THE LAST TIME OVER THE TOP
A general cleaning of rifles started, although it was dark. Mine was already in good shape, and I leaned it against the side of the trench and went below for the rest of my equipment. While I was gone, a shell fragment undid all my work by smashing the breech.
I had seen a new short German rifle in the dug-out with a bayonet and ammo, and decided to use that. I hid all my souvenirs, planning to get them when I came out if I ever came out. I hadn't much nerve left after the bashing I had taken a fortnight before and didn't hold much hope.
Our instructions were of the briefest. It was the old story that there would probably be little resistance, if any. There would be a few machine guns to stop us, but nothing more. The situation we had to handle was this: A certain small sector had held on the attacks of the few previous days, and the line had bent back around it. All we had to do was to straighten the line. We had heard this old ghost story too often to believe a word of it.
Our place had been designated where we were to get into extended formation, and our general direction was clear. We filed out of the trench at eight-thirty, and as we passed the other platoons,--we had been to the rear,--they tossed us the familiar farewell hail, "The best o' luck, mytie."
We soon found ourselves in the old sunken road that ran in front of Eaucort Abbaye. At this point we were not under observation, as a rise in the ground would have protected us even though it had been daylight. The moon was shining brilliantly, and we knew that it would not be anything in the nature of a surprise attack. We got into extended formation and waited for the order to advance. I thought I should go crazy during that short wait. Shells had begun to burst over and around us, and I was sure the next would be mine.
Presently one burst a little behind me, and down went Captain Green and the Sergeant Major with whom he had been talking. Captain Green died a few days later at Rouen, and the Sergeant Major lost an arm. This was a hard blow right at the start, and it spelled disaster. Everything started to go wrong. Mr. Blofeld was in command, and another officer thought that he was in charge. We got conflicting orders, and there was one grand mix-up. Eventually we advanced and went straight up over the ridge. We walked slap-bang into perfectly directed fire. Torrents of machine-gun bullets crackled about us, and we went forward with our heads down, like men facing into a storm. It was a living marvel that any one could come through it.
A lot of them didn't. Mr. Blofeld, who was near me, leaped in the air, letting go a hideous yell. I ran to him, disregarding the instruction not to stop to help any one. He was struck in the abdomen with an explosive bullet and was done for. I felt terribly about Mr. Blofeld, as he had been a good friend to me. He was the finest type of officer of the new English army, the rare sort who can be democratic and yet command respect. He had talked with me often, and I knew of his family and home life. He was more like an elder brother to me than a superior officer. I left Mr. Blofeld and went on.
The hail of bullets grew even worse. They whistled and cracked and squealed, and I began to wonder why on earth I didn't get mine. Men were falling on all sides and the shrieks of those hit were the worst I had heard. The darkness made it worse, and although I had been over the top before by daylight this was the last limit of hellishness. And nothing but plain, unmixed machine-gun fire. As yet there was no artillery action to amount to anything.
Once again I put my hand inside my tunic and stroked Dinky and said to him, "For God's sake, Dink, see me through this time." I meant it too. I was actually praying,--to my mascot. I realize that this was plain, unadulterated, heathenish fetish worship, but it shows what a man reverts to in the barbaric stress of war.
By this time we were within about thirty yards of the Boche parapet and could see them standing shoulder to shoulder on the fire step, swarms of them, packed in, with the bayonets gleaming. Machine guns were emplaced and vomiting death at incredibly short intervals along the parapet. Flares were going up continuously, and it was almost as light as day.
We were terribly outnumbered, and the casualties had already been so great that I saw we were in for the worst thing we had ever known. Moreover, the next waves hadn't appeared behind us.
I was in command, as all the officers and non-coms so far as I could make out had snuffed. I signalled to halt and take cover, my idea being to wait for the other waves to catch up. The men needed no second invitation to lie low. They rolled into the shell holes and burrowed where there was no cover.
I drew a pretty decent hole myself, and a man came pitching in on top of me, screaming horribly. It was Corporal Hoskins, a close friend of mine. He had it in the stomach and clicked in a minute or two.
During the few minutes that I lay in that hole, I suffered the worst mental anguish I ever knew. Seeing so many of my closest chums go west so horribly had nearly broken me, shaky as I was when the attack started. I was dripping with sweat and frightfully nauseated. A sudden overpowering impulse seized me to get out in the open and have it over with. I was ready to die.
Sooner than I ought, for the second wave had not yet shown up, I shrilled the whistle and lifted them out. It was a hopeless charge, but I was done. I would have gone at them alone. Anything to close the act. To blazes with everything!
As I scrambled out of the shell hole, there was a blinding, ear-splitting explosion slightly to my left, and I went down. I did not lose consciousness entirely. A red-hot iron was through my right arm, and some one had hit me on the left shoulder with a sledge hammer. I felt crushed,--shattered.
My impressions of the rest of that night are, for the most part, vague and indistinct; but in spots they stand out clear and vivid. The first thing I knew definitely was when Smith bent over me, cutting the sleeve out of my tunic.
"It's a Blighty one," says Smithy. That was some consolation. I was back in the shell hole, or in another, and there were five or six other fellows piled in there too. All of them were dead except Smith and a man named Collins, who had his arm clean off, and myself. Smith dressed my wound and Collins', and said:
"We'd better get out of here before Fritz rushes us. The attack was a ruddy failure, and they'll come over and bomb us out of here."
Smith and I got out of the hole and started to crawl. It appeared that he had a bullet through the thigh, though he hadn't said anything about it before. We crawled a little way, and then the bullets were flying so thick that I got an insane desire to run and get away from them. I got to my feet and legged it. So did Smith, though how he did it with a wounded thigh I don't know.
The next thing I remember I was on a stretcher. The beastly thing swayed and pitched, and I got seasick. Then came another crash directly over head, and out I went again. When I came to, my head was as clear as a bell. A shell had burst over us and had killed one stretcher bearer. The other had disappeared. Smith was there. He and I got to our feet and put our arms around each other and staggered on. The next I knew I was in the Cough Drop dressing station, so called from the peculiar formation of the place. We had tea and rum here and a couple of fags from a sergeant major of the R.A.M.C.
After that there was a ride on a flat car on a light railway and another in an ambulance with an American driver. Snatches of conversation about Broadway and a girl in Newark floated back, and I tried to work up ambition enough to sing out and ask where the chap came from. So far I hadn't had much pain. When we landed in a regular dressing station, the M.O. gave me another going over and said,
"Blighty for you, son." I had a piece of shrapnel or something through the right upper arm, clearing the bone and making a hole about as big as a half dollar. My left shoulder was full of shrapnel fragments, and began to pain like fury. More tea. More rum. More fags. Another faint. When I woke up the next time, somebody was sticking a hypodermic needle into my chest with a shot of anti-lockjaw serum, and shortly after I was tucked away in a white enameled Red Cross train with a pretty nurse taking my temperature. I loved that nurse. She looked sort of cool and holy.
I finally brought up in General Hospital Number 12 in Rouen. I was there four days and had a real bath,--a genuine boiling out. Also had some shrapnel picked out of my anatomy. I got in fairly good shape, though still in a good deal of dull pain. It was a glad day when they put a batch of us on a train for Havre, tagged for Blighty. We went direct from the train to the hospital ship, Carisbrook Castle. The quarters were good,--real bunks, clean sheets, good food, careful nurses. It was some different from the crowded transport that had taken me over to France.
There were a lot of German prisoners aboard, wounded, and we swapped stories with them. It was really a lot of fun comparing notes, and they were pretty good chaps on the whole. They were as glad as we were to see land. Their troubles were over for the duration of the war.
Never shall I forget that wonderful morning when I looked out and saw again the coast of England, hazy under the mists of dawn. It looked like the promised land. And it was. It meant freedom again from battle, murder, and sudden death, from trenches and stenches, rats, cooties, and all the rest that goes to make up the worst of man-made inventions, war.
It was Friday the thirteenth. And don't let anybody dare say that date is unlucky. For it brought me back to the best thing that can gladden the eyes of a broken Tommy. Blighty! Blighty!! Blighty!!!