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   Chapter 4 A FEW DAYS' REST IN BILLETS

A Yankee in the Trenches By Robert Derby Holmes Characters: 12273

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


After the strafing we had given Fritz on the raid, he behaved himself reasonably well for quite a while. It was the first raid that had been made on that sector for a long time, and we had no doubt caught the Germans off their guard.

Anyhow for quite a spell afterwards they were very "windy" and would send up the "Very" lights on the slightest provocation and start the "typewriters" a-rattling. Fritz was right on the job with his eye peeled all the time.

In fact he was so keen that another raid that was attempted ten days later failed completely because of a rapidly concentrated and heavy machine-gun fire, and in another, a day or two later, our men never got beyond our own wire and had thirty-eight casualties out of fifty men engaged.

But so far as anything but defensive work was concerned, Fritz was very meek. He sent over very few "minnies" or rifle grenades, and there was hardly any shelling of the sector.

Directly after the raid, we who were in the party had a couple of days "on our own" at the little village of Bully-Grenay, less than three miles behind the lines. This is directly opposite Lens, the better known town which figures so often in the dispatches.

Bully-Grenay had been a place of perhaps one thousand people. It had been fought over and through and around early in the war, and was pretty well battered up. There were a few houses left unhit and the town hall and several shops. The rest of the place was ruins, but about two hundred of the inhabitants still stuck to their old homes. For some reason the Germans did not shell Bully-Grenay, that is, not often. Once in a while they would lob one in just to let the people know they were not forgotten.

There was a suspicion that there were spies in the town and that that accounted for the Germans laying off, but whatever was the cause the place was safer than most villages so near the lines.

Those two days in repose at Bully-Grenay were a good deal of a farce. We were entirely "on our own", it is true, no parade, no duty of any kind-but the quarters-oof! We were billeted in the cellars of the battered-down houses. They weren't shell-proof. That didn't matter much, as there wasn't any shelling, but there might have been. The cellars were dangerous enough without, what with tottering walls and overhanging chunks of masonry.

Moreover they were a long way from waterproof. Imagine trying to find a place to sleep in an old ruin half full of rainwater. The dry places were piled up with brick and mortar, but we managed to clean up some half-sheltered spots for "kip" and we lived through it.

The worst feature of these billets was the rats. They were the biggest I ever saw, great, filthy, evil-smelling, grayish-red fellows, as big as a good-sized cat. They would hop out of the walls and scuttle across your face with their wet, cold feet, and it was enough to drive you insane. One chap in our party had a natural horror of rats, and he nearly went crazy. We had to "kip" with our greatcoats pulled up over our heads, and then the beggars would go down and nibble at our boots.

The first day somebody found a fox terrier, evidently lost and probably the pet of some officer. We weren't allowed to carry mascots, although we had a kitten that we smuggled along for a long time. This terrier was a well-bred little fellow, and we grabbed him. We spent a good part of both mornings digging out rats for him and staged some of the grandest fights ever.

Most of the day we spent at a little estaminet across the way from our so-called billets. There was a pretty mademoiselle there who served the rotten French beer and vin blanc, and the Tommies tried their French on her. They might as well have talked Choctaw. I speak the language a little and tried to monopolize the lady, and did, which didn't increase my popularity any.

"I say, Yank," some one would call, "don't be a blinkin' 'og. Give somebody else a chawnce."

Whereupon I would pursue my conquest all the more ardently. I was making a large hit, as I thought, when in came an officer. After that I was ignored, to the huge delight of the Tommies, who joshed me unmercifully. They discovered that my middle name was Derby, and they christened me "Darby the Yank." Darby I remained as long as I was with them.

Some of the questions the men asked about the States were certainly funny. One chap asked what language we spoke over here. I thought he was spoofing, but he actually meant it. He thought we spoke something like Italian, he said. I couldn't resist the temptation, and filled him up with a line of ghost stories about wild Indians just outside Boston. I told him I left because of a raid in which the redskins scalped people on Boston Common. After that he used to pester the life out of me for Wild West yarns with the scenes laid in New England.

One chap was amazed and, I think, a little incredulous because I didn't know a man named Fisk in Des Moines.

We went back to the trenches again and were there five days. I was out one night on barbed wire work, which is dangerous at any time, and was especially so with Fritz in his condition of jumpy nerves. You have to do most of the work lying on your back in the mud, and if you jingle the wire, Fritz traverses No Man's Land with his rapid-firers with a fair chance of bagging something.

I also had one night on patrol, which later became my favorite game. I will tell more about it in another chapter.

At the end of the five days the whole battalion was pulled out for rest. We marched a few miles to the rear and came to the village of Petite-Saens. This town had been fought through, but for some reason had suffered little. Few of the houses had been damaged, and we had real billets.

My section, ten men besides myself, drew a big attic in a clean house. There was loads of room and the roof was tight and there were no rats. It was oriental luxury after Bully-Grenay and the trenches, and for a wonder nobody had a word of "grousing" over "kipping" on the bare floor.

The house was occupied by a very old peasant woman and a very little girl, three years o

ld, and as pretty as a picture. The old woman looked ill and sad and very lonesome. One night as we sat in her kitchen drinking black coffee and cognac, I persuaded her to tell her story. It was, on the whole, rather a cruel thing to ask, I am afraid. It is only one of many such that I heard over there. France has, indeed, suffered. I set down here, as nearly as I can translate, what the old woman said:

"Monsieur, I am very, very old now, almost eighty, but I am a patriot and I love my France. I do not complain that I have lost everything in this war. I do not care now, for I am old and it is for my country; but there is much sadness for me to remember, and it is with great bitterness that I think of the pig Allemand-beast that he is.

"Two years ago I lived in this house, happy with my daughter and her husband and the little baby, and my husband, who worked in the mines. He was too old to fight, but when the great war came he tried to enlist, but they would not listen to him, and he returned to work, that the country should not be without coal.

"The beau-fils (son-in-law), he enlisted and said good-by and went to the service.

"By and by the Boche come and in a great battle not far from this very house the beau-fils is wounded very badly and is brought to the house by comrades to die.

"The Boche come into the village, but the beau-fils is too weak to go. The Boche come into the house, seize my daughter, and there-they-oh, monsieur-the things one may not say-and we so helpless.

"Her father tries to protect her, but he is knocked down. I try, but they hold my feet over the fire until the very flesh cooks. See for yourselves the burns on my feet still.

"My husband dies from the blow he gets, for he is very old, over ninety. Just then mon beau-fils sees a revolver that hangs by the side of the German officer, and putting all his strength together he leaps forward and grabs the revolver. And there he shoots the officer-and my poor little daughter-and then he says good-by and through the head sends a bullet.

"The Germans did not touch me but once after that, and then they knocked me to the floor when they came after the pig officer. By and by come you English, and all is well for dear France once more; but I am very desolate now. I am alone but for the petite-fille (granddaughter), but I love the English, for they save my home and my dear country."

I heard a good many stories of this kind off and on, but this particular one, I think, brought home, to me at least, the general beastliness of the Hun closer than ever before. We all loved our little kiddie very much, and when we saw the evidence of the terrible cruelties the poor old woman had suffered we saw red. Most of us cried a little. I think that that one story made each of us that heard it a mean, vicious fighter for the rest of our service. I know it did me.

One of the first things a British soldier learns is to keep himself clean. He can't do it, and he's as filthy as a pig all the time he is in the trenches, but he tries. He is always shaving, even under fire, and show him running water and he goes to it like a duck.

More than once I have shaved in a periscope mirror pegged into the side of a trench, with the bullets snapping overhead, and rubbed my face with wet tea leaves afterward to freshen up.

Back in billets the very first thing that comes off is the big clean-up. Uniforms are brushed up, and equipment put in order. Then comes the bath, the most thorough possible under the conditions. After that comes the "cootie carnival", better known as the "shirt hunt." The cootie is the soldier's worst enemy. He's worse than the Hun. You can't get rid of him wherever you are, in the trenches or in billets, and he sticks closer than a brother. The cootie is a good deal of an acrobat. His policy of attack is to hang on to the shirt and to nibble at the occupant. Pull off the shirt and he comes with it. Hence the shirt hunt. Tommy gets out in the open somewhere so as not to shed his little companions indoors-there's always enough there anyhow-and he peels. Then he systematically runs down each seam-the cootie's favorite hiding place-catches the game, and ends his career by cracking him between the thumb nails.

For some obscure psychological reason, Tommy seems to like company on one of these hunts. Perhaps it is because misery loves company, or it may be that he likes to compare notes on the catch. Anyhow, it is a common thing to see from a dozen to twenty soldiers with their shirts off, hunting cooties.

"Hi sye, 'Arry," you'll hear some one sing out. "Look 'ere. Strike me bloomin' well pink but this one 'ere's got a black stripe along 'is back."

Or, "If this don't look like the one I showed ye 'fore we went into the blinkin' line. 'Ow'd 'e git loose?"

And then, as likely as not, a little farther away, behind the officers' quarters, you'll hear one say:

"I say, old chap, it's deucedly peculiar I should have so many of the beastly things after putting on the Harrisons mothaw sent in the lawst parcel."

The cootie isn't at all fastidious. He will bite the British aristocrat as soon as anybody else. He finds his way into all branches of the service, and I have even seen a dignified colonel wiggle his shoulders anxiously.

Some of the cootie stories have become classical, like this one which was told from the North Sea to the Swiss border. It might have happened at that.

A soldier was going over the top when one of his cootie friends bit him on the calf. The soldier reached down and captured the biter. Just as he stooped, a shell whizzed over where his head would have been if he had not gone after the cootie. Holding the captive between thumb and finger, he said:

"Old feller, I cawn't give yer the Victoria Cross-but I can put yer back."

And he did.

The worst thing about the cootie is that there is no remedy for him. The shirt hunt is the only effective way for the soldier to get rid of his bosom friends. The various dopes and patent preparations guaranteed as "good for cooties" are just that. They give 'em an appetite.

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