CHAPTER VIII

GETTING THE FLAG

We soon fell into the routine of moving; from front line to support; from support to the front line and back to reserve. For some time these movements were uncertain but we finally settled down to a regular schedule, which was maintained, with few breaks, throughout the winter. When the time came to go into the reserve, the rest of the battalion would go back to LaClytte but the Emma Gees went only to the Vierstraat-Brasserie line before described. From there detachments would alternate in going back to the battalion billets for a bath and clean clothing. Some of us rigged up our own bath house in Captain’s Post, so found it unnecessary to go any farther. Personally, there was only one day in three months when I was out of sight of the German lines. We had comfortable quarters where we were and the towns of Dickebusch and LaClytte had no attractions for me; and as to the battalion billets, they were abominable. They consisted of so-called huts which were simply floors with roofs over them: no walls at all; just a sloping, tent-like roof on top of a rough board floor. Outside, they were partly banked up and plentifully smeared with mud, camouflaged, as it were. The British made it a practise at that time to keep their troops out of the inhabited towns that were within range of the enemy’s guns, so as not to give any excuse for shelling them. LaClytte was a very small town of but a few hundred native inhabitants, but Dickebusch, situated about midway between the lines and LaClytte, was a city of several thousands. In both places were hundreds of refugees from the ruined towns to the eastward.

However, it seemed to make little difference to the boche; he shelled both towns, intermittently, killing a number of civilians but very rarely hitting a soldier. Later, in the spring of 1916, they started in to wipe out Dickebusch, and, for all practical purposes, they succeeded. I will speak of this in a later chapter.

Where opposing lines are so close together, say less than one hundred yards apart, and the ground is level and star shells are going up almost continuously, it would seem to be nearly an impossibility for any man or number of men to venture out into No Man’s Land without being seen and fired upon by the enemy. But with certain members of each organization it is merely a part of the daily routine. Every night they slip over the parapet and, in small groups, patrol up and down the line, constantly on the alert to prevent any surprise attack by the enemy. But this is not all. There are times, at all points, when it is necessary to put out new barbed wire or repair the old; when large parties of men must go out there and work for hours, within a stone’s throw of a vigilant and merciless enemy. Occasionally they are discovered and have trouble, but in the great majority of cases the work is done and every one gets back unhurt.

How is it done? Simply a matter of training and careful preparation. Every man is rehearsed in his work until he can do it perfectly, quickly and without noise. Materials are carefully checked up and distributed and, each man having a certain specified task and no other, there is no confusion or blundering. They all know that, when a flare goes up near by, they must “freeze” in whatever position they may be. Movements of any kind would be sure to discover them to the enemy lookout, but lacking that movement it is a hundred-to-one shot they will be undetected.

There have been a good many instances where a flag has been planted by the enemy, on his parapets or inside his wire, with a challenge to any one to come over and get it. There was one such opposite our position. Many stories had been told about that flag: The Brandenburgers had it first, then the French got it and passed it along to the English, who relieved them; then the Prussians took it away from the British and had held it ever since; for about a year, in fact. We could see it, plainly enough; a dark blue affair with some sort of a device in yellow in the center. I often noticed it from our position back at Sniper’s Barn and had some rather hazy ideas about going over after it.

One dark rainy night in November, a man in the section named Lucky announced that he was going over to Fritz’s line to try to locate a new machine-gun emplacement which we had reason to believe had been recently constructed. He slipped over the parapet where a road ran through our lines and those of the enemy. It was only about seventy yards across at this point.

Working his way through our wire, he crawled along the side of the old disused road, there being a shallow ditch there which afforded a little concealment. The flares were going up frequently and progress was, of course, very slow. At one place the body of a soldier was lying in the ditch and, in trying to roll it out of the way, he pulled off one of the feet. By creeping along, inch by inch, he finally reached the enemy’s wire and spent about an hour working through it. Then crawling along the outside of the parapet, stopping often to listen, he soon found the loophole of the new gun emplacement. Taking a sheet of paper which he had brought for the purpose, he fastened it directly below the loophole where it would be in plain sight from our lines but invisible to the occupants of the place. His work done, he was about to start back when he happened to think of that flag and concluded to have a try for it. It was probably a hundred yards or more down the trench from where he then was and it required the utmost care to avoid making a noise as the front of the parapet, as is always the case, was thickly strewn with tin cans and rubbish of all sorts. Lucky had been a big game hunter in Canada, however, and had even stalked the wily moose which is about the last word in “still hunting,” so he managed to negotiate the distance without detection and finally reached the flag.

Carefully feeling up along the staff, he discovered that it was anchored with wires which ran into the ground and then he remembered the tales that had been told of how it was attached to a bomb or small mine which would be exploded if the flagstaff were disturbed. That was a common German trick and not at all unlikely in this case, but, after thinking the matter over, he decided to make an attempt to unfasten the wires. This did not take long, after which all that remained was to pull out the staff and “beat it.” Taking his pistol in his right hand, to be ready for emergencies, and reaching up with the left, he gave the pole a sharp jerk. Well, there must have been another wire, somewhere, connected up with two “fixed rifles,” aimed directly at the stick for, when he pulled on it, two rifle reports rang out and two bullets hit the flagstaff, cutting it off just below his hand which was also slightly cut. Quickly rolling down into a slight depression he hugged the flag to him and lay quiet, while the Germans, aroused by the shots, immediately opened fire with rifles, which were soon joined by; a machine gun. They could not hit him where he was so he just lay still and waited. Suddenly, without warning, they fired a flare light directly over his head. He told me afterward that was the only time he was really scared. He thought it was a bomb. However that soon passed and the firing having died down, he made his way back to our lines with the flag which he gave to the Colonel the next morning. “And they gave him a medal for that.”

On another occasion, one of our scouts made his way through the German line and having located a battery in the rear, started back, only to discover that the place where he had come over was now occupied by several soldiers, and, being unable to find another opening, was obliged to hide out and remain inside the enemy’s lines all day. The next night he managed to slip back, none the worse for his adventure.

Such things are being done every night and some men consider it the greatest sport in the world to go out alone and spend hours under the lee of a German parapet listening to the Heinies talk. Soon after that, orders were issued in our brigade that no one was to go out alone so when we wanted to prowl around we had to start in pairs. As soon as we were over the parapet we would split and each go his way, to meet later at an appointed place. One man, alone, can get away with a lot of things that would be impossible for two, but we observed the letter, if not the spirit, of the order.

We had cleared out one of the compartments of the big barn at Captain’s Post, carefully plugging up all the shell-holes with sand-bags and other materials so that no light could filter through, and there, at night, would build a great fire in the middle of the stone floor and proceed to enjoy ourselves. Usually one or two guns would do a little strafing every night: simply going out into the field in front of the building and setting up the gun in a convenient shell-hole. After a while, from our own observations and from information supplied by the artillery, we occasionally located an enemy battery within range of our guns. Then we would have a regular “strafing party.” Laying all the guns so as to deliver a converging fire on the battery position, we would, as soon as it was dark, open up on them, knowing that they would be moving about in the open and exposed to fire. We could always tell when we had “stung” them, for they would invariably come back at us with a tremendous fire, shooting wildly at everything within our lines in the vain endeavor to locate us. I’ll bet we caused them to expend a hundred thousand rounds of perfectly good ammunition in this way, but we never had a man hit while at the game. The German is not much of a hand for night artillery work unless you stir him up, but we could always get a rise out of him, and often did it, just for amusement. This is what is called “getting his wind up.” The same thing can be done in the front line by a few men opening up with five or ten rounds, rapid fire, directed just over Heinie’s parapet. In nearly every case, he will commence shooting blindly toward our lines: the contagion will spread and, the first thing you know, he will have wasted about a million rounds.

Here, as in most parts of the line, except during an engagement, cooking was done right in the front trenches. The method is to use a brazier made from an old iron bucket, punched full of holes, in which charcoal or coke is burned. As we seldom had charcoal, it was necessary to start the fire before daylight, using wood to ignite the coke which made no smoke but, with careful nursing, could be made to burn all day. The presence of smoke always drew the fire of rifle grenades, trench-mortar shells and even artillery. It was one of our favorite forms of amusement to locate a cook house and shoot it up; and when a shell made a direct hit, if, among the pots and pans flying through the air, we could distinguish a German cap or something that looked like a part of a boche, there was much rejoicing in our lines. Of course it was a game at which two could play and we were not immune by any means.

These little things helped to keep up the interest and break the monotony of the work. About this time the famous Lahore Battery, from the Indian city of that name, was added to the artillery behind our sector; and they appeared not to be restricted in the number of rounds per day which they were permitted to fire. I remember the first time they did any shooting over our heads. It was the day after they had “registered in” that a large working party was discovered on Piccadilly Farm, directly opposite our left. When the F. O. O. (forward observing officer) was informed of it, he had a good look through his periscope binoculars and then called up the Lahore Battery and, without any preliminary ranging shots, ordered “forty rounds per gun.” As they had six guns, they poured in the shells at the rate of about one hundred a minute and they certainly did make things fly in and about that farm.

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