Soldiers in the First World War did not spend the whole of the time in the trenches. The British Army worked on a 16 day timetable. Each soldier usually spent eight days in the front line and four days in the reserve trench. Another four days were spent in a rest camp that was built a few miles away from the fighting. However, when the army was short of men, soldiers had to spend far longer periods at the front. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be in the front line trenches for over thirty days at a time. On one occasion, the 13th Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment spent fifty-one consecutive days in the line.
Being in the front-line was extremely dangerous. Almost every day some enemy shells would fall on the trenches. One study suggested that one-third of all casualties on the Western Front were killed or wounded while in the trenches.
Soldiers in the front line would also be hit by their own artillery. Despite the use of a high parados in the front-line trenches, it has been estimated that about 75,000 British soldiers in the war were killed by British shells that had been intended for the Germans.
Dunn showed me around the line. The battalion frontage was about eight hundred yards. Each company held some two hundred of these, with two platoons in the front line, and two in the support line about a hundred yards back. He introduced me to the platoon sergeants, more particularly to Sergeant Eastmond and told him to give me any information I wanted; then went back to sleep, asking to be woken at once if anything went wrong. I found myself in charge of the line. Sergeant Eastmond being busy with a working-party.
I went round by myself. The men of the working-party, whose job was to replace the traverses, or safety-buttresses, of the trench, looked curiously at me. They were filling sandbags with earth, piling them up bricklayer fashion, the headers and stretchers alternating, then patting them flat with spades. The sentries stood on the fire-step at the comers of the traverses, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Every now and then they peered over the top for a few seconds. Two parties, each of an N.C.O. and two men, were out in the company listening-posts, connected with the front trench by a sap about fifty yards long. The German front line stretched some three hundred yards beyond. From berths hollowed in the sides of the trench and curtained with sandbags came the grunt of sleeping me.
I jumped up on the fire-step beside the sentry and cautiously raised my head, staring over the parapet. I could see nothing except the wooden pickets supporting our protecting barbed-wire entanglements, and a dark patch or two of bushes beyond. The darkness seemed to move and shake about as I looked at it; the bushes started travelling, singly at first, then both together. The pickets did the same. I was glad of the sentry beside me; he gave his name as Beaumont. 'They're quiet tonight, sir,' he said.
I said: It's funny how those bushes seem to move.'
'Aye, they do play queer tricks. Is this your first spell in trenches?"
A German flare shot up, broke into bright flame, dropped slowly and went hissing into the grass just behind our trench, showing up the bushes and pickets. Instinctively I moved.
'It's bad to do that, sir,' he said, as a rifle-bullet cracked and seemed to pass right between us. 'Keep still, sir, and they can't spot you. Not but what a flare is a bad thing to fall on you. I've seen them burn a hole in a man.'
I wonder if I can give you an idea of what the life is like. We have our turns on duty and off duty. If I am off in the middle of the night my day begins with 'Stand To' at dawn. I wake up, and listen for a minute to the sentries talking and mice scuttling. Everything is grey and damp in the autumn mist. A few stray shots, but little more. I tramp down each narrow lane between the high banks of sandbags and past my men in a little row of three or four in each bay, standing with bayonets fixed and generally yawning. The order 'Stand Down' comes, the day sentry sits down and looks up into his periscope, and the others stretch themselves, and move off to get rations, to light fires, to clean rifles.
The day really began at stand-to. Past experience had shown that the danger period for attack was at dawn and dusk, when the attacker, having the initiative, could see sufficiently to move forward and cover a good distance before being spotted. About half an hour or so before dawn and dusk the order, 'Stand to," was given and silently passed throughout the length of the battalion front. In this way, the whole Allied front line system became alerted. When daylight came the order, 'Stand down', passed along the line. Tension slackened, but sentries still kept watch by periscope or by a small mirror clipped to the top of a bayonet.
Breakfast over, there was not long to wait before an officer appeared with details of the duties and fatigues to be performed. Weapon cleaning and inspection, always a prime task, would soon be followed by pick and shovel work. Trench maintenance was constant, a job without end. Owing to the weather or enemy action, trenches required repairing, deepening, widening and strengthening, while new support trenches always seemed to be wanted. The carrying of rations and supplies from the rear went on interminably.
Getting along the trench is not as easy as you think. For one thing it is not straight for more than four yards (it is 'traversed' to prevent enfilade and shell fire having much effect. Then there are all sorts of odd off-turns, to officers' dugouts, or other lines of trenches. In these mazes where we have fought each other so often and each side has held the ground in turn, you can never be quite sure whether a trench won't lead you straight to the German lines.
We have been digging trenches since we have been here; it is very hard work, as the soil is extremely heavy, the heaviest clay I have ever dug and I've as much experience in digging as most navvies. You may gather the speed we work when a man has to do a 'task' - 6 ft long, 4 ft broad and 2 ft 6 ins deep in an afternoon. Yesterday afternoon I had got right down to the bottom of the trench, and consequently every blooming shovelful of clay I got I had to throw a height of 12 ft to get it out of the back and over the parapet.
At six hundred feet we were free of most earthly noises, and again I looked down. For the first time I saw the front line as it really was, mile upon mile of it. Now running straight, now turning this way or that in an apparently haphazard and unnecessary curve, now straight again, it stretched roughly north and south till it vanished in both directions. The landscape was alive with the puffs of bursting shells and the green flashes of batteries in action, and the brief glow of some newly-created fire.
The last two days have been ghastly. The Germans broke through the line. We have lost ten officers in the last two days and yesterday the battalion was less than 200 men, though I expect some stragglers will turn up. All the officers in my company were lost except myself. We have had no rest at all. Everyone is very shaken. I do hope we are put in reserve to reform for a few days.
Perhaps you would like to know something of the spirit of the men out here now. Well, the truth is (I'd be shot if anyone of importance collared this missive) every man Jack is fed up almost past bearing, and not a single one has an ounce of what we call patriotism left in him. No one cares a rap whether Germany has Alsace, Belgium or France too for that matter. All that every man desires now is to get done with it and go home. Now that's the honest truth, and any man who has been out here within the last few months will tell you the same. In fact, and this is no exaggeration, the greatest hope of a great majority of the men is that rioting and revolt at home will force the government to pack in on any terms.
Soldiers would serve a divisional tour of sixteen days' duty in the line. For four days the men would be in reserve under enemy fire, but not in trenches; probably in the cellars of ruined houses. But these were not times of rest. Each day or night every man would make one or more journeys back to the trenches that they had left carrying some load of food, water, or munitions up to the three companies in trenches, or perhaps leading a pack-mule over land to some point near the front line, under cover of night. Even to lead an laden mule in the dark over waste ground confusingly wired and trenched is work; to get him back on to his feet when fallen and wriggling, in wild consternation, among a tangle of old barbed wire may be quite hard work.
After four days of their labours as sumpter mules, or muleteers, the company would plod back for another four days of duty in trenches, come out yet more universally tired at their end, and drift back to rest-billets, out of ordinary shell-fire, for their sixteen days or so of 'divisional rest'.
I was at the front for thirteen months, and by the end of that time the sharpest perceptions had become dulled, the greatest words mean. The war had become an everyday affair; life in the line a matter of routine; instead of heroes there were only victims; conscripts instead of volunteers, life had become hell, death a bagatelle; we were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why. We had lost our enthusiasm, our courage, the very sense of our identity; there was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation; pain itself had lost its meaning; the earth was a barren waste.
I applied for a transfer to the Air Force, not from any heroic motive, or for the love of adventure, but simply to get away from the mass, from mass-living and mass-dying.
But before my transfer came through I fell ill. Heart and stomach both broke down, and I was sent back to hospital in Strassburg. In a quiet Franciscan monastery kind and silent monks looked after me. After many weeks I was discharged. Unfit for further service.
The communication trench was just wide enough to accommodate a man with a full-pack, and about seven feet deep, so that one's vision was limited to a patch of darkening sky and the shoulders of the man in front. Its floor was covered with a foot of tensely glutinous mud. We drove slowly through the morass, wrenching out each foot before putting it down again.
Darkness fell. After what seemed half a night, the guide stopped and said: "There's a road here. See and hurry over it. There's a machine gun on it. See? One at a time."
We tore ourselves singly from the mud and bundled on to the road, diving towards a dark opening in the other bank. The machine gun threw a few desultory shots past us. The bullets cracked sharply overhead. We tumbled into another trench and went on. This one was narrow, too, but shallower and duck-boarded. We moved more quickly. We could see lights raising and falling in front of us, and the noises interpreted themselves as rifles and machine guns firing.
Suddenly someone said: "Hullo," and Smith, my company commander, loomed up. "Is this the front line? I asked. "That's it."
The conditions in the winter in Ypres salient were appalling. The water was too close to the surface to allow of deep trenches being dug, and this difficulty had been overcome to sonic extent by the building of ramparts of sandbags above ground level. The cold was intense but frost at least had the advantage of preventing one sinking as deeply into the mud at the bottom of the trench, as was normally the case. As time went slowly on, conditions improved with the increased production of trench boards and the issue of rubber thigh boots. Short rubber boots were a menace as they were always soaking wet. Amenities began to appear in the form of hot food containers, braziers and leather jerkins but only the young and strong could stand up to the conditions for long. Curiously enough my malaria had entirely left me and in spite of being cold and wet for days and nights on end I never had a day's sickness necessitating my being off duty throughout the rest of the war.
I am sure now that I did not appreciate the physical strain on men older than myself, nor did I allow for, or really sufficiently appreciate, the strain and anxiety of the married men. A sergeant in a confidential moment in a long night watch, once said to me, "It's all very well for you, you are unmarried and haven't a wife and children to worry about, but if I am killed what, I wonder, will happen to my family", My wife is not the managing sort, she has always depended entirely on me, and she has never been strong. Her people are dead and my mother is an invalid herself. After this I always tried surreptitiously to avoid sending married men on the more dangerous duties, but a high proportion of men, and nearly all the NCOs, were married.
Domestic anxiety was particularly acute amongst a considerable section of men who did not or could not trust their wives. As is well known now to everyone, but was not so well known to me then, relations or friends always get some obscure kick out of warning absent husbands that their wives are "carrying on". This type of thing was not by any means confined to the ranks. I had the greatest admiration for a certain RAMC colonel. Few of his rank visited companies in the front line, but he came round frequently, talked to the men, and really knew the conditions under which they lived. He was the commander of the Field Ambulance which normally dealt with our casualties and his visits were very much appreciated. I had been told that he had an appalling temper and treated his own officers very harshly, but he could not have been more charming to me. One day we read in the papers that he had been arrested for murder. When on leave he had shot his wife's lover whom he had found "in flagrante delicto". There was much talk in the company of a petition to be sent home from them on his behalf, but nothing came of this as, in fact, he was found to be mad and sent to Broadmoor. Later a lance corporal in my company, whom I knew from the censoring of his letters home had an unfaithful wife, was due for home leave. I had a talk with him, but the only result was that he refused to go home at all. The days of organised welfare had not yet begun.
Records that I still have show that we went out to France with twenty-eight officers and that in ten months twenty-six new officers had been posted to us. Many of the newly joined officers became casualties. The colonel, adjutant and second in command remained and about one officer per company. Not all the officers who had gone had been wounded or killed, many had gone sick, others were just too old or too nervous to stand up to the strain of the trenches. At 24 I found myself well up to, if not above, the average age of the officers.
As we got nearer the battle and the guns became louder my horse grew rather nervous and began shying at each shell-hole and I was terrified of falling off. At last we got off and left them with two grooms. We then had a few hundred yards to walk to the Battalion Headquarters. There we descended into the bowels or into one bowel of the earth, an incredibly deep dug-out with rather uneven steps down into it, which I thought most unsafe. At the bottom we found Harry Lascelles, who is Second in Command of this Battalion. He was looking extraordinarily elegant, and beautifully clean. I felt ashamed to be covered with perspiration, very untidy and wearing camouflage - i.e. a private's uniform. There was another elegant young man with him called Fitzgerald and the table was strewn with papers and periodicals like Country Life and the Burlington Magazine, which one associates with the comfortable houses of the rich.
I was led by a guide to my own Company, twenty minutes' walk over green fields, while the sun was beginning to set most beautifully. At last we arrived at a dugout, an ordinary shallow one, and here I met my captain face to face - nobody more surprised than my captain, as he had expected someone else of the same name. It was then 8.15. He called for dinner for two, which was immediately produced. Quite good soup, hot fish tasting like sardines but larger - no one knew what they were - old beef, pickles and peas, prunes and custard - plenty of whisky and port. It was still light when we finished and I was sent on to the very front line of all, in order that the officer there might come back and dine. The front proved extraordinarily unalarming - and it was rather thrilling to think that there was nothing between oneself and the German Army.
Things are quiet, a little shelling now and again, but not much. We lie very low when it is on, right under the bank or in a dugout. All the men have little fires in this and keep decently warm whilst they sleep, which they do in amazing positions. 'Make way' is the commonest remark as we go along the lines, with elbows rubbing the sides. It is impossible to keep really warm, one is either hot and fuggy or else dankly cold. It is not a very active kind of cold but is quite unpleasant. I have taken a photo or two which I hope to send home by someone going on leave.
You see in front of you a greyish clay bank to about two feet above your head, to your right and left about six men before a traverse stops your view. We have, I think, established a certain kind of ascendancy over the enemy lately and any half hearted attempts he has made at attack have been repulsed without difficulty. At night the parapets are improved and men show themselves freely.
The night I was in, we completed a line of trenches gaining connection with the French (we are the extreme right of the British position) digging quite openly above ground without casualties except one engineer hit in the thigh. This, mark you, within 150 yards of the enemy on only a darkish night.
The Royal Engineers are wonderful, they put up wire about 11.30 when the moon was quite bright, bang in front of a new sap trench, without loss. Amazing. The enemy though are chary of showing themselves and if they start fire they get a hottish reply. We buried a few of their dead who had been out for about three weeks, and who lay in the line of this new trench. There are 120 more about the place but we can't get to them.
This digging is ticklish work but losses are very small generally at it. However, it's all done now in the position from which advance is considered impossible, in face of a place known as the triangle on the railway held by the Germans which is impregnable. It will have to be turned elsewhere if it is ever to fall.
I am no more in love with war and soldiering, however, than I was when I left Melbourne, and if any of you lucky fellows - forgive me, but you are lucky - find yourselves longing to change your humdrum existence for the heroics of battle, you will find plenty of us willing to swop jobs. How we do think of home and laugh at the pettiness of our little-daily annoyances! We could not sleep, we remember, because of the creaking of the pantry door, or the noise of the tramcars, or the kids playing around and making a row. Well, we can't sleep now because - six shells are bursting around here every minute, and you can't get much sleep between them; Guns are belching out shells, with a most thunderous clap each time; The ground is shaking with each little explosion; I am wet, and the ground on which I rest is wet; My feet are cold: in fact, I'm all cold, with my two skimp blankets; I am covered with cold, clotted sweat, and sometimes my person is foul; I am hungry; I am annoyed because of the absurdity of war; I see no chance of anything better for tomorrow, or the day after, or the year after.
One could go on and on. This, mind, is not weeping; it is just mentioning how absurd our old complaints seem to be now. And don't think I always sleep on the wet ground. I sometimes get a dry bit. And I had a hot bath yesterday, and am clean, for the time. By the way while I was having my bath, another officer of His Majesty's gallant forces was blown to pieces a little way in front. He had just come out of the trenches and was going to have his bath. I went into a hut just afterwards and had a couple of rubbers at bridge. One forces oneself to be callous.
For a while I am attached to an entrenching battalion, consisting of fighting men temporarily engaged on engineering enterprises along the front. From what I can see, the infantry spend five out of every six hours at the front in various labour of this sort - building up, repairing and pulling down here, there and everywhere, and carrying, carrying, carrying sandbags, timber and earth from morn till eve, and then till morn again.
And all the time a very remorseless enemy plugs us whenever he can see us and thinks it worth while. Almost always we are hidden from his guns, but they have countless eyes aloft and all our anti-aircraft guns and our own aeroplanes cannot keep them always closed. So gunners, way back behind the German lines, who have never seen us and our works, peer over maps all covered with little squares, and then turn handles, squirt out wonderful little instruments giving levels and directions, and then, pipe in mouth, just press a button or pull a string, and away comes a little token across the sky to us. We hear it coming with a great nasal screech, and if it gets louder and louder we just flop down in the mud, wherever we are, and pray or swear, according to our individual temperaments. Mostly, however, they don't trouble about small working parties, preferring to devote themselves to observation posts, high buildings, main roads and gun emplacements.
I was sitting in my company headquarters, a corrugated-iron topped shelter cut into the sandbagged parapet, when heavy shelling was concentrated on the remains of a derelict building incorporated in our company sector. One of my platoon commanders, a lad of about 19, was with me. Odd shells were bursting in our vicinity, and the platoon commander, obviously hoping I would advise against it, said, "I suppose I ought to go to my platoon."
This was the first time of many that I had to face the unpleasant responsibility of telling a subordinate to expose himself to a very obvious odds-on chance of being killed. I told him he ought to join his platoon. He had no sooner gone than I heard that haunting long drawn-out cry "stretcher-bearers", to which the men in the trenches were so addicted.
I followed him out, glad of the spur to action. It is so easy to find sound reasons for keeping undercover in unpleasant circumstances. Three company stretcher-bearers were hurrying down the trench. Stretcher-bearers were wonderful people. Ours had been the bandsmen of earlier training days. They were always called to the most dangerous places, where casualties had already taken place, yet there were always men ready to volunteer for the job, at any rate in the early days of the war. The men were not bloodthirsty. Stretcher-bearers were unarmed and though they were not required to do manual labour or sentry-go, this I am sure was not the over-riding reason for their readiness to volunteer.
I had not yet learned that a few casualties always seemed to magnify themselves to at least three times the number they really are and I was filled with horror when I reached the derelict house. A shelter had received a direct hit. I found the subaltern unhurt and frantically engaged in trying to dig out the occupants. The shells were bursting all round the area as I approached, and men cowering undercover were shouting at me to join them. Dust from the shattered brickwork and torn sandbags was flying and this, and the unpleasant evil-smelling fumes from the shells made it difficult to realise what was going on. A man close by me was hit and I began to tend him as a stretcher bearer came to help me. More shells burst almost on top of us. I noticed how white the men were, and I wondered if I was as white as they were.
Their evident fear strengthened my own nerves. We had been lectured on trench warfare, and it suddenly and forcibly struck me that this bombardment might well be a preliminary to a trench raid. At any moment the shelling might lift and almost simultaneously we might find enemy infantry on top of us. I shouted for the subaltern.
"Were any sentries on the lookout" I demanded. I stormed at the men and drove the sentries back on to the parapet. The reserve ammunition had been hit and I cursed the subaltern for not having done anything about replenishment. After this outburst. and in a calmer state of mind, I went from post to post warning the men to be on the lookout. Gradually the shellfire slackened and finally ceased.
That night I found myself physically and mentally exhausted. I determined at least not to try and overcome tears with whisky. I wondered too whether the soldiers, when they had recovered, would regard me as having been "windy". The word was much used by those who had been at the front some time and, like all soldiers' slang, it caught on very quickly with the newcomers.
Once damned with "windiness", an officer lost much of the respect of the men and with it his power of control. Had I in fact been unnecessarily windy? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had, though I found out later that my behaviour had not given that impression. It is comparatively easy for an officer to control himself because he has more to occupy his mind than the men. I resolved in future to think more and talk (or shout) less in an emergency.
I did not envy the companies the regular trench duty on which they were soon to embark; Transport felt well out of all that. I had by now a fairly clear idea of the respective duties and dangers of an ordinary regimental officer vis-a-vis an out-of-trench specialist such as the Transport Officer. As to danger there was little to choose. At the time of the regular evening "hates" the Transport Officer was pretty sure to be around in spots most likely to engage the enemy's attention by gun and hand gun, his colleagues being "safe in the trenches". Ration dumps were usually unhealthy; traffic to and fro the trenches always liable to unpleasant interferences. But he did not have the ghastly boredom and discomfort of trench life; the incessant danger of snipers, trench mortars and direct hits by high explosive with none of the interests of behind-the-line life. The Transport Officer could make himself tolerably comfortable in a billet, hot baths, proper meals, and a bed to sleep in; could mount his horse and ride round the countryside from one place of business to another; had wagons and carts to dispatch for this duty and that; had interesting work to do, room to move about, new people to meet; a job, and a very good one. When I left Transport for trench work I was, in official parlance, "returned to duty" forsooth. And if there were little doubt, in the days of entrenched stalemate, which were the better occupation there was none in aggressive war or in movement of any kind. The Transport Officer and his section might be shelled to extinction but they would not be required to thread their way through barbed wire entanglements in the sweep of machine-gun fire.
We were soon to become accustomed, some of us anyhow, to shelling. When one hears the vicious snap of a bullet the danger is past. The whine of a shell, pitch and volume according to nature and size, heralds its coming. Coming where? "Most thrilling to hear the shells whistling through the air and to wonder how near they're going to land. Much experience of them now" - so I wrote in a letter home; and it was genuine. On the 27th it seemed that enemy gunners were searching for our Transport park, so I took the section out for route march. Nearing home again we were warned by a gunner officer to go by a detour as the enemy was sighting on a field on our route. The Boche, he said, thought there was a battery behind the hedge. "Is it shrapnel or high explosive?" I asked. Shrapnel mostly, was the reply. This certainly was inconvenient in open country as the bullets cover so wide an area when the shell bursts overhead; but a detour would have taken at least half an hour and it was getting near lunch time. While we were talking we heard a shell coming. It was high explosive and struck the field a hundred yards away. It was worth risking; it would be good experience for the section. Each cart and wagon went by singly at the gallop-a funny sight. The Doctor's cart came last-a tiny affair drawn on this occasion by a large horse and driven by a large man. His seat had collapsed and he was sprawled on the floor one hand on the reins the other clutching his glengarry.