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A Yankee in the Trenches By Robert Derby Holmes Characters: 18910

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Marching, marching, marching,

Always ruddy well marching.

Marching all the morning,

And marching all the night.

Marching, marching, marching,

Always ruddy well marching,

Roll on till my time is up

And I shall march no more.

We sung it to the tune of "Holy, Holy, Holy", the whole blooming battalion. As we swung down the Boulevard Alsace-Lorraine in Amiens and passed the great cathedral up there to the left, on its little rise of ground, the chant lifted and lilted and throbbed up from near a thousand throats, much as the unisoned devotions of the olden monks must have done in other days.

Ours was a holy cause, but despite the association of the tune the song was far from being a holy song. It was, rather, a chanted remonstrance against all hiking and against this one in particular.

After our service at Vimy Ridge some one in authority somewhere decided that the 22nd Battalion and two others were not quite good enough for really smart work. We were, indeed, hard. But not hard enough. So some superior intellect squatting somewhere in the safety of the rear, with a finger on the pulse of the army, decreed that we were to get not only hard but tough; and to that end we were to hike. Hike we did.

For more than three weeks we went from place to place with no apparent destination, wandering aimlessly up and down the country-side of Northern France, imposing ourselves upon the people of little villages, shamming battle over their cultivated fields, and sleeping in their hen coops.

I kept a diary on that hike. It was a thing forbidden, but I managed it. One manages many things out there. I have just read over that diary. There isn't much to it but a succession of town names,-Villiers du Bois, Maisincourt, Barly, Oneaux, Canchy, Amiens, Bourdon, Villiers Bocage, Agenvilliers, Behencourt, and others that I failed to set down and have forgotten. We swept across that country, sweating under our packs, hardening our muscles, stopping here for a day, there for five days for extended-order drills and bayonet and musketry practice, and somewhere else for a sham battle. We were getting ready to go into the Somme.

The weather, by some perversity of fate, was fair during all of that hiking time. Whenever I was in the trenches it always rained, whether the season warranted it or not. Except on days when we were scheduled to go over the top. Then, probably because rain will sometimes hold up a planned-for attack, it was always fair.

On the hike, with good roads under foot, the soldier does not mind a little wet and welcomes a lot of clouds. No such luck for us. It was clear all the time. Not only clear but blazing hot August weather.

On our first march out of the Cabaret Rouge communication trench we covered a matter of ten miles to a place called Villiers du Bois. Before that I had never fully realized just what it meant to go it in full heavy equipment.

Often on the march I compared my lot with that of the medieval soldier who had done his fighting over these same fields of Northern France.

The knight of the Middle Ages was all dressed up like a hardware store with, I should judge, about a hundred pounds of armor. But he rode a horse and had a squire or some such striker trailing along in the rear with the things to make him comfortable, when the fighting was over.

The modern soldier gets very little help in his war making. He is, in fact, more likely to be helping somebody else than asking for assistance for himself. The soldier has two basic functions: first, to keep himself whole and healthy; second, to kill the other fellow. To the end that he may do these two perfectly simple things, he has to carry about eighty pounds of weight all the time.

He has a blanket, a waterproof sheet, a greatcoat, extra boots, extra underwear, a haversack with iron rations, entrenching tools, a bayonet, a water bottle, a mess kit, a rifle, two hundred fifty rounds of ammo, a tin hat, two gas helmets, and a lot of miscellaneous small junk. All this is draped, hung, and otherwise disposed over his figure by means of a web harness having more hooks than a hatrack. He parallels the old-time knight only in the matter of the steel helmet and the rifle, which, with the bayonet, corresponds to the lance, sword, and battle-ax, three in one.

The modern soldier carries all his worldly goods with him all the time. He hates to hike. But he has to.

I remember very vividly that first day. The temperature was around 90°, and some fool officers had arranged that we start at one,-the very worst time of the day. The roads so near the front were pulverized, and the dust rose in dense clouds. The long straight lines of poplars beside the road were gray with it, and the heat waves shimmered up from the fields.

Before we had gone five miles the men began to wilt. Right away I had some more of the joys of being a corporal brought home to me. I was already touched with trench fever and was away under par. That didn't make any difference.

On the march, when the men begin to weaken, an officer is sure to trot up and say:

"Corporal Holmes, just carry this man's rifle," or "Corporal Collins, take that man's pack. He's jolly well done."

Seemingly the corporal never is supposed to be jolly well done. If one complained, his officer would look at him with astounded reproach and say:

"Why, Corporal. We cawn't have this, you know! You are a Non-commissioned Officer, and you must set an example. You must, rahly."

When we finally hit the town where our billets were, we found our company quartered in an old barn. It was dirty, and there was a pigpen at one end,-very smelly in the August heat. We flopped in the ancient filth. The cooties were very active, as we were drenched with sweat and hadn't had a bath since heavens knew when. We had had about ten minutes' rest and were thinking about getting out of the harness when up came Mad Harry, one of our "leftenants", and ordered us out for foot inspection.

I don't want to say anything unfair about this man. He is dead now. I saw him die. He was brave. He knew his job all right, but he was a fine example of what an officer ought not to be. The only reason I speak of him is because I want to say something about officers in general.

This Mad Harry,-I do not give his surname for obvious reasons,-was the son of one of the richest-new-rich-merchant families in England. He was very highly educated, had, I take it, spent the most of his life with the classics. He was long and thin and sallow and fish-eyed. He spoke in a low colorless monotone, absolutely without any inflection whatever. The men thought he was balmy. Hence the nickname Mad Harry.

Mad Harry was a fiend for walking. And at the end of a twenty-mile hike in heavy marching order he would casually stroll alongside some sweating soldier and drone out,

"I say, Private Stetson. Don't you just love to hike?"

Then and there he made a lifelong personal enemy of Private Stetson. In the same or similar ways he made personal enemies of every private soldier he came in contact with.

It may do no harm to tell how Mad Harry died. He came very near being shot by one of his own men.

It was on the Somme. We were in the middle of a bit of a show, and we were all hands down in shell holes with a heavy machine-gun fire crackling overhead. I was in one hole, and in the next, which merged with mine, were two chaps who were cousins.

Mad Harry came along, walking perfectly upright, regardless of danger, with his left arm shattered. He dropped into the next shell hole and with his expressionless drawl unshaken, said, "Private X. Dress my arm."

Private X got out his own emergency bandage and fixed the arm. When it was done Mad Harry, still speaking in his monotonous drone, said:

"Now, Private X, get up out of this hole. Don't be hiding."

Private X obeyed orders without a question. He climbed out and fell with a bullet through his head. His cousin, who was a very dear friend of the boy, evidently went more or less crazy at this. I saw him leap at Mad Harry and snatch his pistol from the holster. He was, I think, about to shoot his officer when a shell burst overhead and killed them both.

Well, on this first day of the hike Mad Harry ordered us out for foot inspection, as I have said. I found that I simply couldn't get them out. They were in no condition for foot inspection,-hadn't washed for days. Harry came round and gave me a royal dressing down and ordered the whole bunch out for parade and helmet inspection. We were kept standing for an hour. You couldn't blame the men for hating an officer of that kind.

It is only fair to say that Mad Harry was not a usual type of British officer. He simply carried to excess the idea of discipline and unquestioning obedience. The principle of discipline is the guts and backbone of any army. I am inclined to think that it is more than half the making of any soldier. There has been a good deal of talk in the press about a democratic army. As a matter of fact fraternization between men and officers is impossible except in nations of exceptional temperament and imagination, like the French. The French are unique in everything. It follows that their army can do things that no other army can. It is common to see a French officer sitting in a cafe drinking with a private.

In the British army that could not be. The new Briti

sh army is more democratic, no doubt, than the old. But except in the heat of battle, no British officer can relax his dignity very much. With the exception of Mr. Blofeld, who was one of those rare characters who can be personally close and sympathetic and at the same time command respect and implicit obedience, I never knew a successful officer who did not seem to be almost of another world.

Our Colonel was a fine man, but he was as dignified as a Supreme Court Judge. Incidentally he was as just. I have watched Colonel Flowers many times when he was holding orders. This is a kind of court when all men who have committed crimes and have been passed on by the captains appear before the Colonel.

Colonel Flowers would sit smiling behind his hand, and would try his hardest to find "mitigating circumstances"; but when none could be dug out he passed sentence with the last limit of severity, and the man that was up for orders didn't come again if he knew what was good for himself.

I think that on the hike we all got to know our officers better than we had known them in the trenches. Their real characters came out. You knew how far you could go with them, and what was more important, how far you couldn't go.

It was at Dieval that my rank as lance corporal was confirmed. It is customary, when a rookie has been made a non-com in training, to reduce him immediately when he gets to France. I had joined in the trenches and had volunteered for a raiding party and there had been no opportunity to reduce me. I had not, however, had a corporal's pay. My confirmation came at Dieval, and I was put on pay. I would have willingly sacrificed the pay and the so-called honor to have been a private.

Our routine throughout the hike was always about the same, that is in the intervals when we were in any one place for a day or more. It was, up at six, breakfast of tea, bread, and bacon. Drill till noon; dinner; drill till five. After that nothing to do till to-morrow, unless we got night 'ops, which was about two nights out of three.

There were few Y.M.C.A. huts so far behind the lines, and the short time up to nine was usually spent in the estaminets. The games of house were in full blast all the time.

On the hike we were paid weekly. Privates got five francs, corporals ten, and sergeants fifteen to twenty a week. That's a lot of money. Anything left over was held back to be paid when we got to Blighty. Parcels and mail came along with perfect regularity on that hike. It was and is a marvel to me how they do it. A battalion chasing around all over the place gets its stuff from Blighty day after day, right on the tick and without any question. I only hope that whatever the system is, our army will take advantage of it. A shortage of letters and luxury parcels is a real hardship.

We finally brought up at a place called Oneux (pronounced Oh, no) and were there five days. I fell into luck here. It was customary, when we were marching on some unsuspecting village, to send the quartermaster sergeants ahead on bicycles to locate billets. We had an old granny named Cypress, better known as Lizzie. The other sergeants were accustomed to flim-flam Lizzie to a finish on the selection of billets, with the result that C company usually slept in pigpens of stables.

The day we approached Oneux, Lizzie was sick, and I was delegated to his job. I went into the town with the three other quartermaster sergeants, got them into an estaminet, bought about a dollar's worth of drinks, sneaked out the back door, and preempted the schoolhouse for C company. I also took the house next door, which was big and clean, for the officers. We were royally comfortable there, and the other companies used the stables that usually fell to our lot.

As a reward, I suspect, I was picked for Orderly Corporal, a cushy job. We all of us had it fairly easy at Oneux. It was hot weather, and nights we used to sit out in the schoolhouse yard and talk about the war.

Some of the opinions voiced out there with more frankness than any one would dare to use at home would, I am sure, shock some of the patriots. The fact is that any one who has fought in France wants peace, and the sooner the better.

We had one old-timer, out since Mons, who habitually, night after night, day after day, would pipe up with the same old plaint. Something like this:

"Hi arsks yer. Wot are we fightin' for? Wot'd th' Belgiums hever do fer us? Wot? Wot'd th' Rooshians hever do fer us? Wot's th' good of th' Frenchies? Wot's th' good of hanybody but th' Henglish? Gawd lumme! I'm fed up."

And yet this man had gone out at the beginning and would fight like the very devil, and I verily believe will be homesick for the trenches if he is alive when it is all over.

Bones, who was educated and a thoughtful reader, had it figured out that the war was all due to the tyranny of the ruling classes, with the Kaiser the chief offender.

A lot of the men wanted peace at any reasonable price. Anything, so they would get back to 'Arriet or Sadie or Maria.

I should say offhand that there was not one man in a hundred who was fighting consciously for any great recognized principle. And yet, with all their grousing and criticism, and all their overwhelming desire to have it over with, every one of them was loyal and brave and a hard fighter.

A good deal has been written about the brilliancy of the Canadians and the other Colonials. Too much credit cannot be given these men. In an attack there are no troops with more dash than the Canadians, but when it comes to taking punishment and hanging on a hopeless situation, there are no troops in the wide world who can equal, much less surpass, the English. Personally I think that comparisons should be avoided. All the Allies are doing their full duty with all that is in them.

During most of the war talk, it was my habit to keep discreetly quiet. We were not in the war yet, and any remarks from me usually drew some hot shot about Mr. Wilson's "blankety-blinked bloomin' notes."

There was another American, a chap named Sanford from Virginia, in B company, and he and I used to furnish a large amount of entertainment in these war talks. Sanford was a F.F.V. and didn't care who knew it. Also he thought General Lee was the greatest military genius ever known. One night he and I got started and had it hot and heavy as to the merits of the Civil War. This for some reason tickled the Tommies half to death, and after that they would egg us on to a discussion.

One of them would slyly say, "Darby, 'oo th' blinkin' 'ell was this blighter, General Grant?"

Or, "Hi sye, Sandy, Hi 'eard Darby syin' 'ow this General Lee was a bleedin' swab."

Then Sanford and I would pass the wink and go at it tooth and nail. It was ridiculous, arguing the toss on a long-gone-by small-time scrap like the Civil War with the greatest show in history going on all around us. Anyway the Tommies loved it and would fairly howl with delight when we got to going good.

It is strange, but with so many Americans in the British service, I ran up against very few. I remember one night when we were making a night march from one village to another, we stopped for the customary ten-minutes-in-the-hour rest. Over yonder in a field there was a camp of some kind,-probably field artillery. There was dim light of a fire and the low murmur of voices. And then a fellow began to sing in a nice tenor:

Bury me not on the lone prairie

Where the wild coyotes howl o'er me.

Bury me down in the little churchyard

In a grave just six by three.

The last time I had heard that song was in New Orleans, and it was sung by a wild Texan. So I yelled, "Hello there, Texas."

He answered, "Hello, Yank. Where from?"

I answered, "Boston."

"Give my regards to Tremont Street and go to hell," says he. A gale of laughter came out of the night. Just then we had the order to fall in, and away we went. I'd like to know sometime who that chap was.

After knocking about all over the north of France seemingly, we brought up at Canchy of a Sunday afternoon. Here the whole brigade, four battalions, had church parade, and after that the band played ragtime and the officers had a gabfest and compared medals, on top of which we were soaked with two hours' steady drill. We were at Canchy ten days, and they gave it to us good and plenty. We would drill all day and after dark it would be night 'ops. Finally so many men were going to the doctor worn out that he ordered a whole day and a half of rest.

Mr. Blofeld on Saturday night suggested that, as we were going into the Somme within a few weeks, the non-coms ought to have a little blow-out. It would be the last time we would all ever be together. He furnished us with all the drinkables we could get away with, including some very choice Johnny Walker. There was a lot of canned stuff, mostly sardines. Mr. Blofeld loaned us the officers' phonograph.

It was a large, wet night. Everybody made a speech or sang a song, and we didn't go home until morning. It was a farewell party, and we went the limit. If there is one thing that the Britisher does better than another, it is getting ready to die. He does it with a smile,-and he dies with a laugh.

Poor chaps! Nearly all of them are pushing up the daisies somewhere in France. Those who are not are, with one or two exceptions, out of the army with broken bodies.

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