Memoirs & Diaries - La Vacquerie

First artillery hit on Rheims cathedral We are marching up the line, 500 strong, trudging past the chalk mounds of the great mine crater at Trescault.

Directly ahead the enemy gun flashes flare against the eastern night; our own guns answer without strength.

We pass a huge German howitzer, its heavy underframe incredibly twisted by a direct hit; beyond lies a derelict ambulance car.  I am chiefly conscious of many feet squelching and splashing, of mud ruts and shell holes, the dark figures of the men in front, of wind-swept darkness and the quick red flashes of the German gun-fire.

Shells drone over right and left and fall with heavy crashes, but they are well clear of our road.

We plough our dreary path onward at a steady pace.  The water-laden petrol tin I am carrying pulls down my arm till the sinews ache.  I change it frequently, but it drags like a lead weight.  I wish fervently I could dump it.

We halt for a breather and squat on the low bank of this churned mud track.  From the direction of the line we hear footsteps approaching - heavy labouring feet - and, as they splash slowly nearer, a man groaning at intervals marks their progress.

The party of stretcher bearers looms level, shoulders bowed, we see four recumbent figures borne aloft, and against the flashes of the guns and the distant glow of the flares, I see a figure twisting and turning and the swaying, stumbling bearers striving to hold him still.

We move on again.  The road gradually slopes down between high banks.  Here the darkness is acute; in the inky pit only the water and mud underfoot seem tangible, and we grope and slip and curse.  Our eyes grow more accustomed to this denser gloom, the forward movement becomes faster, only to slow down in response to warning shouts from the front.

"Keep to the left!"  The file closes in to the left bank, and I see that the centre of the road is blocked by a dark mass.  A sickly reek pervades the air as we skirt a trail of wreckage, a couple of splintered limbers, the black rounded heaps that are dead mules, and some of the passing feet ring against a steel helmet half crushed in the mud.  I am thankful for the merciful darkness.

British 15-inch gun crewPiles of stretchers, cheerful chinks of light, litters of discarded dressings trampled underfoot, and the sharp odour of iodine mark the advanced dressing station.  Further on, a long stream of walking wounded splash by us, while the night resounds to the heavy crashes of the shells.

At last we move out of the ruts and soft mud on to the battered stony surface of a road that slopes easily upward.  A dead pannier mule lies athwart our track; a few yards beyond a man is sprawled in the gutter, his head, a dark ball, lies two or three feet away.

Directly in front I see a trail of red sparks soar above the ridge, a radiant star appears, which sinks slowly out of sight and leaves in black silhouette the ragged sprawl of ruins on the crest.

By the glow of the flares we avoid tripping over the stretcher with its officer occupant, a khaki handkerchief spread over his face held in position by his helmet, a grim note of refinement in contrast to the other forms we have passed.

On through the flickering shadows of La Vacquerie, to plunge again into gloomy depths of a sunken road.  It is deep with treacherous mud, water sodden; a foot-wide squelching track presses us to the left bank.

There is a block.  We are crushed together in single file in pitch darkness.  A man behind growls anxiously, "Get a move on in front."

"Shut up," is the retort.  "A man is sunk in the mud here."

"Pull him out, or tread the blighter in then, but let's get out of here."

An officer is calling anxiously from the far bank, "Come along, men, don't lose touch, for Heaven's sake!"

The deeply bogged man is plucked out by two men heaving on an extended rifle.  We escape from the foul pit and rush frantically over shell-churned ground to regain contact.  A wide trench yawns darkly below our feet.  It is a deep trench, lately German - a trench in which the air is heavy with a peculiar odour, not only of earth or rotting sand-bags, but a clinging sickly taint.

French communications trenchAt irregular intervals in the deep shadow of the trench bottom lie the dead, some sitting with rigid legs sprawled out, some crouching into the trench wall, some huddled together in pairs.

We step carefully, then, without warning, a series of fierce shrieks springs from the night, a mad tattoo of ringing crashes hammers about the trench top.

The living crouch down with the dead, and showers of earth and stone rain upon us.

A handful of weary men start to edge by us, but another storm bursts along the parapet.  Again we cower in dreaded companionship.  Again and again the savage crashes drun viciously just above our heads.

One of the remnants of the company we have relieved mutters grimly, "You'll have worse than that before morning, mates."

Double sentries mount the fire-steps, and the night wears on to the constant hissing of the German flares, rising and falling, flooding the trench top with a cold white light.  Occasionally a burst of machine-gun fire screams harshly along the parapet.

About four o'clock, stiff and weary, I rear up on the fire-step.  For some time the machine guns opposite have ceased fire, the flares have dwindled, until a heavy darkness broods over the sector, and I peer into a black void.

It is the cold lifeless hour before the dawn; the night presses solidly down.  An uncanny quiet pervades the enemy trenches.  I hear footsteps in the trench below me, and the company officer's voice: "Too quiet altogether, sergeant-major.  Something brewing over there.  Get the men roused out, 'Stand to' in twenty minutes, in any case."

The men emerge from the shafts and corners, cold and cramped, and line along the trench, gradually sensing the mysterious stillness of the German front line.

Eastward a vague diffused greyness has appeared, spreading imperceptibly.  My neighbour leans more comfortably on the parapet.  "Roll on, daylight," he mutters.  "It's-- What the hell's that?"

Well along to our right a rifle cracks sharply, and immediately a couple of heavy crashes reverberate.  Involuntarily I crouch.  I hear a shout swiftly drowned in a roar of rifle-fire, the fierce stammer of a Lewis gun; above all the heavy crashing of bombs.

Overturned US 155mm howitzerThe eastern sky is now a spread of dirty grey, in front the rusted tangle of wire is taking dim outline.

We are crouching tensely.  expecting to see a rush of grey figures loom up against the streaks of the pallid dawn.  On the right the rifle-fire swells into a furious roar, intermingled with prolonged Lewis-gun bursts, the deep crashes of "stick" bombs, and the heavy ringing explosions of Mills grenades.

Suddenly the bomb explosions cease, though the rifles still crackle strongly.  A short silence, another stinging spatter of fire that trails off into desultory cracks.  A minute or two later there comes the sound of footsteps stumbling down the trench, and a bloody-faced boy reels into view.

"The aid post?" he asks in a high hysterical voice.  His forehead is gashed and blood is streaming into his eyes.  Closely follows a stolid individual with a spreading stain on his shoulder, a wincing man whose hand drips a crimson trail.  Others follow rapidly, and last an unconscious form sagging in a stretcher.

We waylay the returning stretcher bearers.  They confirm our suspicion that the Germans occupy trenches to our flank, as well as in front.  This trench is part of the Hindenburg system, and forms a small salient.  The stretcher bearers are nervous; saps and trenches, apparently heavily manned, hem in the right of our battalion.

In the early daylight the trench appears appallingly grim - high yellow walls, debris-littered floor, and everywhere, up and down, the dead lie in all postures, some squatting with heads resting on drawn-up knees, some face downwards, full length, a few stretched on the fire-step.

I look at two men huddled below me, mud-encrusted, blood-soaked, brutally mutilated.  My fear of shell-fire is acutely sharpened.

The fire-step opposite bears another, sand-bag covered, but his tunic and leg are darkly saturated.  His arm protrudes from the filthy covering and the muddy hand seems to clutch at passing men.

Crown Prince Wilhelm's observatory at MontfauconMy comrade on the fire-step lights a cigarette and nods in the direction of the fallen.  "Good job their wives or parents can't see 'em, or ours see us, either."

I escape from the presence of the dreadful dead; the stairs of the shafts are crowded with dozing men.  As the morning progresses the enemy activity increases: machine guns thrash the parapet, sudden whizz-bang storms lash the trench tops, so that we move in constant apprehension.

Overhead heavy shells howl continuously, and quick blasts of gun-fire come from the east.  The men are anxious; everything portends a storm.  Gradually the German gun-fire increases; the "stand to" order brings us out below the parapet, while an enemy plane methodically surveys the position.

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns.  In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard.

The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail.  Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke, and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey.

Heavy black shrapnel, storms of whizz-bangs add to the deafening tumult.  Earth, mud, and metal shower into the trench, the parapet rains little avalanches of dirt with each vicious impact, the air, shrill with flying metal, screeches with the added burden of intense bursts of machine-gun fire.

We strain fiercely into the mud of the trench wall, half deafened, mute.  The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

British tank breaking through barbed-wireFor a few awful minutes the racking inferno swells to a frantic intensity; the air vibrates to the battering hurricane behind.

It is as if trench and sky are rocking and reeling.  The stench of shell fumes is heavy in the air.

A stinging musty odour permeates the trench; the men around make swift motions, and peer like hideous goblins through the wide flat eyes of their gas-masks.  Gradually the taint passes and with relief we rip off the heated rubber.

A minute later the man at the periscope gesticulates wildly and gives a high-pitched yell, and we scramble swiftly on to the fire-step.

I see the wide waste of shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of grey-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward.

Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire.  I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise.  The squat Lewis gun is thrust over the parapet by my right shoulder, it leaps into stabbing bursts of sound, that makes my deafened ears ring again and again.  The rifles spurt hotly, the Lewis gun ejects whirling streams of cartridge cases that heap thickly by my feet.

I breathe whiffs of expended gases escaping from the gun.  I see the first line of attack appear to wither, men reeling, stumbling, disappearing into the blasted contour of the earth.  Others, in loose formation, springing swiftly erect, coming grimly forward.

With each short rush the rapid rifle-fire rises to a crescendo of savage concentration.  From the right, but now hardly audible in the stupendous noise, comes the crashing of bombs.  In front, before the furious fire, the German rush has died into the earth again.

London air raid damageWe subside quickly below the parapet as some flanking machine guns commence to sweep the trench top.  My rifle is hot to the touch.  Above, the parapet is flayed by a constant stream of bullets.

A surge of wounded presses down our section of the trench, limping, staggering in a steady stream, dazed, mud-fouled, bloodstained, faces blackened with cordite fumes.

An officer, gripping his Webley, appears amid another bunch of wounded.  He bellows hastily for bombs, and returns again to the right.  A few of us are told off to collect all the bombs we can, and we gather armfuls of captured German egg bombs, mixed with the heavy Mills; they are passed up, and we hastily search for more.

Suddenly, I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts.  I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank.  I am swiftly immersed in another rush of wounded, that pours along in urgent haste, despite their wounds.

Another group rushes down, some men hoisting along badly hit pals, a volley of bomb explosions bursts closer to us.  A shrill alarm yell comes from the' parapet, a few more wounded push swiftly past, half crouching.  I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of confused wounded.

The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, "Down the trench!"

Beyond him I see others leaping hurriedly and climbing over the parados, two officers scrambling on the mound above a shaft, and I see the Company Officer's revolver spurt twice.  Four or five smashing explosions disrupt the earth of the parapet, one bomb flies over and bursts on the parados.

We crouch, wounded and unwounded, and run the gauntlet of the final volley of bombs.  Where the trench curves sharply to the left I catch another haunting impression - a shaft crowded with the helpless wounded, pale, anxious faces looking upward, a man trying to crawl out, guarded by a stooping stretcher bearer.

German gas canistersThe trench divides, we plunge into an opening, pass a side trench, turn traverses, The air above is swept by machine-gun fire, the shell fall is still in thundering flood.

The man in front has a bomb splinter in his back, the small rent is surrounded by a red stain.  His boot heel is torn too and blood oozes out with every step.  We turn another traverse and come into a wide and empty trench in which long pools of water gleam dully.

We do not know where we are.  Two men only are behind me, the sergeant and the three men following him have disappeared.  We plough through the mud of this deserted line.  At a block we must perforce cross a few yards of open ground; we do it at intervals, leaping prodigiously, to the accompaniment of severe machine-gun fire.

The barrage fire has died away, but outside our narrow route shells still crash.  We finally emerge into a trench fully manned by a strange battalion.

A day or so later the remnants are gathered together, and we line up again in Havrincourt Wood.  Two short lines only, for "A" Company is about twenty-five strong, and the battalion musters 100.

A few yards away, under the dripping trees, lies a heap of opened parcels, and a sergeant is apportioning the litter of home-made cakes, cigarettes, and sweets that have no owners.

Private William Reginald Dick joined Army February 7th, 1917.  Posted to 3rd Battalion Gloucestershire Regt.  France, September 1917, 2/6th Gloucestershire Regt., 61st Division, at Arras.  Cambrai December 1917.

January 1918 St. Quentin, February 1918 transferred to 2/5th Battalion of the same Division; held outposts in front of St. Quentin until March 21st.

German offensive, March 21st.  In action throughout the whole of the second Battle of the Somme; survivors relieved near Amiens.  Battle of the Lys, April 12th, 1918, invalided from infantry June 1918.

Posted to forward area Labour Company, and attached to Australian Tunnelling Company, and Engineers in the Loos and La Bassee sectors.

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Eggs-a-cook" were boiled eggs sold by Arab street vendors. It was later used by Anzac soldiers when going over the top.

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