Tommy, p.36Richard Holmes
The inexperienced Second Lieutenant Campbell took over a gunner working party at Potijze in the salient from an officer who warned him: ‘Whatever you do, don’t bugger the men about, that’s the only unforgivable thing. That, and having unnecessary casualties.’ He was astonished by the skill of the men, and by the freedom of their conversation as they grumbled and mimicked officers, though in a good-humoured way, and paid no attention to his presence.
For the first time in my life I, a boy from a public school, was doing manual work beside men who were manual workers. In a flash of revelation, caused perhaps by a flash of a bursting shell outside, I saw that instead of my being superior to them they were superior to me. But I saw something else, that it did not matter which of us was better, what mattered was that we were working against a common enemy.132
There were differing views over whether officers should work beside other ranks. Robert Graves, serving a short attachment with the Welch Regiment, was told that ‘officers must work with them, not only direct the work’, but found things more traditionally organised in his own Royal Welch Fusiliers.133 C. P. Blacker, who joined 4th Coldstream Guards, the Guards Division’s pioneer battalion, in October 1915, felt uneasy about sitting in a Royal Engineer officer’s tiny dugout while his working party toiled in support of engineer tunnellers.
Life at Fosse strengthened earlier scruples about how different were the active-service lives of officers and other ranks. The routine during No. 3 Company’s attachment to the sappers was that the officers’ duties were confined to marching their parties to Bout-Deville where they saw them embussed. The officer then came back. He took no part in the working day … While the other ranks were pumping water up or air down, and struggling to carry slimy sandbags along squalid trenches, we officers sat back in the fire-warmed mess doing nothing … I tentatively asked [Captain] Clive Piggott, who felt much as I did, if it would be possible for me to do a shift with my platoon. He said it was out of the question and might be badly received by everyone – warrant officers, NCOs and other ranks. The latter, he said, did not expect – or want – their officers to live as they did. Clive was, I am sure, right – at least for that time and place. There was probably less egalitarianism in the [Guards] Brigade than anywhere else in the army.134
Soon afterwards, sent forward with a platoon to repair a communication trench in filthy weather, Blacker found just how difficult it was to get the balance right.
Stooping, with heads bent forward, fronting the rain with our tin hats, we battled our way up in pitch darkness … we found that much of the trench was crumbling into a morass. In the worst places the simplest locomotion – placing one foot into the mud in front of the other and then lugging out the rear foot – was a task which, laboriously and slowly repeated, somewhat reminded me of Sisyphus. The filling of a sandbag could take up to ten minutes. The glutinous clay stuck to your shovel so that you had to push it into the sandbag with your hands. After about an hour some men gave up trying to use a shovel at all. Better to pick the stuff up with your hands. It was not long before my heavy rubber (Cording) waterproof had let the water through in a big way, before my glasses were opaque with rain and mud, before my handkerchief was soaking with the effort to keep my glasses clean. By this time the men’s overcoats were soaked through. As the unrelenting weather continued, the work slowed down and eventually reached a standstill. I struggled up and down trying to help small knots of men with my Orilux torch. But after about an hour and a half the electric light began to give out; the men would stop working when I had passed them with my torch. Good men who ordinarily worked well sat disconsolately, shivering and coughing in the worsening conditions. I then compellingly realised how awkward the officer’s task could be. I was expected to keep them at it. But you were expecting them to do more than you could do yourself … After a to-and-fro argument with myself, I finally decided that it would be moral cowardice to keep them sitting about for another hour and a half in these conditions.
He spoke to the platoon sergeant, who agreed that the task was impossible, and then marched the men home. Before dismissing them he told the men that they were not to blame, and that the responsibility was his. Although his company commander was ‘not entirely pleased’, he agreed that Blacker had done the right thing.135 However, it was clear that an officer was responsible for his party’s duties even if he was not actually digging or carrying himself and that he needed good reason for curtailing a task. In September 1916, the Hon. Bingo Pakenham, a senior company commander in Coldstream, was sent home by his commanding officer after failing to ensure that his carrying party took wire and pickets over Ginchy Ridge as ordered, but instead dropped it at an improvised dump on the home side of the ridge.
What was often a moral debate for officers was sheer drudgery for NCOs and men, an inseparable feature of an infantryman’s life at the front. The diaries of Ernest Shephard, whose duties as company sergeant major including detailing specified numbers of NCOs and men to meet his company’s share of the battalion’s tasks, are speckled with comments on working parties.
Busy all night. The RE came up for about two hours and after doing very little returned, and we carried on the sapping, repairing parapets blown in during the day, etc, until dawn …
In the evening we supplied a digging party of 100 men for the Norfolks …
I find parties to carry food to the two Coys, C and D, in the trenches. What with this and various other jobs our men are fully occupied. We also have to find parties for mining. This again is a great muddle and causes a lot of grumbling, not only here but when we were at Ypres. The infantry soldier’s actual pay is l/– daily. Engineers get 3/–daily, and extra pay for a special jobs such as mining.136
Although Shephard exaggerated the pay differential (sappers started on a basic 1/2d a day to the infantry private’s 1/–137), he was right to observe that the extra pay enjoyed by engineers was the source of resentment to the infantry, who responded with doggerel in which the regiment’s title was almost infinitely variable:
God made the bees
The bees make honey
The Dorsets do the work
But the REs get the money.
There was sound logic for the differential pay as engineers were meant to be skilled artisans, but the spate of volunteering meant that there were many infantry soldiers with better qualifications than regular engineer NCOs and, conversely, many wartime volunteers who had joined the Royal Engineers without special qualifications but found themselves far better paid than their comrades in the infantry. In August 1914 W. H. L. Watson was an Oxford undergraduate. He replied to an advertisement in The Times for motorcycle dispatch riders and was immediately appointed a corporal in the Royal Engineers on 2/6d a day, as much as an experienced infantry sergeant. When men were recruited for the new tunnelling companies in 1915 some men, experienced ‘clay kickers’, were offered 6/– a day more than a regimental sergeant major in the infantry. There was bemusement, friction and confusion over these high pay scales from the outset and, as Alexander Barrie observed, the:
pay muddle … disrupted the tunnelling companies throughout most of their time. Trained clay kickers were supposed to be rewarded with the six-shilling rate, while the others, classified as mates, took two-and-twopence. In practice much confusion and discontent were caused by what were often arbitrary classifications.138
Albert Bullock enlisted in the Royal Engineers Railway Operating Division in July 1916 and received 2/2d a day, which he retained even when transferred to the infantry and was posted to 8/Royal Warwickshires.139
Not all men’s work was done behind the front line. Groups sent out to repair the wire needed covering parties, lying in No Man’s Land on the German side of the wire. Small patrols, perhaps an officer and one or two men, crept out after dark to check the position of enemy wire or trenches. Robert Graves believed in going on patrol often because the men respected personal courage and, if one had to get wounded, it was best to be hit by unaimed rifle fi
Had all volunteers been accepted each raid would have been a major offensive. Married men with families, then those who had recently been within bayonet reach of the Boche, were automatically ruled out. Company and platoon commanders sorted out the rest. The mission determined the number. Usually it was five and a junior officer: a man to cut the wire and guide his comrades back, a bayonet, a grenade thrower, another bayonet and the last man with more Mills bombs. Often they got no further than the wire. Sometimes only one or two returned. But more often than not the wily enemy was taken by surprise, and the party was back with a prisoner dead or alive or without an epaulette or two before a merciless fire was let loose from every enemy parapet …140
This was by no means a universal view. Private Bernard Adams thought that:
This trench raiding is a strange business. I think the infantry hate it. The major does not believe that even if they succeed in identifying the unit opposite it makes any difference to our plans. There are easier and better ways of spotting a coming offensive. Probably someone high-up and rather out of touch thinks that trench raids will keep the infantry on their toes and ‘cultivate the aggressive spirit’. Out in front, they just don’t believe that the results justify their casualties yet they must obey orders – PBI!141
Frequently artillery and mortars were used to cut the wire and drop a curtain of fire around the position being attacked. Bernard Livermore wrote that on Vimy Ridge in 1916:
Our lads, with blackened faces and hands, waited in the fire bays whilst an intensive barrage of shells and mortar bombs breached a gap in our wire and also in the Boche entanglements. The fusillade ceased at the ordained minute. Over the parapet they clambered and disappeared into the dark.
Tensely, anxiously, we awaited their return to give covering fire if the enemy retaliated with a counterattack and chased our boys through gaps in the wire. It was a difficult business when we spotted men, some crawling, some running towards our posts. Not until they were close enough to give the password were we able to decide that they were our raiders and not the Jerries. We had to hold our fire to prevent mowing down our pals.142
Stuart Dolden watched a company-sized raid going out on the Somme in July 1916.
A line of figures left the trench; each man had his hands, face and knees [they were wearing shorts] blackened, and the brightness of all bayonets had been dimmed. Suddenly the line disappeared behind our barbed wire. Very soon the excitement began, for our fellows were spotted when there were about seventy yards from the German trench, and the machine gun opened up on them … Mr Warlock of A Company sent up a red rocket as a signal to our own artillery to open fire, as it was impossible for our chaps to get through the enemy wire. Our guns got going soon after, and so did the Germans’ unfortunately for us …
The raiding party at last received orders to retire. They sustained only two casualties which considering the heavy fire was truly remarkable.143
Much could go wrong. Lieutenant F. P. Roe described how one raid failed because the long grass growing in No Man’s Land had ripened and turned white, presenting the Germans with ‘a perfect background for discernible silhouettes of the raiding party’.144 Sometimes the raiders made noise on their way across No Man’s Land, prompting an alert German sentry to rouse his comrades. And sometimes the plan, conceived at brigade headquarters, did not reflect the realities on the ground or current enemy practice: James Dunn wrote of how ‘the plan of attack imposed on us ignored or belittled the shell-hole screen the Germans placed at night on the edge of dead ground’.145 Even if they got into the German trench unopposed, there was no guarantee that a prisoner would be taken in the ghastly mêleé that often resulted. In early 1915 Gerald Burgoyne regretted that his neighbouring battalion had rushed the trench opposite, bayoneted twenty Germans and clubbed an officer to death. ‘A pretty piece of work,’ he reflected, ‘as they had only one casualty. There must have been some reason why they killed them all instead of taking them prisoner.’146 Part of the reason could have been the fact that raiders often eschewed rifle and bayonet for a variety of savage coshes, bludgeons and knives, and therefore it was all too easy to do lethal damage to a struggling opponent.
Lastly, getting back into British lines could be as dangerous as leaving them. Although flanking battalions would have been notified of the raid, disorientated raiders, coming back across No Man’s Land, might not be as carefully received by another battalion as by their own. Roe admitted that ‘it was not unknown for men of a patrol on returning from a raid one by one instead of together to be killed by our sentries’.147 Siegfried Sassoon, an intrepid raider who won his MC for a desperate effort to rescue a wounded lance corporal from a shell hole on an abortive raid in 1916, was wounded in the head in 1918 by a highly-regarded sergeant who thought that his returning patrol was an incoming German raid.
Food figured largely in men’s minds. Of course there was a need to ingest sufficient Calories to sustain a body engaged in manual labour, which British government dietitians reckoned required 3,574 a day. Front-line troops were expected to receive 4,193 Calories a day (the Americans enjoyed a generous 4,714 and the Germans a meagre 4,038) and those in rear areas rather less. But the preparation and consumption of food also gave a texture to long days and busy nights, provided those little mental inducements which enabled men to blunt the discomforts of the moment by looking forward to something as mundane as bully beef and biscuit, and gave a focus for the little communities, gathered round tommy cooker or wood fire. Troops in trenches might either be issued exclusively with cold rations, tinned or fresh, which they would have to cook themselves, or be partially fed by hot foot prepared behind the lines in horse-drawn wheeled cookers, one per company, fitted with dixies, large metal cooking pots heated by a fire below. Although dixies were often used to deliver food over short distances, hay boxes, oblong double-skinned containers like huge oblong thermos flasks which preserved the heat, were always preferred.
Neither method, however, admitted of much culinary subtlety, and even centrally-cooked meals, popular because they had more variety and involved less front-line labour, generally consisted of stew, with pea soup and porridge as occasional alternatives. Stuart Dolden of the London Scottish was a former public school boy and had been a solicitor before the war, but found himself manning a cooker in 1916. He describes how central cooking worked in his battalion.
When the Company were in the trenches, the cooker remained at the transport lines, and two cooks stayed with it and daily cooked meat, bacon and vegetables, which were sent up to the trenches nightly with the rations. The other two cooks went up with the Company and made tea for the troops during the Company’s spell in the line and also served the rations. Then, on the next occasion, we used to reverse the role and the two cooks who had been in the line previously stayed with the cooker and the other two went up.148
When his battalion moved up into the line at Hébuterne on the Somme:
The cookers followed later and on the way up stopped at Bayencourt to pick up the Company’s rations at the transport line. After dark, we arrived at Hébuterne, a village just behind the front-line trenches. Part of the Battalion was in the trenches just in front of the village, while the remainder was in reserve in the village itself. We cooked meals and fatigue parties carried the dixies up to the platoons in the front line.149
But there was no happy ending, for: ‘When the meat arrived next day its presence was so very obvious that we had suspicions as to its goodness. We accordingly got the MO [medical officer] to have a look at it. He immediately condemned part of it, and the remainder we had to wash in permanganate of potash.’150 And although the cookers ran smoothly on roads, they were difficult to move across broken country. When the division came out of the line:
A wearying march followed, for the whole Division tramped across tracks temporarily laid across ploughed fields. At one spot the cooker became permanently embedded in the mud. The whole transport had to charge over a steep incline, and our cooker horses failed to rise to the occasion. At last, with a great struggle and an extra horse, we got over the hillock and we were on our way again.
After tramping through thick mud for solid hours, we at last arrived at our destination – a camp situated in a howling wilderness about one and a half miles north of Bray. The cookers were drawn up in a line in front of the camp … Water was again the trouble, and we had to wait for water tanks to be brought up on motor lorries … In the evening we had to make up tea and sugar rations in sandbags and these were taken up to the battalion by the ration limbers.151
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