Tommy, p.30
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       Tommy, p.30

           Richard Holmes

  Frank Hawkings was in the same village, though by then British trench names had replaced French. ‘A number of CTs [communication trenches] radiate out of the centre of the village connecting up the firing line,’ he wrote.

  The most important are Yellow Street, Yankee Street and Woman Street. The latter owes its name to a certain gruesome discovery. Opposite its entrance is a pool of stagnant, putrid water which was once the village pond. One day two men noticed what looked like a sack near the edge amongst the litter of perambulators, bicycles, pictures, chairs, beds and dead cats. They drew it out and were horrified to discover that it was the half decomposed corpse of a young woman.20

  Captain Sidney Rogerson also found himself in a French-made communication trench, though much later in the war, between the Aisne and the Marne. ‘The communication trenches were particularly hot,’ he wrote,

  as they were much deeper than those made by the British, chiefly, I imagine, on account of the use made by the French of small donkeys for carrying rations up into the line. The processions of ten or fifteen little ‘burros’ piled heavens high with sacks and boxes, stepping stiffly up a trench with the donkey-herd behind them making uncouth noises of encouragement or reproof, never failed to amuse our men.21

  Communication trenches were ideally long enough to permit troops to enter them without being observed directly from the German lines, and on flat ground overlooked by German positions they might be very long indeed. Frank Dunham was a devout Baptist from a ‘superior working-class’ background, who had been a general assistant in a clothing factory before the war. After serving as a Red Cross volunteer he enlisted in a London cyclist battalion thinking that it might be fun, but would report sadly that ‘there was never any issue of cycles to us’. Instead, his battalion, 25/London, fought in the trenches, and Dunham eventually became NCO in charge of the regimental aid post. He recalled that on 15 April 1917: ‘We were relieved by the 8th London Regiment and came out through “Convent Lane” communication trench en route for Dickebush Huts. This was a terribly long trench, 3 miles long I was told; and it wandered about and made one feel dizzy going through it.’22

  On 1 July 1916 Captain Billie Neville issued his company with platoon footballs marked: ‘Great European Cup-Final: East Surreys v. Bavarians. Kick Off at Zero [Hour]’, and became immortalised in history. A year before he had written home from Dernancourt, behind the Somme front, to describe how:

  All those trenches lead somewhere, each has its particular object, every bend & curve is made to serve some special purpose. Inside they are kept daily in perfect condition,

  A Scottish battalion marching out of the line in the Loos sector, October 1915. Six months later the steel helmet would replace service caps and Scots bonnets for troops in the front line.

  the drainage system would rival London’s itself. All the traffic is controlled as if by policemen, timetables are kept of the time to get from say ‘Roberts’ to ‘Drake’. The routes are marked carefully to various places & every trench is named and very often numbered as well.23

  The system of communication trenches did not always work well even in quiet times. When Winston Churchill did his first tour in the trenches as a major attached to the Grenadier Guards, he was told that because there were no communication trenches in that sector all movement to the front line had to take place over the top, after dark. In consequence it had not been possible for any of his kit to be sent forward: his servant had, however, secured him a spare pair of socks. And during an attack even a well-ordered system might break down as the Germans bombarded communication trenches to stop reserves from moving forward, as Lieutenant Roe discovered on the first day of the Somme.

  Every single yard of the communication trench up to the front line was impassable and the confusion was indescribable. Reinforcement troops and working parties with materials and ammunition were trying to make their way forward against a stream of troops coming out of the line, including stretcher-bearers with casualties, walking wounded and exhausted troops coming out after a spell in the front line. To make matters worse, many of these sections of communication trench had been destroyed by heavy artillery fire from the German lines, and this was unceasingly active.24

  Sometimes attacking troops, exasperated by the traffic jam, climbed out of the communication trenches to reach the front line over open ground. Roe watched this happen on the Somme: a second-wave battalion,

  in attempting to move forward into the attack five minutes after zero hour they found that the communication trenches were so blown in as to be impassable. This meant that they were compelled to expose themselves from the start by advancing to our own front line over open ground in broad daylight. The casualties … were so heavy as a result of this that only a few of the battalion reached even our own front line.25

  Trenches bore nameboards which served the same function as street signs in a town. Sometimes these reflected the regional origin of the first troops to hold them: the rides which crisscross Delville Wood on the Somme now have stone markers with street names from London, Edinburgh and Glasgow originally given to trenches there by 9th Scottish Division in July 1916. When Henry Williamson revisited the battlefields in 1925 he found Somme trenches ‘half hidden by the long wild grasses of the years – Wretched Way, Lucky Way, Tea Trench, Coffee Trench, Rum Trench’.26 There were attempts to make terminology logical so that an individual would know what sort of trench he was in, even if he was uncertain as to where he was. Trenches called ‘street’ or ‘way’ were communication trenches. The village of Villers-Guislain on the Cambrai front had Glass Street, Cheshire Street, Aylward Street, George Street and High Street fanning out from it towards the front. Cheshire Street led through Cheshire Quarry to Bicester Alley, and then into Preston Support and Preston Trench, and then further forward to Bleak Support and Bleak Trench. Grove Alley, Grass Lane, Flare Alley and Pilgrim’s Way led from the Somme village of Flers to front-line trenches whose names had a degree of connecting logic: Polish Trench was behind Shine Trench, Petrol Lane ran in to Oily Lane, and Scabbard Trench was in front of Bayonet Trench. Strongpoints might simply be named after units or individuals who had fought or died there, such as Goodwin’s Post on Grease Trench (along from Petrol Lane), near Gueudecourt. And sometimes there was a more complex story. Frank Dunham thought it sad that ‘our only casualties should result from one shell. This fell on a post in the front line, killing one and wounding three – all these casualties turned out to be Jews and the post was afterwards known as Yiddish Post.’27

  Other trench signs warned men to duck in shallow stretches where snipers were active, enjoined them to pick up discarded items such as picks, shovels or rifles and take them to the nearest salvage dump for recycling, or advised them what to do if gas was detected. Gas alarms were generally empty shell cases hung from an improvised bracket on the trench wall, and were sometimes accompanied by a signboard whose doggerel enjoined those who sniffed gas to:

  Beat this gong, grab your gun

  And prepare to meet the bloody Hun.

  And in late 1917 Rowland Feilding recorded a sign in the Croisilles sector designed to deter rubbernecking ‘tourists’:

  Visitors are requested not to show themselves, as by doing so they may give away our positions to the enemy. We live here. You don’t.28

  In the war’s first winter dugouts were rare and funk holes hollowed out of the trench sides far more common. These could be screened with a groundsheet to give a measure of privacy, and a man might lie full-length with a modicum of cover and comfort. The practice of scraping out funk holes continued for much of the war, although it was soon officially discouraged because it weakened the sides of the trench and encouraged collapses, especially in heavy rain – or heavy shelling. Dugouts became increasingly common in 1915. Sometimes these were little more than the continuation of a funk hole, as Gerald Burgoyne reported in March 1915.

  There are no officers’ dugouts in my trenches so I at once started to make one in the trench I ho
ld. I cleaned a patch about eight by five on the flank of my parapet, put some men to dig down about 18 inches, and then to build a wall of sandbags around it. I had brought down, for the purpose, six sheets of corrugated iron sheeting and some stakes.29

  But they could also be a little more sophisticated, as John Reith discovered when he called on 1/Cameronians in November 1914.

  HQ was half dugout and half hut. In it were the 1st Battalion CO and other officers … I was received with great cordiality … how odd for a regular colonel to be so circumstanced – in this hole in the ground, the mud on his clothes. It was, however, a comfortable hole. It was lit by two oil lamps; there were two tables, a bookshelf and ledges all round cut out of the clay for seats and bunks. There was, moreover, a coal fire burning in an excavated clay fireplace. They were only eighty yards from the Germans. Eighty yards.30

  Proper dugouts could either be mined, that is excavated via a sloping tunnel that would, with suitable steps added, eventually constitute the dugout’s entrance. Or they could be ‘cut and cover’ dugouts, made by the construction of a vast pit which was then roofed with timber or concrete with earth piled in on top. These could only be made in rear trench-systems, but the German practice of falling back from exposed positions onto better ones (most strikingly demonstrated in the withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in early 1917) meant that the Germans had a profusion of deep dugouts constructed by the cut and cover method.

  Even British dugouts, proverbially less sophisticated than the German, could nevertheless be comfortable. In 1915 Billie Harris found some British dugouts on the Somme front:

  too killing for words. In one of them there is a lovely case of stuffed birds, a beautiful 4 poster bed, and some nice chairs, a good big table, towel horse, ivory wash hand stand etc & endless bric-a-brac. They are all furnished magnificently from the cottages here and are jolly cosy … Company HQ is a wonderful place … On the left as you come in is a marvellous ‘paper-flower’ white bouquet in a gilt-framed case, worn by all brides if they are not already widows, & evidently a family treasure; next to it is my ‘duty roll’ of officers & a time table of the times a messenger takes to get from here to all HQs or companies & our platoons, in wet or dry weather by day or night. Next again was a huge full-length mirror. With some heart-searching this morning I took an entrenching tool & scientifically smashed [it] into little pieces suitable for periscopes for our sentries by day! Then there’s such a jolly old bookshelf, what’s on it now? A candle, Punch, a tin of butter, a bottle of ‘Vin Ordinaire’. A megaphone, 2 smoke helmets, some fags & baccy of [Lieutenant] Pearce’s, my holdall, some powder bombs for dispersing gas if it’s used, some lights corresponding to their star shells, Newnes Summer Annual, The Morning Post of 5 days ago, and a water bottle, some Nestles milk, a shaving brush and two periscopes … We’ve got a hat rack & an umbrella stand next to this and then comes a map (from aeroplane photos) of the German trenches so accurate that you can follow every ‘traverse’ & bend in them … Two of our chairs have backs and the third is only used by visitors (once) … another table littered with red covers, mags; plates, message forms for the telephone, and a place laid for an officer on duty now, who will get some bully [beef] and tea when he comes off … The roof was only designed to conduct the rain into several well-defined areas on the floor … The Hun side is sandbagged … we shutter the windows at night to secure the light …31

  This was evidently too flimsy a structure to sustain serious shellfire, and would not have passed muster much later in the war, but the assorted personal litter is entirely characteristic of a dugout’s contents.

  Edward Underhill found himself in a more typical dugout, of the cut-and-cover variety, at Mont St-Eloi in April 1916. ‘I and F— and two platoons are in support,’ he wrote,

  and we’ve one enormous dugout, fifty yards long, ten feet broad, and from eight to ten feet high. It has four entrances and ten to fifteen feet of earth on top, and is awfully strong. One end is curtained off for the officers, and then a bit for servants, orderlies and sergeants, and then the rest for the men.32

  Company Sergeant Major Shephard thought his company headquarters dugout on the Somme:

  the best I have ever been in, about 80 feet long, 10 feet wide, 100 feet below ground, two entrances down steps. We have all the Company Staff together. Dugout is parted in three. One part for the telephone and operators, Officers’ servants and trench mortar battery attached. Centre part for the Officers, and third part for the stretcher-bearers, Company and platoon orderlies, sanitary men and myself.33

  Dugouts this big led off support or reserve lines. Less sophisticated versions were often dug below the parados of a front-line trench, and these:

  could be large enough to contain a couple of wooden bed-frames with a piece of rabbit wire stretched over the top of each frame so as to leave a level surface somewhere about eighteen inches above the inevitably wet and muddy floor. Valises or bedding rolls were laid on the wire and relays of sleepers or catnappers were able to use them. A dugout could also serve as a platoon or company headquarters. Battalion headquarters were situated in support or reserve trenches because the length of trenches occupied by a whole battalion was several hundred yards in extent. These dugouts were gloomy affairs and were invariably very badly lit by candles stuck in a couple of bottles or fixed on top of a box in their own wax. Privacy was impossible even when, for gas protection, an army blanket was strung across the entrance from the trench …

  Sometimes we were lucky enough to get a sheet of corrugated iron to put on the sandbags covering the roof of the dugout and then to cover it with another layer or two of sandbags patterned crisscross for firmness. This reduced the noise inside the dugout and gave us a feeling of increased immunity from the smaller stuff sent by Jerry.34

  British advances on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres the following year brought German dugouts, so deep as to be impervious to even the heaviest shells, within their grasp. In November 1916 Edward Underhill reported that:

  H and I have moved into a relatively palatial dugout, probably a German Company Headquarters. It had been occupied temporarily by an undisciplined infantry unit, who made no attempt at clearing it out. The atmosphere nearly knocked me down on first entering. Now we have removed and burned masses of filthy German overcoats, equipment and food litter of all sorts. Even so it was two days after we had taken up residence before we discovered that a sack, nailed across a gap in the wall panelling, contained at the bottom a dismembered human arm.

  At the bottom of about twenty broad steps a filled doorway opens into a large mess room, with the roof supported by pillars over 6 feet high. Beyond this a passage with alcoves on each side leads to two large and two smaller rooms, and a broad secondary stairway. The walls throughout were originally panelled with wood in two tiers, and a horizontal strip half way up was embellished by a stencilled frieze depicting an iron cross in a shield, with acorns and leaves between the shields. The mess room walls were originally covered by tapestry, but only portions remain in situ.35

  As the Germans discovered that trenches, however well constructed, were no match for the growing power of British artillery, they paid increasing attention to the construction of concrete blockhouses which still squat on the landscape of the old front line like huge mottled grey toads. Some were designed to house machine guns, while others were designed primarily as headquarters and troop shelters. These too were incorporated into British defensive systems after their capture, although the process was rarely a pleasant one, as Huntley Gordon, an artillery observation officer, discovered on Westhoek Ridge, outside Ypres, in 1917.

  All was well when we reached here, but at 9 am we were strafed for half an hour. I have a nasty feeling that the arrival of an officer and a telephonist may have been noticed by more than that sniper. We had to retire inside the concrete underground blockhouse that adjoins our little suntrap. It is without exception the most horrible place I have ever been in. It was constructed by the Boche to face the oth
er way, and now the entrance is in front. Steps lead down to a central passage with two rooms on each side, about 10ft square. The rooms are more than half-filled with stagnant water, and we have to crouch down on planks supported at water level on a heap of corpses underneath. The stench really was awful, and we all had to smoke continuously to keep it down. It must have been full of Boches when our chaps lobbed some bombs in a few days ago. Now frequent bubbles break the surface of the oily scum. We were careful not to stir it up. Thank God, we didn’t have to be in there for very long or I would have tried my luck in the open.36

  A well-developed trench system had other features. Latrines were essential, and it was a matter of unit pride to keep them in good order and to prevent men from relieving themselves in the trench. Trench latrines, generally situated down a short sap running through the parados, might consist of a bucket or a ‘deep-drop’ latrine topped by a pole. Some of the latter were very deep indeed. When Sidney Rogerson’s company of 2/West Yorkshire was establishing itself in the front line on the Somme in November 1917 Lance Corporal Rumbold set up two or three latrines ‘as effective as they appeared hygienic’. One was certainly deep enough for them to experiment by firing captured German artillery alarm rockets into it to see what colours they were. Rumbold was the sanitary corporal, and there was one in each company, responsible for trench latrines, and for more sophisticated arrangements out of the line. Frank Dunham became sanitary corporal in 1918, and found it: ‘Not a pleasant job, perhaps, but one that had advantages, for I had no parades to attend, and my time was my own. The holder of this job was invariably termed “NCO i/c shit wallers” by his fellows, which was perhaps the worst that could be said of it.’ In Frederick Hodges’s company of 10/Lancashire Fusiliers the sanitary man was Corporal Dean, inevitably known as Gunga Dean. Some sanitary men took pride in their duties. David Jones encountered a well-educated comrade carrying two brimming latrine buckets.

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