About this time I got trench fever and was pretty miserable.
All one got was medicine and duty.
It was some hell stumbling around in the cold and wet and in a fever all the time.
I went out on a lot of reconnoitring patrols at this time and also listening patrols, and in bombing posts out in the ends of the Saps.
Our duties were to steal around no man’s land, work along the enemy’s wire to see if there were any gaps out in it, to see and report anything you heard or saw. Listening patrol – you’d go out to the end of the Sap – a straight trench dug towards the enemy line, sometimes as far as two hundred yards into no man’s land.
Then we’d extend to the right and left so many paces between each man till you’d joined up with the chaps from the other Saps.
Lie down and watch and listen lest the enemy would try to make a night attack on our lines. The bombing patrol would go out between the lines looking for trouble.
If you met a German patrol there would be a fight.
If not, we’d go over near the German lines and chuck in a few bombs where they’d do the most good. ‘Twas a dangerous job, because as soon as the first bomb went, both sides opened up on no man’s land and it was a mass of shell bursts as well as machine gun fire and rifle fire.
All one could do was to get down in a deep shell hole and wait till the fire died down before you’d try to get back to our own lines again. The star shells from both sides would make no man’s land as bright as day.
If they burst near you, the only chance you had was to stay in the position you were in; if you moved at all you had it.
A guy could think of a lot nicer places to be when he was on any of these patrols.
Every empty can you kicked sounded like a bell and if you tripped in a bunch of wire, or disturbed a bunch of rats feasting on some poor dead devil, you were so keyed up you’d think the noise could be heard for miles – an awful strain on the nerves. I remember one foggy night on the Somme, going out as guide with an English Captain who wanted to explore about a mile of the German wire. ‘Twas as dark as hell, and we were walking slowly side by side for a while.
Then he decided we should crawl (lovely) especially if you put your hand on a rusty can or a piece of barbed wire, or worse still on a corpse or part of one – then you’d smell your hand for a week afterwards.
Anyway, when we were a little more than half way, he asked me if we were astray and I said “no sir, we still have a long way to go”.
But he was a bit doubtful and wanted to go in a different direction, but I told him we were right.
At last we came to the wire and after feeling along by it for some time, he said “this is our wire, let’s stand up and hail them”. “Wait sir, there’s a light ahead – let’s crawl there”.
Sure enough, here were three or four Germans talking away – he sure got a fright.
We stole away after a little time and got back through the mud and fog to our own lines. The trenches at that time were very wet and muddy – nearly always a foot or so of water and wet mud in them.
The duck boards would float up pretty often when it came to rain. ‘Twas lovely walking through the trenches, especially if the fellow ahead of you stepped on the far end of a duck board and you struck your shin off the other end as it floated up.
Our feet and legs got chilled with the cold water and a lot of fellows got trench feet and were sent back.
The cold of the water kept the blood from circulating in the feet and legs.
We were issued with seal oil to rub our feet and legs to keep them from soaking water.
What a stink – another thing to make us feel more miserable than before, if that were possible. All this time those weeks I was in a kind of haze – I could not remember anything distinctly.
Just do my patrols at night, and sleep and sentry duty in the day.
When in the supports we would be bringing ammunition and rations to the front line, and digging sunken roads etc.
Some days I was not able to go, so I just lay under a sheet of corrugated iron which covered a hole in the side of the trench my buddy Harold Andrews had dug.
He would leave me his water bottle when he went away digging.
When he came back they would both be empty – a half gallon of water.
That is the way it went for a week or so.
I reported sick, but neither the doctor or the Red Cross guys came near me, till one day Harold reported me to Lieutenant Cliff Rendell who quickly got me to a field hospital.
He was killed a short time after – he was a good Officer and man.
I got back to the line in a few days time.
He came along one day when we were off duty in the supports and I was boiling some bacon and cabbage in my steel helmet, and Harold was washing in his. “Live and learn” said Lieutenant Rendell. “Old soldiers, sir” said Harold. After a few days I was back in the line again – back to the usual routine.
I felt a little better.
Our engineers were now mining under the German line and we had to bring up all the clay at night in sandbags.
A heck of a job it was – wet chalk.
We had to bring it along the tunnel and up twenty-two steps to the trench and dump it.
When it dried it was snow white and where we dumped it was called the White City.
We had acres of it, and the Germans must have known where it came from, as there was no way to hide it.
At intervals during the day and night, all work stopped on the tunnel and Engineers went in with sound detectors, to find if the Germans were under us, which they were, in some places.
A very nice thought to know you did not know what minute we were going up. We did a lot of training now, when we went out for a rest.
Going through a gas full chamber with our gas masks on and drilling with them on.
After a half hour of it you’d sell your soul for a breath of fresh air.
These masks were a very crude affair – a bag shaped thing with two glasses to look through and a tube with rubber on the end of it through which you could breathe out OK but not in.
And when you had the thing buttoned under your tunic, the only air you could get was through your clothes, and the chemical cloth of the mask. Word passing gave the officers much trouble and us fellows much amusement.
We were in the open, drilling in extended formation, lying down six paces from one another.
When you’d get the message you’d roll or crawl out to the chap next to you and deliver the message you got.
One I can remember – our Sergeant was on the left of the line and the officer on the right sent this order “open rapid fire at the house on the left and prepare to advance”.
When it came over to our end it was “can you lend me three or four pence I am going to a dance”.
You can easily understand why the advance was a failure! The officer tried to find out where the change was made, but could not pin it down to any one in particular.
That evening we had to listen to a long talk on the seriousness of changing a message.
After that the messages came along pretty good. The weather was bad – rain, wet snow, frost and in the line ‘twould break your heart standing hour after hour in that cold mud and water.
I tried to get on night patrol every night and keep clear of trench duty.
On patrol when you came in you’d get from six to eight hours in the dugout and you could rest and sleep, about thirty feet underground. ‘Twas damp and the pumps were pretty nearly always going up top, pumping the water out and fresh air in.
But ‘twas safe down there; you could hear, or rather feel the continuous roar of the guns overhead and the pounding of bursting shells muffled by the earth. And fellows crawling in over you with their muddy boots did not worry you the least bit.
We were so used to misery and dirt by this time that we were more like animals than humans.
There was two things kept us going: hunger and the will to live in spite of it all.
Rats gave us a lot of trouble down there too.
But they also helped us out in the food line.
We’d eat all our biscuits in our emergency ration kit and bring up a badly-eaten up bag to prove that the rats ate it. “‘twas said that the rats were a lot fonder of Newfie rations than they were of those of the Regulars. “I wonder why?” one officer wanted to know. “We all have the same rations, yet the Newfies have to have theirs renewed every second day.” One lovely Sunday afternoon, we were sitting in our bay in the trench.
Paul Druken was looking out through the periscope.
Leo DeLacey, Harold Mifflin, Harold Andrews, Willis White, Louis Head and I were enjoying the sun and yarning off. ‘Twas about four in the afternoon.
Lieutenant Grant came to pick out some men for listening and reconnoitring patrols for the night.
Abe Myers was coming along with a message for the Lieut.
And the Lieut.
Asked the Serg.
If he was a good man.
DeLacey broke in “I don’t know if he’s a good man but he’s the devil to jump” (he was shell shocked).
He was about ten feet down the dugout in a second.
He had heard the shell coming long before any of us.
Grant went to see where he had gone when the shell burst and a big piece of it hit him.
He just lived long enough to tell Harry Mifflin who to write to.
He took the ring off his finger too and told him where to send that and he said there are a few pounds in my pocketbook – “take it and when you go out drink to my memory”, which we did.
He was a good officer and well liked by the men.
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