A Bomb-Thrower in the Trenches
By Lieutenant Z of the British Army
[Scribner's Magazine, July and August, 1916]
These letters are written from the trenches by an Englishman who enlisted as a trooper in one of the new cavalry regiments at the outbreak of the war. His regiment remained in camp in England all winter, waiting impatiently to be called to the front, and when spring came and there was still no need for cavalry, they volunteered dismounted and were sent immediately to Flanders. There he joined the Bombing Squad, or "Suicide Club," as it is called in trench vernacular, and was twice promoted for bravery, finally being offered a commission in his regiment for "setting traps for Fritz when he goes a-sniping." After six weeks at the Officers' Training-Camp in Ireland, he returned to the front as first lieutenant, only to find that his regiment had been remounted in his absence and was doing patrol work behind the lines. He therefore joined the Machine Gun Corps, and after completing his month's training, hoped to "be able to pay his way in Huns once more." Most of these letters are written to his sister in England, others to friends in America.
MARESFIELD PARK—etc. 29 April 1915.
We got the news from the Colonel at about 2 P. M. today and I wired you as soon as possible. The Colonel said we would leave for the front, Flanders, the real front, on Saturday, but we go without our beloved horses. Dismounted, foot-sloggers, bang into trenches I suppose. But everyone is very pleased. My feelings are those of ferocious glee. I had begun to despair. As cavalrymen we were dodos, out of date relics of wars far past where small handfuls of men scuffled together. This is a new war absolutely.
I can add nothing now but I will wire as soon as I can.
8 May 1915. 11 A. M.
We left the camp I sent the post cards from day before yesterday, travelled all night by train in horse boxes, then were billeted in a big farm. Today we moved away to another big farm. Our Brigade is still intact and the Canadians are with us yet in other farms near by. The sound of the big guns is to be heard all day and all night, and the sky at night in their direction is lit up by their flashes. About 7 P. M. last night the motor hospital vans passed near us on the way to the railway. A long line of searchlights. It is all very wonderful, and we are greatly honoured to be where we are.
These farms produce eggs and milk and butter and crisp long rolls, so we do ourselves well, and the weather is perfect.
No time for more and post is going.
IN FRANCE. 13 May 1915.
I. has written to you by this time, I expect, if she has had time, so it may not be a surprise to learn that we have crossed the Channel. The censorship does not allow me to say much, but, here we are, in sound of the big guns. Soon we hope to get to close quarters with "Kultur" and find out what it is stuffed with. The disciples of anti-vivisection ought to relax their principles in favour of allowing vivisection to be practiced on German adults of male sex for the true interests of medicine. The sort of vivisection which goes on on the battlefield does not, I fear, add much to human knowledge. They might begin with gases on some of the interned in England. The Lusitania news reached us here and it is no use saying anything; the future will repay.
We are billetted in a big farm-house surrounded by green fields of grain and grass. Scattered all around are small villages, now full of troops, and the whole atmosphere is one of agricultural peace and plenty. But, in the distance, the big guns at the fighting front rumble and roll exactly like summer thunder. Last Saturday and Sunday they never stopped night or day. It was one continuous rattle and roar, reminding me, more than anything else, of a battery of stamps in a big stamp mill or a gold mine. In the night you could see the shells bursting high up in the sky. In the evenings, after sun-down, in the long twilight, if the weather is clear and fine, our aeroplanes, four or five at a time, come out to scout. They fly apparently where they please with the shells bursting about them. With my Zeiss glasses you can see a lot of the fun. No shell ever seems to do them any harm and it is a beautiful thing to watch. Dotted about, generally singly, in the fields of grain, or along the hedge rows in the green turf, are graves of British regulars, most of them Rifle Brigade men, all of whom seem to have been killed on October 13th, 1914, when the enemy was through this country with cavalry and some few machine guns. The French take good care of the graves and leave on them various articles of the man's equipment, such as his cap or knapsack or bandolier. All the farm people around tell us of the time last October when the Germans entered their houses demanding food for men and horses at pistol's point and leaving without paying for anything; besides other outrages not parliamentary. They seem not to have shot or killed people but they were in a hurry and could not stay long, arriving at 6 P. M. and leaving before dawn as a rule. Some of our men who were in the Boer War and are not much on education insist on speaking Boer Dutch or Taal to these French farmers, and are quite puzzled when they are not understood.
I have volunteered for the hand-grenade throwing section of the regiment. You have long known of my dislike for Germans and anything German so you will not be surprised. To blow up the beggars and to see them blow up oneself is a pleasure denied to most people.
We are here without our horses as a Canadian Brigade to help the Canadian infantry which lost so heavily lately.
Wed. 19 May 1915.
Since I last wrote we have had a trying time. I went on guard that night (Sunday) and gathered very little sleep, and at 4:30 A. M. there came the order to march off at once. As we had already (the guard) lighted the cook's fires, we had tea ready and after a cup of boiling hot coffee we pulled out. Soon it began to rain and the rain stayed with us practically all day. We marched about 11 miles and, what with, halts long and short, we did not arrive at the town we were destined for until about 12 A. M. All this time we were carrying the full pack, over 90 lbs. in weight, and we were wet and cold and mortal hungry. But most surprisingly cheerful, the men singing songs as the big guns sounded nearer and nearer. Very few men even fell out.
These were a few of the sick and the sore footed. We were billeted in a big forge, and soon we fed and were busy cleaning water soaked rifles, as we did not know but what we might go right on into the thick of it. The town was literally full of troops. Regulars, Indians, artillery, transport in a never ending shifting stream. All the while the guns banged and whacked away and rattled the windows. At one place, with my glasses, I saw shells bursting. Several bands of German prisoners were marched by under guard. Miserable looking men, some wounded and bandaged, all muddy and all yellow with lyddite fumes. Their physique was not bad on the whole but their type of face was evil. I was told they were Bavarian and Saxons. I saw one officer with his Iron Cross of course. About 6 P. M. we marched off again, a little over a mile, to a really dirty farm, where troops have been billeted for months, I should think, and here we are yet. The rain has hardly stopped and the place is an eye sore.
Yesterday afternoon the bomb-throwers were called out for a lesson and a lecture. It seems to be quite a ticklish business needing care and accuracy, and the actual throwing will require practice to be able to do it properly. A badly thrown bomb may kill ones own men remarkably easily, and in the hands of inexperienced men I should call them good allies for the German.
Please send me some writing paper and envelopes of small size. Also a set of Gillette Safety razor blades, and I packed up a new pair of gloves in the kit bags I sent to you. Please send these to me for I lent mine here to D-H and the old wretch lost them. Do not please send any more of the white cloth stuff for cleaning rifles. White cloth is too dangerous here owing to its colour. The first parcel from the Army & Navy came yesterday, also 100 cigarettes, and the two paper bound books. All highly and greatly appreciated. I just jumped into the thin socks, for I do so loathe the thick ones.
21 May 1915. Friday 9:30 A. M.
Since my last letter, we have left behind us the rainy weather and the cold and that very dirty farm and have come about 3 miles to another inevitable farm, where the natives are clean and kindly disposed and there is no mud.
We are nearer now than ever to the big guns, and it cannot be long before we shall be right underneath them. We marched to this place on Wed. night arriving at this billet about 1 A. M. Thurs. (yesterday). I never saw so many aeroplanes. They hum around all day and seem to have the field to themselves. No hostile machine appears to chase them and no shells are fired at them. I got up at dawn today to watch two of them sailing along very very high over the fighting lines, circling and turning back and forth unmolested. Sometimes one will come down from the front very fast, and when close to the ground (2 or 300 feet) will drop something which is no doubt news and maps, and then return to duty up aloft. Last night and all night the guns kicked up a dickens of a row. The flashes of bursting shells were like fireflies flickering along a lake shore in Florida, and high up too flared the rocket star shells, all to the accompaniment of the bang of the guns.
"In France" Friday. 28 May 1915.
I hastily sent you a service post card on our return from the trenches yesterday morning to say that I was well, because you will see that I am returned as "wounded." But my wound is only, a scratch on the arm and I did not show it to the doctor until our return to these billets yesterday. It is ridiculous to return me as "wounded" as it might give you all sorts of wrong ideas, but there it is and all beyond my stopping.
The first thing to tell you is that poor –––– was killed along side of me. ––-—r got a slight scalp wound from the same shell. I got a touch at the same time and. Another man was killed by it. We had crouched low to where the sand bags were thickest when that shell came booming into our trench, and a good thing too, for, just by my head, close enough to raise a bruise above my right ear, a piece of shell slammed a hole, 2 inches across, into the sand bag.
At the same time, almost, another shell burst in our trench in the next traverse to mine, about 40 feet away and killed four men. All this happened last Sunday afternoon.
We buried ––––– that evening at dusk right behind our trench in a shell hole and under shell fire, and I am sending his wife his diary and all the letters I could find in his kit. Cannot you go to see her? He suffered nothing because he was terribly smashed up and lived less than ten minutes. We gave him morphine but I do not think he was conscious after the first minute. ––––– went to the hospital at once and I have not seen him since, but tell Mrs. ––––– that his was a scalp wound only and not to be the least worried about him. He went off to the dressing station quite cheerfully himself after we had bandaged him up in the trench and the bleeding had stopped entirely.
We went into the trenches on Sat. night, last, and came out yesterday, Thursday, morning just before dawn. Four days and five nights practically without sleep, and being shelled by Jack Johnsons more or less the whole time. This is just a hasty letter generalizing events but I will give you a more detailed account during our rest here. It is a one sided game, with the odds with the artillery. We sit and hold a trench, being the nine pins while the guns roll the ball at you. You can do nothing but swear softly. No Germans actually attacked our trench, but they tried to do so on each side of us. But on Tuesday afternoon about 6:30 P. M. I got a little of my own back from them. I had just returned with a sack full of water bottles from a stream near by behind our trench, where we dodge snipers, when the call suddenly came for "Bomb-throwers to the front" and the rifles and machine guns started a terrific popping. I was in shirt sleeves, and just slammed on my ammunition equipment and skedaddled off with my rifle up the trench towards the racket. After a long time, as it was a long way, crouching and running and crawling I got to where I could see our men throwing bombs into the Germans. You could hear nothing for the noise for it seemed as if every German rifle, maxim, and big gun was turned on that spot; their shrapnel was going "Brrangg" over head and their shells going "Whangg" all about. I took a few shots at the devils with my rifle, by way of resting and getting my breath, and then I got hold of a box of bombs and started to crawl and drag it up there. The box was heavy and, to my delight, another young chap, a Strathcona, came and helped me. We dragged and humped it along, over bumps and across shell holes and over our dead, until we got to the extreme point where the Germans were retreating up their trench and being bombed by our men unmercifully. There I found my own Sergeant of our own bomb throwing squad, to my great relief.
I had never thrown a live bomb in my life but soon found out, as it is quite a simple affair and they were lovely bombs for working. You could see a clump of German bayonets huddled like sheep, over their parapet top, and you chucked a bomb into it and prayed for the explosion. When it came the bayonets wavered and wobbled and then disappeared. If the bomb did not explode you waited and backed up because those plucky Germans lighted it again and threw it back. And so on and so on. I know I got 3 bombs into them fairly and squarely and heard them, explode and saw the bayonets flop down. We finally got to a place at a turn in the trench, an angle, and our own men, the –––– something or other, were firing directly across us, excitedly of course, and they killed about 12 of our men there; two of them being of my squad and within a few feet of me, and two more were wounded. I was by that time about played out and the bombs were all exhausted, so we sat down to wait for more, and when they came I could not get up for I had cramp in both of my legs and had to be rubbed and rubbed. That must have been about 8 P. M. But I could drag around so I dressed two wounded men and helped to fill sand bags and pass them along until 10 P. M. I should judge. About 10:30 P. M. the only officer present told us the thing was over for the time and no more could be done, and we crawled back, as the rifles and maxims and shrapnel and Jack Johnsons were just as busy all the time. The Sergeant and I got back to our own trench after 11 P. M. and I was more than tired. Never have I been so played out in my whole life. We lost 3 killed, 2 wounded, and another who went off his head later, out of nine, including the Sergeant, out of our bomb throwing squad. And I had not a scratch. Just a bump on the breast bone from something kicked up by a Jack Johnson. It was a bad thing for the Germans but we lost a lot of good men there.
Am all fit and well, having had some much needed sleep and will stop as mail is going. Do not know our plans for the future but will write again as soon as possible. I found several packages and letters at the billet we are in, on my arrival. Writing paper and gloves, etc. book and Strand, etc. for which many thanks.
Our troop was 38 strong but now only 26 are left. We were in the foremost British trench of the British front here and our Troop had the post of honour. So we ought not to mind anything.
"IN FRANCE" Friday. 28 May 1915.
Please send enclosed letter to Mrs. –––––. I do not know her address. It is just a description of how the old chap met his death and how we buried him under fire and about the funeral service and firing salute 2 days later, also under fire. Details of that sort will please her, and his children will want to know when they get older.
We are resting in a very nice billet—the one we left just before going to the trenches. Today, the squadron marched to the nearest town and had a hot spray bath, which was needed although we had streams and the canal near by, also much mud. The packages of razor blades, vaseline, tooth paste, and lovely rifle cloth came yesterday including toffee. I will try to write you an account of our doings this afternoon and send it tomorrow.
"IN FRANCE" 29 May 1915.
I'm going to try to give you an account, roughly, of our doings during the four days and five nights we spent in the trenches taken from my diary and memory. We marched from our billets at 6:30 P. M. Saturday, the 22nd, about 6 miles towards the heavy-gun firing, passing through a good sized village which had been shelled thoroughly. Some houses were hardly hurt and others all round were in ruins. The church was absolutely wrecked and shells had torn up the graves, but a great life size crucifix of the Saviour, high in the air, was quite untouched. I noted shell holes in stiff soil 4 feet deep, about 9 feet across at the bottom and nearer 15 feet across at its upper circumference. These are made by "coal boxes." When they go through the air, high over you, on their way to some spot a mile or so away, they sound exactly like a freight car moving slowly on the rails.
Leaving the village on a straight, hard road to the trenches our regiment was shelled repeatedly. There seemed to be some hitch going on, with frequent halts wherein we sat by the road side, or grovelled in a ditch, according to the various temperaments of the men, and the shells exploded every now and then near enough to scatter mud and stones on us. This in the dark is very uncanny. Before we left the road our Adjutant was wounded and another man or two.
We arrived at the support trenches and went on to the front line trenches, after much stooping and falling fiat when star shells lighted up the sky, and with a heavy pack and 300 rounds of ball. I was nearly dead. Very uneven, shell-torn ground, barbed wire and bad tempers all around. It must have been about midnight when we were finally assigned places in the trench and when the –––– infantry we were relieving had gone. They were only too glad to get out and told us gruesome tales of 99 casualties that day. The truth is that this trench was a German trench, recently captured, and of course what had been its back parapet was now our front parapet, and back parapets are not built very strongly, because there is no need for strength in them. All trenches just here are made and built up of sand bags for you come to water pretty soon if you dig much. So you see that this particular trench offered no great resistance to shells coming against our front, being really a sort of man-trap.
Before dawn a nuisance of a thunderstorm passed over and wet us quite distinctly and then it was cold. We stood to arms practically all night, feeling very new and ill at ease. Soon after dawn we were quite heavily, shelled with H. E. (high explosives). It comes from afar with a moaning whistling sound, nearer and nearer and still nearer and nearer, and louder and louder Whangg! somewhere near you and often pieces of, dirt fall on you. This shell makes a hole in the ground not as large as the "coal box" but over half as big. Up and down the trench these shells played, giving one every now and then to the support trench behind us. Generally from left to right. You can do nothing but crouch low where the sacks at the base offer a greater thickness to attack, and grin and bear it. That is the trouble, you have no answer, and must take it all and return nothing.
No one near, me was damaged by that shelling. The sun came out strong and we were soon warm. Meals were eaten and guards kept and forty winks also, here and there, until about 4:30 P. M. Sunday the 23rd, when we got our fatal shelling, the shells coming right through our front parapet and killing poor old –––– and the five other men in our Troop, and wounding –––– and five others of ours.
At 4:30 A. M. the 24th they began to shell us again, both trenches, and the devilish bombardment kept up practically all the day long. This support trench was a much more substantial affair though and one felt safer. All the same there were quite a few casualties and Lt. –––– and two Sergeants were buried in sandbags in their dugout from a shell landing in the wall itself. Very luckily none of them were hurt when we got them out. All day long till evening the racket went on and the shells came all around us. We were sprinkled with mud and dust and bits of shell repeatedly. To get water you went to a stream about 250 yds off and dodged snipers and shells.
Our guns finally seemed to silence the enemy and then they, alone, kept it up. At dusk I was one of a "ration" party of about 40 men to go to the village I mentioned for food supplies down that same hard road. On returning, very soon, we went back to the front trenches and again one got no sleep at all. As soon as possible we dug ourselves in behind the rear parapet (which was the strongest) making dugouts, leaving only the men on lookout in the man-trap proper. This was the 25th. We heard our men, of another regiment to our left, attack about 1:30 A. M. and we heard after that they got the German trench. These dug outs saved us a lot of casualties for they shelled us for a while about every 2 hours, all day. One made tea and boiled water in the open behind our trench, with one ear open for the particular moan and whine which meant us, and joked and lived a normal existence as it seemed. Quite a few wounded today and one or two killed. In the evening I heard the call for bomb-throwers and just lit out, with no officer or non-com or any one, finding my Sergeant up there, and I have already written to you about all that. You know how rumours fly about. Well it is Troop and regimental talk that this Sergeant –––– has been recommended for the V. C. There were the Germans in the trench and we threw all the bombs we could at them and that is all there was to it. Out of our party of nine bomb-throwers, including the Sergeant, 3 were killed dead where they stood (2 of whom I could have touched as they fell) 2 more were wounded, and another young chap, big fine fellow, came to me with cramp in the thick of it just when I had cramp also, and I rubbed him as he lay and swore. This young chap then seemed to get back safely to his own trench but temporarily lost his reason and wandered off into trouble, a shell, I suppose, and had a hand blown off. So that leaves only three of us intact. The Sergeant, a man of our squadron, and myself. And jolly lucky too! I was so dog-tired when I returned about 11 P. M. that I crawled to a dugout and went to sleep all standing for a couple of hours. A heavy shelling going on top of us continually, as the Germans were very much worked up over our attacks, and kept their artillery busy. At dawn of the 26th (Wed) we were ordered (Our Troop only, under Lt. ––––) to climb out over our front parapet and occupy an empty trench, just made after night fall by the R. E. We sailed over the parapet expecting a lively fusillade and rushed headlong ahead. As it happened there was mist enough to hide us completely. The trench was 3 to 400 yds ahead where we struck it and we had to cross 3 streams. It was just possible to jump them with a good jump, but many of the men plunged in to their waists and even to their necks, slap into boggy mud below, and these had to be pulled out. We passed our dead lying there for days or weeks. Pretty bad!
This new trench was not very, deep so we dug and the more we dug the more water came in, so we had a very wet affair after a while. Being an open trench if the Germans had seen us, we should have been wiped out by shrapnel. But they did not as we were protected by high grass a good deal. Anyway, we spent a quiet restful day there, because the enemy shelled over and behind us into the trench we had left and we could watch the aeroplanes at work quite serenely. Just after dark, squads and parties of R. E. came along to dig more trenches and later another whole regiment relieved us (Sunday 29th 5 P. M. as I write the guns at the front have started a terrific row again). We left the trench and walked in the dark up above, dropping to the flare lights the Germans kept nervously sending up. We were only about 400 yds from their trench, full of rifles and maxims. But at a turn where the whole trench struck the road, known as "Suicide Turn," when we were well bunched up, the Germans, who had the exact range, sent up a light, saw something and let fly "Brangg" with shrapnel. Luckily it burst too high or it would have been bad. As it was there were about 20 casualties for there were a lot of men of other regiments there. I had just time to fall flat, but with no luck in the shape of finding a hole or cover. I was on the flat, bald, hard ground. The stuff pattered round me but as usual I had not a scratch. We gathered the wounded and hurried away from that unholy place, down the road to billets and straw and peace from shells, and sleep, and letters and parcels and a wash.
We got to our old billets at dawn of the 27th, tired, tired, tired out. Since then you know.
"IN FRANCE" June 1915.
I am sending a copy of a communication read out to us on parade yesterday afternoon. That is to say, read by Major –––– to our Squadron and it was also read to the other Squadrons of the regiment. The Squadron gave three cheers for the Sergeant and three more for the "grenadiers." That is a good start and I hope we can keep it up.
All names are left blank of course. –––––– –––––– ––––––
May 31st, 1915.
To officer commanding C. Squadron:
Be good enough to read out the following letter to your Squadron when paraded for marching out this evening by order of the O.C. "To O. C. –––– –––– ––––
Sir, I have much pleasure in forwarding to you the report of one of my Company Commanders, regarding the behaviour of one of your Sergeants.
Sergeant –––– –––– –––– shewed conspicuous gallantry in the attacks. At a critical moment he brought up his section of grenadiers to the assistance of the Battalion who had lost the majority of their bombs. By throwing bombs himself and by directing the throwing of the remainder he helped greatly to ensure the success of the operation. The operation referred to was an attack on the German trench etc. etc at etc etc on May 25th 1915.
(Signature) Lt. Col"
(Regimental name in full)
"IN FRANCE" Sunday 6 June 1915.
I have been busy for the last two or three days in getting valuable instruction about bomb throwing. The chance was to get it from a very famous regiment of regulars billeted near us. So I have been leaving in the mornings and not returning till evening.
You will be pleased and proud to hear that, today, I was read out officially as an unpaid Lance-Corporal, the first, I expect, that ever existed in the family. So you see it is quite a distinction, I shall sport 2 stripes in the future. Mr. –––– told me to write to him when I got promotion, so I must tell him.
I am hurrying to catch the post so think it better to stop as it is hard to think quickly enough.
'' IN FRANCE '' Thursday 10 June 1915.
We returned from, virtually, the trenches last night for a rest and fit up. Though we were not actually on duty in the trenches, B. Squadron of ours was, while we lay in the woods just behind. And really, we were in more danger than if we had been in the trenches, for we were exposed to shell or shrapnel if those galoots of Germans had surmised that we were in that innocent wood. The night before (Wed. night) we were tumbled out at about 12:30 A. M. to carry ladders to the reserve and front trenches. Others carried shovels and faggots also. It was my fate to carry two ladders about 9 feet long. Imagine a very deep and narrow trench, with traverses at right angles every now and then (abrupt turns) and further imagine yourself with two of those condemned ladders on your shoulder and a rifle and ball cartridge equipment besides. You scraped both sides of the trench all the way, you fought the turns in the dark as if they were human beings you left the skin from your hands wherever you went and you hung up a ladder or your rifle on a telephone wire overhead, or you tripped over them at your feet, every few minutes. Snipers sniped at you unceasingly and stray bullets whined overhead all the time. To add, our guide lost his way, and it was dawn before I laid those blessed ladders down. I had the appalling thought, too, all the time, that probably the ladders were not, and would not be, needed at all. The rest of the day, yesterday, we spent in that delightful wood, surrounded by the marsh deep water on three sides. Behind us about a mile, one of our batteries was busy with most offensive guns. The roar, which was incessant, was a physical and mental pain each time. Above us grew the tallest and largest and straightest willow trees I ever saw, enormous affairs. These were ready to seed their fluffy stuff and the concussions from these guns showered it down on us all the afternoon. It seemed strange, too, to hear the cuckoos. Never have I heard so many cuckoos, or so near. They cuckooed all day long, at the closest ranges. There were other birds also that whistled wonderfully. Loud and musical whistling calls, entirely new to me. All this going on, almost in the firing line. I actually saw a bird fall dead, or nearly so, out of the sky, when we were in the support trenches during a heavy bombardment a week or so ago. It dropped close to where I was flattening myself against the sand bag parapet, about 30 yds. away, and looked like a swallow. I should think that the rush of air around a big shell would easily kill a small bird, and I noticed a good many swallows flying about that day. Larks too, up on high.
It is rumoured that our Division is to be thoroughly overhauled, and that would mean weeks of absence from the trenches. But I never believe this kind of rumour. I believe we shall go back to the trenches and keep on doing so.
I am writing this letter in the front firing trench with the Huns 250 yards away to the eastward. Our "vis-à-vis" are Saxons and seem to be peaceable folk, but they have just begun their "evening hate." I have most discreetly retired to my burrow. It is too small to be a "dugout," as it just allows me inside if I tuck my knees in, but as I want to write I find my knees in just the right position, so they can be hanged. As if in rage at what I have just written a shell has just burst close enough to spatter me with dry bits of clay. Now the shelling has passed me, going down the line to the right. They always shell from our left to our right.
I wrote to you on Friday last. That evening our regiment marched off. to support trenches where they are now, but Sergeant and I were told to stay behind as "bombers." The only two from our Troop. For this reason. The bomb-throwing section of the regiment and of the brigade is going to be properly organized now. They have begun with ten men from each regiment, a Sergeant from each regiment and an officer in charge of all. We met and slept in another billet a few hundred yards away (Friday night). Saturday (yesterday) we spent the morning with dissertations on bombs, time fuse, and percussion, and gascons, and in throwing both dummy and live bombs. At 3 P. M. four of us from each regiment, with Sergeant in charge, under the officer marched up to the front firing trench, where we are now. We are split up into 3 parties, one at each end of the regiment holding this section of trench and one in the centre. Our party is in the centre, and we have a fine collection of bombs, all ready for instant use, in a dugout magazine.
Our party is made up of Sergeant, who wears the two South African war medals, for he was in that famous charge there; a man who has just come from the Andes for the War, where he has been engineering; another young chap from the Argentine where he has been on a big stock ranch—both of these being gentlemen and very fine types—and myself. The regiment whom we are with persist in calling us the "Suicide Club" and are very merry about it. To be a "bomber" seems to be a most intimate introduction to anyone wearing khaki, with offers of tea, cigarettes, and particular delicacies. So you see how well I am looked after. Apparently, whenever the Brigade needs a bomb-throwing display it will call on us. The to early Thursday next, at dawn. It was cold too but we were out of front line trenches and in a farm yard near by, and I allowed myself merely to fall down in a heap in the kitchen garden and was asleep. When I awoke about ten A. M. the kindly farm dame had thrown a heavy coat over me. At other times we are in reserve billets near the big canal and we swim, play water-polo, etc. And there is football, baseball and cricket. Usually with shells occasionally passing overhead, or whanging into the ground a few hundred yards away in their search, for our hidden batteries.
I am in the attic of this house and the rest of the Troop is scattered all through it. The windows are all gone, shattered. The house next door is half gone and the third house on the other side has a shell hole clean through it. The whole town, once so very pretty is now very dishevelled. All these Belgian people speak English now, a Tommy Atkins lingo. You ask a small girl how she is today and she answers "In the peenk." They are very friendly and do a rushing business in coffee, eggs, bread and rolls and butter and milk. They sing all Tommy Atkins songs and are most cheery.
Tomorrow, I think, we go up to one of the famous places of the war, into trenches with historic names. Anyway in a day or two. Bombers are free from all other duties in their Troops, because they may be called upon at any moment of day or night by the Brigade if an attack is on. My bombing exploit, that day, May 25, got for me my first promotion, and I am now a Lance-Corporal.
IN BELGIUM. 2 July 1915.
Two letters from you today, with numerous enclosures, and a big "tuck hamper". from ––––. It must be true that man's affections are warmest in the regions of his equator, because my affection for when I opened the parcel, was —well, she had even included a can opener, and I had only just lost my treasured one a week ago.
Since I last wrote I have been going through a further course of bombing instruction. The course is largely to weed out the men who cannot be depended on to throw well and straight, and to weed those that get excited when it comes to live bombs. Some of them, just as soon as the fuse begins to fizz fling it away as if it were red hot, anywhere, almost. These men are highly dangerous to their own friends, more so to them than to the Huns. The result will be to get a squad of men who can keep cool, which is all that is necessary.
We go up into the front trenches tonight for 7 or 8 days, so we are told, but I can send and receive letters, probably every day. This front seems to be quite peaceful, much more so than the one we left to the South, because, down here, if we are not hammering them, the French are. The French 75 gun reminds me of a great pneumatic drill pounding on a boiler. It has a clanging sound and is very rapid, with a most emphatic note. Every evening since I last wrote the "evening hate" has been regular (this is 4 P. M.) and it is due in an hour. Yesterday evening we were sitting out in a field, with cows snuffling around, having tea, bread and jam, when the first whine was heard ending in the familiar "whangg." They were, no doubt after the church, and a battery behind the village to our left. About fifteen shells they hurtled at us. A piece of one came buzzing at us, after the shell had burst, and hit young S. in the knee just hard enough to make him yelp and break the skin. Another time we take tea there we shall keep farther away. One shell crashed into an inhabited house near us, but the family happened to be out at the moment, and the house next door to it has six small children in it, with the necessary complement of parents. Today the family and neighbors are patching up the half demolished house and the six tow headed dirty and healthy children are still just where they were before. The Belgians joke about the shells and call them "Souvenirs. No one seems to alter his life for them.
IN BELGIUM. 7 July 1915.
Am just out of front trenches this morning early. This evening, for I slept all day, Major –––– asked me if I would accept a commission in the regiment, if offered me. I told him, would be proud to do so; so he said he would send in my name. Later I went before the Adjutant who took my name, age and nearest relative in the Army. I gave age as 41, and I gave "him J's name as Colonel of –––– Horse.
So please write to J. at once and explain. It is fine to have the offer come to one, without ever having pushed for it.
More news. Not so good. Was wounded again, early this morning leaving the trenches, by a sniper, and a man was killed at the same time near him. He is not badly hurt, shot in upper thigh, with no bone injured.
I may have to come back home to train a bit. That, I do not know as yet. Will write more fully about doings in trenches the last few days, but think I got the offer for crawling out towards German lines, and setting bomb traps for Fritz when he goes a-sniping.
Are in reserve dugouts for three days more, then to the village behind for four days, then back to front trenches for four days and so on.
IN BELGIUM. Sunday. 11 July 1915.
We are back in the village we recently left to go to the front trenches. Not in the same quarters because the Huns have been shelled unmercifully since we last left. So we are more on the outskirts. A number of children and women, some of whom we knew have been wounded and battered about. The front trenches allotted to us lie at the point of an apex, a salient, allowing a good amount of German cross-firing to take place; this, and a multitude of snipers make life highly exciting. Bullets came, almost from any direction, both spent ones and the vicious snappy kind. We left the trenches at dawn of the 7th, Wednesday last, after four days and six nights up there. From the trenches we went to the reserve dugouts, which are just outside the long communication trench leading to the firing line, and we stayed there four days till we came here last night. We shall stay four days, and then go up to the front trenches to begin the round again. The reserve dugouts are just badger-holes into which you crawl on your hands and knees. They are literally boles in the ground, for two men at a time. You cannot sit up in them at all upright, and they are roofed with sand bags on poles, with earth on top, ending up with a layer of grass. As they are dug irregularly and show molelike mounds the whole affair is like a prairie-dog town on a big scale; men sitting at their holes popping in or popping out. All day bullets lop over at odd intervals, and only one man was actually hit here, and that was through the ankle. When you go to wash at a farm house close by you have to follow a hedge closely, and risk a bullet when you cross the road twice each way. During our four days in the front trenches we had about fifteen casualties, two being killed, and all sniper and stray bullet work. The night before last the Brigade bombers, about forty of us, went up to the front trench, where it is nearest the Hun, in readiness and bristling with bombs. The idea being that the Hun has made a sap to our trench and has mined it, and when he blows it up, he will make a big hole, a crater. It is our job to make that crater, with bombs, too hot a place for him. So we lay behind the trench at what was thought by our officer to be safe, all the night till dawn. Lay under a pollarded willow in wet grass.
A heavy mist obscured everything and dripped like rain from that confumigated willow. Most of the men had not even overcoats, none of us had waterproof sheets, and the cold damp went right through. Personally, as I am positive that Germans never explode mines at night, I went to sleep, and in that way forgot my troubles. Our trench is, of course, evacuated along that stretch, except for one lookout, who was amusingly sarcastic about his future. Coming back at dawn down the communication trench we met our General with one orderly, striding along not in the trench but up above on the flat. He is much admired by all the men, being quite fearless and cool and a hard worker.
Yesterday evening, about 6 P. M. at the prairie-dog town we saw one of our aeroplanes a long way east of us and over the German lines. They were sending shell after shell up at him... We saw one shell go very close to him, and soon the machine began to travel lower and lower while it aimed steadily for home. As it passed over the German trenches all their rifles blazed away at it, and things looked bad. But it came on very slowly and steadily, a big bi-plane. It passed through the zone of rifle fire and was safe except for a fall in landing, coming lower and lower with engine stopped, just silently gliding in, straight and true, no flurry. It passed about two or three hundred yards to our south and would have landed in our big. field if we had not been there. About that time cross bullets from German lines fired at it from the sides of the apex began to fizz among us and the prairie dog dived below, but I did manage to see the machine just top a row of poplars to our southwest boundary of the field, and settle safely and quietly in a field beyond. Great sigh of relief all round. Very soon the German big guns began to search for the luckless machine, and they got the range correctly for the distance but fired too much to the north, by several hundred yards. Shell after shell they fired. Great high explosive shrapnel that burst beautifully about forty feet in the air and left a cloud of smoke. Till dark they sent these great whistling shells over us. We found afterwards that the Pilot had been shot in leg and shoulder when high up over the Germans, and that after he had pluckily made his landing they pulled the machine along and saved that too. But it was a wonderful sight and never to be forgotten.
It seems to be settled that in about a week or ten days we shall (i. e., the men who have been offered commissions) be sent back to our depot and reserve squadron at the Hampton Court Barracks, there to receive some training before coming back to the front. This is not official but is probably correct.
IN BELGIUM. 16 July 1915.
Just a few lines as I may be rushed off any minute. I got a letter from you this morning, and one from O. (from far off New York). Am glad you all are pleased about the commission. It seems a long way away as yet, according to this very ticklish scheme of life.
Last Wednesday night we left our billet in the village (about time too because the Huns nearly burned it up last night. They shelled it savagely, with some monstrous shells. The glare in the sky told the tale) and marched up, with that deadly pack and 150 rounds of ball. Full equipment and food too to last a while. It had poured rain in the afternoon. It was pouring when we left and it never stopped pouring till dawn. We walked about two and a half miles to the long communication trench, then followed this ghastly maze to the bitter end at the firing lines. Pitch dark, raining and blowing, clay footing slippery as ice, a narrow trench, full of holes and bumps, wading, tripping, staggering, bumping from side to side, clay besmeared, and caked from head to foot, wet through. Never was there such a nightmare. Arrived at our post just after midnight and at once as Corporal of the "listening post" I had to go out with one main to a row of willow trees, about 100 yards ahead. We had to crawl over the parapet, and through three different sets of barbed wire (ours) to a place under the willows where a sort of trench was made. This trench was by that time a fine drainage pond. The rain was pelting harder than ever. And there we stayed till 2 A. M. almost, to the first break of dawn, when I came in remembering it was over the parapet we had to return. What with wind and rain you could hear nothing definite; only the big rats that infest all the "No man's Lands" at the front. Their presence and occupation is an awful sign that we in the 20th century may be (and are) more educated and scientific, but not a whit more human or "civilised" than we were in the stone age. From 2 A. M. to 3:30 A. M. we "stood to arms," bayonets fixed. This is the usual procedure. I made some tea then and ate ravenously of bread and cheese. Sound sleep, wet and clay besmeared and be-smothered till 10 A. M. Sun was out at that time and one soon dried clothes and belongings, and no one seems to be the worse for the bad night.
Soon Mr. ––––– the Bombing Lieutenant came and claimed me as a bomber. He got his way, and off I had to go with him. He got me to post all the Bombers in their proper places where the magazines of bombs were. My orders coming to me, officially, as to "Grenade" Corporal of Trench No. so and so. This took me to 6 P. M. That was yesterday of course. Then I got an order to report to –––––, with three Bombers, my same squad, at once. We went and found out that he was bent on a most foolhardy venture, and that was to try to capture a German alive, or wounded so as to get the Fritz to give our General information. We each took two bombs in our tunic pockets and our revolvers, and nothing else, and at 9 P. M. we popped over the parapet and started straight ahead, arming for the river or creek which is nearer the German trench than our own, and where the Hun seems to go at night for various reasons best known to his kultured self. We were out from 9. P. M. to 1 A. M. crawling and lying still. We heard the Huns tapping stakes for wiring, heard them talking, heard a whistle blown, and were quite close to them. Close enough for this. One of their Verey lights (flare rockets) passed over us and the red hot lump that it ends up in dropped a few yards only from us. But we got no prisoners. I expect to go out again, no doubt tonight, because it seems a part of a "bomber's" duty to be a scout and a kidnapper, too. Any job that no one else wants to do is, apparently, at once given to the "bombers." We seem to be a cheerful lot, and no one seems to care, but it is hard work.
Trench life in wet weather on this low land is the slimiest life of all. Slip and slide and splash, and even up your sleeves you find it caked. How they stood it all of last winter is incredible. Those fellows must have suffered. Unthinkable misery it must have been.
IN BELGIUM. 29 July 1915.
We are still up in front trenches holding down the firing line. My Squadron goes back to supports tonight, all excepting my Troop, which stays on here three days more, or until Sunday night, 1st August. That is unless plans change. This morning I was sent for to headquarters to be examined by the doctor, in reference to the commission, which appears therefore to be grinding on its appointed way safely. The days are fairly fair, but the nights are very cold, and as we turn night into day, rarely sleeping at all at night, the cold is very trying. Last night one of our reconnoitering patrols consisting of an Officer, Sergeant and Trooper, ran into a German one which saw them first, at twenty yards range, the Huns fired first killing the Sergeant and seriously wounding the Trooper. The latter was a great friend of mine, Foster, who has been my "half section" as a bomber for some time. Young Foster was shot in groin and in shin, did his best to drag away the Sergeant who was just alive, and did drag him twenty or thirty yards, until he too collapsed. The officer, a good one, emptied his automatic (10 shots) into the Huns, killing one and no doubt wounding more. They must have been hit and hurt because they squealed like swine. Help came and all were brought back. Part of our trench is less than two hundred yards from the Huns, and over this part a duel goes persistently on with grenades, day and night. They have wounded in this way two of our bombers, and we hope we have accounted for more of them. At night a great deal of rifle firing passes from both sides.
Altogether this seems to be a spiteful section of the front. Going down the long communication trench today to see the doctor we (three of us) were shelled most of the way. Just where M. was shot as we passed six or seven shells whanged to the ground, making us duck and squirm, you may be sure. I have other news also. It seems to be a fact that the reserve squadron of ours, at Hampton Court Barracks, is to go at once to the Curragh Camp, near Dublin, over in Ireland. This would mean that I would have to go there, as the headquarters of our regiment is where the reserve is.
–––– has sent me a glorious hamper of good things to eat. It arrived yesterday at the front trenches. It was greatly appreciated by several of us. I am expecting our post to go at any time.
P. S. Sergeant –––– has got the D. C. M. for his bombing exploit of May 25th, in which I, also, helped. Three men of the other regiment which we assisted also got D. C. M.'s.
I am delighted that he got it, and the regiment is very happy.
IN BELGIUM. Sunday. 1st August 1915.
Tonight I hope to get my first real sleep for practically a week. It gets very monotonous to have bullets whining and buzzing and cracking about, even if you feel quite safe. The mere noise after a time (a sleepless time) begins to irritate one, much as one may fight against it. Then that hopeless, sinking feeling of a mixture of wrath and the straight jacket when they begin to shell your trench. You can bear it, you have to, but you do not grin. All this after a time is a distinct strain. The "listening patrol" work out in front, too, in the dark, one man with you, among the rats and your own thoughts, with your eyes and ears agape, senses at full stretch, for over three hours at a time, is to be gone through before imagined correctly. The sentry at the parapet is bad enough. To be really on the absolute alert for hours is the pinch, and when you are "shy" many hours of sleep, have not had your boots or clothes off for nearly a week, and have scarcely even washed hands or face for the same time the plot thickens. Your food too, you must cook yourself. Wood is a treat to find. Everyone after it, and many a man risks a bullet to find it, or get it if he sees it. For water you almost always have to go a long way, you usually risk a squealing bullet, or sometimes a blasting "maniac" of a shell, and the physical energy needed to carry the stuff is no playful joke. Then you eat at any irregular hour, scrappy meals on bits of paper or wood or cardboard, anything but your own greasy unwashed plate. This is not a complaint. I am trying to give you some idea of the life and I am not in the least bit exaggerating, I am underestimating. Add the dirt, the clay, the small usual fly in myriads, and the loathely egg-laying blue-bottle in swarms, and the little friendly confidential beasties that lurk in your dugout, and you may gather about 60% of the true facts. The other 40% you must learn only if you spend a week at the game. I say nothing of hot sun, rain, cold or dust, all the things which go to make up bad weather.
IN BELGIUM. Sunday. 8th August 1915.
Back again to the front trenches, with all its disgusting excitements and disgusting monotony, and disgusting discomfort. Rainy weather. Grey as a badger. The sky full of grey wool, reeking damp. I am in charge of the Squadron bombers under ––––. This bit of front is quiet; apart from snipers and enfilading long shots and occasional bursts of shrapnel, nothing seems to happen. Two of our men, in "reserves" of –––– Squadron, got under some shrapnel yesterday evening, and were peppered severely. The regiment marched up to the trenches in broad daylight, because –––– wanted to review the regiment we were relieving before dark. Result, certain exposure to the enemy observation balloons to be paid for some day. It is a month today since my commission was offered to me, and I really believe this will be my last time in the trenches as a non-commissioned officer. We think that the whole Brigade will be taken out to get our horses back again and that we were being held back until all trench work was done. Our Commissions are in the Colonel's hands we believe. If this is true, I am glad, because I rather hated to leave when the men were still in the trenches. This may be moonshine, of course.
A fine parcel came from you today. Just when and where it was needed. Am quite busy so will cut short.
IN BELGIUM. 9 August 1915.
This is from the front, and firing line, and I am writing in a loathesome dungeon of a "dugout" made of sandbags filled with clay. The bags are old and rotten, and have come away, leaving the walls a sort of vile crumbling material that falls in showers on you, and your stuff, all the time. Needless to say the roof is so low that you cannot sit upright. I am sheltering from a fine rain that incessantly falls on this wretched country. Day in, day out, not omitting the nights, it rains this fine rain. Splashes of sunlight occasionally, and occasionally also splashes of heavy rain. We are very near to a real fighting centre, just to the southward. On July 30th, we distinctly and plainly heard all the appalling fight which took place when the Huns used "flame projectors" on us for the first time.
The following dawn Bedlam broke loose again up there, when the trenches were re-taken by us. This morning, at peep of dawn, or 2:30 A. M. the same terrific booming of big guns suddenly started, preceded by a perfect frog-chorus of rifle popping, up in the same direction, north of us. I wish you could only hear it once. It is overwhelming when you merge sound into thought and imagination. You want to be there and yet you are very glad you are not. You are overawed completely. Human thunder and lightning is the best description. You hear the crash and roll, and you see the flashes on the horizon of the great bursting shells, and you can feel for the poor chaps who are under it all, both sides, you feel for both. The matter is too big to feel small things. As the uproar goes on, the news of orders evidently reach great big gun batteries farther off, and one by one, nearer to us, the big guns, howitzers, begin to talk. In this fight, great guns immediately behind our front joined in, sending their shells for miles. Afar off continues the regular booming roll and near by the roar and crash combines. The air is full of great whirring noises, high, high up, as the big howitzer shells tear their way through. They come so fast that you cannot distinguish the beginning or the end of any one shell flight. Coveys and flights of them like gigantic birds, with great beating wings, whirr their way at a fabulous pace to join in the pandemonium in the distance. Like the stone in the pool the ripples travel far and our immediate front becomes agitated. Maxims rap-rap nervously and little bursts of rifle fire spring up all about. Flare lights flare forth all about, and big rockets swoop gracefully across "No man's Land." Bullets skim the parapet with an angry buzz, like irritated wasps, other bullets hit the sandbags with a terrific smack, louder than the original report at the rifle mouth. Still others whine high up, the whine altering in tone according to the height up, and the distance the thing has come, finally grading up to a bullet that makes a noise exactly like the mosquito who has quite gorged himself on you, and flies away distinctly pink in colour. You have all these sounds going on all at once. Exciting, there is nothing so exciting or which makes you feel so small.
I am now called upon to catch the post—ahead of time of course.
IN BELGIUM. 12 August 1915.
(Wasps are the bane of my life.)
Yesterday evening, being very fine, clear, and still, both our and the Hun aeroplanes were out in force. Two Hun planes appeared. One was driven home at once by one of our batteries. The thing just fled back. The other broke through and began to look at us. It dropped a smoke signal almost over us, as we lay in the trench and passed on. Two of our machines went in pursuit, and they disappeared going north, but we saw white smoke from the Hun, and heard their maxim guns going "rap-rap" high up in the air. Later we heard that the Hun had been brought down. These Hun machines lead a hunted life, fly very high, and look as if they are scared and worried.
IN BELGIUM. 30 August 1915.
I seem to be in the same position as you. Expecting to see you at any time, makes writing appear almost unnecessary. No news about the commission. Days pass and weeks pass and no word comes. It is certainly most trying and unsettling, but can be endured like, a good many other things out here, which are not done for the extreme pleasure they give. We are still in our same camp of huts and leading a very safe existence. On the 25th last, we, as a Brigade, were paraded before the Grand Llama of Tibet of Ours, He arrived with his Staff, to thank us for not having done those things which we ought not to have done, and so on. He was very complimentary to our Brigade General, and gave us more praise than we were really entitled to. He, also, said that, as to our horses, he sympathized strongly (being cavalry himself) and promised us to the effect that when the time came for him to need cavalry again he would personally remember and see that we were equipped with that all needful part of a Trooper's equipment—a horse. So we cheered him and he went away leaving with me an impression of a man in whom I could trust, and follow, and obey to the limit.
A simple and a fine character, with just enough of dash of Irish to add the sparkle and effect. In other words—he went just a little to my head. I heard him say to one of his own Staff "indeed they are a very fine body of men. Are the commanding Officers any good?" But the answer also, was pitched so low that I doubt if even he himself heard it. Every two or three days we go on some trench fatigue, somewhere near the front lines. The last one was up on quite a famous Hill near a very famous Wood, and one could trace the "front" by the flare lights for a long, long way on either side. To our South, about a mile away, a great fire was raging, looking more as if fire was over-running dry and standing grain. It is strange but, to me, the sound of the normal and regular rifle fire at night is the sound of water in the shape of waves lapping and splashing against the piles of a wharf in deep water. This effect comes to me if the firing is not too close. It comes in waves and not regularly. Occasionally one of our big batteries blazed into life and sent great whirring shells rushing into space over us into a town infested by Huns opposite, to us. Then you saw the sudden flashes over there, and later comes the sound. Some poor devil, in trouble, mental or physical or mortal. We start these "fatigues" at 6:30 P. M. walk three or four or five miles, work till about 11:30 A. M. and walk back by about 3:30 A. M. Coming back from the last one our Squadron evidently tried to take a short cut home. Short cuts in the dark are usually failures. At any rate the Squadron found itself climbing through four wire fences, two posts and rails, and gate, and it was most amusing on the whole. It takes time for a Squadron of men to climb through a barbed wire fence, I can assure you, and after the second or third it became a huge joke.
Post man is waiting for this letter and I can go on no more.
IN BELGIUM. 13 September 1915.
I have just read your letter. Somehow I feel very angry that you should be under those devilish Zeppelins. To be even disturbed by them. It is all a part towards a better and complete reckoning with the Huns some day, and I hope it will be in the Hun country. I know that you are not in the least afraid of them, and the feeling uppermost in me is a silent rage, and an anxiety to get even. It was an historic sight you saw, though, and I envy you that. Maybe I shall see it when I come back, and we shall sally out together from your "wee hoosie" and see the great beasts of the air at their proud work.
This morning about 7:30 A. M. I saw a sight myself, I saw a German aeroplane brought down by one of our beauties. The fight took place straight over our heads. Imagine a gem of a morning, cool and quiet, not a cloud in the sky, and the sunshine shimmering everywhere through a light mist. Overhead all clear and no mist. Suddenly two Huns in the air, and at once two machines appear going like the wind, and we realize that a chase is going on. As they circle and whirl the sun strikes their metallic parts, and they flash and shine like two flying fish which have just slipped up from tie sea into sunshine. We could see the round bulls eyes which mark our machines and we could see that our machine had maneuvered into the best place, up above the Hun, and when straight above us we could hear the machine gun speak from our machine, faint innocent little far away pops, and of a sudden the beautiful racing Hun machine fell straight down a long way, and then recovered; it slanted to the ground in the opposite direction to the German lines, and in a moment it had disappeared low down. Then we heard a burst of rifle fire, from one of our many camps around, in the direction it had gone, and then soon far away cheering, which came to us from Camp to Camp. Our machine which dropped the Hun was soon joined by another of ours, which came in racing out of space higher up in the blue. They circled each other twice, and probably communicated with each other, and then our machine which did the killing quietly speeded up straight for the German front, to its daily duty and was soon under fire there. As it passed over us we cheered it and the raucous shrill, between-the-teeth whistle of the Maple Leaf men predominated.
I hope that pilot heard it. Later we heard that the machine was captured about three miles back of us. Both the Hun pilot and observer were killed by the rifle fire at about four hundred yards. They were slanting down, doomed, when they suddenly picked up and were, just about to rise. Then the rifles brought them down. And the machine is of the latest and not much hurt. A very satisfactory morning's work. Two other Hun machines came over later to try and find the lost one. One of them our batteries made turn tail and fly for home, and the other flew very very high in a wide in-sweep of a circle round and behind where the tragedy occurred. These might have been live, swift-flying birds seeking a lost mate. It is very hard, to realize that there are men in these machines. The bird idea is perfect in these racing machines, absolutely perfectly handled. They look as sure of themselves as any bird could, and as to their falling to earth—not a particle of fear.
— GAYFERE STREET, WESTMINSTER, S. W.
28 September 1915.
Just a line to say I got here night before last, after a journey of eleven days from the front in Belgium. Spent most of yesterday at the War Office and my papers have gone the round to the last inch, and have been accepted to the last inch, and at any moment the Gazette will gazette me.
To rise from the ranks, takes some doing, not only at the front but more so at home.
I expect ten days to two weeks leave, and then shall have to go to the Curragh near Dublin. This is a big cavalry camp where our home headquarters and reserve squadrons are.
How long I stay there I cannot say, but, as I am booked for Bombing Officer in our regiment, I do not think they will give me the usual cavalry training, and I shall get back to the front in a hurry.
Things are getting lively, but they will get still livelier, and I do not want to miss the best of it. All the same I am not worried for I feel sure that there will be plenty left for next spring and summer.
THE CURHAGH, IRELAND
27 October 1915.
Leading this peaceful existence is inclined to make one presuppose that it is of no interest to another, and this is my apology for not writing. All the same my Colonel at the front has already sent for me, and just as soon as I am passed out in drill and manual and musketry and riding school, etc. etc. I shall get ten days leave, and then "Vorwarts," for the soggy winter trenches to my beloved bombers. I hope to go to some bombing school at Hythe for a few days to pick up any new bombing schemes to blot out Huns, but that is yet uncertain. The bombers are the pick of the regiment and it is something to be proud of to get the chance to show the way to those fellows. A bomber is called on to do a lot of work not bombing, such as crawling about at night sniffing trouble, and likely points where Huns may be blown sky high, and if I have luck I ought to get quick promotion. I must say I would like to wind up as a Captain, at least. At any rate, I can truthfully say that I have already blotted out enough Huns to pay for my scalp, if that business deal comes to the point of record. And it is a most cheerful and fortifying sensation. I would like my epitaph to read "He paid his way in Huns."
The riding school is a rough game, where a man soon learns or is covered with bruises and tan bark. We are in the school of the 8th Hussars, regulars, and doughty men. The riding-master and several sergeant-majors stand or ride in the centre with long pop whips, and the various orders are performed with celerity or the whips get to work. I am doing very finely. Yes. Indeed. I now go careering over jumps with drawn sword, and it is a regulation, sharp affair warranted to stick a baby hippo. Outside the school are all sorts of jumps of every sort. One favourite affair of the chesty individuals is a three jump thing over solid poles, young trees, so that when you have jumped the first one you are in a small fenced enclosure and must jump out. After No. 2 jump it is the same. The jumps are not high, but very solid. So far I have had only one fall. One of those life and death struggles to get into the saddle lasting a long time (seemed like a life time) while you hang with everything except your teeth before you slide sadly to the grinning ground. This was on a very bad rearing horse, which was ordered not to be brought back to the school. There are a lot of us being trained here, and we sit down over thirty to mess.
Men of all ages and civil occupations, but none of them, except our lot, have been to the front. I see nothing stupendously difficult in the training of a British Officer, and feel reasonably sure of passing my tests with a modicum of honour. But when a big war is going on and one is in it, the only place to be is where the noise is, and as near as possible to the noise. So I am beginning to be "fed up" with this easy going life and shall welcome orders to move me across the water. I saw Mrs. –––– in London, with I., and I gave her my war-diary from which she will gather local colour and anecdotes for her recruiting campaign. She was as wonderful as ever and seemed very pleased with the diary. I. is with her now in South Wales, busily engaged in recruiting miners. The war prospects are very good for us, on the whole, and, by spring, there will be big changes. The Huns are playing out in Hun power and that is the only way to end this war.
CURRAGH CAMP, IRELAND.
Nov. 19th, 1915.
Personally I am as well as ever. The only memento in that time, which I gathered at the front, is in the shape of a damaged left elbow and a sore left rib which came to me by a fall one pitch dark and wet night in a communication trench. Place very uneven, with loose boards, and fairly greasy with clay. "Rearguard not in touch" the cry, and everyone in a desperate hurry to catch up. Full pack and extra ammunition (250 rounds) and I came a hopeless purler. Kept it quiet because if I had shown it to a doctor I would probably have been sent to some base hospital and been forgotten for weeks. Might have missed my commission. That was nearly three months ago, and both places are very sore yet. But I don't need my left side to throw bombs and the Lord has spared my right side for a special purpose. I have got more than my share of Huns as it is and I firmly intend to get some more. Three of us, with sufficient bombs, accounted for 46 dead Huns, 26 wounded and 22 prisoners in one single afternoon. This was a redoubt which they surrendered, after they had had enough. About forty more of them bolted the trench earlier in the game and took to the open, but our shrapnel picked them up. It just plastered them, on a side slope of a hill, and only a handful got away. I can see nothing but red when I think of them. If you had lived in Belgium you would understand. It is quite impossible to exaggerate on that subject. There have been hundreds and hundreds of Belgian and French and Polish Edith Cavells.
As soon as I pass a few more tests I hope to get some leave. Two days ago I wound up my "musketry" at the ranges as a "First class shot" not as "Marksman" which is better yet. But I take small interest in rifles. Bombers now only carry revolvers and bombs.
My Colonel, at the front, has already sent for me and I am booked for second in command of the regimental bombers. About a month I think will see me back there.
The training I am getting here is most of it quite useless for trench warfare, and, in the dear old British way, they do not seem to realize it. They worry along training men exactly as if it was a Boer War instead of for trench warfare at 300 yds. range and frontal attacks through a maze of pits and craters and shell holes and barbed wire.
Things may look bad for us on paper, in the papers, but they are not really, just the opposite. This nation has only just begun to growl. It is not really angry yet. The time will come when it will be mad with rage, that is when we enter Germany and then I shall be sorry for the decent Germans. This country gets solidly stronger every day, and more determined. The Huns will find a shortage of men before long. Their long fronts must retire to shorter fronts and then Hell will break loose on them. The Allies mil exact full reparation.
IN BELGIUM. Wed. Jan. 5/16.
I am too occupied to do much writing, being busy at the Brigade Machine Gun School. Here I have been for five days and very much kept at work. There is a lot to learn, and none too much time for the course.
I fear I am out of my bombing for the time being. You see new rules only allow for one officer per regiment for bombers and there was one, of course, when I arrived. He is a newish man and has never been in a front trench but as long as he attends to his work that makes no difference. He is a very good chap too.
So I applied for the Machine Gun School and here I am. Since coming here the regiment has all changed. We are leaving our old Brigade and are to be Divisional Cavalry, mounted. This only means 2 Squadrons and 10 officers. The rest will return to the Curragh I suppose. If they will leave me alone until I finish this course (it lasts a month) I shall try to transfer to some infantry regiment, perhaps Canadian, as I do not fancy footing about doing police work anywhere from 10 to 20 miles behind the front lines. Waiting for the big break-through which may never come.
IN BELGIUM. Friday, Jan. 7/16
The news is all confirmed and official about our regiment becoming Divisional Cavalry in a few days and I am completely disgusted. If I am allowed to finish my machine gun course I see a chance to leave the cavalry and see something of the real war with the help of the Maxims or Colts, and I expect to be allowed to finish. This course will keep me 3 weeks longer. 9 A. M. to 5 P. M. every day, Sundays included. I may call upon H. J. to help me to find another regiment where I can be a machine gunner instead of a cavalry policeman posing as a trench warrior. The real fact being that the cavalry police never go near enough to hear the sound of a gun in a trench. You might send me, please, each week a tin of oat cake biscuit and a good cheese. This will help any Mess I may be with. Do not send any cigarettes for I can get them much cheaper here and the same ones exactly. No time to continue!
IN BELGIUM. Jan. 11, 1916.
I have been called back from my Machine Gun training to the regiment as we expect to move back at any moment to some point nearer the coast, where we shall reform and re-train as cavalry.
The Colonel has told me he will see that I finish my course in machine guns there, so I feel more or less contented.
As soon as I am passed as a machine gunner I will be able to transfer if it looks as if this regiment is doomed to police work. Wi th the help of, whom I heard from yesterday, it should be quite easy. In the mean time one does not do much of anything except plough about in the mud in long walks to points of interest on the front. Our guns are very busy these days, night and day their boom is heard from somewhere near by, and last Monday at dawn, for an hour, the Hun got a regular "strafing." The Munition question seems to be much easier for our gunners. All this must mean continuous casualties for the Hun, and seems to be our winter programme. Ours, too, are quite heavy, of course, but that is only to be expected. The weather is normally vile. Windy, east and northeast blows, rain off and on every day, cold and raw and cloudy. One lives in an atmosphere of mud. The coal supply is very inadequate and the huts we live in are rarely warm. The only way to warm up is to walk in the mud, which soon does the trick. By the time I am fit for machine gun work I hope the weather will be vastly better.
IN FRANCE. Jan, 16, 1916.
Yesterday we moved back from the front and we are now close to Headquarters, billeted in a village. Our job is to be cavalry. To act as Bodyguard to the Headquarters' Staff, I believe. Highly honorary but a futile profession. Any day now, though, I go to a course of Maxim gun instruction and I propose to follow my nose when I am qualified.
At present I am O. C. Gun Section, and brought the Gun Section (Machine Gun) yesterday to this place. We entrained with the rest of the regiment, after a march of a few miles, at 11 A. M. All of us travelled in horse trucks, officers and all. About 2 P. M. we de-trained and marched 5 miles to this village. With my usual luck I struck a grand billet. Two of us are together, and I. He is the real O. C. Gun Section, I being only his understudy. As he is on leave I looked out for him. We have a big sitting room, intensely French, with mural oil paintings, stuffed birds, and distorted plaster frescoes dotted about, and tiled floor. A bed room each, quite void of any hint of washing, full of mirrors. Funny old farm people,, very polite and hospitable. They have three sons serving, one being a prisoner in Germany. The old lady says "He is hungry; ah yes, I know."
It would do England some good to have the same conditions for a while and as for Ireland––––
IN FRANCE. Jan. 20, 1916.
There is not much to write about or I would write more. This is peculiarly peaceful as an atmosphere.
Luckily there is a big flying camp near by, and one can spend very engrossing hours watching them start and return. In the evenings they come in one after another, fast, on each other's very heels, just before dark. With a terrible roar and vibration they tear by and lightly alight—just like big birds. And these machines are not playing at flying. They have been out on business and have been well peppered at, at any rate, for this is a camp for "long reconnaissance." These machines in five hours go and return from the very centre of Belgium, far inside the Hun lines. All the men in charge are old hands and they alight with certainty just where they want to and then "taxi" the machine along the ground to the very door of their hangar. I have designs on going for a trip with one of them when I get a bit better known to them, unless it is against all their rules.
On Sunday next I begin my course of the Vickers Maxim Gun, the very finest gun in existence. The best school at the front is only 2 miles away and I shall ride over every morning from my present billet. The Colonel, today, told the Gun Section, i. e. "us" that, when we get into prime practise again, we may expect to be detailed to be attached to some regiment and see fighting; so the Gun Section is quite happy.
The great thing for me is to get thoroughly qualified, for there is good use, somewhere, for every machine gunner. It is a wonderful toy to juggle with, a wonderful piece of mechanism and a great stimulant to imagination. To look at one of them quickens your pulse!
© 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