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Bullets & Billets Part 14

The road was now perfectly straight, bordered on either side by broken poplar trees, beyond which large flat fields lay under the mysterious darkness. As we went on we could see a faint, red glow ahead. This turned out to be Wieltj. All that was left of it, a smouldering ruin.

Here and there the bodies of dead men lay about the road. At intervals I could discern the stiffened shapes of corpses in the ditches which bordered the road. We went through Wieltj without stopping. Passing out at the other side we proceeded up this awful, shell-torn road, towards a slight hill, at the base of which we stopped. Now came my final orders.

"Come on at once, follow up the battalion, who, with the brigade, are about to attack."

"Now we're for it," I said to myself, and gave the order to unlimber the guns. One limber had been held up some little way back I found, by getting jammed in a shell-hole in the road. I couldn't wait for it to come up, so sent my sergeant back with some men to get hold of the guns and tackle in it, and follow on as soon as they could. I got out the rest of the things that were there with us and prepared to start on after the battalion. "I'll go to the left, and you'd better go to the right," I shouted to my sergeant. "Here, Smith, let's have your rifle,"

I said, turning to my servant. I had decided that he had best stay and look after the limbers. I seized his rifle, and slipping on a couple of bandoliers of cartridges, led on up the slight hill, followed by my section carrying the machine guns. I felt that a rifle was going to be of more use to me in this business than a revolver, and, anyway, it was just as well to have both.

It was now just about four o'clock in the morning. A faint light was creeping into the sky. The rain was abating a bit, thank goodness!

We topped the rise, and rushed on down the road as fast as was possible under the circumstances. Now we were in it! Bullets were flying through the air in all directions. Ahead, in the semi-darkness, I could just see the forms of men running out into the fields on either side of the road in extended order, and beyond them a continuous heavy crackling of rifle-fire showed me the main direction of the attack. A few men had gone down already, and no wonder--the air was thick with bullets. The machine-gun officer of one of the other regiments in the brigade was shot right through the head as he went over the brow of the hill. I found one of his machine-gun sections a short time later, and appropriated them for our own use. After we had gone down the road for about two hundred yards I thought that my best plan was to get away over to the left a bit, as the greatest noise seemed to come from there.

"Come on, you chaps," I shouted, "we'll cross this field, and get to that hedge over there." We dashed across, intermingled with a crowd of Highlanders, who were also making to the left. Through a cloud of bullets, flying like rice at a wedding, we reached the other side of the field. Only one casualty--one man with a shot in the knee.

Couldn't get a good view of the enemy from the hedge, so I decided to creep along further to the left still, to a spot I saw on the left front of a large farm which stood about two hundred yards behind us. The German machine guns were now busy, and sent sprays of bullets flicking up the ground all round us. Lying behind a slight fold in the ground we saw them whisking through the grass, three or four inches over our heads. We slowly worked our way across to the left, past an old, wide ditch full of stagnant water, and into a shallow gully beyond. Dawn had come now, and in the cold grey light I saw our men out in front of me advancing in short rushes towards a large wood in front. The Germans were firing star shells into the air in pretty large numbers, why, I couldn't make out, as there was quite enough light now to see by. I ordered the section out of the gully, and ran across the open to a bit of old trench I saw in the field. This was the only suitable spot I could see for bringing our guns to bear on the enemy, and assist in the attack. We fixed up a couple of machine guns, and awaited a favourable opportunity. I could see a lot of Germans running along in front of the wood towards one end of it. We laid our aim on the wood, which seemed to me the chief spot to go for. One or two of my men had not managed to get up to the gun position as yet. They were ammunition carriers, and had had a pretty hard job with it. I left the guns to run back and hurry them on. The rifle-fire kept up an incessant rattle the whole time, and now the German gunners started shelling the farm behind us. Shell after shell burst beyond, in front of, and on either side of the farm. Having got up the ammunition, I ran back towards the guns past the farm. In front of me an officer was hurrying along with a message towards a trench which was on the left of our new-found gun position. He ran across the open towards it. When about forty yards from me I saw him throw up his hands and collapse on the ground. I hurried across to him, and lifted his head on to my knee. He couldn't speak and was rapidly turning a deathly pallor. I undid his equipment and the buttons of his tunic as fast as I could, to find out where he had been shot. Right through the chest, I saw. The left side of his shirt, near his heart, was stained deep with blood. A captain in the Canadians, I noticed. The message he had been carrying lay near him. I didn't know quite what to do. I turned in the direction of my gun section without disturbing his head, and called out to them to throw me over a water-bottle. A man named Mills ran across with one, and took charge of the captain, whilst I went through his pockets to try and discover his name. I found it in his pocket-book. His identity disc had apparently been lost.

With the message I ran back to the farm, and, as luck would have it, came across a colonel in the Canadians. I told him about the captain who had been carrying the message, and said if there was a stretcher about I could get him in. All movement in the attack had now ceased, but the rifle and shell fire was on as strong as ever. My corporal was with the two guns, and had orders to fire as soon as an opportunity arose, so I thought my best plan was to see to getting this officer in while there was a chance. I got hold of another subaltern in the farm, and together we ran back with a stretcher to the spot where I had left Mills and the captain. We lifted him on to the stretcher. He seemed a bit better, but his breathing was very difficult. How I managed to hold up that stretcher I don't know; I was just verging on complete exhaustion by this time. I had to take a pause about twenty yards from the farm and lie flat out on the ground for a moment or two to recuperate sufficiently to finish the journey. We got him in and put him down in an outbuilding which had been turned into a temporary dressing station.

Shells were crashing into the roof of the farm and exploding round it in great profusion. Every minute one heard the swirling rush overhead, the momentary pause, saw the cloud of red dust, then "Crumph!" That farm was going to be extinguished, I could plainly see. I went along the edge of the dried-up moat at the back, towards my guns. I couldn't stand up any longer. I lay down on the side of the moat for five minutes. Twenty yards away the shells burst round and in the farm, but I didn't care, rest was all I wanted. "What about my sergeant and those other guns?" I thought, as I lay there. I rose, and cut across the open space again to the two guns.

"You know what to do here, Corporal?" I said. "I am going round the farm over to the right to see what's happened to the others."

I left him, and went across towards the farm. As I went I heard the enormous ponderous, gurgling, rotating sound of large shells coming. I looked to my left. Four columns of black smoke and earth shot up a hundred feet into the air, not eighty yards away. Then four mighty reverberating explosions that rent the air. A row of four "Jack Johnsons" had landed not a hundred yards away, right amongst the lines of men, lying out firing in extended order. I went on, and had nearly reached the farm when another four came over and landed fifty yards further up the field towards us.

"They'll have our guns and section," I thought rapidly, and hurried on to find out what had become of my sergeant. The shelling of the farm continued; I ran past it between two explosions and raced along the old gulley we had first come up. Shells have a way of missing a building, and getting something else near by. As I was on the sloping bank of the gully I heard a colossal rushing swish in the air, and then didn't hear the resultant crash....

All seemed dull and foggy; a sort of silence, worse than all the shelling, surrounded me. I lay in a filthy stagnant ditch covered with mud and slime from head to foot. I suddenly started to tremble all over.

I couldn't grasp where I was. I lay and trembled ... I had been blown up by a shell.

I lay there some little time, I imagine, with a most peculiar sensation.

All fear of shells and explosions had left me. I still heard them dropping about and exploding, but I listened to them and watched them as calmly as one would watch an apple fall off a tree. I couldn't make myself out. Was I all right or all wrong? I tried to get up, and then I knew. The spell was broken. I shook all over, and had to lie still, with tears pouring down my face.

I could see my part in this battle was over.

CHAPTER XXXI

SLOWLY RECOVERING--FIELD HOSPITAL--AMBULANCE TRAIN--BACK IN ENGLAND

How I ever got back I don't know. I remember dragging myself into a cottage, in the garden of which lay a row of dead men. I remember some one giving me a glass of water there, and seeing a terribly mutilated body on the floor being attended to. And, finally, I remember being helped down the Wieltj road by a man into a field dressing station. Here I was labelled and sent immediately down to a hospital about four miles away. Arrived there, I lay out on a bench in a collapsed state, and I remember a cheery doctor injecting something into my wrist. I then lay on a stretcher awaiting further transportation. My good servant Smith somehow discovered my whereabouts, and turned up at this hospital. He sat beside me and gave me a writing-pad to scribble a note on. I scrawled a line to my mother to say I had been knocked out, but was perfectly all right. Smith went back to the battalion, and I lay on the stretcher, partially asleep. Night came on and I went off into a series of agonizing dreams. I awoke with a start. I was being lifted up from the floor on the stretcher. They carried me out. It was bright moonlight, and looking up I saw the moon, a dazzling white against the dark blue sky. The stretcher and I were pushed into an ambulance in which were three other cases beside myself. We were driven off to some station or other. I stared up at the canvas bottom of the stretcher above me, trying to realize it all. Presently we reached the train.

Another glimpse of the moon, and I was slid into the ambulance car....

In three days I was back in England at a London hospital--"A fragment from France."

Chapter end

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