- by W. G. FitzGerald
Winter Heroics of Our Amphibious Army
awash in a sea of mud
The Epic of Mud
What men will do for a cause is an awesome thing to consider. It is good for us all to realise that life in the winter trench is a little Iliad of woes major and minor woes, from "trench-foot" to rat-swarms, from shattering salvoes and rafales, mutilation or sudden death, to downright staleness and dread monotony of days, with no horizon but rotting sandbags, no outlook but a flooded plain broken with blasted trees and jungly festoons of wire. But to obtain even such a peep as this, perhaps long-dead comrades have to be removed from loop-holes with the bayonet.
How Tommy acquires "trench foot" in the Flanders mud. This underground war is a callous affair, with Death as familiar as Noise or Strain, or Home-sickness; so that "Stick it" is the- sovereign slogan of the soldier's day. Nothing "heroic" in a flashy way but just the gay Fighting spirit to which we owe a "subterranean ascendancy" which the foe can never regain. Look at these lads tramping back to billets - mere blocks of mud from hair to ankles. "We never see our boots," they'll tell you, with comic resignation.
Mud, deep mud in unthinkable seas; a moral depressant of clammy, eternal, all- pervasive cling and sway. Oozy stuff that clogs the trenching-tool till the veteran no longer, digs, but rolls the clay into glutinous blocks. " 'Ere, son (to the greenhorn) "Chuck out these balls afore you come in. Mind you wipe yer feet on the mat and then look for yer friend in the billiard-room."
Mud is to us little more than a word an association of tip-toe tread in teeming city streets, and dismay at the splash of passing wheels. But mud in winter warfare is a doctor's problem, as Napoleon himself found when scores of his grandest men blew out their brains in the ghastly sloughs of Poland. Dig a maze of ditches from the Alps to the North Sea range after range of them, peopled with millions of men and you impose upon soldiers a life but faintly realised at the home fireside. The trench floor is a morass, waist-deep last year and perhaps knee-deep thisthanks to Herculean labour of our engineers and quick-wit contrivances on the part of the rank and file. "We've annexed too much of France," a merry lad writes to his mother. "They're going to put a land-tax on our chaps, for you could sow seeds up and down our bodies ! But the rubber thigh- boots are a great help."
The Drollery of Discomfort
As one talks to these men at home one marvels how they can see the droller side of this ceaseless fight with sticky clay and freezing slime. Yet the wounded man who drops in it, and all but drowns, can laugh at the devoted surgeon who comes floundering at the double through the noisome Hood. Holding high in the air his precious instruments and dressings. Here pause for a moment and pay homage to these doctors to Lieut. Maling, V.C., slaving for six and twenty hours without a stop; collecting and treating 300 men, till a high explosive burst and killed his last group of patients, wounded his only assistant, and buried in debris the doctor himself and .all his gear. Or again consider young Martin-Leake, the only double V.C. of the war, who left a private practice at Ware for one in Flanders, where sights and sounds unnerve the giants and wear down the veterans with "wounds to consciousness," utterly mysterious and grave. On their winter rounds doctors like these have often to be dug put like derelict cars on the tree-lined pave above ground.
Men stick fast in the trench floors. Their boots are sucked off, all their strength ebbs away fighting the passive devilries of the famous Flanders mud. Always an historic force, men hail it to-day as the worst of all foes, killing the-soul itself in the long run; "Forty's too old for this job," sighs my bright young sub. How youth ages by the way in the fight with these so-called "minor'' terrors ! Winter cold and summer flies. Boredom and the plague of rats; evil smells and nightly strain. And the mud !
"I'm drenched, soaked and sodden to the skin and beyond." Thus my. dauntless boy. "My pockets are wet, my hands encased in clay as though I were taking a plaster-cast. 'All I possess is ruined; my very money is a wad of paper, dirty and stained. My dug-out shines and drips in watery candle-light. My breeches are coated with mud, my pistol case a mere mass of putty, and my muffler a mud pie about a muddy neck.
"My watch stopped long ago. And Time itself is not, in all this crushing wetness. 'Plop' I go the rats into our winding rivers. 'Bang' ! go the shells. 'Whir-r-r' and 'Cr- r-rash' with fountains of metal and mud and blood ! My fellows don't care. They shiver in the rain and bitter wind. watching the parapets crumble and fall in. So wet, poor lads; so grimy and caked with this awful clay dangerous stuff to have carried into even a superficial wound, such as flying gravel may inflict."
Wild Men of the Trenches
To keep warm, to get .dry again, even if only for an hour! Hence the wild-man aspect of Tommy, with straw and sacking round his legs, pads of newspaper at his chest, scraps of oil-cloth and waterproof sheeting. Slushy walls into which one lurches in the slow "se-loop," "se-loop" of fighting progress along the ditch. A dreary country under water, and to the rear quagmire roads that hiss and spout to the motor-lorries' day and night assault.
Thick streams spurt also from the staff-car's reckless progress; and as for the motor dispatch-rider, machine and man appear as one grey smudge, scuttling unsteadily past mud-caked cottages; stuck and pelted with the all-prevailing horror, even to the first-floor windows.
Napoleon's "fifth element in warfare" was mud, so fatal to the moving of great guns, so lowering to the vital resistance of the toughest troops. Colonel Bate's sanitarium at Headquarters has many a "mud" patient. To be "knocked out" is now a recognised ill, though the victim has not a scratch to show for his bad case. Fighting Flanders mud has indeed knocked out many a brave lad; but a fortnight's rest in cheery surroundings, hot baths, gay talk, and a new outfit of clean things these send the soldier back renewed for the fray with fresh ardour. Luckily much has been done since last winter, much experience gained and means devised to drain this ocean of puddle and sticky slime. New trenches are dug with circumspection unlike those of the Fourth (Guards) Brigade which were full of natural springs. Brigadier-General the Earl of Cavan was sorry to say that the "homes" of his men were "undrainable and constantly full of water above the knee for twenty-three days."
Our Trench Toffs
t Was a terrible pitch, all right," said a wounded Coldstreamer to me. "But what was the use o' grumblin' ? The whole Brigade o' Guards 'll own that what the men endured the officers themselves endured. An' more. I've known 'em turn out of a cosy billet to make room for a knocked-out mate o' mine, an' vanish in gale an' snow, hummin' op'ratic airs. O, they're tons ! An' mind a toff o' the trench is an eighteen carat sort!" This is good hearing, and one hears it everywhere. An acute problem of the puddly trench was the so-called "frost-bite," which cost men their limbs and even lives last winter. A mysterious condition, this, something new to the doctors, like shell-shock, which confuses all the senses and unseats memory itself. It was not frost-bite at all. Cold was but a secondary factor in this condition.
Taken as a whole the lesions were like intense chilblains, and were undoubtedly due to long standing in water and mud which was not frozen at all. Sir William Osier blamed "the forced inertia of the leg muscles." Other authorities condemned the tight puttses; all were agreed that gum-waders of some sort were urgently needed, pointing to the mulberry-leaf stockings which the Japs used in their flooded trenches in Manchuria. A wader-stocking was at once produced by Mr. F. B. Behr, of mono-rail fame, and tested on War Office behalf by Captain Jenkins, of ths 3rd Batt., City of London Regiment.
Rehearsing Ditch Warfare
Trenches were dug and flooded at Beckenham. Ten soldiers were chosen at random, and night and day experiments conducted for over 100 hours. Dr. H. F. Strickland, F.R.C.S., found the men's feet in perfect form, so 10,000 pairs of waders were ordered as a start, to be worn in France with the ordinary service boot. Both the King and Queen were greatly interested in this new and sorely- needed trench comfort. Already the problem of mud had exhausted the Army's ingenuity. In some trenches the 'sentries were actually planted in tubs like ornamental shrubs ! "We live in clay and we die in it," they waited, half humorously. "We eat clay and we drink it,, cursing a wet world as old Noah did when the floodgates of Heaven were opened and his own folks were the only life in sight."
The Royal Engineers are now doctoring our war-zones in Flanders and France. Draining trenches, building damp-proof shelters, paving roads and wattling walls and parapets against the crumbling erosion of rain, rain, rain.
"The fields are sodden," your iron-grey major explains, "so the problem of drainage in this pancake land is a pretty serious one for us. There are places where I can't run off the water, and there the trench is a regular river, waist-deep and alive with the most daring rats. Still, conditions have improved enormously ! We now pave the ditches with bricks and boards. Tommy lays down straw and makes furniture out of bacon and orange boxes; I've seen doors and windows in the funk-pits got from ruined houses in the village.
Add to this lavish supplies of coke and charcoal, together with trench stoves and portable braziers made from bully-tins holed with a pick or a trenching-tool, and I think you'll agree that we've conquered the nightmare of wintry mud. Mind you, it's still abroad. We do our best and Tommy knows it that glorious philosopher who kicks off a football in the charge and asks his girl to send out stilts in her next parcel!
"God bless the lads, say I, who can croak Quack, quack as they waddle through gluey slosh to the day's terrific strafeing !