Memoirs & Diaries - Trenches At Vimy Ridge
As the War had to be, I shall always be glad I was able to play even a negligible part in it, or I should never have known with such certainty the madness of it.
During training I was aware only of the glamour of War. I prepared myself for it with enthusiasm, and bayoneted and clubbed the stuffed sacks representing the enemy with a sort of exalted ferocity. I was as jealous of my regiment as I used to be of my school.
The journey from Southampton to Havre in an ancient paddle-boat and on from there by train in a cattle-truck to the mysterious destination called the Front seemed a fitting prelude to the adventure. It was tedious and uncomfortable, but we told each other this was war. We became better acquainted with tedium and discomfort later.
When I made my debut in the line I had a cheerful conviction that nothing would hit me. And I remember standing on the fire-step for the first time and saying to myself exultantly: "You're in it at last! You're in it! The greatest thing that's ever happened!"
Lice and wind-up came into my life about the same time. At stand-to one morning a flight of whizz-bangs skimmed the top of the trench. The man next to me went down with a scream and half his face gone. The sand-bag in front of me was ripped open and I was blinded and half-choked with its contents.
This was in the summer of 1916. In the plain on our right the flash and rumble of guns was unceasing. It was the beginning of the Somme offensive we learnt afterwards, but even if we had known one of the big battles of the War was in progress at our elbows I doubt if we should have been deeply stirred. To every private in the line the War was confined to his own immediate front.
My first spell in the line lasted three weeks. Water was scarce, and even the tea ration was so short there was none left over for shaving. I had a nine days' growth of beard when we went down to rest. Some of us looked like Crimean veterans and we all began to feel like it. My socks were embedded in my feet with caked mud and filth and had to be removed with a knife.
Lack of rest became a torment. Undisturbed sleep seemed more desirable than heaven and much more remote. This is why two occasions stand out like beacons in my memory. One was when I found myself in bed in a field hospital for the first time.
The other was when I dropped among the straw in a rat-ridden barn after a long march down the line, tired beyond words and exquisitely drunk on a bottle of Sauterne. As I dropped into forgetfulness I felt I had achieved bliss.
I have slept on the march like a somnambulist and I have slept standing up like a horse. Sleeping at the post was a court-martial affair, with death or field punishment and a long term of imprisonment as the penalty. But, try as I would not to fall asleep, I often woke from a delectable dream with a start to find myself confronted with No Man's Land.
Once I was caught. It happened soon after dawn near the end of my spell. I had been watching a spot in No Man's Land where we suspected a sniper was operating. Suddenly I became aware of a voice saying, "The man's asleep," and knew it referred to me. Giving myself up for lost I sniffed loudly and changed my position as a sort of despairing protest.
Out of the tail of my eye I saw a Staff officer talking to the corporal. To my inexpressible relief, the corporal answered with one of the most ingenious lies I ever heard.
"He can't be, sir," he said. "He lent me this pencil only a second before you came." The officer was rather disinclined to accept the pencil as proof of my wakefulness, but, as I was then manifestly quite alert, he presently went his way.
The corporal's joy at having dished a brass-hat was unbounded. They were not popular in the line. Stark terror got hold of me one night on outpost guard in the Neuville-St. Vaast neighbourhood. These outposts were beyond the front line, sometimes within fifty yards of jerry's trench. The guard consisted of a corporal and four men. There were two sap-heads at the post in question.
They communicated with each other by an underground passage as well as by a short trench. I did not realize there was an underground communication when I was posted at the sap-head nearest the line. The corporal and the other three men went on to the other entrance to the sap.
Jerry had been restless all the evening, and not long after we had taken over he opened out with every gun he possessed. One of the fellows from the other sap-head came by with a bloody rag round his face. The racket of crumps and crashes and shrieking shells was too great to hear what he said, but I guessed he was going down to the first-aid post.
A little later I saw a flickering light approaching me from the depths of the sap. My hair literally stood on end, notwithstanding the tin hat. In my panic I thought Jerry must have countermined or found some other way into the sap and had chosen this way of attacking.
My first impulse was to fire and get a few shots in, anyway. Luckily, however, I was inspired to shout a challenge. It was answered by the corporal.
He and another man, both wounded, were helping each other down to the dressing station.
I envied them their luck and promised to go round occasionally to see how G., the only other survivor, was faring.
G. and I had joined the same day and had been friends ever since. I felt anxious about him and I wanted company, so went as soon as the others had gone.
At the end of the short trench I stumbled over something. A bank of cloud cleared for a moment from the moon, and I saw it was a headless body.
I went back to my post, frightened beyond anything that should be humanly possible. Twice I was blown off my feet by the concussion of bursting shells. The whine of falling shrapnel filled the air. I seemed to be all alone in a world tottering into ruin. If only the noise would stop I felt I might keep my reason. I think I prayed for a direct hit to end it all. By a miracle, however, I was not even touched.
I don't know how long after it was when my platoon officer crawled round the remains of a traverse. He had come to withdraw the guard. Back in the line I was told to take an hour's rest.
In the dug-out, stretcher bearers, unable to get down to the dressing station, were doing what they could for a man who had been buried. The candles constantly went out with the concussion of explosions outside, and every time this happened the man screamed.
A year or two after the War I was told a curious sequel to that memorable night. It had occurred three nights before my birthday. My mother was living at Vancouver at the time.
That night she roused the household in a panic because she said I had burst into her bedroom. I was wearing an old tweed suit in which she had last seen me in England. I looked ghastly, she said, and all I could say in reply to her questions was "Oh...! Oh!... Oh!..."
My sisters did their best to comfort her, but only the continuance of my letters, in which, of course, I said nothing about the outpost affair, at last convinced her that I had not gone West. I wonder if the essential part of me fled half across the world that night to a country I had never seen in search of the comfort and company I so badly needed?
We learnt next morning that Jerry had made an attack on our left. But it was all quiet then. Letters came up with the bacon.
I had one from a woman friend who had always seemed intelligent and understanding. Yet she asked this singular question: Is it as bad as they say it is out there, or is it only the shortage of cigarettes that makes it seem so rotten?"
The irony of it coming at that time made me giggle like a schoolgirl. The others wanted to know the joke so I read it aloud. The comments were unprintable.
One got used to many things, but I never overcame my horror of the rats. They abounded in some parts, great loathsome beasts gorged with flesh. I shall never forget a dug-out at the back of the line near Anzin.
It was at the foot of rising ground, at the top of which was a French war cemetery. About the same time every night the dug-out was invaded by swarms of rats. They gnawed holes in our haversacks and devoured our iron rations.
We hung haversacks and rations to the roof, but they went just the same. Once we drenched the place with creosote. It almost suffocated us, but did not keep the rats away. They pattered down the steps at the usual time, paused a moment and sneezed, and then got to work on our belongings.
A battalion of Jerrys would have terrified me less than the rats did sometimes. As a matter of fact, hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realized that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and as anxious to be done with it all.
For the most part; the killing that was done and attempted was quite impersonal. I doubt if I ever killed or wounded anyone. If I did it was more by bad luck than good judgment when we took pot shots at little grey working parties scuttling about at daybreak in front of their line.
My closest contact with the enemy was on a night raid which ended disastrously. The engineers missed a strip of concealed wire when they made a gap for the raid. We failed to get through, and less than half the party returned.
The folly of it all struck us at the oddest times. There was a tall, oldish man in my platoon who had been fixed up at the base with a set of false teeth.
Poor Mac was given to fits of sneezing and when this happened his Army teeth generally went flying. I was next to him on the fire-step at stand-to one night. Suddenly Mac made a queer half-strangled noise.
Then I heard him mutter, "Oh, hell!" and knew he'd lost his teeth. We fumbled among the sandbags, but it was quite a time before a Verey light revealed to me the lower set some distance over the parapet.
"'Anks," mumbled the toothless Mac, pocketing the dentures. Then, as a kind of afterthought: "'Sall so dam' shilly, isn't it ?"
There were many men it was good to have known. Soon after we got out one of our fellows found what looked like a bomb with a piece of fuse attached in the corner of the dug-out. He lit it with a cigarette end and then, getting frightened, threw it away.
It sizzled venomously on the floor, but only one man of the half-dozen of us there had the pluck and presence of mind to do the obvious thing.
While we all crouched where we sat, cursing the meddling fool, as we waited for the explosion, the clown of the platoon, a little Salvationist, threw his greatcoat over the smouldering thing and jumped on it. The bomb or whatever it was, proved to be harmless, but that made little B. none the less a hero.
A man next to me in hospital once had the most brutal-looking face I think I ever saw. I learnt he was "Young Alf," or some such name, a professional heavyweight. I never expect to meet a man with a kindlier outlook on men and things. His boils got well, and he was marked for convalescent camp.
When he said good-bye he insisted on giving me two English pennies, "for remembrance," as he said.
I knew they were all he had in the world and I determined not to part with them. But I forgot. They were spent or lost when I got back to the regiment. I rather think "Young Alf" would not have forgotten.
The most awesome and in some ways most dreadful thing I ever saw was a kind of ceremonial gas attack in the autumn of 1917. We withdrew from the front line to the support trench, so that the engineers could operate on the ground between.
It was a still moonlight night, one of those nights when the guns on both sides were quiet and there was nothing to show there was a war on. The attack began with a firework display of golden rain. The fireworks petered out and a line of hissing cylinders sent a dense grey mist rolling over No Man's Land.
What breeze there was must have been exactly right for the purpose. But the unusual silence, the serene moonlit sky, and that creeping cloud of death and torment made a nightmare scene I shall never forget.
It seemed ages before Jerry realized what was afoot. At last, however, the first gas alarm went and I think most of us were glad to think he would not be taken unawares.
Presently the gongs and empty shell-cases and bars of steel were beating all along his front, almost as though he was welcoming in the New Year. But I was haunted for hours afterwards by the thought of what was happening over there.
Sympathy was blown sky-high the next night, however. We were going out to rest and shortly before the relieving troops were due Jerry started one of the fiercest barrages I ever experienced. The relief could not come up.
The trenches were crowded with men all packed up and unable to go, and it rained - heavens, how it rained! Hour after hour we stood there in the rising flood, helpless as sheep in the pen, while the guns did their worst.
It was six in the morning before we got back to the rest billets, more dead than alive. Even then there was no rest for me.
I was detailed to parade for battalion guard in four hours. Battalion guard was a spit and polish business, and a full day would not have sufficed to remove nine days' mud from my uniform and clean my saturated equipment.
A scarecrow guard of deadly tired men eventually paraded. We had done our best to get clean, but neither the sergeant-major nor the adjutant, both looking fresh and beautiful, applauded our efforts. Very much the contrary, in fact. But we were all past caring what they thought or said about our appearance.
The next time I went into the line a spot of gas sent me out of it for good. I did not know American troops were in France till I found myself in one of their hospitals at Etretat. The nurses and doctors were gentle beyond anything I ever experienced.
I could only account for it by thinking they must regard my case as hopeless, and when I found a large white bow pinned on my bed there seemed no room for doubt.
I got rather light-headed and fancied my obsequies had already begun in the hustling fashion of the Americans. But the white bow only meant that I was on milk diet.
A week later I was in Blighty, the soldier's Promised Land. Six months afterwards I appeared in the streets again as a civilian with a profound hatred for war and everything it implies.
Private Harold Saunders enlisted in the 14th London (London Scottish) in November 1915, and went to France with the 2nd Battalion in June 1916. When the 6oth Division left France for Salonika he was left behind with a septic heel. He was transferred to the 1st Battalion, and was with them till a whiff of gas at Cambrai completed the wreck in October 1917. He was finally discharged April 1918.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
A "chit" was British slang for a piece of paper.
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