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   Chapter 16 XVIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 17872

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


When we left the trenches at Fromelles for the first time we took up billets on the Rue Du Quesne. This street was named after a one-time General and Governor of Canada during the French regime. His name is still perpetuated in the great steel works at Pittsburg, U.S.A., along with that of Lord Pitt and Braddock, for it was before Fort Du Quesne that General Braddock fell in 1755. Braddock was one of those unfortunate British Generals who were sent out to command colonials. He would not take the advice of his colonial officers and paid the penalty of his unpreparedness with his life. A comparison of Indian warfare of one hundred and fifty years ago with the war of to-day will convince anyone that the Red Indians on the warpath had nothing on the Germans. They burned houses and killed innocent women and children. For these atrocities they gained unenviable notoriety. The Germans do the same things. Hardly a farm house where we were billeted that did not have the graves of the peaceful occupants in the gardens close by. Men, women and children were destroyed by shell and other implements of war. At Armentieres we were shown Belgian children whose hands had been hacked off, and at the farms we saw old men maimed and with withered arms and legs still bearing the marks of the cords which bound them to trees and posts.

"Frightfulness" was part of the German war religion. When their artillery or sharpshooters were bested in the trenches, like a lot of mad dogs they turned their guns on the farm houses at their extreme range hoping to kill or destroy somebody. The poor peasants suffer. The old men, boys, women and children who try their best to till the soil are caught unawares by the deadly shrapnel and are killed. The courage of these people is wonderful. I have seen a young girl driving a single horse in front of a hand-made wooden harrow all afternoon with the shells falling within two hundred yards of her. The dastardly German gunners were trying to kill her and her horse but an all-wise Providence destroyed the aim of the cowards and she escaped unhurt.

These doctrines of "frightfulness" are laid down by two of the foremost German writers on the Art of War. Clausewitz, who is always quoted in the war schools dealing with the question, says, "Philanthropists may think it possible that the disarmament or subjection of the enemy can be effected by some artificial means without causing too many wounds and that this is the true aim of military science. Pretty as this looks we must refute this error, for in such dangerous matters as war, errors arising from good nature are the worst of all. As the employment of physical force to its fullest extent in no wise excludes the co-operation of intelligence, it follows that he who makes use of this force ruthlessly and without sparing blood must obtain an ascendancy if the enemy does not do likewise. By so doing he frames a law for the other and thus both strain every nerve without finding any other limitation but their own natural counterpoise." Von Der Goltz, the tutor of the Turks and the author of a German textbook on war, "The Nation in Arms," says, "If from humanitarian principles a nation decided not to resort to extremities, but to employ its strength up to a given point only, it would soon find itself swept onward against its will. No enemy would consider itself bound to observe a similar limitation. So far from this being the case each would immediately avail himself of the voluntary moderation of the other to outstrip him at once in activity."

In other words, according to the German conception, war is a game without an umpire or a referee. The boast of civilization that it has ameliorated the conditions of war, and of chivalry that the old, the women and children shall be protected in the zone of military activity, have ceased to be of any value.

We had comfortable quarters on the Rue Du Quesne but we were well under shell and rifle fire. Every night the Mauser bullets rattled on the roof and during the day the German gunners shelled the houses along the road. Rifle bullets flew around very freely at night and we fancied at first that snipers were busy within our lines. Sentries were posted on the roofs of barns and outhouses to watch for these pests. Several men of other regiments had been hit at nights on the roads, so orders were given to the peasants to clear out of the front line and stay in the houses at nights. Sentries, who were always in the war zone posted double, were warned to be more vigilant. While here Corporal Y-- of the headquarters staff distinguished himself by hitting a German artillery observer at a range of thirteen hundred yards. Y-- and several others had climbed to a barn roof to view the country with powerful telescopes to see if the Germans had any snipers in barns or trees. A careful reconnaissance of their lines disclosed an officer in artillery uniform up a willow tree. Y--, who was a dead shot, took his Ross, gave two degrees of wind and we all guessed the elevation as fourteen hundred yards. He fired and our glasses were all levelled on the German, who we knew had heard the bullet whiz past, for he looked up, so Y-- cut the range down to twelve hundred yards and fired again, and this time the German looked down, so we knew his aim was too low. We then saw him deliberately take aim at our trenches and fire. Y-- then cut the bracket in two and put his elevation at thirteen hundred yards. This time the Hun toppled over out of the tree, head first, and a cheer went up. He would snipe or observe no more.

We were now in General Haig's command, and rumours were going around that there would be something doing before very long. We were very eager to get into the big drive which was expected in the spring.

The second time we went into the trenches the men were warned to be exceedingly careful of themselves, but to enfilade the German lines with steady sniping so as to keep the fire down.

Every night the companies had to patrol in front of our trenches and examine the wires. This is a very dangerous pastime and everybody wanted to volunteer for the service so I ordered that the men should be chosen by roster, that is, according to their turn. Sergeant Jones got out one night in a turnip patch in front of our lines. There was a German sniper in the same patch so they began to stalk each other. Jones got his man first, but as the German keeled over he fired and the bullet tore some fingers off Jones' hand and gave him a severe flesh wound in the chest. We got Jones in and bound him up, and brought him to my headquarters where a motor ambulance came and took him away. He was suffering a lot of pain but was game. His wounds were not dangerous.

There are certain laws of the trenches that must be obeyed. First, if you lose your trenches you are told in general orders that you must take them back at once with the bayonet. You must not look for anyone else to do that trick for you. Another is that if a man is wounded the stretcher bearers must bind his wound with a first aid bandage, which each soldier carries in the flap of his coat, after the wound has been cauterized first with tincture of iodine, which is supplied to the officers and bearers in bottles. The man is then kept in the trench till evening when he is taken out on a stretcher. If shot through the lower part of the body a man is kept quiet where he falls for a couple of hours so that nature will herself repair internal bleeding. To at once move a man who is shot through the body is to spoil his chance of recovery.

Our sharpshooters are told to shoot constantly at the enemy's port holes or at any moving figure along the enemy's line. When we see a periscope shoved over the enemy's parapet it is the custom for our sharpshooters to aim at it, and after lowering the aim to fire about six inches from the top of the German parapet. As their parapets are thin we invariably find we have scored a hit. Sometimes duels are indulged in between the German snipers and our sharpshooters. One day a duel of this kind took place between Company Sergeant-Major De Hart and the German who manned the porthole opposite. They fired shot for shot. Our sergeant fired at the German's plate, and he answered back on ours. Shot after shot was exchanged. Alongside of the porthole we had a man watching with a telescope through another porthole. On the tenth shot De Hart scored. His shot went through and the Germans closed up the porthole and went out of business for the day. One afternoon Lieutenant Williams-Taylor of Montreal, a very brave, bright, young officer, came to see me. He was on the headquarters staff and I had promised to show him around. Staff officers seldom want to look over the trenches but he did. I took him along with me and had to caution him several times as he is tall and the parapets in places w

ere low. We went the whole line of the trenches. When we came to Captain McLaren's section one of our men was firing and I asked him what was the matter. He said he was firing at a German who was digging in a sap-head at the salient opposite, about four hundred yards off. Our man was firing and missing, and every time he fired the German waved a miss, as they do on the rifle butts with his shovel. Now sapping is a most dangerous form of employment. It is dangerous for us and it is our business to make it dangerous for the enemy who is running the sap. What is a sap? Well, this kind of a sap was a connecting trench which the Germans were running out from their line so they could get closer to our line in order to start another line of trenches, or else get close up with a lot of men to attack us. A sapper works on a trench of this kind differently to the way he works on an ordinary trench. He digs and picks ahead of him and throws the loose earth on a blanket between his feet. This earth is carried away in sand bags and put somewhere else, and there is nothing to show that sapping is going on in your front unless an aeroplane detects it. This sap was being run towards us along an irrigation ditch, and as the German sapper could not see us for trees he did not know that there was a point in our line from which we could see him. He was something of a humorist and thought he was having a lot of fun at our expense. Several shots from our men had failed to stop him. I tried two shots but he still kept on waving the shovel. I gave the rifle to Lieutenant Taylor at his request and pointed out the target. At his first shot the German failed to signal a miss. The men congratulated Taylor on scoring a hit, but he modestly remarked that it was a chance shot and he did not think he had scored. From that time on Lt. Williams-Taylor was a constant visitor in the trenches. He was in the hottest part of the action at St. Julien, rifle in hand, fighting like a hero.

In the first trenches we occupied the line consisted of two rows of parapets. The front one was called the parapet, the rear the parado. The latter was to protect the men from the "kick back" of the German high explosive shells. This form of entrenchment has the disadvantage that if the enemy gets over your front parapet he has a rear parapet which he can use against you and you have great difficulty in getting him out. Where we were later the line consisted of a series of small redoubts or forts connected up with a parapet or curtain. The redoubts were closed at the back and in them were built the dugouts in which the defenders sleep. The redoubts were very strongly held, and if the Germans got over the single parapets they could be driven back with fire from the redoubts and supporting fire trenches.

For some time we had been waiting patiently for the big advance which had been promised as soon as the ground got hard enough for troops to man?uvre over the fields. In the fall and winter in Flanders the brown clay of the field is so sticky and soft that troops cannot man?uvre except on the roads. That is why in former wars in the low countries the troops went into trenches during the winter. The weather had been warm and sunny for some days and the creeks, which they designate there with the euphonious titles of rivers, had fallen a foot or two. There was still plenty of water in the country for the Flemings are great lovers of water. Drains are not used there to carry off water at all. They are used to contain water. Every farm has a series of big ditches, three to six feet wide and about five feet deep, running across it. The water is drained off the land with tile into these ditches, but on the other hand these ditches provide with the aforesaid tile a form of sub-irrigation inasmuch as the water in the dry season flows back into the sub-soil through these same tile. The ditches play a big part in the economy of the farms. The farmyard buildings are built close alongside the paved roads. The roads are paved with stone blocks about 8"×16". The Flemish farmer does his road work once in a hundred years when he turns these blocks over and gives them a fresh surface. A gateway, generally arched, leads into a square around which the farm buildings stand. Next the road will be the dwelling houses all under one roof two storeys high. One part,-the master's,-will have its parlor and parlor bedroom. Then there will be a kitchen, then other rooms for the help, then a dairy. On the other side of the square the pigs and horses have quarters. Opposite on the right from the gate there will be cow stables, then the back of the square will be the barn. The roofs are all connected up. Around the inside of the court yard next the buildings will run a brick sidewalk about six feet wide, and the square in the centre contains a brick walled pit into which the refuse of the stables and houses is thrown. One corner of this midden is bricked off to form a drainage pit. Of all the smells! Enough said.

One of the most interesting features of the farm is the dairy. Each farm boasts of one, and sometimes as many as three dogs. These dogs are never allowed to roam at will as in England or Canada. They are a fine robust breed, like small mastiffs with pointed wolfish ears. On the outside of each farmhouse one of the most prominent features is a big upright wheel like a water wheel, fully fourteen feet in diameter. All day long the dogs run in this wheel driving the machinery for the dairy. After one dog gets tired he is taken out, and if the farm is a large one another dog is put in. The Flemish dogs certainly have to work for their living and make up for the lazy life of their brethren elsewhere. Many of these dogs have long bodies and run to what we would call the daschhund type. I can quite understand how in trying to catch his tail while working the wheel the process of evolution has brought about the long body of the daschhund.

The Trenches in WinterToList

According to my recollections of C?sar they had hedges and ditches, beautifully cultivated fields and beer and wine in Flanders two thousand years old. No doubt they had those dog wheels then also. But that does not end the ditch question. Around each group of farm buildings there is what we would call a moat, the biggest ditch on the farm. This moat will be from five to twenty feet deep and fully twenty feet wide. There will be a bridge at the front and back. When the front and back gates are closed no one can get at the Flemish chickens. Now what use are these high-smelling pits and ditches. The Flemings have a use for them. They pump out the contents into great big puncheons on their three-wheeled carts, and they spread this liquid, rich in nitrates, potash and other fertilizing materials over their growing crops. That is why if a man or a horse gets cut in Flanders he has to go and be inoculated against lock-jaw. Wounds do not heal readily here, the soil and air are too rich in bacteria. If a wound is not sterilized at once with iodine a man generally gets gangrene and dies of it.

The farmers in Canada will no doubt be interested in the kind of stock on these farms. Well, first the horses. They have a magnificent breed of heavy horses called the heavy Fleming or Belgian, which is like a great Percheron with a flat bone and a foot or so sawed off its legs. They are like our Canadian general purpose breed, but much heavier. I have seen horses on almost every farm where my men were billeted that would weigh from 1,600 to 2,000 pounds. These horses are clean-limbed, close-coupled and wonderfully docile and obedient. They answer to the word "Gee," which seems to be an international phrase. A "jerk-line" on the collar does the rest. Most of the best horses are brought from Belgium. A thoroughbred three-year-old mare will cost three hundred dollars.

The cows on the farms are a fine brown breed, not quite as large as the Holsteins, but they are prolific and splendid milkers. They are not allowed to roam the fields. They are much like the brown Swiss breed or red Devon, such as can be found in Devonshire. What struck me most was their splendid vigor. They are not placid and an?mic such as our average dairy cows, but full of life and action.

The hogs are a large white razor back with long ears that droop over their noses. They give very little trouble and live on comparatively nothing. I have never seen them fed. The farmers say they let them root for themselves until they are getting them ready for market.

The hens are a very fine breed, akin to our Wyandotte in shape, but of various colors. They are great egg producers and kept the soldiers going at sixty cents a dozen. The Fleming, with all his splendid farm land, still makes his own implements. Home made wooden, iron shod ploughs and wooden harrows are the rule. The implement manufacturers are not encouraged.

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