Fighting Under the Ground
Work of Sappers and Miners in the Great War
By Captain H. D. Trounce, E. R. C.
[Scribner's Magazine, November 1918]
During the progress of this war there has been a constant increase in the number of engineering troops and development in engineer equipment. While the organization of the German troops at the outset of the war included large numbers of engineer soldiers specially trained for military purposes, the number of engineer units in our forces as well as those of our allies was comparatively small.
The training of engineer troops among the Allies for use in trench warfare was extremely limited; their work was confined generally to the operations of open warfare.
Trench warfare has changed the whole course of' events and has rendered necessary wide and sweeping changes in organization, training, and equipment. It has been often stated that this is a war of engineers, and it is certainly true. Engineers and engineering problems are found in every branch of the service.
Instead of being a small and comparatively unimportant corps in our great army machine they are now of the first importance, and no operations of any magnitude are undertaken without including the necessary engineer forces.
In almost every instance careful liaison or co-operation must be effected with the infantry or other arms concerned in the operations.
On account of a more or less general ignorance of their duties, the members of the Engineer Corps seldom receive the appreciation from the public which they so well earn. These same "sappers," as they are called in the British army, are the handy men of the army. In my experience at the front, if there was any job that no one else could handle, it was always the engineers who were called on to tackle it.
I can hardly begin to enumerate the different activities of engineers in trench and open warfare. Some of the most important work done by them in this trench warfare includes the construction, repair, and general maintenance of all trenches (assisted by the infantry); the building of all mined dugouts and shelters of all descriptions; the construction of all strong points and implacements, machine-gun posts, trench-mortar posts, artillery gunpits, snipers' posts, O. P.'s, or artillery observation-posts, and so on; all demolition work, such as the firing of large charges, of high explosives in mines under the enemy's positions, the destruction of enemy strong points, etc.; the building and maintenance of all roads; the construction and destruction of all bridges; construction and operation of light and heavy railroads, and many other duties too numerous to mention.
It is a work of alternate construction and destruction. The sapper must be a real soldier as well as an engineer. With the possible exception of the troops on lines of communication, and some railway, harbor, and other special units, they are all combatant troops, and are so rated and recognized. Many thousands of them are on constant trench work and other thousands on work close up, where they are continually shelled and exposed to fire.
The training of the majority of engineers includes the same methods of offense and defense as the infantry, and well it is that it does so. Almost every day on the western front they are called on to accompany the infantry "over the top," or on a raid on enemy trenches; to destroy enemy defenses, or to consolidate captured trenches; or again to "man the parapet" in holding off enemy attacks until infantry reinforcements can come through the usual "barrage." These things happen every day in the trenches, and the engineer-soldier would be at a serious disadvantage if he had not been trained in the use of rifle, bomb, and bayonet, and taught how to defend himself. No one has a stronger admiration for the infantry than I have, and every one must take off his hat to these "pucca" (real) fighting men, but the fact remains that the sappers who have continual trench duty are subject to the same constant trench fire as the infantry are every day—the only real difference is that they seldom get a chance to "hit" back. They have their work to do, and seldom have a chance to return the compliment and "strafe the Hun," except in self-defense.
Strategists are pretty well agreed that the main successes of the war must be won by sheer hard trench fighting, and continued until the Germans will not be able to pay the cost in lives and munitions.
In this underground warfare the work of the engineers whose business it is to protect the infantry from enemy attacks below ground is both serious and interesting. At the headquarters of the mining regiment a note is opened from the brigade staff, "Enemy mining suspected at K.24b18—request immediate investigation." An experienced mining officer is at once detailed to proceed to the area in question and report on the situation.
Often enough it is a question of nerves on the part of some lonely sentry, but quite as often it develops that the enemy are mining in the immediate vicinity. Measures to start countermining are at once begun.
Then the game of wits below ground begins. Mine-shafts are sunk and small, narrow galleries driven at a depth which the engineers hope will bring them underneath the German attack galleries. From day to day, and even from hour to hour when they are within striking distance, careful and constant listening below ground is undertaken, both friend and foe endeavoring to make progress as silently as possible.
In a regular mine system all manner of ruses are adopted to keep the enemy guessing as to the exact locality of each of their tunnels: false noises in distant or higher galleries; plain working of pick and shovel in others. Meanwhile they are silently and speedily making progress in the genuine tunnels toward the real objective.
Often we delay the laying of our charges of high explosive until we are within two or three feet of the enemy gallery and can even hear the enemy miners talking. On three occasions I have heard them talking very plainly, and listened for hours to them working on quite unconscious of their danger. It was always a source of annoyance to me that I could understand so little German. At other times, and this has happened'' several times in the clay soil of Flanders, we have broken into enemy galleries and fought them with automatic pistols, bombs, and portable charges of high explosives.
As a means of offensive warfare, mining has taken an important part, particularly in the launching of infantry attacks and night-raids.
The battle of Messines Ridge in July, 1916, was started by firing at the "zero" hour some nineteen mines, spread over a front of several kilometres. In these nineteen mines the aggregate of the total high explosive used and fired at the same instant was a few thousand pounds short of one million pounds. Some of the individual charges were nearly one hundred thousand pounds each, and had been laid ready for firing for over twelve months. Some idea of the frightful force and power of these charges may be obtained when it is remembered that each of the "Mills" bombs, or hand-grenades carried by British soldiers, contains one-quarter of one pound, or four ounces only, of this explosive. As a result of this terrific blow the Germans retreated for over a half mile on the entire front mined, and the initial objectives of the British were captured with astonishingly low casualties.
In countermining, when the enemy are met below ground, in crossing under "No Man's Land," it is the usual practice of the Allies to explode a charge or mine, which they call a " camouflet." The camoufiet totally destroys the enemy's gallery but does not break the surface. The common and the overcharged mine always blow a deep and wide cone-shaped crater. Large charges of explosive blow craters several hundred feet in diameter and well over a hundred feet in depth.
In almost every sector of the western front in France where the trenches are close together (that is, from twenty or thirty up to two hundred yards apart), these mine craters are found in No Man's Land. In sectors where mining has been very active mine craters are so common that they intersect each other. The "blowing" of a crater in No Man's Land at night and the immediate occupation and consolidation of it by the infantry and engineers is a wonderfully stirring affair. The strain on the morale of the infantry occupying sectors which are known to be mined is a terrible one, especially if they have no engineers to combat the stealthy attack. For the hundreds who are killed, buried, or injured from enemy mines there are thousands who suffer a mental strain from the mere suspicion of their existence.
Trench mining now, I am glad to add, is not the menace that it was in 1915 and 1916, but when the good-weather offensives cease and the usual winter trench warfare is renewed, mining invariably makes its reappearance.
As it was a rare day for us in Flanders when the enemy or ourselves did not "blow" a mine, we were always on our toes. Except in cases of sudden emergency, we informed the infantry of our intention to fire a mine, and gave them the time necessary to withdraw their men to points of safety. Often we would blow a mine at night in co-operation with the infantry, so that they might at once rush out and "consolidate" the crater, or the nearest lip or rim of the crater. Certain positions in No Man's Land were particularly desirable on account of their strategic value; possibly for the purpose of enfilading the enemy's trenches by occupying one rim of the crater; or perhaps for the obtaining of better observation-points, or for any other reason. The consolidation of these craters is indeed a wonderfully stirring business. A little explanation of a crater might help.
The engineers will fire large charges of high explosives from underground galleries, at a depth of anything from twenty to two hundred feet, with the result that a huge hole is blown in the ground in the shape of an inverted cone, like the average shell-hole, but very much wider and deeper. No Man's Land in front of us, where the trenches are close, is pitted with great numbers of these craters, some blown by the Germans and some by us. The craters vary from the small ones, about seventy or eighty feet in diameter and twelve to fifteen feet deep, to larger ones, to such dimensions as three hundred feet in diameter and up to a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep. The size, of course, depends on the charge of high explosives used, the depth of the mine galleries, and the soil one springs the mine in.
The enemy is usually just as concerned with the consolidation of the rim or lip of the crater on their side as we are with ours, and a battle royal for their occupation results. Machine-guns on both sides concentrate fire on the crater almost before the debris from the explosion has had time to fall. It is a weird and wonderful sight. From a fairly calm night, usually with only desultory fire going on, the thunderclap comes. Before firing, which is usually done electrically, the engineers calculate the exact diameter of the crater to be formed, and the previous night the infantry or engineers will have completed a trench forward from the front line to an intersection with the rim of the proposed crater. Directly the charge has been fired, they rush out through this trench and hastily throw up breastworks on the lip of the crater formed. The machine-gunners take up proper offensive and defensive positions; the bombers, usually at the head and the flank of the " throw up " or lip, erect the wire screens necessary for their temporary protection; the wiremen place their barbed wire around the portion to be consolidated, and all ranks dig themselves in as fast as they can, later bringing up such timber or other material as they can to strengthen the positions. When it is planned to hold the whole of the crater, the "wire" men completely encircle it with entanglements, and the Lewis gunners and bombers make such changes in disposition as are necessary.
This represents the usual procedure when a crater is blown in No Man's Land. Thousands of these craters are so exploded.
On numerous other occasions when we have penetrated below the surface with our underground galleries under and across No Man's Land to below the Germans' front-line trenches (and in many cases we go as far as their support lines without being discovered), our little affairs are accompanied by infantry raids. Pandemonium reigns supreme at these times, and nothing can be likened to the noise and apparent confusion in which these usually very successful raids are conducted. We fire our mines under their trenches and the infantry raiding parties immediately cross and clean up any Germans we might have missed with our attentions. As a result of our noiseless work below in the clay we would occasionally break through into each others' galleries.
Perhaps you would be interested in an underground fight which we had with the Boche in one of our galleries thirty feet below the surface under these trenches. Some two weeks before this, we had successfully blown a mine, and a few days later had discovered and worked through the broken gallery we had destroyed. Passing through this gallery, we continued our silent work in the clay, and about fifty feet farther turned off to the left in order to strike what we thought would be the enemy's main defensive gallery. Our miners who were working at this face hurriedly sent up word one morning to our dugout on top just off the shaft-house that they had broken into the German gallery with a small hole in the clay. All men working underground had standing orders that if this occurred at any time they should at once put out their candles, observe strict silence, plug up the hole with clay, and report forthwith to the officer on duty. Warning all men to leave the workings below, the officer on duty hurried down to the spot, stopped long enough in our main gallery to make up a mobile, or portable, charge of thirty pounds of guncotton from our magazine, which we had established there for just such emergencies, then proceeded with the utmost care to the gallery mentioned. Lieutenant G. had connected up a dry guncotton primer to the charge, inserted a detonator attached to a short piece of safety fuse, which latter would burn for about two minutes before detonating the charge. The men had noticed and heard three certainly, and probably more Germans at work in their gallery, which was lighted with electric light. Lieutenant G. very carefully withdrew the clay plug, enlarged the hole, slid the box containing the charge into the enemy gallery, lit the fuse, and swiftly and quickly withdrew from the scene. He reached safely the main gallery, quite a distance from the charge, in time to hear the explosion. He then climbed quickly to the top to escape the resulting fatal gases developed by the detonation of the high explosives.
I arrived on the scene a few minutes later and my section commander asked me if I was "game enough," as he described it, to go below with a sapper to investigate the damage done, and see how many Germans we had accounted for. I was very willing, so Doherty, the sapper mentioned, and myself equipped ourselves with the "Proto" oxygen-breathing apparatus necessary in going into "gassy" galleries, then descended, carrying also the usual canary in a cage to test the air. The canary soon toppled off his perch and fell dead to the floor of his cage. Both Doherty and I had previously been trained in the use of the oxygen apparatus, and were quite confident of its ability to take care of the carbon monoxide so that it would not affect our lungs. Before we reached the enemy gallery, I stopped long enough to pick up and carry with me the air-hose, and this I left later in the enemy's workings so that our men on top could pump good air in and allow others down in a short time to resume the offensive. We reached the gallery, found the remains of the three Boches that G. 'had "sent west" with his charge of guncotton, then proceeded to investigate the damage done. As the enemy gallery was very closely timbered, we had only broken down a portion of it with the charge employed. On entering their gallery, I had carefully searched for and cut all wires that I found there.
This is a regular practice with us, the object being to sever all electric leads, wires, or fuses which the enemy may have left connected to a charge or mine already laid. On breaking into any of these galleries the officer in charge usually enlarges the holes in the clay until he can put his arm through, feels around until he finds any wires, and promptly cuts them with his pliers. Such operations of necessity must be done in darkness and without sound, and one's heart is working like a pump-handle. I was agreeably surprised to find that no Germans had summoned courage enough to investigate matters as we were doing; Doherty, however, did not share my sentiments, and gave me the impression as best he could, enveloped in the oxygen apparatus as he was, that he distinctly regretted their lack of sand. We were both armed with electric torches and revolvers, but we were not keen on using them oftener than necessary, and so advertising our presence. After leaving the air-hose and noting results, I picked up the cap of one of the defunct Germans, and we came out, or rather crawled out. Our progress was mostly in the form of a crawl, and the steel oxygen cylinders knocking against the timber sets in the narrow galleries as we proceeded did not improve our tempers. We arrived safely back at the surface and I made my report. After pumping air into the gallery for about an hour, we all went below again, and my section commander and Lieutenant G. crawled through to examine conditions in the enemy's gallery, while I was engaged in the magazine in opening boxes of guncotton, and getting all primers and detonators ready for more action.
Captain B., the section commander, came back presently and informed me that he and G. had been slightly gassed during their investigation of the enemy tunnel,, but had not met any Boche; he had decided on making up some raiding-parties, would arm them with mobile charges, attempt to explore the German gallery and mine system and, if possible, try and destroy their shaft. The difficulties of proceeding farther into the German galleries, now that the enemy was thoroughly aroused, were pretty large, but I agreed with him that it was up to us to get them somehow if we had a possible chance. We made up three of these parties at once, each composed of one officer, one non-commissioned officer, and two sappers, each party armed with revolvers and a mobile charge of thirty pounds of guncotton, the latter being carried in boxes. Each of the sappers provided themselves with a couple of Mills bombs, their confidence in these useful little articles on all occasions being quite touching. It was arranged that Captain B. should station himself at the junction of our gallery with that of the Boches, and if our plans looked like coming "unstuck'' he would blow his whistle hard. On this signal we would all hustle back to our own galleries and shaft-head as quickly as possible. "The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley" and our luck was not good on this stunt. The other two officers were senior to me and, as usual in such circumstances, resolutely insisted on their right to take their parties in first.
It was quite an exceptional affair, our breaking into an enemy gallery, as in most cases either the enemy or ourselves would have fired their mines when within striking distance of each other, so all the men were very keen on it. In my own case, I was so keyed up with excitement that I entirely forgot a bad toothache that I had, resulting from an abscess under a large molar, and these things are usually pretty difficult to forget—even in the trenches. Well, the first two parties passed quietly into the enemy's gallery, and just as I was about to lead my own party in Captain B. blew his signal-whistle and, according to instructions, I took myself and party back to our own shaft-head, followed soon by the men of the other parties; last of all by the other two officers who had entered the enemy gallery first. Our plan had come "unstuck." It developed that the first two parties had managed to get in a short distance before meeting any opposition, but that the Boche had then opened fire on them, and they had stopped just long enough to return a few revolver-shots, set light to the fuses on their two mobile charges, and run for it. Altogether this last attempt had not been very successful, though we fortunately had no casualties.
I was again asked to go below with Doherty in breathing-apparatus and see what effect the firing of these two last charges had made on the gallery. We did so, but found no living Germans in the tunnel. We left the air-hose this time farther up their more or less destroyed workings, and reported that we could get down soon again to resume operations. For the time we posted six sappers and a non-commissioned officer near the enemy's entrance to cover any endeavor on the part of the latter to get through into our galleries. They did not attempt to do so; in fact, they didn't seem to care much about going near the place—which fact, perhaps, proved fortunate for D. and myself, though I knew that fine little Irishman was aching for a scrap with them.
In an hour or so when the poisonous gas had again been blown out and fresh air pumped in, Lieutenant G. and I, being rather concerned over the possibility of the enemy trying to pump in gas on our men below ground, decided to go in on our own initiative and see what we could do. We proceeded below, armed each with revolver and torch, and were followed by another officer carrying a mobile charge and a sapper with a second. We walked and crawled very quietly and cautiously until we reached a point about one hundred and fifty feet up the enemy gallery; here I suggested to G. that it would be decidedly unwise to try and get any farther; the electric lights still alight in the gallery were just a few feet ahead of us, and we could distinguish the sounds of whispering and stealthy walking very near. In crawling in we had, of course, used our torches as little as possible. If I had not persuaded G. as to the wisdom of my advice, I believe he would have attempted to go right up to the German shaft-head. I walked back a little way along the gallery, signalled B, another officer, and a sapper to hand me the guncotton charges; then instructed them to clear out.
We decided to fire the charges at this point, so after collecting, with great care to avoid noise, a number of sand-bags filled with clay which the Germans had left in this gallery, we used these for tamping the charge. G. lit the fuse while I covered the gallery with my revolver. G. said, "Hold on a minute while I get a souvenir," and promptly grabbed a five-foot length of three-inch air-pipe which the Germans used in their work, while I picked up a few empty multicolored sand-bags of the kind favored by the Boche miner. The shortness of our safety-fuse was a strong factor in preventing us from going farther. It was to burn about two minutes, and in these two minutes we had to crawl and squirm through some very awkward sections in the galleries. In two places there was only room enough for our bodies to scrape through. The timber and clay had been destroyed in several places, and it was difficult at these spots to get through without bringing in some more sets or inviting clay falls which would have imprisoned us with the charge. Death as the result of an overdose of carbon monoxide is not so bad, as one just drops into a gentle and insidious sleep from which one fails to wake; but the concussion resulting from the detonation of the charge is not such a pleasant affair. We fortunately reached a spot of comparative safety just in time to hear the detonation of the charges. Afterward we climbed to the surface,
I went below again after a half-hour had elapsed, this time without the oxygen apparatus, as I was physically too weak to carry its forty pounds again. Another sapper went down with me, wearing the "Proto" apparatus, and I leading with a rope around me in case I should be gassed and have to be pulled out. This time we played in great luck: no Germans were encountered by us. The lad who came with me was not of the same stuff as D.; once, while I was crawling ahead of him, I knelt on a piece of broken timber; it made a sharp noise much like the crack of a revolver, and this rather disconcerted him. He soon recovered, however.
This was a busy day for me. I must have had that "rabbit's foot" around my neck in going down first after the charges three times and coming out with a whole skin. We could not quite reach the advanced spot where we had fired the gallery, although near enough. I was gassed a little on this trip. Some two hours later, having prepared a large charge of guncotton, we went below and laid it. During the process the enemy, gathering their courage, had come back to their gallery, and having cleared some of the debris away, fired a number of shots at our fellows while they were loading. We fired the mine in the usual way by means of blasting machine from our dugout. This dugout was built with an entrance leading off to the mine shaft. We thought our troubles were over for a while anyhow, and four of our men carelessly remained in the dugout, talking and smoking for some ten minutes or so after firing. One of them happened to look up around the dugout, and noticed that all the canaries which we kept there at night in some four cages had toppled from their perches, and were lying with their feet sticking in the air. With, one bound they reached the dugout entrance and fresh, air, realizing that the poisonous gas must have come up the shaft before penetrating to the dugout. Poor Captain B. was rather badly gassed and was carried away on a stretcher. He recovered, however, after a few days at the nearest C. C. S. I am glad to record that Lieutenant G. received the Military Cross for his share in these operations.
On many occasions the British tunnelling companies have outwitted the cunning Hun. Here is one instance. The British broke into an enemy's gallery in clay and struck the tamping of a charge they had laid and were holding ready to fire. This tamping consisted of clay bags built up in galleries back of the charge in order to confine and intensify the explosion. Working through the tamping, the sappers reached a mine charge of about four thousand pounds of westphalite, one of the various German high explosives. Carefully extracting this, they connected up the enemy's leads to one of their blasting caps to insure non-detection for electric continuity, and then withdrew. What the Hun mining officer said, and felt, when he attempted to fire his mine, maybe left to the imagination.
The charges we used in our deep mines in the chalk were tremendous, mine-chambers being loaded with anything from one up to fifty tons of a high explosive twice as strong as dynamite. Last year in the battle of Messines the British launched their first big attack by firing a large number of mines below the enemy trenches, using charges of from fifteen to fifty tons in each mine, and exploding them all at the same moment, the "zero" minute, or exact time at which the infantry go over the top. Very close to a million pounds of a remarkably high explosive was fired at the same instant by the engineers on this front. In starting an infantry attack the mining officers, in common with all the officers of the units engaged in the attack, synchronize their watches, and at the second planned, push home hard the handles of their blasting machines. Earth-racking mines are detonated with terrific force. The craters formed from these explosions are often over three hundred feet in diameter and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet deep. Whole companies of men are engulfed, all trenches within a large radius totally destroyed, and many additional men buried in their fall.
So intense was the fighting below ground in our operations on the Vimy Ridge that we would explode sometimes as many as four separate mines a night on our own small company front, only five hundred yards in length of sector. In one of our clay galleries we reached the enemy trenches and, passing under them, ran into the timber of one of their mine shafts. Carefully cutting a small hole through one of their timbers, we listened there, relieving each other from time to time, for nearly twenty-four hours. We would carefully crawl up to our listening hole and sit tight in the dark, hardly daring to breathe. We had struck the bottom of the Boche shaft and could-hear them talking and even see occasionally the enemy miners as they passed up to their own trenches. Our knowledge of German was unfortunately extremely limited, but no interpreters could be obtained or persuaded to join us at this spot. I can't blame them. We finally fired this mine and three others, also, under their front line at the same time, blowing their trenches and many Huns sky-high. A small party from the "Black Watch" followed over on a fast raid and reported on their return that no traces of enemy trenches could be found for two or three hundred yards, everything having been, totally destroyed by our mines.
Another time we were tunnelling through with a four-foot-six-inch by two-foot-six-inch gallery in the clay, but right on top of the chalk formation. The floor of the gallery was only an inch or two above the chalk. The enemy workings must have been about ten feet below our gallery and in the chalk. We could heat them very plainly at work, so continued progress, on our tunnel without a sound, and presently, as they came closer, could hear them talking. We then loaded a small charge, about a thousand pounds of high explosive, at the end of our gallery. Sitting tight and listening carefully, we waited until they had passed under and just beyond us. A few hours later the listeners reporting that they were at work again on the face of their gallery, we fired our camouflet with the blasting machine from the trench above.
A camouflet is a small mine explosion which does not form a crater, and is calculated to destroy underground workings. One does not always have pleasant reflections after some of these operations, but we all stand the same chance. If the enemy fires first we go up, and vice versa. So the game of wits below ground goes on. Sometimes we score, and sometimes Fritz outplays us.
One night a runner brought down the news to us at our dugout at Aux Reitz that the Boche had fired a camouflet in our "H" mine on the extreme right of our sector. Everybody below had been killed from the resulting concussion, and poisonous gases developed. Fortunately there were only seven sappers in the mine at the time. The officer on duty and three other men had gallantly attempted to rescue some of the poor fellows by going below in oxygen-breathing apparatus, but had themselves been gassed and were only rescued with difficulty. After the gas below had dissipated sufficiently we were able to recover three of the bodies, but those of the other four men were never found. A Church of England chaplain came up a day or two later and read the usual short Army Burial Service at the top of the mine shaft, surrounded by a few of the comrades of the dead soldiers, the latter reverently attentive and much impressed with this unusual burial.
The enemy trench-mortar fire on the surface was particularly bad. We reached a stage where we thought nothing of shelling as long as they did not throw in a number of T. M.'s, as they are called. These trench mortars vary in weight from five to two hundred and fifty pounds, from aerial darts to heavy minenwerfers. Their trajectory being steep and their velocity not very high, we could see them in the air, look out for them, and in many cases reach cover before they dropped. However, this was not always easy. One could always see the trench mortar which was going to land in a trench about a hundred or more yards distant, but those that were apparently coming straight for where one himself was, left one always in doubt as to whether they would land in one's own traverse or in the next. And one's guess in the matter was nearly always wrong.
Our casualties from these trench mortars were heavy. Ten of my men were coming in to report for duty one afternoon. They were working at mine "F;" and the trenches by which we approached this shaft were always subjected to intense bombardment with T. M.'s, and at many places almost completely levelled by this fire at regular intervals. When this happened the wise man would bend almost double in passing along or crawl over the obstruction on his hands and stomach, so as to avoid observation. On this afternoon we concluded that some of our lads had exposed themselves in going up, or that the Boche had located the entrance to our shaft. Directly they reached the entrance a heavy trench mortar burst among them, killing six and wounding another. Four of the bodies were hurled down the shaft.
These T. M.'s are bad things—the burst results in inflicting multiple wounds. I have seen a number of poor fellows hit in over twenty places from one T. M. The Royal Army Medical Corps people have a busy time fixing them up; many, however, recover.
Another time in coming up a communication trench we found the body of one of our boys lying in the bottom of the trench, evidently hit only a few minutes before. The poor chap was dead; but, curiously enough, we could only find one wound, that in his shoulder. He must have been killed by the shock of the explosion. The T. M. had burst about five feet from him. In my experience this has seldom happened, but I understand there are many authenticated cases.
As in the infantry, the majority of our casualties occurred from day to day, from one or two to three and more almost daily. At any rate, it does not take long in every-day trench warfare to lose half of any company.
At other times, when, for instance, troops are relieving other units in the trenches, or perhaps in large parties at crossroads coming up, the casualties from shelling are very large. One night in Flanders a party of our men were going up the communication-trench when a Boche five point nine burst on the parapet near them. Of this small party of thirty only fifteen went on to the front line, seven being killed and eight wounded. At the crossroads entering Hebuterne from Sailly, a particularly hot place, and one that I know very well, having been billeted in a cellar within a hundred yards from it during two months of last winter, I have known as many as seventy casualties from one shell bursting. Every day one either sees or hears of large or small parties being blotted put by enemy shelling.
The division we were with provided us with working parties day and night to assist us. Usually the parties came from the infantry, though the cavalry were also used a good deal. Here we received parties from the cavalry, infantry, and cyclists. As I understand it, the cyclists are intended, to support and relieve the cavalry at night on the few occasions when they can be used in open warfare. I don't think they had the chance very often. So far the cavalry have been out of luck in this war, Both the cavalry and cyclists have been doing trench duty now for a long time.
On the Vimy Ridge a number of East Indian cavalry units were given us for working parties. These were mostly regiments of Lancers, and were composed of Sikhs, Rajputs, Pathans, and many other tribes or sects of British Eastern India. The Sikhs were particularly fine men, tall, well built, quiet, and exceedingly dignified. They always wore their big white turbans. It is a mark of caste with them, and nothing will induce them to part with these or wear anything else. They even scorned the use of the steel helmets which had just been issued to us. We did not. Many of us, myself included, owe our lives to the use of these steel helmets. The other Indian troops always wore the steel helmet.
These native troops had what was to us a very unpleasant habit of carrying everything on their heads. We did not object to this procedure back of the line, but when they carried all the mine timbers and other supplies right to the fire-trenches in this manner we thought it wise to stop the practice before the Huns blotted us all out. Fritz would observe these little parties very easily by reason of the fact that the timber would invariably show above the top of the trench as they came up and would make us the target for a little more T. M. practice. I used to cut ahead across the top and jump down into a trench they would have to pass, and there make every man take his piece of timber from the top of his head and tuck it under his arm. These fellows did not like the T. M.'s any more than our boys did, but after a time treated them in the same casual, cheerful way as the others. I heard an infantryman once refer to these native troops, in the hearing of one of their British officers, in rather a disrespectful way. The way that officer lectured the offender was good evidence of the friendly relations existing between the British officers and their native troops. The latter, in turn, think a great deal of their British officers, and look after them with an almost fatherly solicitude. They had their own native officers also, many of them being sons of Rajahs, educated for the most part in the big English public schools and colleges. The cavalry "brass-hats" (as the British call all senior officers) of these units visited them often in the trenches. They were all in the trenches for the first time, and much interested in everything. So many of them called at our dugouts and in company with us inspected our work and the trenches generally that we felt like regular Cooks Tourist guides. They were all mighty fine fellows and without exception aching to get a chance at the Hun, and chafing a great deal at their forced inactivity. They had hopes then of getting in a real charge in the possible open fighting of the coming Somme offensive.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald