BACK ON THE SOMME AGAIN
When I rejoined the battalion they were just going into the Somme again after a two weeks' rest. They didn't like it a bit.
"Gawd lumme," says Wellsie, "'ave we got to fight th' 'ole blinkin' war. Is it right? I awsks yer. Is it?"
It was all wrong. We had been told after High Wood that we would not have to go into action again in that part of the line but that we would have a month of rest and after that would be sent up to the Ypres sector. "Wipers" hadn't been any garden of roses early in the war, but it was paradise now compared with the Somme.
It was a sad lot of men when we swung out on the road again back to the Somme, and there was less singing than usual. That first night we remained at Mametz Wood. We figured that we would get to kip while the kipping was good. There were some old Boche dug-outs in fair condition, and we were in a fair way to get comfortable. No luck!
We were hardly down to a good sleep when C company was called to fall in without equipment, and we knew that meant fatigue of some sort. I have often admired the unknown who invented that word "fatigue" as applied in a military term. He used it as a disguise for just plain hard work. It means anything whatever in the way of duty that does not have to do directly with the manning of the trenches.
This time we clicked a burial fatigue. It was my first. I never want another. I took a party of ten men and we set out, armed with picks and shovels, and, of course, rifles and bandoliers (cloth pockets containing fifty rounds of ammo).
We hiked three miles up to High Wood and in the early morning began the job of getting some of the dead under ground. We were almost exactly in the same place from which we had gone over after the tanks. I kept expecting all the time to run across the bodies of some of our own men. It was a most unpleasant feeling.
Some cleaning up had already been done, so the place was not so bad as it had been, but it was bad enough. The advance had gone forward so far that we were practically out of shell range, and we were safe working.
The burial method was to dig a pit four feet deep and big enough to hold six men. Then we packed them in. The worst part of it was that most of the bodies were pretty far gone and in the falling away stage. It was hard to move them. I had to put on my gas mask to endure the stench and so did some of the other men. Some who had done this work before rather seemed to like it.
I would search a body for identification marks and jot down the data found on a piece of paper. When the man was buried under, I would stick a rifle up over him and tuck the record into the trap in the butt of the gun where the oil bottle is carried.
When the pioneers came up, they would remove the rifle and substitute a little wooden cross with the name painted on it. The indifference with which the men soon came to regard this burial fatigue was amazing. I remember one incident of that first morning, a thing that didn't seem at all shocking at the time, but which, looking back upon it, illustrates the matter-of-factness of the soldier's viewpoint on death.
"Hi sye, Darby," sang out one fellow. "Hi got a blighter 'ere wif only one leg. Wot'll Hi do wif 'im?"
"Put him under with only one, you blinking idiot," said I.
Presently he called out again, this time with a little note of satisfaction and triumph in his voice.
"Darby, Hi sye. I got a leg for that bleeder. Fits 'im perfect."
Well, I went over and took a look and to my horror found that the fool had stuck a German leg on the body, high boot and all. I wouldn't stand for that and had it out again. I wasn't going to send a poor fellow on his last pilgrimage with any Boche leg, and said so. Later I heard this undertaking genius of a Tommy grousing and muttering to himself.
"Cawn't please Darby," says he, "no matter wot. Fawncy the blighter'd feel better wif two legs, if one was Boche. It's a fair crime sendin' 'im hover the river wif only one."
I was sure thankful when that burial fatigue was over, and early in the forenoon we started back to rest.
Rest, did I say? Not that trip. We were hardly back to Mametz and down to breakfast when along came an order to fall in for a carrying party. All that day we carried boxes of Millses up to the dump that was by High Wood, three long miles over hard going. Being a corporal had its compensations at this game, as I had no carrying to do; but inasmuch as the bombs were moved two boxes to a man, I got my share of the hard work helping men out of holes and lending a hand when they were mired.
Millses are packed with the bombs and detonators separate in the box, and the men are very careful in the handling of them. So the moving of material of this kind is wearing.
Another line of man-killers that we had to move were "toffy apples." This quaint toy is a huge bomb, perfectly round and weighing sixty pounds, with a long rod or pipe which inserts into the mortar. Toffy apples are about the awkwardest thing imaginable to carry.
This carrying stunt went on for eight long days and nights. We worked on an average sixteen hours a day. It rained nearly all the time, and we never got dried out. The food was awful, as the advance had been so fast that it was almost impossible to get up the supplies, and the men in the front trenches had the first pick of the grub. It was also up to us to get the water up to the front. The method on this was to use the five-gallon gasoline cans. Sometimes they were washed out, oftener they weren't. Always the water tasted of gas. We got the same thing, and several times I became sick drinking the stuff.
When that eight days of carrying was over, we were so fed up that we didn't care whether we clicked or not. Maybe it was good mental preparation for what was to come, for on top of it all it turned out that we were to go over the top in another big attack.
When we got that news, I got Dinky out and scolded him. Maybe I'd better tell you all about Dinky before I go any farther. Soldiers are rather prone to superstitions. Relieved of all responsibility and with most of their thinking done for them, they revert surprisingly quick to a state of more or less savage mentality. Perhaps it would be better to call the state childlike. At any rate they accumulate a lot of fool superstitions and hang to them. The height of folly and the superlative invitation to bad luck is lighting three fags on one match. When that happens one of the three is sure to click it soon.
As one out of any group of three anywhere stands a fair chance of "getting his", fag or no fag, the thing is reasonably sure to work out according to the popular belief. Most every man has his unlucky day in the trenches. One of mine was Monday. The others were Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Practically every soldier carries some kind of mascot or charm. A good many are crucifixes and religious tokens. Some are coins. Corporal Wells had a sea shell with three little black spots on it. He considered three his lucky number. Thirteen was mine. My mascot was the aforesaid and much revered Dinky. Dinky was and is a small black cat made of velvet. He's entirely flat except his head, which is becomingly round with yellow glass eyes. I carried Dinky inside my tunic always and felt safer with him there. He hangs at the head of my bed now and I feel better with him there. I realize perfectly that all this sounds like tommyrot, and that superstition may be a relic of barbarism and ignorance. Never mind! Wellsie sized the situation up one day when we were talking about this very thing.
"Maybe my shell ayen't doin' me no good," says Wells. "Maybe Dinky ayen't doin' you no good. But 'e ayen't doin' ye no 'arm. So 'ang on to 'im."
I figure that if there's anything in war that "ayen't doin' ye no 'arm", it is pretty good policy to "'ang on to it."
It was Sunday the eighth day of October that the order came to move into what was called the "O.G.I.", that is, the old German first line. You will understand that this was the line the Boches had occupied a few days before and out of which they had been driven in the Big Push. In front of this trench was Eaucort Abbaye, which had been razed with the aid of the tanks.
We had watched this battle from the rear from the slight elevation of High Wood, and it had been a wonderful sight to see other men go out over the top without having ourselves to think about. They had poured out, wave after wave, a large part of them Scotch with their kilted rumps swinging in perfect time, a smashing barrage going on ahead, and the tanks lumbering along with a kind of clumsy majesty. When they hit the objective, the tanks crawled in and made short work of it.
The infantry had hard work of it after the positions were taken, as there were numerous underground caverns and passages which had to be mopped out. This was done by dropping smoke bombs in the entrances and smoking the Boches out like bees.
When we came up, we inherited these underground shelters, and they were mighty comfortable after the kipping in the muck. There were a lot of souvenirs to be picked up, and almost everybody annexed helmets and other truck that had been left behind by the Germans.
Sometimes it was dangerous to go after souvenirs too greedily. The inventive Hun had a habit of fixing up a body with a bomb under it and a tempting wrist watch on the hand. If you started to take the watch, the bomb went off, and after that you didn't care what time it was.
I accumulated a number of very fine razors, and one of the saw-tooth bayonets the Boche pioneers use. This is a perfectly hellish weapon that slips in easily and mangles terribly when it is withdrawn. I had thought that I would have a nice collection of souvenirs to take to Blighty if I ever got leave. I got the leave all right, and shortly, but the collection stayed behind.
The dug-out that Number 10 drew was built of concrete and was big enough to accommodate the entire platoon. We were well within the Boche range and early in the day had several casualties, one of them a chap named Stransfield, a young Yorkshireman who was a very good friend of mine. Stransie was sitting on the top step cleaning his rifle and was blown to pieces by a falling shell. After that we kept to cover all day and slept all the time. We needed it after the exhausting work of the past eight days.
It was along about dark when I was awakened by a runner from headquarters, which was in a dug-out a little way up the line, with word that the platoon commanders were wanted. I happened to be in command of the platoon, as Mr. Blofeld was acting second in command of the company, Sergeant Page was away in Havre as instructor for a month, and I was next senior.
I thought that probably this was merely another detail for some fatigue, so I asked Wells if he would go. He did and in about half an hour came back with a face as long as my arm. I was sitting on the fire step cleaning my rifle and Wellsie sank dejectedly down beside me.
"Darby," he sighed hopelessly, "wot th' blinkin' 'ell do you think is up now?"
I hadn't the faintest idea and said so. I had, however, as the educated Bones used to say "a premonition of impending disaster." As a premonitor I was a success. Disaster was right.
Wellsie sighed again and spilled the news.
"We're goin' over th' bleedin' top at nine. We don't 'ave to carry no tools. We're in the first bloomin' wave."
Going without tools was supposed to be a sort of consolation for being in the first wave. The other three waves carry either picks or shovels. They consolidate the trenches after they have been taken by the first wave. That is, they turn the trench around, facing the other way, to be ready for a counter attack. It is a miserable job. The tools are heavy and awkward, and the last waves get the cream of the artillery fire, as the Boche naturally does not want to take the chance of shelling the first wave for fear of getting his own men. However, the first wave gets the machine-gun fire and gets it good. At that the first wave is the preference. I have heard hundreds of men say so. Probably the reason is that a bullet, unless it is explosive, makes a relatively clean wound, while a shell fragment may mangle fearfully.
Wells and I were talking over the infernal injustice of the situation when another runner arrived from the Sergeant Major's, ordering us up for the rum issue. I went up for the rum and left Wells to break the news about going over.
I got an extra large supply, as the Sergeant Major was good humored. It was the last rum he ever served. I got enough for the full platoon and then some, which was a lot, as the platoon was well down in numbers owing to casualties. I went among the boys with a spoon and the rum in a mess tin and served out two tots instead of the customary one. After that all hands felt a little better, but not much. They were all fagged out after the week's hard work. I don't think I ever saw a more discouraged lot getting ready to go over. For myself I didn't seem to care much, I was in such rotten condition physically. I rather hoped it would be my last time.