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Bullets & Billets Part 8

There was another beauty: that we were going back to England for a rest!

The night after the news, another battalion arrived, and, after handing over our trenches, we started off on the road to "Somewhere in France."

It was about 11.30 p.m. before we had handed over everything and finally parted from those old trenches of ours. I said good-bye to our little perforated hovel, and set off with all my machine gunners and guns for the road behind the wood, to go--goodness knows where. We looked back over our shoulders several times as we plodded along down the muddy road and into the corduroy path which ran through the wood. There, behind us, lay St. Yvon, under the moonlight and drifting clouds; a silhouetted mass of ruins beyond the edge of the wood. Still the same old intermittent cracking of the rifle shots and the occasional star shell.

It was quite sad parting with that old evil-smelling, rain-soaked scene of desolation. We felt how comfortable we had all been there, now that we were leaving. And leaving for what?--that was the question. When I reached the road, and had superintended loading up our limbers, I got instructions from the transport officer as to which way we were to go.

The battalion had already gone on ahead, and the machine-gun section was the last to leave. We were to go down the road to Armentieres, and at about twelve midnight we started on our march, rattling off down the road leading to Armentieres, bound for some place we had never seen before. At about 2 a.m. we got there; billets had been arranged for us, but at two in the morning it was no easy task to find the quarters allotted to us without the assistance of a guide. The battalion had got there first, had found their billets and gone to bed. I and the machine-gun section rattled over the cobbles into sleeping Armentieres, and hadn't the slightest idea where we had to go. Nobody being about to tell us, we paraded the town like a circus procession for about an hour before finally finding out where we were to billet, and ultimately we reached our destination when, turning into the barns allotted to us, we made the most of what remained of the night in well-earned repose.

CHAPTER XVI

NEW TRENCHES--THE NIGHT INSPECTION-- LETTER FROM THE "BYSTANDER"

Next day we discovered the mystery of our sudden removal. The battle of Neuve Chapelle was claiming considerable attention, and that was where we were going. We were full of interest and curiosity, and were all for getting there as soon as possible. But it was not to be. Mysterious moves were being made behind the scenes which I, and others like me, will never know anything about; but, anyway, we now suddenly got another bewildering order. After a day spent in Armentieres we were told to stand by for going back towards Neuve Eglise again, just the direction from which we had come. We all knew too much about the war to be surprised at anything, so we mutely prepared for another exit. It was a daylight march this time, and a nice, still, warm day. Quite a cheery, interesting march we had, too, along the road from Armentieres to Neuve Eglise. We were told that we were to march past General Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, whom we should find waiting for us near the Pont de Nieppe--a place we had to pass _en route_. Every one braced up at this, and keenly looked forward to reaching Nieppe. I don't know why, but I had an idea he would be in his car on the right of the road. To make no mistake I muttered "Eyes right" to myself for about a quarter of a mile, so as to make a good thing of the salute. We came upon the Pont de Nieppe suddenly, round the corner, and there was the General--on the left! All my rehearsing useless. Annoying, but I suppose one can't expect Generals to tell you where they are going to stand.

We reached Neuve Eglise in time, and went into our old billets. We all thought our fate was "back into those ---- old Plugstreet trenches again," but _mirabile dictu_--it was not to be so. The second day in billets I received a message from the Colonel to proceed to his headquarter farm. I went, and heard the news. We were to take over a new line of trenches away to the left of Plugstreet, and that night I was to accompany him along with all the company commanders on a round of inspection.

A little before dusk we started off and proceeded along various roads towards the new line. All the country was now brand new to me, and full of interest. After we had gone about a mile and a half the character of the land changed. We had left all the Plugstreet wood effect behind, and now emerged on to far more open and flatter ground. By dusk we were going down a long straight road with poplar trees on either side. At the end of this stood a farm on the right. We walked into the courtyard and across it into the farm. This was the place the battalion we were going to relieve had made its headquarters. Not a bad farm. The roof was still on, I noticed, and concluded from that that life there was evidently passable. We had to wait here some time, as we were told that the enemy could see for a great distance around there, and would pepper up the farm as sure as fate if they saw anyone about. Our easy-going entry into the courtyard had not been received with great favour, as it appeared we were doing just the very thing to get the roof removed. However, the dusk had saved us, I fancy.

[Illustration: Comin' on down to the Estaminet tonight, Arry?]

As soon as it was really dark we all sallied forth, accompanied by guides this time, who were to show us the trenches. I crept along behind our Colonel, with my eyes peeled for possible gun positions, and drinking in as many details of the entire situation as I could.

We walked about ten miles that night, I should think, across unfamiliar swamps and over unsuspected antique abandoned trenches, past dead cows and pigs. We groped about the wretched shell-pitted fields, examining the trenches we were about to take over. You would be surprised to find how difficult a simple line of trenches can seem at night if you have never seen them before.

You don't seem able to get the angles, somehow, nor to grasp how the whole situation faces, or how you get from one part to another, and all that sort of thing. I know that by the time I had been along the whole lot, round several hundred traverses, and up dozens of communication trenches and saps, all my mariner-like ability for finding my way back to Neuve Eglise had deserted me. Those guides were absolutely necessary in order to get us back to the headquarter farm. One wants a compass, the pole star, and plenty of hope ever to get across those enormous prairies--known as fields out there--and reach the place at the other side one wants to get to. It is a long study before you really learn the simplest and best way up to your own bit of trench; but when it comes to learning everybody else's way up as well (as a machine gunner has to), it needs a long and painful course of instruction--higher branches of this art consisting of not only knowing the way up, but the _safest_ way up.

The night we carried out this tour of inspection we were all left in a fog as to how we had gone to and returned from the trenches. After we had got in we knew, by long examination of the maps, how everything lay, but it was some time before we had got the real practical hang of it all.

Our return journey from the inspection was a pretty silent affair. We all knew these were a nasty set of trenches. Not half so pleasant as the Plugstreet ones. The conversations we had with the present owners made it quite clear that warm times were the vogue round there. Altogether we could see we were in for a "bit of a time."

We cleared off back to Neuve Eglise that night, and next day took those trenches over. This was the beginning of my life at Wulverghem. When we got in, late that night, we found that the post had arrived some time before. Thinking there might be something for me, I went into the back room where they sorted the letters, to get any there might be before going off to my own billets. "There's only one for you, sir, to-night,"

said the corporal who looked after the letters. He handed me an envelope. I opened it. Inside, a short note and a cheque.

"We shall be very glad to accept your sketch, 'Where did that one go to?' From the _Bystander_"--the foundation-stone of _Fragments from France_.

CHAPTER XVII

WULVERGHEM--THE DOUVE--CORDUROY BOARDS--BACK AT OUR FARM

We got out of the frying-pan into the fire when we went to Wulverghem--a much more exciting and precarious locality than Plugstreet. During all my war experiences I have grown to regard Plugstreet as the unit of tranquillity. I have never had the fortune to return there since those times mentioned in previous chapters. When you leave Plugstreet you take away a pleasing memory of slime and reasonable shelling, which is more than you can say for the other places. If you went to Plugstreet after, say, the Ypres Salient, it would be more or less like going to a convalescent home after a painful operation.

But, however that may be, we were now booked for Wulverghem, or rather the trenches which lie along the base of the Messines ridge, about a mile in front of that shattered hamlet. Two days after our tour of inspection we started off to take over. The nuisance about these trenches was that the point where one had to unload and proceed across country, man-handling everything, was abnormally far away from the firing line. We had about a mile and a half to do after we had marched collectively as a battalion, so that my machine-gunners were obliged to carry the guns and all the tackle we needed all that distance to their trenches. This, of course, happened every time we "came in."

The land where these trenches lay was a vast and lugubrious expanse of mud, with here and there a charred and ragged building. On our right lay the River Douve, and, on our left, the trenches turned a corner back inwards again. In front lay the long line of the Messines ridge. The Boches had occupied this ridge, and our trenches ran along the valley at its foot. The view which the Boches got by being perched on this hill rendered them exactly what their soul delights in, _i.e._, "uber alles."

They can see for miles. However, those little disadvantages have not prevented us from efficiently maintaining our trenches at the far end of the plain, in spite of the difficulty of carrying material across this flat expanse.

I forget what night of the week we went in and took over those trenches, but, anyhow, it was a precious long one. I had only seen the place once before, and in the darkness of the night had a long and arduous job finding the way to the various positions allotted for my guns, burdened as I was with all my sections and impedimenta. I imagine I walked about five or six miles that night. We held a front of about a mile, and, therefore, not only did I have to do the above-mentioned mile and a half, but also two or three miles going from end to end of our line. It was as dark as could be, and the unfamiliar ground seemed to be pitted like a Gruyere cheese with shell holes. Unlimbering back near a farm we sloshed off across the mud flat towards the section of trench which we had been ordered to occupy. I trusted to instinct to strike the right angles for coming out at the trenches which henceforth were to be ours.

In those days my machine guns were the old type of Maxim--a very weighty concern. To carry these guns and all the necessary ammunition across this desert was a long and very exhausting process. Occasional bursts of machine-gun fire and spent bullets "zipping" into the mud all around hardly tended to cheer the proceedings. The path along to the right-hand set of trenches, where I knew a couple of guns must go, was lavishly strewn with dead cows and pigs. When we paused for a rest we always seemed to do so alongside some such object, and consequently there was no hesitation in moving on again. None of us had the slightest idea as to the nature of the country on which we were now operating. I myself had only seen it by night, and nobody else had been there at all.

The commencement of the journey from the farm of disembarkation lay along what is known as corduroy boards. These are short, rough, wooden planks, nailed crossways on long baulks of timber. This kind of path is a very popular one at the front, and has proved an immense aid in saving the British army from being swallowed up in the mud.

The corduroy path ran out about four hundred yards across the grassless, sodden field. We then came suddenly to the beginning of a road. A small cottage stood on the right, and in front of it a dead cow. Here we unfortunately paused, but almost immediately moved on (gas masks weren't introduced until much later!).

From this point the road ran in a long straight line towards Messines.

At intervals, on the right-hand side only, stood one or two farms, or, rather, their skeletons. As we went along in the darkness these farms silhouetted their dreary remains against the faint light in the sky, and looked like vast decayed wrecks of antique Spanish galleons upside down.

On past these farms the road was suddenly cut across by a deep and ugly gash: a reserve trench. So now we were getting nearer to our destination. A particularly large and evil-smelling farm stood on the right. The reserve trench ran into its back yard, and disappeared amongst the ruins. From the observations I had made, when inspecting these trenches, I knew that the extreme right of our position was a bit to the right of this farm, so I and my performing troupe decided to go through the farmyard and out diagonally across the field in front. We did this, and at last could dimly discern the line of the trenches in front. We were now on the extreme right of the section we had to control, close to the River Douve, and away to the left ran the whole line of our trenches. Along the whole length of this line the business of taking over from the old battalion was being enacted. That old battalion made a good bargain when they handed over that lot of slots to us. The trenches lay in a sort of echelon formation, the one on the extreme right being the most advanced. This one we made for, and as we squelched across the mud to it a couple of German star shells fizzed up into the air and illuminated the whole scene. By their light I could see the whole position, but could only form an approximate idea of how our lines ran, as our parapets and trenches merged into the mud so effectively as to look like a vast, tangled, disorderly mass of sandbags, slime and shell holes. We reached the right-hand trench. It was a curious sort of a trench too, quite a different pattern to those we had occupied at St. Yvon, The first thing that struck me about all these trenches was the quantity of sandbags there were, and the geometrical exactness of the attempts at traverses, fire steps, bays, etc. Altogether, theoretically, much superior trenches, although very cramped and narrow. I waited for another star shell in order to see the view out in front. One hadn't long to wait around there for star shells.

One very soon sailed up, nice and white, into the inky sky, and I saw how we were placed with regard to the Germans, the hill and Messines. We were quite near a little stream, a tributary of the Douve, in fact it ran along the front of our trenches. Immediately on the other side the ground rose in a gradual slope up the Messines hill, and about three-quarters way up this slope were the German trenches.

When I had settled the affairs of the machine guns in the right-hand trench I went along the line and fixed up the various machine-gun teams in the different trenches as I came to them. The ground above the trenches was so eaten away by the filling of sandbags and the cavities caused by shell fire, that I found it far quicker and simpler to walk along in the trenches themselves, squeezing past the men standing about and around the thick traverses. Our total frontal length must have been three-quarters of a mile, I should think. This, our first night in, was a pretty busy one. Dug-outs had to be found to accommodate every one; platoons arranged in all the sections of trench, all the hundred-and-one details which go to making trench life as secure and comfortable as is possible under the circumstances, had to be seen to and arranged. I had fixed up all the sections by about ten o'clock and then started along the lines again trying to get as clear an idea as possible of the entire situation of the trenches, the type of land in front of each, the means of access to each trench, and possible improvements in the various gun positions. All this had to be done to the accompaniment of a pretty lively mixture of bullets and star shells. Sniping was pretty severe that night, and, indeed, all the time we were in those Douve trenches.

There was an almost perpetual succession of rifle shots, intermingled with the rapid crackling of machine-gun fire. However, you soon learn out there that you can just as easily "get one" on the calmest night by an accidental spent bullet as you can when a little hate is on, and bullets are coming thick and fast. The first night we came to the Douve was a pretty calm one, comparatively speaking; yet one poor chap in the leading platoon, going through the farm courtyard I mentioned, got shot right through the forehead. No doubt whatever it was an accidental bullet, and not an aimed shot, as the Germans could not have possibly seen the farm owing to the darkness of the night.

Just as I was finishing my tour of inspection I came across the Colonel, who was going round everything, and thoroughly reconnoitring the position. He asked me to show him the gun positions. I went with him right along the line. We stood about on parapets, and walked all over the place, stopping motionless now and again as a star shell went up, and moving on again just in time to hear a bullet or two whizz past behind and go "smack" into a tree in the hedge behind, or "plop" into the mud parados. When the Colonel had finished his tour of inspection he asked me to walk back with him to his headquarters. "Where are you living, Bairnsfather?" said the Colonel to me. "I don't know, sir," I replied. "I thought of fixing up in that farm (I indicated the most aromatized one by the reserve trench) and making some sort of a dug-out if there isn't a cellar; it's a fairly central position for all the trenches."

The Colonel thought for a moment: "You'd better come along back to the farm on the road for to-night anyway, and you can spend to-morrow decorating the walls with a few sketches," he said. This was a decidedly better suggestion, a reprieve, in fact, as prior to this remark my bedroom for the night looked like being a borrowed ground sheet slung over some charred rafters which were leaning against a wall in the yard.

I followed along behind the Colonel down the road, down the corduroy boards, and out at the old moated farm not far from Wulverghem. Thank goodness, I should get a floor to sleep on! A roof, too! Straw on the floor! How splendid!

It was quite delightful turning into that farm courtyard, and entering the building. Dark, dismal and deserted as it was, it afforded an immense, glowing feeling of comfort after that mysterious, dark and wintry plain, with its long lines of grey trenches soaking away there under the inky sky.

Inside I found an empty room with some straw on the floor. There was only one shell hole in it, but some previous tenant had stopped it up with a bit of sacking. My word, I was tired! I rolled myself round with straw, and still retaining all my clothes, greatcoat, balaclava, muffler, trench boots, I went to sleep.

CHAPTER XVIII

THE PAINTER AND DECORATOR--FRAGMENTS FORMING--NIGHT ON THE MUD PRAIRIE

Had a fairly peaceful night. I say fairly because when one has to get up three or four times to see whether the accumulated rattle of rifle fire is going to lead to a battle, or turn out only to be merely "wind up,"

it rather disturbs one's rest. You see, had an attack of some sort come on, yours truly would have had to run about a mile and a half to some central spot to overlook the machine-gun department. I used to think that to be actually with one gun was the best idea, but I subsequently found that this plan hampered me considerably from getting to my others; the reason being that, once established in one spot during an open trench attack, it is practically impossible to get to another part whilst the action is on.

At the Douve, however, I discovered a way of getting round this which I will describe later.

On this first night, not being very familiar with the neighbourhood, I found it difficult to ignore the weird noises which floated in through the sack-covered hole. There is something very eerie and strange about echoing rifle shots in the silence of the night. Once I got up and walked out into the courtyard of the farm, and passing through it came out on to the end of the road. All as still as still could be, except the distant intermittent cracking of the rifles coming from away across the plain, beyond the long straight row of lofty poplar trees which marked the road. A silence of some length might supervene, in which one would only hear the gentle rustling of the leaves; then suddenly, far away on the right, a faint surging roar can be heard, and then louder and louder. "Wind up over there." Then, gradually, silence would assert itself once more and leave you with nothing but the rustling leaves and the crack of the sniper's rifle on the Messines ridge.

My first morning at this farm was, by special request, to be spent in decorating the walls.

There wasn't much for anyone to do in the day time, as nobody could go out. The same complaint as the other place in St. Yvon: "We mustn't look as if anyone lives in the farm." Drawing, therefore, was a great aid to me in passing the day. Whilst at breakfast I made a casual examination of the room where we had our meals. I was not the first to draw on the walls of that room. Some one in a previous battalion had already put three or four sketches on various parts of the fire-place. Several large spaces remained all round the room, however; but I noticed that the surface was very poor compared with the wall round the fire-place.

The main surface was a rough sort of thing, and, on regarding it closely, it looked as if it was made of frozen porridge, being slightly rough, and of a grey-brown colour. I didn't know what on earth I could use to draw on this surface, but after breakfast I started to scheme out something. I went into the back room, which we were now using as a kitchen, and finding some charcoal I tried that. It was quite useless--wouldn't make a mark on the wall at all. Why, I don't know; but the charcoal just glided about and merely seemed to make dents and scratches on the "frozen porridge." I then tried to make up a mixture.

It occurred to me that possibly soot might be made into a sort of ink, and used with a paint brush. I tried this, but drew a blank again. I was bordering on despair, when my servant said he thought he had put a bottle of Indian ink in my pack when we left to come into the trenches this time. He had a look, and found that his conjecture was right; he had got a bottle of Indian ink and a few brushes, as he thought I might want to draw something, so had equipped the pack accordingly.

Chapter end

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