Army officers believed that the most likely time for an enemy attack was early in the morning. Therefore an hour before dawn every morning, each company was given the stand-to order. All the men in the front-line would stand on the fire-step with rifles and fixed bayonets. After an hour, when the light was considered too good for an enemy offensive, the sergeant gave the stand-down order and only the sentries remained on the alert. An hour before dark a second stand-to was ordered. When the light had completely gone, the stand-down order was given.
Although the Germans were aware of these routine, a large number of attacks took place during a stand-to period. This was especially true when German intelligence officers discovered that this section of the front-line trench was being held by inexperienced troops.
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.
At dawn we 'stand to arms', every one turning out. When it is light, all rifles are cleaned and inspected, and the men have a tot of rum. Then breakfast, after which I let them turn in to sleep till dinner, with the exception of the day sentries, just a few men watching the the enemy's line through periscopes. After dinner the men turn out for work in repairing periscopes, etc., and put in about three hours of that.
We 'stand to' again at dusk. After dark, we have to get over the parapet to do any repairs that may be required to the wire entanglements, or repairs to the front of the parapet. In the salient here there is a good deal of work to be done, and there are several places where the trenches are old and broken, from whence we can peep at the enemy; we filled and put in position nearly 4000 sandbags while we were in the trenches.
Next day, April 13th, came my first spell of trench duty. A and B companies were still doing an in-and-out routine with C and D, three or four days in, the same number out. As Kennedy was in charge of the half Battalion in trenches, I, though not to be promoted captain, was OC company. In letters home, in whatever fulminations I had indulged against the CO and Adjutant, whatever sorrow expressed at leaving Transport and distaste for ordinary infantry work, I had made it clear that I had no qualms, on the score of danger, about trench life. Of course at 6 ft 6 in I was inconveniently tall; parapets would be too low and I should probably be caught. But I did not greatly care though I wanted a run for the money, and in my Diary I wrote that I was "looking forward tremendously to going into trenches"; there at any rate we should see very little of CO or Adjutant.
At 9.00 pin Kennedy and the OC of B company and I set off ahead of the men to take over from our colleagues of the other half Battalion. The OC of C company took me along his front which now passed to my company, along the wire outside, telling me what he had been doing and what needed to be done. As I knew next to nothing about hours of watch and stand-to and suchlike Begg made out a list of duties. Officers did two hours each and then as many as possible off before their turn came again; during stand-to all officers were on duty. Morning stand-to was ordered as soon as day began to break, and the night sentries who had hitherto stood on the firing step with head and shoulders above the parapet now crouched below it, periodically looking over night sentries peeping. Halfway through the morning twilight, night sentries would be relieved by day sentries-about an eighth of the number-day sentries peeping. The rest of the men were standing-to in the trench throughout, this being the time when an attack might be expected. Finally with full day light, stand-down and day sentries. By day the sentries stood in the trench watching for signs of the enemy (when they had nothing better to do) through periscopes. The same sort of routine was carried out in the evening. Day sentries became at stand-to, day sentries peeping; changed to night sentries peeping, and these at stand-down to night sentries.
There was often a difference of opinion between Kennedy and the rest of us as to when stand-to should be given. He never liked taking risks. Most of us were inclined to wait till the last minute and keep the stand-to period as short as possible. It was an infernal nuisance, especially to those who had only come off watch an hour or two earlier.
I was up all this first night learning the ropes. Kennedy told me to sleep in the HQ hut and this suited me as it was more commodious then A company officers' one. It was about six foot square by five foot high but under the parapet was a bunk seven foot long. The B company OC fed in this dug-out but slept elsewhere. The parapet was indeed far too low for me ; the other A company subalterns obviously expected me to be jumpy, and they were solicitous and kindly. Before the night was out I think that they and most of the men had realised that the ex-Transport Officer was not afraid of his new job. I was lucky in having no nerves to speak of - not that sort anyhow.