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Bullets & Billets Part 3

No one gets a better idea of the general lie of the position than a machine-gun officer. In those early, primitive days, when we had so few of each thing, we, of course, had few machine guns, and these had to be sprinkled about a position to the best possible advantage. The consequence was that people like myself had to cover a considerable amount of ground before our rambles in the dark each night were done.

One machine gun might be, say, in "Dead Man Farm"; another at the "Barrier" near the cross roads; whilst another couple were just at some effective spot in a trench, or in a commanding position in a shattered farm or cottage behind the front line trenches.

I would leave my dug-out as soon as it was dark and do the round of all the guns every night. Just as a sample, I will carry on from where I left the platoon commander.

I slosh across the ploughed field at what I feel to be a correct angle to bring me out on the cross roads, where, about two hundred yards away, I have another gun. I scramble across a broken gateway and an old bit of trench, and close behind come to a deep cutting into which I jump. About five yards along this I come to a machine-gun emplacement, with a machine-gun sentry on guard.

"Where's the corporal?"

"I'm 'ere, sir," is emitted from the slimy depths of a narrow low-roofed dug-out, and the corporal emerges, hooking back the waterproof sheet as he comes out to prevent the light showing.

"How about this gun, Corporal--is everything all right?"

"Yes, sir; but I was looking around to-day, and thought that if we was to shift the gun over there, where the dead cow is, we'd get a better field of fire."

Meeting adjourned to inspect this valuable site from the windward side.

After a short, blood-thirsty conversation relative to the perforating of the enemy, I leave and push off into the bog again, striking out for another visit. Finally, after two hours' visiting, floundering, bullet dodging, and star shell shirking, accompanied by a liberal allowance of "narrow squeaks," I get back to my own bit of trench; and tobogganing down where I erroneously think the clay steps are, I at last reach my dug-out, and entering on all fours, crouch amongst the damp tobacco leaves and straw and light a cigarette.

CHAPTER V

MY MAN FRIDAY--"CHUCK US THE BISCUITS"--RELIEVED--BILLETS

It was during this first time up in the trenches that I got a soldier servant.

As I had arrived only just in time to go with the battalion to the trenches, the acquisition had to be made by a search in the mud. I found a fellow who hadn't been an officer's servant before, but who wanted to be. I liked the look of him; so feeling rather like Robinson Crusoe, when he booked up Friday, "I got me a man."

He lived in a dug-out about five yards away, and from then onwards continued with me right to the point where this book finishes. This fellow of mine did all my cooking, such as it was, and worked in conjunction with my friend, the platoon commander's servant. Cooking, at the times I write about, consisted of making innumerable brews of tea, and opening tins of bully and Maconochie. Occasionally bacon had to be fried in a mess-tin lid. One day my man soared off into culinary fancies and curried a Maconochie. I have never quite forgiven him for this; I am nearly right again now.

These two soldier servants never had to leave the trench. It was their job to try and find something to make a fire with, and to do all they could to keep the water out of our dug-out, a task which not one of us succeeded in doing. My plan for sustaining life under these conditions was to change my boots as often as possible. If there wasn't time for this I used to try and boil the water in my boots by keeping my feet to the fire bucket. I always put my puttees on first and then a pair of thick socks, and finally a pair of boots. I could, by this means, hurriedly slip off the sodden pair of boots and socks and slip on another set which had become fairly dry by the fire. We lived perpetually damp, if not thoroughly wet. My puttees, which I rarely removed, were more like long rolls of the consistency of nougat than anything else, thanks to the mud. Dug-outs had no wooden linings in those days; no corrugated iron roofs; no floorboards. They were just holes in the clay side of the fire trench, with any old thing for a roof, and old straw or tobacco leaves, which we pinched from some abandoned farm, for a floor. So, you see, there was not much of a chance of dodging the moisture.

The cold was what got me. Personally, I would far rather have gone without food than a fire. A fire of some sort was the only thing to cheer. Coke was scarce and always wet, and it was by no means uncommon to over-hear a remark of this sort: "Chuck us the biscuits, Bill; the fire wants mendin'."

At night I would frequently sally forth to a cracked up village behind, and perhaps procure half a mantelpiece and an old clog to stoke our "furnace" with.

Well, after the usual number of long days and still longer nights spent under these conditions, we came to the day when it was our turn to go out to rest billets, and a relieving battalion to come in. What a splendid day that is! You start "packing" at about 4 p.m. As soon as it is dusk the servants slink off across that turnip morass behind and drag our few belongings back to where the limbers are. These limbers have come up from about three to four miles away, from the Regimental Transport headquarters, to take all the trench "props" back to the billets.

We don't leave, ourselves, until the "incoming" battalion has taken over.

[Illustration: soldier at rest]

After what seems an interminable wait, we hear a clinking of mess tins and rattling of equipment, the sloshing of feet in the mud, and much whispered profanity, which all goes to announce to you that "they're here!" Then you know that the other battalion has arrived, and are now about to take over these precious slots in the ground.

When the exchange is complete, we are free to go!--to go out for our few days in billets!

The actual going out and getting clear of the trenches takes a long time. Handing over, and finally extricating ourselves from the morass, in the dark, with all our belongings, is a lengthy process; and then we have about a mile of country which we have never been able to examine in the day time, and get familiar with, to negotiate. This is before we get to the high road, and really start for billets.

I had the different machine-gun sections to collect from their various guns, and this not until the relieving sections had all turned up. It was a good two hours' job getting all the sections with their guns, ammunition and various extras finally collected together in the dark a mile back, ready to put all the stuff in the limbers, and so back to billets. When all was fixed up I gave the order and off we started, plodding along back down the narrow, dreary road towards our resting-place. But it was quite a cheerful tramp, knowing as we did that we were going to four days' comparative rest, and, anyway, safety.

On we went down the long, flat, narrow roads, occasionally looking round to see the faint flicker of a star shell showing over the tops of the trees, and to think momentarily of the "poor devils" left behind to take our place, and go on doing just what we had been at. Then, finally, getting far enough away to forget, songs and jokes took us chirping along, past objects which soon became our landmarks in the days to come.

On we went, past estaminets, shrines and occasional windmills, down the long winding road for about four miles, until at last we reached our billets, where the battalion willingly halted and dispersed to its various quarters. I and my machine-gun section had still to carry on, for we lived apart, a bit further on, at the Transport Farm. So we continued on our own for another mile and a half, past the estaminet at Romerin, out on towards Neuve Eglise to our Transport Farm. This was the usual red-tiled Belgian farm, with a rectangular smell in the middle.

CHAPTER VI

THE TRANSPORT FARM--FLEECED BY THE FLEMISH--RIDING--NEARING CHRISTMAS

It was about 9 p.m. when we turned into the courtyard of the farm. My sergeant saw to the unlimbering, and dismissed the section, whilst I went into the farm and dismantled myself of all my tackle, such as revolver, field-glass, greatcoat, haversacks, etc.

My servant had, of course, preceded me, and by the time I had made a partial attempt at cleaning myself, he had brought in a meal of sorts and laid it on the oilcloth-covered table by the stove. I was now joined by the transport officer and the regimental quartermaster. They lived at this farm permanently, and only came to the trenches on occasional excursions. They had both had a go at the nasty part of warfare though, before this, so although consumed with a sneaking envy, I was full of respect for them.

We three had a very merry and genial time together. We now had something distinctly resembling a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner, each day. The transport officer took a lively interest in the efforts of Messrs.

Fortnum and Mason, and thus added generously to our menus. It was a glorious feeling, pushing open the door of that farm and coming in from all the wet, darkness, mud and weariness of four days in the trenches.

After the supper, I disappeared into the back kitchen place and did what was possible in the shaving and washing line. The Belgian family were all herded away in here, as their front rooms were now our exclusive property. I have never quite made out what the family consisted of, but, approximately, I should think, mother and father and ten children. I am pretty certain about the children, as about half a platoon stood around me whilst shaving, and solemnly watched me with dull brown Flemish eyes.

The father kept in the background, resting, I fancy, from his usual day's work of hiding unattractive turnips in enormous numbers, under mounds of mud--(the only form of farming industry which came under my notice in Flanders).

The mother, however, was "all there," in more senses than one. She was of about observation balloon proportions, and had an unerring eye for the main chance. Her telegraphic address, I should imagine, was "Fleecem." She had one sound commercial idea, _i.e._, "charge as much as you can for everything they want, hide everything they _do_ want, and slowly collect any property, in the way of food, they have in the cellar; so that, in the future, there shall be no lack of bully and jam in our farm, at any rate."

They had one farm labourer, a kind of epileptic who, I found out, gave his services in return for being fed--no pay. He will regret this contract of his in time, as the food in question was bully beef and plum and apple jam, with an occasional change to Maconochie and apple and plum jam. That store in the cellar absolutely precludes him from any change from this diet for many years to come. Of course, I must say his work was not such as would be classed amongst the skilled or intellectual trades; it was, apparently, to pump all the accumulated drainage from a subterranean vault out into the yard in front, about twice a week, the rest of his time being taken up by assisting at the hiding of the turnips.

After I had washed and shaved under the critical eyes of Angele, Rachel, Andre and Co., I retired into an inner chamber which had once been an apple store, and went to bed on a straw mattress in the corner. Pyjamas at last! and an untroubled sleep. Occasionally in the night one would wake and, listening at the open window, would hear the distant rattle of rifle fire far away beyond the woods.

[Illustration: boy and bird]

These four days at the Transport Farm were days of wallowing in rest.

There was, of course, certain work to be done in connection with the machine-gun department, such as overhauling and cleaning the guns, and drilling the section at intervals; but the evenings and nights were a perfect joy after those spent in the trenches.

One could walk about the fields near by; could read, write letters, and sleep as much as one liked. And if one wished, walk or ride over to see friends at the other billets. Ah, yes! ride--I am sorry to say that riding was not, and is not, my forte. Unfortunate this, as the machine-gun officer is one of the few privileged to have a horse. I was entitled to ride to the trenches, and ride away from them, and during our rest, ride wherever I wanted to go; but these advantages, so coveted by my horseless pals in the regiment, left me cold. I never will be any good at the "Haute Ecole" act, I'm sure, although I made several attempts to get a liking for the subject in France. When the final day came for our departure to the trenches again, I rode from that Transport Farm.

Riding in England, or in any civilized country, is one thing, and riding in those barren, shell-torn wastes of Flanders is another. The usual darkness, rain and mud pervaded the scene when the evening came for our return journey to the trenches. My groom (curse him) had not forgotten to saddle the horse and bring it round. There it was, standing gaunt and tall in front of the paraded machine-gun section. With my best equestrian demeanour I crossed the yard, and hauling myself up on to my horse, choked out a few commands to the section, and sallied forth on to the road towards the trenches.

Thank Heaven, I didn't go into the Cavalry. The roads about the part we were performing in were about two yards wide and a precipitous ditch at each side. In the middle, all sorts and conditions of holes punctuated their long winding length. Add to this the fact that you are either meeting, or being passed by, a motor lorry every ten minutes, and you will get an idea of the conditions under which riding takes place.

[Illustration: kit and kaboodle]

Well, anyway, during the whole of my equestrian career in France, I never came off. I rode along in front of my section, balancing on this "Ship of the Desert" of mine, past all the same landmarks, cracked houses, windmills, estaminets, etc. I experienced innumerable tense moments when my horse--as frequently happened--took me for a bit of a circular tour in an adjacent field, so as to avoid some colossal motor lorry with one headlight of about a million candle-power, which would suddenly roar its way down our single narrow road. At last we got to the dumping-ground spot again--the spot where we horsemen have to come to earth and walk, and where everything is unbaled from the limbers. Here we were again, on the threshold of the trenches.

This monotonous dreary routine of "in" and "out" of the trenches had to be gone through many, many times before we got to Christmas Day. But, during that pre-Christmas period, there was one outstanding feature above the normal dangerous dreariness of the trenches: that was a slight affair in the nature of our attack on the 18th of December, so in the next chapter I will proceed to outline my part in this passage of arms.

Chapter end

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