Part 3 out of 3
Firstly: On the mantelpiece over the old stove I saw a collection of
many kinds of regimental badges, with a quantity of English magazines.
Secondly, after I had been talking for some time, Suzette answered my
remarks with one of her stock English sentences, picked up from some
former lodgers, "And very nice too," a phrase much in vogue at that
The transport officer, who had been out seeing about something or other,
soon returned, and with him came the regimental doctor, who had got his
billets all right, but had come along to see how we were fixed up. A
real good chap he was, one of the best. All six of us now sat about in
the kitchen and talked over things in general. We were a very cheery
group. The transport officer, doctor and myself were all thoroughly in
the mood for enjoying this ten days' rest. To live amongst ordinary
people again, and see the life of even a village, was refreshing to us.
We had a pretty easy afternoon, and all had tea in that kitchen, after
which I went out and round to look up my old pals in A company. They
had, I found, got hold of the Cure's house, the village parson's
rectory, in fact. It was a square, plain-looking house, standing very
close to the church, and they all seemed very comfortable there. The
Cure himself and his housekeeper only had three rooms reserved for
themselves, the rest being handed over to the officers of A company. I
stayed round there for a bit, having a talk and a smoke, and we each of
us remarked in turn, about every five minutes, what a top-hole thing it
was that we had got this ten days' rest.
I then went back to our cottage, where I had a meal with the transport
officer, conversing the while with Suzette, Berthe and Marthe. I don't
know which I liked the best of these three, they were all so cheery and
hospitable. Marthe was the most interesting from the pictorial point of
view. She was so gipsy-like to look at: brown-skinned, large dark eyes,
exceeding bright, with a sort of sparkling, wild look about her. I
called her "La jeune fille farouche" (looked this up first before doing
so), and she was always called this afterwards. It means "the young wild
girl"; at least I hope it means that. The doctor came back again after
dinner, and we all proceeded to fill the air in the small kitchen with
songs and tobacco-smoke. The transport officer was a "Corona Corona"
expert, and there he would sit with his feet up on the rail at the side
of the stove, smoking one of these zeppelins of a cigar, till we all
went to bed.
There was an heir to the estate in that cottage--one Andre, Suzette's
son, aged about five. He went to bed early, and slept with wonderful
precision and persistence whilst we were making noise enough to wake the
Cure a hundred yards away. But, when we went to bed, this little demon
saw fit to wake, and continue a series of noises for several hours. He
slept in a small cot alongside Suzette's bed, so it was her job, and not
mine, to smack his head.
Anyway, we all managed very comfortably and merrily in those billets,
and I look back on them very much as an oasis in a six months' desert.
GETTING FIT--CARICATURING THE CURE--
"DIRTY WORK AHEAD"--A PROJECTED
Military life during our ten days was to consist of getting into good
training again in all departments. After long spells of trench life,
troops get very much out of strong, efficient marching capabilities, and
are also apt to get slack all round. These rests, therefore, come
periodically to all at the front, and are, as it were, tonics. If men
stayed long enough in trenches, I should say, from my studies in
evolution, that their legs would slowly merge into one sort of fin-like
tail, and their arms into seal-like flappers. In fact, time would
convert them into intelligent sea-lions, and render them completely in
harmony with their natural life.
Our tonic began by being taken, one dose after meals, twice daily. In
the morning the battalion generally went for a long route march, and in
the afternoon practised military training of various kinds in the fields
about the village. My whole time was occupied with machine-gun training.
Morning and afternoon I and my sections went off out into the country,
and selecting a good variegated bit of land proceeded to go through
every phase of machine-gun warfare. We practised the use of these
weapons in woods, open fields, along hedges, etc. It was an interesting
job. We used to decide on some section of ground with an object to be
attacked in the distance, and approach it in all kinds of ways.
Competitions would follow between the different sections. The days were
all bright, warm and sunny, so life and work out in the fields and roads
there was quite pleasant. Each evening we assembled in our cheerful
billet, and thus our rest went on. My sketching now broke out like a
rash. I drew a great many sketches. I joked in pencil for every one,
including Suzette, Berthe and Marthe. I am sorry to say I plead guilty
to having cast a certain amount of ridicule at the Cure. He was so
splendidly austere, and wore such funny clothes, that I couldn't help
perpetrating several sketches of him. The disloyalty of his
parishioners was very marked in the way they laughed at these drawings,
which were pinned up in the row of cottages. Sometimes I would let him
off for a day, and then he would come drifting past the window again,
with his "Dante" face, surmounted by a large curly, faded black hat, and
I gave way to temptation again.
He didn't like soldiers being billeted in his village, so Suzette told
me. I think he got this outlook from his rather painful experiences when
the Germans were in the same village, prior to being driven north. They
had locked him up in his own cellar for four or five days, after
removing his best wine, which they drank upstairs. This sort of thing
_does_ tend towards giving one a bitter outlook. He preached a sermon
whilst we were there. I didn't hear it, but was told about it
simultaneously by Suzette, Berthe and Marthe, who informed me that it
was directed against soldiery in general. His text had apparently been
"Do not trust them, gentle ladies." A gross libel. I retaliated
immediately by drawing a picture of him, with a girl sitting on each
knee, singing "The soldiers are going, hurrah! hurrah!" (tune--"The
Campbells are coming").
I'm afraid I was rather a canker in his village.
One day, my dear old friend turned up, the same who accompanied me on
leave to England. He didn't know we were having our rest, and searched
for me first behind Wulverghem. He there heard where we were, and came
on. He was rather a star in a military way, and could, therefore, get
hold of a car now and again. I was delighted to see him, as it was
possible for me to go into Bailleul with him for the afternoon. We went
off and had a real good time at the "Faucon d'Or." We went out for a
short drive round in the evening, and then parted. He was obliged to get
back to somewhere near Bethune that night. The next day I was just
starting off on my machine-gun work when an orderly arrived with a
message for me. The Colonel wanted to see me at headquarters. I went
along, and arriving at his house found all the company commanders, the
second in command, and the Adjutant, already assembled there.
"Dirty work ahead," I thought to myself, and went into the Colonel's
room with the others. Enormous maps were produced, and we all stood and
"We are going to make an attack," started the Colonel, so I saw that my
conjecture wasn't far wrong. He explained the details to us all there,
and pointed out on the maps as many of the geographical features of the
forthcoming "show" as he could, after which he told us that, that very
afternoon, we were all to go on a motor-bus, that would come for us,
down to the allotted site for the "scrap," to have a look at the ground.
This was news, if you like: a thunderbolt in the midst of our rural
serenity. At two o'clock the bus arrived, and we, the chosen initiated
few, rattled off down the main street of the village and away to the
scene of operations. Where it was I won't say (cheers from Censor), but
it took us about an hour to get there. We left the motor-bus well back,
and walked about a couple of miles up roads and communication trenches
until we reached a line of trenches we had never seen before. A
wonderful set of trenches they were, it seemed to us; beautifully built,
not much water about, and nice dug-outs. The Colonel conferred with
several authorities who had the matter in hand, and then, pointing out
the sector in front which affected us, told us all to study it to the
best of our ability. I spent the time with a periscope and a pair of
binoculars drinking in the scene. It's difficult to get a good view of
the intervening ground between opposing lines of trenches in the day
time, when one's only means of doing so is through a periscope. Night is
the time for this job, when you can go in front and walk about. This
ground which we had come to see was completely flat, and one had to put
a periscope pretty high over the parapet to see the sort of thing it
was. It was no place to put your head up to have a look. A bullet went
smack into the Colonel's periscope and knocked it out of his hand.
However, with time and patience, we formed a pretty accurate idea of the
appearance of the country opposite. Behind the German trench was the
remains of a village, a few of the houses of which were up level with
the Boche front line. A great scene of wreckage. Every single house was
broken, and in a crumbling state. This was the place we had to take.
Other regiments were to take other spots on the landscape on either
side, but this particular spot was our objective. I stared long and
earnestly at the wrecks in front and the intervening ground. "About a
two-hundred yard sprint," I thought to myself. We stayed in the trenches
an hour or two, and then all went back to a spot a couple of miles away
and had tea, after which we mounted the motor-bus and drove back home to
our village. We had got something to think about now all right;--the
coming "show" was the feature uppermost in our lives now. Every one keen
to get at it, as we all felt sure we could push the Boches out of that
place when the time came. We, the initiated few, had to keep our
"inside" information to ourselves, and it was supposed to be a dark
mystery to the rest of the battalion. But I imagine that anyone who
didn't guess what the idea was must have been pretty dense. When a
motor-bus comes and takes off a group of officers for the day, and
brings them back at night, one would scarcely imagine that they had been
to a cricket match, or on the annual outing.
Well, the "tumbril," as we called it, arrived each day for nearly a
week, and we drove off gaily to the appointed spot and saturated
ourselves in the characteristics of the land we were shortly to attack.
In the mornings, before we started, I took the machine-gun sections out
into the fields, and by mapping out a similar landscape to the one we
were going to attack, I rehearsed the coming tribulation as far as
possible. My gunners were a pretty efficient lot, and I was sure they
would give a good account of themselves on "der Tag." We practised
bolting across a ploughed field, and coming into action, until we could
do it in record time. My sergeant and senior corporal were both
The whole battalion were now in excellent trim, and ready for anything
that came along. A date had been fixed for the "show," and now, day by
day, we were rapidly approaching it. It was Friday, I remember, when, as
we were all sitting in our billets thinking that we were to leave on
Sunday, a fresh thunderbolt arrived. A message was sent round to us all
to stand-to and be ready to move off that evening. Before the appointed
day! What could be up now? I was full of enthusiasm and curiosity, but
was rather hampered by having been inoculated the day before, and was
feeling a bit quaint in consequence. However, I pulled myself together,
and set about collecting all the machine gunners, guns and accessories.
We said good-bye to the fair ones at the billets, and by about five
o'clock in the evening the whole battalion, transport and all, was lined
up on the main road. Soon we moved off. Why were we going before our
time? Where were we going to? Nobody knew except the Colonel, but it was
not long before we knew as well.
WE MARCH FOR YPRES--HALT AT LOCRE--A
BLEAK CAMP AND MEAGRE FARE--SIGNS OF
BATTLE--FIRST VIEW OF YPRES
We marched off in the Bailleul direction, and ere long entered Bailleul.
We didn't stop, but went straight on up the road, out of the town, past
the Asylum with the baths. It was getting dusk now as we tramped along.
"The road to Locre," I muttered to myself, as I saw the direction we had
taken. We were evidently not going to the place we had been rehearsing
"Locre? Ah, yes; and what's beyond Locre?" I pulled out my map as we
went along. "What's on beyond Locre?" I saw it at a glance now, and had
all my suspicions confirmed. The word YPRES stood out in blazing letters
from the map. Ypres it was going to be, sure enough.
"It looks like Ypres," I said, turning to my sergeant, who was silently
trudging along behind me. He came up level with me, and I showed him
the map and the direction we were taking. I was mighty keen to see this
famous spot. Stories of famous fights in that great salient were common
talk amongst us, and had been for a long time. The wonderful defence of
Ypres against the hordes of Germans in the previous October had filled
our lines of trenches with pride and superiority, but no wonderment.
Every one regarded Ypres as a strenuous spot, but every one secretly
wanted to go there and see it for themselves. I felt sure we were now
bound for there, or anyway, somewhere not far off. We tramped along in
the growing darkness, up the winding dusty road to Locre. When we
arrived there it was quite dark. The battalion marched right up into the
sort of village square near the church and halted. It was late now, and
apparently not necessary for us to proceed further that night. We got
orders to get billets for our men. Locre is not a large place, and
fitting a whole battalion in is none too easy an undertaking. I was
standing about a hundred yards down the road leading from the church,
deciding what to do, when I got orders to billet my men in the church. I
marched the section into a field, got my sergeant, and went to see what
could be done in the church. It was a queer sight, this church; a
company of ours had had orders to billet there too, and when I got there
the men were already taking off their equipment and making themselves as
comfortable as possible under the circumstances, in the main body of the
church. The French clergy had for some time granted permission for
billeting there; I found this out the next morning, when I saw a party
of nuns cleaning it up as much as possible after we had left it. The
only part I could see where I could find a rest for my men was the part
where the choir sits. I decided on this for our use, and told the
sergeant to get the men along, and move the chairs away so as to get a
large enough space for them to lie down in and rest.
It was a weird scene, that night in the church. Imagine a very lofty
building, and the only light in the place coming from various bits of
candles stuck about here and there on the backs of the chairs. All was
dark and drear, if you like: a fitting setting for our entry into the
Ypres salient. When I had fixed up my section all right, I left the
church and went to look about for the place I was supposed to sleep in.
It turned out to be a room at the house occupied by the Colonel. I got
in just in time to have a bit of a meal before the servants cleared the
things away to get ready for the early start the next day. I spent that
night in my greatcoat on the stone floor of the room, and not much of a
night at that. We were all up and paraded at six, and ready to move off.
We soon started and trekked off down the road out of Locre towards
Ypres. I noticed a great change in the scenery now. The land was flatter
and altogether more uninteresting than the parts we had come from. The
weather was fine and hot, which made our march harder for us. We were
all strapped up to the eyes with equipment of every description, so that
we fully appreciated the short periodic rests when they came. The road
got less and less attractive as we went on, added to which a horrible
gusty wind was blowing the dust along towards us, too, which made it
worse. It was a most cheerless, barren, arid waste through which we were
now passing. I wondered why the Belgians hadn't given it away long ago,
and thus saved any further dispute on the matter. We were now making for
Vlamertinghe, which is a place about half-way between Locre and Ypres,
and we all felt sure enough now that Ypres was where we were going;
besides, passers-by gave some of us a tip or two, and rumours were
current that there was a bit of a bother on in the salient. Still, there
was nothing told us definitely, and on we went, up the dusty,
uninteresting road. Somewhere about midday we halted alongside an
immense grassless field, on which were innumerable wooden huts of the
simplest and most unattractive construction. The dust whirled and
swirled around them, making the whole place look as uninviting as
possible. It was the rottenest and least encouraging camp I have ever
seen. I've seen a few monstrosities in the camp line in England, and in
France, but this was far and away a champion in repulsion. We halted
opposite this place, as I have said, and in a few moments were all
marched into the central, baked-mud square, in the midst of the huts. I
have since learnt that this camp is no more, so I don't mind mentioning
it. We were now dismissed, whereupon we all collared huts for our men
and ourselves, and sat down to rest.
We had had a very early and scratch sort of a breakfast, so were rather
keen to get at the lunch question. The limbers were the last things to
turn up, being in the rear of the battalion, but when they did the cooks
soon pulled the necessary things out and proceeded to knock up a meal.
I went outside my hut and surveyed the scene whilst they got the lunch
ready. It _was_ a rotten place. The huts hadn't got any sides to them,
but were made by two slopes of wood fixed at the top, and had triangular
ends. There were just a few huts built with sides, but not many. Apart
from the huts the desert contained nothing except men in war-worn, dirty
khaki, and clouds of dust. It reminded me very much of India, as I
remembered it from my childhood days. The land all around this mud plain
was flat and scrubby, with nothing of interest to look at anywhere. But,
yes, there was--just one thing. Away to the north, I could just see the
top of the towers of Ypres.
I wondered how long we were going to stay in this Sahara, and turned
back into the hut again. Two or three of us were resting on a little
scanty straw in that hut, and now, as we guessed that it was about the
time when the cooks would have got the lunch ready, we crossed to
another larger hut, where a long bare wooden table was laid out for us.
With sore eyes and a parched throat I sat down and devoured two chilly
sardines, reposing on a water biscuit, drank about a couple of gallons
of water, and felt better. There wasn't much conversation at that meal;
we were all too busy thinking. Besides, the C.O. was getting messages
all the time, and was immersed in the study of a large map, so we
thought we had better keep quiet.
Our Colonel was a splendid person, as good a one as any battalion could
wish to have. (He's sure to buy a copy of this book after that.) He was
with the regiment all through that 1914-15 winter, and is now a
We had made all preparations to stay in the huts at that place for the
night, when, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, another message
arrived and was handed to the C.O.
He issued his orders. We were to march off at once. Every one was
delighted, as the place was unattractive, and what's more, now that we
were on the war-path, we wanted to get on with the job, whatever it was.
Now we were on the road once more, and marching on towards Ypres. The
whole brigade was on the road somewhere, some battalions in front of us
and some behind. On we went through the driving dust and dismal scenery,
making, I could clearly see, for Ypres. We ticked off the miles at a
good steady marching pace, and in course of time turned out of our long,
dusty, winding lane on to a wide cobbled main road, leading evidently
into the town of Ypres itself, now about two miles ahead. It was a fine
sight, looking back down the winding column of men. A long line of
sturdy, bronzed men, in dust-covered khaki, tramping over the grey
cobbled road, singing and whistling at intervals; the rattling and
clicking of the various metallic parts of their equipment forming a kind
of low accompaniment to their songs. We halted about a mile out of the
city, and all "fell out" on the side of the road, and sat about on
heaps of stones or on the bank of the ditch at the road-side. It was
easy enough to see now where we were going, and what was up. There was
evidently a severe "scrap" on. Parties of battered, dishevelled looking
men, belonging to a variety of regiments, were now streaming past down
the road--many French-African soldiers amongst them. From these we
learnt that a tremendous attack was in progress, but got no details.
Their stories received corroboration by the fact that we could see many
shells bursting in and around the city of Ypres. These vagrant men were
wounded in a degree, inasmuch as most of them had been undergoing some
prodigious bombardment and were dazed from shell-shock. They cheered us
with the usual exaggerated and harrowing yarns common to such people,
and passed on. This was what we had come here for--to participate in
this business; not very nice, but we were all "for it," anyway. If we
hadn't come here, we would have been attacking at that other place, and
this was miles more interesting. If one has ever participated in an
affair of arms at Ypres, it gives one a sort of honourable trade-mark
for the rest of the war as a member of the accepted successful Matadors
of the Flanders Bull-ring.
We sat about at the side of the road for about half an hour, then got
the order to fall in again. Stiff and weary, I left my heap of stones,
took my place at the head of the section, and prepared for the next act.
On we went again down the cobbled road, crossed a complicated mixture of
ordinary rails and tram-lines, and struck off up a narrow road to the
left, which apparently also ended in the city. It was now evening, the
sky was grey and cloudy. Ypres, only half a mile away, now loomed up
dark and grey against the sky-line. Shells were falling in the city,
with great hollow sounding crashes. We marched on up the road.
GETTING NEARER----A LUGUBRIOUS PARTY--STILL
NEARER--BLAZING YPRES--ORDERS FOR ATTACK
After about another twenty minutes' march we halted again. Something or
other was going on up the road in front, which prevented our moving. We
stood about in the lane, and watched the shells bursting in the town. We
were able to watch shells bursting closer before we had been there long.
With a screeching whistle a shell shot over our heads and exploded in
the field on our left. This was the signal, apparently, for shrapnel to
start bursting promiscuously about the fields in all directions, which
Altogether the lane was an unwholesome spot to stand about in. We were
there some time, wondering when one of the bursts of shrapnel would
strike the lane, but none did. Straggling, small groups of Belgian
civilians were now passing down the lane, driven out no doubt from some
cottage or other that until now they had managed to persist in living
in. Mournful little groups would pass, wheeling their total worldly
possessions on a barrow.
Suddenly we were moved on again, and as suddenly halted a few yards
further on. Without a doubt, strenuous operations and complications were
taking place ahead. A few of the officers collected together by a gate
at the side of the lane and had a smoke and a chat. "I wonder how much
longer we're going to stick about here" some one said. "What about going
into that house over there and see if there's a fire?" He indicated a
tumbled down cottage of a fair size, which stood nearly opposite us on
the far side of the lane. It was almost dark by now, and the wind made
it pretty cold work, standing and sitting about in the lane. Four of us
crossed the roadway and entered the yard of the cottage. We knocked at
the door, and asked if we might come in and sit by the fire for a bit.
We asked in French, and found that it was a useless extravagance on our
part, as they only spoke Flemish, and what a terrible language that is!
These were Flemish people--the real goods; we hadn't struck any before.
They seemed to understand the signs we made; at all events they let us
into the place. There was a dairy alongside the house belonging to them,
and in here our men were streaming, one after another, paying a few
coppers for a drink of milk. The woman serving it out with a ladle into
their mess tins was keeping up a flow of comment all the time in
Flemish. Nobody except herself understood a word of what she was saying.
Hardy people, those dwellers in that cottage. Shrapnel was dropping
about here and there in the fields near by, and at any moment might come
into the roof of their cottage, or through the flimsy walls.
We four went inside, and into their main room--the kitchen. It was in
the same old style which we knew so well. A large square, dark, and
dingy room, with one of their popular long stoves sticking out from one
wall. Round this stove, drawn up in a wide crescent formation, was a row
of chairs with high backs. On each chair sat a man or a woman, dressed
in either black or very dark clothes. Nobody spoke, but all were staring
into the stove. I wished, momentarily, I had stayed in the lane. It was
like breaking in on some weird sect--"Stove Worshippers." One wouldn't
have been surprised if, suddenly, one member of the party had removed
the lid of the stove and thrown in a "grey powder," or something of the
sort. This to be followed by flames leaping high into the air, whilst
low-toned monotonous chanting would break out from the assembly. Feast
in honour of their god "Shrapnel," who was "angry." I suppose I
shouldn't make fun of these people though. It was enough to make them
silent and lugubrious, to have all their country and their homes
destroyed. We sat around the stove with them, and offered them
cigarettes. We talked to each other in English; they sat silently
listening and understanding nothing. I am sure they looked upon all
armies and soldiers, irrespective of nationality, as a confounded
nuisance. I am sure they wished we'd go and fight the matter out
somewhere else. And no wonder.
We sat in there for a short time, and stepped out into the road again
just in time to hear the order to advance. We hadn't far to go now. It
was quite dark as we turned into a very large flat field at the back of
Ypres, right close up against the outskirts of the town. Just the field,
I felt sure, that a circus would choose, if visiting that
The battalion spread itself out over the field and came to the
conclusion that this was where it would have to stay for the night. It
was all very cold and dark now. We sat about on the great field in our
greatcoats and waited for the field kitchens and rations to arrive. As
we sat there, just at the back of Ypres, we could hear and see the
shells bursting in the city in the darkness. The shelling was getting
worse, fires were breaking out in the deserted town, and bright yellow
flames shot out here and there against the blackened sky. On the arrival
of the field kitchens we all managed to get some tea in our mess tins;
and the rum ration being issued we were a little more fortified against
the cold. We sat for the most part in greatcoats and silence, watching
the shelling of Ypres. Suddenly a huge fire broke out in the centre of
the town. The sky was a whirling and twisting mass of red and yellow
flames, and enormous volumes of black smoke. A truly grand and awful
spectacle. The tall ruins of the Cloth Hall and Cathedral were
alternately silhouetted or brightly illuminated in the yellow glare of
flames. And now it started to rain. Down it came, hard and fast. We
huddled together on the cold field and prepared ourselves to expect
anything that might come along now. Shells and rain were both falling in
the field. I think a few shells, meant for Ypres, had rather overshot
the mark and had come into our field in consequence.
I leant up as one of a tripod of three of us, my face towards the
burning city. The two others were my old pal, the platoon commander at
St. Yvon, and a subaltern of one of the other companies. I sat and
watched the flames licking round the Cloth Hall. I remember asking a
couple of men in front to shift a bit so that I could get a better view.
It poured with rain, and we went sitting on in that horrible field,
wondering what the next move was to be.
At about eleven o'clock, an orderly came along the field with a
mackintosh ground-sheet over his head, and told me the Colonel wished to
see me. "Where is he?" I asked. "In that little cottage place at the far
corner of the field, near the road, sir." I rose up and thus spoilt our
human tripod. "Where are you going 'B.B.'?" asked my St. Yvon friend.
"Colonel's sent for me," I replied. "Well, come back as soon as you
can." I left, and never saw him again. He was killed early the next
morning; one of the best chaps I ever knew.
I went down the field to the cottage at the corner, and, entering, found
all the company commanders, the second in command, the Adjutant and the
Colonel. "We shall attack at 4 a.m. to-morrow," he was saying. This was
the moment at which I got my _Fragment_ idea, "The push, by one who's
been pushed!" "We shall attack at dawn!"
The Colonel went on to explain the plans. We stood around in the
semi-darkness, the only light being a small candle, whose flame was
being blown about by the draught from the broken window.
"We shall move off from here at midnight, or soon after," he concluded,
"and go up the road to St. Julien."
We all dispersed to our various commands. I went and got my sergeant and
section commanders together. I explained the coming operations to them.
Sitting out in the field in the rain, the map on my knees being
occasionally brightly illuminated by the burning city, I looked out the
road to St. Julien.
RAIN AND MUD--A TRYING MARCH--IN THE
THICK OF IT--A WOUNDED OFFICER--HEAVY
SHELLING--I GET MY "QUIETUS!"
At a little after midnight we left the field, marching down the road
which led towards the Yser Canal and the village of St. Jean. Our
transport remained behind in a certain field that had been selected for
the purpose. The whole brigade was on the road, our battalion being the
last in the long column. The road from the field in which we had been
resting to the village of St. Jean passes through the outskirts of
Ypres, and crosses the Yser Canal on its way. I couldn't see the details
as it was a dark night, and the rain was getting worse as time went on.
I knew what had been happening now in the last forty-eight hours, and
what we were going to do. The Germans had launched gas in the war for
the first time, and, as every one knows now, had by this means succeeded
in breaking the line on a wide front to the north of Ypres. The Germans
were directing their second great effort against the Salient.
The second battle of Ypres had begun. We were making for the threatened
spot, and were going to attack them at four o'clock in the morning.
Ypres, at this period, ought to have been seen to get an accurate
realization of what it was like. All other parts of the front faded into
a pleasing memory; so it seemed to me as I marched along. I thought of
our rest at the village, the billets, the Cure, the bright sunny days of
our country life there, and then compared them with this wretched spot
we were in now. A ghastly comparison.
We were marching in pouring rain and darkness down a muddy, mangled
road, shattered poplar trees sticking up in black streaks on either
side. Crash after crash, shells were falling and exploding all around
us, and behind the burning city. The road took a turn. We marched for a
short time parallel to now distant Ypres. Through the charred skeleton
wrecks of houses one caught glimpses of the yellow flames mounting to
the sky. We passed over the Yser Canal, dirty, dark and stagnant,
reflecting the yellow glow of the flames. On our left was a church and
graveyard, both blown to a thousand pieces. Tombstones lying about and
sticking up at odd angles all over the torn-up ground. I guided my
section a little to one side to avoid a dead horse lying across the
road. The noise of shrapnel bursting about us only ceased occasionally,
making way for ghastly, ominous silences. And the rain kept pouring
What a march! As we proceeded, the road got rougher and narrower: debris
of all sorts, and horrible to look upon, lay about on either side. We
halted suddenly, and were allowed to "fall out" for a few minutes.
I and my section had drawn up opposite what had once been an estaminet.
I entered, and told them all to come in and stay there out of the rain.
The roof still had a few tiles left on it, so the place was a little
drier than the road outside. The floor was strewn with broken glass,
chairs, and bottles. I got hold of a three-legged chair, and by
balancing myself against one of the walls, tried to do a bit of a doze.
I was precious near tired out now, from want of sleep and a surfeit of
marching. I told my sergeant to wake me when the order came along, and
then and there slept on that chair for twenty minutes, lulled off by the
shrapnel bursting along the road outside. My sergeant woke me. "We are
going on again, sir!" "Right oh!" I said, and left my three-legged
chair. I shouted to the section to "fall in," and followed on after the
battalion up the road once more. After we had covered another horrible
half-mile we halted again, but this time no houses were near. How it
rained! A perfect deluge. I was wearing a greatcoat, and had all my
equipment strapped on over the top. The men all had macintosh capes. We
were all wet through and through, but nobody bothered a rap about that.
Anyone trying to find a fresh discomfort for us now, that would make us
wince, would have been hard put to it.
People will scarcely credit it, but times like these don't dilute the
tenacity or light-heartedness of our soldiers. You can hear a joke on
these occasions, and hear the laughter at it too.
In the shattered estaminet we had just left, one of the men went behind
the almost unrecognizable bar-counter, and operating an imaginary
handle, asked a comrade, "And what's yours, mate?"
Again we got the order to advance, and on we went. We were now nearing
the village of Wieltj, about two miles from St. Jean, which we had
passed. The ruined church we had seen was at St. Jean.
The road was now perfectly straight, bordered on either side by broken
poplar trees, beyond which large flat fields lay under the mysterious
darkness. As we went on we could see a faint, red glow ahead. This
turned out to be Wieltj. All that was left of it, a smouldering ruin.
Here and there the bodies of dead men lay about the road. At intervals I
could discern the stiffened shapes of corpses in the ditches which
bordered the road. We went through Wieltj without stopping. Passing out
at the other side we proceeded up this awful, shell-torn road, towards a
slight hill, at the base of which we stopped. Now came my final orders.
"Come on at once, follow up the battalion, who, with the brigade, are
about to attack."
"Now we're for it," I said to myself, and gave the order to unlimber the
guns. One limber had been held up some little way back I found, by
getting jammed in a shell-hole in the road. I couldn't wait for it to
come up, so sent my sergeant back with some men to get hold of the guns
and tackle in it, and follow on as soon as they could. I got out the
rest of the things that were there with us and prepared to start on
after the battalion. "I'll go to the left, and you'd better go to the
right," I shouted to my sergeant. "Here, Smith, let's have your rifle,"
I said, turning to my servant. I had decided that he had best stay and
look after the limbers. I seized his rifle, and slipping on a couple of
bandoliers of cartridges, led on up the slight hill, followed by my
section carrying the machine guns. I felt that a rifle was going to be
of more use to me in this business than a revolver, and, anyway, it was
just as well to have both.
It was now just about four o'clock in the morning. A faint light was
creeping into the sky. The rain was abating a bit, thank goodness!
We topped the rise, and rushed on down the road as fast as was possible
under the circumstances. Now we were in it! Bullets were flying through
the air in all directions. Ahead, in the semi-darkness, I could just see
the forms of men running out into the fields on either side of the road
in extended order, and beyond them a continuous heavy crackling of
rifle-fire showed me the main direction of the attack. A few men had
gone down already, and no wonder--the air was thick with bullets. The
machine-gun officer of one of the other regiments in the brigade was
shot right through the head as he went over the brow of the hill. I
found one of his machine-gun sections a short time later, and
appropriated them for our own use. After we had gone down the road for
about two hundred yards I thought that my best plan was to get away over
to the left a bit, as the greatest noise seemed to come from there.
"Come on, you chaps," I shouted, "we'll cross this field, and get to
that hedge over there." We dashed across, intermingled with a crowd of
Highlanders, who were also making to the left. Through a cloud of
bullets, flying like rice at a wedding, we reached the other side of the
field. Only one casualty--one man with a shot in the knee.
Couldn't get a good view of the enemy from the hedge, so I decided to
creep along further to the left still, to a spot I saw on the left front
of a large farm which stood about two hundred yards behind us. The
German machine guns were now busy, and sent sprays of bullets flicking
up the ground all round us. Lying behind a slight fold in the ground we
saw them whisking through the grass, three or four inches over our
heads. We slowly worked our way across to the left, past an old, wide
ditch full of stagnant water, and into a shallow gully beyond. Dawn had
come now, and in the cold grey light I saw our men out in front of me
advancing in short rushes towards a large wood in front. The Germans
were firing star shells into the air in pretty large numbers, why, I
couldn't make out, as there was quite enough light now to see by. I
ordered the section out of the gully, and ran across the open to a bit
of old trench I saw in the field. This was the only suitable spot I
could see for bringing our guns to bear on the enemy, and assist in the
attack. We fixed up a couple of machine guns, and awaited a favourable
opportunity. I could see a lot of Germans running along in front of the
wood towards one end of it. We laid our aim on the wood, which seemed to
me the chief spot to go for. One or two of my men had not managed to get
up to the gun position as yet. They were ammunition carriers, and had
had a pretty hard job with it. I left the guns to run back and hurry
them on. The rifle-fire kept up an incessant rattle the whole time, and
now the German gunners started shelling the farm behind us. Shell after
shell burst beyond, in front of, and on either side of the farm. Having
got up the ammunition, I ran back towards the guns past the farm. In
front of me an officer was hurrying along with a message towards a
trench which was on the left of our new-found gun position. He ran
across the open towards it. When about forty yards from me I saw him
throw up his hands and collapse on the ground. I hurried across to him,
and lifted his head on to my knee. He couldn't speak and was rapidly
turning a deathly pallor. I undid his equipment and the buttons of his
tunic as fast as I could, to find out where he had been shot. Right
through the chest, I saw. The left side of his shirt, near his heart,
was stained deep with blood. A captain in the Canadians, I noticed. The
message he had been carrying lay near him. I didn't know quite what to
do. I turned in the direction of my gun section without disturbing his
head, and called out to them to throw me over a water-bottle. A man
named Mills ran across with one, and took charge of the captain, whilst
I went through his pockets to try and discover his name. I found it in
his pocket-book. His identity disc had apparently been lost.
With the message I ran back to the farm, and, as luck would have it,
came across a colonel in the Canadians. I told him about the captain who
had been carrying the message, and said if there was a stretcher about I
could get him in. All movement in the attack had now ceased, but the
rifle and shell fire was on as strong as ever. My corporal was with the
two guns, and had orders to fire as soon as an opportunity arose, so I
thought my best plan was to see to getting this officer in while there
was a chance. I got hold of another subaltern in the farm, and together
we ran back with a stretcher to the spot where I had left Mills and the
captain. We lifted him on to the stretcher. He seemed a bit better, but
his breathing was very difficult. How I managed to hold up that
stretcher I don't know; I was just verging on complete exhaustion by
this time. I had to take a pause about twenty yards from the farm and
lie flat out on the ground for a moment or two to recuperate
sufficiently to finish the journey. We got him in and put him down in an
outbuilding which had been turned into a temporary dressing station.
Shells were crashing into the roof of the farm and exploding round it in
great profusion. Every minute one heard the swirling rush overhead, the
momentary pause, saw the cloud of red dust, then "Crumph!" That farm was
going to be extinguished, I could plainly see. I went along the edge of
the dried-up moat at the back, towards my guns. I couldn't stand up any
longer. I lay down on the side of the moat for five minutes. Twenty
yards away the shells burst round and in the farm, but I didn't care,
rest was all I wanted. "What about my sergeant and those other guns?" I
thought, as I lay there. I rose, and cut across the open space again to
the two guns.
"You know what to do here, Corporal?" I said. "I am going round the farm
over to the right to see what's happened to the others."
I left him, and went across towards the farm. As I went I heard the
enormous ponderous, gurgling, rotating sound of large shells coming. I
looked to my left. Four columns of black smoke and earth shot up a
hundred feet into the air, not eighty yards away. Then four mighty
reverberating explosions that rent the air. A row of four "Jack
Johnsons" had landed not a hundred yards away, right amongst the lines
of men, lying out firing in extended order. I went on, and had nearly
reached the farm when another four came over and landed fifty yards
further up the field towards us.
"They'll have our guns and section," I thought rapidly, and hurried on
to find out what had become of my sergeant. The shelling of the farm
continued; I ran past it between two explosions and raced along the old
gulley we had first come up. Shells have a way of missing a building,
and getting something else near by. As I was on the sloping bank of the
gully I heard a colossal rushing swish in the air, and then didn't hear
the resultant crash....
All seemed dull and foggy; a sort of silence, worse than all the
shelling, surrounded me. I lay in a filthy stagnant ditch covered with
mud and slime from head to foot. I suddenly started to tremble all over.
I couldn't grasp where I was. I lay and trembled ... I had been blown up
by a shell.
* * * * *
I lay there some little time, I imagine, with a most peculiar sensation.
All fear of shells and explosions had left me. I still heard them
dropping about and exploding, but I listened to them and watched them as
calmly as one would watch an apple fall off a tree. I couldn't make
myself out. Was I all right or all wrong? I tried to get up, and then I
knew. The spell was broken. I shook all over, and had to lie still, with
tears pouring down my face.
* * * * *
I could see my part in this battle was over.
SLOWLY RECOVERING--FIELD HOSPITAL--AMBULANCE
TRAIN--BACK IN ENGLAND
How I ever got back I don't know. I remember dragging myself into a
cottage, in the garden of which lay a row of dead men. I remember some
one giving me a glass of water there, and seeing a terribly mutilated
body on the floor being attended to. And, finally, I remember being
helped down the Wieltj road by a man into a field dressing station. Here
I was labelled and sent immediately down to a hospital about four miles
away. Arrived there, I lay out on a bench in a collapsed state, and I
remember a cheery doctor injecting something into my wrist. I then lay
on a stretcher awaiting further transportation. My good servant Smith
somehow discovered my whereabouts, and turned up at this hospital. He
sat beside me and gave me a writing-pad to scribble a note on. I
scrawled a line to my mother to say I had been knocked out, but was
perfectly all right. Smith went back to the battalion, and I lay on the
stretcher, partially asleep. Night came on and I went off into a series
of agonizing dreams. I awoke with a start. I was being lifted up from
the floor on the stretcher. They carried me out. It was bright
moonlight, and looking up I saw the moon, a dazzling white against the
dark blue sky. The stretcher and I were pushed into an ambulance in
which were three other cases beside myself. We were driven off to some
station or other. I stared up at the canvas bottom of the stretcher
above me, trying to realize it all. Presently we reached the train.
Another glimpse of the moon, and I was slid into the ambulance car....
In three days I was back in England at a London hospital--"A fragment