Bullets & Billets Part 13

"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 Brigadier.

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.



[Illustration: A]

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 it did.

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 neighbourhood.

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.



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 down.

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.

Chapter end

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