sending more than one
officer away at a time; consequently my turn was rapidly approaching. We
came away back to billets in the usual way after our first dose of the
Douve, and all wallowed off to our various billeting quarters. I was hot
and strong on the leave idea now. It was really getting close and I
felt disposed to find everything _couleur de rose_. Even the manure heap
in the billeting farm yard looked covered with roses. I could have
thrown a bag of confetti at the farmer's wife--it's most exhilarating to
think of the coming of one's first leave. One maps out what one will do
with the time in a hundred different ways. I was wondering how I could
manage to transport my souvenirs home, as I had collected a pretty good
supply by this time--shell cases, fuse tops, clogs, and that Boche rifle
I got on Christmas Day.
One morning (we had been about two days out) I got a note from the
Adjutant to say I could put in my application. I put it in all right and
then sat down and hoped for the best.
My spirits were now raised to such a pitch that I again decided to ride
to Nieppe--just for fun.
I rode away down the long winding line, smiling at everything on either
side--the three-sailed windmill with the top off; the estaminet with the
hole through the gable end--all objects seemed to radiate peace and
goodwill. There was a very bright sun in the sky that day. I rode down
to the high road, and cantered along the grass at the side into Nieppe.
Just as I entered the town I met a friend riding out. He shouted
something at me. I couldn't hear what he said. "What?" I yelled.
"All leave's cancelled!"
That was enough for me. I rode into Nieppe like an infuriated cowboy. I
went straight for the divisional headquarters, flung away the horse and
dashed up into the building. I knew one or two of the officers there.
"What's this about leave?" I asked. "All about to be cancelled," was the
reply. "If you're quick, you may get yours through, as you've been out
here long enough, and you're next to go." "What have I got to do?" I
screamed. "Go to your Colonel, and ask him to wire the Corps
headquarters and ask them to let you go; only you'll have to look sharp
He needn't have told me that. He had hardly finished before I was
outside and making for my horse. I got out of Nieppe as quickly as I
could, and lit out for our battalion headquarters. About four miles to
go, but I lost no time about it. "Leave cancelled!" I hissed through the
triangular gap in my front tooth, as I galloped along the road; "leave
I should have made a good film actor that day: "Dick Turpin's ride to
York" in two reels. I reached the turning off the high road all right,
and pursued my wild career down the lanes which led to the Colonel's
headquarters. The road wound about in a most ridiculous way, making
salients out of ploughed fields on either side. I decided to throw all
prudence to the winds, and cut across these. My horse evidently thought
this an excellent idea, for as soon as he got on the fields he was off
like a trout up stream. Most successful across the first salient, then,
suddenly, I saw we were approaching a wide ditch. Leave _would_ be
cancelled as far as I was concerned if I tried to jump that, I felt
certain. I saw a sort of a narrow bridge about fifty yards to the right.
Tried to persuade the horse to make for it. No, he believed in the ditch
idea, and put on a sprint to jump it. Terrific battle between Dick
Turpin and Black Bess!
A foaming pause on the brink of the abyss. Dick Turpin wins the
argument, and after a few prancing circles described in the field
manages to cross the bridge with his fiery steed. I then rode down the
road into the little village. The village school had been turned into a
battalion stores, and the quartermaster-sergeant was invariably to be
found there. I dismounted and pulled my horse up a couple of steps into
the large schoolroom. Tied him up here, and last saw him blowing clouds
of steam out of his nose on to one of those maps which show interesting
forms of vegetable life with their Latin names underneath. Now for the
Colonel. I clattered off down the street to his temporary orderly room.
Thank heaven, he was in! I explained the case to him. He said he would
do his best, and there and then sent off a wire. I could do no more now,
so after fixing up that a message should be sent me, I slowly retraced
my steps to the school, extracted the horse, and wended my way slowly
back to the Transport Farm. Here I languished for the rest of the day,
feeling convinced that "all leave was cancelled." I sat down to do some
sketching after tea, full of marmalade and depression. About 6 p.m. I
chucked it, and went and sat by the stove, smoking a pipe. Suddenly the
door opened and a bicycle orderly came in: "There's a note from the
Adjutant for you, sir."
I tore it open. "Your leave granted; you leave to-morrow. If you call
here in the morning, I'll give you your pass."
THAT LEAVE TRAIN--MY OLD PAL--LONDON
AND HOME--THE CALL OF THE WILD
One wants to have been at the front, in the nasty parts, to appreciate
fully what getting seven days' leave feels like. We used to have to be
out at the front for three consecutive months before being entitled to
this privilege. I had passed this necessary apprenticeship, and now had
actually got my leave.
The morning after getting my instructions I rose early, and packed the
few things I was going to take with me. Very few things they were, too.
Only a pack and a haversack, and both contained nothing but souvenirs. I
decided to go to the station via the orderly room, so that I could do
both in one journey. I had about two miles to go from my billets to the
orderly room in the village, and about a mile on from there to the
station. Some one suggested my riding--no fear; I was running no risks
now. I started off early with my servant. We took it in shifts with my
heavy bags of souvenirs. One package (the pack) had four "Little Willie"
cases inside, in other words, the cast-iron shell cases for the German
equivalent of our 18-pounders. The haversack was filled with aluminium
fuse tops and one large piece of a "Jack Johnson" shell case. My
pockets--and I had a good number, as I was wearing my greatcoat--were
filled with a variety of objects. A pair of little clogs found in a roof
at St. Yvon, several clips of German bullets removed from equipment
found on Christmas Day, and a collection of bullets which I had picked
out with my pocket knife from the walls of our house in St. Yvon. The
only additional luggage to this inventory I have given was my usual
copious supply of Gold Flake cigarettes, of which, during my life in
France, I must have consumed several army corps.
It was a glorious day--bright, sunny, and a faint fresh wind. Everything
seemed bright and rosy. I felt I should have liked to skip along the
road like a young bay tree--no, that's wrong--like a ram, only I didn't
think it would be quite the thing with my servant there (King's
Regulations: Chapter 158, paragraph 96, line 4); besides, he wasn't
going on leave, so it would have been rather a dirty trick after all.
We got to the village with aching arms and souvenirs intact. I got my
pass, and together with another officer we set out for the station. It
was a leave train. Officers from all sorts of different battalions were
either in it or going to get in, either here or at the next stop.
Having no wish to get that station into trouble, or myself either, by
mentioning its name, I will call it Creme de Menthe. It was the same
rotten little place I had arrived at. It is only because I am trying to
sell the "station-master" a copy of this book that I call the place a
station at all. It really is a decomposing collection of half-hearted
buildings and moss-grown rails, with an apology for a platform at one
We caught the train with an hour to spare. You can't miss trains in
France: there's too much margin allowed on the time-table. The 10.15
leaves at 11.30, the 11.45 at 2.20, and so on; besides, if you did miss
your train, you could always catch it up about two fields away, so
there's nothing to worry about.
We started. I don't know what time it was.
If you turn up the word "locomotion" in a dictionary, you will find it
means "the act or power of moving from place to place"; from _locus_, a
place, and _motion_, the act of moving. Our engine had got the _locus_
part all right, but was rather weak about the _motion_. We creaked and
squeaked about up the moss-grown track, and groaned our way back into
the station time after time, in order to tie on something else behind
the train, or to get on to a siding to let a trainload of trench
floorboards and plum and apple jangle past up the line. When at last we
really started, it was about at the speed of the "Rocket" on its trial
Our enthusiastic "going on leave" ardour was severely tested, and nearly
broke down before we reached Boulogne, which we did late that night. But
getting there, and mingling with the leave-going crowd which thronged
the buffet, made up for all travelling shortcomings. Every variety of
officer and army official was represented there. There were colonels,
majors, captains, lieutenants, quantities of private soldiers, sergeants
and corporals, hospital nurses and various other people employed in some
war capacity or other. Representatives from every branch of the Army, in
fact, whose turn for leave had come.
I left the buffet for a moment to go across to the Transport Office, and
walking along through the throng ran into my greatest friend. A most
extraordinary chance this! I had not the least idea whereabouts in
France he was, or when he might be likely to get leave. His job was in
quite a different part, many miles from the Douve. I have known him for
many years; we were at school together, and have always seemed to have
the lucky knack of bobbing up to the surface simultaneously without
prior arrangement. This meeting sent my spirits up higher than ever. We
both adjourned to the buffet, and talked away about our various
experiences to the accompaniment of cold chicken and ham. A merry scene
truly, that buffet--every one filled with thoughts of England. Nearly
every one there must have stepped out of the same sort of mud and danger
bath that I had. And, my word! it is a first-class feeling: sitting
about waiting for the boat when you feel you've earned this seven days'
leave. You hear men on all sides getting the last ounce of appreciation
out of the unique sensation by saying such things as, "Fancy those poor
blighters, sitting in the mud up there; they'll be just about getting
near 'Stand to' now."
You rapidly dismiss a momentary flash in your mind of what it's going to
be like in that buffet on the return journey.
Early in the morning, and while it was still dark, we left the harbour
and ploughed out into the darkness and the sea towards England.
I claim the honoured position of the world's worst sailor. I have
covered several thousand miles on the sea, "brooked the briny" as far as
India and Canada. I have been hurtled about on the largest Atlantic
waves; yet I am, and always will remain, absolutely impossible at sea.
Looking at the docks out of the hotel window nearly sends me to bed;
there's something about a ship that takes the stuffing out of me
completely. Whether it's that horrible pale varnished woodwork, mingled
with the smell of stuffy upholstery, or whether it's that nauseating
whiff from the open hatch of the engine-room, I don't know; but once on
a ship I am as naught ... not nautical.
Of course the Channel was going to be rough. I could see that at a
glance. I know exactly what to do about the sea now. I go straight to a
bunk, and hope for the best; if no bunk--bribe the steward until there
I got a bunk, deserted my friend in a cheerless way, and retired till
the crossing was over. It _was_ very rough....
In the cold grey hours we glided into Dover or Folkestone (I was too
anaemic to care which) and fastened up alongside the wharf. I had a dim
recollection of getting my pal to hold my pack as we left Boulogne, and
now I could see neither him nor the pack. Fearful crush struggling up
the gangway. I had to scramble for a seat in the London train, so
couldn't waste time looking for my friend. I had my haversack--he had
The train moved off, and now here we all were back in clean, fresh,
luxurious England, gliding along in an English train towards London.
It's worth doing months and months of trenches to get that buoyant,
electrical sensation of passing along through English country on one's
way to London on leave.
I spent the train journey thinking over what I should do during my seven
days. Time after time I mentally conjured up the forthcoming performance
of catching the train at Paddington and gliding out of the shadows of
the huge station into the sunlit country beyond--the rapid express
journey down home, the drive out from the station, back in my own land
We got into London in pretty quick time, and I rapidly converted my
dreams into facts.
Still in the same old trench clothes, with a goodly quantity of Flanders
mud attached, I walked into Paddington station, and collared a seat in
the train on Number 1 platform. Then, collecting a quantity of papers
and magazines from the bookstalls, I prepared myself for enjoying to the
full the two hours' journey down home.
I spent a gorgeous week in Warwickshire, during which time my friend
came along down to stay a couple of days with me, bringing my missing
pack along with him. He had had the joy of carrying it laden with shell
cases across London, and taking it down with him to somewhere near
Aldershot, and finally bringing it to me without having kept any of the
contents ... Such is a true friend.
As this book deals with my wanderings in France I will not go into
details of my happy seven days' leave. I now resume at the point where I
was due to return to France. In spite of the joys of England as opposed
to life in Flanders, yet a curious phenomenon presented itself at the
end of my leave. I was anxious to get back. Strange, but true. Somehow
one felt that slogging away out in the dismal fields of war was the real
thing to do. If some one had offered me a nice, safe, comfortable job in
England, I wouldn't have taken it. I claim no credit for this feeling of
mine. I know every one has the same. That buccaneering, rough and tumble
life out there has its attractions. The spirit of adventure is in most
people, and the desire and will to biff the Boches is in every one, so
there you are.
I drifted back via London, Dover and Boulogne, and thence up the same
old stagnant line to Creme de Menthe. Once more back in the land of mud,
bullets, billets, and star shells.
It was the greyest of grey days when I arrived at my one-horse terminus.
I got out at the "station," and had a solitary walk along the empty,
muddy lanes, back to the Transport Farm.
Plodding along in the thin rain that was falling I thought of home,
London, England, and then of the job before me. Another three months at
least before any further chance of leave could come my way again.
Evening was coming on. Across the flat, sombre country I could see the
tall, swaying poplar trees standing near the farm. Beyond lay the rough
and rugged road which led to the Douve trenches.
How nice that leave had been! To-morrow night I should be going along
back to the trenches before Wulverghem.
BACK FROM LEAVE--THAT "BLINKIN' MOON"
--JOHNSON 'OLES--TOMMY AND "FRIGHTFULNESS"
As I had expected, the battalion were just finishing their last days out
in rest billets, and were going "in" the following night.
Reaction from leave set in for me with unprecedented violence. It was
horrible weather, pouring with rain all the time, which made one's
Leave over; rain, rain, rain; trenches again, and the future looked like
being perpetually the same, or perhaps worse. Yet, somehow or other, in
these times of deep depression which come to every one now and again, I
cannot help smiling. It has always struck me as an amusing thing that
the world, and all the human beings thereon, do get themselves into such
curious and painful predicaments, and then spend the rest of the time
wishing they could get out.
My reflections invariably brought me to the same conclusion, that here I
was, caught up in the cogs of this immense, uncontrollable war machine,
and like every one else, had to, and meant to stick it out to the end.
The next night we went through all the approved formula for going into
the trenches. Started at dusk, and got into our respective mud cavities
a few hours later. I went all round the trenches again, looking to see
that things were the same as when I left them, and, on the Colonel's
instructions, started a series of alterations in several gun positions.
There was one trench that was so obscured along its front by odd stumps
of trees that I decided the only good spot for a machine gun was right
at one end, on a road which led up to Messines. From here it would be
possible for us to get an excellent field of fire. To have this gun on
the road meant making an emplacement there somehow. That night we
started scheming it out, and the next evening began work on it. It was a
bright moonlight night, I remember, and my sergeant and I went out in
front of our parapet, walked along the field and crept up the ditch a
little way, considering the machine-gun possibilities of the land. That
moonlight feeling is very curious. You feel as if the enemy can see you
clearly, and that all eyes in the opposite trench are turned on you. You
can almost imagine a Boche smilingly taking an aim, and saying to a
friend, "We'll just let him come a bit closer first." Every one who has
had to go "out in front," wiring, will know this feeling. As a matter of
fact, it is astonishing how little one can see of men in the moonlight,
even when the trenches are very close together. One gets quite used to
walking about freely in this light, going out in front of the parapet
and having a look round. The only time that really makes one
apprehensive is when some gang of men or other turn up from way back
somewhere, and have come to assist in some operation near the enemy.
They, being unfamiliar with the caution needed, and unappreciative of
what it's like to have neighbours who "hate" you sixty yards away,
generally bring trouble in their wake by one of the party shouting out
in a deep bass or a shrill soprano, "'Ere, chuck us the 'ammer, 'Arry,"
or something like that, following the remark up with a series of
vulcan-like blows on the top of an iron post. Result: three star shells
soar out into the frosty air, and a burst of machine-gun fire skims over
the top of your head.
We made a very excellent and strong emplacement on the road, and used it
henceforth. I had a lot of bother with one gun in those trenches, which
was placed at very nearly the left-hand end of the whole line. I had
been obliged to fix the gun there, as it was very necessary for
dominating a certain road. But when I took the place over from the
previous battalion, I thought there might be difficulties about this gun
position, and there were. The night before we had made our inspection of
these trenches, a shell had landed right on top of the gun emplacement
and had "outed" the whole concern, unfortunately killing two of the gun
section belonging to the former battalion. For some reason or other that
end of our line was always being shelled. Just in the same way as they
plunked shells daily into St. Yvon, so they did here. Each morning, with
hardly ever a miss, they shelled our trenches, but almost invariably in
the same place: the left-hand end. The difference between St. Yvon and
this place was, however, that here they always shelled with "heavies."
Right back at the Douve farm a mile away, the thundering crash of one of
these shells would rattle all the windows and make one say, "Where did
that one go?"
All round that neighbourhood it seemed to have been the fashion, past
and present, to use the largest shells. In going along the Douve one
day, I made a point of measuring and examining several of the holes. I
took a photograph of one, with my cap resting on one side of it, to show
the relative proportion and give an idea of the size. It was about
fourteen feet in diameter, and seven feet deep. The largest shell hole I
have ever seen was over twenty feet in diameter and about twelve feet
deep. The largest hole I have seen, made by an implement of war, though
not by a gun or a howitzer, was larger still, and its size was colossal.
I refer to a hole made by one of our trench mortars, but regret that I
did not measure it. Round about our farm were a series of holes of
immense size, showing clearly the odium which that farm had incurred,
and was incurring; but, whilst I was in it, nothing came in through the
roof or walls. I have since learnt that that old farm is no more, having
been shelled out of existence. All my sketches on those plaster walls
form part of a slack heap, surrounded by a moat.
Well, this persistent shelling of the left-hand end of our trenches
meant a persistent readjustment of our parapets, and putting things back
again. Each morning the Boches would knock things down, and each evening
we would put them up again. Our soldiers are only amused by this
procedure. Their humorously cynical outlook at the Boche temper renders
them impervious to anything the Germans can ever do or think of. Their
outlook towards a venomous German attempt to do something "frightfully"
nasty, is very similar to a large and powerful nurse dealing with a
fractious child--sort of: "Now, then, Master Frankie, you mustn't kick
and scream like that."
One can almost see a group of stolid, unimaginative, non-humorous
Germans, taking all things with their ridiculous seriousness, sending
off their shells, and pulling hateful faces at the same time. You can
see our men sending over a real stiff, quietening answer, with a
sporting twinkle in the eye, perhaps jokingly remarking, as a shell is
pushed into the gun, "'Ere's one for their Officers' Mess, Bert."
On several evenings I had to go round and arrange for the reconstruction
of the ruined parapet or squashed-in dug-outs. It was during one of
these little episodes that I felt the spirit of my drawing, "There goes
our blinking parapet again," which I did sometime later. I never went
about looking for ideas for drawings; the whole business of the war
seemed to come before me in a series of pictures. Jokes used to stick
out of all the horrible discomfort, something like the points of a
harrow would stick into you if you slept on it.
I used to visit all the trenches, and look up the various company
commanders and platoon commanders in the same way as I did at St. Yvon.
I got a splendid idea of all the details of our position; all the
various ways from one part of it to another. As I walked back to the
Douve farm at night, nearly always alone, I used to keep on exploring
the wide tract of land that lay behind our trenches. "I'll have a look
at that old cottage up on the right to-night," I used to say to myself,
and later, when the time came for me to walk back from the trenches, I
would go off at a new angle across the plain, and make for my objective.
Once inside, and feeling out of view of the enemy, I would go round the
deserted rooms and lofts by the light of a few matches, and if the house
looked as if it would prove of interest, I would return the next night
with a candle-end, and make an examination of the whole thing. They are
all very much alike, these houses in Flanders; all seem to contain the
same mangled remains of simple, homely occupations. Strings of onions,
old straw hats, and clogs, mixed with an assortment of cheap clothing,
with perhaps here and there an umbrella or a top hat. That is about the
class of stuff one found in them. After one of these expeditions I would
go on back across the plain, along the corduroy boards or by the bank of
the river, to our farm.
A DAYLIGHT STALK--THE DISUSED TRENCH--
"DID THEY SEE ME?"--A GOOD SNIPING
Our farm was, as I have remarked, a mile from the trenches at the
nearest part, and about a mile and a half from the furthest. Wulverghem
was about half a mile behind the farm.
As time went on at these Douve trenches, I became more and more familiar
with the details of the surrounding country, for each day I used to
creep out of the farm, and when I had crossed the moat by a small wooden
bridge at the back, I would go off into the country near by looking at
everything. One day the Colonel expressed a wish to know whether it was
possible to get up into our trenches in day time without being seen. Of
course any one could have gone to the trenches, and been momentarily
seen here and there, and could have done so fairly safely and easily by
simply walking straight up, taking advantage of what little cover there
was; but to get right up without showing at all, was rather a poser, as
all cover ceased about a hundred yards behind the trenches.
The idea of trying attracted me. One morning I crept along the ragged
hedge, on the far side of the moat which led to the river, and started
out for the trenches. I imagined a German with a powerful pair of
binoculars looking down on the plain from the Messines Hill, with
nothing better to do than to see if he could spot some one walking
about. Keeping this possibility well in mind, I started my stalk up to
the trenches with every precaution.
I crept along amongst the trees bordering the river for a considerable
distance, but as one neared the trenches, these got wider apart, and as
the river wound about a lot there were places where to walk from one
tree to the next, one had to walk parallel to the German trenches and
quite exposed, though, of course, at a considerable range off. I still
bore in mind my imaginary picture of the gentleman with binoculars,
though, so I got down near the water's edge and moved along,
half-concealed by the bank. Soon I reached the farms, and by dodging
about amongst the scattered shrubs and out-houses, here and there
crawling up a ditch, I got into one of the farm buildings. I sat in it
amongst a pile of old clothes, empty tins and other oddments, and had a
smoke, thinking the while on how I could get from these farms across the
last bit of open space which was the most difficult of all.
I finished my cigarette, and began the stalk again. Another difficulty
presented itself. I found that it was extremely difficult to cross from
the second last farm to the last one, as the ground was completely open,
and rather sloped down towards the enemy. This was not apparent when
looking at the place at night, for then one never bothers about
concealment, and one walks anywhere and anyhow. But now the question
was, how to do it. I crept down to the river again, and went along there
for a bit, looking for a chance of leaving it under cover for the farm.
Coming to a narrow, cart-rutted lane a little further on, I was just
starting to go up it when, suddenly, a bright idea struck me. An old
zig-zag communication trench (a relic of a bygone period) left the lane
on the right, and apparently ran out across the field to within a few
yards of the furthest farm. Once there, I had only a hundred yards more
I entered the communication trench. It was just a deep, narrow slot cut
across the field, and had, I should imagine, never been used. I think
the enormous amount of water in it had made it a useless work. I saw no
sign of it ever having been used. A fearful trench it was, with a deep
deposit of dark green filthy, watery mud from end to end.
This, I could see, was the only way up to the farm, so I made the best
of it. I resigned myself to getting thoroughly wet through. Quite
unavoidable. I plunged into this unwholesome clay ditch and went along,
each step taking me up to my thighs in soft dark ooze, whilst here and
there the water was so deep as to force me to scoop out holes in the
clay at the side when, by leaning against the opposite side, with my
feet in the holes, I could slowly push my way along. In time I got to
the other end, and sat down to think a bit. As I sat, a bullet suddenly
whacked into the clay parapet alongside of me, which stimulated my
thinking a bit. "Had I been seen?" I tried to find out, and reassure
myself before going on. I put my hat on top of a stick and brought it up
above the parapet at two or three points to try and attract another
shot; but no, there wasn't another, so I concluded the first one had
been accidental, and went on my way again. By wriggling along behind an
undulation in the field, and then creeping from one tree to another, I
at last managed to get up into our reserve trenches, where I obtained my
first daylight, close-up view of our trenches, German trenches, and
general landscape; all laid out in panorama style.
In front of me were our front-line trenches, following the line of the
little stream which ran into the Douve on the right. On the far side of
the stream the ground gently rose in a long slope up to Messines, where
you could see a shattered mass of red brick buildings with the old grey
tower in the middle. At a distance of from about two to four hundred
yards away lay the German trenches, parallel to ours, their barbed wire
glistening in the morning sunlight.
"This place I'm in is a pretty good place for a sniper to hitch up," I
thought to myself. "Can see everything there is to be seen from here."
After a short stocktaking of the whole scene, I turned and wallowed my
way back to the farm. Some few days later they did make a sniper's post
of that spot, and a captain friend of mine, with whom I spent many
quaint and dismal nights in St. Yvon, occupied it. He was the "star"
shot of the battalion, an expert sniper, and, I believe, made quite a
OUR MOATED FARM--WULVERGHEM--THE
CURE'S HOUSE--A SHATTERED CHURCH
--MORE "HEAVIES"--A FARM ON FIRE
Our farm was one of a cluster of three or four, each approximately a
couple of hundred yards apart. It was perhaps the largest and the most
preserved of the lot. It was just the same sort of shape as all Flemish
farms--a long building running round three sides of the yard, in the
middle of which there was an oblong tank, used for collecting all the
rubbish and drainage.
The only difference about our farm was, we had a moat. Very superior to
all the cluster in consequence. Sometime or other the moat must have
been very effective; but when I was there, only about a quarter of it
contained water. The other three-quarters was a sort of bog, or marsh,
its surface broken up by large shell holes. On the driest part of this I
discovered a row of graves, their rough crosses all battered and bent
down. I just managed to discern the names inscribed; they were all
French. Names of former heroes who had participated in some action or
other months before. Going out into the fields behind the farm, I found
more French graves, enclosed in a rectangular graveyard that had been
roughly made with barbed wire and posts, each grave surmounted with the
dead soldier's hat. Months of rough wintry weather had beaten down the
faded cloth cap into the clay mound, and had started the obliteration of
the lettering on the cross. A few more months; and cross, mound and hat
will all have merged back into the fields of Flanders.
Beyond these fields, about half a mile distant, lay Wulverghem. Looking
at what you can see of this village from the Douve farm, it looks
exceedingly pretty and attractive. A splendid old church tower could be
seen between the trees, and round about it were clustered the red roofs
of a fair-sized village. It has, to my mind, a very nice situation. In
the days before the war it must have been a pleasing place to live in. I
went to have a look at it one day. It's about as fine a sample of what
these Prussians have brought upon Belgian villages as any I have seen.
The village street is one long ruin. On either side of the road, all the
houses are merely a collection of broken tiles and shattered bricks and
framework. Huge shell holes punctuate the street. I had seen a good many
mutilated villages before this, but I remember thinking this was as bad,
if not worse, than any I had yet seen. I determined to explore some of
the houses and the church.
I went into one house opposite the church. It had been quite a nice
house once, containing about ten rooms. It was full of all sorts of
things. The evacuation had evidently been hurried. I went into the front
right-hand room first, and soon discovered by the books and pictures
that this had been the Cure's house. It was in a terrible state.
Religious books in French and Latin lay about the floor in a vast
disorder, some with the cover and half the book torn off by the effect
of an explosion. Pictures illustrating Bible scenes, images, and other
probably cherished objects, smashed and ruined, hung about the walls, or
fragmentary portions of them lay littered about on the floor.
A shell hole of large proportions had rent a gash in the outer front
wall, leaving the window woodwork, bricks and wall-paper piled up in a
heap on the floor, partially obliterating a large writing desk. Private
papers lay about in profusion, all dirty, damp and muddy. The remains of
a window blind and half its roller hung in the space left by the absent
window, and mournfully tapped against the remnant of the framework in
the light, cold breeze that was blowing in from outside. Place this
scene in your imagination in some luxuriant country vicarage in England,
and you will get an idea of what Belgium has had to put up with from
these Teutonic madmen. I went into all the rooms; they were in very much
the same state. In the back part of the house the litter was added to by
empty tins and old military equipment. Soldiers had evidently had to
live there temporarily on their way to some part of our lines. I heard a
movement in the room opposite the one I had first gone into; I went back
and saw a cat sitting in the corner amongst a pile of leather-backed
books. I made a movement towards it, but with a cadaverous, wild glare
at me, it sprang through the broken window and disappeared.
The church was just opposite the priest's house. I went across the road
to look at it. It was a large reddish-grey stone building, pretty old, I
should say, and surrounded by a graveyard. Shell holes everywhere; the
old, grey grave stones and slabs cracked and sticking about at odd
angles. As I entered by the vestry door I noticed the tower was fairly
all right, but that was about the only part that was. Belgium and
Northern France are full of churches which have been sadly knocked
about, and all present very much the same appearance. I will describe
this one to give you a sample. I went through the vestry into the main
part of the church, deciding to examine the vestry later. The roof had
had most of the tiles blown off, and underneath them the roofing-boards
had been shattered into long narrow strips. Fixed at one end to what was
left of the rafters they flapped slowly up and down in the air like
lengths of watch-spring. Below, on the floor of the church, the chairs
were tossed about in the greatest possible disorder, and here and there
a dozen or so had been pulverized by the fall of an immense block of
masonry. Highly coloured images were lying about, broken and twisted.
The altar candelabra and stained-glass windows lay in a heap together
behind a pulpit, the front of which had been knocked off by a falling
pillar. One could walk about near some of the broken images, and pick up
little candles and trinkets which had been put in and around the shrine,
off the floor and from among the mass of broken stones and mortar. The
vestry, I found, was almost complete. Nearly trodden out of recognition
on the floor, I found a bright coloured hand-made altar cloth, which I
then had half a mind to take away with me, and post it back to some
parson in England to put in his church. I only refrained from carrying
out this plan as I feared that the difficulties of getting it away would
be too great. I left the church, and looked about some of the other
houses, but none proved as pathetically interesting as the church and
the vicar's house, so I took my way out across the fields again towards
the Douve farm.
Not a soul about anywhere. Wulverghem lay there, empty, wrecked and
deserted. I walked along the river bank for a bit, and had got about two
hundred yards from the farm when the quiet morning was interrupted in
the usual way, by shelling. Deep-toned, earth-shaking crashes broke into
the quiet peaceful air. "Just in the same place," I observed to myself
as I walked along behind our left-hand trenches. I could see the cloud
of black smoke after each one landed, and knew exactly where they were.
"Just in the same old--hullo! hullo!" With that rotating, gurgling
whistle a big one had just sailed over and landed about fifty yards from
our farm! I nipped in across the moat, through the courtyard, and
explained to the others where it had landed. We all remained silent,
waiting for the next. Here it came, gurgling along through the air; a
pause, then "Crumph!"--nearly in the same place again, but, if anything,
nearer the next farm. The Colonel moved to the window and looked out.
"They're after that farm," he said, as he turned away slowly and struck
a match by the fireplace to light his pipe with. About half a dozen
shells whizzed along in close succession, and about four hit and went
into the roof of the next farm.
Presently I looked out of the window again, and saw a lot of our men
moving out of the farm and across the road into the field beyond. There
was a reserve trench here, so they went into it. I looked again, and
soon saw the reason. Dense columns of smoke were coming out of the straw
roof, and soon the whole place was a blazing ruin. Nobody in the least
perturbed; we all turned away from the window and wondered how soon
they'd "have our farm."
THAT RATION FATIGUE----SKETCHES IN
LUNATICS--HOW TO CONDUCT A WAR
They seemed to me long, dark, dismal days, those days spent in the Douve
trenches; longer, darker and more dismal than the Plugstreet ones. Night
after night I crossed the dreary mud flat, passed the same old wretched
farms, and went on with the same old trench routine. We all considered
the trenches a pretty rotten outfit; but every one was fully prepared to
accept far rottener things than that. There was never the least sign of
flagging determination in any man there, and I am sure you could say the
same of the whole front.
And, really, some jobs on some nights wanted a lot of beating for
undesirability. Take the ration party's job, for instance. Think of the
rottenest, wettest, windiest winter's night you can remember, and add to
it this bleak, muddy, war-worn plain with its ruined farms and
shell-torn lonely road. Then think of men, leaving the trenches at dusk,
going back about a mile and a half, and bringing sundry large and heavy
boxes up to the trenches, pausing now and again for a rest, and ignoring
the intermittent crackling of rifle fire in the darkness, and the sharp
"_phit_" of bullets hitting the mud all around. Think of that as your
portion each night and every night. When you have finished this job, the
rest you get consists of coiling yourself up in a damp dug-out. Night
after night, week after week, month after month, this job is done by
thousands. As one sits in a brilliantly illuminated, comfortable, warm
theatre, having just come from a cosy and luxurious restaurant, just
think of some poor devil half-way along those corduroy boards struggling
with a crate of biscuits; the ration "dump" behind, the trenches on in
front. When he has finished he will step down into the muddy slush of a
trench, and take his place with the rest, who, if need be, will go on
doing that job for another ten years, without thinking of an
alternative. The Germans made a vast mistake when they thought they had
gauged the English temperament.
* * * * *
We went "in" and "out" of those trenches many times. During these
intervals of "out" I began to draw pictures more and more. It had become
known that I drew these trench pictures, not only in our battalion but
in several others, and at various headquarters I got requests for four
or five drawings at a time. About three weeks after I returned from
leave, I had to move my billeting quarters. I went to a farm called "La
petite Monque"; I don't know how it's really spelt, but that's what the
name sounded like. Here I lived with the officers of A Company, and a
jolly pleasant crew they were. We shared a mess together, and had one
big room and one small room between us. There were six of us altogether.
The Captain had the little room and the bed in it, whilst we all slept
round the table on the floor in the big room. Here, in the daytime, when
I was not out with the machine-gun sections, I drew several pictures.
The Brigadier-General of our brigade took a particular fancy to one
which he got from me. The divisional headquarters had half a dozen;
whilst I did two sets of four each for two officers in the regiment.
Sometimes we would go for walks around the country, and occasionally
made an excursion as far as Bailleul, about five miles away. Bailleul
held one special attraction for us. There were some wonderfully good
baths there. The fact that they were situated in the lunatic asylum
rather added to their interest.
The first time I went there, one of the subalterns in A Company was my
companion. We didn't particularly want to walk all the way, so we
decided to get down to the high road as soon as we could, and try and
get a lift in a car. With great luck we managed to stop a fairly empty
car, and got a lift. It was occupied by a couple of French soldiers who
willingly rolled us along into Bailleul. Once there, we walked through
the town and out to the asylum close by. I expect by now the lunatics
have been called up under the group system; but in those days they were
there, and pulled faces at us as we walked up the wide gravel drive to
the grand portals of the building. They do make nice asylums over there.
This was a sort of Chatsworth or Blenheim to look at. Inside it was
fitted up in very great style: long carpeted corridors opening out into
sort of domed winter gardens, something like the snake house at the Zoo.
We came at length to a particularly lofty, domed hall, from which opened
several large bathrooms. Splendid places. A row of large white enamelled
baths along one wall, cork mats on the floor, and one enormous central
water supply, hot and cold, which you diverted to whichever bath you
chose by means of a long flexible rubber pipe. Soap, sponges, towels,
_ad lib_. You can imagine what this palatial water grotto meant to us,
when, at other times, our best bath was of saucepan capacity, taken on
the cold stone floor of a farm room. We lay and boiled the trenches out
of our systems in that palatial asylum. Glorious! lying back in a long
white enamel bath in a warm foggy atmosphere of steam, watching one's
toes floating in front. When this was over, and we had been grimaced off
the premises by "inmates" at the windows, we went back into Bailleul
and made for the "Faucon d'Or," an old hotel that stands in the square.
Here we had a civilized meal. Tablecloth, knives, forks, spoons, waited
on, all that sort of thing. You could have quite a good dinner here if
you liked. A curious thought occurred to me then, and as it occurs again
to me now I write it down. Here it is: If the authorities gave one
permission, one could have rooms at the Faucon d'Or and go to the war
daily. It would be quite possible to, say, have an early dinner, table
d'hote (with, say, a half-bottle of Salmon and Gluckstein), get into
one's car and go to the trenches, spend the night sitting in a small
damp hole in the ground, or glaring over the parapet, and after "stand
to" in the morning, go back in the car in time for breakfast. Of course,
if there was an attack, the car would have to wait--that's all; and of
course you would come to an understanding with the hotel management that
the terms were for meals taken in the hotel, and that if you had to
remain in the trenches the terms must be reduced accordingly.
[Illustration: I hear you callin' me]
A curious war this; you _can_ be at a table d'hote dinner, a music-hall
entertainment afterwards, and within half an hour be enveloped in the
most uncomfortable, soul-destroying trench ever known. I said you can
be; I wish I could say you always are.
The last time I was at Bailleul, not many months ago, I heard that we
could no longer have baths at the asylum; I don't know why. I think some
one told me why, but I can't remember. Whether it was the baths had been
shelled, or whether the lunatics objected, it is impossible for me to
say; but there's the fact, anyway. "Na Pu" baths at Bailleul.
GETTING STALE--LONGING FOR CHANGE--
WE LEAVE THE DOUVE--ON THE MARCH--
SPOTTED FEVER--TEN DAYS' REST
The Douve trenches claimed our battalion for a long time. We went in and
out with monotonous regularity, and I went on with my usual work with
machine guns. The whole place became more and more depressing to me, and
yet, somehow, I have got more ideas for my pictures from this part of
the line than any other since or before. One's mental outlook, I find,
varies very much from day to day. Some days there were on which I felt
quite merry and bright, and strode along on my nightly rambles, calmly
ignoring bullets as they whisked about. At other times I felt thoroughly
depressed and weary. As time wore on at the Douve, I felt myself getting
into a state when it took more and more out of me to keep up my vigour,
and suppress my imagination. There were times when I experienced an
almost irresistible desire to lie down and sleep during some of my night
walks. I would feel an overwhelming desire to ignore the rain and mud,
and just coil up in a farm amongst the empty tins and rubbish and sleep,
sleep, sleep. I looked forward to sleep to drown out the worries of the
daily and nightly life. In fact, I was slowly getting ill, I suppose.
The actual rough and ready life didn't trouble me at all. I was bothered
with the _idea_ of the whole thing. The unnatural atmosphere of things
that one likes and looks upon as pleasing, peaceful objects in ordinary
times, seemed now to obsess me. It's hard to describe; but the following
gives a faint idea of my feelings at this time. Instead of deriving a
sense of peace and serenity from picturesque country farms, old trees,
setting suns, and singing birds, here was this wretched war business
hashing up the whole thing. A farm was a place where you expected a
shell through the wall any minute; a tree was the sort of thing the
gunners took to range on; a sunset indicated a quantity of light in
which it was unsafe to walk abroad. Birds singing were a mockery. All
this sort of thing bothered me, and was slowly reducing my physical
capacity to "stick it out." But I determined I would stick to the ship,
and so I did. The periodical going out to billets and making merry there
was a thing to look forward to. Every one comes up in a rebound of
spirits on these occasions. In the evenings there, sitting round the
table, writing letters, talking, and occasionally having other members
of the regiment in to a meal or a call of some sort, made things quite
pleasant. There was always the post to look forward to. Quite a thrill
went round the room when the door opened and a sergeant came in with an
armful of letters and parcels.
Yet during all this latter time at the Douve I longed for a change in
trench life. Some activity, some march to somewhere or other; anything
to smash up the everlasting stagnant appearance of life there. Suddenly
the change came. We were told we had to go out a day before one of our
usual sessions in the trenches was ended. We were all immensely pleased.
We didn't know where we were bound for, but, anyway, we were going. This
news revived me enormously, and everything looked brighter. The
departure-night came, and company by company we handed over to a
battalion that had come to relieve us, and collected on the road leading
back to Neuve Eglise. I handed over all my gun emplacements to the
incoming machine-gun officer, and finally collected my various sections
with all their tackle on the road as well. We merely marched back to our
usual billets that night, but next morning had orders to get all our
baggage ready for the transport wagons. We didn't know where we were
going, but at about eleven o'clock in the morning we started off on the
march, and soon realized that our direction was Bailleul.
On a fine, clear, warm spring day we marched along, all in the best of
spirits, songs of all sorts being sung one after the other. As I marched
along in the rear of the battalion, at the head of my machine-gun
section, I selected items from their repertoire and had them sung "by
request." I had some astonishingly fine mouth-organists in my section.
When we had "In the trail of the Lonesome Pine" sung by half the
section, with mouth-organ accompaniment by the other half, the effect
was enormous. We passed several battalions of my regiment on the road,
evidently bound for the Armentieres direction. Shouts, jokes and much
mirth showed the kindred spirits of the passing columns. All battalions
of the same regiment, all more or less recruited in the same counties.
When we reached Bailleul we halted in the Square, and then I learnt we
were to be billeted there. There was apparently some difficulty in
getting billets, and so I was faced with the necessity of finding some
for my section myself. The transport officer was in the same fix; he
wanted a large and commodious farm whenever he hitched up countless as
he had a crowd of horses, wagons and men to put up somehow. He and I
decided to start out and look for billets on our own.
I found a temporary rest for my section in an old brickyard on the
outskirts of the town, and the transport officer and I started out to
look for a good farm which we could appropriate.
Bailleul stands on a bit of a hill, so you can get a wide and extensive
view of the country from there. We could see several farms perched
about in the country. We fixed on the nearest, and walked out to it. No
luck; they were willing to have us, but it wasn't big enough. We tried
another; same result. I then suggested we should separate, and each try
different roads, and thus we should get one quicker. This we did, I
going off up a long straight road, and finally coming to a most
promising looking edifice on one side--a real large size in farms.
I went into the yard and walked across the dirty cobbles to the front
door. The people were most pleasant. I didn't understand a word they
said; but when a person pushes a flagon of beer into one of your hands
and an apple into the other, one concludes he means to be pleasant,
I mumbled a lot of jargon to them for some time, and I really believe
they saw that I wanted to use their place for a billet. The owner, a man
of about forty-five, then started a long and hardy discussion right at
me. He put on a serious face at intervals, so I guessed there was
something rather important he was trying to convey to me. I was saved
from giving my answer by catching sight of my pal, the transport
officer, crossing the yard. He came in. "I've brought Jean along to
talk," he announced. (Jean was our own battalion interpreter.) "I can't
find a place; but this looks all right." Jean and the owner at once
dived off into a labyrinth of unintelligible words, from which they
emerged five minutes later. We sat around and listened. Jean turned to
us and remarked: "They have got fever here, he says, what you call the
spotted fever--how you say, spotted fever?--and this farm is out of
"Oh! spotted fever! I see!" we both said, and slid away out of that farm
pretty quick. So that was what that farmer was trying to say to me:
I went down the road wondering whether cerebral meningitis germs
preferred apples or beer, or perhaps they liked both; awful thought!
We went back to our original selection and decided to somehow or other
squeeze into the farm which we thought too small. Many hours later we
got the transport and the machine-gun section fixed up. We spent two
nights there. On the second day I went up into Bailleul. Walking along
in the Square, looking at the shops and market stalls, I ran into the
brigade machine-gun officer.
"Topping about our brigade, isn't it?" he said.
"What's topping?" I asked.
"Why, we're going to have about ten day's rest; we clear off out of here
to-morrow to a village about three miles away, and our battalion will
billet there. Where we go after that I don't know; but, anyway, ten
days' rest. Ten days' rest!!"
"Come and split one at the Faucon d'Or?"
"No thanks, I've just had one."
"Well, come and have another."
A PLEASANT CHANGE--SUZETTE, BERTHE AND
MARTHE--"LA JEUNE FILLE FAROUCHE"--ANDRE
On the next morning we left Bailleul, and the whole of our battalion
marched off down one of the roads leading out into the country in a
westerly direction. The weather was now excellent; so what with a
prospect of a rest, fine weather and the departure from the Wulverghem
trenches, we were all very merry and bright, and "going strong" all
round. It seemed to us as if we had come out of some dark, wet
under-world into a bright, wholesome locality, suitable for the
habitation of man.
Down the long, straight, dusty road we marched, hop yards and bright
coloured fields on either side, here and there passing prosperous
looking farms and estaminets: what a pleasant change it was from that
ruined, dismal jungle we had so recently left! About three or four miles
out we came to a village; the main road ran right through it, forming
its principal street. On either side small lanes ran out at right angles
into the different parts of the village. We received the order to halt,
and soon learnt that this was the place where we were to have our ten
days' rest. A certain amount of billets had been arranged for, but, as
is generally the case, the machine-gun section have to search around for
themselves; an advantage really, as they generally find a better crib
this way than if somebody else found it for them. As soon as we were
"dismissed," I started off on a billet search. The transport officer was
again with me on the same quest. We separated, and each searched a
different part of the village. The first house I went into was a dismal
failure. An old woman of about 84 opened the door about six inches, and
was some time before she permitted the aperture to widen sufficiently to
allow me to go inside the house. A most dingy, poky sort of a place, so
I cleared off to search for something better. As I crossed the farmyard
behind, my servant, who had been conducting a search on his own,
suddenly appeared round the corner of the large barn at the end of the
yard, and came towards me.
"I've found a place over 'ere, Sir, I expect you'll like."
"Where?" I asked.
"This way, Sir!" and he led the way across a field to a gate, which we
climbed. We then went down a sort of back lane to the village, and
turned in at a small wicket-gate leading to a row of cottages. He led me
up to one in the centre, and knocked at the door. A woman opened it, and
I told her what I was looking for. She seemed quite keen for us to go
there, and asked if there was anyone else to come there with me. I told
her the transport officer would be coming there too, and our two
servants. She quite agreed to this, and showed me the rooms we could
have. They were extremely small, but we decided to have them. "Them"
consisted of one bedroom, containing two beds, the size of the room
being about fourteen feet by eight, and the front kitchen-sitting-room
place, which was used by everybody in the house, and was about twice the
size of the bedroom. I went away and found the transport officer,
brought him back and showed him the place. He thought it a good spot,
so we arranged to fix up there.
Our servants started in to put things right for us, get our baggage
there, and so on, whilst I went off to see to billets for the
machine-gun section. I had got them a pretty good barn, attached to the
farm I first called at, but I wanted to go and see that it was really
large enough and suitable when they had all got in and spread
themselves. I found that it did suit pretty well. The space was none too
large, but I felt sure we wouldn't find a better. There was a good field
for all the limbers and horses adjoining, so on the whole it was quite a
convenient place. The section had already got to work with their cooking
things, and had a fire going out in the field. Those gunners were a very
self-contained, happy throng; they all lived together like a family, and
were all very keen on their job.
I returned to my cottage to see how things were progressing. My man had
unrolled my valise, and put all my things out and about in the bedroom.
I took off all my equipment, which I was still wearing, pack,
haversacks, revolver, binoculars, map case, etc., and sat down in the
kitchen to take stock of the situation. I now saw what the family
consisted of; and by airing my feeble French, I found out who they were
and what they did. The woman who had come to the door was the wife of a
painter and decorator, who had been called up, and was in a French
regiment somewhere in Alsace.
Another girl who was there was a friend, and really lived next door with
her sister, but owing to overcrowding, due to our servants and some
French relatives, she spent most of her time in the house I was in.
The owner of the place was Madame Charlet-Flaw, Christian name Suzette.
The other two girls were, respectively, Berthe and Marthe. Ages of all
three in the order I have mentioned them were, I should say,
twenty-eight, twenty-four, and twenty. The place had, I found, been used
as billets before. I discovered this in two ways.