Memoirs & Diaries - A Nightmare

German 'pillbox' at Baulney (Meuse), 1918 Lark, a weazened, foul-mouthed, little lump of unconscious Cockney heroism, nicknamed under the usual order of such things "Sparrer," lies o' nights untroubled, I suspect, by any nightmares occasioned by his part in the blood-spewing earthquake of eleven years ago that made his Whitechapel of to-day fit for heroes to live in.

His job done, it is forgotten, except perhaps for periodical arguments in the public bar of his "Local" as to the exact position in Etaples of a certain Red Lamp.  Lucky man, may his shadow, always attenuated, never grow less.

A fair enough bricklayer by trade, he preferred the hawking of rags and bones, getting thereby more scope for his genius in winning unconsidered trifles from areas and back entrances.

During the War, as a member of His Majesty's Corps of Royal Engineers, he was very much in demand.  Was there a shortage of rum, Sparrer would casually stroll into the blue, and reappear shortly, clasping to his meagre person a large stone jar of S.R.D., won from some Army Service Corps quarter-master, preferably a very stout Q.M., who was actually in the act of sitting upon the said stone jar.

Was there a sap-head made uninhabitable by cannily aimed stick bombs for its sniper inhabitant, Sparrer, using his skill as a bricklayer, feverishly, in the blue mist caused by perspiration and his carefully whispered comments on stick bombs, Jerry, and the world in general, rapidly rendered it safe again.

This goes to explain why, on a November night during the latter part of the War, he was detailed off with me for a job of work that left Sparrer's ensuing nights serenely untroubled, but mine...!

A minor operation close to "Plug Street" had pushed our line forward, and we held a patch of land, horse-shoe-shaped, upon which alighted many screaming messengers of death despatched from all points of the compass except that directly behind us.  Altogether, during its frequent spasms of playfulness it was as nice a little slaughtering place as any on the Western Front.

Hill 60 during wartimeIn the midst of this plot, but nearer our lines than the German, half buried by indescribable debris, lay a captured Jerry pillbox.

This massive structure, its walls 4 or 5 feet in thickness, consisted of a room some 9 feet square, loop- holed for a machine gun, with a single door that, by the thickness of the walls, was actually a small tunnel, perhaps 18 inches wide by 4 feet high.

It had its loop-hole peering towards the British lines, whilst its exit stared Berlin-wards.  The desirable residence having been acquired by us, this lay-out had to be reversed before the place could be occupied without nasty things arriving through the front door.

So, behold Sparrer and I on the spot with instructions from the original of all "Mad Majors" to cut an exit facing our lines, a loop-hole facing Fritz, and using the concrete therefrom to block up the existing apertures.

It was a beautiful night when (after making sure the word was passed along the trench that we were out in front, and the sentries were to greet us as friends on our return) Sparrer and I crawled over the top, under our barbed wire, and proceeded through No Man's Land towards our pillbox.

Half a dozen yards from our front line we were alone - two specks in a vast dark void, its unseen horizon an encircling flitter of light from the distant guns.  In our sector things were extraordinarily quiet, except for the occasional "Phut!" from the rifle of a bored sentry on either side.

Hill 60 pillbox photographed in summer 2000Yet it was a curious night, in which the major sounds, the throb and rumble of far-off artillery, the stuttering of a Lewis gun, seemed muffled and deadened, whilst the minor noises, the thin chinkle of an empty beef tin carelessly tossed into barbed wire, the faint squelch of stench rising in slow bubbles from the noisome pool in an old shell hole, were magnified into weird whisperings and stifled sighs.

A night for spirits to be abroad, and Sparrer and I could have done with some, the genii for preference that rises from out a jar (S.R.D.) and bestows cheer and courage as its magic potion.  Later that night when the admirable Sparrer supplied our needs out of a mud-encrusted tin mug I needed that rum, I tell you.

The ground having been recently fought over, going was hard, but eventually we reached our objective.  The pillbox, with its chattering machine gun mowing down approaching troops, had attracted the attention of many shells, and evidently a German doctor had shared the room with its gun crew, rendering first aid; whilst many wounded sheltering in the lee of its concrete walls had been caught by our guns.

The place inside and out was a shambles.  Outside, a churned-up mixture of limbs, trenching tools, rapidly decaying bodies, fragments of accoutrements, mud, and foul slime.  Inside, a welter of what had been, perhaps, six men, lying disjointedly in a foot of discoloured water.

With the aid of a carefully shielded electric torch I discovered that the place could be drained of water by clearing around the entrance and through the tunnel; so with a couple of long-handled German shovels Sparrer and I set to work, throwing the filth on each side of a low bank, using both our shovels to lift a rotting body, pushing it as far over the bank as possible, balancing a severed arm, dimly phosphorescent in the dark, on the shovel blade and hurling it away in the manner of a lacrosse player, Sparrer humming gently a song of his own:

I am a lavatory attendant.
I live in a W.C.

"For God's sake, Sparrer!" I chide him, and we work on in silence.  The entrance cleared we start on the tunnel and, as the water gradually flows out, guide and ease the floating remains of the gun crew through the exit, and heave them over the bank.

Ypres Cloth HallThe slime on the floor scraped together and flung out through the doorway, the stench visibly abates, and I sit down on an unsmashed case of first-aid appliances and gratefully light a cigarette from Sparrer's proffered glowing fag-end.

"A mucking fine war," says Sparrer, "living in -- dying in -- and becoming -- arter yer blinking well dead.  Why, one of them blokes we just flung art 'ad an 'andful of white maggots in 'is trarser pockets.  'Ho, yus,' says some beggaring Brigadier back in 'eadquarters, 'anding 'is shampine glass to 'is servant hand putting 'is lilywhite fmger on the map, 'a pillbox!  'Ow nace!  We really must secure that, what!' An' 'ere's you an' me smothered in -- finking abart cutting froo 6 foot of reinforced concrete wiv an 'ammer as wouldn't crack a louse on the sergeant-major's neck an' a cold chisel wot I dropped coming along that -- communication trench."

"Good Lord!  Sparrer, haven't you got the chisel?" I asked in dismay.  "How the hell are we going to try to do something?  Still the work we've just done is sufficient for me, and if the major happens along we can spruce him clearing the place was a long job."

"Is that old grass'opper coming arahnd?"

"He didn't actually say so, but you know how he likes springing the unexpected.  So it will be advisable for us to stop here until just before dawn in case he does, even though we can't do anything.  But, tell you what, Sparrer, it wouldn't be a bad scheme if you slid off back to the line and scrounged a couple of tots of rum.  If the major should flash his monocle round the corner I'll be able to explain your absence."

"l'll bring some back, corp, even if I 'ave ter wham the Quarter-bloke over the ead wiv a pick 'elve, an' I won't be mor'n ten minutes."

And with a "Cheerio!" Sparrer slipped into his equipment, picked up his gun, and departed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II wearing the uniform of an Austrian Field MarshalSquatting on the case of medical stuff, I leant my back against the concrete wall and prepared myself for a dreary wait in the darkness, pitch black in the pillbox, until my confederate returned.

Perhaps fifteen minutes after Sparrer's departure, things suddenly happened.  Without the slightest warning Jerry dropped a box barrage on that part of the line exactly behind my pillbox!  The lay of land at this point made it easier for Jerry to raid our line than for us to reach his.

Sitting there in the darkness, listening to the screaming, crashing inferno that had so suddenly shattered the night, I reasoned that it was unlikely for the Germans to visit the pillbox, though they probably would pass within a few yards of it on their way to and from our line.

Gradually, our artillery thundered into retaliation in response, no doubt, to urgent appeals from our front line.  The bombardment swelled, roared, and then, nearly as suddenly as it had begun, died out.  The crackle of rifle and machine gun faded away, and peace in this sector reigned again.

Verey lights, fired every few minutes, showing that, although the cannonade had stopped, the line was still alert, hung high in the air, lighting the landscape in a pale glimmer, sank and died away.

But for knowing that Sparrer was sure to return, I'd have gone back to the line, for I was pretty windy, and even then I was in two minds about it, when a peculiar noise outside brought me to my feet, tense and listening.

Someone undoubtedly approaching the pillbox.  Stealthily, almost silently, as though creeping!  Sparrer?  No!  He would have returned carefully, it is true, but not in this slow fashion.  Besides, he would have whispered a greeting!  Closer and closer he, it, or whatever the thing was, came, silently crawling.

I was in a quandary.  Leaving the pillbox might mean running into a party of Jerries - then Good-night!  Lying doggo was all right if whatever it was passed by, but if my presence was suspected then also Good-night!  A bomb tossed in that pillbox would have turned me into pictures on the wall!

An aerial view of YpresLittle icy-cold drops of sweat ran down my spine, as, with rather a shaky hand, fumbling in the darkness, I silently slid back the safety catch of my rifle and, drawing the bolt, saw to it that a cartridge was in the breach.

Challenging was not to be risked, for I was like a rat in a trap, and the eerie sound came nearer, a rustling sliding as of someone crawling belly-to-earth for a yard or two, then silence, as though he had stopped to listen.  Tiptoeing slowly across the room to the corner opposite the entrance, I flattened against the wall, rifle covering the entrance.

The Verey lights fired now and then shone down the tunnel, cutting a shaft of white light through the pillbox, leaving the rest in pitch blackness.

With beating heart and dry lips, I listened...  He was outside the entrance...  Then, as I strove to pierce the darkness, I realized that someone was creeping down the tunnel...  Silence; though it seemed to me my beating heart must tell the world I was there and in a hell of a funk.

A Verey light glared, grew brighter, and there down on the floor, peering into the pillbox, was a white face, the top portion black under the shadow from the grim German steel helmet.  Crack!  Clang!  I put two shots through it.  Then, my ears ringing from the shots in that confined space, the Verey light died down.

Silence and darkness!  Were there any more out there?  I sweated and waited for the expected bomb to arrive.  But no!  Another Verey light shone, and there was that ghastly head, peering up from the floor.  Stepping forward to get out in the open again, I was halted by the sound of someone else approaching, but walking, not creeping.

Respiration drill at the front"Rum up, corp," said a cheery voice at the entrance, and Sparrer stepped down the tunnel to stumble over the dead Fritz.

"Blimy!  Wot's this?"

"It's all right, Sparrer.  Did you see any Jerries out there?"

"No, but the blighters came over on a raid.  Never 'ad no luck, though, and went 'ome again.  Wot's that bloke in the passidge?"

"He's one that didn't go home, Sparrer.  Let's pull him in and have a look at him."

We pull the body into the pillbox and I switch the torch on him.  One bullet hole through his temple and another through his jaw under the ear.  Then, as I throw the pencil of light down his body, I understand.

His left leg is badly smashed, half covered by a blood-soaked bandage with the white of bone protruding from hanging lumps of flesh.  He had come over with his raiding party, stopped a piece of shell and crawled into the pillbox, perhaps to die, perhaps for safety.

I had shot him.

"Well, yer might 'a' shot 'im art in the open, corp.  We've only got ter fling the poor sod art again."

"Sparrer" I cut in...  "Did you manage to scrounge any rum?"

"Me nime being what hit is, I not only got some Nelson's blood, but I got a water-bottle full of 'ot tea as well."

"You can have the hot tea, Sparrer.  For Christ's sake give me a swig at that rum, and then we'll get to hell out of this."

"An' s'posing the major comes, corp?"

"And to hell with him as well, Sparrer!"

Twelve years ago, and still at night sometimes comes a sweat that wakes me by its deathly chill to hear again that creeping, creeping.

Alan F. Hyder, an "Old Contemptible". War service in France 1914 to 1918.

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

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

The USA suffered 57,476 fatal army casualties during the war.

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