CHAPTER III

IN THE MIDST OF A BATTLE-FIELD

It was a bright warm Sunday morning, that nineteenth day of September, when we made our first trip to the front-line trenches. Only the Number Ones, lance corporals, of each gun went in ahead, the guns and remainder of the section to come up after dark. I was a “lance-jack” at that time, in charge of No. 6 gun; and had a crew of the youngest boys in the section, two of whom were under seventeen when they enlisted and not one of whom was twenty at that time. Subsequent events proved them to be the equals of any in the whole section; a section of which a general officer afterward wrote: “I consider it the best in France.” They were strong and healthy, keen observers, always ready for any duty and during all the time I was with them I never saw one of them weaken. They played the game right up to the finish, in fair weather and foul, during the easy times and the “rough,” each until his appointed time came to “go West.” One, in particular, named Bouchard, a boy who enlisted when but sixteen, developed into the brightest and most efficient machine gunner I have ever known. His zeal and eagerness to learn so impressed me that it became my greatest pleasure to give him all the assistance in my power, and, despite the difference in our ages, there grew up between us such a friendship as can only be achieved between kindred spirits sharing the vicissitudes of war. Small of stature and slight of frame, it was only by sheer grit and determination that he was able to endure the terrible strain of that first winter. At times, when the mud was nearly waist deep, he would throw away his overcoat, blanket and other personal effects, but never would he give up his beloved gun. When trenches were absolutely impassable he would climb up on top, scorning bullets and shells, intent on the one job in hand–to get to his appointed station without delay. He was a constant source of inspiration to all of us, often inciting the older heads to undertake and achieve the apparently impossible by daring them to follow his lead.

Our sector was made up of what were then known as the “C” trenches, running north from the Neuve Eglise-Messines road and directly between Wulverghem and Messines. To the south of the road was the Douve River and just beyond that “Plugstreet” (Ploegstert). There had been some very hard fighting all along the Messines Ridge during the preceding year, but for several months things had been quiet. Now, by “quiet” I do not mean that there was any cessation of hostilities for there is always artillery firing and sniping going on, with a fair amount of rifle grenade and trench-mortar activity. It simply means that there is no attempt being made, by either side, to attack in force and to capture and hold captured ground.

Our route, that first morning, was rather a roundabout one, by way of Lindhoek, taken, as explained by our guide, because it was less exposed to enemy observation than a much shorter road which we used when moving at night. When a short distance out from town, we passed in front of one of our howitzer batteries which decided that then was just the proper time to cut loose with a salvo, right over our heads. We were not more than fifty yards from the guns and the result was that we were all “scared stiff,” to say nothing of being almost deafened. This appears to be a characteristic and never-ending joke with artillerymen and so we soon learned to “spot” their emplacements and go behind them, when possible.

At all cross-roads (“Kruisstraat,” in Flemish), sentries were stationed who acted as guides and also gave warning of the approach of enemy aircraft. At a long blast of the whistle every person was supposed to stop and not make a move until the signal “all clear,” indicated by two blasts, was given. It appears that, while the airmen have no difficulty in seeing moving objects on the ground it is next to impossible for them to locate stationary ones.

As we progressed, the signs of war were multiplied. Numerous graves along the road, each marked by a cross, houses and barns torn by shells, a bridge and railroad track blown up and trees shattered and rent, until, finally, everything was desolation. When we arrived at Wulverghem, we had our first sight of a really “ruined” town. Of course we saw many worse ones later, but at that time, we could not conceive more complete destruction than had been wrought here by the German shells. Every building had been hit, perhaps several times; some had one or more walls standing, while many were totally destroyed and were nothing but piles of broken brick and mortar. Part of the church tower remained and one hand of the clock still hung to the side facing the German lines. This seemed to aggravate the boche as, every day, he would send from a dozen to forty or fifty shells over, all seemingly directed at the church tower.

As Messines Ridge is now “ours” I think there can be no objection to my going into details about our dispositions. Our Battalion Headquarters was located in the St. Quentin Cabaret, about two hundred yards south of Wulverghem and we had a supporting gun, with infantry, at Souvenir Farm and also at a redoubt near by, called “S-5.” Our front-line guns were distributed from the Neuve Eglise road to the northern end of our battalion frontage, about “C-3.”

These numbers refer to certain locations on the map, and the cabarets are not exactly such as one is accustomed to seeing in American cities. They are, or were, inns, such as in England would be called public houses and in America, road houses. In Flemish they are _herbergs_, but these happened to bear French names, hence were called cabarets. One can not help wondering at the indiscriminate manner in which French and Flemish names are used in this corner of the world. Neuve Eglise, Bailleul, Dranoutre and Locre are all mixed up with Wolverghem, Ploegstert, Wytschaete and Lindhoek: Ypres and Dickebusch are neighbors; while St. Julian and Langemarck lie side by side, as do Groot Vierstraat and LaClytte. Look at a map of West Flanders and the adjoining parts of France and you will see what I mean.

Just as we arrived at the Battalion Headquarters the signal was sounded, “German up,” which is the short way of saying that an enemy airplane is approaching, so we were obliged to take cover and remain quiet for some time. We were near a group of farm buildings and, going inside, found that former occupants had left elaborate records of their visits. Among other mural decorations were some rough sketches drawn by Captain Bairnsfather, which afterward became famous as “Fragments from France.”

This suggests another interesting field for speculation. Why is it that all men, regardless of race, creed or color, have an inborn craving to inscribe their names on walls and trees and rocks, especially on walls other than those of their own home? Wherever you go, all over the world, you will find the carved or written record stating that, at such and such a date, John Doe, of Oskaloosa, Iowa, honored the place with his presence. The buildings of Flanders and France are storehouses of historical records. From them the historian could almost reconstruct the campaigns of the war. Would it not not be an interesting task to make a thorough search of all the old buildings and dug-outs, just as the archeologists have been doing in Egypt and all the ancient habitations of mankind? The prehistoric caves of Spain or the cliff dwellings of the Colorado could not be more interesting than a compilation of these records, including the drawings and sketches, some of which are real works of art. Regimental crests and badges are often shown with the utmost attention to detail and, in one place which we afterward occupied, one of the walls bore an elaborately carved tablet enumerating the campaigns and battles of one of the oldest British line regiments, together with a list of the honors, V. C’s. and so on, won by members thereof. On one of the walls at Captain’s Post one of my boys, Charlie Wendt, carved a large maple leaf upon which he inscribed the names of all our squad. He was killed a few days later and others at various times and of that whole list, I am the sole survivor. I would give a great deal to have that bit of wall here in my own home.

Meantime, the _Allemand_ has gone away and we are free to continue our journey to the front line.

In an orchard behind the house we entered a communication trench and after a few final words of advice from the guide as to the necessity of keeping our heads down wherever the walls were low, started on the mile-long trip. We learned that the trench by which we were going in was named Surrey Lane, in honor of the West Surreys who constructed it. At various points we came upon intersecting trenches, most of which were marked with the name of the point to which they led. One, I remember, was “Wipers Road”; not that it ran all the way to Ypres but led in the direction of that place.

Except for an occasional large shell, whispering overhead, consigned from Kemmel to Warneton or vice versa, and the distant muttering of the French guns away to the south, everything was quiet and peaceful, and had it not been for the ruined buildings and torn-up roads it would have been difficult to imagine that we were in the midst of a battle-field.

Passing through all the maze of cross trenches, we finally reached the front line which we found to be what we afterward called a “half-and-half” trench; that is, it was dug down to a depth of perhaps four feet and built up about the same with sand-bags, making it possibly eight feet from the bottom of trench to top of parapet. It was quite dry and clean and comfortable and proved that the Buffs and Surreys had not been loafing during the summer. I’m afraid we did not properly appreciate it at that time, but as I look back over all the time that has passed since, I am compelled to admit that it was the finest bit of trench we ever occupied.

We had no more than arrived in the line than the cook of the first gun crew we struck brought out a “dixie” of tea and an unlimited supply of bread and butter and jam and invited us to fill up. (“Dixie” is the soldier’s name for the camp kettle used in the British army.) Now if you have been paying attention to the story of our movements since leaving England, I think you can readily imagine that we were hungry. These soldiers had been out, some of them, since the beginning of the war and had become inured to all the hardships which are a necessary part of the game, and, splendid fellows that they were, the first thing they thought of was our comfort. From that time on I never met up with any body of British Imperial soldiers who did not show this same consideration and solicitude for the stranger. And they do it so unostentatiously and naturally that they challenge the admiration of all, especially of Colonials such as we, who were, I fear, very apt to forget the little niceties of manner which are inbred in the native Briton. While we afterward became the best of friends there was never any danger of our becoming “alike.” We secretly admired their perfect and unalterable observance of all orders even though we were, at the same time, scheming to evade a lot of those same restrictions which appeared to us to be unnecessary. They, on their part, could not help admitting that the dash and “devil-may-care” spirit shown by our men often accomplished results not otherwise attainable but from the emulation of which they were barred by “traditions.” The discipline of the one and the discipline of the other are based on two entirely different modes of life; the former carefully trained to rely on and obey implicitly the orders of any superior officer, while the latter looks only for initial direction, depending upon his own initiative and ingenuity to see him through any trouble that might arise.

From this line we could see the whole valley which separated us from the famous Messines Ridge. The enemy was firmly established on its crest, with his advance lines in the valley and even, at some places, on the sides of the slope below us. The town of Messines, directly opposite, was in plain sight but nearly a mile away, the church and hospice, or infirmary, being conspicuous landmarks on the sky-line. Our front lines were from about one hundred and fifty to three hundred yards apart. Numerous ruined farms and cabarets were scattered along the line, sometimes in our territory and sometimes belonging to the enemy. These were, as a rule, converted into redoubts or “strong-points,” and defended by both infantry and machine guns. To the northward, within the German lines, was the town of Wytschaete, while we had Mont Kemmel, a prominent hill which gave our artillery good observation all the way from Ypres to “Plugstreet.”

Several of the prominent roads within the German lines were in plain sight from our position and, while the artillery devoted considerable attention to harassing the enemy, we were not sufficiently supplied with ammunition at that time to strafe them as was desirable. This was especially true of several “dumps,” which is the colloquial word designating the points where the wagons and motor transports deposit ammunition, food and other trench stores and whence they are carried up to the front line by the men. Thus an ammunition dump means a point where ammunition is stored, while a ration dump is a place where the ration carrying parties repair at night to procure the rations for the following day. At some points the field cookers or “rolling kitchens” come up at night and the cooked food is carried from there to the front. One such place at Messines, we called “Cooker’s Halt.”

The machine gun officer of the outgoing Surreys had begun to develop some ideas of his own as to the feasibility of strafing enemy transports and dumps at night and had selected a tentative position behind a slight crest, about one hundred and fifty yards N. E. of “In den Kraatenberg Cabaret” and immediately adjacent to a disused communication trench called “Plum Avenue.” Now I had been a crank on long range, indirect fire in England, so I had no difficulty in persuading our M. G. officer to turn this job over to me. We improved the position and also established another one, about one hundred yards down the trench for daylight work against aircraft. In those days the planes would come over at altitudes of two thousand feet and less and we had some splendid opportunities to practise on them. We succeeded in bringing one down with his petrol tank on fire, and we turned back a good many more until they began to fly so high that we could not reach them. At night, by using information obtained from our artillery and our own forward observers, we were able to cut up a lot of their transports. At first they would drive down to a place called the Barricade, but after we caught them there two or three times they came only to the top of the hill, to “Cooker’s Halt.” We soon chased them out of that, however, and then I guess poor Fritz had to carry his stuff all the way from behind the Ridge. On two occasions we caught large working parties, in broad daylight, and cut them up and dispersed them. Our position in front of the group of buildings (In den Kraatenberg) naturally led the enemy to believe that we were using the building for cover, so he shelled the poor inoffensive houses and barns most industriously but never put anything close enough to our real position to do any damage. This taught me a lesson which I put into operation, later on, at Sniper’s Barn, with the best of results.

From that time on, strafing was an important part of machine gunnery until, now, together with barrage fire, it comprises about all there is to machine-gun work, proper, for the automatic rifle has taken over the greater part of the front-line offensive work.

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