I BECOME A BOMBER
When I found my battalion, the battle of High Wood had pretty well quieted down. We had taken the position we went after, and the fighting was going on to the north and beyond the Wood. The Big Push progressed very rapidly as the summer drew to a close. Our men were holding one of the captured positions in the neighborhood of the Wood.
It must have been two days after we went over the top with the tanks that Captain Green had me up and told me that I was promoted. At least that was what he called it. I differed with him, but didn't say so.
The Captain said that as I had had a course in bombing, he thought he would put me in the Battalion Bombers.
I protested that the honor was too great and that I really didn't think I was good enough.
After that the Captain said that he didn't think I was going in the bombers. He knew it. I was elected!
I didn't take any joy whatever in the appointment, but orders are orders and they have to be obeyed. The bombers are called the "Suicide Club" and are well named. The mortality in this branch of the service is as great if not greater than in any other.
In spite of my feelings in the matter, I accepted the decision cheerfully--like a man being sentenced to be electrocuted--and managed to convey the impression to Captain Green that I was greatly elated and that I looked forward to future performances with large relish. After that I went back to my shelter and made a new will.
That very night I was called upon to take charge of a bombing party of twelve men. A lieutenant, Mr. May, one of the bravest men I ever knew, was to be of the party and in direct command. I was to have the selection of the men.
Captain Green had me up along with Lieutenant May early in the evening, and as nearly as I can remember these were his instructions:
"Just beyond High Wood and to the left there is a sap or small trench leading to the sunken road that lies between the towns of Albert and Bapaume. That position commands a military point that we find necessary to hold before we can make another attack. The Germans are in the trench. They have two machine guns and will raise the devil with us unless we get them out. It will cost a good many lives if we attempt to take the position by attack, but we are under the impression that a bombing party in the night on a surprise attack will be able to take it with little loss of life. Take your twelve men out there at ten o'clock and take that trench! You will take only bombs with you. You and Mr. May will have revolvers. After taking the trench, consolidate it, and before morning there will be relief sent out to you. The best of luck!'"
The whole thing sounded as simple as ABC. All we had to do was go over there and take the place. The captain didn't say how many Germans there would be nor what they would be doing while we were taking their comfortable little position. Indeed he seemed to quite carelessly leave the Boche out of the reckoning. I didn't. I knew that some of us, and quite probably most of us, would never come back.
I selected my men carefully, taking only the coolest and steadiest and the best bombers. Most of them were men who had been at Dover with me. I felt like an executioner when I notified them of their selection.
At nine-thirty we were ready, stripped to the lightest of necessary equipment. Each of the men was armed with a bucket of bombs. Some carried an extra supply in satchels, so we knew there would be no shortage of Millses.
Lieutenant May took us out over the top on schedule time, and we started for the position to be taken. We walked erect but in the strictest silence for about a thousand yards. At that time the distances were great on the Somme, as the Big Push was in full swing, and the advance had been fast. Trench systems had been demolished, and in many places there were only shell holes and isolated pieces of trench defended by machine guns. The whole movement had progressed so far that the lines were far apart and broken, so much so that in many cases the fighting had come back to the open work of early in the war.
Poking along out there, I had the feeling that we were an awfully long way from the comparative safety of our main body--too far away for comfort. We were. Any doubts on the matter disappeared before morning.
At the end of the thousand yards Lieutenant May gave the signal to lie down. We lay still half an hour or so and then crawled forward. Fortunately there was no barbed wire, as all entanglements had been destroyed by the terrific bombardment that had been going on for weeks. The Germans made no attempt to repair it nor did we.
We crawled along for about ten minutes, and the Lieutenant passed the word in whispers to get ready, as we were nearly on them. Each of us got out a bomb, pulled the pin with our teeth, and waited for the signal. It was fairly still. Away off to the rear, guns were going, but they seemed a long way off. Forward, and away off to the right beyond the Wood, there was a lot of rifle and machine-gun fire, and we could see the sharp little lavender stabs of flame like electric flashes. It was light enough so that we could see dimly.
Just ahead we could hear the murmur of the Huns as they chatted in the trench. They hadn't seen us. Evidently they didn't suspect and were more or less careless.
The Lieutenant waited until the sound of voices was a little louder than before, the Boches evidently being engaged in a fireside argument of some kind, and then he jumped to his feet shouting, "Now then, my lads. All together!"
We came up all standing and let 'em go. It was about fifteen yards to Fritz, and that is easy to a good bomber, as my men all were. A yell of surprise and fright went up from the trench, and they started to run. We spread out so as to get room, gave them another round of Millses, and rushed.
The trench wasn't really a trench at all. It was the remains of a perfectly good one, but had been bashed all to pieces, and was now only five or six shell craters connected by the ruined traverses. At no point was it more than waist high and in some places only knee high. We swarmed into what was left of the trench and after the Heinies. There must have been forty of them, and it didn't take them long to find out that we were only a dozen. Then they came back at us. We got into a crooked bit of traverse that was in relatively good shape and threw up a barricade of sandbags. There was any amount of them lying about.
The Germans gave us a bomb or two and considerable rifle fire, and we beat it around the corner of the bay. Then we had it back and forth, a regular seesaw game. We would chase them back from the barricade, and then they would rush us and back we would go. After we had lost three men and Lieutenant May had got a slight wound, we got desperate and got out of the trench and rushed them for further orders. We fairly showered them as we followed them up, regardless of danger to ourselves. All this scrap through they hadn't done anything with the machine guns. One was in our end of the trench, and we found that the other was out of commission. They must have been short of small-arm ammunition and bombs, because on that last strafing they cleared out and stayed.
After the row was over we counted noses and found four dead and three slightly wounded, including Lieutenant May. I detailed two men to take the wounded and the Lieutenant back. That left four of us to consolidate the position. The Lieutenant promised to return with relief, but as it turned out he was worse than he thought, and he didn't get back.
I turned to and inspected the position. It was pretty hopeless. There really wasn't much to consolidate. The whole works was knocked about and was only fit for a temporary defence. There were about a dozen German dead, and we searched them but found nothing of value. So we strengthened our cross-trench barricade and waited for the relief. It never came.
When it began to get light, the place looked even more discouraging. There was little or no cover. We knew that unless we got some sort of concealment, the airplanes would spot us, and that we would get a shell or two. So we got out the entrenching tools and dug into the side of the best part of the shallow traverse. We finally got a slight overhang scraped out. We didn't dare go very far under for fear that it would cave. We got some sandbags up on the sides and three of us crawled into the shelter. The other man made a similar place for himself a little distance off.
The day dawned clear and bright and gave promise of being hot. Along about seven we began to get hungry. A Tommy is always hungry, whether he is in danger or not. When we took account of stock and found that none of us had brought along "iron rations", we discovered that we were all nearly starved. Killing is hungry work.
We had only ourselves to blame. We had been told repeatedly never to go anywhere without "iron rations", but Tommy is a good deal of a child and unless you show him the immediate reason for a thing he is likely to disregard instructions. I rather blamed myself in this case for not seeing that the men had their emergency food. In fact, it was my duty to see that they had. But I had overlooked it. And I hadn't brought any myself.
The "iron ration" consists of a pound of "bully beef", a small tin containing tea and sugar enough for two doses, some Oxo cubes, and a few biscuits made of reinforced concrete. They are issued for just such an emergency as we were in as we lay in our isolated dug-out. The soldier is apt to get into that sort of situation almost any time, and it is folly ever to be without the ration.
Well, we didn't have ours, and we knew we wouldn't get any before night, if we did then. One thing we had too much of. That was rum. The night before a bunch of us had been out on a ration party, and we had come across a Brigade Dump. This is a station where rations are left for the various companies to come and draw their own, also ammo and other necessities. There was no one about, and we had gone through the outfit. We found two cases of rum, four gallons in a case, and we promptly filled our bottles, more than a pint each.
Tommy is always very keen on his rum. The brand used in the army is high proof and burns like fire going down, but it is warming. The regular ration as served after a cold sentry go is called a "tot." It is enough to keep the cold out and make a man wish he had another. The average Tommy will steal rum whenever he can without the danger of getting caught.
It happened that all four of us were in the looting party and had our bottles full. Also it happened that we were all normally quite temperate and hadn't touched our supply.
So we all took a nip and tightened up our belts. Then we took another and another. We lay on our backs with our heads out of the burrow, packed in like sardines and looking up at the sky. Half a dozen airplanes came out and flew over. We had had a hard night and we all dozed off, at least I did, and I guess the others did also.
Around nine we all waked up, and Bones--he was the fellow in the middle--began to complain of thirst. Then we all took another nip and wished it was water. We discussed the matter of crawling down to a muddy pool at the end of the traverse and having some out of that, but passed it up as there was a dead man lying in it. Bones, who was pretty well educated--he once asked me if I had visited Emerson's home and was astounded that I hadn't--quoted from Kipling something to the effect that,
Then Bones cursed the rum and took another nip. So did the rest of us.
There was a considerable bombardment going on all the forenoon, but few shells came anywhere near us. Some shrapnel burst over us a little way off to the right, and some of the fragments fell in the trench, but on the whole the morning was uncomfortable but not dangerous.
Around half-past ten we saw an airplane fight that was almost worth the forenoon's discomfort. A lot of them had been circling around ever since daybreak. When the fight started, two of our planes were nearly over us. Suddenly we saw three Boche planes volplaning down from away up above. They grew bigger and bigger and opened with their guns when they were nearly on top of our fellows. No hits. Then all five started circling for top position. One of the Boches started to fall and came down spinning, but righted himself not more than a thousand feet up. Our anti air-craft guns opened on him, and we could see the shells bursting with little cottony puffs all around. Some of the shrapnel struck near us. They missed him, and up he went again. Presently all five came circling lower and lower, jockeying for position and spitting away with their guns. As they all got to the lower levels, the anti air-craft guns stopped firing, fearing to get our men.
Suddenly one of the Huns burst into flames and came toppling down behind his lines, his gas tank ablaze. Almost immediately one of ours dropped, also burning and behind the Boche lines.
After that it was two to one, and the fight lasted more than ten minutes. Then down went a Hun, not afire but tumbling end over end behind our lines. I learned afterwards that this fellow was unhurt and was taken prisoner. That left it an even thing. We could see half a dozen planes rushing to attack the lone Boche. He saw them too. For he turned tail and skedaddled for home.
Bonesie began to philosophize on the cold-bloodedness of air fighting and really worked himself up into an almost optimistic frame of mind. He was right in the midst of a flowery oration on our comparative safety, "nestling on the bosom of Mother Earth", when, without any warning whatever, there came a perfect avalanche of shell all around us.
I knew perfectly well that we were caught. The shells, as near as we could see, were coming from our side. Doubtless our people thought that the trench was still manned by Germans, and they were shelling for the big noon attack. Such an attack was made, as I learned afterwards, but I never saw it.
At eleven o'clock I looked at my watch. Somehow I didn't fear death, although I felt it was near. Maybe the rum was working. I turned to Bonesie and said, "What about that safety stuff, old top?"
"Cheer, cheer, Darby," said he. "We may pull through yet."
"Don't think so," I insisted. "It's us for pushing up the daisies. Good luck if we don't meet again!"
I put my hand in and patted Dinky on the back, and sent up another little prayer for luck. Then there was a terrific shock, and everything went black.
When I came out of it, I had the sensation of struggling up out of water. I thought for an instant that I was drowning. And in effect that was almost what was happening to me. I was buried, all but one side of my face. A tremendous weight pressed down on me, and I could only breathe in little gasps.
I tried to move my legs and arms and couldn't. Then I wiggled my fingers and toes to see if any bones were broken. They wiggled all right. My right nostril and eye were full of dirt; also my mouth. I spit out the dirt and moved my head until my nose and eye were clear. I ached all over.
It was along toward sundown. Up aloft a single airplane was winging toward our lines. I remember that I wondered vaguely if he was the same fellow who had been fighting just before the world fell in on me.
I tried to sing out to the rest of the men, but the best I could do was a kind of loud gurgle. There was no answer. My head was humming, and the blood seemed to be bursting my ears. I was terribly sorry for myself and tried to pull my strength together for a big try at throwing the weight off my chest, but I was absolutely helpless. Then again I slid out of consciousness.
It was dark when I struggled up through the imaginary water again. I was still breathing in gasps, and I could feel my heart going in great thumps that hurt and seemed to shake the ground. My tongue was curled up and dry, and fever was simply burning me up. My mind was clear, and I wished that I hadn't drunk that rum. Finding I could raise my head a little, I cocked it up, squinting over my cheek bones--I was on my back--and could catch the far-off flicker of the silver-green flare lights. There was a rattle of musketry off in the direction where the Boche lines ought to be. From behind came the constant boom of big guns. I lay back and watched the stars, which were bright and uncommonly low. Then a shell burst near by,--not near enough to hurt,--but buried as I was the whole earth seemed to shake. My heart stopped beating, and I went out again.
When I came to the next time, it was still dark, and somebody was lifting me on to a stretcher. My first impression was of getting a long breath. I gulped it down, and with every grateful inhalation I felt my ribs painfully snapping back into place. Oh, Lady! Didn't I just eat that air up.
And then, having gotten filled up with the long-denied oxygen, I asked, "Where's the others?"
"Ayen't no hothers," was the brief reply.
And there weren't. Later I reconstructed the occurrences of the night from what I was told by the rescuing party.
A big shell had slammed down on us, drilling Bonesie, the man in the middle, from end to end. He was demolished. The shell was a "dud", that is, it didn't explode. If it had, there wouldn't have been anything whatever left of any of us. As it was our overhang caved in, letting sandbags and earth down on the remaining man and myself. The other man was buried clean under. He had life in him still when he was dug out but "went west" in about ten minutes.
The fourth man was found dead from shrapnel. I found, too, that the two unwounded men who had gone back with Lieutenant May had both been killed on the way in. So out of the twelve men who started on the "suicide club" stunt I was the only one left. Dinky was still inside my tunic, and I laid the luck all to him.
Back in hospital I was found to be suffering from shell shock. Also my heart was pushed out of place. There were no bones broken, though I was sore all over, and several ribs were pulled around so that it was like a knife thrust at every breath. Besides that, my nerves were shattered. I jumped a foot at the slightest noise and twitched a good deal.
At the end of a week I asked the M.O. if I would get Blighty and he said he didn't think so, not directly. He rather thought that they would keep me in hospital for a month or two and see how I came out. The officer was a Canadian and had a sense of humor and was most affable. I told him if this jamming wasn't going to get me Blighty, I wanted to go back to duty and get a real one. He laughed and tagged me for a beach resort at Ault-Onival on the northern coast of France.
I was there a week and had a bully time. The place had been a fashionable watering place before the war, and when I was there the transient population was largely wealthy Belgians. They entertained a good deal and did all they could for the pleasure of the four thousand boys who were at the camp. The Y.M.C.A. had a huge tent and spread themselves in taking care of the soldiers. There were entertainments almost every night, moving pictures, and music. The food was awfully good and the beds comfortable, and that pretty nearly spells heaven to a man down from the front.
Best of all, the bathing was fine, and it was possible to keep the cooties under control,--more or less. I went in bathing two and three times daily as the sloping shore made it just as good at low tide as at high.
I think that glorious week at the beach made the hardships of the front just left behind almost worth while. My chum, Corporal Wells, who had a quaint Cockney philosophy, used to say that he liked to have the stomach ache because it felt so good when it stopped. On the same theory I became nearly convinced that a month in the trenches was good fun because it felt so good to get out.
At the end of the week I was better but still shaky. I started pestering the M.O. to tag me for Blighty. He wouldn't, so I sprung the same proposition on him that I had on the doctor at the base,--to send me back to duty if he couldn't send me to England. The brute took me at my word and sent me back to the battalion.
I rejoined on the Somme again just as they were going back for the second time in that most awful part of the line. Many of the old faces were gone. Some had got the wooden cross, and some had gone to Blighty.
I sure was glad when old Wellsie hopped out and grabbed me.
"Gawd lumme, Darby," he said. "Hi sye, an' me thinkin' as 'ow you was back in Blighty. An' 'ere ye are yer blinkin' old self. Or is it yer bloomin' ghost. I awsks ye. Strike me pink, Yank. I'm glad."
And he was. At that I did feel more or less ghostly. I seemed to have lost some of my confidence. I expected to "go west" on the next time in. And that's a bad way to feel out there.