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   Chapter 11 SITTING TIGHT

Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 31844

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I. LEMONS AND CRICKET BALLS

Throughout October we fulfilled the prophecy of the officer who told us that "sitting tight" in the German trenches was to be our function. There were nightly counter-attacks preceded by heavy artillery fire, when the enemy made determined efforts to retake the lost territory. There were needless alarms when nervous sentries "got the wind up," to use the authentic trench expression, and contagious excitement set men to firing like mad into blank darkness. In the daytime there were moments of calm which we could not savor owing to that other warfare waged upon us by increasing hordes of parasitic enemies. We moved from one position to another through trenches where the tangled mass of telephone wires, seemingly gifted with a kind of malignant humor, coiled themselves about our feet or caught in the piling swivels of our rifles. There were orders and counter-orders, alarums and excursions. Through them all Tommy kept his balance and his air of cheery unconcern, but he wished that he might be "struck pink" if he knew "wot we was a-doin' of anyw'y."

Our ideas of the tactical situation were decidedly vague. However, we did know, in a general way, our position with reference to important military landmarks, and the amateur strategists were busy at all times explaining the situation to frankly ignorant comrades, and outlining plans for definite action.

"Now, if I was General French, I'd make 'Ulluch me main objective. They ain't no use tryin' to get by at this part o' the line till you got that village."

"Don't talk so bloomin' ignorant! Ain't that just wot they been a-tryin'? Wot we got to do is go 'round 'Ulluch. Tyke 'em in the rear an' from both sides."

"W'y don't they get on with it? Wot to blazes are we a-doin' of, givin' 'em a chanct to get dug in again? 'Ere we all but got 'em on the run an' the 'ole show stops!"

The continuation of the offensive was the chief topic of conversation. The men dreaded it, but they were anxious to get through with the business. They believed that now if ever there was the chance to push the Germans out of France.

In the mean time the day's work was still the day's work. There were nightly bombing affairs, some of them most desperate hand-to-hand contests for the possession of small sectors of trench. One of these I witnessed from a trench sixty yards away. The advantage lay with us. The enemy held only the center of the line and were forced to meet attacks from either end. However, they had a communication trench connecting with their second line, through which carrying parties brought them a limitless supply of bombs.

The game of pitch and toss over the barricades had continued for several days without a decision. Then came orders for more decisive action. The barricades were to be destroyed and the enemy bombed out. In underground fighting of this kind the element of surprise is possible. If one opponent can be suddenly overwhelmed with a heavy rain of bombs, the chances of success for the attacking party are quite favorable.

The action took place at dusk. Shortly before the hour set, the bombers, all of them boys in their early twenties, filed slowly along the trench, the pockets of their grenade waistcoats bulging with "lemons" and "cricket balls," as the two most effective kinds of bombs are called. They went to their places with that spirit of stolid cheeriness which is the wonder and admiration of every one who knows Tommy Atkins intimately. Formerly, when I saw him in this mood, I would think, "He doesn't realize. Men don't go out to meet death like this." But long association with him had convinced me of the error of this opinion. These men knew that death or terrible injury was in store for many of them; yet they were talking in excited and gleeful undertones, as they might have passed through the gates at a football match.

"Are we downhearted? Not likely, old son!"

"Tyke a feel o' this little puffball! Smack on old Fritzie's napper she goes!"

"I'm a-go'n' to arsk fer a nice Blightey one! Four months in Brentford 'ospital an' me Christmas puddin' at 'ome!"

"Now, don't ferget, you blokes! County o' London War 'Ospital fer me if I gets a knock! Write it on a piece o' pyper an' pin it to me tunic w'en you sends me back to the ambulance."

The barricades were blown up and the fight was on. A two-hundred-piece orchestra of blacksmiths, with sledgehammers, beating kettle-drums the size of brewery vats, might have approximated, in quality and volume, the sound of the battle. The spectacular effect was quite different from that of a counter-attack across the open. Lurid flashes of light issued from the ground as though a door to the infernal regions had been thrown jarringly open. The cloud of thick smoke was shot through with red gleams. Men ran along the parapet hurling bombs down into the trench. Now they were hidden by the smoke, now silhouetted for an instant against a glare of blinding light.

An hour passed and there was no change in the situation.

"Fritzie's a tough old bird," said Tommy. "'E's a-go'n' to die game, you got to give it to 'im."

The excitement was intense. Urgent calls for "More lemons! More cricket balls!" were sent back constantly. Box after box, each containing a dozen grenades, was passed up the line from hand to hand, and still the call for "More bombs!" We couldn't send them up fast enough.

The wounded were coming back in twos and threes. One lad, his eyes covered with a bloody bandage, was led by another with a shattered hand.

"Poor old Tich! She went off right in 'is face! But you did yer bit, Tich! You ought to 'a' seen 'im, you blokes! Wasn't 'e a-lettin' 'em 'ave it!"

Another man hobbled past on one foot, supporting himself against the side of the trench.

"Got a Blightey one," he said gleefully. "So long you lads! I'll be with you again arter the 'olidays."

Those who do not know the horrors of modern warfare cannot readily understand the joy of the soldier at receiving a wound which is not likely to prove serious. A bullet in the arm or the shoulder, even though it shatters the bone, or a piece of shrapnel or shell casing in the leg, was always a matter for congratulation. These were "Blightey wounds." When Tommy received one of this kind, he was a candidate for hospital in "Blightey," as England is affectionately called. For several months he would be far away from the awful turmoil. His body would be clean; he would be rid of the vermin and sleep comfortably in a bed at night. The strain would be relaxed, and, who knows, the war might be over before he was again fit for active service. And so the less seriously wounded made their way painfully but cheerfully along the trench, on their way to the field dressing-station, the motor ambulance, the hospital ship, and-home! while their unwounded comrades gave them words of encouragement and good cheer.

"Good luck to you, Sammy boy! If you sees my missus, tell 'er I'm as right as rain!"

"Sammy, you lucky blighter! W'en yer convalescin', 'ave a pint of ale at the W'ite Lion fer me."

"An' a good feed o' fish an' chips fer me, Sammy. Mind yer foot! There's a 'ole just 'ere!"

"'Ere comes old Sid! W'ere you caught it, mate?"

"In me bloomin' shoulder. It ain't 'arf givin' it to me!"

"Never you mind, Sid! Blightey fer you, boy!"

"Hi, Sid! Tell me old lady I'm still up an' comin', will you? You know w'ere she lives, forty-six Bromley Road."

One lad, his nerve gone, pushed his way frantically down the trench. He had "funked it." He was hysterical with fright and crying in a dry, shaking voice,-

"It's too 'orrible! I can't stand it! Blow you to 'ell they do! Look at me! I'm slathered in blood! I can't stand it! They ain't no man can stand it!"

He met with scant courtesy. A trench during an attack is no place for the faint-hearted. An unsympathetic Tommy kicked him savagely.

"Go 'ide yerself, you bloody little coward!"

"More lemons! More cricket balls!" and at last, Victory! Fritzie had "chucked it," and men of the Royal Engineers, that wonderfully efficient corps, were on the spot with picks and shovels and sandbags, clearing out the wreckage, and building a new barricade at the farther end of the communication trench.

It was only a minor affair, one of many which take place nightly in the firing-line. Twoscore yards of trench were captured. The cost was, perhaps, one man per yard; but as Tommy said,-

"It ain't the trench wot counts. It's the more-ale. Bucks the blokes up to win, an' that's worth a 'ole bloomin' army corps."

II. "GO IT, THE NORFOLKS!"

Rumors of all degrees of absurdity reached us. The enemy was massing on our right, on our left, on our immediate front. The division was to attack at dawn under cover of a hundred bomb-dropping battle-planes. Units of the new armies to the number of five hundred thousand were concentrating behind the line from La Bassée to Arras, and another tremendous drive was to be made in conjunction with the French, (As a matter of fact, we knew less of what was actually happening than did people in England and America.) Most of these reports sprang, full grown, from the fertile brains of officers' servants. Scraps of information which they gathered while in attendance at the officers' mess dugout were pieced together, and much new material of their own invention added. The striving was for piquancy rather than plausibility. A wild tale was always better than a dull one; furthermore the "batmen" were our only sources of official information, and could always command a hearing. When one of them came down the trench with that mysterious "I-could-a-tale-unfold" air, he was certain to be halted by willingly gullible comrades.

"Wot's up, Jerry? Anything new?"

"Nor 'arf! Now, keep this under yer 'ats, you blokes! My gov'nor was a-talkin' to Major Bradley this mornin' w'ile I was a-mykin' 'is tea, an' 'e says-"

Then followed the thrilling narrative, a disclosure of official secrets while groups of war-worn Tommies listened with eager interest. "Spreading the News" was a tragi-comedy enacted daily in the trenches.

But we were not entirely in the dark. The signs which preceded an engagement were unmistakable, and toward the middle of October there was general agreement that an important action was about to take place. British aircraft had been patrolling our front ceaselessly for hours. Several battalions (including our own which had just gone into reserve at Vermelles) were placed on bomb-carrying fatigue. As we went up to the firing-line with our first load, we found all of the support trenches filled to overflowing with troops in fighting order.

We reached the first line as the preliminary bombardment started. Scores of batteries were concentrating their fire on the enemy's trenches directly opposite us. It is useless to attempt to depict what lay before us as we looked over the parapet. The trenches were hidden from view in a cloud of smoke and flame and dirt. The earth was like a muddy sea dashed high in spray against hidden rocks.

The men who were to lead the attack were standing rifle in hand, waiting for the sudden cessation of fire which would be the signal for them to mount the parapet. Bombers and bayonet-men alternated in series of two. The bombers wore their medi?val-looking shrapnel-proof helmets and heavy canvas grenade coats with twelve pockets sagging with bombs. Their rifles were slung on their backs to give them free use of their hands.

Every one was smoking-some calmly, some with short, nervous puffs. It was interesting to watch the faces of the men. One could read, almost to a certainty, what was going on in their minds. Some of them were thinking of the terrible events so near at hand. They were imagining the horrors of the attack in detail. Others were unconcernedly intent upon adjusting straps of their equipment, or in rubbing their clips of ammunition with an oily rag. Several men were singing to a mouth-organ accompaniment. I saw their lips moving, but not a sound reached me above the din of the guns, although I was standing only a few yards distant. It was like an absurd pantomime.

As I watched them, the sense of the unreality of the whole thing swept over me more strongly than ever before. "This can't be true," I thought; "I have never been a soldier. There isn't any European war." I had the curious feeling that my body and brain were functioning quite apart from me. I was only a slow-witted, incredulous spectator looking on with a stupid animal wonder. I have learned that this feeling is quite common among men in the trenches. A part of the mind works normally, and another part, which seems to be one's essential self, refuses to assimilate and classify experiences so unusual, so different from anything in the catalogue of memory.

For two hours and a half the roar of guns continued. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. An officer near me shouted, "Now, men! Follow me!" and clambered over the parapet. There was no hesitation. In a moment the trench was empty save for the bomb-carrying parties and an artillery observation officer, who was jumping up and down on the firing-bench, shouting-

"Go it, the Norfolks! Go it, the Norfolks! My God! Isn't it fine! Isn't it splendid!"

There you have the British officer true to type. He is a sportsman: next to taking part in a fight he loves to see one-and he says "isn't" not "ain't," even under stress of the greatest excitement.

The German artillery, which had been reserving fire, now poured forth a deluge of shrapnel. The sound of rifle fire was scattered and ragged at first, but it increased steadily in volume. Then came the "boiler-factory chorus," the sharp rattle of dozens of machine guns. The bullets were flying over our heads like swarms of angry wasps. A ration-box board which I held above the parapet was struck almost immediately. Fortunately for the artillery officer, a disrespectful N.C.O. pulled him down into the trench.

"It's no use throwin' yer life aw'y, sir. You won't 'elp 'em over by barkin' at 'em."

He was up again almost at once, coolly watching the progress of the troops from behind a small barricade of sandbags, and reporting upon it to batteries several miles in rear. The temptation to look over the parapet was not to be resisted. The artillery lengthened their ranges. I saw the curtain of flame-shot smoke leap at a bound to the next line of German trenches.

Within a few moments several lines of reserves filed into the front trench and went over the parapet in support of the first line, advancing with heads down like men bucking into the fury of a gale. We saw them only for an instant as they jumped to their feet outside the trench and rushed forward. Many were hit before they had passed through the gaps in our barbed wire. Those who were able crept back and were helped into the trench by comrades. One man was killed as he was about to reach a place of safety. He lay on the parapet with his head and arms hanging down inside the trench. His face was that of a boy of twenty-one or twenty-two. I carry the memory of it with me to-day as vividly as when I left the trenches in November.

Following the attacking infantry were those other soldiers whose work, though less spectacular than that of the riflemen, was just as essential and quite as dangerous. Royal Engineers, with picks and shovels and sandbags, rushed forward to reverse the parapets of the captured trenches, and to clear out the wreckage, while the riflemen waited for the launching of the first counter-attack. They were preceded by men of the Signaling Corps, who advanced swiftly and skillfully, unwinding spools of insulated telephone wire as they went. Bomb-carriers, stretcher-bearers, intent upon their widely divergent duties, followed. The work of salvag

e and destruction went hand in hand.

The battle continued until evening, when we received orders to move up to the firing-line. We started at five o'clock, and although we had less than three miles to go, we did not reach the end of our journey until four the next morning, owing to the fatigue parties and the long stream of wounded which blocked the communication trenches. For more than an hour we lay just outside of the trench looking down on a seemingly endless procession of casualties. Some of the men were crying like children, some groaning pitifully, some laughing despite their wounds. I heard dialects peculiar to every part of England, and fragmentary accounts of hairbreadth escapes and desperate fighting.

"They was a big Dutchman comin' at me from the other side. Lucky fer me that I 'ad a round in me breach. He'd 'a' got me if it 'adn't 'a' been fer that ca'tridge. I let 'im 'ave it an' 'e crumpled up like a wet blanket."

"Seeven of them, an' that dazed like, they wasna good for onything. Mon, it would ha' been fair murder to kill 'em! They wasna wantin' to fight."

Boys scarcely out of their 'teens talked with the air of old veterans. Many of them had been given their first taste of real fighting, and they were experiencing a very common and natural reaction. Their courage had been put to the most severe test and had not given way. It was not difficult to understand their elation, and one could forgive their boastful talk of bloody deeds. One highly strung lad was dangerously near to nervous breakdown. He had bayoneted his first German and could not forget the experience. He told of it over and over as the line moved slowly along.

"I couldn't get me bayonet out," he said. "Wen 'e fell 'e pulled me over on top of 'im. I 'ad to put me foot against 'im an' pull, an' then it came out with a jerk."

We met small groups of prisoners under escort of proud and happy Tommies who gave us conflicting reports of the success of the attack. Some of them said that two more lines of German trenches had been taken; others declared that we had broken completely through and that the enemy were in full retreat. Upon arriving at our position, we were convinced that at least one trench had been captured; but when we mounted our guns and peered cautiously over the parapet, the lights which we saw in the distance were the flashes of German rifles, not the street lamps of Berlin.

III. CHRISTIAN PRACTICE

Meanwhile, the inhumanity of a war without truces was being revealed to us on every hand. Hundreds of bodies were lying between the opposing lines of trenches and there was no chance to bury them. Fatigue parties were sent out at night to dispose of those which were lying close to the parapets, but the work was constantly delayed and interrupted by persistent sniping and heavy shell fire. Others farther out lay where they had fallen day after day and week after week. Many an anxious mother in England was seeking news of a son whose body had become a part of that Flemish landscape.

During the week following the commencement of the offensive, the wounded were brought back in twos and threes from the contested area over which attacks and counter-attacks were taking place. One plucky Englishman was discovered about fifty yards in front of our trenches. He was waving a handkerchief tied to the handle of his intrenching tool. Stretcher-bearers ran out under fire and brought him in. He had been wounded in the foot when his company were advancing up the slope fifteen hundred yards away. When it was found necessary to retire, he had been left with many dead and wounded comrades, far from the possibility of help by friends. He had bandaged his wound with his first-aid field dressing, and started crawling back, a few yards at a time. He secured food from the haversacks of dead comrades, and at length, after a week of painful creeping, reached our lines.

Another of our comrades was discovered by a listening patrol, six days after he had been wounded. He, too, had been struck down close to the enemy's second line. Two kind-hearted German sentries, to whom he had signaled, crept out at night and gave him hot coffee to drink. He begged them to carry him in, but they told him they were forbidden to take any wounded prisoners. As he was unable to crawl, he must have died had it not been for the keen ears of the men of the listening patrol. A third victim whom I saw was brought in at daybreak by a working party. He had been shot in the jaw and lay unattended through at least five wet October days and nights. His eyes were swollen shut. Blood-poisoning had set in from a wound which would certainly not have been fatal could it have received early attention.

We knew that there must be many wounded still alive in the tall grass between our lines. We knew that many were dying who might be saved. The Red Cross Corps made nightly searches for them, but the difficulties to be overcome were great. The volume of fire increased tremendously at night. Furthermore, there was a wide area to be searched, and in the darkness men lying unconscious, or too weak from the loss of blood to groan or shout, were discovered only by accident.

Tommy Atkins isn't an advocate of "peace at any price," but the sight of awful and needless suffering invariably moved him to declare himself emphatically against the inhuman practices in war of so-called Christian nations.

"Christian nations!" he would say scornfully. "If this 'ere is a sample o' Christianity, I'll tyke me charnces down below w'en I gets knocked out." His comrades greeted such outbursts with hearty approval.

"I'm with you there, mate! 'Ell won't be such a dusty old place if all the Christians go upstairs."

"They ain't no God 'avin' anything to do with this war, I'm telling you! All the religious blokes in England an' France an' Germany ain't a-go'n' to pray 'Im into it!"

I am not in a position to speak for Hans and Fritz, who faced us from the other side of No-Man's-Land; but as for Tommy, it seemed to me that he had a higher opinion of the Deity than many of his better-educated countrymen at home.

IV. TOMMY

By the end of the month we had seen more of suffering and death than it is good for men to see in a lifetime. There were attacks and counter-attacks, hand-to-hand fights in communication trenches with bombs and bayonets, heavy bombardments, nightly burial parties. Tommy Atkins looked like a beast. His clothing was a hardened-mud casing; his body was the color of the sticky Flanders clay in which he lived; but his soul was clean and fine. I saw him rescuing wounded comrades, tending them in the trenches, encouraging them and heartening them when he himself was discouraged and sick at heart.

"You're a-go'n' 'ome, 'Arry! Blimy! think o' that! Back to old Blightey w'ile the rest of us 'as got to stick it out 'ere! Don't I wish I was you! Not 'arf!"

"You ain't bad 'urt! Strike me pink! You'll be as keen as a w'istle in a couple o' months. An' 'ere! Christmas in Blightey, son! S'y! I'll tyke yer busted shoulder if you'll give me the chanct!"

"They ain't nothin' they can't do fer you back at the base 'ospital. 'Member 'ow they fixed old Ginger up? You ain't caught it 'arf as bad!"

In England, before I knew him for the man he is, I said, "How am I to endure living with him?" And now I am thinking, how am I to endure living without him; without the inspiration of his splendid courage; without the visible example of his unselfish devotion to his fellows? There were a few cowards and shirkers who failed to live up to the standard set by their comrades. I remember the man of thirty-five or forty who lay whimpering in the trench when there was unpleasant work to be done, while boys half his age kicked him in a vain attempt to waken him to a sense of duty; but instances of this kind were rare. There were not enough of them to serve as a foil to the shining deeds which were of daily and hourly occurrence.

Tommy is sick of the war-dead sick of it. He is weary of the interminable procession of comfortless nights and days. He is weary of the sight of maimed and bleeding men-of the awful suspense of waiting for death. In the words of his pathetic little song, he does "want to go 'ome." But there is that within him which says, "Hold on!" He is a compound of cheery optimism and grim tenacity which makes him an incomparable fighting man.

The intimate picture of him which lingers most willingly in my mind is that which I carried with me from the trenches on the dreary November evening shortly before I bade him good-bye. It had been raining and sleeting for a week. The trenches were knee-deep in water, in some places waist-deep, for the ground was as level as a floor and there was no possibility of drainage. We were wet through and our legs were numb with the cold. Near our gun position there was a hole in the floor of the trench where the water had collected in a deep pool. A bridge of boards had been built around one side of this, but in the darkness a passer-by slipped and fell into the icy water nearly up to his arm-pits.

"Now, then, matey!" said an exasperating voice, "bathin' in our private pool without a permit?"

And another, "'Ere, son! This ain't a swimmin' bawth! That's our tea water yer a-standin' in!"

The Tommy in the pool must have been nearly frozen, but for a moment he made no attempt to get out.

"One o' you fetch me a bit o' soap, will you?'" he said coaxingly. "You ain't a-go'n' to talk about tea water to a bloke wot ain't 'ad a bawth in seven weeks?"

It is men of this stamp who have the fortunes of England in their keeping. And they are called, "The Boys of the Bulldog Breed."

THE END

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