- With My Regiment
- 'Fighting from the Aisne to La Bassée'
- told by a "Platoon Commander"
Britons on the Field of Honor
British soldiers in trenches along the Aisne
This is the inspiring story of a typical British soldier. "I was staying in a large house by the banks of the Thames when we heard the news of the War," he relates. "My hostess was the mother of soldiers. She took the news calmly, as the mother of soldiers do; said goodbye to her eldest boy, who was to go with the first troops who left England, arranged for the outfit of her two second sons, and sent for her baby from Eton, who she saw dispatched to the Royal Military College. It was a great house to be in on the outbreak of War a house whose sons to the third and fourth generation had built up the British Empire, and which now, when the Empire was called upon to fight for its life, stood firm and undismayed." This platoon commander tells his experiences in a book entitled "With My Regiment."
I Story of the Old Woman at the Aisne
We were moved to the village very suddenly. There was no reason that we could see for the move. However, this transpired later. It was getting dusk when we reached the village. A and C Companies were sent at once up to the firing-line, and B and D Companies were lined along a ditch in support. The ditch had been prepared for habitation by the regiment who had held it before. At one point they had thrown some boards across the ditch and made a house underneath. This proved a very welcome shelter when later it came on to rain. We lay in the ditch for an hour or two listening to the last shells before nightfall, from one of our heavy batteries, singing overhead. The shells were sent in groups of three, and we could plainly hear each, whizz-whizz-whizz, chasing each other through the air, perhaps not more than twenty yards apart. We were comfortable enough where we were, and idly speculated on what errand of destruction the shells were bent. They sounded nasty great things to have coming in the wrong direction, and we wished the Germans joy of them.
About eight I felt hungry, and got out of the trench to have a look round. I had two tins of Mc'Conochie in my haversack, which I put in a pan of boiling water. Across a field to the front I saw a farm, and decided to go over and explore. In the field there were two or three curious heaps of straw, which proved to be the burial piles of dead cows, killed by shell fire, and covered over by the farmer in this rather ineffective fashion. The cows were getting smelly, and I did not stay long looking at them. I found the farm occupied by two old men and an old woman. One of the old men, over eighty, they told me, had taken to his bed and lain there with the shutters up for three days. He was half-dead from fright, and could not be induced to move. The old woman said they had had Germans billeted in the farm a week before. They had treated her and her old husband none too gently, driving them out of the house while they made soup in her cauldron. She had managed to hide one or two little bits of bread, and was making supper off a crust and some coffee. She put the fire at my disposal for getting supper ready for Goyle and the other officers in the company. They all came across a quarter of an hour later, Evans with a great possession a tin of cocoa. There was plenty of milk to be had from the farm indeed, it was a godsend to the old people to get a man to milk their cows and we soon had a beautiful jug of thick, steaming cocoa. We then prepared the Mc'Conochie, and what proved to be our last meal all together was a good one.
II Wounded Scenes in a Night Attack
It was getting late when we had finished, and we had to hurry back to the support trench. On the way, as I was going along at a quick trot, I came head over heels over a big object and nearly impaled myself on a spike. Apart from the smell of the cow, it was really most dangerous lying out there at night-time, and I sent a party of men back to bury it.
The trenches we were to take over lay just beyond the village along the crest of a slope. The section my company was responsible for ran just in front of three haystacks. A company extended away to our right, and the Dorchester Regiment continued the line to our left. The officer of the regiment we were relieving said to me: "You see those stacks well, I should keep clear of them; the enemy have them set." I nodded, very tired at finding myself back in the firing-line, where we had been almost continuously for ten days, and not particularly interested in what the enemy had set or what they had not. In fact, as soon as I had seen the men distributed along the trench, and had given one or two orders about its improvement, I made straight for the centre stack, pulled as much hay as I could out of the side of it, rolled myself up, and went to sleep.
I was awakened by a sharp blow in the back. Looking up I saw Evans drawing his foot back to give me a second and harder kick.
"Get up, you blithering fool," he said; "your men are out all over the place."
I jumped to my feet, and, fastening my belt as I ran, dashed for the trench. I owed a lot to Evans for waking me. As Evans said, the men were all walking about outside the trench. I got them in immediately, and was preparing to follow when I thought of my bed, and went off to fetch, it. One never knew when the next chance of leaving the trench might come. I was bending down, gathering a good armful of hay, when there was a report, a sensation like red-hot iron running through one, followed by acute pain, and I pitched head-forward into the hay. I had been hit. Very frightened and hurt, I crawled as fast as I could round to the side farthest from the enemy and sat down. I examined my wounds a bullet through each leg. The shots were low down and did not look very serious. They hurt infernally, and I made a mental note to call the next man who said he never noticed he had been hit in the heat of an action a liar. I examined the wounds. Were they serious enough to warrant a visit to the field-dressing station and a possible return to England? I hoped devoutly they were.
An attempt to stand soon satisfied me, and I fell down again, much relieved. All these thoughts were a matter of seconds; in the meanwhile there was a good deal going on round the stack. An enemy battery was playing round it with high-explosive shrapnel. The shells burst first one side, then the other, in front, behind, in all directions. The noise was deafening, and the lead in the air was just like a hailstorm; however, it was a stout stack, and kept me dry, though I confess I doubted getting away alive. After a few minutes the firing stopped, and, throwing myself on my side, I rolled as fast as I could for a support trench. I pitched head-first into the trench and landed on the top of two privates who were sheltering in the bottom expecting more shrapnel over at any minute. They were not expecting me, and thought their last hour had come when I fell on top of them. Getting our breath, we all three cursed each other.
Then, seeing I was an officer, they became respectful. I explained I was wounded, and they helped me off with my puttees and bound up the wounds with the first-aid bandage which I ripped from my coat. In the meanwhile word was sent back for stretcher-bearers. As the firing had stopped these came up immediately, lifted me out of the trench, put me on a stretcher, and started off with me. We had to go down a road in full view of the enemy. For some providential reason they never fired at us, though I was about the last wounded man to be brought down that road. Halfway down the road the stretcher- bearers began to show signs of feeling my weight. I coaxed them on a few more yards, but when they came to the lee of a cottage they put me down and shook their heads; another bearer came to the rescue, and with the extra help the party proceeded. A hundred yards more brought us to a cottage which was being used as a field-dressing .station. The cottage was beginning to fill, and wounded men lay about all over the floor.
"Oh, Gawd! Oh ! ------ooh!!"
"Shut up, can't yer?" a man shouted from the far corner of the room.
"I've got a 'ole in me big enough to put yer 'and in," the sufferer explained, and began again to groan and swear.
"Got a cigarette, mate?" A man deathly pale on a stretcher held out his hand to a comrade who was slightly wounded and standing beside him. The latter extricated a Woodbine from a crumpled packet and passed it down. The man on the stretcher lit the cigarette and puffed at it phlegmatically. It was doubtful whether he would live, and though he did not know this, he knew he must not have anything to eat or drink for many hours.
III The Doctors and the Stretcher Bearers
About fifteen or twenty of us were lying on the floor of a cottage. Outside, four or five hundred yards up the street, a lively fight was in progress for the possession of the village. After the firing-line the cottage seemed a haven of peace and safety.
"Hullo, they've got you."
A young fellow, fresh from his training at a hospital, was standing beside me. He was our regimental doctor, and I'd always thought of him as a lucky fellow who rode on a horse when we were on the march, and got his rations regularly at all times, and during a scrap enjoyed the security of the extra few hundred yards which he was supposed to have between his dressing-station and the firing-line. Well, here he was to look after me, anyhow.
"Got a bit of work to do to-day, Doctor," I said as he bound me up.
"Yes," he answered, adjusting a blanket as a pad under me, "there, just keep in that position and the bleeding will soon stop." He turned to the man next me.
"I've got some across the way, too," he said, as the orderly handed him fresh bandages. "They've been shelling the poor beggars, knocking all the slates off the roof."
As he spoke some shrapnel crashed against the roof of our cottage, sending a few tiles rattling to the ground. The doctor looked up.
"I think we're all right here," he said. "We've got a double roof. I always try to pick a cottage with a double roof. But those poor devils over the way are getting awful scared; I think I'll slip across to them."
The bit of road he had to "slip across" was catching most of the shells which the cottage did not, and was also the channel for a steady stream of rifle and machine-gun fire. I began to see there wasn't much in it, whether one was a doctor or a platoon commander.
More especially did I realize a doctor's difficulties when, later in the day, just as our doctor had finished looking at my dressings, a message came that the field-dressing station belonging to the regiment on our left had been set alight by a shell. He hastily organized a party of stretcher-bearers and orderlies and went off at once. Later he came back. He said it had been terrible to see the wounded lying helpless in the barn waiting for the flames, but somehow they had managed to rescue all and move them to a safer place, though the whole operation had to be carried out under rifle and shell fire. Each time a regiment is seriously engaged with the enemy at least 100 men are hit, often four times the number. The regimental doctor is supposed to bind up each one of these, and often when times are slack and a stray man here or there gets hit he will be sent for to come up to the trenches.
" 'Allo, Jock," loud greetings were shouted by every one in the room to a little man standing in the doorway with a bandolier across his chest and rifle with bayonet still fixed. He was a grubby little fellow, with blood and mud caked all down his cheek, ragged clothes, and as I had seen as he came up the cottage steps a pronounced limp. It was Private Mutton, scallawag, humorist, and well-known character in the regiment.
"Yus, they got me," he said in answer to inquiries, "fro' me calf," he pointed to his leg, "and right acrost the top of me 'ead" he raised his cap and showed where a bullet had parted his hair, grazing the scalp. "But I give the bloke somethink what did it." Private Mutton grinned at his bayonet. "Got 'im fair, right fro' 'is stomick."
I could not help feeling delighted, for I recognized in the muddy, gory, highly-pleased- with-himself little man the original of Thomas Atkins, of whose doings along the Indian frontier I had read thrilling accounts by Mr. Kipling, and whose quaint mannerisms I had often laughed at as represented on the stage of music-halls at home. . . .
At 9 p.m. the ambulances came up. The doctor went round quickly attending to each man. He bound up my wounds afresh and had me carried into an inner room. I lay there all day, and never shall I forget the experience. I could see nothing except a bit of the wall on the opposite side of the street. But I could hear. Just after I had been brought in fresh firing broke out. Rifle fire this time, sharp and insistent. Then there was a sound of stamping feet, and I heard an officer rallying the men at the corner of the street.
The firing continued all day and sometimes seemed to rage almost at the door of the cottage. I gathered that the Germans were attacking the village in masses, and that it was touch-and-go whether we could hold out. Sometimes there would be a rush of men outside the window, and I would look to see if the pale grey uniform was there or if khaki still held the place. Every now and then a shower of shrapnel struck the roof of the cottage, and tiles went rattling to the road. All the while a section of our artillery fired incessantly. How gallant those guns of ours sound Boom-boom-boom. They were fighting to their last shell. If the village went, they went with it. No horses could be brought up to draw them away in such an inferno. The doctor worked on quietly. His work extended now to houses on the left and right. He said it was terrible to see the fear of death on the faces of men shot through the stomach. He found time once to have a cup of tea with me and smoke a cigarette. Night began to fall and the room grew dark. I was glad of his company for five minutes. We were in the same boat, he told me if the Germans got the village he was going to stay behind with the wounded.
At half-past five Evans came in with a smashed arm.
"Goyle has gone," he said. "He was hit twice before during the day. He was holding out with a few men there and got a third through the chest which did him. Edwards was shot through the knee, and we had to leave him. All the company officers are down. A company has been surrounded and cut off. Whew! you can't live out there." As he spoke the firing swelled to a din unequalled through the day. We heard shouts and curses. The Germans were making a final tremendous effort to break through.
"Our boys may do it," said Evans, "but there are not many left." I lay back against the wall, pulled out a cigarette, and threw one to Evans. We could only wait. Suddenly outside we heard a stamp of feet, a hoarsely yelled order, "Fix bayonets!" another word of command, and a mass of men rushed past the window up the street, cheering madly.
"That's the --------s," cried a stretcher-bearer, who came in excitedly. "They have been sent up from the reserve."
The doctor came in. "We've got two more regiments up; we shall be all right now," he said.
For a moment the firing continued, then died down. Night came and found us still holding the village, and at ten o'clock the ambulance took us away.
Back to Index