Bullets & Billets Part 2

It was a sort of emergency exit back from a row of ramshackle, water-logged hovels in the ditch to the communication trench. We decided to make use of this passage, and arranged things in such a way that by scooping out the clay walls we made two caves, one behind the other. The front one was about five yards from the machine gun, and you reached the back cave by going through the outer one. It now being about 11 p.m., and having been for the last five hours perpetually on the scramble, through trenches of all sorts, I drew myself into the inner cave to go to sleep.

This little place was about 4 feet long, 3 feet high, and 3 feet wide. I got out my knife, took a scoop out of the clay wall, and fishing out a candle-end from my pocket, stuck it in the niche, lit it and a cigarette. I now lay down and tried to size up the situation and life in general.

Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity, somewhere in Belgium, miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud. This was the first day; and, so far as I could see, the future contained nothing but repetitions of the same thing, or worse.

[Illustration: rucksacks]

Nothing was to be heard except the occasional crack of the sniper's shot, the dripping of the rain, and the low murmur of voices from the outer cave.

In the narrow space beside me lay my equipment; revolver, and a sodden packet of cigarettes. Everything damp, cold and dark; candle-end guttering. I think suddenly of something like the Empire or the Alhambra, or anything else that's reminiscent of brightness and life, and then--swish, bang--back to the reality that the damp clay wall is only eighteen inches in front of me; that here I am--that the Boche is just on the other side of the field; and that there doesn't seem the slightest chance of leaving except in an ambulance.

My machine-gun section for the gun near by lay in the front cave, a couple of feet from me; their spasmodic talking gradually died away as, one by one, they dropped off to sleep. One more indignant, hopeless glare at the flickering candle-end, then I pinched the wick, curled up, and went to sleep.

A sudden cold sort of peppermint sensation assailed me; I awoke and sat up. My head cannoned off the clay ceiling, so I partially had to lie down again.

I attempted to strike a match, but found the whole box was damp and sodden. I heard a muttering of voices and a curse or two in the outer cavern, and presently the sergeant entered my sanctum on all fours:

"We're bein' flooded out, sir; there's water a foot deep in this place of ours."

That explains it. I feel all round the back of my greatcoat and find I have been sleeping in a pool of water.

I crawled out of my inner chamber, and the whole lot of us dived through the rapidly rising water into the ditch outside. I scrambled up on to the top of the bank, and tried to focus the situation.

From inquiries and personal observation I found that the cause of the tide rising was the fact that the Engineers had been draining the trench, in the course of which process they had apparently struck a spring of water.

We accepted the cause of the disaster philosophically, and immediately discussed what was the best thing to be done. Action of some sort was urgently necessary, as at present we were all sitting on the top of the mud bank of the ditch in the silent, steady rain, the whole party being occasionally illuminated by a German star shell--more like a family sitting for a flashlight photograph than anything else.

We decided to make a dam. Having found an empty ration box and half a bag of coke, we started on the job of trying to fence off the water from our cave. After about an hour's struggle with the elements we at last succeeded, with the aid of the ration box, the sack of coke and a few tins of bully, in reducing the water level inside to six inches.

Here we were, now wetter than ever, cold as Polar bears, sitting in this hygroscopic catacomb at about 2 a.m. We longed for a fire; a fire was decided on. We had a fire bucket--it had started life as a biscuit tin--a few bits of damp wood, but no coke. "We had some coke, I'm sure!

Why, of course--we built it into the dam!" Down came the dam, out came the coke, and in came the water. However, we preferred the water to the cold; so, finally, after many exasperating efforts, we got a fire going in the bucket. Five minutes' bliss followed by disaster. The fire bucket proceeded to emit such dense volumes of sulphurous smoke that in a few moments we couldn't see a lighted match.

We stuck it a short time longer, then one by one dived into the water and out into the air, shooting out of our mud hovel to the surface like snakes when you pour water down their holes.

Time now 3 a.m. No sleep; rain, water, _plus_ smoke. A board meeting held immediately decides to give up sleep and dug-outs for that night. A motion to try and construct a chimney with an entrenching tool is defeated by five votes to one ... dawn is breaking--my first night in trenches comes to an end.



The rose-pink sky fades off above to blue, The morning star alone proclaims the dawn.

The empty tins and barbed wire bathed in dew Emerge, and then another day is born.

I wrote that "poem" in those--trenches, so you can see the sort of state to which I was reduced.

Well, my first trench night was over; the dawn had broken--everything else left to break had been seen to by the artillery, which started off generally at about eight. And what a fearful long day it seemed, that first one! As soon as it was light I began scrambling about, and having a good look at the general lie of things. In front was a large expanse of root field, at the further side of which a long irregular parapet marked the German trenches. Behind those again was more root field, dented here and there with shell holes filled with water, beyond which stood a few isolated remnants which had once been cottages. I stood at a projection in one of our trenches, from where I could see the general shape of our line, and could glimpse a good view of the German arrangements. Not a soul could be seen anywhere. Here and there a wisp of smoke indicated a fire bucket. Behind our trenches, behind the shattered houses at the top of a wooded rise in the ground, stood what once must have been a fine chateau. As I looked, a shrieking hollow whistle overhead, a momentary pause, then--"Crumph!" showed clearly what was the matter with the chateau. It was being shelled. The Germans seemed to have a rooted objection to that chateau. Every morning, as we crouched in our mud kennels, we heard those "Crumphs," and soon got to be very good judges of form. _We_ knew they were shelling the chateau.

When they didn't shell the chateau, we got it in the trenches; so we looked on that dear old mangled wreck with a friendly eye--that tapering, twisted, perforated spire, which they never could knock down, was an everlasting bait to the Boche, and a perfect fairy godmother to us.

Oh, those days in that trench of ours! Each day seemed about a week long. I shared a dug-out with a platoon commander after that first night. The machine-gun section found a suitable place and made a dug-out for themselves.

Day after day, night after night, my companion and I lay and listened to the daily explosions, read, and talked, and sloshed about that trench together.

The greatest interest one had in the daytime was sitting on the damp straw in our clay vault, scraping the mud off one's saturated boots and clothes. The event to which one looked forward with the greatest interest was the arrival of letters in the evening.

Now and again we got out of our dug-out and sloshed down the trench to scheme out some improvement or other, or to furtively look out across the water-logged turnip field at the Boche trenches opposite.

Occasionally, in the silent, still, foggy mornings, a voice from somewhere in the alluvial depths of a miserable trench, would suddenly burst into a scrap of song, such as--

Old soldiers never die, They simply fade away.

--a voice full of "fed-upness," steeped in determination.

Then all would be silence for the next couple of hours, and so the day passed.

[Illustration: The Knave of Spades.]

At dusk, my job was to emerge from this horrible drain and go round the various machine-gun positions. What a job! I generally went alone, and in the darkness struck out across the sodden field, tripping, stumbling, and sometimes falling into various shell holes on the way.

One does a little calling at this time of day. Having seen a gun in another trench, one looks up the nearest platoon commander. You look into so-and-so's dug-out and find it empty. You ask a sergeant where the occupant is.

"He's down the trench, sir." You push your way down the trench, dodging pools of water and stepping over fire buckets, mess tins, brushing past men standing, leaning or sitting--right on down the trench, where, round a corner, you find the platoon commander. "Well, if we can't get any sandbags," he is probably saying to a sergeant, "we will just have to bank it up with earth, and put those men on the other side of the traverse," or something like that. He turns to me and says, "Come along back to my dug-out and have a bit of cake. Someone or other has sent one out from home."

We start back along the trench. Suddenly a low murmuring, rattling sound can be heard in the distance. We stop to listen, the sound gets louder; everyone stops to listen--the sound approaches, and is now distinguishable as rifle-fire. The firing becomes faster and faster; then suddenly swells into a roar and now comes the phenomenon of trench warfare: "wind up"--the prairie fire of the trenches.

Everyone stands to the parapet, and away on the left a tornado of crackling sound can be heard, getting louder and louder. In a few seconds it has swept on down the line, and now a deafening rattle of rifle-fire is going on immediately in front. Bullets are flicking the tops of the sandbags on the parapet in hundreds, whilst white streaks are shooting up with a swish into the sky and burst into bright radiating blobs of light--the star shell at its best.

A curious thing, this "wind up." We never knew when it would come on. It is caused entirely by nerves. Perhaps an inquisitive Boche, somewhere a mile or two on the left, had thought he saw someone approaching his barbed wire; a few shots are exchanged--a shout or two, followed by more shots--panic--more shots--panic spreading--then suddenly the whole line of trenches on a front of a couple of miles succumbs to that well-known malady, "wind up."

In reality it is highly probable that there was no one in front near the wire, and no one has had the least intention of being there.

Presently there comes a deep "boom" from somewhere in the distance behind, and a large shell sails over our heads and explodes somewhere amongst the Boches; another and another, and then all becomes quiet again. The rifle fire diminishes and soon ceases. Total result of one of these firework displays: several thousand rounds of ammunition squibbed off, hundreds of star shells wasted, and no casualties.

It put the "wind up" me at first, but I soon got to know these affairs, and learnt to take them calmly.

I went along with the platoon commander back to his lair. An excellent fellow he was. No one in this war could have hated it all more than he did, and no one could have more conscientiously done his very best at it. Poor fellow, he was afterwards killed near Ypres.

"Well, how are things going with you?" I said.

"Oh, all right. They knocked down that same bit of parapet again to-day.

I think they must imagine we've got a machine gun there, or something.

That's twice we've had to build it up this week. Have a bit of cake?"

So I had a bit of cake and left him; he going back to that old parapet again, whilst I struck off into the dark, wet field towards another gun position, falling into an unfamiliar "Johnson 'ole" on the way.

Chapter end

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