Memoirs & Diaries - Two Nights
The year 1917 gave our battalion the last of a series of changes in the war areas to which it had gone. The ravages made by Gallipoli had been repaired by drafts of recruits and the return of recovered wounded men to their various platoons.
Re-organization in Egypt, coupled with intensive training, had welded the new blood and the old together; and a tip-and-run campaign with the Turks in Sinai, the worst features of which were thirst, flies, and forced marches, had given the new men a slight foretaste of shell and machine-gun fire.
We came to France as a tried division, and, after a little allowance of time for acclimatisation, were tested on various fronts before being given a gradually worsening front to hold.
The end of May and the beginning of June 1917 were wonderful months. In shattered villages behind the lines the ruins were being hidden by tall grass; garden-flowers, seeding themselves, spread swiftly and mingled with their wild kind.
Everywhere the waste of war was softened by the prolific growth of unchecked crops and uncut hay. The birds mated and nested within a stone's throw of the gun emplacements, and their songs filled the woods and even reached to the front-line trenches.
We took over our new area at night; passing over a log track through Havrincourt Wood. It was thick, extensive, full of tangled growth and beautiful "rides". The trenches lay forward of it just over a rise, whence a gentle declivity descended to the German lines.
Our own trenches were newly formed; much of the front line remained to be dug, for the division we relieved had followed up a German retreat that left ground to be entrenched.
Everything was new; even the distance to the German lines unknown. Bullet wounds were plentiful, but shelling light.
That night a number of us lay 200 yards in front of our own line while the rest of the battalion dug the trenches under cover of our screen. Everything was quiet; there were no casualties, and, after the colonel's inspection of the lines just prior to dawn, the screen was withdrawn and ordinary trench routine installed.
Four of us who had been with the battalion since the beginning of the War, and only known the separation due to light wounds that had allowed us to return to the battalion after a flying glimpse of Blighty, were engaged as scouts.
The duty, hitherto, had been light enough: sniping from advanced positions, an occasional patrol on a very quiet front. Now we were to know a new phase of our task. On the second night the colonel sent for us, and we gathered round the table of boxes that occupied the centre of his dug-out.
After going carefully over the ground on the map, we were ordered to go out and inspect the German lines. A thousand yards was named as being the possible distance of their front line. Our own quarters were in a small dug-out that we had dug on the previous day; well inside the wood and about 500 yards behind the trenches.
This was our privilege for undertaking scout work - that we did not occupy the front line, where we could not get the rest necessary to the nightly work of going out in front of the trenches.
We worked in groups of three; one man remaining in the dug-out to prepare tea and food for us on our return just before dawn the following day. We left our own front-line trench at ten o'clock at night and remained out as long as was necessary.
The rum ration was issued to us before leaving, but we never took it, preferring to have it in our tea when we returned, soaked from crawling in the long, dew-wet grass. Also, the task required quick ears and eyes, undeadened by liquor.
Two sunken roads bounded the left and right of our lines; these were convenient places for getting away from our trenches, though too dangerous to use further than that, being places obviously doubly watched.
After a few preliminary trial outings, we arrived in the front line one quiet evening just before dusk, waiting in the open trench until our eyes had got their night sight. Then we set off, this night four of us working in twos. We worked from left to right, reaching the German wire about twelve o'clock midnight. Then we lay listening.
The guns were silent; now and then a minenwerfer would soar up into the air from the German lines, and we would take rough bearings of the position of the mortar that fired it. We could hear the clack of talk in their front line, only 10 or 15 yards away; from behind we could hear the rumble of their transport bringing up rations under cover of darkness.
Now and then a sniper's bullet would ping towards our lines. Sometimes, when our own line had a working party out, we could hear the strident tones of a particularly noted-voiced sergeant-major, "Come on, get them spades crackin'. A set of old women ud dig quicker."
Then one of us would touch the other and we would grin in the darkness at the little touch of humour that relieved our tension. Often we could hear the clink of German picks as they dug or mended trenches; once a working-party of fifty of them marched past where we lay in the grass and began to work about 100 yards away.
We had to lie there until within an hour of dawn before they ceased, and the crawl back to our lines in the slowly increasing light was one that we patted ourselves on the back for as equalling any Red Indian's stalking in its noiselessness.
We left everything behind us in the trench that was likely to identify us if we had the ill-luck to be captured or "scuppered" while scouting - pay books, identity discs, and letters: and we discarded steel helmets because they clanged like a bell if they hit a branch or were accidentally knocked by our rifles, substituting forage caps.
We wore no equipment except a bandolier of ammunition; and our bayonets were, of course, always fixed except on bright, moonlight nights.
Men whose luck it was not to have worked in this manner thought our job a dangerous one compared with ordinary trench-life, but this was not correct. Once between the line the War became a personal affair. Each side had its men out, therefore No Man's Land was untouched by gun-fire.
Snipers and enemy scouts and patrols were our enemies, and our lives depended on our own eyes and ears and sense of direction. The life, we considered, was far better than sitting in a trench waiting for shells or digging new trenches.
We were exempt from fatigues and onerous duties, and we had our own little dug-out near to Battalion Headquarters, and drew and cooked our own rations. In the daytime we rested. Every third night was followed by a period of a full twenty-four hours' rest, and the following day we took a turn of duty on a day observation-post that was concealed amongst fallen logs on a rise overlooking the German lines, which we watched by telescope.
At this post we took turns with the other headquarters' scouts; they worked between the lines on the nights when we rested.
On the night already mentioned we lay for some time making notes and then began to crawl slowly along the German wire, parallel with it. There was a moon due up, but the clouds had so far obscured it. Just as we came to a small hillock it burst from behind the clouds and flooded the country with light.
We lay still and waited; a German's bayonet gleamed from the trench, where his rifle lay pointed over the parapet - a sentry post. But the most thrilling thing of all was the sight we had of a road through a gap between two low hills behind the enemy lines.
We could see guns and transports passing across the moonlit stretch; we could see men moving up and down, groups of them stopping and talking just as we did when moving behind our own lines. It was a glimpse of a forbidden land.
Suddenly my pal touched my arm; we wriggled close together; he stretched his hand on the ground and slowly turned it to the right. Following it with a slow movement of the head, I saw shadowy figures between us and the moon - ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty - we counted. They moved slowly towards our trenches.
There was only one thing to do safely; we followed them, hoping that we could send some kind of warning to our own line. Crawling in their wake was exciting, though quite safe. When they were 50 yards from their own line they dropped to the grass and began to crawl.
We followed them to within 100 yards of our trenches, and were almost on the bank of the sunken road flanking us on the left when a Verey light sent up by some troops on our left threw us into silhouette on top of the bank; to descend into the road was to choose Scylla instead of Charybdis, for it was traversed by machine-gun fire.
We flattened ourselves as soon as the light allowed us to change from our "frozen" attitudes by dying out.
But we had been seen, not by the patrol, but by a covering party to the patrol, who opened fire wildly on the spot we occupied.
They must have formed the opinion that we were a large force attempting to cut off the big patrol; a signal sounded and the patrol retreated away to the right.
Then, for some minutes we lay, our hearts panting wildly while bullets thudded into the opposite bank of the sunken road, which was raised about 3 feet above our bank. They sang over us in a continuous volley, and we gauged the numbers of rifles as being about twenty.
There was nothing for it but absolute stillness; if we as much as moved a hand to thrust our rifles into firing position, or raised our heads an inch to try and find out by the flashes where the enemy was, a volley was the result.
This was due to the fact that we were lying in long grass, uncut hay, which waved every time we stirred. The movement was obvious to the enemy because of the brilliant moonlight.
To make matters worse, our own line practically gave us up and began machine-gun fire on the German lines. The night woke to pandemonium. Fortunately this saved us and we crawled and slithered back to our own trenches with a delightful amount of information.
In three months we never lost a man on patrol, though a few German prisoners were collected, mostly snipers caught between the lines. This period of warfare concluded by an advance which lost us more men in a day than we had lost in the previous months, and we came out on rest.
Sports were organized; a shooting competition was arranged. One of the prizes was carried off by a chum and myself, though there was little credit in this seeing that we had been using our rifles in sniping and scouting work for months, whereas the average Tommy rarely fired his unless an attack matured.
The prize was sixty francs, and we repaired to a favourite estaminet and treated our pals after the time-honoured manner.
That was the night my pal saw most distinctly two sentries on the gateway of the ruined chateau that lodged us. We had great difficulty in drawing him past before he was thrown into the guard-room. The single sentry became almost annoyed.
After a few weeks' rest and intensive training, we went to Ypres, bound for the Passchendaele Ridge. We were to be the second brigade in, another brigade preceding us to the line. We knew the place by repute only. Its reputation was similar to that of Verdun to the poilus - hell on earth.
Every part of the line was shelled hourly; the roads behind were shelled; the camps were shelled by huge guns. A full-strength brigade went in. About a week later they came down again, not much more than the strength of a battalion. They were ragged, muddy, unshaven, the remnants of a glorious attack that had taken a few more yards of that contested bit of muddy, pock-holed earth.
For the only time in my experience I saw a whole camp of Tommies turn out to cheer others returning from a line they themselves were bound for. As that draggled little mob slithered down the road to their rest they were cheered every bit of the way.
One of them turned a haggard face to the door of a hut where a group of the others were cheering. "You won't blasted well cheer when you gets up there, mate," he said grimly.
The same night we went "up there". We went in little groups of five, with intervals of more than 100 yards between each two. The Menin road was a river of mud in which our boots sucked and slipped. Down one side of it came horses, limbers, wagons, ambulance cars, guns - all at full speed.
The horses seemed to know they were coming from danger; their hoofs thrashed the mud about us as they flew down to the rear, their drivers sitting stolidly, using the whip now and then, and smoking as they drove. There were no restrictions needed there.
Up the other side the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in the line.
Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined.
Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons.
By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand the big guns crashed. On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror.
As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch.
All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees; some shivered off at the base of the bole, others with a grotesque branch left; and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.
By Cambridge Road we were halted. Here were the field-guns, wheel to wheel, the guns which provided the barrage fire - behind which flaming wall all advances were now made. The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist.
The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place.
Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.
The only safe approaches to the line were over the duckboard tracks thrown over the mud loosely, which were trodden in and replaced often. Up these we had slipped and stumbled, while shells burst and smothered us with slimy liquid.
I think we almost prayed for the attack and the consequent death, wound, or relief.
It came on the zero hour with a crash of artillery fire that I heard as a stretcher bore me down to the dressing station. Within two hours I was lying between blankets, somewhere behind Ypres, in a large, comfortable marquee.
All I remember is pain and then dullness. I recollect lying in a huge corrugated-iron elephant-hut, where four doctors, stripped to their trouser-tops, worked like butchers on mangled men; the sweat streaming from them as they amputated some hopelessly shell-shattered limb; and, as fast as they worked, the ambulances rolled up that shelled road for their loads.
I remember being jolted up and down on the stretcher to which I was strapped, hearing shells rushing over, and then the smoothness of a quiet road after the shell-torn pave of Ypres.
P. Hook Jackson joined
the 6th Battalion Manchester Regt. (T.F.) in September 1914. Served in
the Dardanelles campaign as a private soldier from May until October 1915.
Invalided to Malta with slight wound and dysentery. 2nd Eastern
General Hospital, Brighton, from November until January 1916.
Rejoined Division in Egypt in May 1916. Served in the Sinai campaign as private soldier and scout. Took part in battle of Romani, when the Turkish second attempt on the Suez Canal was defeated with heavy loss to the enemy. Forced marches and desert fighting.
In February sent to France. Served as scout to the brigade. Wounded and gassed in the Battle of Ypres of September to October 1917. Returned to battalion and served again as sniper and scout. Granted commission as second lieutenant in 1918, and attached to the Lancashire Fusiliers.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
In WW1 an "ace" was a pilot who scored five confirmed "kills".
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