CHAPTER XV

BLIGHTY AND BACK

In London we found things running along about as usual and proceeded to enjoy ourselves. Oh, the luxury of having clean clothes and being able to keep them clean: to sleep in real beds and eat from regular dishes and at white-clothed tables. It seemed almost worth the price we had paid to be able to get so much downright enjoyment out of the merest “necessities” of ordinary civilian life. The theaters were all running and we took in some show every night, but I derived the most satisfaction from taking my young companion around to see the museums and many old historical places in and about London. He was a stranger and I was fairly well acquainted.

But, when the time drew near for us to go back, I began to experience a feeling of depression. While I had not noticed it before, I suppose the cumulative effect of the experiences of the last eight months was beginning to tell on me. I noticed that Bouchard appeared to be in about the same condition. He would sometimes sit for an hour or more, in our room at the Cecil, gazing into space, never uttering a word. Poor boy, while of course he could not _know_ that this was to be his last trip, I believe he had a presentiment that such was the case.

I found myself now and then “checking up” my own physical and mental condition. I had been slightly injured several times–two scratches from bullets on my left hand, a bullet in my right elbow, two pieces of shell in my shoulder, a knee-cap knocked loose and a fractured cheek-bone from the fuse-cap of a “whizz-bang.” None of these had put me out of action for more than a few hours and I had managed to keep out of the hospital. (I had an instinctive dread of hospitals.) But I knew, right down in my heart, that my nerve was weakening. Thinking over some of the things we had done, I believed I could never do them again. I do not think the man ever lived who would not, eventually, get into this condition. Some men “break” at the first shell that strikes near them, while others will go for months under the heaviest shell fire but, as I have said, it will certainly get them in the end. Of course I did not express any of these feelings to Bouchard, but tried to keep things moving all the time so as to give him little opportunity to worry. But, to tell the truth, I guess I needed the diversion more than he did, for he was the bravest and “gamest” youngster I ever knew.

Before we left France for our week in London I was told by my Colonel that I had been recommended for a commission and something or other in the way of a decoration and he suggested that I call upon General Carson, Canadian General in London, and find out about it. I did call at the General’s office several times but was unable to see him. It afterward developed that the commission had already been gazetted and I was really and truly a First “Leftenant.” I did not hear of it for nearly a month and, during the interval, went through, as a sergeant, one of the hottest times in my whole career.

When our leave was up we, together with hundreds of others, left Victoria Station early one morning for Folkestone and Boulogne and so on, back to Poperinghe, where we arrived just at daybreak the following morning and were welcomed by an early rising boche airman, who dropped about half a dozen bombs, evidently aimed at the railroad station. Fortunately, no one was hit. Then we trudged down the road, kilometer after kilometer, every one gloomy and grouchy, looking for our several units. Ours had moved and we spent the whole day before we located it.

We found the battalion in camp near the town of Dickebusch and soon settled down to the same old routine. They had not been back in the line since we left but had been engaged in some special work in and around this town, about which there is an interesting story.

Dickebusch was a town of several thousand inhabitants and considerable commercial importance, located on the Ypres-Bailleul road, about three and one-half miles directly west of St. Eloi. All troops going into the line anywhere from Wytschaete to Hill 60 were obliged to pass through or very close to it. Just east of the town was a shallow lake or pond, about a mile long and half as broad, called Dickebusch Etang, to cross which it was necessary to follow a narrow causeway, constructed by our engineers. While we continually passed and repassed through the place, we never had any troops actually billeted there, as it was within easy range of the German guns and was still occupied by the native population.

About the time of the St. Eloi affair, however, one of our Brigade Headquarters had been located in a group of buildings at the edge of the town, perfectly camouflaged and concealed from aircraft observation. It had long been suspected that there were spies among the people of this place and that they had effective means of communicating with the enemy, so when Fritz turned his guns on that headquarters, no one was very much surprised, but a determined effort was made to discover the guilty parties. Just what means were used I do not know, but it was learned that several of the prominent citizens, including the mayor or burgomaster, were in on it and they were summarily dealt with.

Following this, German airmen dropped notices into the town, warning all the civilians to get out as they were going to raze it to the ground. Not many would have gone, however, had not our authorities ordered the evacuation. As soon as the people had moved out, our troops proceeded to prepare the buildings for use as billets, reinforcing lower rooms and cellars with iron beams and protecting them with sand-bags. This was the work with which our battalion, and others, had been occupied and was just about completed when, true to their word, the Heinies started in, systematically, to write “finis” for Dickebusch. The church had already been pretty well shot up, as well as the surrounding graveyard where many of the tombs and monuments were smashed and the dead thrown from their graves. This blowing up of the dead seems to be a favorite pastime with the gentle Hun. They, the Germans, were now engaged in the demolition of the buildings along the principal streets and were doing it in a very thorough manner. We had here many demonstrations of a matter about which I have been questioned, times without number, by both military men and civilians, and that is, “What is the effective radius of a shell of a certain caliber?” It is one of the things which our theorists in general, and artillerymen in particular, delight in. Many hours of learned discourse have been devoted to proving, theoretically, that an area of a given size can be made impassable by dropping a certain number of shells on it, at stated intervals. This is all rot. Common sense should teach us better. The plain fact is that it depends entirely upon what the shell strikes. If it falls on soft earth, the effect is merely local and a man within a few feet would be uninjured; while, should it fall on a hard, stone-paved road, pieces might be effective at a distance of half a mile or more.

In the bombing schools we are told that the Mills hand grenade has an effective radius of ten yards, yet one will quite frequently escape unhurt from a dozen of them bursting within this radius and yet may be hit by a fragment from a distance of two hundred yards or more. All these theories are based on the assumption that the ground on a battle-field is level, free from obstructions and of a uniform degree of hardness; not one of which conditions ever exists. A small ditch, a log or stump or a water-filled shell-hole will make so much difference in the effect of the explosion of a shell or bomb that all efforts to prove anything by mathematics is a waste of time. If one is unlucky he will probably get hurt, otherwise not.

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