HIKING TO VIMY RIDGE
We left Petite-Saens about nine o'clock Friday night and commenced our march for what we were told would be a short hike. It was pretty warm and muggy. There was a thin, low-lying mist over everything, but clear enough above, and there was a kind of poor moonlight. There was a good deal of delay in getting away, and we had begun to sweat before we started, as we were equipped as usual with about eighty pounds' weight on the back and shoulders. That eighty pounds is theoretical weight.
As a matter of practice the pack nearly always runs ten and even twenty pounds over the official equipment, as Tommy is a great little accumulator of junk. I had acquired the souvenir craze early in the game, and was toting excess baggage in the form of a Boche helmet, a mess of shell noses, and a smashed German automatic. All this ran to weight.
I carried a lot of this kind of stuff all the time I was in the service, and was constantly thinning out my collection or adding to it.
When you consider that a soldier has to carry everything he owns on his person, you'd say that he would want to fly light; but he doesn't. And that reminds me, before I forget it, I want to say something about sending boxes over there.
It is the policy of the British, and, I suppose, will be of the Americans, to move the troops about a good deal. This is done so that no one unit will become too much at home in any one line of trenches and so get careless. This moving about involves a good deal of hiking.
Now if some chap happens to get a twenty-pound box of good things just before he is shifted, he's going to be in an embarrassing position. He'll have to give it away or leave it. So--send the boxes two or three pounds at a time, and often.
But to get back to Petite-Saens. We commenced our hike as it is was getting dark. As we swung out along the once good but now badly furrowed French road, we could see the Very lights beginning to go up far off to the left, showing where the lines were. We could distinguish between our own star lights and the German by the intensity of the flare, theirs being much superior to ours, so much so that they send them up from the second-line trenches.
The sound of the guns became more distant as we swung away to the south and louder again as the road twisted back toward the front.
We began to sing the usual songs of the march and I noticed that the American ragtime was more popular among the boys than their own music. "Dixie" frequently figured in these songs.
It is always a good deal easier to march when the men sing, as it helps to keep time and puts pep into a column and makes the packs seem lighter. The officers see to it that the mouth organs get tuned up the minute a hike begins.
At the end of each hour we came to a halt for the regulation ten minutes' rest. Troops in heavy marching order move very slowly, even with the music--and the hours drag. The ten minutes' rest though goes like a flash. The men keep an eye on the watches and "wangle" for the last second.
We passed through two ruined villages with the battered walls sticking up like broken teeth and the gray moonlight shining through empty holes that had been windows. The people were gone from these places, but a dog howled over yonder. Several times we passed batteries of French artillery, and jokes and laughter came out of the half darkness.
Topping a little rise, the moon came out bright, and away ahead the silver ribbon of the Souchez gleamed for an instant; the bare poles that once had been Bouvigny Wood were behind us, and to the right, to the left, a pulverized ruin where houses had stood. Blofeld told me this was what was left of the village of Abalaine, which had been demolished some time before when the French held the sector.
At this point guides came out and met us to conduct us to the trenches. The order went down the line to fall in, single file, keeping touch, no smoking and no talking, and I supposed we were about to enter a communication trench. But no. We swung on to a "duck walk." This is a slatted wooden walk built to prevent as much as possible sinking into the mud. The ground was very soft here.
I never did know why there was no communication trench unless it was because the ground was so full of moisture. But whatever the reason, there was none, and we were right out in the open on the duck walk. The order for no talk seemed silly as we clattered along the boards, making a noise like a four-horse team on a covered bridge.
I immediately wondered whether we were near enough for the Boches to hear. I wasn't in doubt long, for they began to send over the "Berthas" in flocks. The "Bertha" is an uncommonly ugly breed of nine-inch shell loaded with H.E. It comes sailing over with a querulous "squeeeeeee", and explodes with an ear-splitting crash and a burst of murky, dull-red flame.
If it hits you fair, you disappear. At a little distance you are ripped to fragments, and a little farther off you get a case of shell-shock. Just at the edge of the destructive area the wind of the explosion whistles by your ears, and then sucks back more slowly.
The Boches had the range of that duck walk, and we began to run. Every now and then they would drop one near the walk, and from four to ten casualties would go down. There was no stopping for the wounded. They lay where they fell. We kept on the run, sometimes on the duck walk, sometimes in the mud, for three miles. I had reached the limit of my endurance when we came to a halt and rested for a little while at the foot of a slight incline. This was the "Pimple", so called on account of its rounded crest.
The Pimple forms a part of the well-known Vimy Ridge--is a semi-detached extension of it--and lies between it and the Souchez sector. After a rest here we got into the trenches skirting the Pimple and soon came out on the Quarries. This was a bowl-like depression formed by an old quarry. The place gave a natural protection and all around the edge were dug-outs which had been built by the French, running back into the hill, some of them more than a hundred feet.
In the darkness we could see braziers glowing softly red at the mouth of each burrow. There was a cheerful, mouth-watering smell of cookery on the air, a garlicky smell, with now and then a whiff of spicy wood smoke.
We were hungry and thirsty, as well as tired, and shed our packs at the dug-outs assigned us and went at the grub and the char offered us by the men we were relieving, the Northumberland Fusiliers.
The dug-outs here in the Quarries were the worst I saw in France. They were reasonably dry and roomy, but they had no ventilation except the tunnel entrance, and going back so far the air inside became simply stifling in a very short time.
I took one inhale of the interior atmosphere and decided right there that I would bivouac in the open. It was just getting down to "kip" when a sentry came up and said I would have to get inside. It seemed that Fritz had the range of the Quarries to an inch and was in the habit of sending over "minnies" at intervals just to let us know he wasn't asleep.
I had got settled down comfortably and was dozing off when there came a call for C company. I got the men from my platoon out as quickly as possible, and in half an hour we were in the trenches.
Number 10 platoon was assigned to the center sector, Number 11 to the left sector, and Number 12 to the right sector. Number 9 remained behind in supports in the Quarries.
Now when I speak of these various sectors, I mean that at this point there was no continuous line of front trenches, only isolated stretches of trench separated by intervals of from two hundred to three hundred yards of open ground. There were no dug-outs. It was impossible to leave these trenches except under cover of darkness--or to get to them or to get up rations. They were awful holes. Any raid by the Germans in large numbers at this time would have wiped us out, as there was no means of retreating or getting up reinforcements.
The Tommies called the trenches Grouse Spots. It was a good name. We got into them in the dense darkness of just before dawn. The division we relieved gave us hardly any instruction, but beat it on the hot foot, glad to get away and anxious to go before sun-up. As we settled down in our cosey danger spots I heard Rolfie, the frog-voiced baritone, humming one of his favorite coster songs:
And he meant every word of it.
In our new positions in the Grouse Spots the orders were to patrol the open ground between at least four times a night. That first night there was one more patrol necessary before daylight. Tired as I was, I volunteered for it. I had had one patrol before, opposite Bully-Grenay, and thought I liked the game.
I went over with one man, a fellow named Bellinger. We got out and started to crawl. All we knew was that the left sector was two hundred yards away. Machine-gun bullets were squealing and snapping overhead pretty continuously, and we had to hug the dirt. It is surprising to see how flat a man can keep and still get along at a good rate of speed. We kept straight away to the left and presently got into wire. And then we heard German voices. Ow! I went cold all over.
Then some "Very" lights went up and I saw the Boche parapet not twenty feet away. Worst of all there was a little lane through their wire at that point, and there would be, no doubt, a sap head or a listening post near. I tried to lie still and burrow into the dirt at the same time. Nothing happened. Presently the lights died, and Bellinger gave me a poke in the ribs. We started to crawfish. Why we weren't seen I don't know, but we had gone all of one hundred feet before they spotted us. Fortunately we were on the edge of a shallow shell hole when the sentry caught our movements and Fritz cut loose with the "typewriters." We rolled in. A perfect torrent of bullets ripped up the dirt and cascaded us with gravel and mud. The noise of the bullets "crackling" a yard above us was deafening.
The fusillade stopped after a bit. I was all for getting out and away immediately. Bellinger wanted to wait a while. We argued for as much as five minutes, I should think, and then the lights having gone out, I took matters in my own hands and we went away from there. Another piece of luck!
We weren't more than a minute on our way when a pair of bombs went off about over the shell hole. Evidently some bold Heinie had chucked them over to make sure of the job in case the machines hadn't. It was a close pinch--two close pinches. I was in places afterwards where there was more action and more danger, but, looking back, I don't think I was ever sicker or scareder. I would have been easy meat if they had rushed us.
We made our way back slowly, and eventually caught the gleam of steel helmets. They were British. We had stumbled upon our left sector. We found out then that the line curved and that instead of the left sector being directly to the left of ours--the center--it was to the left and to the rear. Also there was a telephone wire running from one to the other. We reported and made our way back to the center in about five minutes by feeling along the wire. That was our method afterwards, and the patrol was cushy for us.