Bullets & Billets Part 4



[Illustration: O]

One evening I was sitting, coiled up in the slime at the bottom of my dug-out, toying with the mud enveloping my boots, when a head appeared at a gap in my mackintosh doorway and said, "The Colonel wants to see you, sir." So I clambered out and went across the field, down a trench, across a road and down a trench again to where the headquarter dug-outs lay all in a row.

I came to the Colonel's dug-out, where, by the light of a candle-end stuck on an improvised table, he was sitting, busily explaining something by the aid of a map to a group of our officers. I waited till he had finished, knowing that he would want to see me after the others, as the machine-gunner's job is always rather a specialized side-line.

Soon he explained to me what he wished me to do with my guns, and gave me a rough outline of the projected attack. He pointed out on the map where he wished me to take up positions, and closed the interview by saying that he thought I should at once proceed to reconnoitre the proposed sites, and lay all my plans for getting into position, as we were going to conduct an operation on the Boches at dawn the next day.

I left, and started at once on my plans. The first thing was to have a thorough good look at the ground, and examine all the possibilities for effective machine-gun co-operation. I determined to take my sergeant along with me, so that he would be as familiar with the scheme in hand as I was. It was raining, of course, and the night was as black as pitch when we both started out on our Sherlock Holmes excursion. I explained the idea of the attack to him, and the part we had to play. The troops on our right were going to carry out the actual attack, and we, on their left flank, were going to lend assistance by engaging the Deutschers in front and by firing half-right to cover our men's advance. My job was clear enough. I had to bring as many machine guns as I could spare down to the right of our own line to assist as much as possible in the real attack. My sergeant and I went down to examine the ground where it was essential for us to fix up. We got to our last trench on the right, and clambering over the parapet, did what we could to find out the nature of the ground in front, and see how we could best fix our machine guns to cover the enemy. We soon saw that in order to get a really clear field of fire it was necessary for us to sap out from the end of our existing right-hand trench and make a machine-gun emplacement at the end.

[Illustration: 'Ere, you leave that ---- rum jar alone.]

This necessitated the digging of a sap of about ten yards in length, collecting all the materials for making an emplacement, and mounting our machine gun. It was now about 11 p.m., and all this work had to be completed before dawn.

Having rapidly realized that there was not the slightest prospect of any sleep, and that the morrow looked like being a busy day, we commenced with characteristic fed-up vigour to carry out our nefarious design.

A section, myself and the sergeant, started on digging that sap, and what a job it was! The Germans were particularly restless that night; kept on squibbing away whilst we were digging, and as it was some time before we had the sap deep enough to be able to stand upright without fear of a puncture in some part of our anatomy, it was altogether most unpleasant. At about an hour before dawn we had got as far as making the emplacement. This we started to put together as hard as we could. We filled sandbags with the earth excavated from the sap, and with frenzied energy tried to complete our defences before dawn. The rain and darkness, both very intense that night, were really very trying. One would pause, shovel in hand, lean against the clay side of the sap, and hurriedly contemplate the scene. Five men, a sergeant and myself, wet through and muddy all over; no sleep, little to eat, silently digging and filling sandbags with an ever-watchful eye for the breaking of the dawn.

Light was breaking across the sky before the job was done, and we had still to complete the top guard of our emplacement. Then we had some fireworks. The nervy Boches had spotted our sap as something new, and their bullets, whacking up against our newly-thrown-up parapet, made us glad we had worked so busily.

We were bound to complete that emplacement, so, at convenient intervals, we crept to the opening, and after saying "one, two, three!" suddenly plumped a newly-filled sandbag on the top. Each time we did this half a dozen bullets went zipping through the canvas or just past overhead.

This operation had to be done about a dozen times.

A warm job! At last it was finished, and we sank down into the bottom of the sap to rest. The time for the artillery bombardment had been fixed to begin at about 6 a.m., if I remember rightly, so we got a little rest between finishing our work and the attack itself.

Of course the whole of this enterprise, as far as the bombardment and attack were concerned, cannot be compared with the magnitude of a similar performance in 1915. All the same, it was pretty bad, but not anything like so accurately calculated, or so mechanically efficient as our later efforts in this line. The precise time-table methods of the present period did not exist then, but the main idea of giving the Opposition as much heavy lyddite, followed by shrapnel, was the same.

At about half-past six, as we sat in the sap, we heard the first shell go over. I went to the end of the traverse alongside the emplacement, and watched the German trenches. We were ready to fire at any of the enemy we could see, and when the actual attack started, at the end of the bombardment, we were going to keep up a perpetual sprinkling of bullets along their reserve trenches. A few isolated houses stood just in line with the German trenches. Our gunners had focussed on these, and they gave them a good pasting.

"Crumph! bang! bang! crumph!"--hard at it all the time, whilst shrapnel burst and whizzed about all along the German parapet. The view in front soon became a sort of haze of black dust, as "heavy" after "heavy" burst on top of the Boche positions. Columns of earth and black smoke shot up like giant fountains into the air. I caught sight of a lot of the enemy running along a shallow communication trench of theirs, apparently with the intention of reinforcing their front line. We soon had our machine gun peppering up these unfortunates, and from that moment on kept up an incessant fire on the enemy.

On my left, two of our companies were keeping up a solid rapid fire on the German lines immediately in front.

At last the bombardment ceased. A confused sound of shouts and yells on our right, intermingled with a terrific crackle of rifle fire, told us the attack had started. Without ceasing, we kept up the only assistance we could give: our persistent firing half-right.

How long it all lasted I can't remember; but when I crept into a soldier's dug-out, back in one of our trenches, completely exhausted, I heard that we had taken the enemy trench, but that, unfortunately, owing to its enfiladed position, we had to abandon it later.

Such was my first experience of this see-saw warfare of the trenches.

A few days later, as I happened to be passing through poor, shattered Plugstreet Wood, I came across a clearance 'midst the trees.

Two rows of long, brown mounds of earth, each surmounted by a rough, simple wooden cross, was all that was inside the clearing. I stopped, and looked, and thought--then went away.



Shortly after the doings set forth in the previous chapter we left the trenches for our usual days in billets. It was now nearing Christmas Day, and we knew it would fall to our lot to be back in the trenches again on the 23rd of December, and that we would, in consequence, spend our Christmas there. I remember at the time being very down on my luck about this, as anything in the nature of Christmas Day festivities was obviously knocked on the head. Now, however, looking back on it all, I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything.

Well, as I said before, we went "in" again on the 23rd. The weather had now become very fine and cold. The dawn of the 24th brought a perfectly still, cold, frosty day. The spirit of Christmas began to permeate us all; we tried to plot ways and means of making the next day, Christmas, different in some way to others. Invitations from one dug-out to another for sundry meals were beginning to circulate. Christmas Eve was, in the way of weather, everything that Christmas Eve should be.

I was billed to appear at a dug-out about a quarter of a mile to the left that evening to have rather a special thing in trench dinners--not quite so much bully and Maconochie about as usual. A bottle of red wine and a medley of tinned things from home deputized in their absence. The day had been entirely free from shelling, and somehow we all felt that the Boches, too, wanted to be quiet. There was a kind of an invisible, intangible feeling extending across the frozen swamp between the two lines, which said "This is Christmas Eve for both of us--_something_ in common."

About 10 p.m. I made my exit from the convivial dug-out on the left of our line and walked back to my own lair. On arriving at my own bit of trench I found several of the men standing about, and all very cheerful.

There was a good bit of singing and talking going on, jokes and jibes on our curious Christmas Eve, as contrasted with any former one, were thick in the air. One of my men turned to me and said:

"You can 'ear 'em quite plain, sir!"

"Hear what?" I inquired.

"The Germans over there, sir; 'ear 'em singin' and playin' on a band or somethin'."

I listened;--away out across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices, and an occasional burst of some unintelligible song would come floating out on the frosty air. The singing seemed to be loudest and most distinct a bit to our right. I popped into my dug-out and found the platoon commander.

[Illustration: hayseed]

"Do you hear the Boches kicking up that racket over there?" I said.

"Yes," he replied; "they've been at it some time!"

"Come on," said I, "let's go along the trench to the hedge there on the right--that's the nearest point to them, over there."

So we stumbled along our now hard, frosted ditch, and scrambling up on to the bank above, strode across the field to our next bit of trench on the right. Everyone was listening. An improvised Boche band was playing a precarious version of "Deutschland, Deutschland, uber Alles," at the conclusion of which, some of our mouth-organ experts retaliated with snatches of ragtime songs and imitations of the German tune. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen.

The shout came again. A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent, "Come over here!" A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter.

Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, "Come over here!"

"You come half-way--I come half-way," floated out of the darkness.

"Come on, then!" shouted the sergeant. "I'm coming along the hedge!"

"Ah! but there are two of you," came back the voice from the other side.

Well, anyway, after much suspicious shouting and jocular derision from both sides, our sergeant went along the hedge which ran at right-angles to the two lines of trenches. He was quickly out of sight; but, as we all listened in breathless silence, we soon heard a spasmodic conversation taking place out there in the darkness.

Presently, the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Maconochie's and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him. The seance was over, but it had given just the requisite touch to our Christmas Eve--something a little human and out of the ordinary routine.

After months of vindictive sniping and shelling, this little episode came as an invigorating tonic, and a welcome relief to the daily monotony of antagonism. It did not lessen our ardour or determination; but just put a little human punctuation mark in our lives of cold and humid hate. Just on the right day, too--Christmas Eve! But, as a curious episode, this was nothing in comparison to our experience on the following day.

On Christmas morning I awoke very early, and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky.

The ground hard and white, fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist. It was such a day as is invariably depicted by artists on Christmas cards--the ideal Christmas Day of fiction.

"Fancy all this hate, war, and discomfort on a day like this!" I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, "This indescribable something in the air, this Peace and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!" And I wasn't far wrong; it did around us, anyway, and I have always been so glad to think of my luck in, firstly, being actually in the trenches on Christmas Day, and, secondly, being on the spot where quite a unique little episode took place.

Chapter end

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