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   Chapter 5 THE PARAPET-ETIC SCHOOL

Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 14708

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"We're going in to-night."

The word was given out by the orderly sergeants at four in the afternoon. At 4.03 every one in camp had heard the news. Scores of miniature hand laundries, which were doing a thriving business down by the duck pond, immediately shut up shop. Damp and doubtfully clean ration bags, towels, and shirts which were draped along the fences, were hastily gathered together and thrust into the capacious depths of pack-sacks. Members of the battalion's sporting contingent broke up their games of tuppenny brag without waiting for "just one more hand," an unprecedented thing. The makers of war ballads, who were shouting choruses to the merry music of the mouth-organ band, stopped in the midst of their latest composition, and rushed off to get their marching order together. At 4.10 every one, with the exception of the officers' servants, was ready to move off. This, too, was unprecedented. Never before had we made haste more gladly or less needfully, but never before had there been such an incentive to haste. We were going into the trenches for the first time.

The officers' servants, commonly called "batmen," were unfortunate rankers who, in moments of weakness, had sold themselves into slavery for half a crown per week. The batman's duty is to make tea for his officer, clean his boots, wash his clothes, tuck him into bed at night, and make himself useful generally. The real test of a good batman, however, is his carrying capacity. In addition to his own heavy burden he must carry various articles belonging to his officer: enameled wash-basins, rubber boots, bottles of Apollinaris water, service editions of the modern English poets and novelists, spirit lamps, packages of food, boxes of cigars and cigarettes,-in fact, all of his personal luggage which is in excess of the allotted thirty-five pounds which is carried on the battalion transport wagons.

On this epoch-marking day, even the officers' servants were punctual. When the order, "Packs on! Fall in!" was given, not a man was missing. Every one was in harness, standing silently, expectantly, in his place.

"Charge magazines!"

The bolts clicked open with the sound of one as we loaded our rifles with ball ammunition. Five long shiny cartridges were slipped down the charger guide into the magazine, and the cut-off closed.

"Move off in column of route, 'A' company leading!"

We swung into the country road in the gathering twilight, and turned sharply to our left at the crossroad where the signboard read, "To the Firing-Line. For the Use of the Military Only."

Coming into the trenches for the first time when the deadlock along the western front had become seemingly unbreakable, we reaped the benefit of the experience of the gallant little remnant of the first British Expeditionary Force. After the retreat from Mons, they had dug themselves in and were holding tenaciously on, awaiting the long-heralded arrival of Kitchener's Mob. As the units of the new armies arrived in France, they were sent into the trenches for twenty-four hours' instruction in trench warfare, with a battalion of regulars. This one-day course in trench fighting is preliminary to fitting new troops into their own particular sectors along the front. The facetious subalterns called it "The Parapet-etic School." Months later, we ourselves became members of the faculty, but on this first occasion we were marching up as the meekest of undergraduates.

It was quite dark when we entered the desolate belt of country known as the "fire zone." Pipes and cigarettes were put out and talking ceased. We extended to groups of platoons in fours, at one hundred paces interval, each platoon keeping in touch with the one in front by means of connecting files. We passed rows of ruined cottages where only the scent of the roses in neglected little front gardens reminded one of the home-loving people who had lived there in happier days. Dim lights streamed through chinks and crannies in the walls. Now and then blanket coverings would be lifted from apertures that had been windows or doors, and we would see bright fires blazing in the middle of brick kitchen floors, and groups of men sitting about them luxuriously sipping tea from steaming canteens. They were laughing and talking and singing songs in loud, boisterous voices which contrasted strangely with our timid noiselessness. I was marching with one of the trench guides who had been sent back to pilot us to our position. I asked him if the Tommies in the houses were not in danger of being heard by the enemy. He laughed uproariously at this, whereupon one of our officers, a little second lieutenant, turned and hissed in melodramatic undertones, "Silence in the ranks there! Where do you think you are!" Officers and men, we were new to the game then, and we held rather exaggerated notions as to the amount of care to be observed in moving up to the trenches.

"Blimy, son!" whispered the trench guide, "you might think we was only a couple o' 'unnerd yards away from Fritzie's trenches! We're a good two an' a 'arf miles back 'ere. All right to be careful arter you gets closer up; but they's no use w'isperin' w'en you ain't even in rifle range."

With lights, of course, it was a different matter altogether. Can't be too careful about giving the enemy artillery an aiming mark. This was the reason all the doors and windows of the ruined cottages were so carefully blanketed.

"Let old Fritzie see a light,-''Ello!' 'e says, 'blokes in billets!' an' over comes a 'arf-dozen shells knockin' you all to blazes."

As we came within the range of rifle fire, we again changed our formation, and marched in single file along the edge of the road. The sharp crack! crack! of small arms now sounded with vicious and ominous distinctness. We heard the melancholy song of the ricochets and spent bullets as they whirled in a wide arc, high over our heads, and occasionally the less pleasing phtt! phtt! of those speeding straight from the muzzle of a German rifle. We breathed more freely when we entered the communication trench in the center of a little thicket, a mile or more back of the first-line trenches.

We wound in and out of what appeared in the darkness to be a hopeless labyrinth of earthworks. Cross-streets and alleys led off in every direction. All along the way we had glimpses of dugouts lighted by candles, the doorways carefully concealed with blankets or pieces of old sacking. Groups of Tommies, in comfortable nooks and corners, were boiling tea or frying bacon over little stoves made of old iron buckets or biscuit tins.

I marveled at the skill of our trench guide who went confidently on in the darkness, with scarcely a pause. At length, after a winding, zigzag journey, we arrived at our trench where we met the Gloucesters.

There isn't one of us who hasn't a warm spot in his heart for the Gloucesters: they welcomed us so heartily and initiated us into all the mysteries of trench etiquette and trench tradition. We were, at best, but amateur Tommies. In them I recognized the lineal descendants of the line Atkins; men whose grandfathers had fought in the Crimea, and whose fathers in Indian mutinies. They were the fighting sons of fighting sires, and they taught us more of life in the trenches, in twenty-four hours, than we had learned d

uring nine months of training in England. An infantryman of my company has a very kindly feeling toward one of them who probably saved his life before we had been in the trenches five minutes. Our first question was, of course, "How far is it to the German lines?" and in his eagerness to see, my fellow Tommy jumped up on the firing-bench for a look, with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. He was pulled down into the trench just as a rifle cracked and a bullet went zing-g-g from the parapet precisely where he had been standing. Then the Gloucester gave him a friendly little lecture which none of us afterward forgot.

"Now, look 'ere, son! Never get up for a squint at Fritz with a fag on! 'E's got every sandbag along this parapet numbered, same as we've got 'is. 'Is snipers is a-layin' fer us same as ours is a-layin' fer 'im." Then, turning to the rest of us, "Now, we ain't arskin' to 'ave no burial parties. But if any of you blokes wants to be the stiff, stand up w'ere this guy lit the gas."

There weren't any takers, and a moment later another bullet struck a sandbag in the same spot.

"See? 'E spotted you. 'E'll keep a-pottin' away at that place for an hour, 'opin' to catch you lookin' over again. Less see if we can find 'im. Give us that biscuit tin, 'Enery."

Then we learned the biscuit-tin-finder trick for locating snipers. It's only approximate, of course, but it gives a pretty good hint at the direction from which the shots come. It doesn't work in the daytime, for a sniper is too clever to fire at it. But a biscuit tin, set on the parapet at night in a badly sniped position, is almost certain to be hit. The angle from which the shots come is shown by the jagged edges of tin around the bullet holes. Then, as the Gloucester said, "Give 'im a nice little April shower out o' yer machine gun in that direction. You may fetch 'im. But if you don't, 'e won't bother you no more fer an hour or two."

We learned how orders are passed down the line, from sentry to sentry, quietly, and with the speed of a man running. We learned how the sentries are posted and their duties. We saw the intricate mazes of telephone wires, and the men of the signaling corps at their posts in the trenches, in communication with brigade, divisional, and army corps headquarters. We learned how to "sleep" five men in a four-by-six dugout; and, when there are no dugouts, how to hunch up on the firing-benches with our waterproof sheets over our heads, and doze, with our knees for a pillow. We learned the order of precedence for troops in the communication trenches.

"Never forget that! Outgoin' troops 'as the right o' way. They ain't 'ad no rest, an' they're all slathered in mud, likely, an' dead beat fer sleep. Incomin' troops is fresh, an' they stands to one side to let the others pass."

We saw the listening patrols go out at night, through the underground passage which leads to the far side of the barbed-wire entanglements. From there they creep far out between the opposing lines of trenches, to keep watch upon the movements of the enemy, and to report the presence of his working parties or patrols. This is dangerous, nerve-trying work, for the men sent out upon it are exposed not only to the shots of the enemy, but to the wild shots of their own comrades as well. I saw one patrol come in just before dawn. One of the men brought with him a piece of barbed wire, clipped from the German entanglements two hundred and fifty yards away.

"Taffy, 'ave a look at this 'ere. Three-ply stuff wot you can 'ardly get yer nippers through. 'Ad to saw an' saw, an' w'en I all but 'ad it, lummy! if they didn't send up a rocket wot bleedin' near 'it me in the 'ead!"

"Tyke it to Captain Stevens. I 'eard 'im s'y 'e's wantin' a bit to show to one of the artill'ry blokes. 'E's got a bet on with 'im that it's three-ply wire. Now, don't forget, Bobby! Touch 'im fer a couple o' packets o' fags!"

I was tremendously interested. At that time it seemed incredible to me that men crawled over to the German lines in this manner and clipped pieces of German wire for souvenirs.

"Did you hear anything?" I asked him.

"'Eard a flute some Fritzie was a-playin' of. An' you ought to 'ave 'eard 'em a-singin'! Doleful as 'ell!"

Several men were killed and wounded during the night. One of them was a sentry with whom I had been talking only a few moments before. He was standing on the firing-bench looking out into the darkness, when he fell back into the trench without a cry. It was a terrible wound. I would not have believed that a bullet could so horribly disfigure one. He was given first aid by the light of a candle; but it was useless. Silently his comrades removed his identification disk and wrapped him in a blanket. "Poor old Walt!" they said. An hour later he was buried in a shell hole at the back of the trench.

One thing we learned during our first night in the trenches was of the very first importance. And that was, respect for our enemies. We came from England full of absurd newspaper tales about the German soldier's inferiority as a fighting man. We had read that he was a wretched marksman: he would not stand up to the bayonet: whenever opportunity offered he crept over and gave himself up: he was poorly fed and clothed and was so weary of the war that his officers had to drive him to fight, at the muzzles of their revolvers. We thought him almost beneath contempt. We were convinced in a night that we had greatly underestimated his abilities as a marksman. As for his all-round inferiority as a fighting man, one of the Gloucesters put it rather well:-

"'Ere! If the Germans is so bloomin' rotten, 'ow is it we ain't a-fightin' 'em sommers along the Rhine, or in Austry-Hungry? No, they ain't a-firin' wild, I give you my word! Not around this part o' France they ain't! Wot do you s'y, Jerry?"

Jerry made a most illuminating contribution to the discussion of Fritz as a fighting man:-

"I'll tell you wot! If ever I gets through this 'ere war; if I 'as the luck to go 'ome again, with me eyesight, I'll never feel syfe w'en I sees a Fritzie, unless I'm a-lookin' at 'im through me periscope from be'ind a bit o' cover."

* * *

How am I to give a really vivid picture of trench life as I saw it for the first time, how make it live for others, when I remember that the many descriptive accounts I had read of it in England did not in the least visualize it for me? I watched the rockets rising from the German lines, watched them burst into points of light, over the devastated strip of country called "No-Man's-Land" and drift slowly down. And I watched the charitable shadows rush back like the very wind of darkness. The desolate landscape emerged from the gloom and receded again, like a series of pictures thrown upon a screen. All of this was so new, so terrible, I doubted its reality. Indeed, I doubted my own identity, as one does at times when brought face to face with some experiences which cannot be compared with past experiences or even measured by them. I groped darkly, for some new truth which was flickering just beyond the border of consciousness. But I was so blinded by the glamour of the adventure that it did not come to me then. Later I understood. It was my first glimmering realization of the tremendous sadness, the awful futility of war.

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