CHAPTER XIV

FOURTEEN DAYS FIGHTING

By this time there was no doubt of the enemy’s superiority in artillery, and to make matters worse, the craters were changing hands daily or even hourly. We never knew, for sure, whether our troops or those of the enemy held any certain crater, except the ones on each end, numbers one and six (we held them throughout the entire two months of fighting), but numbers two, three, four and five were debatable ground for several weeks. On two occasions I made the complete circuit of all the craters at night, going through the Canadian trench and coming back via what had been our original front line. On one of these trips I was accompanied by Captain Congreve, afterward Major Congreve, V. C., (now dead) who was the only staff officer I saw in that sector during all the time we were in the line. Sometimes we met individual German sentries and quick, quiet and accurate work was necessary to avoid detection and probable capture. I found that a French bayonet, the rapier shape, was a very satisfactory weapon at such times. Trench knives have been invented since and may be an improvement. After leaving me that night Captain Congreve came upon a party of eighty-two Germans, commanded by an officer, who had been cut off in one of the craters for several days, without food or ammunition, and captured them all, single-handed. For this feat he received the Distinguished Service Order and promotion to Major. Later, on the Somme, he continued his brilliant work and won the award of the Victoria Cross, but was killed at Mametz Wood before receiving the decoration, which was given to his widow. He was only twenty-five at the time of his death but had proved himself one of the most enterprising officers in the British army.

What had been left of the village of St. Eloi when the fight commenced was rapidly disappearing under the hail of shells. Where our original front line had been there remained but few detached fragments of parapet. For perhaps six hundred yards we were holding on with scattered and isolated groups. At one place, on our immediate left, was a hole in the line at least two hundred yards wide. Time after time the Canadians attacked and retook the craters, only to be literally blown out of them by the ensuing hurricane of shells.

The task of getting out the wounded was heart-breaking. Our own stretcher-bearers worked night and day, but they had suffered many casualties and were unequal to the task. The Border Regiment and the Durham Light Infantry, who occupied our old trenches and were not under heavy fire, sent volunteer carrying parties to assist in the work, so that all were taken out with a minimum of delay. It was impossible to remove the dead and they were buried in shell-holes, where they fell. During the succeeding days many were disinterred by other shells.

Then, the matter of maintaining communication with our supports and the headquarters in the rear was of the utmost importance and our signalers waged a continuous fight, against heavy odds, to keep the wires connected up. It would not be fair to others to specify any particular branch as being better. All who serve in the front line at a time like this are equally entitled to credit. At times, when it is necessary to go out and search for breaks and repair them, the work of the signalers is “extra hazardous,” just as is that of the stretcher-bearers when obliged to expose themselves to succor the wounded, or the machine gunner when it is necessary to mount his gun on top of the parapet, within plain sight of the enemy, or the riflemen, bombers and scouts in advancing to the attack. There can be no fair distinction–they all, taken as a unit, are in a class separated by a wide gulf from those back in supporting or reserve or artillery positions, who, in turn, are separated from the transport and ambulance drivers, who, while occasionally under shell fire, are in the zone of comparative safety, where “people” still live and farm and run stores and estaminets. I would not have you think that I am minimizing the value of the services of these men. Their work is of vital importance to the success of the fighting forces and _must_ be done; and I can truly say that in all my experience I have never known them to fail in the performance of their duties.

In this war, as in most others, it is the infantryman who stands the brunt of the fighting. True, he is disguised under many other names, such as rifleman, bomber, automatic rifleman, rifle-grenadier, scout, signaler, sniper, runner or machine gunner but, when you get right down to the bottom of the whole business, he is the fellow who travels on his two feet and actually “goes over and gets ’em.” Trenches can be battered to pieces by artillery but they can not be actually “taken” and held by any one but the plodding, patient, long-suffering “doughboy” or “web-foot” as he is called by the men of the other branches.

At one time, during this period, Sergeant H. Norton-Taylor and four men from our section, held one of the craters for five days, against numerous attacks, and even captured prisoners. They had no food, water or ammunition other than that which they could get from the bodies of dead soldiers in the immediate vicinity. We sent many detachments to relieve them but were unable to locate their position and it was only by accident that they were discovered and relieved by a scouting party of the Nineteenth Battalion which was over on our left. But for this, they might be there now, as they were not the quitting kind.

Norton-Taylor was commissioned and commanded the section at Courcellette, where he was killed, September 15, 1916. He came of a long line of distinguished British officers, his father having been a Colonel in the Royal Field Artillery. A brother and a brother-in-law were in the service, one of them losing both feet by a shell. A sister was working in the hospitals in France and another in England. He was a true friend and a gallant officer–every inch a gentleman.

On the night of April tenth we were relieved by the Twentieth Battalion and went out for a rest. I had not laid down to sleep for fourteen days, snatching what rest I could, for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, leaning against a parapet or propped up in the corner of a traverse. We were only able to get as far as Voormezeele, where we stopped in the ruins of the convent school, and dropping on the stone floor slept like the dead for twenty-four hours. The place was being shelled all this time but none knew or cared. The next night we made our way to where the battalion was in billets, near Renninghelst, where I immediately “flopped” for a straight forty-eight hours’ continuous sleep. After that a bath, a shave and general clean-up, supplemented by a good hot “feed,” made me as good as new. During that two weeks up in front we had had no warm food, nothing but “bully and biscuits” and, occasionally, a can of “Maconochie,” a ration of prepared meat and vegetables, which is excellent when served hot but not very palatable when eaten cold.

We now had the longest rest we had enjoyed since coming over, as we did not go back to the front line until April twentieth. Our Sixth and Fifth Brigades had been in during the time we were out and both had suffered severely in the many counter-attacks, but held on, like true British bull-dogs, to what had been our original front line. The craters were lost as it was impossible for any troops to hold them under the devastating fire of the German guns. Nearly every battalion of the Second Canadian Division had retaken one or more of them but, as it only resulted in additional loss of life, it was decided by the higher command to give it up and endeavor to reestablish our front along its original line.

We went in via Voormezeele, a town of several thousand inhabitants before the war, now a pile of ruins. From here a _pavé_ road ran directly to St. Eloi and there had been two good communication trenches leading up to the front line. We soon discovered however that several things had happened during our absence. On the road to St. Eloi and about five hundred yards behind our front line, had been a Belgian farm called Bus House. (A London omnibus was lying, smashed, in front of it.) This place was now but a pile of brick and timbers. To the left, another group of farm buildings, called Shelley Farm, was in about the same condition, and where St. Eloi had been was nothing but a barren waste. Not a sign of a house or any part of a house was visible; not a brick remained and even the roads, the fine stone-paved roads, had been obliterated. Where had been hedges or trees there was nothing but a desolate expanse of mud which, from a distance, appeared to be a smooth level plain. For a good six hundred yards back of our front line there was not a shrub or bush or tree nor any landmark of any kind. Every inch of this ground had been churned over and over again by shells. Literally, it was not possible to set foot on a spot which had not been upturned. The whole area was simply a continuation of shell craters, joined and interlocked without a break. Where our communication and support trenches had been it was just the same. No man could have gone over that ground and said: “Here was a house,” or “There was a field,” or “That was once a road,” because house, turnip field and road looked exactly alike. The great granite blocks of the road had been pulverized to dust, and the bricks of the houses had shared a like fate. Even the contour of the ground was changed–ditches, depressions and ridges having been hammered to a uniform elevation.

And every hole was full of water. To traverse this desert one must wade and flounder through liquid mud waist deep and sometimes deeper. Yet it had to be done. We had nine positions up there at each of which a handful of men must be relieved daily; or rather nightly, as it was, obviously, impossible to move about over that open expanse in daylight. Every yard of it was under scrutiny from the German lines and, even at night, owing to the lavish use of star-shells by the enemy, it was a long and slow journey as it was necessary to stop and remain absolutely quiet when a light came near.

The hardest thing about the whole business was to find the men who were to be relieved. There was no path nor road nor landmark of any kind. During the time we were in, it rained continuously and at no time was a star visible. The positions where they were stationed were exactly like the rest of the surrounding country–merely enlarged shell-holes with, perhaps, a fragment of a sand-bag parapet. No lights could be shown, they did not even dare use “Very lights,” as our “star-lights” are known. They were not in any regular formation but at irregular intervals along what had been a very crooked line. Fortunately, we had a “natural born” guide on our first trip in and we found them all. After that we managed to “carry on” but not without many slips. It was nothing unusual for a relief party suddenly to find themselves in the German lines and have to work their way out as best they could. If caught out after dawn one had to lie low in a shell-hole all day, probably under heavy artillery fire, until darkness came and made it possible to return unseen. This trouble was not confined to our side and it was by no means an uncommon occurrence for parties of the enemy to get lost in the same way. Sometimes these adventures resulted in rather sharp bombing engagements. One night a whole platoon of about forty Germans went through a gap in our line and bumped into a strong supporting party of ours at Shelley Farm where they were all captured. They had been looking for one of the craters whose garrison they were to relieve. Individual prisoners were taken nearly every night.

Under the prevailing conditions, it was impossible to take machine guns up, so we depended entirely upon Lewis guns. Fortunately no determined attack was made on us during this time as it is extremely doubtful if we could have held them there. We would, of course, have stopped them a few hundred yards back, at our support line, and I must confess that I had at times a sneaking desire to see them come over and get into that mud so we could move back to comparatively comfortable quarters.

As we no longer had any trenches, we abandoned the old letter method of designation and simply numbered the various positions. On the first morning in, the gun and crew at No. 14 were blown up by a shell. This was an unlucky position as the same thing had happened there to a crew from the Twentieth Battalion. We then moved that position some fifty yards to one side and had no further trouble.

We alternated with other battalions of the division, going in and out, holding that line and gradually improving it, until, on the twenty-second day of May, while we were back in billets, I was “warned for leave” (a week in England), and little Bouchard, my particular protégé and warmest friend, was to go along.

You people who have stayed at home can never realize what “leave” means to a soldier after eight months in the trenches and I, for one, will not attempt the impossible by trying to describe the sensation.

We packed our kits and hiked to Poperinghe, where, after sitting up all night, we took train at four o’clock A.M., arriving at Boulogne about noon and were in “Blighty” by four in the afternoon.

“Oh, ain’t it a grand and glorious feeling!”

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