Thursday 11 September 2014

Tales from the Huts (part 3)

Pro Patria.


IT was early on a July morning, soon after the big push north and south of the Somme had begun. The summer sun gilded the low green hills that lie round the old French seaport town, and glinted on the blue-grey waters of the Channel out beyond. The great soaring dome of the Cathedral, with its surmounting cross, looked down on us as, year in, year out, it looks down on the sloping streets and the busy harbour and the unresting sea. In the Cemetery beyond the ramparts of Hautville a little company of us stood round a long wide trench -- three Army Chaplains, half a score of soldiers, three Salvationists, and one who wore the Red Triangle. About us, in seemly, flower-decked rows, daily lengthening, marked at intervals with simple wooden crosses bearing the legend, "Pro Patria," were the graves of French and British soldiers who had fallen in the war, sleeping side by side in death, as in life they had fought shoulder to shoulder. Within the trench lay three-and-twenty plain, rough coffins, each containing the battle-scarred body of a British Tommy; while two other long rows lay, earth-covered, beneath. It was holy ground -- that resting-place of the heroic dead. In order of official precedence, the three Chaplains -- Anglican, Wesleyan, and Roman Catholic -- in quiet, solemn tones read the Burial Service, each over the men of his own communion for even at the graveside of men who have made the supreme sacrifice our differences linger; there, thank God, they also die and are buried, never to rise again! The familiar words poignant, comforting, hopeful, triumphant, seemed touched with a new reality. After the murmur of the Roman Priest's Latin had died away, at the word of command, the soldiers, who had been bending the while over reversed rifles, stood to attention and presented arms in seemly salute to their dead comrades, while the bugler sounded the Last Post -- that call which gathers up fragments from all the bugle-calls of the day, that musical summary of a soldier's life. On one of the coffins, ere we filed silently away, the Salvationists reverently laid a bunch of summer flowers -- a tribute to a comrade in their spiritual war. "Requiescat in pace," the Priest had murmured as he sprinkled the holy water on two of the unadorned coffins. "After life's fitful fever," echoed my heart, "they all sleep well." But their souls go marching on! Not in vain had those twenty-three been faithful unto death. Not in vain have any of the dead laid down their lives -- "pro patria et pro civitate Dei."

The Advance.


Official Report: "Some progress was made north of after severe hand-to-hand fighting."

Over the parapet, boys, at 6.45 precisely! This long-expected order was passed along the trenches in a thrilling whisper at 6 o'clock one morning. We all looked at our wristlet watches and corrected them with each other not one was put a minute slow -- and then settled down to wait. To wait! Heavens! In forty-five minutes we were to be released from the leash that had restrained and choked us in impotence for months. We had read of the atrocities of the enemy, his war on helpless women and children at home and the destruction of defenceless ships, the "going west" of Nurse Cavell, Captain Fryatt, and of our beloved chief, and each new crime was as fuel to our pent-up rage, until we ached to exact a just retribution.

Our officers lived with us, moving up and down trenches, in and out of dug-outs, looking to our comfort before their own, sharing the privations and dangers of the first line. Their quiet courage and confidence inspired us, and we were prepared to follow them anywhere. Many times we had begged them to let us go, but the reply was always -- "No, boys, not yet! Your time will come." God! but what a long time coming! Yet those weary months seemed but as fleeting moments in comparison with the awful nerve- racking suspense of those forty-five minutes.

The Padre moved among us, imparting words of cheer and advice. Some there were who wrote a few lines home, others hurriedly scrawled their long-neglected last will and testament (most reading, "I leave all to my dear wife") on scraps of paper to be posted in certain eventualities, for we were about to face the great unknown, and were under no illusion as to what it might mean. The point of view veers to different things at a time like this. The soul of the man comes out, and his thoughts are simple -- just of home and what might be. The good man gave his assurance that those scraps of paper should be sacredly dealt with were they not reclaimed by the owners.

Thus the minutes ticked by -- one by one -- to the accompaniment of the thunder of guns, beginning the task which were to finish.

6.43. We were silent and tense with excitement, and a curious feeling of detachment from ourselves came over us. No thought now of anything but the job in hand possessed us, while the batteries lengthened their range, keeping up a curtain fire of death-dealing missiles beyond our immediate objective.

"Over you go, boys!" put an end to our suspense, and with glistening bayonets up the trench we clambered, over the sand-bag parapet, and across that death-pitted "No Man's Land" towards the section of the enemy's first line we were to take. This we reached and occupied easily; so effective had been our artillery, that nothing animate remained in them, with the exception of one dug-out where a few dazed Huns remained huddled together murmuring, "Kamarade, Kamarade," with hands up, all spirit of fighting gone. Up came the supports, and away to the second and third system of defence works, gradually meeting fiercer resistance by grenade and machine gun. Our boys were mad now with the lust of battle -- yelling, cursing, praying -- bombing and bayoneting their way up this trench, down that, clearing dug-outs which were turned from places of safety into traps of death.

Many incidents occurred which cannot be recorded; but one stands out prominently. Our boys had come upon a crater caused by a mine, and occupied by the enemy. It simply had to change hands, so into it with bayonet we went. Our captain led us furiously, snatching a rifle with fixed bayonet from one of our wounded. Gradually we gained the upper hand, and the last fight was with a burly Hun and our captain. Exhausted, and with even at that moment a sense of fair-play, we watched the hand-to-hand struggle. At last the enemy went down with a clever half-nelson, and our captain, one foot on him, raised his bayonet to administer the coup de grace, when, to our surprise, he flung it aside, murmuring, "I can't do it. Hang it all, he was a sport!" and kneeling down by the side of his antagonist, he gave him a drink from his own water-bottle. Thus do Britons conquer but do not crush.

We had been fighting all day, and in expectation of the counter-attack which inevitably comes, we worked all night under a terrific bombardment, repairing the damaged trenches we had gained. In the grey mists of the early morning it came. Wave after wave surged against our sadly thinned ranks, but bravely we held out with rifle and machine-gun fire, expecting the reinforcements promised at any moment. Then clouds of poisonous gas were released by the enemy, rising and falling like a grey curtain, but passing over our heads harmlessly in the gentle breeze. Gradually, however, we were pressed back yard by yard before that diabolical stuff and the furious onslaughts of the reinforced enemy, retiring to a deep cutting which led to excavations in the chalk cliff where caves and caverns had been formed and where we knew our reinforcements should be. And there we found them! -- gassed to a man! The hellish fumes had been sucked down into that cutting and had been blown into the caves and holes in thick clouds and suffocated them all. There they were -- a pathetic sight, in all attitudes. Some leaning on their rifles with head bent on breast, others laying face-down on the cold dank ground, nipped off in the strength of manhood without a chance to defend themselves. But they could be avenged, and with a mad cry to God our brave boys turned as one man and charged full pelt at the advancing enemy. In that moment they were supermen, and nothing could withstand them. The enemy, taken by surprise at the sudden and unexpected onslaught, broke and fled, leaving their dead and wounded to mark their trail. Yet on and on they went, one by one falling wounded and dying, until not one of that brave band of British warriors was left, and not one returned except on a stretcher. But they had exacted a terrible retribution, and the reserves following up, consolidated the ground won by such heroism and self-sacrifice.

The Official Report read:

"Some progress was made north of ------------- after severe hand-to-hand fighting."

But it was the talk and admiration of the British Army in trench, dug-out, and hut for many a day afterwards.

"Rickety Bill."


Author of "All for a Scrap of Paper," "Dearer than Life," "Tommy," etc.

"You wouldn't think much of him, would you, sir, if you had to judge him by his looks?"

"No-o," I said, hesitatingly.

"He ain't what you call a smart soldier, is he? Look at his chest. It's a mystery to me 'ow he came to pass the doctor; but I reckon as 'ow something went wrong with the tape when they measured him. He can't be more than thirty-four inches, and if you ask me, there's something wrong with his eyes."

"Can't he shoot straight? "

"Oh, 'e ain't a bad shot; but when he takes off 'is glasses you can't tell which way he's looking. As for drill, I tell you, sir, I never had such a job in my life as I had with him. 'Sergeant,' said he to me one evening after I'd given him a reg'lar good jawing, 'Sergeant, I've tried, and I've tried, but I can't get the grip of that formin' fours. It needs more brains than I've got to understand it.'

"Still, you licked him into shape!"

"Licked him into shape! I tell you, sir -- but there -----!"

We were standing near the Water Tower in Ypres, which is one of the very few buildings which remained in that old historic city when I visited it in the winter of 1915. Near us was a tall, thin, shambling young fellow, who, as the Sergeant said, could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a smart soldier. Still, he interested me, and the Sergeant's remarks about him were elicited by my question as to who he was.

"His pals call him Rickety Bill -- leastways, they did."

"Don't they now?"

"No, sir!"

"Why? Has he done anything special?"

"I'll tell you, sir. Between you and me, he had a drop too much beer when he joined, else I don't think he'd ever have had the pluck to do it. Fact is that was his trouble. He was on the booze whenever he had the chance. It's all on account of a girl, sir."

"In what way?"

"Nothing extraordinary. He's not the kind of chap a girl would go mad about, is he? Her name was Elsie May, and she was the prettiest little bit of fluff in the town where we was billeted. But she'd have nothing to say to him, although he tried, and tried. The truth was, she was sweet on Harry Dixon, and as you may say, she and Harry was engaged. He was a smart chap, was Harry, and good-looking, too.

" After a bit we got moved on to another place, and Bill got drunk so often that I thought he'd get kicked out of the Army. Then the Y.M.C.A. got hold of him. You know what the Y.M.C.A. has done for us soldiers, sir? Why but there, if you don't, who should? One of the workers took a special interest in him. Got him to learn French, and then persuaded him to sign the pledge. After that they got him converted. I don't believe much in religion myself, sir, but I can't deny that it made a change in Bill. He bucked up tremendously afterwards, and learnt his drill like the rest. Then, I don't know how it came about, but Elsie May wrote a letter to Bill -- just an encouraging letter, sir and told him that he might expect to do great things if he kept straight."

"Do you mean to say," I asked, "that she threw over Harry Dixon, and gave Bill hope that he might get her?"

"No, sir, not that, although I believe Bill thought it meant that. By the Lord Harry, wasn't he gone on her! He'd a-done anything for that girl!"

"And were he and Harry friends?"

"Rather not. Harry kind of looked down on him, and laughed at him, and played tricks on him. I believe Harry was the hardest nut Bill had to crack in the way of his religion. I tell you, I've seen him look at Harry in such a way, that I knew he'd a-bin glad if the Boches sent a dum-dum bullet through his brain. In fact, he told me, after we got out here, that but for what the Y.M.C.A. chap told him, he'd a-killed Harry, and made out it was a Boche who did it.

"As I said just now, I'm not what you call a religious bloke, but Bill nearly convinced me. One night I heard him praying; he didn't know it, but I was close by. And what do you think he prayed for? He prayed that he might be able to love Harry, seeing as how he was commanded to love his enemies.

"Well, it was last May that we got sent out here to Wipers, the hottest hole on the British front. I tell you, sir, we've had a -- that is, we've had a terrible time. Shells night and day. 'Wooly bears,' 'coal boxes,' and the whole boiling of it without rest. You see, the Boches swore they'd get Wipers. But they haven't got it yet!

"Last August -- no, it was September, the Boches made a regular dead set on us. They bombarded us like -- like -- well, I can't find the right word, sir; but you can guess. It was very hot weather, and what with the smells, and the fighting it -- it was the very -- that is, it wasn't a picnic. It was a hand-to-hand job, sir, hour after hour, fighting, stabbing, killing.

"Then Harry, who was right in it, got it bad. A chest wound. He cried out for water he did, said his throat was burning. But we hadn't got no water. It had all been drunk hours before, and the fighting was so hot that none could be got to us.

"The doctor was holding Harry, and trying to do what he could for him, but Harry kept crying for water. Bill, who was close by, said, 'I can get water, sir.

"'Where, my man?' asked the doctor.

"'There's a spring over yonder, sir, by that tree. Shall I go and get some?'

"'But it's right out in the open,' said the doctor, 'and you'll get potted.'

"'Water! Water!' Harry kept crying.

"Bill took his water-can and jumped out of the trench, and I saw him scoot across the open ground. He was carrying his can in his right hand, but he hadn't gone far 'fore he dropped it. A bullet had caught him. But he picked it up with his left hand, and went on again. We saw him dive into a sort of dip where the spring was, and a minute or two after, we saw him coming back. All the time the Boches were peppering him, but he still came on. Once he kind of doubled up, and I knew he'd been hit again, but he only stopped a minute, and then started staggering on towards us. When he'd got within twenty yards of the trench I thought he was going to fall, for he gave a sudden lurch. 'He's hit again,' I said to myself. And he was in the thigh. But he still kept on, and then he just tumbled into the trench where we were.

"'How's Harry?' he kind of gasped as soon as he'd caught his breath.

"'I'm sorry to say he's dead,' said the doctor.

"Bill sort of gulped, then he said, 'Well, Harry'll know -- where -- where he's gone -- that -- that I did the best I could' and then he just closed his eyes, and we thought he was dead.

"He was sent home to hospital, and he's only just come back," said the Sergeant, "but we don't call him Rickety Bill any more."

I was silent at this, and I don't mind admitting that there was a lump in my throat.

"Did he see Elsie?" I asked presently.

"I asked him that," said the Sergeant, and "he told me he'd never been near her. He thought it wouldn't be a sporting thing to do."

The Tables Turned.

AT the Grosvenor Gardens Hut one evening a man in khaki was heard to ask one of the workers the name of the lady who had just served him with food. On being told it was Lady Ponsonby he replied, "I thought as much. Before the war I was a servant in her house, waiting at table. Now things are reversed, and her ladyship waits on me."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The Wanderer from Clare.

THE taller of the two gunners introduced himself and friend to me as "the man from Galway," and, said he, pointing to his friend, a clean-shaven, red-headed, sturdy, thick-set man with a face full of good humour and fun "the Wanderer."

The "Wanderer from Clare" informed me that he was just going on leave, but that he thought another two months after his return would see the finish of the war.

They were very talkative, and could with difficulty be induced to go to bed. At last they agreed, but said they must have a last drink. It was set before them, and "The Wanderer," leaning forward, said in his best Irish manner, "Can't you put a drop of something in it?" Reaching down a bottle of O.T., I proceeded to oblige. "The Wanderer," noticing this, half-emptied his glass to leave more room for the "drop." I obliged his friend also, and was placing his glass before him, when "The Wanderer" held my hand and said, "No! Let me drink it first, to see how he likes it." He drank his own, and in a gasping voice, and tears in his eyes for the "drop" was of decided strength he said, "Yes, sorr; he likes it."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The Story of an Ambuscade.

DURING those first terrible months of the War, a company of Yorkshire troops had been told to occupy a village in Northern France, and their scouts had informed them that it was clear of the enemy. With swinging steps they entered the one long street of which the village consisted, singing an English chorus with great gusto, and in the very best of spirits. They had hardly entered the village when, at the other end of its one long straight street, they saw a lad in khaki jump out from the front door of a house on one side, and spring into the middle of the street. The rifles rang out, and they saw the lad fall dead. Running forward as quickly as possible, they found the young soldier dead, with no fewer than eleven German bullets buried in his body. They ascertained afterwards that in some way or another he had been taken prisoner by the Germans the previous night. They thought they were perfectly safe in letting him wander at will through the house. He knew, and they knew, that if he attempted to give warning he would be a dead man. They were lying in ambush for his comrades -- the Yorkshire troops -- information of whose movements had been given them by their spies. When the moment came, without hesitation, he sprang out to give warning, though he knew it meant certain death.

They never ascertained his name -- even the identification disc was missing, and there was no method of identifying him. In the morning he was buried in a nameless grave, and over it his comrades placed a rough cross of wood, on which was written:

"He saved others. Himself he could not save."

A. K. Y.

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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