Nights In No-Man's Land

By Captain R. Hugh Knyvett

[Scribner's Magazine, April 1918]

The first night "out there! The memory of it still quickens the pulse and makes the cheek grow pale. How my teeth chattered, my heart beat almost to suffocation—every splash of a rat was an enemy scout and every blade of grass magnified itself as a post of their barbed wire! I had gone but a few yards when I expected the next instant to bump into the enemy trenches.

There are strange sounds in No-Man's Land; not human sounds, for such carry far—the beat of hammer on a post, the sharp twang of unrolling barbed wire as it catches and then springs away—voices even come as through a megaphone in the eerie silence—but these are long-drawn sighs that penetrate the inner consciousness and hushed murmurs that fall on the ear of the soul. I have felt a touch on the shoulder as though one would speak to me when there has been no one by. It is the grave of ten thousand unburied dead, but the grinning skulls and quivering jelly or the few rags that flutter in the wind are not the comrades that we knew. I think their spirits hover near, for they cannot go to their abiding-place till victory has been won. They are ever seeking to pierce the veil of sense so that they may add their strength to our arms, and these make for us of No-Man's Land "no strange place," and give to our sentries encouragement until the land of No Man vanishes and our possession reaches to the barrier of the enemy barbed wire. My nights in No-Man's Land, if added together, would total many months, and I got to feel that it was one of the safest places on the whole front.

There was one night when I got a huge fright. I was crawling alongside a ridge —it had been an old irrigation farm and this was a low levee running across. I heard on the other side a splash which I thought was made by one of the innumerable rats, but I put up my head and looked over—so did Fritz, not a yard away! We both stared blankly in each other's face for a long second and then both of us turned and bolted. This was excusable for a German, but I have no defense. When I went back to look for him, after a court-martial by my own conscience, he was nowhere to be seen.

There was another night when Fritz got the better of me. In my explorations I came across a path through their barbed wire which was evidently the place where their patrols came out. I thought I would provide a surprise-party for him, so I planted some percussion-bombs and put a small Union Jack in the centre. In the morning the Union Jack was gone and a German flag in its place. Everybody from the brigadier down rubbed it in that Fritz was too smart for me.

But after this the tide turned and came in in a flood of ill luck for Fritz. It was a pitch-dark night and the occasional star-shells only served to make the black more intense when they faded. As we crawled out one behind the other we had to keep our hands on the foot ahead of us so as not to get separated. We made several ineffectual attempts to find the opening in our barbed wire and then cut a new one. Was this like the darkness after Calvary? The red signal-rockets ascending from the enemy's trenches gave no light, but only burned for a second or two as a ruddy star. And the green lights turned the vaporous fog a sickly yellowish green as though it were some new poison-gas of the devils over there. I led the way straight across. It was too dark to pick a path, and we committed no sacrilege as we trod on the bodies of forgotten comrades. It was impossible to repress a shudder as the hand met the clammy, rotting flesh and the spilt light from a rocket exposed the marble eyeballs and whitened flesh of the cheek, with the bared teeth gleaming yet more white. Our mission was to wait for a German patrol at the gap in their wire I had previously discovered. We were seeking identification of the regiments opposing us and we desired to take at least one of them alive. We waited drawn-out minutes while the dark smothered us and our thoughts haunted us. Minute piled on minute while we suffered the torture of the heretic who was fastened so that the falling drops of ice-water would follow each on the self-same spot. Home and "love of life" sought to drag us back to the shelter of our trenches, but duty, like an iron stake, pinned us there. But the stake was fast loosening in the soil of our resolution, when we heard the guttural gruntings that announced the approach of our quarry. We let them pass us and get well away from their trenches, then silently, like hunters stalking wild beasts, we followed them. When we were close enough to be almost overpowered by the smell of sauerkraut and sausage mingling with stale sweat, my voice rapped out, though muffled by the thick air: "Hands up!" There was no hesitation in obeying, although there were eight of them and only six of us. We pointed out the direction for them with our boots that there was no time to waste. We had only crossed a couple of shell-holes, however, when we came to a full stop. Presently I understood that they discovered we were Australians and were terrified. Probably they had been fed up with tales about our savagery and that we tortured our prisoners. Anyway, they would not budge, and we could not carry eight hulking Germans and had no means of tying them together. Presently the disturbance attracted notice from both trenches and there was only one thing to do. My sergeant called out: "Look out, sir! We'll be seen in a minute. What will we do?" The contest was short and sharp, they outnumbered us but we went to it with a will. It was sheer butchery, but I had rather send a thousand of the swine down to the Fatherland than lose one of my boys. And perhaps it were charity to some wife and daughter who would now be free from the brutality of their Teutonic lord and master,

There is nothing so easy as to be lost in No-Man's Land. A compass is useless for you may be lying on a fifteen-inch shell just covered with a few inches of earth, and the stars refuse to look down on its pain, and the sky is always thickly veiled. Turn round three times and you don't know which trench to return to. It is an awkward predicament and many a time I went blindly forward just praying that it was in the right direction. The German's horn-rimmed glasses but bewilder him the more and we have had several of them walk into our arms without intention, though they soon found that thereby they had bettered themselves. There was one young Bavarian officer who made this miscalculation. I saw him moving near our wire in the early dawn. I called to some men to draw a bead on him but he came toward us and at the last with a run jumped down into our trench. "Good morning!" I said to him, looking down my automatic, and you never saw such a crest-fallen countenance in your life. It must have been some shock—expecting to join his own people and suddenly finding himself in the camp of his enemies. I found out afterward that he was a young cadet qualifying for his commission and this was his first night in the trenches. He evidently was seeking an iron cross very early in his career. I spat question after question at him, such as: "What's your regiment?" "How long have you been in the trenches?" etc., but in English he replied; "I won't tell you anything. You can't make me!" "All right, old chap, don't get excited! Come along with me." I took him to the dugout which I shared with the medical officer in the support trenches, and sent Pat, my batman, to get together the best meal he could. Pat was a genius as a providore. None of the other officers liked him, for they suspected he was the medium for the loss of some of their luxuries, and I always had a blind eye. On this occasion Pat got together a real slap-up feed—some tinned sausages, mashed potatoes, strawberry-jam, preserved pears and cream, not forgetting a bottle of champagne. I sent for the doctor and we fell to with gusto and never offered his nibs a bite, though the eyes were popping out of his head and his mouth watering with hunger. Toward the end of the meal I said to him: "I can't compel you to tell me anything, but I am not compelled to feed you. But you know how to earn something to eat." He began to tell me something I knew was all rubbish and I swung at him with: "You swine! If you tell me those lies I'll strip your badges off you and send you in as a private." I was surprised at the effect this threat had on him, though I knew that was the one thing that never failed in bringing a German officer to book. He trembled and paled and gave me a lot of information that I afterward proved to be correct.

Here's a good story of Pat, my old batman, who had been a shearer's cook in Australia and looked after me like a father. He was really too old for the trenches, but this job just suited him. I was very surprised one day to see him with a German prisoner. He was never in a charge and had no business having this man. Probably he had borrowed him from some other chap. I said to him: "Pat, what on earth are you doing with Fritz?" "To tell yer the truth, sorr-r, Oi haven't yet made up my boards. I had time only to roll into the moind!" "Let us have no humbug, take him back to the cage!" "Very well, sorr-r!" About ten minutes later I saw Pat without his prisoner. "Here, Pat, what on earth did you do with Fritz?" "Well, sorr-r, he kept beggin' and beggin' to be let go, so Oi just put a Mills in his pocket with the pin out, and tould him to run for his loife!" He would not get fifty yards before it went off!

The trained scout moves very cautiously in No-Man's Land, with all his senses at high tension. After moving from one shell-hole to the next he lies and listens for a full minute. If there are any human beings near, they will likely betray themselves by loud breathing, a muffled sneeze, or some rattle of equipment. If satisfied that the way is clear, he moves forward into another hole. Should he suddenly come into sight of the enemy, he is taught instantly to freeze, and the chances are he will not be noticed. There was one night when I was making a way through the German wire and had my hand up cutting a strand when a sentry poked his head over the top and looked straight at me not three yards away. I froze instantly in that attitude, but he fired a shot at me which, of course, went wide, being aimed in the dark. He then sent up a flare, but the firing of this dazzles a man for several seconds and then so many shadows are thrown that I was no more distinct than previously. He went away, returning a minute or two later to have another look. By this I was quite stiff, but he was quite satisfied that no live man could be there. Had I jumped into a shell-hole, as fear prompted me to do, he would have roused the whole line and a bomb would likely have got me. However, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look into the trench, for I reasoned that this sentry must be alone or some else would have put up the flare while he fired the shot. Probably the rest of his regiment were on a working fatigue not far away. It was a breast-work trench and I climbed up the sand-bags but tripped over a wire at the top and came down with a clatter. A red flare went up and I heard the feet of many soldiers running along the duck boards. I had time only to roll into the ditch at the foot of the back of the parapet, where I was quite safe from observation, when they manned their trench to repel the "raid." After several minutes, when about a hundred rifles, several machine-guns, and a trench-mortar were pouring their fire into No-Man's Land, I began to recover my nerve and saw that it would be a good opportunity to mark the position of one of these machine-guns which was firing just above my head. In fact, I could, with ease, have had my hand drilled just by holding it up. I tore a page out of my note-book and placed it in a crevice between the sand-bags, just under the gun. Hours afterward, when all was quiet, I returned to our own trenches and fastened another piece of white paper to a bush half-way across No-Man's Land that I noticed was in line with a dead tree close to our "sally-port" and my first piece of paper. In the morning the artillery-observation officer could see these two pieces of paper quite plainly with his glasses and they levelled that trench for fifty yards.

No-Man's Land is a place of surprises, where death plucks his victims without warning. There have been some strange deaths there, where bodies lay with unbroken skin, with mark of neither bullet nor shell. Times when a spirit laid the body down fair and unmarred human flesh, but other times when the flesh was rent to ribbons and the bones smashed to splinters by the force imprisoned in a shell. Such was the death meted out by justice to six Germans in a listening-post fifty yards in advance of their trench. This party was in the way for our raid. We could not enter their trench by surprise without first removing it, and the job fell on me. I prepared a mine of my own. I took two Stokes shells, changed the time-fuse for instantaneous, took out the safety-pins holding the lever down by means of an iron ring. I crept out with these shells just a little before dark so as to arrive at the position before the Germans. I then put the shells one on either side and connected them with a fine trip-wire tied onto each ring. I hurried from the spot as though the pestilence were after me and got back safely, to the surprise of my brother officers, who very consolingly said they all expected me to blow myself up. At half past eight, however, there was music in our ears of a loud explosion in the direction of my mine. Next morning, through the telescope, could be seen what remained of several Hun carcasses. Pat, my batman, who was always a Job's comforter, informed me that the Germans would lie in wait for me, to revenge this outrage, but if I had taken any notice of him I should never have been able to do my job. He would come to me some mornings and beg me not to go out in No-Man's Land that night, as he had dreamed that I "was kilt;" when I generally consigned him to a place where the English cease from troubling and the Irish are at rest.

The enemy did his share in surprises. There was one occasion when I received word from the Tommies on our right that a large German patrol had been out on their front all night. As they did not attack I was considerably worried as to what they were up to, knowing they would not be there for the benefit of their health. I was responsible that our portion of the line should be guarded from surprise, and fear of some unknown calamity that might spring upon us from the dark made me so concerned that I lay pretty nearly all day on top of the parapet, covered in sand-bags, searching every inch of No-Man's Land for a sign of the cause of their nocturnal activity. The setting sun revealed something shining that looked like the barrel of a Lewis gun. I determined to go out and get it after dark. When I went out I found I could not get near the place for a machine-gun was playing round it to discourage curiosity, which it very effectively did. I reported next morning that the only chance of seeing what it was was to go out in the daytime and it was suspicious enough to justify the risk. I donned a green suit and with a snail's progress crawled through the long grass and discovered that the Germans had laid a five-inch pipe from their trenches to within fifty yards of an indentation in our own. They would be able to enfilade us with gas before we could don our masks. We looked on our dangerous wind being one that blew across No-Man's Land, but with this pipe we would be gassed when the wind blew down the line from the Tommies to us. The engineer officer wanted to blow up the pipe, but I thought if we blocked it up the enemy might not discover it and put through gas which would come back on himself. Some concrete dugouts were being constructed at this time, and I took out a bucket of concrete and dumped it over the end of the pipe in broad daylight, without having a shot fired at me or being seen. Afterward I found crawling in the daylight in No Man's Land to be less dangerous than at night. On a quiet front there is very little rifle or machine-gun fire by day for fear of betraying machine-gun and sniper positions. Never once in two or three daylight excursions into No-Man's Land was I seen by the enemy or our own sentries.

Darkness always holds fear for the human heart, and it is the unknown danger that makes the bravest quail and not so many are cowards in the daylight. But who can tell which holds the more peril for the soldier? He faces the terror that cometh by night, the destruction walketh by day, and the pestilence that wasteth at noonday. But night is often kindly—it brings the balm of sleep to our tired bodies and covers coarseness and filth with a softening veil. No-Man's Land at night is more beautiful than by day, for we need not know of the horror we do not see and it shuts us off from sight of our enemies and lets us feel that the wall is thick and strong that stands between our homes and women kin and the savagery and bestiality of the monster who ravaged the homes and raped the women of Belgium and France.

"But if there's horror, there's beauty, wonder;
The trench lights gleam and the rockets play.
That flood of magnificent orange yonder
Is a battery blazing miles away."

I remember when I was wounded and being carried out of the trench my brother officers saying to me: "Oh, Knyvett, you lucky dog!" And I was lucky, and knew it, though I had twenty wounds and trench feet. Why, when I arrived at the hospital and lay in a real bed, with real sheets and warm blankets, with a roof over my head that didn't leak, and a fire in the room, with the nurse now and again to come along and smile on me, I tell you heaven had no extra attractions to offer me. The man who got wounded in those days was a lucky dog all right—in fact, he mostly is at all times, and about the silliest thing the war office ever did was to issue an honor stripe for wounds. The man deserving of the greatest credit is not the man who gets wounded but the man who stays on in the trenches week after week and month after month, enduring the nervous strain and unnatural conditions, living like a rat in a hole in the ground. There are none who have been there for any length of time who do not welcome the sharp pain of a wound as a relief.

The Germans opposite us, in their trenches at Bapaume, were, of course, in as bad a plight as we were. When I scouted down their trenches at night I found equipment and stores lying on top of the parapet. Evidently the mud in the bottom of their trenches was as bad as in ours, and anything dropped had to be fished for. Perhaps there were no deep dugouts just there. We would not allow our men to use these deep dugouts, as nothing so conduces to bad morale. Once men get deep down out of range of the shells they are very, very reluctant to leave their "funk-holes." A man has to be hardened to shell-fire before he is of any value as a fighter, and these deep dugouts take men out of reach of most of the shells and when they come in the open again they have to be hardened anew.

It is not generally a wise plan to occupy the old German trench, as he has the range of it very accurately, and anyway it is in most cases so badly battered about after our artillery has done with it as not to be at all superior as a residence to the shell-holes in front of it, and it is mostly full of dead Germans which are unearthed by the shells as often as we bury them. God knows the smell of a live German is not a pleasant thing to live near, but as for dead ones—! Our method was to construct a new trench about fifty yards in advance by linking up a chain of shell-holes and we felt the labor to be worth while when we saw the shells falling behind us, and it was not much harder than if we had had to clean out the old German trench.

On our right flank there was a gap of a hundred yards that we patrolled two or three times a night, and in our net we sometimes caught some Germans who were lost. On one occasion a German with a string of water-bottles round his neck and a "grunt" that may have been a password stepped down into our trench. He had evidently been out to get water for himself and comrades from their nearest supply and taken the wrong turning! He made an attempt at a grin when he found where he was, and evidently thought the change could not be for the worse. He was so thick in the head, however—I have known cows with more intelligence—that I wonder any other German being fool enough to trust him with such a valuable article as a water-bottle.

We were planning to take a portion of the trench opposite, to straighten our line, and I had scouted down a hundred yards of it from behind and got a good idea of the strength with which it was held, taking bearings of its position. The next night, as the attack was to take place at daybreak, I thought I had better go over and make sure that I had made no mistakes. I crossed over the first trench without any difficulty. There did not seem to be any one on guard. I then went toward their support lines where there seemed to be more men, mostly working parties. I passed these and, with unpardonable carelessness, stood up to have a look round, thinking that it was too dark for me to be seen. But I got a shock to find there was a sentry almost beside me, though he was, if anything, more scared than myself. He pulled the trigger without taking aim and naturally missed me, but if he had been wide-awake he could with ease have punctured me with his bayonet. I did not stop to pass the time of day with him, for the place seemed suddenly alive with Huns, as he called" Heinz, Heinz!"—probably the name of his corporal. But I dived into a shell-hole and flattened myself as much as possible. As I was lost to sight and to memory too dear to be allowed to escape, they began to cover the ground with bombs. These air went well beyond me, and had it not been for "Butter-fingers" I might have escaped. But a bomb slipped from his hand, rolling into the hole in front of him. He jumped back into the safety of the trench and did not know that the bomb had fallen on me as it exploded. But I knew it—my left leg was broken in three places, twelve wounds in my right, and others on my back, twenty that afterward had to be dressed, not counting some other scratches. Then they came out to look for my friend, almost stepping on me, but after half an hour's fruitless search they gave up. About two hours later I started home on my long, painful crawl. It took me about twenty minutes to pass the sentry near where I was lying, but after that there was no danger of discovery, the front line still appearing almost unoccupied; but I was getting dizzy and not sure of my direction. I knew, however, where there was a derelict aeroplane in No-Man's Land, and made toward it. When I sighted this I was overcome with relief and laid my face in the mud for a while to recover. I had now crawled about six hundred yards, dragging my useless leg. And my elbows were skinned through, being used as grapples that I dug in the ground ahead, in that way dragging myself a few inches at a time. I knew our trenches were still about two hundred yards away, and the sweat of fear broke out on me as I remembered the two machine-guns in front of me that would fire on anything seen moving out there, and no one expected me to return that way. So I crawled higher up the line, where it was safer to enter, and a few yards from our trenches gave our scouting-call. Several of my boys came running out and tenderly picked me up. I dived into a shell-hole and flattened I was all in and could not move a muscle. My own boys would not allow the stretcher-bearers to touch me, but six of them put me on a stretcher and carried over the top just as day was breaking. They would not go down into the communication trench or shell-holes, because they thought it would be too rough on me, and so carried me over the exposed ground, and when they got me to the dressing-station they said: "You will come back to us, sir, won't you?" I said: "Yes, boys, you bet I will!" And you may bet that I shall as soon as ever I am passed as fit again.

The pain of my wounds was soon altogether forgotten, for each medical officer that examined me finished up with a liquid melody of the phrase, "Blighty for you!" My leave was long past due, and the very next day I was to report for transfer to the Australian wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which would have meant several weeks' training in England, but "The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley!"—and there's a Science shapes our ends, rough-hack them though Huns may!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury