'Kitchener’s Mob'
the Adventures of an American in the British Army in 1915
by James Norman Hall


Midsummer Calm

British soldiers on the Western front in 1915


During our first summer in the trenches there were days, sometimes weeks at a time, when, in the language of the official bulletins, there was "nothing to report," or "calm" prevailed "along our entire front." From the War Office point of view these statements were, doubtless, true enough. But from Tommy Atkins's point of view, "calm" was putting it somewhat mildly. Life in the trenches, even on the quietest of days, is full of adventure highly spiced with danger. Snipers, machine gunners, artillerymen, airmen, engineers of the opposing sides, vie with each other in skill and daring, in order to secure that coveted advantage, the morale. Tommy calls it the "more-ale," but he jolly well knows when he has it and when he hasn't.

There were many nights of official calm when we machine gunners crept out of the trenches with our guns to positions prepared beforehand, either in front of the line or to the rear of it.

There we waited for messages from our listening patrols, who were lying in the tall grass of "the front yard." They sent word to us immediately when they discovered enemy working parties building up their parapets or mending their barbed-wire entanglements. We would then lay our guns according to instructions received and blaze away, each gun firing at the rate of from three hundred to five hundred rounds per minute. After a heavy burst of fire, we would change our positions at once. It was then that the most exciting part of our work began. For as soon as we ceased firing, there were answering fusillades from hundreds of German rifles. And within two or three minutes, German field artillery began a search for us with shrapnel. We crawled from one position to another over the open ground or along shallow ditches, dug for the purpose. These offered protection from rifle fire, but frequently the shell fire was so heavy and so well directed that we were given some very unpleasant half-hours, lying flat on our faces, listening to the deafening explosions and the vicious whistling of flying shrapnel.

We fired from the trenches, as well as in front and to the rear of them. We were, in fact, busy during most of the night, for it was our duty to see to it that our guns lived up to their reputation as "weapons of opportunity and surprise." With the aid of large-scale maps, we located all of the roads, within range, back of the German lines; roads which we knew were used by enemy troops moving in and out of the trenches. We located all of their communication trenches leading back to the rear; and at uncertain intervals we covered roads and trenches with bursts of searching fire.

The German gunners were by no means inactive. They, too, profited by their knowledge of night life in the firing-line, their knowledge of soldier nature. They knew, as did we, that the roads in the rear of the trenches are filled, at night, with troops, transport wagons, and fatigue parties. They knew, as did we, that men become so utterly weary of living in ditches — living in holes, like rats — that they are willing to take big risks when moving in or out of the trenches, for the pure joy of getting up on top of the ground. Many a night when we were moving up for our week in the first line, or back for our week in reserve, we heard the far-off rattle of German Maxims, and in an instant, the bullets would be zip- zipping all around us. There was no need for the sharp word of command. If there was a communication trench at hand, we all made a dive for it at once. If there was not, we fell face down, in ditches, shell holes, in any place which offered a little protection from that terrible hail of lead. Many of our men were killed and wounded nightly by machine-gun fire, usually because they were too tired to be cautious. And, doubtless, we did as much damage with our own guns. It seemed to me horrible, something in the nature of murder, that advantage must be taken of these opportunities. But it was all a part of the game of war; and fortunately, we rarely knew, nor did the Germans, what damage was done during those summer nights of " calm along the entire front."

The artillerymen, both British and German, did much to relieve the boredom of those "nothing to report" days. There were desultory bombardments of the trenches at daybreak, and at dusk, when every infantryman is at his post, rifle in hand, bayonet fixed, on the alert for signs of a surprise attack. If it was a bombardment with shrapnel, Tommy was not greatly concerned, for in trenches he is fairly safe from shrapnel fire. But if the shells were large-caliber high explosives, he crouched close to the front wall of the trench, lamenting the day he was foolish enough to become an infantryman, "a bloomin' 'uman ninepin!" Covered with dirt, sometimes half-buried in fallen trench, he wagered his next week's tobacco rations that the London papers would print the same old story: "Along the western front there is nothing to report." And usually he won.

Trench mortaring was more to our liking. That is an infantryman's game, and, while extremely hazardous, the men in the trenches have a sporting chance. Every one forgot breakfast when word was passed down the line that we were going to "mortarfy" Fritzie. The last-relief night sentries, who had just tumbled sleepily into their dugouts, tumbled out of them again to watch the fun. Fatigue parties, working in the communication trenches, dropped their picks and shovels and came hurrying up to the first line. Eagerly, expectantly, every one waited for the sport to begin. Our projectiles were immense balls of hollow steel, filled with high explosive of tremendous power. They were fired from a small gun, placed, usually, in the first line of reserve trenches. A dull boom from the rear warned us that the game had started.

"There she is!" "See 'er? Goin' true as a die!" "She's go'n' to 'it! She's go'n' to 'it!" All of the boys would be shouting at once. Up it goes, turning over and over, rising to a height of several hundred feet. Then, if well aimed, it reaches the end of its upward journey directly over the enemy's line, and falls straight into his trench. There is a moment of silence, followed by a terrific explosion which throws dirt and debris high in the air. By this time every Tommy along the line is standing on the firing-bench, head and shoulders above the parapet, quite forgetting his own danger in his excitement, and shouting at the top of his voice.

"'Ow's that one, Fritzie boy?"

"Gooten morgen, you Proosian sausage-wallopers!"

"Tyke a bit o' that there 'ome toyer missus!"

But Fritzie could be depended upon to keep up his end of the game. He gave us just as good as we sent, and often he added something for full measure. His surprises were sausage-shaped missiles which came wobbling toward us, slowly, almost awkwardly; but they dropped with lightning speed, and alas, for any poor Tommy who misjudged the place of its fall! However, every one had a chance. Trench-mortar projectiles are so large that one can see them coming, and they describe so leisurely an arc before they fall that men have time to run.

I have always admired Tommy Atkins for his sense of fair play. He enjoyed giving Fritz "a little bit of all-right," but he never resented it when Fritz had his own fun at our expense. In the far-off days of peace, I used to lament the fact that we had fallen upon evil times. I read of old wars with a feeling of regret that men had lost their old primal love for dangerous sport, their naive ignorance of fear. All the brave, heroic things of life were said and done.

But on those trench-mortaring days, when I watched boys playing with death with right good zest, heard them shouting and laughing as they tumbled over one another in their eagerness to escape it, I was convinced of my error. Daily I saw men going through the test of fire triumphantly, and, at the last, what a severe test it was! And how splendidly they met it! During six months continuously in the firing-line, I met less than a dozen natural-born cowards; and my experience was largely with plumbers, drapers' assistants, clerks, men who had no fighting traditions to back them up, make them heroic in spite of themselves.



The better I knew Tommy, the better I liked him. He has n't a shred of sentimentality in his make-up. There is plenty of sentiment, sincere feeling, but it is admirably concealed. I had been a soldier of the King for many months before I realized that the men with whom I was living, sharing rations and hardships, were anything other than the healthy animals they looked. They relished their food and talked about it. They grumbled at the restraints military discipline imposed upon them, and at the paltry shilling a day which they received for the first really hard work they had ever done. They appeared to regard England as a miserly employer, exacting their last ounce of energy for a wretchedly inadequate wage. To the casual observer, theirs was not the ardor of loyal sons, fighting for a beloved motherland. Rather, it seemed that of irresponsible schoolboys on a long holiday. They said nothing about patriotism or the duty of Englishmen in war-time. And if I attempted to start a conversation along that line, they walked right over me with their boots on.

This was a great disappointment at first. I should never have known, from anything that was said, that a man of them was stirred at the thought of fighting for old England. England was all right, but "I ain't goin' balmy about the old flag and all that stuff." Many of them insisted that they were in the army for personal and selfish reasons alone. They went out of their way to ridicule any and every indication of sentiment.

There was the matter of talk about mothers, for example. I can't imagine this being the case in a volunteer army of American boys, but not once, during fifteen months of British army life did I hear a discussion of mothers. When the weekly parcels from England arrived and the boys were sharing their cake and chocolate and tobacco, one of them would say, "Good old mum. She ain't a bad sort"; to be answered with reluctant, mouth- filled grunts, or grudging nods of approval. As for fathers, I often thought to myself, "What a tremendous army of posthumous sons!" Months before I would have been astonished at this reticence. But I had learned to understand Tommy. His silences were as eloquent as any splendid outbursts or glowing tributes could have been. Indeed, they were far more eloquent! Englishmen seem to have an instinctive understanding of the futility, the emptiness, of words in the face of unspeakable experiences. It was a matter of constant wonder to me that men, living in the daily and hourly presence of death, could so surely control and conceal their feelings. Their talk was of anything but home; and yet, I knew they thought of but little else. One of our boys was killed, and there was the letter to be written to his parents. Three Tommies who knew him best were to attempt this. They made innumerable beginnings. Each of them was afraid of blundering, of causing unnecessary pain by an indelicate revelation of the facts. There was a feminine fineness about their concern which was beautiful to see. The final draft of the letter was a little masterpiece, not of English, but of insight; such a letter as any one of us would have wished his own parents to receive under like circumstances. Nothing was forgotten which could have made the news in the slightest degree more endurable. Every trifling personal belonging was carefully saved and packed in a little box to follow the letter. All of this was done amid much boisterous jesting. And there was the usual hilarious singing to the wheezing accompaniment of an old mouth-organ. But of reference to home, or mothers, or comradeship, — nothing.

Rarely a night passed without its burial parties. "Digging in the garden" Tommy calls the grave-making. The bodies, wrapped in blankets or waterproof ground-sheets, are lifted over the parados, and carried back a convenient twenty yards or more. The desolation of that garden, choked with weeds and a wild growth of self-sown crops, is indescribable. It was wreckage-strewn, gaping with shell holes, billowing with innumerable graves, a waste land speechlessly pathetic. The poplar trees and willow hedges have been blasted and splintered by shell fire. Tommy calls these " Kaiser Bill's flowers." Coming from England, he feels more deeply than he would care to admit the crimes done to trees in the name of war.

Our chaplain was a devout man, but prudent to a fault. Never, to my knowledge, did he visit us in the trenches. Therefore our burial parties proceeded without the rites of the Church. This arrangement was highly satisfactory to Tommy. He liked to "get the planting done" with the least possible delay or fuss. His whispered conversations while the graves were being scooped were, to say the least, quite out of the spirit of the occasion. Once we were burying two boys with whom we had been having supper a few hours before. There was an artillery duel in progress, the shells whistling high over our heads, and bursting in great splotches of white fire, far in rear of the opposing lines of trenches. The grave-making went speedily on, while the burial party argued in whispers as to the caliber of the guns. Some said they were six-inch, while others thought nine- inch. Discussion was momentarily suspended when a trench rocket shot in an arc from the enemy's line. We crouched, motionless, until the welcome darkness spread again.

And then, in loud whispers: —

"'Ere! If they was nine-inch, they would 'ave more screech."

And one from the other school of opinion would reply: —

"Don't talk so bloomin' silly! Ain't I a-tellin' you that you can't always size 'em by the screech?"

Not a prayer; not a word, either of censure or of praise, for the boys who had gone; not an expression of opinion as to the meaning of the great change which had come to them and which might come, as suddenly, to any or all of us. And yet I knew that they were each thinking of these things.



There were days when the front was really quiet. The thin trickle of rifle fire only accentuated the stillness of an early summer morning. Far down the line Tommy could be heard, singing to himself as he sat in the door of his dugout, cleaning his rifle, or making a careful scrutiny of his shirt for those unwelcome little parasites which made life so miserable for him at all times. There were pleasant cracklings of burning pine sticks and the sizzle of frying bacon. Great swarms of bluebottle flies buzzed lazily in the warm sunshine. Sometimes, across a pool of noonday silence, we heard birds singing; for the birds did n't desert us. When we gave them a hearing, they did their cheery little best to assure us that everything would come right in the end. Once we heard a skylark, an English skylark, singing over No-Man's-Land! I scarcely know which gave me more pleasure, the song, or the sight of the faces of those English lads as they listened. I was deeply touched when one of them said: —

"Ain't 'e a plucky little chap, singin' right in front of Fritzie's trenches fer us English blokes ?"

It was a sincere and fitting tribute, as perfect for a soldier as Shelley's "Ode" for a poet.

Along the part of the British front which we held during the summer, the opposing lines of trenches were from less than a hundred to four hundred and fifty or five hundred yards apart. When we were neighborly as regards distance, we were also neighborly as regards social intercourse. In the early mornings when the heavy night mists still concealed the lines, the boys stood head and shoulders above the parapet and shouted: —

"Hi, Fritzie!"

And the greeting was returned: —

"Hi, Tommy!"

Then we conversed. Very few of us knew German, but it is surprising how many Germans could speak English. Frequently they shouted, "Got any 'woodbines,' Tommy?"—? his favorite brand of cigarettes; and Tommy would reply, "Sure! Shall I bring 'em over or will you come an' fetch 'em?" This was often the ice-breaker, the beginning of a conversation which varied considerably in other details.

"Who are you?" Fritzie would shout.

And Tommy, "We're the King's Own 'Ymn of 'Aters"; some such subtle repartee as that. "Wot's your mob?"

"We're a battalion of Irish rifles." The Germans liked to provoke us by pretending that the Irish were disloyal to England.

Sometimes they shouted: —

"Any of you from London?"

" Not arf! Wot was you a-doin' of in London ? Witin' tible at Sam Isaac's fish-shop?"

The rising of the mists put an end to these conversations. Sometimes they were concluded earlier with bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire. "All right to be friendly," Tommy would say, "but we got to let 'em know this ain't no love-feast."



Under Cover

I.: Unseen Forces

"We come acrost the Channel
For to wallop Germany;
But they 'aven't got no soldiers —
Not that any one can see.
They plug us with their rifles
An' they let their shrapnel fly,
But they never takes a pot at us
Exceptin' on the sly.


"Fritzie w'en you comin' out?
This wot you calls a fight?
You won't never get to Calais
Always keepin' out o' sight.
"We're a goin' back to Blightey —
Wot's the use a-witin' 'ere
Like a lot o' bloomin' mud-larks
Fer old Fritzie to appear?
'E never puts 'is napper up
Above the parapet.
We been in France fer seven months
An' 'aven't seen 'im yet!"


So sang Tommy, the incorrigible parodist, during, the long summer days and nights of 1915, when he was impatiently waiting for something to turn up. For three months and more we were face to face with an enemy whom we rarely saw. It was a weird experience. Rifles cracked, bullets zip-zipped along the top of the parapet, great shells whistled over our heads or tore immense holes in the trenches, trench-mortar projectiles and hand-grenades were hurled at us, and yet there was not a living soul to be seen across the narrow strip of No-Man's-Land, whence all this murderous rain of steel and lead was coming. Daily we kept careful and continuous watch, searching the long, curving line of German trenches and the ground behind them with our periscopes and field-glasses, and nearly always with the same barren result. We saw only the thin wreaths of smoke rising, morning and evening, from trench fires; the shattered trees, the forlorn and silent ruins, the long grass waving in the wind.

Although we were often within two hundred yards of thousands of German soldiers, rarely farther than four hundred yards away, I did not see one of them until we had been in the trenches for more than six weeks and then only for the interval of a second or two. My German was building up a piece of damaged parapet. I watched the earth being thrown over the top of the trench, when suddenly a head appeared, only to be immediately withdrawn. One of our snipers had evidently been watching, too. A rifle cracked and I saw a cloud of dust arise where the bullet clipped the top of the parapet. The German waved his spade defiantly in the air and continued digging; but he remained discreetly under cover thereafter.

This marked an epoch in my experience in a war of unseen forces. I had actually beheld a German, although Tommy insisted that it was only the old caretaker, "the bloke wot keeps the trenches tidy." This mythical personage, a creature of Tommy's own fancy, assumed a very real importance during the summer when the attractions at the Western Theater of War were only mildly interesting. "Carl the caretaker" was supposed to be a methodical old man whom the Emperor had left in charge of his trenches on the western front during the absence of the German armies in Russia. Many were the stories told about him at different parts of the line. Sometimes he was endowed with a family. His "missus" and his "three little nippers" were with him, and together they were blocking the way to Berlin of the entire British Army. Sometimes he was "Hans the Grenadier," owing to his fondness for nightly bombing parties. Sometimes he was "Minnie's husband," Minnie being that redoubtable lady known in polite military circles as a "Minnenwerfer." As already explained, she was sausage-like in shape, and frightfully demonstrative. When she went visiting at the behest of her husband, Tommy usually contrived to be "not at home," whereupon Minnie wrecked the house and disappeared in a cloud of dense black smoke.

One imagines all sorts of monstrous things about an unseen enemy. The strain of constantly watching and seeing nothing became almost unbearable at times. We were often too far apart to have our early morning interchange of courtesies, and then the constant phtt-phtt of bullets annoyed and exasperated us. I for one welcomed any evidence that our opponents were fathers and husbands and brothers just as we were. I remember my delight, one fine summer morning, at seeing three great kites soaring above the German line. There is much to be said for men who enjoy flying kites. Once they mounted a dummy figure of a man on their parapet. Tommy had great sport shooting at it, the Germans jiggling its arms and legs in a most laughable manner whenever a hit was registered. In their eagerness to "get a good bead" on the figure, the men threw caution to the winds, and stood on the firing-benches, shooting over the top of the parapet. Fritz and Hans were true sportsmen while the fun was on, and did not once fire at us. Then the dummy was taken down, and we returned to the more serious game of war with the old deadly earnestness. I recall such incidents with joy as I remember certain happy events in childhood. We needed these trivial occurrences to keep us sane and human. There were not many of them, but such as there were, we talked of for days and weeks afterward.

As for the matter of keeping out of sight, there was a good deal to be said on both sides. Although Tommy was impatient with his prudent enemy and sang songs, twitting him about always keeping under cover, he did not usually forget, in the daytime at least, to make his own observations of the German line with caution. Telescopic sights have made the business of sniping an exact science. They magnify the object aimed at many diameters, and if it remains in view long enough to permit the pulling of a trigger, the chances of a hit are almost one hundred per cent.


from a British magazine


II : Snipers

"The butt-notcher" Snipers have a roving commission. They move from one part of the line to another, sometimes firing from carefully concealed loopholes in the parapet, sometimes from snipers' nests in trees or hedges. Often they creep out into the tall grass of No-Man's-Land. There, with a plentiful supply of food and ammunition, they remain for a day or two at a time, lying in wait for victims. It was a cold-blooded business, and hateful to some of the men. With others, the passion for it grew. They kept tally of their victims by cutting notches on the butts of their rifles.

I well remember the pleasant June day when I first met a "butt-notcher." I was going for water, to an old farmhouse about half a mile from our sector of trench. It was a day of bright sunshine. Poppies and buttercups had taken root in the banks of earth heaped up on either side of the communication trench. They were nodding their heads as gayly in the breeze as of old did Wordsworth's daffodils in the quiet countryside at Rydal Mount. It was a joy to see them there, reminding one that God was still in his heaven, whatever might be wrong with the world. It was a joy to be alive, a joy which one could share unselfishly with friend and enemy alike. The colossal stupidity of war was never more apparent to me than upon that day. I hated my job, and if I hated any man, it was the one who had invented the murderous little weapon known as a machine gun.

I longed to get out on top of the ground. I wanted to lie at full length in the grass; for it was June, and Nature has a way of making one feel the call of June, even from the bottom of a communication trench seven feet deep.

Flowers and grass peep down at one, and white clouds sail placidly across

"The strip of blue we prisoners call the sky."

I felt that I must see all of the sky and see it at once. Therefore I set down my water cans, one on top of the other, stepped up on them, and was soon over the top of the trench, crawling through the tall grass toward a clump of willows about fifty yards away. I passed two lonely graves with their wooden crosses hidden in depths of shimmering, waving green, and found an old rifle, its stock weather-warped and the barrel eaten away with rust. The ground was covered with tin cans, fragments of shell-casing, and rubbish of all sorts; but it was hidden from view. Men had been laying waste the earth during the long winter, and now June was healing the wounds with flowers and cool green grasses.

I was sorry that I went to the willows, for it was there that I found the sniper. He had a wonderfully concealed position, which was made bullet-proof with steel plates and sandbags, all covered so naturally with growing grass and willow bushes that it would have been impossible to detect it at a distance of ten yards. In fact, I would not have discovered it had it not been for the loud crack of a rifle sounding so close at hand. I crept on to investigate and found the sniper looking quite disappointed.

"Missed the blighter!" he said. Then he told me that it was n't a good place for a sniper's nest at all. For one thing, it was too far back, nearly a half-mile from the German trenches. Furthermore, it was a mistake to plant a nest in a solitary clump of willows such as this: a clump of trees offers too good an aiming mark for artillery: much better to make a position right out in the open. However, so far he had not been annoyed by shell fire. A machine gun had searched for him, but he had adequate cover from machine- gun fire.

"But, blimy! You ought to 'a' 'eard the row w'en the bullets was a-smackin' against the sandbags! Somebody was a-knockin' at the door, I give you my word!"

However, it was n't such a " dusty little coop," and he had a good field of fire. He had registered four hits during the day, and he proudly displayed four new notches on a badly notched butt in proof of the fact.

"There's a big 'ole w'ere the artill'ry pushed in their parapet larst night. That's w'ere I caught me larst one, 'bout a 'arf-hour ago. A bloke goes by every little w'ile an' fergets to duck 'is napper. Tyke yer field-glasses an' watch me clip the next one. Quarter left it is, this side the old 'ouse with the 'ole in the wall."

I focused my glasses and waited. Presently he said, in a very cool, matter-of-fact voice: —

"There's one comin'. See 'im? 'E's carryin' a plank. You can see it stickin' up above the parapet. 'E's a-go'n' to get a nasty one if 'e don't duck w'en he comes to that 'ole."

I found the moving plank and followed it along the trench as it approached nearer and nearer to the opening; and I was guilty of the most unprofessional conduct, for I kept thinking, as hard as I could, "Duck, Fritzie! Whatever you do, duck when you come to that hole!" And surely enough, he did. The plank was lowered into the trench just before the opening was reached, and the top of it reappeared again, a moment later, on the other side of the opening. The sniper was greatly disappointed.

"Now, would n't that give you the camel's 'ump?" he said. "I believe you're a Joner to me, matey."

Presently another man carrying a plank went along the trench and he ducked, too.

"Grease off, Jerry!" said the butt-notcher. "Yer bringin' me bad luck. 'Owever, they prob'ly got that place taped. They lost one man there an' they won't lose another, not if they knows it."

I talked with many snipers at different parts of the line. It was interesting to get their points of view, to learn what their reaction was to their work. The butt-notchers were very few. Although snipers invariably took pride in their work, it was the sportsman's pride in good marksmanship rather than the love of killing for its own sake. The general attitude was that of a corporal whom I knew. He never fired hastily, but when he did pull the trigger, his bullet went true to the mark.

"You can't 'elp feelin' sorry for the poor blighters," he would say, "but it's us or them, an' every one you knocks over means one of our blokes saved."

I have no doubt that the Germans felt the same way about us. At any rate, they thoroughly believed in the policy of attrition, and in carrying it out they often wasted thousands of rounds in sniping every yard of our parapet. The sound was deafening at times, particularly when there were ruined walls of houses or a row of trees just back of our trenches. The ear-splitting reports were hurled against them and seemed to be shattered into thousands of fragments, the sound rattling and tumbling on until it died away far in the distance.

III : Night Routine

Meanwhile, like furtive inhabitants of an infamous underworld, we remained hidden in our lairs in the daytime, waiting for night when we could creep out of our holes and go about our business under cover of darkness. Sleep is a luxury indulged in but rarely in the first-line trenches. When not on sentry duty at night, the men were organized into working parties, and sent out in front of the trenches to mend the barbed-wire entanglements which are being constantly destroyed by artillery fire; or in summer, to cut the tall grass and the weeds which would otherwise offer concealment the enemy listening patrols or bombing parties. Ration fatigues of twenty or thirty men per company went back to meet the battalion transport wagons at some point several miles in rear of the firing-line. There were trench supplies and stores to be brought up as well, and the never-finished business of mending and improving the trenches kept many off-duty men employed during the hours of darkness.

The men on duty in front of the trenches were always in very great danger. They worked swiftly and silently, but they were often discovered, in which case the only warning they received was a sudden burst of machine-gun fire. Then would come urgent calls for "Stretcher bearers!" and soon the wreckage was brought in over the parapet. The stretchers were set down in the bottom of the trench and hasty examinations made by the light of a flash lamp.

"W'ere's 'e caught it?"

"'Ere it is, through the leg. Tyke 'is puttee off, one of you!"

"Easy, now! It's smashed the bone! Stick it, matey! We'll soon 'ave you as right as rain!" "Fer Gawd's sake, boys, go easy! It's givin' me 'ell! Let up! Let up just a minute!"

Many a conversation of this sort did we hear at night when the field-dressings were being put on. But even in his suffering Tommy never forgot to be unrighteously indignant if he had been wounded when on a working party. What could he say to the women of England who would bring him fruit and flowers in hospital, call him a "poor brave fellow," and ask how he was wounded? He had enlisted as a soldier, and as a reward for his patriotism the Government had given him a shovel, " an' 'ere I am, workin' like a bloomin' navvy, fillin' sandbags full o' France, w'en I up an' gets plugged!" The men who most bitterly resented the pick-and-shovel phase of army life were given a great deal of it to do for that very reason. One of my comrades was shot in the leg while digging a refuse pit.

The wound was a bad one and he suffered much pain, but the humiliation was even harder to bear. What could he tell them at home?

"Do you think I'm a go'n' to s'y I was a-carryin' a sandbag full of old jam tins back to the refuse pit w'en Fritzie gave me this 'ere one in the leg? Not so bloomin' likely! I was afraid I'd get one like this! Ain't it a rotten bit o' luck!"

If he had to be a casualty Tommy wanted to be an interesting one. He wanted to fall in the heat of battle, not in the heat of inglorious fatigue duty.

But there was more heroic work to be done: going out on listening patrol, for example. One patrol, consisting of a sergeant or a corporal and four or five privates, was sent out from each company. It was the duty of these men to cover the area immediately in front of the company line of trench, to see and hear without being discovered, and to report immediately any activity of the enemy, above or below ground, of which they might learn. They were on duty for from three to five hours, and might use a wide discretion in their prowlings, provided they kept within the limits of frontage allotted to their own company, and returned to the meeting-place where the change of reliefs was made. These requirements were not easily complied with, unless there were trees or other prominent landmarks standing out against the sky by means of which a patrol could keep its direction.

The work required, above everything else, cool heads and stout hearts. There was the ever-present danger of meeting an enemy patrol or bombing party, in which case, if they could not be avoided, there would be a hand-to-hand encounter with bayonets, or a noisy exchange of hand-grenades. There was danger, too, of a false alarm started by a nervous sentry. It needs but a moment for such an alarm to become general, so great is the nervous tension at which men live on the firing-line. Terrific fusillades from both sides followed while the listening patrols flattened themselves out on the ground, and listened, in no pleasant frame of mind, to the bullets whistling over their heads. But at night, and under the stress of great excitement, men fire high.

Strange as it may seem, one is comparatively-safe even in the open, when lying flat on the ground.

Bombing affairs were of almost nightly occurrence. Tommy enjoyed these extremely hazardous adventures which he called "Carryin' a 'app'orth o' 'ate to Fritzie," a halfpenny worth of hate, consisting of six or a dozen hand-grenades which he hurled into the German trenches from the far side of their entanglements. The more hardy spirits often worked their way through the barbed wire and, from a position close under the parapet, they waited for the sound of voices. When they had located the position of the sentries, they tossed their bombs over with deadly effect. The sound of the explosions called forth an immediate and heavy fire from sentries near and far; but lying close under the very muzzles of the German rifles, the bombers were in no danger unless a party were sent out in search of them. This, of course, constituted the chief element of risk. The strain of waiting for developments was a severe one. I have seen men come in from a "bombing stunt" worn out and trembling from nervous fatigue. And yet many of them enjoyed it, and were sent out night after night. T he excitement of the thing worked into their blood.


digging trenches and strengthening parados


Throughout the summer there was a great deal more digging to do than fighting, for it was not until the arrival on active service of Kitchener's armies that the construction of the double line of reserve or support trenches was undertaken. From June until September this work was pushed rapidly forward. There were also trenches to be made in advance of the original firing-line, for the purpose of connecting up advanced points and removing dangerous salients. At such times there was no loafing until we had reached a depth sufficient to protect us both from view and from fire. We picked and shoveled with might and main, working in absolute silence, throwing ourselves flat on the ground whenever a trench rocket was sent up from the German lines. Casualties were frequent, but this was inevitable, working, as we did, in the open, exposed to every chance shot of an enemy sentry. The stretcher-bearers lay in the tall grass close at hand awaiting the whispered word, "Stretcher-bearers this way!" and they were kept busy during much of the time we were at work, carrying the wounded to the rear.

It was surprising how quickly the men became accustomed to the nerve-trying duties in the firing-line. Fortunately for Tommy, the longer he is in the army, the greater becomes his indifference to danger. His philosophy is fatalistic. "What is to be will be" is his only comment when one of his comrades is killed. A bullet or a shell works with such lightning speed that danger is passed before one realizes that it is at hand. Therefore, men work doggedly, carelessly, and in the background of consciousness there is always that comforting belief, common to all soldiers, that "others may be killed, but somehow, I shall escape."



The most important in-trench duty, as well as the most wearisome one for the men, is their period on "sentry-go." Eight hours in twenty-four — four two-hour shifts — each man stands at his post on the firing-bench, rifle in hand, keeping a sharp lookout over the "front yard."

At night he observes as well as he can over the top of the parapet; in the daytime by means of his periscope. Most of our large periscopes were shattered by keen-sighted German snipers. We used a very good substitute, one of the simplest kind, a piece of broken pocket mirror placed on the end of a split stick, and set at an angle on top of the parados. During the two hours of sentry duty we had nothing to do other than to keep watch and keep awake. The latter was by far the more difficult business at night.

"'Ere, sergeant!" Tommy would say, as the platoon sergeant felt his way along the trench in the darkness, "w'en is the next relief comin' on? Yer watch needs a good blacksmith. I been on sentry three hours if I been a minute!"

" Never you mind about my watch, son 1 You got another forty-five minutes to do."

"Will you listen to that, you blokes! S'y! I could myke a better timepiece out of an old bully tin! I'm tellin' you straight, I'll be asleep w'en you come 'round again!"

But he is n't. Although the temptation may be great, Tommy is n't longing for a court- martial. When the platoon officer or the company commander makes his hourly rounds, flashing his electric pocket lamp before him, he is ready with a cheery "Post all correct, sir!" He whistles or sings to himself until, at last, he hears the platoon sergeant waking the next relief by whacking the soles of their boots with his rifle butt.

"Wake up'ere! Come along, my lads! Your sentry-go!"




Cave life had its alleviations, and chief among these was the pleasure of anticipating our week in reserve. We could look forward to this with certainty. During the long stalemate on the western front, British military organization has been perfected until, in times of quiet, it works with the monotonous smoothness of a machine. (Even during periods of prolonged and heavy fighting there is but little confusion. Only twice, during six months of campaigning, did we fail to receive our daily post of letters and parcels from England, and then, we were told, the delay was due to mine-sweeping in the Channel.) With every detail of military routine carefully thought out and every possible emergency provided for in advance, we lived as methodically in the firing-line as we had during our months of training in England.

The movements of troops in and out of the trenches were excellently arranged and timed.

The outgoing battalion was prepared to move back as soon as the "relief" had taken place. The trench water-cans had been filled, — an act of courtesy between battalions, — the dugouts thoroughly cleaned, and the refuse buried. The process of "taking over" was a very brief one. The sentries of the incoming battalion were posted, and listening patrols sent out to relieve those of the outgoing battalion, which then moved down the communication trenches, the men happy in the prospect of a night of undisturbed sleep.

Second only to sleep in importance was the fortnightly bath. Sometimes we cleansed ourselves, as best we could, in muddy little duck ponds, populous with frogs and green with scum; but oh, the joy when our march ended at a military bathhouse! The Government had provided these whenever possible, and for several weeks we were within marching distance of one. There we received a fresh change of underclothing, and our uniforms were fumigated while we splashed and scrubbed in great vats of clean warm water. The order, "Everybody out!" was obeyed with great reluctance, and usually not until the bath attendants of the Army Service Corps enforced it with the cold-water hose. Tommy, who has a song for every important ceremonial, never sang, "Rule Britannia" with the enthusiasm which marked his rendition of the following chorus: —


"Whi—ter than the whitewash on the wall!
Whi—ter than the whitewash on the wall!
If yer leadin' us to slaughter
Let us 'ave our soap an' water — first!
Then we'll be whiter than the whitewash on the wall!"


When out of the firing-line we washed and mended our clothing and scraped a week's accumulation of mud from our uniforms. Before breakfast we were inflicted with the old punishment, Swedish drill. "Gott strafe Sweden!" Tommy would say as he puffed and perspired under a hot August sun, but he was really glad that he had no choice but to submit. In the trenches there was little opportunity for vigorous exercise, and our arms and legs became stiff with the long inactivity. Throughout the mornings we were busy with a multitude of duties. Arms and equipment were cleaned and inspected, machine guns thoroughly overhauled, gas helmets sprayed; and there was frequent instruction in bomb-throwing and bayonet-fighting in preparation for the day to which every soldier looks forward with some misgiving, but with increasing confidence — the day when the enemy shall be driven out of France.

Classes in grenade-fighting were under the supervision of officers of the Royal Engineers. In the early days of the war there was but one grenade in use, and that a crude affair made by the soldiers themselves. An empty jam tin was filled with explosive and scrap iron, and tightly bound with wire. A fuse was attached and the bomb was ready for use. But England early anticipated the importance which grenade-fighting was to play in trench warfare. Her experts in explosives were set to work, and by the time we were ready for active service, ten or a dozen varieties of bombs were in use, all of them made in the munition factories in England. The "hairbrush," the "lemon bomb," the "cricket ball," and the "policeman's truncheon " were the most important of these, all of them so-called because of their resemblance to the articles for which they were named. The first three were exploded by a time-fuse set for from three to five seconds. The fourth was a percussion bomb, which had long cloth streamers fastened to the handle to insure greater accuracy in throwing. The men became remarkably accurate at a distance of thirty to forty yards. Old cricketers were especially good, for the bomb must be thrown overhand, with a full-arm movement.

Instruction in bayonet-fighting was made as realistic as possible. Upon a given signal, we rushed forward, jumping in and out of successive lines of trenches, where dummy figures — clad in the uniforms of German foot soldiers, to give zest to the game — took our blades both front and rear with conciliatory indifference.

In the afternoon Tommy's time was his own. He could sleep, or wander along the country roads, — within a prescribed area, — or, which was more often the case, indulge in those games of chance which were as the breath of life to him. Pay-day was the event of the week in billets because it gave him the wherewithal to satisfy the promptings of his sporting blood.

Our fortnightly allowance of from five to ten francs was not a princely sum; but in pennies and halfpennies, it was quite enough to provide many hours of absorbing amusement. Tommy gambled because he could not help it. When he had no money he wagered his allowance of cigarettes or his share of the daily jam ration. I believe that the appeal which war made to him was largely one to his sporting instincts. Life and Death were playing stakes for his soul with the betting odds about even.

The most interesting feature of our life in billets was the contact which it gave us with the civilian population who remained in the war zone, either because they had no place else to go, or because of that indomitable, unconquerable spirit which is characteristic of the French. There are few British soldiers along the western front who do not have memories of the heroic mothers who clung to their ruined homes as long as there was a wall standing. It was one of these who summed up for me, in five words, all the heart- breaking tragedy of war.

She kept a little shop, in Armentieres, on one of the streets leading to the firing-line. We often stopped there, when going up to the trenches, to buy loaves of delicious French bread. She had candles for sale as well, and chocolate, and packets of stationery. Her stock was exhausted daily, and in some way replenished daily. I think she made long journeys to the other side of the town, bringing back fresh supplies in a pushcart which stood outside her door. Her cottage, which was less than a mile from our first-line trenches, was partly in ruins. I could n't understand her being there in such danger. Evidently it was with the consent of the military authorities. There were other women living on the same street; but somehow, she was different from the others. There was a spiritual fineness about her which impressed one at once. Her eyes were dry as though the tears had been drained from them, to the last drop, long ago.

One day, calling for a packet of candles, I found her standing at the barricaded window which looks toward the trenches, and the desolate towns and villages back of the German lines. My curiosity got the better of my courtesy, and I asked her, in my poor French, why she was living there. She was silent for a moment, and then she pointed toward that part of France which was on the other side of the world to us.

"Monsieur! Mes enfants! La-bas!" Her children were over there, or had been at the outbreak of the war. That is all that she told me of her story, and I would have been a beast to have asked more. In some way she had become separated from them, and for nearly a year she had been watching there, not knowing whether her little family was living or dead.

To many of the soldiers she was just a plain, thrifty little Frenchwoman who knew not the meaning of fear, willing to risk her life daily, that she might put by something for the long hard years which would follow the war. To me she is the Spirit of France, splendid, superb France. But more than this she is the Spirit of Mother-love which wars can never alter.

Strangely enough, I had not thought of the firing-line as a boundary, a limit, during all those weeks of trench warfare. Henceforth it had a new meaning for me. I realized how completely it cut Europe in half, separating friends and relatives as thousands of miles of ocean could not have done. Roads crossed from one side to the other, but they were barricaded with sandbags and barbed-wire entanglements. At night they were deluged with shrapnel and the cobblestones were chipped and scarred with machine-gun bullets.

Tommy had a ready sympathy for the women and children who lived near the trenches. I remember many incidents which illustrate abundantly his quick understanding of the hardship and danger of their lives. Once, at Armentieres, we were marching to the baths, when the German artillery were shelling the town in the usual hit-or-miss fashion. The enemy knew, of course, that many of our troops in reserve were billeted there, and they searched for them daily. Doubtless they would have destroyed the town long ago had it not been for the fact that Lille, one of their own most important bases, is within such easy range of our batteries. As it was, they bombarded it as heavily as they dared, and on this particular morning, they were sending them over too frequently for comfort.

Some of 'the shells were exploding close to our line of march, but the boys tramped along with that nonchalant air which they assume in times of danger. One immense shell struck an empty house less than a block away and sent the masonry flying in every direction. The cloud of brick dust shone like gold in the sun. A moment later, a fleshy peasant woman, wearing wooden shoes, turned out of an adjoining street and ran awkwardly toward the scene of the explosion. Her movements were so clumsy and slow, in proportion to the great exertion she was making, that at any other time the sight would have been ludicrous. Now it was inevitable that such a sight should first appeal to Tommy's sense of humor, and thoughtlessly the boys started laughing and shouting at her.

"Go it, old dear! Yer makin' a grand race!"

"Two to one on Liza!"

"The other w'y, ma! That's the wrong direction! Yer runnin' right into 'em!"

She gave no heed, and a moment later we saw her gather up a little girl from a doorstep, hugging and comforting her, and shielding her with her body, instinctively, at the sound of another exploding shell. The laughter in the ranks stopped as though every man had been suddenly struck dumb.

They were courageous, those women in the firing-line. Their thoughts were always for their husbands and sons and brothers who were fighting side by side with us. Meanwhile, they kept their little shops and estaminets open for the soldiers' trade and made a brave show of living in the old way. In Armentieres a few old men lent their aid in keeping up the pretense, but the feeble little trickle of civilian life made scarcely an impression in the broad current of military activity. A solitary postman, with a mere handful of letters, made his morning rounds of echoing streets, and a bent old man with newspapers hobbled slowly along the Rue Sadi-Carnot shouting, "Le Matin! Le Journal!" to boarded windows and bolted doors. Meanwhile, we marched back and forth between billets in the town and trenches just outside. And the last thing which we saw upon leaving the town, and the first upon returning, was the lengthening row of new-made graves close to a sunny wall in the garden of the ruined convent. It was a pathetic little burial plot, filled with the bodies of women and children who had been killed in German bombardments of the town.

And thus for more than three months, while we were waiting for Fritzie to "come out," we adapted ourselves to the changing conditions of trench life and trench warfare, with a readiness which surprised and gratified us. Our very practical training in England had prepared us, in a measure, for simple and primitive living. But even with such preparation we had constantly to revise downward our standards. We lived without comforts which formerly we had regarded as absolutely essential. We lived a life so crude and rough that our army experiences in England seemed Utopian by comparison. But we throve splendidly. A government, paternalistic in its solicitude for our welfare, had schooled our bodies to withstand hardships and to endure privations. In England we had been inoculated and vaccinated whether we would or no, and the result was that fevers were practically non-existent in the trenches.

What little sickness there was, was due to inclement weather rather than to unsanitary conditions.

Although there were sad gaps in our ranks, the trench and camp fevers prevalent in other wars were not responsible for them. Bullets, shells, and bombs took their toll day by day, but so gradually that we had been given time to forget that we had ever known the security of civilian life. We were soon to experience the indescribable horrors of modern warfare at its worst; to be living from morning until evening and from dusk to dawn, looking upon a new day with a feeling of wonder that we had survived so long.

About the middle of September it became clear to us that the big drive was at hand. There was increased artillery activity along the entire front. The men noted with great satisfaction that the shells from our own batteries were of larger calibre. This was a welcome indication that England was at last meeting the longfelt need for high explosives.

"Lloyd George ain't been asleep," some unshaven seer would say, nodding his head wisely. "'E's a long w'ile gettin' ready, but w'en 'e is ready, there's suthin' a-go'n' to drop!"

There was a feeling of excitement everywhere. The men looked to their rifles with greater interest. They examined more carefully their bandoliers of ammunition and their gas helmets; and they were thoughtful about keeping their metal pocket mirrors and their cigarette cases in their left-hand breast pockets, for any Tommy can tell you of miraculous escapes from death due to such a protective armoring over the heart.

The thunder of guns increased with every passing day. The fire appeared to be evenly distributed over many miles of frontage. In moments of comparative quiet along our sector, we could hear them muttering and rumbling miles away to our right and left. We awaited developments with the greatest impatience, for we knew that this general bombardment was but a preliminary one for the purpose of concealing, until the last moment, the plan of attack, the portion of the front where the great artillery concentration would be made and the infantry assault pushed home. Then came sudden orders to move. Within twenty-four hours the roads were filled with the incoming troops of a new division. We made a rapid march to a rail-head, entrained, and were soon moving southward by an indirect route; southward, toward the sound of the guns, to take an inconspicuous part in the battle at Loos.

see also : Kitchener's Mob in Training
to part 2 : Kitchener's Mob at the Battle of Loos

left : the author - James Norman Hall
right : preparing a meal in the trenches


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