- 'I Charge'
Charging a Trench
- I CHARGE!
- by CAPT. A. 0. POLLARD, V.C., M.C., D.C.M.
The 15th June, 1915, was a broiling hot summer's day.
There was scarcely a breath of wind as we set off on the eight mile march which would take us to our "jumping-off" position. The Poperinghe-Ypres road was, as usual, crowded with traffic; troops in large and small parties, some in full equipment, some in light fatigue dress ; limbers drawn by horses, limbers drawn by mules; endless ammunition columns; siege guns and howitzers; strings of lorries; motor cycle despatch riders; every conceivable branch of the Service was represented going about its business in orderly confusion. Even the cavalry who, since the inception of trench warfare, were rather out of fashion, had their part in the pageant. They sat their horses with the same erectness as in peace time, but their drab equipment was in sad contrast to the shining breast-plates, scarlet cloaks, and nodding plumes with which they entrance the nursemaids in the Mall.
On this occasion they rode with something of an air. When we succeeded in boring a hole through the enemy's defences on the following morning they would come once more into their own. Thundering hoofs and steaming nostrils would race in pursuit of a flying enemy. Sharp steel and quivering lance would clear the way for us to consolidate our victory.
We did not go right into Ypres. We turned off short of Hell Fire Corner across the fields. In one of these a stray shell knocked the Adjutant off his horse, though luckily without killing him. It was only a minor incident, but it warned us that we were under fire; our big adventure had commenced.
A student of psychology would notice a subtle difference between troops m arching away from the line for a rest, and the same troops going up the line into action. Leaving the line, when every step means a further distance from bullets, and shells, there is an atmosphere of gaiety; songs are heard, jokes are exchanged, laughter is frequent. Going up, on the other hand, is a very different business. There is an air of seriousness, remarks are answered in monosyllables, men are mostly silent, occupied with their own thoughts. Some laugh and chatter from a sense of bravado, or to prevent their imaginations from becoming too active; others to bolster up the shrinking spirits of their weaker comrades. Only a few are natural.
On this occasion there was a tenseness in the bearing of the Battalion quite different from our normal visits to the trenches. We started off with a swing as if we were going for a route march. Every one walked jauntily, and one could sense the excitement in the air. Gradually this spirit faded, helped no doubt by the heat of the day, and the sweat of marching. The wounding of the Adjutant was like the period at the end of a paragraph. After that first shell scarcely a word was spoken. We were going into something of which we had no experience. No man felt sure he would live through the coming ordeal.
We were halted in a field to await the coming of dusk. tea was provided from the cookers, which were afterwards taken back to the transport field. I wonder how many watched them go off with envious eyes for the Company cooks and the drivers. I wonder whether any of those returning envied us?
We moved forward in the twilight in single file. Our way lay along a railway line, and we stumbled forward and cursed the sleepers. They were either too far apart or too near; I have never been able to determine which. What I am sure of is that they are damnably awkward things to walk on, especially in full battle order.
At last we reached our position. It consisted of row after row of narrow, shallow trenches, each row being intended to accommodate successive waves of attacking troops. We were herded into ours literally like sardines. There was no room to lie down; the trench was too narrow to sit down in except sideways; if one stood up, one was head and shoulders over the top. Such were the quarters in which we were to pass the night.
Ernest and I and Percy got to work with our entrenching tools and hollowed out a space so that we could crouch in some sort of comfort. It was not worth while to put in too much work, as we should only be there for a few hours. As it was, it took us over an hour to get ourselves settled.
Smoking was strictly forbidden in case Fritz spotted the glow of the cigarettes, but of course we smoked. We managed to get a light from an apparatus which had had sent out from home. It consisted of some sort of cord which was ignited by sparking a flint with a small wheel. Its merit lay in the fact that it glowed without making a flame. We were able to light up in perfect safety.
Sleep was out of the question. Not only was it too uncomfortable but I was far too excited. In a few hours I was to go over the top for the first time. - felt no trace of fear or even nervousness - only an anxiety to get started. The hours seemed interminable. Would the dawn never come?
Fritz started spasmodic shelling in the small hours. Whether he suspected anything or not I cannot say. I do not think he can have done, for a concentrated bombardment of these congested assembly trenches would have meant a massacre. The stuff he was sending over was shrapnel, and he caused some casualties, though not in our trench.
About an hour before zero hour a message came down the line that I was to report to Captain Boyle. Thankfully I climbed out of my cramped lodgement and made my way to Company Headquarters. Captain Boyle had great news for me. Two men were required to accompany the first wave as a connecting link. I was one of the two chosen; the other was a fellow called Springfield, whose father was editor of London Opinion.
Springy and I were delighted; I especially so. My ambition was to be realised. I was to take part in a real charge. With luck I might bayonet a Hun.
We reported to Captain Spooner of the 1st Lincolns. The Lincolns were in the British front-line trench, and were consequently very much more comfortable than we were in the assembly trenches. We had scarcely arrived when the barrage commenced.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Swish, swish, swish. Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Deafening pandemonium! One had to shout in one's neighbour's ear to make oneself heard at all. I knew the Hun was replying because an occasional shower of dust and earth descended on my head, but the continuous noise of guns and shells rendered my sense of hearing completely inoperative. Guns firing and shells bursting were so intermingled, friend and foe, that there was one endless succession of shattering detonations.
Springy and I stood and waited; Captain Spooner from time to time looked at his watch ; the men of the Lincolns fidgeted with their equipment. My pulse raced; the blood pounded through my veins. I looked at Springy and grinned; Springy grinned back. Only a few more minutes.
At last Captain Spooner turned and smiled. His lips formed the words, "Only a minute to go !" Instantly all was bustle and confusion. Short three-rung ladders were placed against the parapet. A man stood by each one, his foot on the first step, his rifle and bayonet swung over his shoulder.
Captain Spooner raised his hand; then swarmed up the ladder in front of him. I followed close at his heels. Springy was only a second behind me. Right and left along the lint men were clambering over the top.
With the memory of the Moulin Rouge fresh in my mind, I fully expected that we should be met with a withering fire as we emerged into the open. I anticipated the crackle of machine-guns, the rattle of musketry, the sweeping away of our gallant charge. Except that I never once dreamed or considered that I myself should be hit. Even in this first attack I had the extraordinary feeling of being myself exempt, though not to the same degree as later on when I was an officer. I shall therefore leave the analysis of this peculiar sense until I record the period when it became more pronounced.
Instead of a hail of machine-gun and rifle bullets, there was - nothing! Not a sign of life was to be seen anywhere around the enemy position. Overhead the shells still whined and screeched; behind us and in front great spouts of earth went up in bursts. The noise was deafening, but from the menacing line of earth works opposite, not so much as a puff of smoke.
just ahead of me Captain Spooner ran in a steady jog-trot across No Man's Land. Right and Left stretched long lines of troops. All were running forward, their rifles gripped in their hands.
Four hundred yards to go! We ran steadily on. Springy and I had lengthened our stride until we were right at Captain Spooner's heels. Still not a movement in the trench we were rapidly approaching.
What should we meet when we got there, I wondered? Perhaps they were reserving their fire until the last moment. Perhaps a hidden machine-gun nest would suddenly sweep us away like chaff before the wind. Or it might be that the infantry would rise to meet us with a yell in a counter bayonet charge. I clenched my teeth and gripped my rifle tighter.
Ten yards from the trench Springy and I both sprinted. Two minds with but a single thought. We both wanted to be first to engage the enemy. There was no wire to bother us. It had been utterly destroyed by our fierce barrage. We passed Captain Spooner in a flash.
What a shock met my eyes as I mounted the German parapet. The trench was full of men; men with sightless eyes and waxen faces. Each gripped his rifle and leaned against the side of the trench in an attitude of defence, but all were dead. We were attacking a position held by corpses!
For a single moment I could not believe my eyes. I though it it must be some trick of the Hun to fill the trench with dummies the better to lure us into a trap. Then, when at length I realised what I was looking at, I felt suddenly sick with horror. This was unvarnished war; war with the gloves off. There was something ludicrous about that trench of dead men. One wanted to laugh at their comical appearance. There was also something fine; every man in his place with his face towards the enemy. But mostly they aroused a feeling of pity. Death must have come to them so suddenly, without giving them a chance in their own defence. They certainly gave me a very different reception from anything I had anticipated.
The Lincolns swept past and on to the second line. Springy and I turned and ran back to the "jumping off" trench. Our job was to report that the first German line was clear. Captain Boyle was standing on the parapet talking to Major Ward. I informed them that the Lincolns had gone on, and then, without waiting for the battalion to advance, ran back again to the German position. I suppose, strictly speaking, I should have rejoined my section. But I had received no definite orders to do so, and I wanted to get back to the Lincolns and see some of the fighting. I was still sure there would be a hand-to-hand contest.
There was now considerably more activity from the Huns. Machine-guns were intermingling their clatter with the roar of the shells. They were firing from some reserve positions, and I could hear the whine and whistle of the bullets as they passed me or ricochetted overhead.
The German trench I had first entered was situated on the edge of a small wood. This I now passed through to the second trench at the back; then on up to the German communication trench. Here I saw my first live Hun. He was lying half in and half out of a dug-out, pinned down by a beam of wood which prevented him from moving the lower part of his body. All the same he was full of fight. He had a thin face with an aquiline nose on which were perched steel-rimmed glasses. He reminded me forcibly of a German master we had at my preparatory school. In his hand he held an automatic with which he was taking pot-shots at whoever passed him. We had killed one man and wounded one, and I arrived just in time to see a Tommy stick him with his bayonet.
I passed right up the communication trench until I found the Lincolns. They were holding what had been the fourth German line, which they were putting in a condition of defence. I made the mistake of reporting to Captain Spooner, who at once ordered me to rejoin my unit. There was no sign of any hand-to-hand fighting anywhere up there. All was peace and quiet. The Hun had cleared but without waiting for the British advance. I concluded the whole thing was over and returned to the wood.