Friday 5 September 2014

Tales from the Huts (part 2)

A Packet of Woodbines.


A STILL, dark night and the lights of the hospital ship -- once a famous "liner" --  showed up brilliantly. A railway station with long platforms, crowded with stretcher-bearers. We, four Y.M.C.A. workers, stood at the coffee-stall, some forty yards away. Fortunately the rush had ceased, when word came that the hospital-train was drawing near.

"You had better come with me into the first carriage," said the Padre -- the ideal man for the job, as I was soon to find out.

It was my first night on duty at the Quay, and I felt grateful for the suggestion. Under my arm I carried a couple of boxes of "Woodbines," and my pockets were filled with postcards. I felt a miserable coward as the train drew near and halted just outside the station. It was a heavy train and was to be divided into two portions -- one for each platform.

One worker was to remain at the stall; the other, a lady, had chosen to meet the wounded with us, and she was filled with enthusiasm, enthusiasm of the right sort.

The train came along very slowly -- it almost seemed as if it were trying to shake the wounded as little as possible.

"Come along," the Padre cried cheerfully -- cheerfulness was his note so long as there remained work to be done.

We climbed up on to the train, an orderly opening the door for us. All my life I have tried to avoid suffering, and I felt sorely tempted to run away. On each side of the long compartment was row upon row of stretchers; on each stretcher was a wounded soldier, straight down from the Front. Eyes, many of them listless and dull, were turned towards us.

"Good morning, boys! Havre, at last -- with a good ship awaiting you! And soon "Blighty!" Who says some cigarettes?" cried the Padre.

Soon we were busily handing out cigarettes. Would anyone care to send a postcard home? Eager hands were outstretched, when hands could be moved. Dull eyes became brighter, and to us there came the great revelation -- no longer were we so poignantly conscious that we were surrounded by acute suffering -- that of these soldiers some had lost limbs, and that there were even those that might not live to see "Blighty." Yes, it became clear that these men were calmly courageous, and, more wonderful still -- cheerful.

"What's the steamer?" asked a Tynesider. "The -----------," I answered.

"A good ship. I went home by her last time. The first time --------------" He broke off with a laugh. "Well, there'll be no fourth. I've lost my leg."

I gave him a light for his cigarette, and he grinned back at me.

And the youngsters were just as splendid. The smile came, although one could see that it required an effort still it came.

"What about posting the cards? Anything to pay?"

We shook our heads. It caused a sense of shame to have to listen to thanks from such men -- and for a few cigarettes and a postcard.

I chanced to notice that, although one fine chap refused a card, he appeared regretful.

"Shall I write for you? I see you have lost your hand."

He drew in a deep breath.

"No, sir I gave it," he answered quietly.

A lump came to my throat, and I swallowed hard. This is not written to draw tears -- it just happened.

Often one would have liked to linger. Ahead I could hear the Padre -- he was finding many friends. How I envied him his happy touch with them. As we passed along, I gathered the impression that there was a different atmosphere with our arrival; and I soon understood the reason for it. Probably we were the first civilians they had seen for weary months, and our clothes caused them to realise that they were nearing "Blighty."

From the instant the train had stopped the R.A.M.C. had been at work -- the organisation being simply magnificent -- and the platforms were being rapidly covered with stretchers. All that are fit enough are smoking. Jokes are passed -- and a few hours ago these men were living in an inferno.

Now and again they try to speak of their experiences, but we do not encourage them -- such are better forgotten.

A glimpse of the companion-way; steadily stretchers are being carried on board, and as each man is picked up, his face brightens in spite of pain.

Now to collect the postcards. Sometimes one cannot help reading the message, with its prevailing request, "Don't worry." A total lack of regard of self--  only for those at home!

Then follows the most painful visit of all -- to the dressing-station for those who require immediate surgical attention. Here there is more evidence of pain, but in spite of it there is still that wonderful cheerfulness that approaches the sublime. Again the Padre has found pals, and I hear a laugh. Truly our men are wonderful, Not a grouse -- it's only the slightly wounded who grumble, and then only half-heartedly.

"I gave it! "

And they are grateful for a packet of "fags." Can we ever do enough for them?

Adventures on the Peninsula.



When that Shell Burst.

IT was on December 10th that we first knew at Lancashire Landing what it meant that the German communications had got through to Turkey with the crumpling up of Serbia.

Up till then, the Asiatic Forts had thrown over any kind of old stuff that came to their hand (this was during the latter months of our occupation).

But on December 10th began a new kind of bombardment of V. and W. Beach, Lancashire Landing.

I was sitting in my dug-out in "High Street," half-way up the cliff-side, writing letters after lunch, when a shell fell into the water not twenty feet from one of our most important piers, forty feet below me, bursting with reverberations that echoed back from the cliff, and throwing up a great column of spray. Another followed in less than half a minute, which hit the base of the pier, throwing a dozen men flat, one of whom was killed.

For the first time I realised what funk-holes had been made for, and I betook myself forthwith to their ample shelter. There for twenty minutes a score or so of us crouched till the storm was over, and going back to my dug-out to finish my letter I was visited by a Chaplain, who asked me in a doleful voice whether he might do anything for me. I wondered at this kindness until he informed me that the Y.M.C.A. tent no longer existed. I fear I thought nothing about possible loss of life, all my thought was for the store of worldly goods which were all that the Y.M.C.A. and I possessed, whose precarious home was in that canvas tent.

Was it a piano and gramophone that would have been destroyed? If so, good-bye to concerts; or was it Nestle's Milk and Tinned Peaches that would have got the worst of the blow?

I covered a quarter of a mile up-hill from the sea in record time and found that luck had been with us. For the shell had fallen in such a way that only seats and boxes had been shattered. There was an interested crowd standing round picking up souvenirs, and there are certain things that a wise Y.M.C.A. Secretary (at any rate on the Peninsula) does not inquire into. I never dared enter upon my accounts the loss to the Y.M.C.A. in tinned fruit that day. Evidence of the risk men had run was upon the clothes of more than one who had been spattered by peach-juice when the shell burst. One can speak in an airy way, only three men were in the tent at the time, one of whom was a wounded man upon a stretcher. He was the wounded, but neither of the other two were touched, and fortunately neither his first nor his second wound were serious, and he was out of hospital in a day.

From that time on, no concert or any of our affairs went with quite the same swing, for we were in an exposed position, and while men were willing to do their job under fire and stick it, it was different coming at night to smoke the pipe of peace and comfort when shells were whistling over. In the middle of our best turns I have seen the tent empty in four seconds at the sound of a familiar approach, and an audience bend like a field of corn being cut by the reaping machine.


Handy Man and Hero.

There was a man who used to visit our tent at Lancashire Landing, by the name of the Handy Man, because of his only stunt, a piece of poetry which he would recite daily (until he was stopped) with great dramatic effect.

There came a week when he failed to appear, and meeting him on the beach I asked him the cause, and he told me he was under arrest for insubordination and bad language to his superior officer, and was now out picking up paper, for in those days the beach was being pegged out with posts and barbed wire and the paths kept as neat as a provincial park.

The afternoon that I met him he was at the same job. A shell came over and burst almost under the noses of the front pair of horses of a limber waggon. The driver was thrown to the ground and the horses made off in terror up the slope, the waggon bumping ominously in shell-holes and in danger of turning over every minute.

The handy man forgot his shame, and with a man's courage and a master's skill gained control of those four horses and brought them back to the place where the man was still lying. An officer coming up at the moment sent him off for a stretcher. "I am under arrest," said he. "Then I take the responsibility of setting you free on the spot," he replied, "for your gallant conduct."

That night he was back again in the tent, a happier and a wiser man.


"Paraffin Oil."

I hope "Paraffin Oil" will forgive me if he ever sees these words. I cannot address him by his real name, for no one knows it. "Paraffin Oil" was his title to us every evening in the Y.M.C.A. Tent at Lancashire Landing. He got his name because of a song he used to sing, the hare-brained chorus of which was "Paraffin Oil." I can remember but one verse:
"They took us to Mudros,
Paraffin Oil.
They took us to Mudros,
Paraffin Oil.
They took us to Mudros,
and we played at pitch and toss,
And we got the Victoria Cross,
Paraffin Oil."

He had not a note of music anywhere about him, but give him a tune and he would stand up on the platform and reel off his rhyme without reason concerning the glorious achievements of the Y.M.C.A. or the bitterness of bully beef and biscuits in a way that kept all of us rocking, and made us forget our troubles.

How's this for one of his choruses? It was in the days when the "Goeben" threatened the Straits and "Queen Elizabeth" hung about as well:--
"A roaming in the gloaming when you're in the Dardanelles,
Awaiting for the 'Goeben' to come down to test her shells,
When she gets to Chenak, she will very soon come back,
When she hears that 'Lizzie's' roaming in the gloaming."

He first turned up on the night of my grand mistake. Many things had to go on nightly in that small stores tent on the top of the cliff in the early days of our work, before the ordnance had supplied us with better quarters and the electric light had been generously provided from the Ammunition Tunnel, sales at the small counter, a sing-song at the piano on the platform, reading and writing squeezed in anywhere on the roof, plank seats. Then, having found the need for hot cocoa and biscuits, I determined to have a shot at it. So we rigged up a plank counter on barrels half-way down the tent and a barrier. When word went round the beach of "hot cocoa" we were besieged that night as never before. All four orderlies were turning out two mugs for a penny and two biscuits for the same price; one man two mugs, no more, no less. I myself mounted on the counter keeping the queue straight, and it was at that unlucky moment that the word was passed to me that under cover of the crowd my precious store of tinned fruit was being opened. Show no horror, gentle reader, at such slight occurrences. Accidents will happen in the best regulated boards. Show more horror rather that I lost my wool and lectured a crowd of cold and hungry men to the effect that no more cocoa could be served that night, that if, when the Y.M.C.A. was conducting its humane work, its property was not secure, and if they could not wait to pay for luxuries, etc., etc.

That was my grand mistake, for before me was a crowd of men who did not intend to be gainsaid. I stood my ground and they stood theirs, but the crisis came when I found that the whole tent began to heave ominously, and having regained my sense of humour and temper we returned to the work of selling cocoa.

And it was while this little incident was in progress that "Paraffin Oil" for the first time was appearing upon the platform at the other end of the room and keeping an audience in roars of laughter. It was only later that we learned to become familiar enough with the chorus of the catchy song he was singing for us to roar it with him:--

"Then good-bye to the bricks and mortar,
Farewell to the dirty loine,
Hurrah for the planks and gangways,
And away for the winter time.
For the big ship 'Billy Ragamuffian,'
Is lying on the quay,
When the shovels and the picks,
And the Paddys and the Micks
Are bound for Gallipoli."

The last time I saw him was early one morning, dirty, unshaven, eyes red and sleepless, with a smear of blood across his temple, for during the night a shell had entered ---------- Canteen, of which he and his mate were in charge, and he alone was there to attend to his badly shattered companion.

The Phantom 'Plane.


WHEN men have walked hand-in-hand with death, and have gazed into the depths of the great unknown, the materialistic tendencies acquired in the routine of their former walk in life gradually become subsidiary to spiritual forces, which grow more real as the former tendencies diminish. That may be the reason why men after their experience on the battle-field often come to respect that which they have previously scoffed at.

We were in the stiff fighting at ------------ in Flanders, and had cleared the enemy from the barricaded streets and houses until the whole village was occupied, and had further advanced about three hundred yards. On our left flank stood the battered tower of the old church, an emblem of peace in a world of war, and surrounding it was the little cemetery, dotted here and there with slanting tombstones, now considerably added to by lines of wooden crosses, marking the last resting-place of many a fallen hero, one being that of a well-known airman, who had rendered fine service to his country's cause, and who had eventually given his life for it. Adjoining the cemetery was the old-fashioned rectory, standing in the midst of a garden of shrubs and flowers, now neglected and scarred by the ravages of war.

Our company was ordered to hold this advanced position at all costs, while our comrades consolidated the ground won in the village behind us. We were all tired out after much fighting and little food all day, but it was necessary to keep a sharp look-out for signs of the enemy's counter-attack. Meanwhile a heavy artillery duel proceeded, shells whizzing over us from both friend and foe, a "short one" occasionally falling very close. Our sentries were posted, and the remainder settled themselves for what rest they could snatch behind the existing cover, some lining a dry ditch, screened by a hedge, others taking the wall boundary of the cemetery, Jack Barton, a cool, level-headed man, being posted in the rectory with a machine-gun dominating the probable line of the enemy if they advanced. He explored the house with the aid of an electric torch, but found it deserted and empty, everything of use or value having been taken away, probably to furnish the Huns' dug-outs.

In the early grey hours of the morning, after a much appreciated rest, Jack signalled that the enemy were advancing towards us in strength; the information was passed on by field telephone to the village, and our artillery was at once increased to form a barrage. On came the first wave of grey-clad men, many falling as they reached the arc of fire, others pressing through it, a second and third wave following in rapid succession. We held our own fire, waiting for the enemy to converge across the fields to the road dominated by Barton's machine-gun. The minutes of tense waiting seemed hours, but nearer and nearer they came, not suspecting our presence, to within fifty yards of the rectory before Jack spoke with his "Lewis" and mowed them down like corn before the scythe. That was our cue, and before they could recover from the unexpected onslaught we poured rapid rifle fire in front and flank. Scattering like sheep, the enemy sought cover, leaving heaps of dead and wounded -- a human barricade -- in the roadway. Our respite was short, however, for they were quickly rallied and again advanced, though more cautiously, only to be again repulsed. We were vastly outnumbered, and our ranks were sadly thinned as wave after wave of that human tide swept towards us. Again and again it ebbed and flowed, like waves on a rock-bound shore, and our position was rapidly becoming serious. It looked as if nothing but a miracle could save us and probably the village behind, though we fought desperately and sent back attack after attack. Reinforcements might come up, but only through a murderous curtain fire, for the enemy had grasped the position, and it was doubtful if help could arrive, or if we could retire.

A short lull ensued, during which the enemy seemed to be concentrating for a supreme effort. It was strongly attempted on front and flank, and it looked as if this time nothing could save us. Jack was working his gun with great effect; a glimpse of him at the window now and then showed that he had been wounded, for his head was bound by a stained white bandage. We held our fire, and with bayonets fixed waited the last charge, which we knew would overwhelm us. Thoughts flashed through our minds of childhood, of home, of dear ones, and many a silent prayer ascended. Perhaps those prayers were heard, for when things seemed hopeless and the enemy were madly charging with strafing shouts, to our astonishment there gradually emerged from the grey mists a great filmy, white 'plane, swiftly and silently advancing towards us, seemingly in a semi-transparent cloud, slightly luminous, but sufficient to instantly arrest attention of friend and foe. It seemed to be flying at a low altitude, but no obstacle obstructed its progress, trees fading through it, and showing dimly behind as they were passed. On it came from our left, flying just in front of the enemy front line, gently falling and rising with a rhythmic movement. Not a shot was fired, everyone stood spell-bound, gazing with bulging eyes at this supernatural apparition which appeared to be propelled by no human means. As it reached the extreme end of the enemy's right, it tremblingly halted as if taking observation, and then slowly returned, retraversed its path, and gradually faded away in the direction from which it had first appeared. Before it had gone half-way, however, the Huns had broken the spell, and with frightened shrieks of terror turned and fled in disorder. That is, all but their front rank, which stood with staring sight in the attitudes in which they were when first arrested by the phantom 'plane. There they stood, a long irregular line, across field and road, as if petrified. Whether they were killed by anything emitted from the 'plane, or whether they died from sheer fright at the mysterious apparition, we never discovered, and only a big round mound in the old village cemetery marks their last home.

As for our company, or rather the few survivors, we could not understand, but only accept our deliverance as due to direct providential intervention. We were shaken, silent, and awed. Neither afterwards did we care to discuss it except between ourselves, as is usually the case with those who have been in the valley of the shadows, and have gazed into the depths of the great unknown. Did the spirit of the airman, buried beneath that simple cross, come to our aid? We do not know, but we believe it as the most feasible explanation of the appearance of the "phantom 'plane."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The Lonely Soldier.

THE following story was told to me by a chaplain friend, who vouches for its truth. A man of a certain regiment, just for fun, put an advertisement in a well-known weekly paper, saying that he was a lonely soldier, and begged for some letters. He did not lack correspondents. By one post nearly three hundred letters came for him! The already overburdened field post-office entered a protest, and the man found himself before his C.O., an officer not without a sense of humour. "Is it true that these three hundred letters came to you in answer to your advertisement?" The man was bound to admit the fact. "Then," said the C.O., "you must sit down now and write a reply to each of them, and put a penny stamp on each!" The advertisement was withdrawn!

H. G. H.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The Hall Stand.

ONE day I was helping a man to put on his pack, and as he fastened his many buckles and put on his bayonet, trenching-tool, water-bottle, and the many other articles of his equipment, he said, in gentle protest, "Seems to me, mister, that a soldier is a man made to 'ang fings on!"

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •


THE Y.M.C.A. in a certain camp had run short of coppers, and one of the workers was sent out to try and get some. He tried numerous places in vain, but was at last recommended to try the "wet canteen," which was opposite his own Hut! When he arrived at the canteen there was enough business being transacted to compel him to wait his turn. He was doing this as patiently as possible, when one man, who possessed a very bibulous face, looked up from his pint pot and, viewing our esteemed worker with suspicion, said, "Go to your own pub!"

To be continued...

These stories appeared in Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift Book published in 1916.

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