CHAPTER VI

OUR OWN CHEERFUL FASHION

On October twelfth there was a general attack along our front, to try out some new “smoke bombs” and shells. It was the first time the smoke barrage was used. We took our guns down about half-way to the front line and set them up in hedge-rows and other places where we could sweep the front in case the enemy made a counter-attack and got into our lines. However, we were not needed, so remained spectators of about as pretty a show as I have ever seen. At a given signal, every gun behind our lines dropped smoke shells in a continuous row along the line, just in front of the enemy’s parapet. As each shell struck, it burst, sending out great streamers of white smoke that soon became a dense wall through which no one could see. Under cover of this, our bombers advanced, threw hand grenades into the enemy trenches and then retired. No attempt was made to take any part of the line; it was more in the nature of a try-out for the new shells and also for the purpose of harassing the enemy.

Naturally, the boche, expecting a general attack, commenced to shell everything in that part of the country and also opened up a heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, a good deal of which came our way, but no one was hit. On the way back to the barn, Bouchard and I were walking side by side, perhaps three or four feet apart, when a “whizz-bang” came right between us and struck the ground not more than ten feet in front. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand that would have spelled our finish, but the shell struck on the edge of a little hump, at the side of a ditch, turned sidewise and spun round like a top. We stood there, speechless, fascinated by the peculiar antics of the thing, until it stopped. It was a pretty toy, a 105 mm., painted red and with a beautiful brass fuse-cap. I picked it up but as it was too hot to handle I put on my asbestos gloves, used for changing barrels of machine guns, and carried it “home” where I put it away, intending to get some artilleryman to remove the fuse and explosive so that I might keep it as a souvenir; but a bunch of boys from the Eighteenth Battalion found it, and taking it back to their dug-out at Ridgewood, tried to unload it themselves. Some were killed and several wounded when the thing exploded. I afterward saw one of those who had been wounded and he told me about it.

At this stage of the soldier’s career he is always a “souvenir hunter,” picking up and carrying around with him all sorts of things, from German bullets to big shells. I was a fiend of the first magnitude and collected enough stuff to stock a museum, only to have to abandon it whenever we moved. I had French rifles, bayonets and other equipment; German ditto and about every size and type of shell and fuse that was used on our front. Whenever we moved I would bury or cache the whole lot, in the hope that I could get back for it some day. But the fever finally wore off, and I got so that I would not even pick up a German helmet. Now, of course, I wish I had some of that stuff to show the folks.

On the fifteenth of October we went into the front line; a line which we, alternating with the Twentieth Battalion, were destined to hold until the following April. About this time the rains set in “for keeps” and we were seldom dry or warm or clean for nearly six months. Mud, mud, nothing but mud–mud without any bottom. We had no trenches, proper; they were simply sand-bag barricades between us and the enemy and it was a continual struggle to keep them built up. They would ooze away like melting butter.

When the deadlock came, in the fall of 1914, and the opposing armies lay entrenched, from the North Sea to Switzerland, it found the Germans occupying the dominating heights, with our forces hanging on, as best they could, to positions on the lower ground.

This was the case at the point where we were located. Our sector (about eleven hundred yards for the battalion frontage) extended from the Voormezeele-Wytschaete road, northward to the bottom of the hill at the top of which was the village of St. Eloi. Directly opposite our left was Piccadilly Farm, located on a hill about ten meters higher than our lines. From there toward the right, the enemy line gradually descended until, at the right of our line, it was only about two meters higher. The distance between the front lines varied from about seventy yards, at the right, to about two hundred and fifty yards at the left. The net result of this situation was that the Germans could dig trenches of considerable depth, draining the water out under their parapets or into two small streams which ran from their lines to ours. They had a playful habit of damming up these streams until an unusually hard rain would come, when they would open the gates and give us the benefit of the whole dose. I have seen the water in these streams rise seven feet within less than an hour and there were times when in one of our communication trenches it was over a man’s head. A soldier of the West York’s regiment was drowned in this trench one night.

Under such conditions, it was impossible for us to dig. All we could do was to construct sand-bag parapets or barricades, while our so-called “dug-outs” consisted of huts constructed of sand-bags, roofed with corrugated iron and covered with more sand-bags. They afforded protection from shrapnel and small shell fragments, but, of course, not against direct hits from any kind of shells. Even a little “whizz-bang” would go through them as though they were egg-shells. All the earth thereabouts was of the consistency of thick soup and our parapet had a habit of sloughing away just about as fast as we could build it up. As a matter of fact, our communication trenches did become completely obliterated and we had no recourse but to go in and out of the trenches “overland.” At night this was not so bad, although we were continually losing men from stray bullets. But when it was necessary, as it sometimes was, to go in or out in daylight why, it was a cinch that some one was going to get hit, as the enemy had had many good snipers watching for just such opportunities. At one time, for over two weeks more than two hundred yards of our parapet were down, and if you went from one end of the line to the other you must expose yourself to the full view of enemy snipers. My duties required me to cover this stretch of trench at least twice a day.

Our conduct in taking short cuts across the fields when the trenches were knee-deep with mud, was scandalous in the eyes of our neighbors of the Imperial army, as the troops from the British Isles are known. Quite frequently we were subjected to the most scathing tongue-lashing from officers of the old school, but we won the astonished admiration of the Tommies by our disregard of instructions and advice. I well remember one day when a party of us were going out through the P. & O. communication trench and, finding the mud too deep, we climbed out and walked across the open, whereat an old Colonel of some Highland regiment gave us a “beautiful calling.” His discourse was a masterpiece of fluent soldier talk and, as a Scot usually does when excited, he lapsed into the “twa-talk” of his native Hielans. I can remember his last words, which were to the effect that: “Ye daft Cany-deens think ye’re awfu’ brave but I tell ye the noo it’s no bravery; it’s sheer stupidity.” Of course he was right, but we could not allow the small matter of a bullet or two to stand in the way of our getting out in time for tea, and finally they gave it up in disgust and allowed us to “go to hell in our own cheerful fashion,” as they said.

With the assistance of the engineers, we finally succeeded in constructing a new line, slightly in the rear of the old one which was abandoned except for a couple of machine-gun positions and a listening post. We also managed to get out a fairly good barbed-wire entanglement along most of the front. Fritz appeared to be having his troubles, too, so did not bother us much at night. We always got a few shells every day and usually quite a number of rifle grenades and “fish-tail” aerial torpedoes, but they did very little damage. Here was where the mud was our friend, for, unless a shell dropped squarely on the top of you, it would do no harm.

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