Bullets & Billets Part 6

A sound as of a man trying to waltz with a cream separator, suggested to my mind that someone had tripped and fallen over that mysterious obstacle outside, which I had noticed on entering, and presently I heard Hudson's voice cursing through the sack doorway.

He came in and saw me examining the place. "Hullo, you're here too, are you?" he exclaimed. "Are you going to stay here as well?"

"I don't quite know yet," I replied. "It doesn't seem a bad idea, as I have to walk the round of all the guns the whole time; all I can and have to do is to hitch up in some central place, and this is just as central as that rotten trench we've just come from."

"Of course it is," he replied. "If I were you I'd come along and stay with me, and go to all your places from here. If an attack comes you'll be able to get from one place to another much easier than if you were stuck in that trench. You'd never be able to move from there when an attack and bombardment had started."

Having given the matter a little further consideration I decided to move from my dug-out to this cottage, so I left the village and went back across the field to the trench to see to the necessary arrangements.

I got back to my lair and shouted for my servant. "Here, Smith," I said, "I'm going to fix up at one of the houses in the village. This place of ours here is no more central than the village, and any one of those houses is a damn sight better than this clay hole here. I want you to collect all my stuff and bring it along; I'll show you the way." So presently, all my few belongings having been collected, we set out for the village. That was my last of that fearful trench. A worse one I know could not be found. My new life in the village now started, and I soon saw that it had its advantages. For instance, there was a slight chance of fencing off some of the rain and water. But my knowledge of "front"

by this time was such that I knew there were corresponding disadvantages, and my instinct told me that the village would present a fresh crop of dangers and troubles quite equal to those of the trench, though slightly different in style. I had now started off on my two months' sojourn in the village of St. Yvon.



Hudson, myself, his servant and my servant, all crushed into that house that night. What a relief it was! We all slept in our greatcoats on the floor, which was as hard as most floors are, and dirtier than the generality; but being out of the water and able to stretch oneself at full length made up for all deficiencies. Hudson and I both slept in the perforated room; the servants in the larger chamber, near the fire bucket.

I got up just before dawn as usual, and taking advantage of the grey light, stole about the village and around the house, sizing up the locality and seeing how my position stood with regard to the various machine-gun emplacements. The dawn breaking, I had to skunk back into the house again, as it was imperative to us to keep up the effect of "Deserted house in village." We had to lurk inside all day, or if we went out, creep about with enormous caution, and go off down a slight slope at the back until we got to the edge of the wood which we knew must be invisible to the enemy. I spent this day making a thorough investigation of the house, creeping about all its component parts and thinking out how we could best utilize its little advantages. Hudson had crept out to examine the village by stealth, and I went on with plots for fortifying the "castle," and for being able to make ourselves as snug as we could in this frail shell of a cottage. I found a hole in the floor boards of the attic and pulled myself up into it thereby.

This attic, as I have said before, had all one end blown away, but the two sloping thatched sides remained. I cut a hole in one of these with my pocket-knife, and thus obtained a view of the German trenches without committing the error of looking out through the blown-out end, which would have clearly shown an observer that the house was occupied.

Looking out through the slit I had made I obtained a panoramic view, more or less, of the German trenches and our own. The view, in short, was this: One saw the backs of our own trenches, then the "No man's land" space of ground, and beyond that again the front of the German trenches. This is best explained by the sketch map which I give on the opposite page. I saw exactly how the house stood with regard to the position, and also noticed that it had two dangerous sides, _i.e._, two sides which faced the Germans, as our position formed two sides of a triangle.

[Illustration: clogs and bucket]

I then proceeded to explore the house. In the walls I found a great many bullets which had stuck in between the bricks of the solitary chimney or imbedded themselves in the woodwork of the door or supporting posts at the corners. Amongst the straw in the attic I found a typical selection of pathetic little trifles: two pairs of very tiny clogs, evidently belonging to some child about four or five years old, one or two old and battered hats, and a quantity of spinning material and instruments. I have the small clogs at my home now, the only souvenir I have of that house at St. Yvon, which I have since learnt is no more, the Germans having reduced it to a powdered up mound of brick-dust and charred straw. Outside, and lying all around, were a miscellaneous collection of goods. Half a sewing machine, a gaudy cheap metal clock, a sort of mangle with strange wooden blades (which I subsequently cut off to make shelves with), and a host of other dirty, rain-soaked odds and ends.

[Illustration: map of village]

Having concluded my examination I crept out back to the wood and took a look at it all from there. "Yes," I thought to myself, "it's all very nice, but, by Gad, we'll have to look out that they don't see us, and get to think we're in this village, or they'll give us a warm time." It had gone very much against my thought-out views on trench warfare, coming to this house at all, for I had learnt by the experiences of others that the best maxim to remember was "Don't live in a house."

The reason is not far to seek. There is something very attractive to artillery about houses. They can range on them well, and they afford a more definite target than an open trench. Besides, if you can spot a house that contains, say, half a dozen to a dozen people, and just plop a "Johnson" right amidships, it generally means "exit house and people,"

which, I suppose, is a desirable object to be attained, according to twentieth century manners.

However, we had decided to live in the house, but as I crept back from the wood, I determined to take a few elementary and common-sense precautions. Hudson had returned when I got back, and together we discussed the house, the position, and everything we could think of in connection with the business, as we sat on the floor and had our midday meal of bully beef and biscuits, rounded up by tea and plum and apple jam spread neat from the tin on odd corners of broken biscuits. We thoroughly talked over the question of possible fortifications and precautions. I said, "What we really want is an emergency exit somewhere, where we can stand a little chance, if they start to shell us."

He agreed, and we both decided to pile up all the odd bricks, which were lying outside at the back of the house, against the perforated wall, and then sleep there in a little easier state of mind. We contented ourselves with this little precaution to begin with, but later on, as we lived in that house, we thought of larger and better ideas, and launched out into all sorts of elaborate schemes, as I will show when the time comes.

Anyway, for the first couple of sessions spent in that house in St.

Yvon, we were content with merely making ourselves bullet proof. The whole day had to be spent with great caution indoors; any visit elsewhere had to be conducted with still greater caution, as the one great thing to be remembered was "Don't let 'em see we're in the village." So we had long days, just lying around in the dirty old straw and accumulated dirt of the cottage floor.

We both sat and talked and read a bit, sometimes slept, and through the opening beneath the sack across the back door we watched the evenings creeping on, and finally came the night, when we stole out like vampires and went about our trench work. It was during these long, sad days that my mind suddenly turned on making sketches. This period of my trench life marked the start of _Fragments from France_, though it was not till the end of February that a complete and presentable effort, suitable for publication in a paper, emerged. It was nothing new to me to draw, as for a very long time before the war I had drawn hundreds of sketches, and had spent a great amount of time reading and learning about all kinds of drawing and painting. I have always had an enormous interest in Art; my room at home will prove that to anyone. Stacks of bygone efforts of mine will also bear testimony to this. Yet it was not until January, 1915, that I had sufficiently resigned myself to my fate in the war, to let my mind turn to my only and most treasured hobby. In this cottage at St. Yvon the craving came back to me. I didn't fight against it, and began by making a few pencil scribbles with a joke attached, and pinned them up in our cracked shell of a room. Jokes at the expense of our miserable surroundings they were, and these were the first "Fragments."

Several men in the local platoon collared these spasms, and soon after I came across them, muddy and battered, in various dug-outs near by. After these few sketches, which were done on rough bits of paper which I found lying about, I started to operate on the walls. With some bits of charcoal, I made a mess on all the four walls of our back room. There was a large circular gash, made by a spent bullet I fancy, on one of the walls, and by making it appear as though this mark was the centre point of a large explosion, I gave an apparent velocity to the figure of a German, which I drew above.

These daubs of mine provoked mirth to those who lived with me, and others who occasionally paid us visits. I persisted, and the next "masterpiece" was the figure of a soldier (afterwards Private Blobs, of "Fragments") sitting up a tree staring straight in front of him into the future, whilst a party of corpulent Boches are stalking towards him through the long grass and barbed wire. He knows there's something not quite nice going on, but doesn't like to look down. This was called "The Listening Post," and the sensation described was so familiar to most that this again was apparently a success. So what with scribbling, reading and sleeping, not to mention time occupied in consuming plum and apple jam, bully, and other delicacies which a grateful country has ordained as the proper food for soldiers, we managed to pull through our days. Two doses of the trenches were done like this, and then came the third time up, when a sudden burst of enthusiasm and an increasing nervousness as to the safety of ourselves and our house, caused us to launch out into really trying to fortify the place. The cause of this decision to do something, to our abode was, I think, attributable to the fact that for about a fortnight the Germans had taken to treating us to a couple of dozen explosions each morning--the sort of thing one doesn't like just before breakfast; but if you've got to have it, the thing obviously to do is to try and defend yourself; so the next time, up we started.




On arriving up at St. Yvon for our third time round there, we--as usual now--went into our cottage again, and the regiment spread itself out around the same old trenches. There was always a lot of work for me to do at nights, as machine guns always have to be moved as occasion arises, or if one gets a better idea for their position. By this time I had one gun in the remnant of a house about fifty yards away from our cottage. This was a reserve gun, and was there carrying out an idea of mine, _i.e._, that it was in a central position, which would enable it to be rapidly moved to any threatened part of the line, and also it would form a bit of an asset in the event of our having to defend the village.

The section for this gun lived in the old cellar close by, and it was this cellar which gave me an idea. When I went into our cottage I searched to see if we had overlooked a cellar. No, there wasn't one.

Now, then, the idea. I thought, "Why not make a cellar, and thus have a place to dive into when the strafing begins." After this terrific outburst of sagacity I sat down in a corner and, with a biscuitload of jam, discussed my scheme with my platoon-commander pal. We agreed it was a good idea. I was feeling energetic, and always liking a little tinkering on my own, I said I would make it myself.

So Hudson retired into the lean-to and I commenced to plot this engineering project. I scraped away as much as necessary of the accumulated filth on the floor, and my knife striking something hard I found it to be tiles. Up till then I had always imagined it to be an earth floor, but tiled it was right enough--large, square, dark red ones of a very rough kind. I called for Smith, my servant, and telling him to bring his entrenching tool, I began to prize up some of the tiles. It wasn't very easy, fitting the blade of the entrenching tool into the crevices, but once I had got a start and had got one or two out, things were easier.

I pulled up all the tiles along one wall about eight feet long and out into the room a distance of about four feet. I now had a bare patch of hard earth eight feet by four to contend with. Luckily we had a pickaxe and a shovel lying out behind the house, so taking off my sheepskin jacket and balaclava, I started off to excavate the hole which I proposed should form a sort of cellar.

It was a big job, and my servant and I were hard at it, turn and turn about, the whole of that day. A dull, rainy day, a cold wind blowing the old sack about in the doorway, and in the semi-darkness inside yours truly handing up Belgian soil on a war-worn shovel to my servant, who held a sandbag perpetually open to receive it. A long and arduous job it was, and one in which I was precious near thinking that danger is preferable to digging. Mr. Doan, with his back-ache pills, would have done well if he had sent one of his travellers with samples round there that night. However, at the end of two days, I had got a really good hole delved out, and now I was getting near the more interesting feature, namely, putting a roof on, and finally being able to live in this under-ground dug-out.

This roof was perhaps rather unique as roofs go. It was a large mattress with wooden sides, a kind of oblong box with a mattress top. I found it outside in a ruined cottage. Underneath the mattress part was a cavity filled with spiral springs. I arranged a pile of sandbags at each side of the hole in the floor in such a way as to be able to lay this curiosity on top to form a roof, the mattress part downwards. I then filled in with earth all the parts where the spiral springs were placed.

Total result--a roof a foot thick of earth, with a good backbone of iron springs. I often afterwards wished that that mattress had been filleted, as the spiral springs had a nasty way of bursting through the striped cover and coming at you like the lid of a Jack-in-the-box. However, such is war.

Above this roof I determined to pile up sandbags against the wall, right away up to the roof of the cottage.

This necessitated about forty sandbags being filled, so it may easily be imagined we didn't do this all at once.

However, in time, it was done--I mean after we had paid one or two more visits to the trenches.

We all felt safer after these efforts. I think we were a bit safer, but not much. I mean that we were fairly all right against anything but a direct hit, and as we knew from which direction direct hits had to come, we made that wall as thick as possible. We could, I think, have smiled at a direct hit from an 18-pounder, provided we had been down our funk hole at the time; but, of course, a direct hit from a "Johnson" would have snuffed us completely (mattress and all).

Life in this house and in the village was much more interesting and energetic than in that old trench. It was possible, by observing great caution, to creep out of the house by day and dodge about our position a bit, crawl up to points of vantage and survey the scene. Behind the cottage lay the wood--the great Bois de Ploegstert--and this in itself repaid a visit. In the early months of 1915 this wood was in a pretty mauled-about state, and as time went on of course got more so. It was full of old trenches, filled with water, relies of the period when we turned the Germans out of it. Shattered trees and old barbed wire in a solution of mud was the chief effect produced by the parts nearest the trenches, but further back "Plugstreet Wood" was quite a pretty place to walk about in. Birds singing all around, and rabbits darting about the tangled undergrowth. Long paths had been cut through the wood leading to the various parts of the trenches in front. A very quaint place, take it all in all, and one which has left a curious and not unpleasing impression on my mind.

This ability to wander around and creep about various parts of our position, led to my getting an idea, which nearly finished my life in the cottage, village, or even Belgium. I suddenly got bitten with the sniping fever, and it occurred to me that, with my facilities for getting about, I could get into a certain mangled farm on our left and remain in the roof unseen in daylight. From there I felt sure that, with the aid of a rifle, I could tickle up a Boche or two in their trenches hard by. I was immensely taken with this idea. So, one morning (like Robinson Crusoe again) I set off with my fowling-piece and ammunition, and crawled towards the farm. I got there all right, and entering the dark and evil-smelling precincts, searched around for a suitable sniping post. I saw a beam overhead in a corner from which, if I could get on to it, I felt sure I should obtain a view of the enemy trenches through a gap in the tiled roof. I tied a bit of string to my rifle and then jumping for the beam, scrambled up on it and pulled the rifle up after me. When my heart pulsations had come down to a reasonable figure I peered out through the hole in the tiles. An excellent view! The German parapet a hundred yards away! Splendid!

Now I felt sure I should see a Boche moving about or something; or I might possibly spot one looking over the top.

I waited a long time on that beam, with my loaded rifle lying in front of me. I was just getting fed up with the waiting, and about to go away, when I thought I saw a movement in the trench opposite. Yes! it was. I saw the handle of something like a broom or a water scoop moving above the sandbags. Heart doing overtime again! Most exciting! I felt convinced I should see a Boche before long. And then, at last, I saw one--or rather I caught a glimpse of a hat appearing above the line of the parapet. One of those small circular cloth hats of theirs with the two trouser buttons in front.

Up it came, and I saw it stand out nice and clear against the skyline. I carefully raised my rifle, took a steady aim, and fired. I looked: disappearance of hat! I ejected the empty cartridge case, and was just about to reload when, whizz, whistle, bang, crash! a shell came right at the farm, and exploded in the courtyard behind. I stopped short on the beam. Whizz, whistle, bang, crash! Another, right into the old cowshed on my left. Without waiting for any more I just slithered down off that beam, grabbed my rifle and dashing out across the yard back into the ditch beyond, started hastily scrambling along towards the end of one of our trenches. As I went I heard four more shells crash into that farm.

It was at this moment that I coined the title of one of my sketches, "They've evidently seen me," for which I afterwards drew the picture near Wulverghem. I got back to our cottage, crawled into the hole in the floor, and thought things over. They must have seen the flash of my rifle through the tiles, and, suspecting possible sniping from the farm, must have wired back to their artillery, "Snipingberg from farmenhausen hoch!" or words to that effect.

Altogether a very objectionable episode.


Chapter end

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