Memoirs & Diaries - Rations
It was our third day "in". The front line was no longer well-made trenches - or trenches at all, in fact - but merely small "posts" a few yards distant from each other, each holding about half a dozen men.
These "posts" were actually strips of trench with a rather high parapet - open at the rear, made up with very little sand-bagging, protected in front with the usual rows of barbed-wire. The defences here had been made hurriedly: this, the region of the Lys Canal, had been the latest scene of German thrust. Thus we were on ground that had but lately been in civilian occupation, and still retained much of its peaceful country atmosphere, even trees were still standing.
I found myself in charge of a "post", some distance to the right of where the main road ran from St. Floris. Immediately behind our position was some rough ground, showing where, at later seasons, a little stream evidently ran, but which was now apparently only a ditch.
All movement on this sector was impossible by day. "Jerry" held slightly higher ground, but even he seemed content to rest after day-break, for with the exception of his artillery at intermittent intervals and a very occasional burst of some machine gun, daylight to dusk was a period of peacefulness.
Just now we were very glad that the weather was in our favour. Some of us at least (though the battalion was mostly young kiddies, newly out from home) knew what it meant to carry on war in pouring rain and always mud - interminable mud.
Now after some weeks of hot, dry weather it was dust we were struggling with - at all costs, to keep it out of the rifle, even if it was impossible to keep it out of one's mouth. Dust and grit had replaced slush! There always seemed to be one amongst us, at all times and all places even, who could give expression to our troubles, whatever they might be, and at the Front they were certainly pretty numerous.
Surely we must have thrived on troubles! Such a fellow at this time was Bert. Bert had come to us from the Liverpool Scottish, I think it was. Anyway, he was anything but a dour Scot, and always reminded one of East London. Language was always unparliamentary with us.
"Gor' blimy" was Bert's preliminary, and its force had to be heard to be realized. That expressive opening always seemed to call for some attention.
"Gor' blimy," he would say. "Wonder what the 'ell they'd say to this lot at home. Blast, it's dust all the bloody time. If you get a bit of 'rooti' to eat, it's all dust while you eat it. When the stew comes up, it's got a layer of blasted dust on it thicker than drippin'!"
Another voice broke in: "Yes, and how many times have we chivvied the ol' wife about a speck of something in the Sunday dinner." "Here, who's that talking about Sunday dinners?" "Gor' blimy! put a sock in it," was Bert's reply of course.
What happened in this post on our third morning in was the prelude to the experience I shall relate here. We had seen dawn gradually break through - and yet no sign of the ration-men, who must be up before daybreak, in order to reach us safely.
Someone said, "That's b-- it now! They'll never get across that road once it gets light." Feeling that to be true, all eyes watch alternately the streaks of daylight above, and behind us the faint line of that strip of road that connects us with the supports. Uncovered road (and the only place with a movable "spider" in the barbed wire that permits getting through) every inch of it "marked" by a German gun, which opens at the slightest movement after daybreak.
It is a bad spot, evidently covered by some "observation post" on jerry's side. "Here they come, look!" hushed voices - words almost unsaid. Inwardly one cheers up. Thank goodness the rations are coming up!
Heads first appear indistinctly, then slightly clearer outlines: one carrying something that makes him appear dwarf-like in that half-light; the other, more upright, has something beside him. They seem to hesitate; they must be through the wire; they separate. Then the first one moves forward quicker, followed on his right by the dixie carrier. "Gor' blimy! They'll never get up here. Them bloody Jerries have got eyes like --'awks on that roadway." Bert is always a fatalist, but we realize the truth in his expression.
"Wonder what it is this morning?" someone asks. "Stew - 'corse it is. We had' char' last time up" - the words are said briefly by men inwardly cold and hungry, yet tense with quiet excitement for the safety of the men carrying those rations, as well as concern for the anticipated meal.
"Those blarsted cooks again, you can bet - keeping the carriers too late, or they'd have been here by now," and Bert spat vigorously. Evidently his mind was working savagely about cooks and field-kitchens.
"Blimy! They're moving, anyway. Jerry ain't spotted them yet." Only one man ventured that remark; fear kept others silent - double fear-for pals and for rations, and yet we must stand here helpless and watch. Why were they so late - we wondered!
Only for a second did it seem that Jerry hadn't seen them. "Zim-Boom," and a shell has burst only a few yards from the two figures, now being watched - watched more keenly than ever two runners on a sports-ground, or even two horses on a course.
Two men burdened with our rations, yet even for sake of their own lives racing with time and death to reach the nearest post! They are our pals, too, and those damned cooks must have made them late getting away. Curse these wallahs behind the line; we forget that they are necessary to feed us; only now they are thought of as the cause of the danger in which our mates and our grub seemed doomed!
We stand and watch - helpless to render any aid to those figures struggling over that ground about twenty yards away. And they cannot race for it - a dixie full of stew is, I suppose, the most awkward thing imaginable - certainly impossible to run with. They are quite clear now.
Surely it's got broad daylight in the last few seconds; yet really its only half-light, but enough for some Jerry's glasses to spot a movement on that road. Someone overstrung with the tense excitement of all of us who watch shouts, almost yells: "Run, jock, run for Christ's sake!" just as one supposes he had yelled to some player on a football ground: "Go on, shoot! Shoot! Now!"
Then "Oh-h-h !" in a cry of dismay from the crowd that the ball had gone wide perhaps - that is the sound now from us, as a second shell, ranged with greater precision, bursts almost in front of those two!
The platoon officer's shouted order to us to "Keep down there!" was half lost at that moment. The explosion cleared. There was only one man now, dragging a sack, he could be seen to rise from the ground. The other is gone, but that looks like a dixie there in the road - on its side!
And how cold it is at dawn too! We shiver and almost turn away in silence. There goes all hopes of "something hot," anyway, and we don't speak about the carrier - yet.
The voice of Bert, that had merely swore about cooks and those behind the line, broke the silence again and cursed now.
"Bloody --cooks and all the --rest. what do they care? Wait till I --well get out of this." It's a decent mouthful, but we know Bert's sentiments are right, and if we don't all use those words we agree, and under those conditions out there we all become "Berts" now and then. It did ease things a bit to have a good "blind" about somebody.
"Look! That's 'Chunky'!" and we turn to see someone climb out from the post on our left and race madly towards the man with the sack coming on, but slowly. Another shell bursts, full in the road again, but just a little too far back. Involuntarily some of us have ducked - it became sheer habit out there.
When we look up again, 'Chunky' has reached the other, and together they are covering the last few yards like mad, carrying the sack between them. Yes, they're there. We only see two bodies disappear unto the nearest post, and someone voices "Good old Chunky".
We learnt afterwards why the ration carriers were late starting back out there. One of them has doubtless "Gone West," the other slightly wounded in the leg. It is lighter now. There's something lying doubled up in the road, and the stew dixie is quite clear - mocking us as it lays empty on its side. The ration sack "caught" a lump of shrapnel, and two loaves are now lying out there somewhere too - so near - yet not one of us dare risk life to get them until dark!
For twelve hours at least, more probably eighteen, we must "carry on" with what has reached us, bully, some cheese (mostly broken) jam, biscuits, and a loaf between six of us. Nothing hot! - nothing to drink at all, and yet they tell us how they had to wait in Blighty for hours, perhaps, to get their rations of butter or meat! And the bread was half-black they say!! So we must carry on another day, and only hope that the carriers are sent off early enough to reach us safely next time.
The day developed hot, terribly hot, with the sun blazing down on that unsheltered trench-post, in which some of us tried to snatch some sleep in various curled-up positions. Finding rest in that heat impossible - it burnt our face and eyes, it seemed, while we slept - we dug forward: lay there digging out holes with entrenching tools-holes that would go in under the parapet sufficiently big enough to get one's head into at least.
Anything for shelter. Somewhere about midday we decided to eat what we had if only to alleviate our misery for half an hour. Two pals and myself opened up a tin of bully between us. One only wanted a little, he said. "Awful bloody stuff anyway to eat without bread or drink" was his opinion.
Bottles were empty and bread had been eaten for "breakfast". Iron ration biscuits were turned out, and so we managed a "meal," only to feel more parched than we had done before.
At last it came to my turn to keep a look-out. This meant standing up in one place, watching through the periscope, and readiness to sound the gas alarm if necessary. I didn't spend all my hour looking Jerry's way, however. I had a good view of the country behind me, and I looked round in all directions at intervals.
"Where the hell could one get some water?" was all that seemed to matter. What about that ditch I had nearly broke my leg in last night, when we were moving about. I could see the irregular ground. The nearest point was about 15 or 20 yards away. Wonder if it was quite dry. I remembered when I had half fallen one foot had squelched in wet mud. Apparently it was a decent stream in the wet season; it shouldn't be quite dry yet.
That ditch was all I could think of till the next one took over the look-out. "D'ye hear, Wally. I wonder if there's any water left in that ditch over there." He stirred uneasily. "I shouldn't think so after this heat. Besides it would be pretty blasted dirty, anyway. What good's that?" "Come and lie down," said Reggie, moving sideways a little.
I persisted, however, "Well, we could boil it. You've got a 'Tommy' cooker, Reg." "And I hope you'll remember Reg has got some sense too," that worthy exclaimed slowly.
"That ditch is filthy, man. Don't you know what some of them used it for at night." "Oh, Gord! there goes windy Reggie again," broke in Bert.
Reggie's voice always seemed to move Bert. "We're at the bloody War now, not in your --fancy restaurants." But I cut hi, short. Wally appeared to be interested, anyway, and we appeared to be the only two who could seriously consider any hope of water from that ditch. But how to reach it? Could we get out there over the exposed ground?
These pros and cons continued, and so did our parched throats. Enough is it to say, that thirst overcame fear or caution or even orders to "keep down all day." One of us took two mess-tins, and crawled out and worked towards that ditch on belly and face almost, got there, and started back, which was slower work. How long it took we never knew, but it seemed hours before we were in possession of one can nearly full, and the other about half-full of liquid thick with green scum, just exactly what one finds in any stagnant pool or ditch in the country.
We surveyed that capture, for which life had been risked, and perhaps we made little comment beyond one who said - "And now what the devil will we do with that?" To me occurred the notion that if we strained it and then boiled it it might not be so bad. We could then make some tea. Several of us had tea and sugar ready for any chance of a "drum up." I was doubted and besides we hadn't got "any damn thing to strain it with!"
I produced a khaki handkerchief that had washed a bit thin by now, and was not too dirty. I had probably rinsed it out about a week ago, though, of course, it had doubtless wiped other things than my nose since then - principally my rifle!
I cannot give the debate that took place between us over this except the general opinion: it couldn't be any worse! Would it strain through that rag?
It remains with me as an outstanding experience, because I was the one to think of this particular "outfit," that somehow we did with great care and expenditure of time strain off the thickest of that green scum growth!
My handkerchief was used. Then the "Tommy" cooker was fitted up in one of the holes we had scooped out earlier in the day, the "water" was boiled and the tea brewed. That drink of tea was shared out between four of us and I remember we continually assured each other that "anyway the boiling would have killed the germs!"
It was drunk, by Reggie and Bert alike, in comparative silence. And we thought of homes that afternoon (I wrote to my wife on the pages of a little notebook), and the grumbles some of us had made in old days in those homes over little things at meal-times!
I remarked that the "tea" we drank could do us no more harm than a "packet from Jerry" would probably.
That night Wally was killed outright. The following night, going out of the line, I was severely wounded, and never went back again.
C. Goddard-Chead volunteered August 1914. Actual service did not commence until fourteen months later, because he was three times rejected - unfit. Served over three and a half years with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at home, in France and Near East (Turkey). Twice wounded, slight shell-shock, once blown up in France. Returned to Blighty, May 1918 - wounded in thigh by bomb dropped by night bomber just behind lines.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
The "linseed lancers" was the Anzac nickname assigned to members of the Australian Field Ambulance.
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