from ‘the War Illustrated’10th March, 1917
'The Work of the Pioneers'
by a Private in a Pioneer Battalion

Told by the Rank and File

the work of war


There is only one decent thing in the life of a soldier in a pioneer battalion ; only one way in which he has a, better time than the man in the infantry battalions, whose home is in the fighting-line. That is, the pioneer comes and goes to and from the front line, the infantryman stays there all the time.

It is in the winter and the rainy seasons, when the mud comes, that the pioneer battalion comes into its proper prominence, and highly-placed Staff officers have been good enough to say that our work has proved exceedingly valuable during the later stages of the fighting.

We are engineers, without the name; and we are navvies, sanitary inspectors, road-makers, and trench repairers. We have to be able to live in water as well as on land, and no matter if a trench is flooded right to its parapet, we don't despair of making it fairly comfortable, perhaps, before the troops come forward to man it early the next morning We have to be able to live in an atmosphere of gas fumes, and to work all the time the grey-green clouds are hanging around us. We carry picks and spades as part of our ordinary equipment, but we're just as handy with our rifles as any soldier who has a "cushy" job in a line regiment.

Take one job we had, for instance, where a series of trenches were daily subjected to the "hate" of the German gunners. All day long we lay up in a barn which had once been an artillery observation-post, and which in consequence had received more than its fair share of shells from both sides, according to whoever held it.

Night Work Under Fire

Starting off just after eleven o'clock at night we made our way along a communication-trench. This was the start of our troubles. Along that communication-trench there were relief-parties going up to the various trenches, there were some parties — dog-tired and worn-out with fighting all day and night for the past twenty-four hours — coming down, there were stretcher-bearers with poor devils who were hurt, and burial-parties with stiller, quieter burdens. Men taking rations to the front line, others coming down to draw theirs, and all in the darkness, in twelve inches of mud, And, of course, collisions were inevitable. We'd be marching along, in two ranks, when our head would come into contact with some soft body. Then there'd be a few swear words, a demand to know whether the soft body owned that trench, and a voice saying suavely, "What is your name, my man ?"—and we'd know it was a " brass hat" on the prowl.

Pioneers got out of everybody's way, of course, and many a time we'd have to climb to the parapet of that trench, and crawl along on our stomachs, while the enemy's bullets whizzed over us. At the end of this trench, on the way we went to the front, was a canal, and this had to be crossed by a couple of narrow planks. The Huns had destroyed the bridge as they retired, and they had the range of our improvised bridge to an inch. It was in the open, too, and they had posted a machine-gun so as to command the place. This machine-gun was cunningly hidden too, and we didn't find it for a long time.

It was on the top of an old ruined chateau, right behind our lines, and there were enough stores and ammunition up with it to last at least three months. We supposed its crew must have gone foraging at night for grub,. for there wasn't any of that at all.

Trench Repairs Under Difficulties

Anyway, every night, just about the time when we got to this bridge, the captain of that gun would have a touch of liver, and give us about three hundred rounds at intervals, in the hope of catching a party on the planks. But we were wise, and went over at full speed, head down, and one at a time, waiting on the other side till the party was complete. Then there'd be more twisting and turning in the mazes of the communication-trenches, and at last we reached the place where we had to work.

On this job we had to bank up the sides of the trench, fill up sand-bags to replace those tile German guns had blown to bits, and make the parapet as solid and firm as it could be.

All the time the Germans would be firing, and occasionally they would send up a star-shell, illuminating the place as brightly as day. Then we'd fall flat, and endeavour to make a noise like a shadow on the ground, often with our faces and noses buried in the mud, and the water trickling into our ears. We didn't dare to move, for if we had we'd have drawn the fire of half a score of machine-guns, and been well strafed by our own chaps for disturbing them at that hour of the morning.

About two we'd return, but as most of the reliefs and stretcher-parties had vanished by this time, we used to get back in good time. This, of course, was repeated every night, whether it rained, snowed, was black as the inside of your tin helmet, or bright moonlight. You folks at home who admire the moon, and go to bed secure in the knowledge that Mr. Bloomin' Zeppelin won't come while there's a moon, should hear the greeting she gets from us when she shoves her great round face from behind a cloud or over a distant wood or hill-top and lights up a party of about fifty sand-bag fillers.

Of course, the Boche immediately opens fire, and it's all U-P with our work that night.

Grisly Work in High Wood

We reach our barn about dawn and lie down. I nearly said "get to sleep" but almost as soon as we get rolled in our blankets the gunners start their work, kicking up the dickens of a row about three hundred yards away in our rear. Of course, the Huns retaliate, and presently one of their airmen will come over to see if he can locate anything. He'll drop a few bombs, just out of good-fellowship, and when our airmen chase him away he makes us a present of all the explosives he's carrying. Of course, you will realise that we get an enormous amount of rest, under these conditions, and that the requests to be transferred to a "cushy" job in a fighting regiment are fairly numerous.

In the recent fight for High Wood we had to cut a road through the trees the night before the big thing happened. Now, our own guns were shelling the wood, the German guns were making a barrage just the other side of their position, and rifles and bombs were popping about all over the show. The Germans hadn't been able to bury their dead, and these had been blown to pieces with the shells, and were all mingled in with the under-growth we had to chop away.

It was awful, and the smell enough to poison anyone but a pioneer, and every time an axe crashed against a bush stump a storm of bullets would come through at us. The work was sheer brutality, and hardened as we are, it made every man Jack physically sick and ill afterwards, though while we were at it we had to stick it, trying to drown the offensive stench with strong pipe-tobacco.

One night we pushed right up to the front line to dig some new trenches for the infantry, and when we arrived there we found the infantry. too exhausted with continual fighting all day long to talk coherent sense. The German guns were making a barrage behind us, too, so that they couldn't get reliefs up, and as an attack was expected every minute they couldn't quite leave the trench to look after itself while they had a sleep.

When we arrived, however, although we were only just a little less weary than themselves, having been out all the previous night, and having worked our way through the barrage from two in the afternoon till dark, our officers sent them all into their dug-outs to get a little sleep, saying that we would hold the lines for them.

A Fight as a Pleasant Change

All that night we worked with our Spades, repairing the parapet where it was broken away, laying down the duck-walk — the planks in the centre of the trench along which we walk when the water rises — and filling up sand-bags. I don't think I ever worked so hard in all my life, and we got finished just as the light broke through the sky in the east.

And with the daylight came the Germans, attacking en masse. We discarded our spades and shovels, manned the infantry's Lewis guns, and got our rifles to bear. We gave the advancing Germans as hot a fire as they'd ever had, but they came on.

And at last they got into that trench — but they never got out. We used bayonets and the bombs belonging to our pals in the dug-outs, and when we dropped our rifles we caught up spades, and used the .edges of them. I never enjoyed a scrap more than that, and when the Germans — what was left of — them, and it was mighty few — turned and ran, we sent up a cheer that brought the lads out. And, would you believe it, they had slept through all that awful time. They'd got so used to the sound of rifle and gun fire that these usual sounds hadn't disturbed them, but our cheering had.

Well, war is a rotten life, anyway, but if I had my chance over again I'd go into a fighting regiment, and not a pioneer battalion.


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