The excitement of getting away from camp and the knowledge that we were soon to get into the thick of the big game pleased most of us. We were glad to go. At least we thought so.
Two hundred of us were loaded into side-door Pullmans, forty to the car. It was a kind of sardine or Boston Elevated effect, and by the time we reached Rouen, twenty-four hours later, we had kinks in our legs and corns on our elbows. Also we were hungry, having had nothing but bully beef and biscuits. We made "char", which is trench slang for tea, in the station, and after two hours moved up the line again, this time in real coaches.
Next night we were billeted at Barlin--don't get that mixed up with Berlin, it's not the same--in an abandoned convent within range of the German guns. The roar of artillery was continuous and sounded pretty close.
Now and again a shell would burst near by with a kind of hollow "spung", but for some reason we didn't seem to mind. I had expected to get the shivers at the first sound of the guns and was surprised when I woke up in the morning after a solid night's sleep.
A message came down from the front trenches at daybreak that we were wanted and wanted quick. We slung together a dixie of char and some bacon and bread for breakfast, and marched around to the "quarters", where they issued "tin hats", extra "ammo", and a second gas helmet. A good many of the men had been out before, and they did the customary "grousing" over the added load.
The British Tommy growls or grouses over anything and everything. He's never happy unless he's unhappy. He resents especially having anything officially added to his pack, and you can't blame him, for in full equipment he certainly is all dressed up like a pack horse.
After the issue we were split up into four lots for the four companies of the battalion, and after some "wangling" I got into Company C, where I stopped all the time I was in France. I was glad, because most of my chums were in that unit.
We got into our packs and started up the line immediately. As we neared the lines we were extended into artillery formation, that is, spread out so that a shell bursting in the road would inflict fewer casualties.
At Bully-Grenay, the point where we entered the communication trenches, guides met us and looked us over, commenting most frankly and freely on our appearance. They didn't seem to think we would amount to much, and said so. They agreed that the "bloomin' Yank" must be a "bloody fool" to come out there. There were times later when I agreed with them.
It began to rain as we entered the communication trench, and I had my first taste of mud. That is literal, for with mud knee-deep in a trench just wide enough for two men to pass you get smeared from head to foot.
Incidentally, as we approached nearer the front, I got my first smell of the dead. It is something you never get away from in the trenches. So many dead have been buried so hastily and so lightly that they are constantly being uncovered by shell bursts. The acrid stench pervades everything, and is so thick you can fairly taste it. It makes nearly everybody deathly sick at first, but one becomes used to it as to anything else.
This communication trench was over two miles long, and it seemed like twenty. We finally landed in a support trench called "Mechanics" (every trench has a name, like a street), and from there into the first-line trench.
I have to admit a feeling of disappointment in that first trench. I don't know what I expected to see, but what I did see was just a long, crooked ditch with a low step running along one side, and with sandbags on top. Here and there was a muddy, bedraggled Tommy half asleep, nursing a dirty and muddy rifle on "sentry go." Everything was very quiet at the moment--no rifles popping, as I had expected, no bullets flying, and, as it happened, absolutely no shelling in the whole sector.
I forgot to say that we had come up by daylight. Ordinarily troops are moved at night, but the communication trench from Bully-Grenay was very deep and was protected at points by little hills, and it was possible to move men in the daytime.
Arrived in the front trench, the sergeant-major appeared, crawling out of his dug-out--the usual place for a sergeant-major--and greeted us with,
"Keep your nappers down, you rooks. Don't look over the top. It ayen't 'ealthy."
It is the regular warning to new men. For some reason the first emotion of the rookie is an overpowering curiosity. He wants to take a peep into No Man's Land. It feels safe enough when things are quiet. But there's always a Fritzie over yonder with a telescope-sighted rifle, and it's about ten to one he'll get you if you stick the old "napper" up in daylight.
The Germans, by the way, have had the "edge" on the Allies in the matter of sniping, as in almost all lines of artillery and musketry practice. The Boche sniper is nearly always armed with a periscope-telescope rifle. This is a specially built super-accurate rifle mounted on a periscope frame. It is thrust up over the parapet and the image of the opposing parapet is cast on a little ground-glass screen on which are two crossed lines. At one hundred fifty yards or less the image is brought up to touching distance seemingly. Fritz simply trains his piece on some low place or anywhere that a head may be expected. When one appears on the screen, he pulls the trigger,--and you "click it" if you happen to be on the other or receiving end. The shooter never shows himself.
I remember the first time I looked through a periscope I had no sooner thrust the thing up than a bullet crashed into the upper mirror, splintering it. Many times I have stuck up a cap on a stick and had it pierced.
The British sniper, on the other hand--at least in my time--had a plain telescope rifle and had to hide himself behind old masonry, tree trunks, or anything convenient, and camouflaged himself in all sorts of ways. At that he was constantly in danger.
I was assigned to Platoon 10 and found they were a good live bunch. Corporal Wells was the best of the lot, and we became fast friends. He helped me learn a lot of my new duties and the trench "lingo", which is like a new language, especially to a Yank.
Wells started right in to make me feel at home and took me along with two others of the new men down to our "apartments", a dug-out built for about four, and housing ten.
My previous idea of a dug-out had been a fairly roomy sort of cave, somewhat damp, but comparatively comfortable. Well, this hole was about four and a half feet high--you had to get in doubled up on your hands and knees--about five by six feet on the sides, and there was no floor, just muck. There was some sodden, dirty straw and a lot of old moldy sandbags. Seven men and their equipment were packed in here, and we made ten.
There was a charcoal brazier going in the middle with two or three mess tins of char boiling away. Everybody was smoking, and the place stunk to high heaven, or it would have if there hadn't been a bit of burlap over the door.
I crowded up into a corner with my back against the mud wall and my knees under my chin. The men didn't seem overglad to see us, and groused a good deal about the extra crowding. They regarded me with extra disfavor because I was a lance corporal, and they disapproved of any young whipper-snapper just out from Blighty with no trench experience pitchforked in with even a slight superior rank. I had thought up to then that a lance corporal was pretty near as important as a brigadier.
"We'll soon tyke that stripe off ye, me bold lad," said one big cockney.
They were a decent lot after all. Since we were just out from Blighty, they showered us with questions as to how things looked "t' 'ome." And then somebody asked what was the latest song. Right here was where I made my hit and got in right. I sing a bit, and I piped up with the newest thing from the music halls, "Tyke Me Back to Blighty." Here it is:
It doesn't look like much and I'm afraid my rendition of cockney dialect into print isn't quite up to Kipling's. But the song had a pretty little lilting melody, and it went big. They made me sing it about a dozen times and were all joining in at the end.
Then they got sentimental--and gloomy.
"Gawd lumme!" says the big fellow who had threatened my beloved stripes. "Wot a life. Squattin' 'ere in the bloody mud like a blinkin' frog. Fightin' fer wot? Wot, I arsks yer? Gawd lumme! I'd give me bloomin' napper to stroll down the Strand agyne wif me swagger stick an' drop in a private bar an' 'ave me go of 'Aig an' 'Aig."
"Garn," cuts in another Tommy. "Yer blinkin' 'igh wif yer wants, ayen't ye? An' yer 'Aig an' 'Aig. Drop me down in Great Lime Street (Liverpool) an' it's me fer the Golden Sheaf, and a pint of bitter, an' me a 'oldin' 'Arriet's 'and over th' bar. I'm a courtin' 'er when," etc., etc.
And then a fresh-faced lad chirps up: "T' 'ell wif yer Lonnon an' yer whuskey. Gimme a jug o' cider on the sunny side of a 'ay rick in old Surrey. Gimme a happle tart to go wif it. Gawd, I'm fed up on bully beef."
And so it went. All about pubs and bar-maids and the things they'd eat and drink, and all of it Blighty.
They were in the midst of a discussion of what part of the body was most desirable to part with for a permanent Blighty wound when a young officer pushed aside the burlap and wedged in. He was a lieutenant and was in command of our platoon. His name was Blofeld.
Blofeld was most democratic. He shook hands with the new men and said he hoped we'd be live wires, and then he told us what he wanted. There was to be a raid the next night and he was looking for volunteers.
Nobody spoke for a long minute, and then I offered.
I think I spoke more to break the embarrassing silence than anything else. I think, too, that I was led a little by a kind of youthful curiosity, and it may be that I wanted to appear brave in the eyes of these men who so evidently held me more or less in contempt as a newcomer.
Blofeld accepted me, and one of the other new men offered. He was taken too.
It turned out that all the older men were married and that they were not expected to volunteer. At least there was no disgrace attaching to a refusal.
After Blofeld left, Sergeant Page told us we'd better get down to "kip" while we could. "Kip" in this case meant closing our eyes and dozing. I sat humped up in my original position through the night. There wasn't room to stretch out.
Along toward morning I began to itch, and found I had made the acquaintance of that gay and festive little soldier's enemy, the "cootie." The cootie, or the "chat" as he is called by the officers, is the common body louse. Common is right. I never got rid of mine until I left the service. Sometimes when I get to thinking about it, I believe I haven't yet.