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   Chapter 5 UNDER FIRE

Private Peat By Harold Reginald Peat Characters: 12008

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Broken-hearted! Gee! We sure were-nearly; but not quite. No. This was bad; there was worse to come, and still we kept our hearts whole.

But there was another trial now, and we were directed to rest billets in what presumably had been a two-story schoolhouse or seminary. As soon as we reached this shelter we flopped down on the hard bare floor and lay just as we were, not even loosening our harness.

We were less than three miles from the front lines. Even at this short distance Armentières, as a whole, had not suffered greatly from shell fire, though the upper floors of this old seminary had been shattered almost to ruins long before our arrival.

The city itself was a good strategic point for the artillery. Behind houses, stores, churches, anywhere that offered concealment, our guns were hidden. Our artillery officers used every available inch of cover, for they had to screen our guns from the observation of enemy aircraft which flew with irritating irregularity over the town, and they had to avoid the none too praiseworthy attention of spies, in which Armentières was rich.

Armentières in those days was practically a network of our gun emplacements. The majority were howitzers. These fire high; they have a possible angle of forty-five degrees. There was no danger of their damaging our own immediate positions.

The ordinary infantry man knows less than nothing about artillery. If ever a bunch of greenhorns landed in France, frankly, we of the First Contingent were that same bunch.

As we had marched through the city there had been no sound of gun-fire. All was quiet except for the welcoming cheers of our British brothers. Silence reigned for the two hours we had spent in resting on the floor of the schoolhouse, and consequently we thought we had a snap as far as position went.

Our self-congratulations were somewhat rudely disturbed. Of a sudden, one of our young officers rushed through the door of our shelter. Poor laddie, he was very young and his anxiety exceeded even his nervousness. Nervousness is very natural, I can assure you. It is natural in a private; it is more so in the officer who feels responsibility for the lives of his men.

"Lads," said he, with upraised hand, and obviously trying desperately to be calm, "lads, I've just been told that the enemy has the range of this building. 'Twas shelled yesterday, and we are likely to be blown up any minute ... any minute, men! I'd advise you to stay where you are. Don't any of you go outside, and if you don't want to lose your lives, don't go fooling around up-stairs." With that he pointed to the rickety steps that led to the second floor and disappeared through the door as fast as he had come.

For a few moments there was dead silence. "Blow up any minute!" We looked at one another. We sat tense. Our very thoughts seemed petrified. From the far corner of the room there came a sound:

"Gee whiz!... Gee whiz!" the voice gathered confidence. "Gee whiz, guys"-it was a boy from the Far West who spoke-"I've come six thousand miles, and to be blown up without even seeing a German is more than I can swallow."

"Gosh!" said I, "I wouldn't mind being shot to-morrow morning at sunrise if I could have the satisfaction of seeing one of them first."

Bob Marchington looked up. He was a droll youth, and curiosity was his besetting sin. "Say, fellows, I wonder why he told us not to go up-stairs. I bet you there's something to be seen from up there, or he would not have told us not to go. Any of you boys willing to come up with me?"

No one took up the challenge. We lay around a little longer. Then the braver spirits commenced to deliberate on the suggestion. Why not go up-stairs? At last half a dozen of us decided to embark on the risky enterprise. We were three miles from the enemy, to be sure, but a German at three miles seemed to us then something formidable. Many a good laugh have we had since, in trench and out, at this expedition considered with so much careful thought!

We crept up the shaky steps one by one. We crawled along the upper floor, skirting the gaping shell holes in the woodwork. We raised our hands and shaded our eyes from the glare of the light. We scanned the horizon. We had an idea, I think, that we'd see a German blocking the landscape somewhere. We were three miles away. What was three miles to us?

We were deeply engrossed when there came a terrific crash. It seemed almost under our feet ... Rp-p-p-p-p-p bang, BANG! The next thing I remembered was landing at the foot of those narrow stairs, the other five boys on top of me. That is a feat impossible of repetition. When we disentangled ourselves, got to our feet and gathered our scattered wits, we found the men who had remained below tremendously excited. Their hair was on end; their eyes were like saucers. "Who's killed, fellows," they yelled, "who's killed?"

Of course no one was hurt. Our own battery was just dropping a few over the Boches, but it was our first experience under fire. Behind the building a battery of our six-inch howitzers was concealed. When they "go off" they make a fearful racket; very likely any other bunch of fellows, not knowing the guns were there, would do as we did. I don't know. At all events, we stayed very quietly where we were thereafter.

Later in the evening we found out the true and inner meaning of the excited order not to go outdoors or on the roof. It was a simple device to keep us from exploring the boulevards of the city. We might have been tempted to do that, for we had seen none of the charming French girls as yet, and they are-tres charmante.

About six o'clock that evening we got the customary-the eternal-bully beef and biscuits. At seven we were ordered to advance to the front line trenches. Our captain gathered us around him. He wanted to talk to us before we went "in" for the first time. He was, possibly, a little uncertain of our attitude. He knew we were fighters all right, but our discipline

was an unknown quantity. Captain Straight, I understand, was American-born, from Detroit, Michigan. We liked him. Later we almost worshiped him. We took all he said to heart. We listened intently; not a word did we miss. I can repeat from memory that pre-trench speech of his.

"Boys," the captain's voice was solemnity itself. "Boys, to-night we are going into the front line trenches. We are going in with soldiers of the regular Imperial Army. We are going in with seasoned troops. We are going in alongside men who have fought out here for weeks. We've got to be very careful, boys."

Our captain was obviously excited. We strained closer to him.

"You don't know a darn thing about war, lads ... I know you don't."

We fell back a pace somewhat abashed. We had been under fire that very afternoon; but the captain (fortunately) did not know it.

"You don't know the first thing about this war. You've not had opportunities of asking about it from wounded men. Now, boys, I know exactly what you are going to do to-night when you get in those trenches. You're going to ask questions of those English chaps. YOU ARE NOT." He emphasized every one of those three words with a blow of one fist on the other.

"You are not. Why, men, you know what the authorities think of our discipline. How are we to know that this is not a device to try our mettle. How are we to know that those boys already in are not there to watch us, to report our behavior ... and, by heaven, men, if we don't make a good showing perhaps they will report unfavorably on us; perhaps we will be shipped out of here, shipped back to Canada, and become the laughing stock of the world."

Captain Straight strode up and down. "It won't do, my lads. You must not ask questions. Why, men, let those English fellows ask you the questions. Don't you speak at all ... just you be brave. I know you are brave ... stick out your chests." The captain gave us an illustration. We all drew ourselves up; we almost burst the buttons from our tunics in our endeavor to expand ... with bravery.

"Keep your heads high," the captain went on, one word tripping the other in the eagerness of his speech. "March right in. Don't stop for anything. Get close to the parapet. Look at the British boys; throw them 'Hello, guys!' and begin to shoot right away."

We were ready for anything. Were we not brave? Hadn't we shown our bravery by creeping up a ruined stairway only three miles from the enemy? We promised our captain, and then we commenced our march to the front.

The green soldier is always put into the first line at the start. The general idea is that he should be put in reserves and worked up gradually, but, save under exceptional circumstances, he is put in the front line and worked back.

It has been demonstrated that shell fire is much more severe on a man's nerves than rifle fire. Reserve trenches suffer more from shell fire than do the front line trenches. The reason is obvious. Sometimes the front line is but a stone's throw from the front line of the enemy. Sometimes we can converse with the enemy from one trench to the other. In such cases it is impossible for heavy artillery to be trained on the front. Rifles and bombs are the only explosives under these conditions.

Again, the green soldier is never put into the trenches alone. A company of raw arrivals is sandwiched in with seasoned men. As we were the first Canadians to arrive, and there was none of our own men to help acclimatize us, we went in with an English regiment. There was one English, one Canadian and so on down the line. These boys belonged to the Notts and Derbys. Jolly fine boys, too. We became fast friends. They chummed to us as they would to their own. They showed us the ropes. They gave us tips on this thing and that. They told us the best way to cook, the various devices for snatching a few minutes' rest. They described the most effective "scratching" methods for the elimination of "gray-backs," "red-stripes," "cooties," "crawlies"-any name you like to give those hosts of insect enemies that infest every trench.

Now, "going in" isn't so easy as it sounds. We don't advance in companies four deep. We don't have bands. We don't have pipes to inspire our courage and rouse the fighting spirit inherited from long dead ancestors. It is a very-a vastly different matter. We go into the trenches in single file, each man about six paces from his nearest comrade. There is no question about keeping behind. Instinct takes care of that.

A man may have a touch of lumbago; he may have a rheumatic pain. None of these things matters to him on the way "in." He can bend his back quickly enough as he passes along. There are always a few bullets dropping near by. One will hit the mud somewhere around his feet. The boy nearest springs as from a catapult until he is close to the comrade ahead of him. No; he never springs back. If he did ... he would be the man ahead. He would be in front. Nuffin' doin'-the whole idea is to keep behind; there is no doubt of that.

But the guide is very vigilant. All troops are guided to their positions, and the man on this ticklish job is nearly always a sergeant. He has an eagle eye, and a feline sense of hearing. He will note your skip forward.

"Keep your paces, lads ... keep your paces." His voice booms altogether too loud for us.

"Hush! for the love o' Mike, Sergeant, not so loud." He chuckles. He knows that feeling so well, so awfully well now. He has been a guide these many times. But we skip back to our position, six paces behind. Then another bullet drops and the whole dance-step is repeated with little variation. The sergeant booms once more, and in desperation that the Boches will hear him, we obey.

'Tis pretty how we step, too, on that first time "in." We lift each foot like a trotting thoroughbred. We step high, we step lightly. We tread as daintily as does a gray tomcat when he encounters a glass topped wall on a windy night.

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