Tommy, p.34Richard Holmes
Occasionally men made dangerous trips like this of their own volition. Private Edge of B Company 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers – Sunny Jim to his mates – ‘was a bit on the weak side,’ recalled Regimental Sergeant Major Boreham, ‘although he had stuck all the marching of the Retreat [from Mons], and ordinary duty afterwards until the MO [medical officer] gave him a job on the canteen staff. On 21 August he materialised in the front line, with no personal equipment but a full pack slung by its supporting straps. He had a slight impediment in his speech, and when his RSM asked him what he wanted he replied: ‘“I fort the boys would want some cigawettes, so I’ve bwought some up.” He had come about 7 miles because he “fort the boys wanted cigawettes.” He went round the Companies, sold his stock, and went off again as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.’89
On the evening of 12 November there was a sudden and unexpected bombardment, and Rogerson fired German signal rockets (tested in the latrine) to confuse the enemy gunners. The shelling stopped and no casualties were caused. A chastened Corporal Robinson returned, having got lost on the way back from his corpses. Rogerson then slept for four hours, his first rest since leaving Camp 34 some thirty-six hours before, lying in the bottom of the trench. He awoke to find that Maclaren was out with two helpers issuing rum and cigarettes to the covering party – a thin line of soldiers lying out in No Man’s Land to protect men working on the trench. ‘The value of such apparently dare-devil gestures,’ he wrote, ‘was evident from the fact that the news had travelled with chuckles down the sap and into the trench long before the three had returned safely back again.’
By dawn on the 13th the trench was in good order:
Clear of mud, fire-stepped, deep, and continuous along the two-company front … Most of all I was proud of the men … At no other time in the war did I meet a better, keener or more reliable set of men than that mixed Yorkshire-Northumbrian contingent in front of Le Transloy.90
The company stood to at dawn, both sides of the front remaining quiet for a while afterwards.
For a few minutes the sun and dew distilled a faint fragrance even from the freshly turned earth or the coarse weeds buried by the night’s shelling, before the nurture evaporated and allowed the normal odours of trench life to assert themselves. Even then the all-pervading reek of chloride of lime would be overcome for a while by the homely acrid smell of the cook’s wood fire and – oh, most welcome! – of bacon.
Company Quartermaster Sergeant Carlton arrived with the ration party and the news that they were to be relieved the following night by 1/Worcesters of their own 24th Brigade. The 13th passed with men focused on domestic concerns although they could hear, only a few miles away to the north, the sound of battle. We now know (though they did not) that it was 51st Highland Division’s successful attack on Beaumont Hamel. ‘At the time the assault was being delivered,’ admitted Rogerson, ‘we drank, smoke and sang with never a thought for the thousands of lives being choked out by bullet, bayonet or bomb within a few miles of us. We were content to know that someone else was “for it”.’91 The men became restless after dark as they waited for relief, and the Worcesters arrived at 11.00. Rogerson sent the company on under Maclaren and went to report to his battalion’s adjutant that relief was complete, but got lost and eventually found himself back with the company: it had lost no men on the way out.
It was a terrible march back to La Briqueterie camp.
Some of the younger men could hardly walk. Officers and fresher NCOs took over rifles and packs from the most fatigued without avail. The querulous, half-mutinous demands for rest grew more insistent. They were the cries of minds tortured by over-exertion and lack of sleep.
Siegfried Sassoon had watched just such a scene, standing beside the quartermaster (the old warrior was in ‘a state of subdued anxiety’ about his battalion) in much the same place three months earlier. This time it was a whole division coming out of the line:
The field guns came first, with nodding men sitting stiffly on weary horses, followed by wagons and limbers and field-kitchens. After this rumble of wheels came the infantry, shambling, limping, straggling and out of step. If anyone spoke it was only a muttered word, and the mounted officers rode as if asleep. The men had carried their emergency water in petrol-cans, against which the bayonets made a hollow clink; except for the shuffling of feet, this was the only sound. Thus, with an almost spectral appearance, the lurching brown figures flitted past with slung rifles and heads bent forward under basin-helmets.92
Rogerson eventually halted the exhausted company only to find they were just too yards from camp. It was only 3½ miles from Ginchy crossroads to camp, and five miles in all to the front line: less than two hours at normal marching pace. ‘There is no doubt that the Somme taught us that distance is a relative term,’ reflected Rogerson, ‘not to be measured in yards and feet.’93 ‘Dear old Hinchcliffe, the Quartermaster’ had the tents organised as if it was Salisbury Plain, and the tireless James Jack rebuked Rogerson for removing his equipment before the men had been fed. He chatted to the adjutant: ‘Since we had last met two of our friends had gone west, but except for a passing reference – “rotten luck” – their names were not mentioned. We were glad to be out, to be alive, and to be together again.’ He drank two mugs of whisky and soda, fell over on hitting the cold night air as he left the mess tent, and crawled back to his own tent, where he fell into a dreamless sleep until 9.00 on the morning of the 14th. It was just over four days since he had gone up the line.
Rogerson’s vignette of trench warfare is studded with truths which front-line soldiers would have recognised, however much individual details might have varied. The approach march was better than many. When Second Lieutenant Joseph Maclean first went up the line with 1/Cameronians in the unseasonable spring of 1917 he reported that:
It was raining and blowing, and very cold, and the march up to the trenches was the final limit. We had to go along miles (literally) of communication trenches in the dark, and every now and then we struck a shell hole, or a bit that had been blown in and had to be climbed over, and as everywhere except the ‘duckboard’ was deep in slime and mud you can imagine what we were all like. The last 300 yards or so had to be done over the open across clayey ground: it was a regular acrobatic performance getting across … I fell into the half-frozen shell holes three or four times, and soon exhausted all the swear words I ever heard, and was reduced to vulgar blasphemy. We took five hours to get up, and arrived soaking wet, covered with filthy mud and perfectly miserable.94
Lieutenant Colonel Alan Hanbury-Sparrow’s 2/Royal Berkshires went up the line in single file across the moonscape of the Ypres battlefield in mid-1917. Half the men got lost, and it took hours to find them again. It later materialised that Private Ailey had wearily drifted off in the wrong direction with two companies mutely following him. ‘This Ailey had been the curse of the battalion for the past year,’ wrote Hanbury-Sparrow bitterly. ‘Feeble in body, he was feebler still in mind.’95
The fact that Rogerson’s trench was in an unusually poor state and his front-line tour shorter than many meant that the full daily routine never had time to develop. More usual was the kind of pattern (echoing watches on a warship) that C. P. Blacker remembered.
I will describe the sequence during our tour at the beginning of July when the long hours of midsummer daylight were just beginning to shorten.
All three officers were on duty during stand-to and stand-down – from 3.15 to 4.15 am in the early morning and from 9.30 to 10.30 in the later evening …
In addition to these two periods of standing-to, each officer in turn did a long watch and a short watch during every twenty-four hours. The three long watches of about twenty-four hours ran from morning stand-down at 4.30 am to 8.30 am; from 8.30 am to 12.15 pm; and from 12.30 to 5.30 pm The short watches were mounted during the evening period from 5.30 pm to stand-to at 9.30 pm This evening period of three hours was divided into three short watches of about an hour and a half for each officer
On the different days of the tour, I did long and short watches at different times. The best of the long watches was the first of the day, after the early morning stand-down. In fine weather it was good to see the sun rising and enjoy the cold air … The night watches, though not longer than an hour and a half, could be tribulating because of the longing for sleep. For the sentry to fall asleep on duty was regarded as a serious crime. For an officer to be found asleep on duty was a fortiori about the last word. I had not properly known till this tour how intense could be the craving for sleep. It could seem almost irresistible. If you leaned against the side of the trench for more than a short moment, your consciousness would insidiously and insensibly dissolve. Your brain seemed to melt and you slid down into the region of unstable mists. When you felt yourself to be in danger of slithering into this state, you welcomed a noise of war – a shell or a rifle bullet which roused you.96
When Robert Graves was attached to the Welch Regiment in the trenches he was told that:
Our time-table is: breakfast at eight o’clock in the morning, clean trenches and inspect rifles, work all morning, lunch at twelve, work again from one till about six, when the men feed again. ‘Stand-to’ at dusk for an hour, work all night, ‘stand-to’ for an hour before dawn. That’s the general programme … We officers are on duty all day, and divide the night up into three-hourly watches.97
Bernard Adams remembered a similar routine, but this time in a support trench, and from a private soldier’s point of view.
This would be a typical day, say, in April.
4 am Stand to. Until it gets light enough to clean your rifle, then clean it.
About 5 am Get your rifle inspected, and turn in again.
6.30 am Turn out to carry breakfast up to company in front line. (Old Kent Road very muddy after rain. A heavy Dixie to be carried from top of Weymouth Avenue, up via Trafalgar Square, and 76 Street to the platoon holding the trench at the Loop.)
7.45 am Get your own breakfast.
9 am Turn out for working party: spend morning filling sandbags for building traverses in Maple Redoubt.
11.30 am Carry dinner up to front company. Same as 6.30 am
1 pm Get your own dinner.
1–4 pm (with luck) rest.
7.15 pm Clean rifle.
7.30 pm Stand to. Rifle inspected.
Jones puts his big ugly boot out suddenly, just after you have finished cleaning rifle, and upsets it. Result – mud all over barrel and nosecap.
8.30 pm Stand down. Have to clean rifle again and show platoon sergeant.
9 pm Turn out for working party till 12 midnight in front line.
12 midnight. Hot soup.
12.15 am Dug out at last till
4 am Stand to. And so for three days and nights.
Adams acknowledged that this was ‘really quite a moderate programme’. But however much officers sought to spare their men, there were unexpected emergencies.
A couple of [German trench mortar] canisters block Watling Street; you must send a party of ten men and an NCO to clear it at once; or you suddenly have to supply a party to carry ‘footballs’ up to Rue Albert for the trench-mortar men. The Adjutant is sorry; he could not let you know before; but they have just come up to the Citadel, and must be unloaded at once. So you have to find the men for this on the spur of the moment. And so it goes on, night and day. Oh, it’s not all rum and sleep, is life in Maple Redoubt.98
For private soldiers life in the reserve trenches generally consisted of sentry duty interwoven with digging or wiring parties and punctuated by meals. Rifleman Percy Jones described his routine during a nine-day tour of duty in reserve trenches near La Chapelle d’ Armentières in December 1915.
Reveille was at 5 am, stand-to with rifles and equipments until 1 pm, draw rations for the day at 7.30, meals when you like. If free in the evening one could go to sleep for the night, but as the principal duty of men in the reserve trenches is to do fatigues, one was rarely free. The most important daily fatigues were wood fatigue to the Headquarter Farm at 6 am, and the star performance of the day:- ration, mail-bag and general fatigue in the Factory, a ruined building on the Armentières road, which commenced from 5.30 to 6.30 pm And frequently lasted to 10 pm
The daytime was spent digging in, repairing and draining trenches, of which we had a great deal during the last few days. There was also a night trench digging fatigue at any unearthly hour from 5 pm to 5 am99
In front-line trenches in daylight there was usually one sentry per platoon. From early 1915 there was an increasing trickle of mirrors, placed on the parados and adjusted so that a man sitting on the firestep could see the trenches opposite, and trench periscopes of a variety of designs which permitted better observation. Until then sentries had had to peer over the parapet at regular intervals, and German snipers took advantage of any opportunity. Private Frank Richards began the war with two particular friends, known to us only as Billy and Stevens. In trenches at Bois Grenier in 1915 Richards and Stevens were watching Private Berry standing in a pool of water with his boots and puttees off, trying to fix a pump: ‘his language,’ reported Richards, ‘was delightful to listen to’:
Soon he slipped on his back in the water and we burst out laughing. Then suddenly Stevens too dropped down in a sitting position with his back against the back of the trench; but this was no laughing matter. A sniper on our right front had got him right through the head. No man ever spoke who was shot clean through the brain: some lived a few seconds and others longer. Stevens lived about fifteen minutes … He was a married man with three children and one of the cleanest white men I ever met. He was different to the majority of us, and during the time he was in France he never looked at another woman and he could have had plenty of them in some of the places we were in …100
Henry Williamson had a similar experience when his trench was sniped: ‘Crack! And the man next to you stared at you curiously for a moment. Then you saw a hole in his forehead and when he slid down you saw that the back of his head was open.’101 At Cambrin in June 1915 Robert Graves was shocked to find a man hit in the head:
making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans … One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.102
Soldiers perished from illness or accident long before they reached a trench: Ian Hay memorably described how his own battalion’s first dead soldier was left ‘alone with his glory beneath the Hampshire pines’. Accidental death was common on rifle ranges and training grounds in France. In August 1914 Lieutenant Roland Miller’s 123rd Field Battery RFA lost its first man to friendly fire, ‘when a gunner wandered out of station [at Le Cateau], met a French sentry, but not yet appreciating the reality of things, nor understanding the language, tried to pass, and was shot dead.’103 On Easter Sunday 1915, Lieutenant Roe saw a ‘scene of indescribable horror and confusion’ resulting from an explosion at a grenade-filling unit in France.104 Harry Ogle’s chum, Billy Brown, was killed when his mortar crew, showing off at a demonstration, managed to load a second bomb before the first had left the muzzle.105 Frank Dunham’s comrade George Bloomfield was cleaning his rifle in a trench at Ypres in 1917 when it went off, killing Private Beazley.106 And so it went on.
Once men were within range of hostile fire, death came in a myriad of capricious ways. After he reached the front, Private Bernard Livermore mused on:
Death from a sniper’s bullet, death from a rifle grenade, death from a Minnie or a toffee apple; death from shrapnel (possibly from our own guns) or from gas, if the wind were in the right direction. Death also might come from bayonet or nail-studded cosh if the Bosche raided our lines.107
But the challenge to men’s fortitude came neither wholly from the simple fact o
Men killed in or near the front line were buried where they fell, or collected after the action for burial behind the lines. In December 1914 Captain Gerald Burgoyne was told that there was a dead man close to his company’s position at Locre.
Went out and found (from his identity disc) he was No 8863, B. West, Suffolk Regiment. Lying with his overcoat tied over his face alongside a ruined farm. Died possibly from wounds. Horrid job, lifting his head to get his identity disc. I buried him at dusk, and said the Lord’s prayer over him. Couldn’t read any prayers as we couldn’t have any light, and as it was three bullets came so close to us, they might have been aimed at us.108
The following spring even the energetic Burgoyne found it hard to keep pace with death’s demands.
I saw five of the Gordons and they were smelling most unpleasantly. Got the subaltern of [position] H3 to bury two of them. On the parapet of H2 noticed the left leg, from the top of the hip to the foot, of a Frenchman. It was covered in a bit of red trouser … Had that buried too. In a Jack Johnson hole full of water within 30 yards of my trench, and on the road, I noticed a body, the face above water, of a bearded German. He had been there for months. Could do nothing but fill in the hole with stones and rocks.109
Men felt a strong obligation to bury comrades if it was at all possible. Private Stuart Dolden was moving up towards Vermelles with the London Scottish in September 1915 when ‘Walker, my own particular chum’ was shot through the chest. They dressed his wound at the next halt, but there they had to leave him. The following day Dolden went back with another man:
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