CHAPTER XI

WITHOUT HOPE OF REWARD

All the bandsmen (we had both bagpipe and bugle bands) go into the front line with the other troops. They are unarmed, but equipped with first-aid kits and stretchers. It is their task to administer first aid to all wounded and then to carry or otherwise assist them back to the dressing stations which may be anywhere from a few hundred yards to a mile or more, depending on the ground. When a man is hit while in an exposed place, whether in No Man’s Land or behind our lines, it is up to the stretcher-bearers to get to him at the earliest possible moment. I have seen these men, time after time, rush to the assistance of a stricken soldier, knowing full well that they would immediately become the target for snipers’ bullets. Personal considerations never appeared to enter their heads. Never, in all my experience, have I seen one of them backward in going to the aid of a wounded man. Often they would spend hours in the effort to bring back to the lines some soldier too badly injured to help himself; and the pity of it was that, on many occasions, after all their self-sacrificing labor, they would be shot down just as they were about to come over the parapet and into the trench.

And all without hope of reward other than the love and admiration of their comrades. There was a time, before this war, when such exploits were considered worth the Victoria Cross. Now, however, they are merely a matter of daily routine. Thousands of men are, every day, performing deeds of valor, which in any other war would have brought the highest decorations, without receiving even so much as an honorable mention. Exposure to fire such as theorists had told us would demoralize any army is merely a part of the day’s work. Troops go in and out of the trenches, often under artillery fire that, according to our books, ought to annihilate them, and they do it without thinking it anything unusual or worthy of comment other than perhaps, in answer to a question, to remark: “Oh, yes, they shot us up a bit in the P. & O.” or “They handed us a few ‘crumps’ and ‘woolly bears’ coming through Ridgewood.” (“Woolly bear” is the name given to a large, high explosive shell, with time fuse, which bursts overhead, giving out a dense black smoke, which expands and rolls about in such a manner as to suggest the animal for which it is named.) In fact, nearly all the names invented by the soldier to describe the various projectiles are so apt and expressive as to be self-explanatory. The “Silent Lizzies,” “Sighing Susans” and “Whispering Willies” belong to the class of large caliber, long range naval gun shells which pass over the front line so high that only a sort of whispering sound is heard. The “middle heavies” with percussion fuses, which burst on impact and give out a dense black smoke, have been called “Jack Johnsons” and “coal boxes,” but are now usually grouped under the general designation of “crumps,” because of the peculiar sound of their explosion. They run all the way from 4.1 inch to 9.2 inch calibers. Some of the very large shells are called “Grandmothers” or “railroad trains.” The French call them “marmites,” meaning a large cooking pot or kettle. The “whizz-bang” is just exactly what the name would suggest: a small shell of very high velocity, which arrives and bursts with such suddenness as to give no time for taking cover. Its moral effect exceeds the material in the trenches, but it is deadly along roads or in the open. Gas shells have a peculiar sound, all their own, difficult to describe but never forgotten when once heard. It has been described as a “rumbling” noise, but I think “gurgling” is better. (It’s a pity some one can not take a phonograph into the lines and “can” some of these things.) When gas shells land they do not make much noise, having a very small bursting charge; merely sufficient to break the case which contains the gas in liquid form. They are often mistaken, by new troops, for “duds” or “blinds,” as we call shells which fail to explode. As soon as the liquid gas is liberated, however, it vaporizes and quickly spreads over a considerable area. There are many kinds, but they can generally be distinguished by the smell. Some are merely lachrymatory or “tear” shells; the gas affecting the eyes in such a manner as to produce constant “weeping” and consequent inability to see clearly. Others, however, are deadly and one good breath will put a man out of action and a couple of “lungfuls” will usually kill him.

About this time, I think it was December 19th, 1915, we had our first experience with chlorine gas or “cloud gas” as distinguished from “shell gas.” The troops on our immediate left got a pretty bad dose, but, owing to the peculiar formation of the lines and varying air currents, we did not suffer severely from it. The lines in the Ypres salient were so crooked that the enemy rarely attempted to use this form of gas after the first big attack in April, 1915, as it would frequently roll back upon his own troops. Shell gas was constantly used, generally being fired against our positions in the rear; artillery emplacements and such. Being well equipped with gas masks or respirators, we suffered little harm from it.

Christmas, 1915, was a quiet day on our front, both sides being apparently willing to “lay off” for a day. There was no firing of any kind and both our men and the enemy exposed themselves with impunity. Aside from this, however, it was the same as any other day. There was none of the visiting and fraternizing of which we heard so much on the previous Christmas. The Germans opposite us had a number of musical instruments and on that night and on New Year’s Eve they almost sang their Teutonic heads off.

January passed quietly. By this time we had become so accustomed to the mud and rain that I doubt if we would have been happy without them. In spite of all the difficulties, we managed to get our rations and _mail_ every day. The regular shelling had become a part of our daily life, and the constantly growing list of killed and wounded we accepted without comment. The Machine Gun Section was gradually losing its original members and replacing them by drafts from the infantry companies. It was simply a case of “Conditions continue normal in the Ypres salient,” to quote the official reports. We now maintained two strafing guns, shifting about from one position to another whenever an opportunity offered to harass the boche.

That winter, 1915-16, was what they call a “wet winter,” that is, it rained continually and rarely got cold enough to freeze. With the exception of a light flurry in late November and a fairly heavy snow about the first of March, we never saw any of the “beautiful.” A few times there was frost enough to make thin ice, but never enough to enable us to walk on top of the mud which was from six inches deep in the best parts of the trench to thigh deep in the worst. We had no rubber boots at the start but got some late in the winter.

A peculiar affliction, first noticed during this war, is what is known as “trench feet.” Where men are required to remain for long periods standing in cold water and unable to move about to any great extent, the circulation of blood in the lower limbs becomes sluggish and, eventually, stops. The result appears to be exactly the same as that caused by severe frost-bite; in fact it _is_ freezing without frost, (I don’t know why not, if you can cook with a fireless cooker), and, in severe cases, amputation is necessary.

While the Imperial troops on our flank suffered considerably from this dreaded affliction, we had but few cases, although our position was infinitely worse than theirs, we being in lower ground. Probably the average Canadian is better able to stand the cold and wet than the native-born Briton. We had but one case in the Machine Gun Section and that was not severe.

As a preventive measure, whale oil was issued with positive orders that every man must, at some time during each twenty-four hours, remove his shoes and socks and rub his feet with this oil. I never did think the oil was anything but just an excuse to make the men rub as that in itself would be sufficient to restore the circulation. At any rate, when the oil gave out, we still kept up the rubbing game and there was no noticeable change in the result.

Another hitherto unknown disease which developed during that season was what is commonly known as “trench fever.” The victim’s temperature runs up around one hundred and three and he is affected with lassitude and general debility and it requires from three weeks to a month in hospital to put him in shape for duty. The medical officers use a Greek name for this fever, which, translated, means, “a fever of unknown origin” but the colloquial designation is “G. O. K.,” (God only knows). It is rarely, if ever, fatal. I never heard of any one dying of it.

Then there is a sort of skin affection; a “rash,” which is said to be caused by eating so much meat, especially fats, without taking sufficient exercise. A few sulphur baths at specially prepared places behind the lines soon eradicate this trouble.

Really dangerous diseases are extremely rare. Typhoid fever is almost unknown, pneumonia is seldom heard of and even rheumatism, which one would naturally expect to be prevalent, is by no means common. The ratio of sickness, from all causes, was far below that in any of the training camps in this country although never, in Canada, England, Flanders or France, did we have as comfortable quarters as are furnished for all the troops here. But we _did_ have at all times, plenty of good warm woolen clothing and an abundance of substantial food. Cotton uniforms, underwear or socks are unknown in any army except that of the United States. Perhaps you can find the answer in that statement.

During February an almost continuous fight was waged for a small length of trench on our left, known as the International Trench, because it changed hands so often. It culminated, March second, with the Battle of the Bluff, by which British troops took and held this line. We were in support, as usual, and suffered rather heavily from shell fire. This was the beginning of the spring offensive, and from that time on we caught it, hot and heavy, for four solid months.

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