FASCINATION OF PATROL WORK
I want to say a word right here about patrol work in general, because for some reason it fascinated me and was my favorite game.
If you should be fortunate--or unfortunate enough, as the case might be--to be squatting in a front-line trench this fine morning and looking through a periscope, you wouldn't see much. Just over the top, not more than twenty feet away, would be your barbed-wire entanglements, a thick network of wire stretched on iron posts nearly waist high, and perhaps twelve or fifteen feet across. Then there would be an intervening stretch of from fifty to one hundred fifty yards of No Man's Land, a tortured, torn expanse of muddy soil, pitted with shell craters, and, over beyond, the German wire and his parapet.
There would be nothing alive visible. There would probably be a few corpses lying about or hanging in the wire. Everything would be still except for the flutter of some rag of a dead man's uniform. Perhaps not that. Daylight movements in No Man's Land are somehow disconcerting. Once I was in a trench where a leg--a booted German leg, stuck up stark and stiff out of the mud not twenty yards in front. Some idiotic joker on patrol hung a helmet on the foot, and all the next day that helmet dangled and swung in the breeze. It irritated the periscope watchers, and the next night it was taken down.
Ordinarily, however, there is little movement between the wires, nor behind them. And yet you know that over yonder there are thousands of men lurking in the trenches and shelters.
After dark these men, or some of them, crawl out like hunted animals and prowl in the black mystery of No Man's Land. They are the patrol.
The patrol goes out armed and equipped lightly. He has to move softly and at times very quickly. It is his duty to get as close to the enemy lines as possible and find out if they are repairing their wire or if any of their parties are out, and to get back word to the machine gunners, who immediately cut loose on the indicated spot.
Sometimes he lies with his head to the ground over some suspected area, straining his ears for the faint "scrape, scrape" that means a German mining party is down there, getting ready to plant a ton or so of high explosive, or, it may be, is preparing to touch it off at that very moment.
Always the patrol is supposed to avoid encounter with enemy patrols. He carries two or three Mills bombs and a pistol, but not for use except in extreme emergency. Also a persuader stick or a trench knife, which he may use if he is near enough to do it silently.
The patrol stares constantly through the dark and gets so he can see almost as well as a cat. He must avoid being seen. When a Very light goes up, he lies still. If he happens to be standing, he stands still. Unless the light is behind him so that he is silhouetted, he is invisible to the enemy.
Approaching a corpse, the patrol lies quiet and watches it for several minutes, unless it is one he has seen before and is acquainted with. Because sometimes the man isn't dead, but a perfectly live Boche patrol lying "doggo." You can't be too careful.
If you happen to be pussyfooting forward erect and encounter a German patrol, it is policy to scuttle back unless you are near enough to get in one good lick with the persuader. He will retreat slowly himself, and you mustn't follow him. Because: The British patrol usually goes out singly or at the most in pairs or threes.
The Germans, on the other hand, hunt in parties. One man leads. Two others follow to the rear, one to each side. And then two more, and two more, so that they form a V, like a flock of geese. Now if you follow up the lead man when he retreats, you are baited into a trap and find yourself surrounded, smothered by superior numbers, and taken prisoner. Then back to the Boche trench, where exceedingly unpleasant things are apt to happen.
It is, in fact, most unwholesome for a British patrol to be captured. I recall a case in point which I witnessed and which is far enough in the past so that it can be told. It occurred, not at Vimy Ridge, but further down the line, nearer the Somme.
I was out one night with another man, prowling in the dark, when I encountered a Canadian sergeant who was alone. There was a Canadian battalion holding the next trench to us, and another farther down. He was from the farther one. We lay in the mud and compared notes. Once, when a light floated down near us, I saw his face, and he was a man I knew, though not by name.
After a while we separated, and he went back, as he was considerably off his patrol. An hour or so later the mist began to get gray, and it was evident that dawn was near. I was a couple of hundred yards down from our battalion, and my man and I made for the trenches opposite where we were. As we climbed into a sap head, I was greeted by a Canadian corporal. He invited me to a tin of "char", and I sent my man up the line to our own position.
We sat on the fire step drinking, and I told the corporal about meeting the sergeant out in front. While we were at the "char" it kept getting lighter, and presently a pair of Lewises started to rattle a hundred yards or so away down the line. Then came a sudden commotion and a kind of low, growling shout. That is the best way I can describe it. We stood up, and below we saw men going over the top.
"What the dickens can this be?" stuttered the corporal. "There's been no barrage. There's no orders for a charge. What is it? What is it?"
Well, there they were, going over, as many as two hundred of them--growling. The corporal and I climbed out of the trench at the rear, over the parados, and ran across lots down to a point opposite where the Canadians had gone over, and watched.
They swept across No Man's Land and into the Boche trench. There was the deuce of a ruckus over there for maybe two minutes, and then back they came--carrying something. Strangely enough there had been no machine-gun fire turned on them as they crossed, nor was there as they returned. They had cleaned that German trench! And they brought back the body of a man--nailed to a rude crucifix. The thing was more like a T than a cross. It was made of planks, perhaps two by five, and the man was spiked on by his hands and feet. Across the abdomen he was riddled with bullets and again with another row a little higher up near his chest. The man was the sergeant I had talked to earlier in the night. What had happened was this. He had, no doubt, been taken by a German patrol. Probably he had refused to answer questions. Perhaps he had insulted an officer. They had crucified him and held him up above the parapet. With the first light his own comrades had naturally opened on the thing with the Lewises, not knowing what it was. When it got lighter, and they recognized the hellish thing that had been done to one of their men, they went over. Nothing in this world could have stopped them.
The M.O. who viewed the body said that without question the man had been crucified alive. Also it was said that the same thing had happened before.
I told Captain Green of the occurrence when I got back to our own trenches, and he ordered me to keep silent, which I did. It was feared that if the affair got about the men would be "windy" on patrol. However, the thing did get about and was pretty well talked over. Too many saw it.
The Canadians were reprimanded for going over without orders. But they were not punished. For their officers went with them--led them.
Occasionally the temptation is too great. Once I was out on patrol alone, having sent my man back with a message, when I encountered a Heinie. I was lying down at the time. A flock of lights went up and showed this fellow standing about ten feet from me. He had frozen and stayed that way till the flares died, but I was close enough to see that he was a German. Also--marvel of marvels--he was alone.
When the darkness settled again, I got to my feet and jumped at him. He jumped at me--another marvel. Going into the clinch I missed him with the persuader and lost my grip on it, leaving the weapon dangling by the leather loop on my wrist. He had struck at me with his automatic, which I think he must have dropped, though I'm not sure of that. Anyway we fell into each other's arms and went at it barehanded. He was bigger than I. I got under the ribs and tried to squeeze the breath out of him, but he was too rugged.
At the same time I felt that he didn't relish the clinch. I slipped my elbow up and got under his chin, forcing his head back. His breath smelled of beer and onions. I was choking him when he brought his knee up and got me in the stomach and again on the instep when he brought his heel down.
It broke my hold, and I staggered back groping for the persuader. He jumped back as far as I did. I felt somehow that he was glad. So was I. We stood for a minute, and I heard him gutter out something that sounded like "Verdamder swinehunt." Then we both backed away.
It seemed to me to be the nicest way out of the situation. No doubt he felt the same.
I seem to have wandered far from the Quarries and the Grouse Spots. Let's go back.
We were two days in the Grouse Spots and were then relieved, going back to the Quarries and taking the place of Number 9 in support. While lying there, I drew a patrol that was interesting because it was different.
The Souchez River flowed down from Abalaine and Souchez villages and through our lines to those of the Germans, and on to Lens. Spies, either in the army itself or in the villages, had been placing messages in bottles and floating them down the river to the Germans.
Somebody found this out, and a net of chicken wire had been placed across the river in No Man's Land. Some one had to go down there and fish for bottles twice nightly. I took this patrol alone. The lines were rather far apart along the river, owing to the swampy nature of the ground, which made livable trenches impossible.
I slipped out and down the slight incline, and presently found myself in a little valley. The grass was rank and high, sometimes nearly up to my chin, and the ground was slimy and treacherous. I slipped into several shell holes and was almost over my head in the stagnant, smelly water.
I made the river all right, but there was no bridge or net in sight. The river was not over ten feet wide and there was supposed to be a footbridge of two planks where the net was.
I got back into the grass and made my way downstream. Sliding gently through the grass, I kept catching my feet in something hard that felt like roots; but there were no trees in the neighborhood. I reached down and groped in the grass and brought up a human rib. The place was full of them, and skulls. Stooping, I could see them, grinning up out of the dusk, hundreds of them. I learned afterwards that this was called the Valley of Death. Early in the war several thousand Zouaves had perished there, and no attempt had been made to bury them.
After getting out of the skeletons, I scouted along downstream and presently heard the low voices of Germans. Evidently they had found the net and planned to get the messages first. Creeping to the edge of the grass, I peeped out. I was opposite the bottle trap. I could dimly make out the forms of two men standing on the nearer end of the plank bridge. They were, I should judge, about ten yards away, and they hadn't heard me. I got out a Mills, pulled the pin, and pitched it. The bomb exploded, perhaps five feet this side of the men. One dropped, and the other ran.
After a short wait I ran over to the German. I searched him for papers, found none, and rolled him into the river.
After a few days in the Quarries we were moved to what was known as the Warren, so called because the works resembled a rabbit warren. This was on the lower side and to the left end of Vimy Ridge, and was extra dangerous. It did seem as though each place was worse than the last. The Warren was a regular network of trenches, burrows, and funk holes, and we needed them all.
The position was downhill from the Huns, and they kept sending over and down a continuous stream of "pip-squeaks", "whiz-bangs", and "minnies." The "pip-squeak" is a shell that starts with a silly "pip", goes on with a sillier "squeeeeee", and goes off with a man's-size bang.
The "whiz-bang" starts with a rough whirr like a flushing cock partridge, and goes off on contact with a tremendous bang. It is not as dangerous as it sounds, but bad enough.
The "minnie" is about the size of a two-gallon kerosene can, and comes somersaulting over in a high arc and is concentrated death and destruction when it lands. It has one virtue--you can see it coming and dodge, and at night it most considerately leaves a trail of sparks.
The Boche served us full portions of all three of these man-killers in the Warren and kept us ducking in and out pretty much all the time, night and day.
I was lucky enough after the first day to be put on sappers' duty. The Sappers, or Engineers, are the men whose duty it is to run mines under No Man's Land and plant huge quantities of explosives. There was a great amount of mining going on all the time at Vimy Ridge from both sides.
Sometimes Fritz would run a sap out reasonably near the surface, and we would counter with one lower down. Then he'd go us one better and go still deeper. Some of the mines went down and under hundreds of feet. The result of all this was that on our side at least, the Sappers were under-manned and a good many infantry were drafted into that service.
I had charge of a gang and had to fill sandbags with the earth removed from the end of the sap and get it out and pile the bags on the parapets. We were well out toward the German lines and deep under the hill when we heard them digging below us. An engineer officer came in and listened for an hour and decided that they were getting in explosives and that it was up to us to beat them to it. Digging stopped at once and we began rushing in H.E. in fifty-pound boxes. I was ordered back into supports with my section.
Right here I began to have luck. Just see how this worked out. First a rushing party was organized whose duty it was to rush the crater made by the mine explosion and occupy it before the Germans got there. Sixty men were selected, a few from each company, and placed where they were supposedly safe, but where they could get up fast. This is the most dangerous duty an infantryman has to do, because both sides after a mine explosion shower in fifty-seven varieties of sudden death, including a perfect rain of machine-gun bullets. The chances of coming out of a rushing party with a whole hide are about one in five.
Well, for a wonder, I didn't get drawn for this one, and I breathed one long, deep sigh of relief, put my hand inside my tunic and patted Dinky on the back. Dinky is my mascot. I'll tell you about him later.
On top of that another bit of luck came along, though it didn't seem like it at the moment. It was the custom for a ration party to go out each night and get up the grub. This party had to go over the duck walk and was under fire both going and coming. One of the corporals who had been out on rations two nights in succession began to "grouse."
Of course Sergeant Page spotted me and detailed me to the "wangler's" duty. I "groused" too, like a good fellow, but had to go.
"Garn," says Wellsie. "Wot's the diff if yer gets it 'ere or there. If ye clicks, I'll draw yer fags from Blighty and say a prayer for yer soul. On yer way."
Cheerful beggar, Wellsie. He was doing me a favor and didn't know it.
I did the three miles along the duck walk with the ration party, and there wasn't a shell came our way. Queer! Nor on the way back. Queerer! When we were nearly back and were about five hundred yards from the base of the Pimple, a dead silence fell on the German side of the line. There wasn't a gun nor a mortar nor even a rifle in action for a mile in either direction. There was, too, a kind of sympathetic let-up on our side. There weren't any lights going up. There was an electric tension in the very air. You could tell by the feel that something big was going to happen.
I halted the ration party at the end of the duck walk and waited. But not for long. Suddenly the "Very" lights went up from the German side, literally in hundreds, illuminating the top of the ridge and the sky behind with a thin greenish white flare. Then came a deep rumble that shook the ground, and a dull boom. A spurt of blood-red flame squirted up from the near side of the hill, and a rolling column of gray smoke.
Then another rumble, and another, and then the whole side of the ridge seemed to open up and move slowly skyward with a world-wrecking, soul-paralyzing crash. A murky red glare lit up the smoke screen, and against it a mass of tossed-up debris, and for an instant I caught the black silhouette of a whole human body spread-eagled and spinning like a pin-wheel.
Most of our party, even at the distance, were knocked down by the gigantic impact of the explosion. A shower of earth and rock chunks, some as big as a barrel, fell around us.
Then we heard a far-away cheering, and in the light of the flares we saw a newly made hill and our men swarming up it to the crater. Two mines had exploded, and the whole side of the Pimple had been torn away. Half of our rushing party were killed and we had sixty casualties from shock and wounds among men who were supposed to be at a safe distance from the mining operation. But we took and held the new crater positions.
The corporal whose place I had taken on the ration party was killed by falling stones. Inasmuch as he was where I would have been, I considered that I had had a narrow escape from "going west!" More luck!