CHAPTER V

AT CAPTAIN’S POST

The Battle of Loos had opened on the twenty-fifth of September and, although it was a considerable distance to the south of us, we had been hearing the continuous rumble of the guns ever since we had come up to the line. It was the first time we had heard “drum-fire,” as the French call it. It is such an incessant bombardment, with such a large number of guns, that you can not distinguish any single reports, but the whole makes a continual “rumble,” something like the roll of heavy thunder in the distance; never slacking, night or day. I have forgotten just how many days they kept it up, but it was something like two weeks.

To create a diversion, and prevent the enemy from taking troops from other parts of the line to strengthen the attacked point, our artillery, all along the line, was doing its best and our infantry made feint attacks at several places. We had gone back in the line on the first of October and, early the next morning, our brigade, Fourth Canadian, took part in one of these attacks. Our battalion did not go “over the top,” but Bouchard and I stuck our gun up on the parapet and helped support the advance, which was made by the Nineteenth Battalion. It was our first experience of that kind and was, to say the least, interesting. The enemy kept up an incessant rifle and machine-gun fire on our position, the bullets were snapping around our heads like a bunch of fire-crackers and the mud was flying everywhere, but that little seventeen-year-old “kid” kept feeding in belts and all the while whooping and laughing like a maniac. It certainly cheered me up to have him there. The whole thing was over in about twenty minutes but, during that short time, we had learned something which can be learned in no other way–that it is possible for thousands of bullets to come close to you without doing any harm. From that time on, neither Bouchard nor I ever felt the least hesitation about slipping over the parapet at night to “see what we could see.”

During this tour we were subjected to considerably more shelling than on the first occasion, and one morning Fritz made a mistake with one of his shells intended for “our farm,” as we called the buildings in the rear, and dropped it “ker-plunk” right into one of our dug-outs. It was a place we had fixed up for cooking, and we were all outside, but it certainly made a mess of our “kitchen furniture.” Then they shot up our communication trench until it was positively dangerous to go up and down it for rations and ammunition. Narrow escapes were numerous, but our luck held, and we went out the night of the eighth without having sustained a casualty. The battalion did not fare so well, having quite a number of wounded, but none killed.

That was our last visit to those trenches, as we marched, that night, away to the northward. “Eéps” was the word that went up and down the line, that being the Flemish pronunciation of Ypres, (in French pronounced “Eé-pr” and in Tommy’s English, “Wipers”). We had a hard march; in the rain, as usual; and, about daylight, stopped at the town of LaClytte, which was to be the battalion’s billeting place for several months. The rest of the battalion remained there a few days, resting, but the Emma Gees went on ahead and took over some support positions at Groot Vierstraat and along the Ypres-Neuve Eglise road. We relieved the King Edward Horse who were acting, as was all the cavalry, as infantry.

My crew, together with Sandy McNab’s, was assigned to an old Belgian farm called Captain’s Post. The place was pretty well shot up but we managed to clear out enough room to give us very good quarters; by far the best we had had since leaving England. We were some 1,250 yards from the enemy lines but in plain sight of them, hence it was necessary to be very careful not to allow any one to move about outside the buildings in daytime, nor to make any smoke.

No doubt some one got careless, for about noon the next day we heard the long-drawn-out “who-o-o-o-i-s-s-s-h” of a big shell coming. It struck about twenty-five yards behind our building and failed to explode; in soldier’s parlance, it was a “dud.” We were eating dinner and refused to be disturbed. Then came a steady stream of the big fellows; to the right, to the left, in front of the building and, finally, “smack,” right into the house. Altogether, they put thirty-two “five-point-nine” (150 mm.) shells into that one old building and all the damage they did was to ruin our dinner by filling the “dixie” with mud. How in the world we escaped has always been a mystery to me, but later on, after other and worse affairs, the men called it “McBride’s luck.” They shelled us pretty regularly, after that, sometimes just two or three shells, but on at least one occasion, they evidently had made up their minds to put the place out of business entirely, for they kept up a continuous bombardment, with guns of at least three calibers, for more than an hour. At that time I was a corporal and had twelve men, with two guns at this place, yet, although nearly every one was hit by pieces of brick and mud and covered with dust, not a man was hurt nor a gun injured.

One morning, just after daylight and during a fog, I was up in an old hay-loft where we had a gun, when I heard a cock pheasant “squawking” (that’s the only word that describes it), out in front. Looking from the gun position I saw him, standing on the parapet of an abandoned French trench across the road. I could not resist the temptation, so took a shot at him, with the result that we had pheasant stew for dinner that day.

It was a source of never-ceasing wonder to me that the birds and other forms of wild life seemed to be so little affected by the continual noise of guns and shells. So far as I could notice they did not pay the slightest attention to it. Pheasants, partridges and rabbits were numerous at one point in and behind our lines and I have seen them running about, feeding or playing where shells were falling and bursting all about them, without showing any sign of fear. Indeed they were sometimes killed by the shells, especially shrapnel, but those unhit would “carry on” with the business in hand, indifferent to the fate of their companions.

The little robin redbreasts (the English robin and the French _rouge-gorge_) were abundant, as were the ubiquitous English sparrows, which, sitting out in front on the barbed wire, were often used as targets by men firing experimental shots.

A pair of swallows reared a family of young in a dug-out which I once occupied, the nest being within a few feet of my head when I was in my bunk. They would come in and go out through a small hole which we left in the burlap curtain and the old bird would sit on the nest and look at me in such a confidential, unafraid sort of way that she made a friend for life and I would have fought any one who had attempted to disturb or injure her. But, of course, no such thing was possible. All the men seemed to take a kindly interest in the birds and, except for the occasional shot at the English sparrows (which never hit them, anyhow), they rarely, if ever, molested any of them unless it was for the purpose of getting a meal of pheasant or partridge, which was considered perfectly legitimate although forbidden by “orders.” It was all right if you could “get away with it,” as the saying is. One morning, after an unusually intense bombardment of a wood called the Bois Carré, I found many dead birds; killed either by direct hits or by the concussion of the heavy shells. This same morning I watched a pair of magpies who were building a nest in a tree near our station. A shell had struck the tree, below the nest, and had cut it in half while a large branch had lodged just above the nest. The whole thing was swaying dangerously in the light breeze and a strong wind would surely bring it down, but that pair of chattering magpies appeared to be debating whether to continue their work or move elsewhere. One would hop down to the place where the shell had hit and, cocking his head this way and that, would let loose a flow of magpie talk that would bring his mate to him and then they would both investigate, flying to the shattered place, clinging to the bark and picking out splinters and pieces of wood. Then they would go up aloft and consult about the nest itself. I watched them for the better part of an hour when the verdict appeared to be to “take a chance” and go ahead with the building. We left that place soon after and I never learned the final outcome.

At one point, where our lines were about one hundred yards from the enemy, there was a small pond in No Man’s Land just outside our wire, and a pair of ducks, teal, I think, made it their home during the entire winter of 1915-16. In spite of the fact that shells were continually falling all around and sometimes bursting squarely in the pond itself, they never showed the least inclination to abandon the place. As this pond was surrounded by a fringe of small willows we often made use of the cover they afforded to make night reconnoissances, but soon learned that it was impossible to approach the pool without alarming the ducks and drawing from them a low scolding note of protest, accompanied by a splashing of water. This was carefully noted and, thereafter, all sentries at that point were especially warned to listen intently for these noises as it would probably mean that an enemy patrol was exploring in the vicinity. The abandoning of so many of the farms and villages left a great many cats without homes. Nearly every ruined barn or house sheltered one or more of them and they were, as a rule, quite wild. Some, however, had been caught and tamed by the soldiers who made great pets of them. Frequently a soldier would be seen going in or out of the front line with a kitten perched contentedly on top of his pack. There was one big brindle “madame” cat who adopted our machine gun outfit when we first went in. She traveled up and down the line but never stayed anywhere except in one of the machine gun emplacements. On bright days she would hop up on top of the parapet and sit there, making her toilet, and then stretch out on the sand-bags for a nap. At this point it was not possible to show a hand or a periscope or any other small object without drawing the fire of some alert boche, but they never shot at the cat I don’t know why, superstition, perhaps.

This old cat had two litters of kittens while she was a “member” of our section and they were all grabbed up as soon as weaned, by both officers and men alike. It is simply human nature to want to have a pet of some kind and, as it was forbidden to take dogs into the lines, the soldiers turned to the cats. Of course they were of some use in killing mice, but the real scourge of the trenches, the giant rats, were too big and strong for any cat to tackle. There were literally millions of these rats. At night they appeared to be everywhere. They would eat up any rations that were left within reach and, boldly entering the dug-outs, would run about all over the sleeping men. It is decidedly unpleasant to be awakened to find one of these fellows perched on your chest and “sniff-sniff-sniffing” in your face. The men killed them in all sorts of ways, one of the most popular of which was to stick a bit of cheese on the end of the bayonet and, holding it down along the bottom of the trench, wait until Mr. Rat went after the cheese and then fire the rifle. Needless to say that rat was “na-poo,” which is soldier-French, meaning “finis.”

At Captain’s Post a cat had a family of kittens, just learning to walk, hidden in a haymow, when we were shelled unmercifully. After the bombardment ceased, upon going up into the mow to inspect the damage, I found them. They were all covered with brick-dust but unhurt. By actual count, no less than five shells had burst within ten feet of the nest in which they were hidden; in fact, the whole place was an utter ruin, yet they came through it untouched. Then, at Sniper’s Barn there was a big black cat, wild as a fox, which had a hiding-place somewhere among the ruins of the upper story. I had a sniping nest, burrowed under a lot of tobacco which had been stored there, and was occupying it one day when the Germans shelled the place. They put several shells into that part of the building, cutting the legs off the tripod of my telescope and burying the whole works, including myself. But what interested and amused me most was when a shell rooted out that cat and sent it flying down into my quarters, unhurt but so plastered with dust from the bricks and mortar that no one would have ever suspected it of being black. It was an entirely new variety–a red cat. It sat and looked at me for a long time. Disgust, just plain, every-day disgust, was written all over that animal’s face. I don’t know what would have happened had I not laughed. I simply could not help it, the sight was so funny. With my first shout the cat seemed to “come to” and, with a terrified yowl, sped through a narrow opening and took to the woods.

To change the subject: Many of our men will, doubtless, be comforted to know that in one respect Flanders is like Ireland–there are no snakes.

One of our guns on this line was in the upper story of an old brewery at Vierstraat, about seven hundred yards from my position, and we occasionally exchanged visits. One day, I was down there talking with the boys when a five-inch (sixty pounder) shrapnel shell burst in front of the building, the case coming right on through, into the room where we were. It “scooted,” glanced, ricochetted, or whatever you want to call it, all around that room and you never saw such a scampering to get out. It finally stopped, however, and one of the boys dragged it out into the light for an examination. On the side it was branded “BEARDMORE, SCOTLAND.” Now, how do you suppose Heinie got that?

Advertisements