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Bullets & Billets Part 10

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 is one.

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 my pack.

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 again!

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.

CHAPTER XXI

BACK FROM LEAVE--THAT "BLINKIN' MOON"

--JOHNSON 'OLES--TOMMY AND "FRIGHTFULNESS"

--EXPLORING EXPEDITION

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 depression worse.

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.

CHAPTER XXII

A DAYLIGHT STALK--THE DISUSED TRENCH-- "DID THEY SEE ME?"--A GOOD SNIPING POSITION

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 to do.

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.

Chapter end

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