ON THE SOMME.
A CHANGE OF FRONT.
5th October, 1917.
You know, of course, of my welcome change of front. To say that I am delighted is to put it mildly. I can hardly realise it yet. Everything here is exactly opposite to what we had in the deadly salient. The country is a series of rolling hills, for we advanced here a little time ago, and the heavies find the edges of the woods abound in targets with unpleasant result to the trees. The ground is chalky, and lends itself admirably to tunnelling. Not that we had much to do in that way, for the obliging Hun knows how to dig himself in, and we now enjoy the fruit of his labours. Our dug - outs are palaces, strong against both the enemy and the weather. Coming from the land of eternal mud, I have never seen anything like them before. Not, indeed, that we need dug - outs here, for peace on earth and good - will to men seem to reign more or less in this new world. Again, an almost unbelievable thing, coming from the land of eternal shells - Group H.Q. is in a chalk pit, the sides of which have been burrowed into by the Hun, and which was made a strong point by him, as a good many of our poor fellows found early this year.
I have had a very busy time these last few days getting round my lines, batteries, and observation posts. Here our batteries do not lie in compact little clusters as they did a little further north, but are spread out with a section here and there. So I cover a good deal of ground in the course of the day and bless the horse and motor cycle. But, indeed, it is glorious to wander about, up hill and down dale, without the terrible shrinking sensation that a bloodthirsty Hun is watching you, as we always felt in the Salient, and that at his earliest convenience a 5.9 will arrive with uncomfortable accuracy. Walking and moving far afield in the open is no longer a trial and a tribulation, but a pleasant and healthful exercise.
We have heard rumours of great successes in my old, unregretted home in the Salient, but only rumours. If they are well founded, winter will be a more cheerful time this year than last in that part of the world. One thing I cannot help but notice - one takes a great deal more interest in a push when one is not one of the little wheels that keep it moving. My own feelings confirm my observation.
Your desire that I should be back with a battery has at last been gratified, as you no doubt have known for some days, and certainly nothing could be duller and less dangerous than my present occupation. I am still on the same front, and, except for having a little less work to do, I might as well be at Group H.Q. I was up at our observation post to - day - the O.P. plays a great part in our lives. What a different walk it was to the last I had in the nightmare north, with not a sound of shell, machine gun, or aeroplane. The observation post itself is in a trench carefully camouflaged. It has a very fine view - a perfect gunner's dream. It is splendid to sit comfortably warm and safe, and look down on every Hun movement for miles back, and to think that the Boche is now experiencing that perfectly beastly feeling of always being spied upon - a feeling I was never without until a month ago.
I had to register two of our guns, and was almost surprised when I heard a shell roar over my head, and was quite frightened at the noise it made. This is a very different world from Ypres. It is one thing to say "Fire No. 1," and hear a dull solitary boom. Then No. 1 comes whining along with a louder and louder screech, and then, as the sound grows less and less, you finally see a cloud of smoke and dust go up in Hunland and you know No. 1 has done its bit. It was quite another thing to give the same order a month ago, and hear a thousand booms and a thousand No. is whir over your head, and sec a thousand No. is blow an acre of Hunland to pieces. I was very proud of my shoot to - day, and got four O.K.'s on one little trench of one hundred yards long and a foot or two broad.
We are busy on our winter quarters at present. As usual here we are
naturally not building, as the soil necessitated in the north, for we
sleep twenty feet under ground, and I think if the war does not become a
little more interesting I shall turn in for the winter, like the mole or
some other hibernating animal.
AN ADVANCE PARTY.
20th October, 1917.
I have never yet described the thousand and one little incidents and adventures which befell me on my journey here, and it will interest you to hear them. The news of our intended move was not altogether fresh - - and neither were our batteries - when the order for an advance party came over the 'phone. It was, however, rather a shock to find myself chosen to conduct it. I had just one hour's notice, but after a little practice that time is sufficient. My orders ran in this sequence : To my batman" Pack all my kit. Leave out my torch. Fill my flask. Put some rations and my shaving gear in my haversack." To my sergeant - major - " Detail me fourteen men and a bombardier. Tell them to load the lorry with corrugated iron and sandbags, four picks and spades, four shovels, a maul, a saw, an axe, and a measuring tape. Detail two men to go to the Batt. Q.M. Sergeant and draw two days' rations for all, and a jar of rum. All kit and equipment to be carried. Report when ready."
We moved out ten minutes before the hour. I was afraid we had started too well. Hardly had we lost sight of our late never - to - be - regretted home when, all against my advice, the driver, who declared he knew the country like the palm of his hand, insisted on taking a most treacherous - looking road. In a few minutes down we went over the axle. For an hour my fifteen sturdy heroes digged and heaved and sweated over that wretched lorry. Finally it came most reluctantly out of its bed of mud, and we got it back on the main road. I had made many heated and unpleasant remarks to the driver in our impassioned Irish way, which I am afraid hurt his feelings but certainly inspired him now to make frantic efforts to beat Father Time. I simply hung on in sheer despair and prayed for, at the most, a broken leg. It was well for all concerned that the road was clear. Then we came to a railway crossing, where a car bearing an army commander's flag signalled loudly for us to give way. But my driver was obdurate. He certainly pulled to the right side, and then proceeded to race the fiery chariot of the army commander for the first passage of the level crossing. We just won by a short head. I fairly groaned when I heard the infuriated hooting and horrid pounding in the rere. A moment or two later a large white car, its front mud - guard badly bent, drew alongside, and a gilded scarlet - tabbed - and - faced G.S.O.T. gave me the benefit of a vocabulary which must have taken years of patient practice to acquire. Most decidedly he astonished me.
For another eight or ten miles all went well. Then it was I who tried a short cut. The road I took was good but narrow, and I had hardly steered my now docile driver a quarter of a mile when a traffic control fellow halted us and made short work of my short cut. I was against the arrow. From the A.P.M. and Army Control point of view to move against the arrow is au unpardonable sin, and I was very much against it. First I tried the high hand, then persuasion of the gentlest, then bribery and corruption, but all was of no avail. I was up against the Incorruptible. " Very sorry, sir ; but you will have to turn back." So back perforce I went, and, I need hardly say, to turn a three - ton lorry in a narrow lane is almost heart - breaking.
Once again we got under way, and yet again got badly against the arrow. This time I spotted a track running parallel to the main road, and still trying to break all speed records, made a heroic attempt upon it. Here I just crowned my misfortunes, for after about two hundred yards, with a sickening lurch and crows of profanity from the driver, the old ship got firmly stuck in a narrow drain beside the road. When I had more or less recovered from the shock I climbed out, gazed on the consequences, and was finally conquered. Nothing short of a breakdown gang would get that lorry out, so I started on a two - mile tramp to the nearest village to appeal for help and sympathy. Of course it rained, and of course there was mud. Mud ! There was always mud.
Never was a village more welcome, and never was one more deserted. A town major and a couple of waiters at an officers' club were the only inhabitants. At this point I almost looked on myself and the lorry as lost for ever, so I made the best of my unhappy plight and took what cheer the club afforded. Whether it was the bottled beer or the seasonable warmth of an excellent stove I do not know, but presently I took fresh heart, and was just sailing off back along the road to conquer or die. The age of miracles is always with us, but it was almost unmanning to find that fatal lorry, " rigged with curses dark," awaiting my pleasure at the door. How it got out of that bottomless pit I cannot to this day discover. According to my worthy bombardier, " We sorter heaved and she sorter came out." The picture leaves something to the imagination.
This seemed to be the last of my troubles, and we dashed up to Corps
H.Q. like a General of Division. I invaded the Staff Captain, told him
who I was, what I was, where I had come from, and mildly inquired what I
had to do. He gazed at me blankly, and murmured, "Ha! Hum ! I am sure I
don't know !" This was indeed the top stone with shoutings. However,
after very mature consideration, he appealed over the wire to someone
called " Jimmy," and " Jimmy," whom I afterwards discovered was the
admirable Brigade Major, apparently told him to send me to my new Group.
I got to Group just between dusk and dark, and was greeted by the
Colonel, a friendly person with hospitable ways. He invited me to look
on the wine that is amber and the water which fizzes, and we chatted
amicably for an hour on many varied but irrelevant topics. Then he
suddenly remembered I must have come for something. He inquired, and I
answered politely. He consulted with his Adjutant, who in turn consulted
with the Brigade Orderly Officer. He was my last straw, but an excellent
one at that. I had a battery position to make, material for which would
be provided in due course. In the meantime I was to billet in another
battery with my men. Its billets were to be found at X Corps
ordination. Cheered and comforted by my friendly reception and the
tantalising dream of a dinner and a bed, the pilgrim -
a little weary and
again set forth. But the co -
ordinates were wrong, and I
scoured the country in the dark for what seemed unutterable ages. At
last, at the unseasonable hour of 10.30, completely by mistake, I walked
right into the mess. Never call the English a reserved and unsociable
race. I was welcomed with open arms. In the rain and cold one of their
officers turned out to show me billets for my long -
suffering men, and
rooted out one of the cooks to provide them with a hot meal. I issued
the delicate spirit that brings content -
and got back to mess a
little after 11 o'clock, to find an excellent dinner and my bed awaiting
me. I could have fallen on their martial necks and saluted them all with
a chaste kiss, only it is not done in our Army. So ended my momentous
journey. But, after all, it was really a wonderful day.
29th October, 1917.
We plod on here from day to day, making work for the sake of something to do. General officers inspect us twice or thrice a week, each of these leaving us, as a sort of souvenir, one or two of his little fads to work on. A shoot is now a Great Event, and instead of the shrug and grumble which invariably greeted such an announcement a month ago, now everyone is excited as a child with a new toy, and the fellow who is lucky enough to be chosen to do it is an object of jealous admiration. I am as bad as the rest, and I thought only a short time ago that guns and gunnery would never interest me again.
We live in daily dread of Generals. Guards are mounted ; almost peace time parades are held. Buttons and boots are polished, the guns shine, shells are oiled and arranged like Guardsmen. We move about in belts and watch every puddle for fear of a spot of mud on our splendid beauty. My business is to look after the guards. I parade and mount the guard every morning and teach rifle drill all day, trying almost in vain to break all the traditions of the R.G.A. by instilling some smartness into a bunch of unhappy and perfectly indifferent gunners.
As the General progresses from battery to battery his particular fad precedes him. As thus: " General X. is at Y Battery, and will probably be at your place in fifteen minutes. He is dead nuts on gas drill." Promptly we parade all our fellows and give them a rehearsal of gas drill. All our gas gongs are polished and made to look as prominent as possible. The guard is told what to say if the old gentleman asks them their duties in a gas attack. Then our General appears, and we feel quite certain all is well with the world. But, alas ! he forgets gas for the moment and marches straight for the cook - house, which would grace a stable. Curtain !
Yesterday the " General " alarm reached us, and for half an hour I paraded my guard, admonished them, warned them, swore mildly at them, and kept them presenting arms till they did it like one man. When the General hove in sight, all brass and gold, and my carefully - trained sentry, in spite of all my training, lost his head, fiddled with his rifle, tried to Speak, looked round like a frightened rabbit, and bolted to the guard - room. I could have wept, and the sentry nearly did the same when I had finished with him.
My turn for observation duty is about round again, and will be quite
welcome just for something to do. Observation posts here, with their
concrete, their deep dug -
outs, covered approaches, thirty -
periscopes, beds and fireplaces, are a pleasant and wholesome change
after a sheet of corrugated iron and a sandbag or two as we had in the
13th January, 1918.
I write this letter from a little oasis in the great desert of War. In other words, I write from the quiet pastures and still waters of a hospital, where I am sent by the wise to suffer from an attack of measles - - an infantile disease quite unbecoming a soldier. Before I left for these Elysian fields the battery had changed its position. You may remember I hinted in a former letter that I had a feeling in my bones there was going to be a shift of some sort. The premonition was authentic. Our move was not very far, but just far enough to add considerably to the usual discomfort of any move. The battery is now split into three sections - forward, centre, and rear. My old command was the rear section, but our new Major (genus homo) has changed things a little, and we all have to do our turn forward, an arrangement of which I cordially approve. I only did two days up there, and not very pleasant days. Two of us ran the show.
We lived in an old gun emplacement - Hun - made, and therefore well made. But I have always found Hun - work more utilitarian than comfortable. It was a most draughty place. All the winds of heaven blew through it, and, sickening for this disease, my cold grew worse and worse. We lived, slept, cooked, ate, and drank all in the same place. There was a certain amount of shelling. I was in command ; I wasn't feeling fit, and I had a new Major I did not know. My fellow - sub. was quite new to all the ways of war. It was consequently with a profound sense of relief and a sigh of contentment that I mounted the waggon for No. X. Hospital, via a field ambulance.
I shall be sorry to leave this abode of peace. I have been made very comfortable and been looked after like a real invalid. The Sisters are really splendid and kindness personified. The other man in my ward is a Lincoln - a grizzled veteran of twenty - two. He is a very interesting fellow, and has been to the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, and Ypres, so I have heard some blood - curdling experiences and, I doubt not, some exceedingly tall stories.
How calmly these delightful days go by ! Here is the chronicle of to - day's memorable events : - I cut myself shaving. We got two new records for our gramophone. We smoked many cigarettes. The orderly spilt my dinner while bringing it in. Voil - tout - and yet I am very happy.
I don't know whether we are going to spend the rest of the winter and
spring in quiet or not in our present battery position. It looks rather
like it, but this condition of stalemate cannot continue for ever.
THE GERMAN AVALANCHE.
21st April, 1918.
I have given you only a very brief and inadequate account of what befell me on that awful week commencing March 21st. But as I am sure you would like to hear all the details I shall do my best to set them down for you, as far as I am able. In what is left of our battery we do not care much to talk of it yet, for though some of us have memories of the Somme in 1916, Arras in 1917, Messines and Ypres behind us, not one of us has ever experienced such a perfectly hellish time.
The greatest of all our blows, however, was the loss of our beloved Major. I have now had quite a number of commanding officers, good, bad, and indifferent, but never has it been my good fortune to serve under so excellent a soldier, so courteous a gentleman, and so splendid a man - the beau ideal of the very perfect knight. I think I can truly say that there was not an officer in the mess, nor one man in the battery who would not have followed him to certain death and made the great renunciation with delight. He was always thoughtful, always appreciative, brave as a lion, and tender - hearted as a woman. I loved de Neuville with all my heart. It will be many years before his memory grows dim - a memory that is itself an inspiration. The uncertainty of his loss adds to the poignancy of our grief. One or two of us still cling to the vain hope that he may yet be alive, if a prisoner, but for my part I am altogether hopeless.
I do not quite know where to start my narrative, but I think I may brave the Censor and tell you more or less how and where we found ourselves on the morning of the unutterable 21st.
The besom of war has now swept those fields clean enough. We were in
front of Vaulx -
Vraucourt, well up the famous Noreuil valley, which is
perhaps, better known as Death Valley. Certainly it deserved its name on
the 21st and 22nd. We had also a detached section behind St. Leger, but
I will finish with Vraucourt first, as did the Hun. On the 20th I was
O.O., which was not a particularly enviable post, as work was heavy and
the 20th was a busy day. I had a number of shoots and concentrations to
run, and a long programme to keep an eye upon during the night. The
Brigade Adjutant was also very busy, for he kept me on the 'phone almost
continuously the whole night, with the result that instead of snatching
a few hours' sleep I was unable to lie down at all. At 4.30 a.m. I began
to think I had at last finished my work, and had just laid down my weary
bones, and was dozing off, when the Boche opened with drum fire. That
had me out like a shot.
S.O.S. was only about five minutes in coming through. I tried to get the forward observing officer, but, as he told me afterwards, the line had gone as soon as the enemy barrage had come down. So far as we were concerned, therefore, we knew nothing of what was going on forward. We could only conjecture terrible happenings. At 5.15 a.m. the right section reported that they were being heavily shelled with 5.9's. The Major went off immediately to see them, and some of us never saw him again. The left section then reported they were getting it hotly too, but could carry on. Just at this moment a message with a new target came through from Brigade, so I worked it out, but found the line to the gun had been cut. I had, therefore, to employ a runner. How that runner got through I do not know, for round the gun there was a lashing hail of bursting shells. But no man can speak too highly of our splendid gunners. On that dreadful day our rate of fire never was reduced, though the detachments were thinned by casualties ; I estimate the shells were falling about three a minute, all round and in the pits. I am told the Major was everywhere, confident, cheerful, heartening everyone - just himself.
My post became very uncomfortable about 8 a.m., with the result that we had to make a hurried move, taking all the maps and instruments with us. But our change was rather out of the frying - pan into the fire. Close mathematical work is not very exhilarating under a rain of shell - fire, still we got out all our new targets in good time, which was the main consideration. One of the section officers was hit, and the man who was to relieve me at 9 a.m. went to the gun to take his place. The skipper and I carried on in the B.C. post under a bank, with target after target pouring in on us. The Hun was now doing an area strafe, and we appeared to be in the centre of the cyclone. In such a case you never can tell what the enemy is trying for or where the next shell will burst.
The enemy stopped shelling the guns for a short time, which enabled us to relieve what was left of the detachments, though I am afraid it was not much relief. All this time we had no idea of the situation, except from rumour, and this was wild and vague. Brigade was much too busy to be troubled by our enquiry.
However, about 12.30 p.m. the guns reported that machine -
were coming over, and at 1 p.m. my Lewis gunners also reported that what
they judged to be hand -
hand scrapping was going on some thousand
yards away on the right front. Half an hour later they were firing on a
party of the enemy coming down the valley. At the same time we received
orders to fire on a point only some twelve hundred yards in front, and
the guns reported two casualties from machine -
gun fire. We mustered what
few rifles we had and stood by for emergencies. The Major went forward
to reconnoitre, and came back to give the fatal, heart -
breaking order to
scupper the guns and retire. He could see none of our infantry in front,
and the enemy were pouring down the valley in vast numbers. I think it
must have broken his great heart to give that order. He himself stayed
till everybody had gone. According to the bombardier who was with him,
he visited every dugout and emplacement to make sure that all had left
before he joined us. Coming back he was hit in the head by a
machine guns were sweeping the road -
and as he could see no help
at hand, the bombardier says he carried him to the ditch, and then came
on, having first made certain the Major was dead. An officer of another
battery reports having seen him walking back wounded in the arm, but we
can learn no more, and, as I say, I am without hope. The last we saw of
our position was a party of Huns bombing the empty dug -
We set out carrying away what we could - instruments, maps, a little kit, and our wounded, and made for our rear section. 1 do not think I shall ever forget that terrible journey. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. I was carrying my trench coat, a pack, a rifle, and the observation post officer's coat, as he, poor fellow, was in a state of collapse and could hardly stagger along. The men were split up into small parties, and it was a trying job to keep them from bunching or straggling - the first being dangerous owing to Hun 'planes, which were flying low and machine - gunning every target, provided they were not too busy with our own machines, and the second fatal, because it meant valuable minutes wasted collecting the men again. You can picture us ! What with jangling nerves, lack of food and sleep and weariness beyond words, I was myself not too happy, nor, I think, did any of us at that moment feel that life held much worth having. To reach our rear section was a matter of six kilos across country, edging a little back all the time. The roads were decidedly unpleasant on account of long - range guns, while they were crowded with transport either moving up or coming back, ambulances, walking wounded, and folk in the same plight as ourselves. The dust and heat were intolerable.
I stopped at a cross - roads to collect stragglers and partially disabled men, and having collected some twenty of them pushed on again. My party was a sorry - looking lot, composed as it was of the least lit gunners in the battery. Some of them were without coats; some were carrying rifles, some what little kit they could snatch up. One or two of them had been continuously on the guns since 6 a.m. on the 20th, and were dead beat, poor souls ! to the world.
It was 5.3o p.m. before we reached our position, having safely disposed of our wounded on the way. I think what heartened me more than anything else was the sight of our two guns blazing merrily away and a party of Royal Engineers from a dump playing football in the midst of Armageddon. A cup of tea, a biscuit, and some bully beef, my coat on the floor of a dug - out, and for four glorious hours the war was forgotten in the sweetest and soundest sleep I ever had in my life.
Unfortunately, about ten p.m., the Hun started harassing fire on the road and some hutments near by, and we were compelled to take to our trenches for two hours ; after that we were all to cold to sleep again. All the time our two guns were blazing away sturdily. It was a miracle we had no casualties, for it was really hot at times, one shell falling only ten yards from a gun. At 5 a.m. we had a sort of stand - to. I went out with my Lewis gun and a small party of rifles, but at 7 o'clock, the Boche showing no sign of attacking, we came in to breakfast.
All day we kept up our full rate of fire, only resting to change
targets or let the guns cool. One officer went forward to try and get
some information, but after six hours came in again, having obtained
little definite news. Brigade, however assured us that all was well,
until 4 p.m., when they asked us if we could give them any information.
Naturally we were unable to do so, but shortly afterwards I noticed a
battery of equal size to our own commence to pull out. We reported this
to Brigade, but the reply was to carry on.
About an hour later a field battery alongside told us they were bringing up their teams, but had no orders about pulling out and going back. This we also reported to Brigade. We were then ordered to have our transports standing by, and were given a rendezvous some miles back. Up to this time except for a few shells we had been left more or less alone, but at 5 p.m. something unpleasantly like a barrage was coming down immediately in front of us. A thick ground mist was blotting out everything within a half - mile radius, and it was not until a field battery thundered back along the road that we had much suspicion that all was not still well. Again we asked for information, but only to find that our line to Brigade was blown to bits. The Captain waited half an hour longer, but as the line was still silent, and rumours called loud and shrill that the Hun had broken through our right, he gave the orders to pull out. Away we went, and, as it turned out, rumour spoke no more than the truth, for, so far as I can gather, a short hour afterwards our late position was the seat of some bitter fighting.
The guns reached the rendezvous about 10 p.m., and at 11 p.m. we were all hard at work digging in, though officers and men alike were pretty well at their last gasp. The grey and dreary dawn found us ready for action with about a hundred rounds. We had nothing but a few firing stores, as we had no transport with which to bring them away, but we had enough to fire these hundred rounds, and another three hundred which came up during the day. More came up that night, the 23rd, but unfortunately one gull went out of action and could not be repaired, so during the night of the 23rd and 24th we toiled heroically and tried to double our rate of fire with the one remaining gun.
At 4 p.m. on the 24th Brigade wired through to us to send an officer forward to get in touch, if possible, with our infantry, or, at the worst, to obtain some reliable information. This duty fell upon my shoulders, and having selected four orderlies I set out upon my quest. The Hun was at this time doing some counter battery work, which made my progress rather difficult - so difficult, indeed, that finally I gave up all hope of dodging and decided to go straight up and take my chances.
When I had passed the battery area matters were rather quieter, but further ahead the Boche was shelling in quite a workmanlike fashion. More by good luck than good guidance - the star of my destiny was shining brightly - I struck the Infantry Brigade H.Q. for which I had been ordered to look, and there I gathered all the information this very worried H.Q. could give me. That information was not at all reassuring, nor was it very definite, but I sent it back by two of my runners, while I set out to find another Brigade whose position had been roughly defined for me on the map. On this occasion my star was in eclipse, and luck was all against me. I ran into a barrage to start with, and one of my runners was slightly wounded, which, of course, delayed my progress. I scoured the country for this mythical Brigade but could find it nowhere.
The barrage had now stopped, but there was still a good deal of
shelling, and the darkness which had now set in did not make things any
easier or pleasanter. I tried to retrace my steps but became hopelessly
a little bit of floating wreckage in the great ocean of war.
Eventually, however, I found an Artillery H.Q. who made me very welcome.
Here I evacuated my casualty and learned the cheerful news that the
enemy were attacking on our right and had made considerable progress.
Away went my remaining runner, and it was when my Brigade got this
message and our remaining gun went out of action, that my battery pulled
out once again.
An hour later, three fresh runners were sent up to me. By this time the advancing Hun appeared to be held, and I accordingly sent two of the runners back with this report. They had hardly disappeared when I was told our right flank had been broken, and the group was ordered to get their guns away behind a new line of defence. I waited with them until they had got all their batteries out and moved off themselves. Then I set out to see if I could discover anything on my own account. After some wandering I alighted upon a battalion of infantry digging themselves in, but they were very indefinite about the position of their H.Q. and could give me no information. Having stumbled about another half hour, I began to make my way back, and eventually I reached a fresh Brigade of R.F.A. who were only keeping in action till the Brigade I had been with were once more in position. They could really tell me nothing - they were hopelessly in the dark - so I carried on back. By this time I could hardly walk, not having had my boots off for four days and being on my feet most of the time. At last, however, I managed to get back to our post to find it - empty, and not a soul to be seen. I could have sat down and shed tears.
I rested a few minutes, but as my runner went to sleep and I nearly followed his example, I thought it best to report at once to Brigade. It took me an hour to accomplish the two miles, and the chair and drink at the end of it just about saved my flickering life.
At Brigade I met Wilmot, who had waited there for me. He had discovered that some lorries were to pick us up at Bucquoy, three miles away. So we set out once more, and it was only the thought of those lorries that carried me on - to find that they had not arrived, and nobody knew when they would. But it was all in the grim fortune of war. We crawled under a hedge and slept from 2 o'clock till 5 p.m., and then the lorries arrived. I mounted one and Wilmot the other, and having filled them with men, set off for the rendezvous some ten miles back.
Of that journey I remember only a few dream - villages where life appeared to be going on much as usual. The rest of the time I slept a sleep as deep as the Atlantic. At 9 o'clock we reached our destination to find the rest of the battery breakfasting and performing its ablutions. It did not require the delicious smell of frizzling bacon to remind us we had tasted nothing since the preceding afternoon, and a couple of minutes later brought to light a comfortable little estaminet - blessed be that smiling hostess! - and five minutes afterwards a huge omelette and excellent coffee brought a little blush upon the face of life again.
All day we tinkered at our two guns, but they were beyond our skill. This being reported, orders came to billet for the night. Another officer and I shared a bed in a pretty little farm, and, speaking for myself, from 8 p.m. till 8 a.m. I remembered nothing.
The rest I think you know. Sleep and rest and food were the three things that occupied all our thoughts for the next three or four days, and then some of us began to remember what we had come through.
BACK TO THE LINE.
26th July, 1918.
We are back again to the old, old round of stationary warfare - observation posts, shoots, shells, and shelling. Once more these have come to seem part of our everyday life, which is now almost monotonous. There are now no heroic stunts or strategic movements. We are once again a dull, lifeless crowd, but with one burning topic - leave. Everyone has now got over the effects of rest, and has arrived at that necessary condition of despondency and boredom which is really the only satisfactory state of mind if one is to preserve a quiet life. We have been quite fortunate in our new position. We are in a sunken road with very excellent pits, and we now have a certain number of waterproof shacks. We are also the proud possessors of two saps some thirty feet deep. The one drawback to the position is that it lacks natural cover of any description, and artificial camouflaging is a fine art known to few.
Even for the artist it is hard to obtain perfection with the materials provided by a thoughtful administration. For example, all our guns are covered with grass - green nets. This is very excellent cover for three of the pits which are dug in clover fields, but the fourth pit is on the edge of a cornfield already turning brown. The result is that in a photograph from the air this cover will show up as a square black patch which even the most uninitiated eye could detect and place as something unusual.
Should a strategic retreat again be necessary we will have at least a sporting chance of getting away - a desirable thing that was impossible in our last position. Here we have three roads leading back ; there we had only one which was like the neck of a bottle, and that most beautifully registered by the Hun with batteries of every calibre up to 8 inches. Here we are a good way back - just that pleasing half - way house never much visited by howitzers, and two close to be much troubled by long range guns. We are not quite so hard worked in the matter of observation posts, nor are the observation post so far forward. We man a battery observation post seven hundred yards from the front line, and once in five days a Brigade Observation Post five hundred yards back. Both are quite comfortable, having entranced saps and a splinter proof cover. Our day observation post unfortunately comes within the Hun retaliation barrage lines and is often an unpleasant dwelling place. Three of us have already had a decidedly hot time there, myself being one of the number. However, I retired in fair order to the dug - out, which is proof against the pernicious 5.9.
As regards the air now -
days it is a perfect gunner's paradise.
Since we came up the line again I do not think I have seen more than ten
Huns cross our lines, and then only for a few moments. I do not, of
course, include heavy bombers, which fly like evil spirits at night, and
two of which, incidentally, I have seen come down burning brightly.
5th June, 1918.
This is by no means yet a peaceful front. The Hun has become much too fond of " area stunts," and two or three minute concentrations which are perfectly beastly things to experience. He will take, for example, a battery area and suddenly put down three minutes' gun - fire, covering, perhaps, four hundred square yards with four or five batteries. It is quite useless to run. The only thing to do is to lie down flat and hope for the best with a fluttering heart. This kind of thing does not knock out batteries, but it gives you most unpleasant sensations when crossing the open or going through a battery position.
Once more we are having rather too much observation post work, and no
amount of protest from battery commanders and carefully camouflaged
hints from junior officers, have the slightest effect upon Brigade, who
deal with these things with a lordly hand. My last twenty -
were spent in one that I do not love. It is a sap out from our first
line in the wire, and is certainly a splendid observation post for day
work, as one commands Boche land from its first line to its battery
area, and it has not yet been spotted. But at night the thought of
having only one of our patrols in front in the event of a Boche attack,
or even of the rush of a raiding party, does not tend to make one happy.
I spent a rather uncomfortable night there in my gas helmet, but the
Boche did not trouble me. It was a lovely June night. The air was full
of stars. Above me Orion looked down -
the mailed warrior of the skies -
far away " the star of the unconquered will " flamed with the steadfast
light of new hope and resolution. It was all so ,vast and wonderful and
full of majesty, and here were we, little ants -
the creatures of a day,
striving to slay and kill each other. What are we and all our pigmy.
empires and kingdoms and thrones and myriad armies under that -
and yet -
I felt that one little ant had his duty to do, and his
insignificant part to perform while these rolling worlds swept through
space, and the morning stars sang together. This little ant . must do
his bit in order that other little ants may live out happy lives, and
the ant has its plate in the universe as well as those flaming
constellations. I worried this thought out through my midnight vigil,
and it really gave me some happiness. I see some things more clearly
than I used to do, and thoughts like these grow and flourish in the mud
and slime of war.
7th October, 1918.
I think it has come at last. The day has dawned when we shall make an end of this senseless, brutal, bestial war, and return home bringing the sheaves of peace.
As you know we have been going forward - forward - but almost too slowly for my taste. This is, I suppose, what we may call open warfare. It is certainly very interesting and a great deal less monotonous than the old trench life, while it is certainly less unpleasant than the pushing of last year. Yesterday and to - day we stand in one of those pauses which are perfectly inevitable, but I am waiting impatiently to see the Hun hit hard again, for I am certain it would be a fatal mistake to let him settle. I have been out three times on forward observation duty. Here one is always more or less one's own master, and can take the least unpleasant and unexciting places. As before, I have always been surprised at the lightness of our casualties - that is so far as I can see. It is only when we have attacked or been caught by machine - gun fire that our list of casualties is long and heavy. The Hun shell - fire has been negligible. He does not appear to be making a determined stand anywhere, and I cannot see where he is going to find a real line of resistance before he reaches the Meuse. We are having a fairly light time at present. Roads are our one difficulty. The Hun either pays no attention to his roads or has been too busy to work upon them. They are certainly in a deplorable condition and are almost impossible for us, or rather for our ammunition supply.
I had quite a pleasant day yesterday - of sorts. I received my orders at a moment's notice and had no time to get anything to eat. I had no definite instructions but to go forward, so I simply wandered round the country worrying people who looked as though they ought to know something. I discovered a little about matters - but nothing to eat. However, putting a terrible hunger on one side, I had really a good day. I avoided shells and other unpleasantness very successfully, and luckily was able to jump on a lorry which brought me practically all the way home.
Apparently the difficulty is that after our show of the day before yesterday there is considerable doubt as to where the Hun has gone. We have an officer out looking for him now, but judging by the reports which have come back, he has had little success. Anyhow, to - morrow, I think, we are sure to move. That is as I would like it.