'On the Ypres Salient'
by Athur Lambert
FIghting in the Lowlands of Flanders
from 'The War Illustrated'
LIVING in the abomination of desolation (to say nothing of sudden death and terrible wounds; mud, rain and privation) would have been more bearable if news from home had been good, but each man, with the susceptibility of a maggot, felt when he read his letters that the cup was near to overflowing.
The German airmen were killing women and children in England. Their foul work was going on frequently and regularly, and the bravest heart among those wonderful women could scarcely conceal the growing anxiety of each moonlit night, or repress entirely details of the bloody war fiends waged upon the infant and the aged.
Many square miles of the Ypres sector were covered with ammunition of all kinds, and not a night passed without a succession of air raids. "Archies" were firing continuously, there was an incessant whirr of planes in the air: squadron after squadron dropped bombs until the earth trembled, men died, or valuable property was blown to atoms. Sixty raiders was an ordinary night's total, while in the daylight hundreds of machines flew in little bunches, and the air was full of white or black "blobs" that floated away lazily before the wind.
It was part of the necessary endurance for the fighters, but the thought of their women- folk, parents and little ones suffering the same mental torture drove them frantic. . . . The German High Command possibly desired moral effect. They got it.
In the midst of terrible danger, when shells rained through the air and showers of bullets sang songs, Britishers thought of graceful women and curly-haired babies blown to atoms, and hung on by their back teeth, or "went into them" like Red Indians, fanatical and thirsting for the blood of their enemies.
All the men felt an approximation of this lust as they set out on their third journey along their "Via Dolorosa." Ninety per cent. of them knew nothing of the work to be done, but the crushing load each carried suggested serious business. In addition to the usual battle order, full complement of ammunition and gas masks, there were many Lewis guns, bomb-bags crowded with Mills' bombs, Hale's grenades, smoke bombs, S.O.S. rockets, and all the regalia of an attacking force to be humped, and each man resembled a pack mule.
They set out heavily weighted, not only with foreboding, but solid metal, and how war correspondents could have talked of troops marching cheerfully to battle is beyond a soldier's imagination.
They plodded manfully along a new timber track, keeping on when nature told them to stop; helping one another along as much as possible; giving warning of broken boles or timbers dug by shells, and every man assisting the other to "get there somehow, anyhow.
They shared the track with ponies and mules carrying shells to the forward guns ; a wonderful procession that seemed unending, ridden by tin-hatted R.F.A. men with eyes wide open for pitfalls; and animals picking their steps on the broken track with wonderful precision.
The guns were quiet for the first hour or so, and Lambert, between gasps, had murmured that "Jerry" was having his tea when a quartette of shells whinnied over and burst a short distance away. Then began the usual "strafe," but familiarity breeds resignation in war (not contempt, with showers of 5.95 !) and the column kept on steadily. The ammunition ponies had evidently " delivered the goods," for they commenced the return journey. Lambert felt his breath stop as the first of them passed him. With cocked ears, distended nostrils, and hoarse breathing, the little animal pounded over the track like a thing possessed, its rider crouching over its neck like a Yankee jockey. Close at its heels came another, and nose to tail the animals thundered over the timber at an astonishing pace. They jumped holes and large splinters of wood, rushed giddily down slippery slopes and charged up inclines, poured in a line through the smoke of exploded shells, and disappeared into the distance like an overdue express. Those beasts knew the Ypres salient
Their route led past the ill-omened "Mound," skirted a hole full of dead men and led into a deep trench cut in the mud. They relieved a regiment of the Devons, who resembled a collection of men in an advanced stage of putrefaction. Every face was stone grey, with staring eyes and chattering teeth. In the narrowness of the trench it was inevitable that the H.A.C. should crash into their fellows as they struggled along to their positions.
Men collided violently, rifles hit bodies or tin hats, toes were trodden into the mud, but not a curse or expostulation came from the Devons, who seemed too dazed or frozen with cold or horror to understand that their relief had actually arrived.
For some unknown reason the trench was called "Jolting Horse," and Lambert could only surmise that the reverberations of the earth during the incessant " strafing " had been the reason. It was the "support" trench and the enemy knew it. He had had it once and his shooting was as accurate as the margin of error would allow. Drizzling rain fell throughout the night, and the men sat low down in the earth, their ground-sheets round their shoulders, or over their tin hats, listening and waiting for what might be.
Shells crashed everywhere. Thin points of light flashed in the background. The air was full of wines and shrieks, interspersed with roars, and over everything floated a pall of smoke, reeking of powder and poisoned dust.
Showers of earth and stone fell incessantly; at frequent intervals a considerable portion of the trench fell in completely or partially, burying the men beneath, necessitating immediate digging in the first case, and a desperate spluttering heave of the shoulders in the other. A thunderous roar, flash of flame, and a reek of cordite told of direct hits, and whispers would pass along the trench from each end, converging on the men nearest the blue-black hole that marred its symmetry.
Sometimes the answer came back, sometimes it did not. Men who had escaped death by some miraculous decree of Providence could hardly feel, and found speech impossible with their bodies and clothes spattered with the blood of their friends. Men disappeared that night absolutely and utterly. Others could be seen when daylight came - lying quietly, yards outside the trench.
Lambert was at the extreme end of the trench, and throughout the night, and the next day, a procession of men passed him on the way to the aid post at "The Mount." All kinds of men and boys, with all kinds of wounds. Some holding arms tightly, their teeth clenched and faces working ; some holding their heads and moaning with intolerable pain ; others smiling in a ghastly semi-insane condition. During the night, and early dawn, men carried or escorted the poor fellows to the aid post, but at frequent intervals during the night Lambert was surrounded by a dreadful gathering of wounded, unable to face the storm of shells.
Daylight brought fresh terrors. As soon as the light got strong, enemy snipers fired at the slightest target and the uninjured men heard with horror that crack and "ping," as their chums made the dangerous journey.
Nobody moved about in daylight with impunity. Stretcher-bearers, whose names should be set in diamonds on some immortal memorial, went out, time after time, trying to bring back "stretcher cases" from the battalion who had attacked near Passchendaele Ridge.
They crossed shell-swept "No Man's Land" on their errand of mercy, and always the enemy fired on them, although their telescopic sights must have shown them the work in progress. Shots followed them from start to finish, and for coldly calculated bravery their persistence was hard to beat, even in a war teeming with heroism.
As soon as a man was hit, a "reserve" took his place, and many a poor devil, racked with agony, had cause to bless the base-wallahs," and did so fervently.
Lambert peered cautiously over the parapet as one party returned with its burden. Bullets spattered right and left, behind and in front, but the heroes kept on steadily and lowered their stretcher carefully into the trench. Another crack, a moan of pain, and one of the carriers held a bleeding wrist high in the air, and then fell headlong. Lambert ground his teeth, and swore furiously in a paroxysm of rage that produced a faint smile from Thoroughgood, sitting quietly a hundred yards away.
Hours passed on leaden wings and the men sat patiently in the mud waiting for night, almost oblivious of the drizzle, or the infernal shower of shells that scarcely ceased. They ate and drank little, although a fatigue party had lost many men bringing up rations through the enemy barrage. The bread was sodden and broken, but many lives had been lost bringing it. Some hours after darkness had fallen a whisper ran along the line "Prepare to move !
A TAPE had been run from "supports" to the "jumping-off" line. It guided the companies who were to attack over dank fields, dotted with low bushes and innumerable shell holes, down a slope to a foul swamp deep in treacherous mud, which had to be crossed carefully, in single file, to avoid a muddy death.
Shells burst in the middle of the regiment as the various sections were bundled into position. Officers and sergeants shouted and pushed, sections collided in the pitch darkness; were posted here and there, and eventually reached a third point, and all seemed confusion, with ghastly death grinning overhead.
It was about the hour when the human frame is dubbed at its weakest when the various platoons found their places, and huddled together in shallow trenches a foot deep in the mud. For the first time in those long days of horror a definite statement was given to "the men." It was definite enough at last :
We attack this morning. Our barrage opens at 3.50 !
There was no mention of objective. So far as Lambert knew they had to go on until killed, captured, or were marching on the long road to Germany; but this lack of orders did not worry him at the moment. His mind was full of a confused mixture of thoughts of home, prayers for strength and a queer sympathy for his comrades, sitting so motionless in the muddy pools.
Now and again he murmured a few words to the man next to him, a fat, jolly-faced Londoner, brimming with good humour; hut a shock ran through him as he caught a glimpse of his friend's face in the red glare of an explosion. The round cheeks had fallen in; deep lines were graven on the freckled face, and all the merry twinkle had disappeared from the staring eyes.
Buck up, old dear I It'll be all right !
No ! No I This ends it. My-my poor girl. We love one another so much. We were going to be married during my leave. Now . . .
His voice trailed away into nothingness and Lambert could say no more. For the first time he saw the look, and heard the voice, of one of those men who knew definitely that their last day had come. It became a familiar, unexplainable phenomenon, but the first instance shocked him into silence. He sat stock still, wondering dully if this was his last day also.
Just before 3.50 the men crawled out of the mud and walked leisurely to their positions. An unnatural stillness had fallen over everything, prolonging seconds into illimitable measures of time, and eternities passed as Lambert knelt on the mud, peering into the dark.
A series of screams through the air, and hell broke loose. With a swift sweep of the arm, the platoon officer pointed to the dark void ahead. Up jumped the long line and into pandemonium they ran. Straight forward into a world afire, shaking with appalling crashes of high explosives; the metallic explosions of overhead shrapnel; the deadly song of concentrated machine guns.
Men toppled over immediately. The symmetrical line became jagged. The platoon officer disappeared; the section commander dropped heavily and rolled over, motioning onwards as he lay. The platoon sergeant was nowhere to be seen and only one thought occurred to Lambert: "Get on !
The greatest concentration of enemy artillery that the glorious 7th Division had ever experienced in their long record of terrible fighting had dropped upon them at the instant that the British gunfire had opened. Lots were killed. Officers and N.C.O.'s had gone. They must go on. No use going back. The world was mad.
You're in charge, Ross," he howled excitedly, as he ran and stumbled over the broken earth and through the clinging mud.
Ross turned and grinned, and Lambert remembered him standing on the fire-step in "Jolting Horse" Trench calmly watching shells burst almost in his face. This was the man to lead !
Up a long field the remainder of the section charged, tripping and jumping over barbed wire and poor motionless bodies; taking no notice of the bullets that whined unceasingly around them or the jagged fragments of iron that crashed around them like giant hailstones.
Into a narrow trench, lying just under the top of a ridge, they bundled, and over the top like a pack of hounds. In the feeble rays of the early dawn appeared the enemy line. It ran at right angles round the village of Reutel, one arm running down the slope, another cutting away to their left. Some yards behind the trenches was a pill-box: a squat square of white concrete, spitting out bullets in an unending stream. Right away on the left, more spurts of flame and several dark figures in a crouching position.
Down on their knees went Ross and several other men and headlong into a deep shell hole went Lambert. In a second all their rifles cracked out, and almost simultaneously with the disappearance of the machine gun team, Ross, and those nearest him, crumpled into a terribly intermingled heap.
There was too much noise, too much mental excitement to feel sorrow at that minute ; the mind simply contained a jumble of thoughts. The enemy in sight had disappeared.
Who else was there to kill ? Ha I there goes one. Crack ! God have mercy ! Am I alive ? Another clip ! Crack ! Crack ! Don't fire across my ear, you blasted fool !
A Lewis gun crashed out from a hole a few yards to the right, spraying the German trench and pill-box with a terrific stream of bullets. Great shells from the British guns were sending buildings in Becelare high in the air; the dreadful line of the German barrage had followed the attackers and was now bursting behind the ridge.
Suddenly the fire from the pill - box ceased, and a shout from the next shell hole just reached Lambert's ears. He turned and saw a sergeant looking in his direction.
"Fire at that trench," came faintly through the uproar. He turned and nodded, and saw with a feeling of sickness the tin hat jump violently off the man's head, and the immediate fading of life as a bullet crashed through the brain.
Mechanically he fired bullet after bullet at the dun line that wound down the slope, until his rifle smoked and was too hot to hold longer. Twisting on his side, his feet slid down the muddy hank, and he sat suddenly in a pool of water that oozed and bubbled at the bottom. The chill seemed to steady him, and he glanced cautiously round to take his bearings.
Evidently the ridge had been captured, for no firing came from the enemy trench or pill- box. To right and left he could see the tops of tin helmets peeping over the edges of shell holes. The Lewis gun was silent; its muzzle smoking and its ammunition drums empty. Everywhere his comrades were lying in all attitudes, many perfectly still, others writhing in pain. For the first time, Lambert realised that he had companions, a boy whose facial formation resulted in a fixed grin that was annoying in such circumstances and who had fired right across his face, and a comrade from the same platoon. All the other jolly boys ! Where were they ? That straight line that had pressed forward so manfully ! Had it dwindled so dreadfully ? Lambert did not dare to answer the questions even to himself.
"What do we do now?" he asked irritably, and scrambled into an upright position. For answer a bullet whizzed into the earth behind him; and now the roar of artillery had subsided, there came the continuous cracking of snipers' rifles. Many a man survived the attack that day only to get a bullet through his head. The sniping was fiendish-an inch above the ground level was sufficient excuse for the immediate crack of a rifle.
Inaction is dreadful in times of peace, but add the discomfort of crouching, or lying, in sticky mud, with legs up to the knees in a pool of water, and the result is unbearable. After enduring the discomfort for a couple of hours, Lambert offered to reconnoitre, but a corporal bravely essayed the task of recrossing the ridge in an endeavour to discover the next move.
He crawled rapidly on hands and knees over the undulating shell holes, gathered himself into a crouching position and dashed, head well down, for the top. A clever swerve probably saved him, for a bullet practically touched him, but he was over the top before the next came.
An hour later Lambert happened to notice a head peep cautiously over the edge of the ridge, and a finger beckoned to him. He passed the word along to his companions, and one by one they made the dangerous trip. Each man ran or crawled over the muddy flats, plunging down slippery sides of holes, and scrambling up the others, and gradually working nearer the top, ending up with a frantic rush as the inevitable bullet zipped perilously near them.
One of the Lewis gun team dragged the heavy gun behind him and paused for a second on the skyline to pull it after him. A bullet went clean through his wrist, but the brave fellow persisted and the gun was one of the few that survived that awful day.
Lambert felt a gambler's thrill as his turn came, but Providence was preserving him, and he tumbled safely into the trench that so many poor boys had rushed through hours before.
It was full of wounded men, and Lambert sickened as he crawled by white-faced, bleeding comrades to where his platoon sergeant, a taciturn uncouth young man, sat in a "cubby-hole" scraped in the side. His offer to do anything possible was answered by a nod and he set about making himself useful.
A "cubby-hole" for a poor fellow wounded in the head; a waterproof wrapped round another who was shivering with cold, a rough bandage round a wounded arm and a careful watch at a gap under observation by the enemy, helped to keep his mind off the horrors.
A few men crawled in during the day, and Lambert was overjoyed when Thoroughgood joined him unhurt. The little man brought news of many chums, and it was a terrible tale. Dozens of mutual friends killed, many more wounded. Not a single officer untouched. Doctor, Adjutant, Company-Sergeant-Major all killed. Their platoon officer, a popular subaltern, was lying in a shell hole fifty yards away, with a bullet wound in the neck, with men for company who would never obey his orders again. Still farther away lay the Company Commander, grievously wounded by a bullet that had smashed its way into his body, and emerged near the collar-bone.
Few dared to move in the daylight. Shells fell every few seconds and deadly snipers took toll of men who exposed themselves. Heroes defied death dozens of times, and chief among them modest, cheerful, lion-hearted Tantum, R.A.M.C. attached H.A.C. He had followed the battalion against orders, and now darted about the stricken field, despite a nasty hole in his back, bandaging, encouraging or threatening as the case demanded. He had previously won the Military Medal, which he never wore, and afterwards received a bar, when the V.C. was the only fitting decoration.
Daylight slowly faded, and the evening air grew chilly. The little band seemed isolated from the world, and for hours Lambert resigned himself to eventual capture, until a Welsh Fusilier officer and sergeant crawled into the trench, and pointed out the direction to be taken when darkness fell. There was no food or drink for the men, but the reeking fumes of cordite had given them a sickening nausea and no desire for food. The wounded men were languid with pain, lying half-unconscious in all attitudes.
From all around came moans, and an incessant wail from some poor boy, that resembled the lament of a lost soul. For hours it racked their sensitive nerves.
S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r B-e-a-r-e-r H-A-C. Oh ! God ! Will nobody come ? Mother! Oh ! Mother."
Lambert writhed in mental agony; the hopelessness of the position hurting him almost beyond endurance. Stretcher-bearers there were none - not one came through unwounded. A rush to some unknown spot in the distance probably meant a bullet, and powerlessness to help if he got through, and alas there were many men in similar straits. He howled patience at the top of his voice, but the same cry was the only answer.
Lambert lay on his stomach, watching through the gap in the trench as the light failed. Counter-attacks were possible and obviously they would not come in the daylight. A slight sound attracted his attention, and over the top of the shell holes td the left of the trench came his platoon officer. His face was deadly white, a bloody bandage swathed his neck, and his rainproof was soaked with the blood of a sniper's victim. Slowly and painfully he crawled on his hands and knees, stopping every few yards for fresh strength.
It was deadly dangerous ground and the progress was so slow that Lambert expected the crack of a rifle any second. Some hand held back the enemy, and the injured man dragged himself along by inches, while Lambert watched him with fascinated eyes. Right opposite the gap, the officer sank wearily on to his elbows, his head sagging down into the mud, and Lambert's blood ran cold.
Keep going, sir, for heaven's sake I They are sniping like hell there. Come on, sir, come on !
The urgent appeal had its effect. Slowly and painfully the poor fellow struggled on to his hands and knees, and moving an inch at a time crossed the dangerous gap, to sink exhausted into a muddy "cubby-hole."
He rested for half an hour and then resumed the painful journey to the reserve trenches, and, it being dark, the scanty remnants of a strong attacking force followed soon after.
Words cannot describe adequately a British attack, and German defence, in the salient. The operations and number of men were so vast, the successes and failures so intermingled, that an attempt to describe the technical features would be beyond the limited powers of any writer and hopelessly boring to the reader.
Impossible as it is to bring a clear picture of these giant operations before the mind, it is not hard to paint the position of survivors. They had advanced over the enemy ground after losing all officers, and many N.C.O.'s, and captured enemy positions at great cost; "supports " had come up to occupy them and all that remained was the necessity to "get out."
It sounds simple, but several miles of devastated country lay between the new line and the rest "billets," and over this black and blasted expanse of mud and bog swept a tornado of metal.
In addition, the few uninjured men were almost exhausted after lying in mud for over two days, with little food and drink, and enduring the indescribable strain produced by modern artillery. The position of the badly wounded, lying in agony for long hours can be mentioned, but no brain can comprehend it fully.
The Company Commander had to lie in agony for the whole day. Every movement meant terrible pain from the wound, and as the hours passed his limbs grew cramped and cold, and he became delirious at intervals. Several privates were with him and did their utmost to keep him warm, but the wound was too terrible to admit of much relief, and they could only murmur futile words of comfort, or shift him gently when a position became intolerable.
All rank faded into insignificance in the face of suffering almost too great to bear, and the death that might meet them all at any minute. A corporal bandaged his stricken captain as skilfully as possible and shifted him to another position with the gentleness of a woman, while the officer nestled up to him like a poor stricken child. "Get close !" he murmured :
It keeps me warm. I'm cold - cold."
Man after man attempted the dangerous job of trying to find non-existent stretcher- bearers or stretchers, but none of them were able to return, and when darkness fell the remaining corporal with his commander's arm round his neck, practically carried him inch by inch to the trench occupied by the remnants of the company. Once again efforts were made to find a stretcher, but the search was hopeless, and the poor officer could not lie on a makeshift of puttees wound between rifles.
There was nothing for it but for the corporal to continue his merciful task of carrying the officer to the distant Aid Post, a journey of infinite torture to both. From first to last it took sixteen hours, and the corporal obeying the most necessary order to remove his equipment was later fined sixteen shillings for doing so ! This is one instance of hundreds, and there were cases where wounded men lay in their blood for three days before help could reach them.
Meanwhile the survivors shivered through hours of rain, mud and misery. Trembling in every limb, they leaned listlessly against the trench wall too exhausted in mind and body to talk or heed the continual explosions. One of these ended a friendship, so common in the Army - sudden, strengthening daily, and ending in separation and suffering. After the foul fog of chemical fumes had drifted away, Lambert noticed Thoroughgood lying at the bottom of the trench.
My arm's gone !" he murmured, "my arm's gone.
No! No! " his friend replied huskily. "It's a 'Blighty' one. Your arm's still there; stick it, old boy. Hi ! Pass the word for a stretcher-bearer !
A man hurried down the trench and the poor little man was examined, and the crushed shoulder blade tenderly dressed.
Lambert choked as they led him away. "A 'Blighty' one," he gurgled. "Soon be home with that little woman now. Cheeri-o !
Hurried consultations took place in the darkness. Every officer had gone on a longer or shorter journey, and the initiative rested with a sergeant and several corporals. They grasped the terrible situation manfully: men were sent to Brigade for instructions and rations, and volunteers were requested to carry down wounded.
A loose-limbed youngster, who showed little sign of the prolonged agony, bravely stood forward and did splendid work during the night, carrying down stretcher cases after shedding his heavy equipment and rifle. His reward did not appear in the Gazette, but it is graven in many a memory!
Lambert tried to volunteer, but nature rebelled. Every limb was aching and refused to work. A deadly nausea had seized him and waves of sickness swept over him periodically. The days of strain, privation and excessive energy had thoroughly exhausted his older system, and the tin hat on his head seemed to be crushing out all sense.
From a great distance a voice reached his dulled mind and mechanically he followed along the trench. Some unknown friend assisted him up the steep steps, and staggering from side to side he followed in the wake of a few men, in little better condition than himself.
They had to find the way in the darkness across "No Man's Land," to "Jolting Horse" Trench. During the attack great fissures had been blown in the tape, and the party wandered about like a rudderless ship. The terrain was devoid of landmarks; no stars or moon were out (fortunately in many respects) and right across the district ran the wide swamp, deep in treacherous mud. The party tried several paths across it, to find them impassable after many men had sunk to their waists. Time after time, plucky fellows waded in and had to be lugged out forcibly, and all the time shells shrieked over them at regular intervals, and machine-guns sent streams of bullets sweeping across the ground.
Success rewarded their persistent efforts and the men filed through a swampy path. Half had started when wild shouts for help pierced the darkness. They fell unheeded. The men had borne too much to stop. Again they were howled out, and this time with a personal appeal that could not be disregarded.
Help ! For God's sake," came the shout, ending in a wail. "Are the H.A.C. going to let a fellow drown?
Half a dozen men stopped and hurried along to the source of the noise. It came from a man in the Durham Light Infantry, buried deep in the mud. He was already up to his chest and only his outstretched arms were saving him from a dreadful death. It took six men twenty minutes to pull him inch by inch from the treacherous mire.
This interruption over, the party crawled on, stopping constantly to pick up the lost trail. Falls were frequent, holes abounded, and debris was everywhere. Every few seconds Verey lights rushed into the sky, and the men stood stock still until the glare faded. Showers of bullets usually followed and shells burst intermittently.
For some hours fortune smiled on them, and the enemy did not appear to have observed them, but suddenly a storm of shells burst in their midst, and hell broke loose. They staggered on doggedly for a few minutes, hoping that there would be a respite, but none came and the men sank down on the sodden earth, heaving and shaking with the terrific explosions, and waited wearily.
Dawn was breaking as they fell into "Jolting Horse Trench, and throughout the day they lay exhausted in any cover they could find, except when they were detailed for fatigues that took them out into the downpour of rain, and heavier particles. Reaction set in rapidly and Lambert, ill and sick, crawled under a large baulk of timber like a beaten dog, and lay like dead for hours, entirely oblivious of the world outside.
The scene at "The Mound" the next night is too ghastly for description. Thousands of wounded had been brought to the Aid Post, until the dug-outs were filled to overflowing, and perforce the poor fellows had to lie outside. The Germans had "strafed" it unmercifully, killing doctors, and many men, and converting the whole area into a shambles.
How Lambert got along the duck-board track to Hooge Crater he never knew. Nature had mercifully thrown a veil over feeling, and his limbs worked mechanically. Throughout the night he toiled on, staggering from side to side like a man in the last stages of intoxication. Dozens of times he tripped over boards, fell with a crash and lay prone for several minutes. Now and again he stepped off the boards into the mud, which sucked at him greedily, and only instinct inspired the effort necessary to extricate himself.
Eleven hours after leaving "Jolting Horse " Trench, he was assisted out of a limber at Zillebeke Lake. He was plastered with mud from head to foot; his face was yellow and lined like an old man's, five days' growth of stubble was on his chin ; his rifle was unrecognisable, and was covered from muzzle to butt with a layer of evil-smelling mud, while his puttees had fallen with the weight and clung round his boots like great bowls. Beach Thomas summed up his dreadful appearance when he said: " The men coming out of the trenches at Ypres were like men risen from the dead !
A certain number of the battalion had been kept behind, and had waited all night for the survivors who dribbled in. Lambert fell into the arms of his oldest friend, the tenor singer, who helped him along to some mud bivouacs, brought him hot tea, and only recognised him by his voice.
The drink revived him to some extent, and sitting on a mud bank he gazed wearily around. Little knots of men were dotted here and there, talking spasmodically, their faces working with emotion. A tall company commander was striding up and down, hands behind his back and chin down on his breast. Somebody saw Lambert and hurried up to him.
Where's Roberts, Brown, Carter?" he asked.
I dunno," murmured Lambert dully.
The questioner subsided on to the bank, and burst into a flood of tears.
Several men led Lambert to a cavern, and peeled him of boots, puttees and socks, but he was asleep before they had finished.
IT seemed cruel to move the shattered battalion a few hours later, but so dreadful and continuous was the fighting for Passchendaele Ridge, that no sooner had one brigade done its awful part than another had to be flung into the furnace, and advanced billets " were scarce.
A pitiful handful limped through Dickebusch. A mixture of the fortunate fellows who had not been in the attack, and the human wrecks who had. All were drawn and haggard, but sprinkled here and there were men whose frightful appearance advertised their recent experiences.
They rested at the first green space outside the salient, and the place seemed to be haunted by the ghosts of those who were not there. Each muddy unshaven man had a circle of mournful questioners, and Lambert realised, after a few seconds, the impossibility of explaining more than an infinitesimal portion of the operations, or the fate of men concerned in other portions of the attack. All his particular friends had gone and he felt isolated and lonely.
As they lay on the damp clay, a party of the Warwicks passed along the road. It was headed by the band, but no instruments were being played. A few men followed, scarcely more than twenty, and the H.A.C. waited for the rest of the battalion, which belonged to their Brigade. There was no "rest" It had gone to swell the cost of winning Passchendaele Ridge.
It is a long walk from Zillebeke to Meteren, but the H.A.C. had to do it, and the next day at dusk saw them climbing a hill from compact, ill-fated little Bailleul, and filing into dark noisome barns.
Memories had to be drowned somehow during those over-cast days of October, and they were drowned fairly successfully. Meteren had known British troops since 1914, when the Germans had been driven out at the point of the bayonet, and rumour had it that a Highlander and German had fallen together from the towering church steeple, locked in a grip of hate.
There were estaminets in plenty, selling just the beverages that Tommy liked, served by vivacious women who knew that the singing of Army songs in piquant broken English would always meet with applause. Almost every house supplied succulent dishes of eggs, cooked in every conceivable manner, and there was an assortment of confectionery and sweetmeats to delight the heart that had sickened of bully or stew.
Passes were granted for Bailleul, only two kilos down the hill, where there were restaurants and shops, and even the pictures which, with unique discernment, were featuring the "Battle of Arras," possibly as a reminder to the resting troops that war still existed.
Most of them tried to forget it for a few days, but the Army devotees had ideas of their own regarding "rests." Orders tumbled over one another's heels. Every trace of mud must disappear-leather must gleam-buckles must shine in the sun (if any), hair must be cut-not a minute particle of dust must be visible on or in the rifle-manual drill must be practised. Every conceivable kind of "posh" must happen, and some battalion commanders would have ordered their men's memories to be thoroughly scoured if it had been possible.
Lambert groaned as he heard the unending list. Continuous inhaling of cordite fumes, exposure, and mental and physical torture had completely upset his system and he could on lie inert on his small portion of straw. He had gone sick, been given a "No.9," which had brought no relief, but had produced waves of sickness that recurred spasmodically throughout the day and night.
Feebly as a child he scraped the thick covering of mud from everything he possessed and duly visited the barber, as sharply ordered by the new sergeant-major, his old platoon sergeant. Ordered to parade early next morning, he fought down the desire to "go sick" once more and slouched out into the cobbled yard that served for parade ground.
The officer walked along the ranks, inspecting the clipped locks.
"Why aren't your buttons cleaned ? He demanded sharply. Lambert did not answer.
Put this man down for a fatigue, sergeant-major."
Man's puttees are dirty, sir," was that gentleman's contribution.
Give him a double fatigue.
Sweeping roads is not calculated to improve the mind and it is certainly no cure for a disordered stomach. But Lambert shouldered a broom next morning and spent his thirty-fourth birthday removing mud, etcetera, from the streets of Meteren. The result was not encouraging for his ailment, and when he returned to the barn his gloom was not lightened by the news that the commanding officer would inspect rifles the next morning, and that his comrades had spent the day removing the collection of Ypres slime.
The barn was illumined by a few candles, but Lambert fought down the sickness that made him long for sleep, and in the dim light scraped, rubbed and oiled the clay stick that was really a rifle. In his misery he did not remember the teeth of the backsight (of which there are over forty in the four inch "leaf"), and when he dropped back upon his pallet, the rifle looked clean and bright, but there was a tiny quota of mud in each of those little teeth.
There were a lot of temporary promotions among the officers the next morning, and the senior exercised his wit on all and sundry. He took Lambert's rifle, and twisted it with the dexterity of long practice, while the Acting Adjutant, Acting Company Commander, Acting Platoon Officer, Regimental-Sergeant-Major, Acting Company-Sergeant-Major, and the Acting Platoon-Sergeant waited for the bon-mot. The inspecting officer started to return the rifle, and then drew it back and his eves fixed themselves on the teeth of the backsight.
Ha !" he said triumphantly. "You could grow vegetables in here !"
The rifle was handed back and somebody made a note in a book, and later on Lambert was informed that he was to appear at the Battalion Orderly Room the next morning.
He was acquainted with the mud of Meteren, so that it was no new experience to stand in the gutter outside a small house that served for headquarters, although the squirts of mud that shot at him from passing motors were rather disconcerting. He was not the only offender that morning, and to his great surprise the man who had helped his company commander back, and the loose-limbed youth who had volunteered to carry down wounded after the recent tragedy, were also lined up in the roadway.
Before he could whisper an inquiry, he was suddenly ordered to quick march, his cap was knocked off, and he halted before a retinue of officers.
Good man in the line, but slack out of it," said his acting company commander.
Filled with disgust, Lambert did not attempt to bring forward any such circumstances as exhaustion, or moral and physical disability, hut simply mentioned that the rifle had been cleaned in a dark billet. A cutting comment, the forfeiture of five days' pay as a punishment, and he was marched out to the doorstep, where his cap awaited him.
He lingered in the vicinity, anxious to congratulate his two friends upon the rewards for their bravery. Both acts had roused in him a strong sense of admiration, and his own experience was nearly forgotten. A long interval elapsed before they appeared, and the looks on their faces did not in the least suggest satisfaction or pleasure. An eager inquiry produced the astonishing statement from both that they had been charged with the loss of their equipments, and fined the regulation price for the same.
In the one case the defence that one could not carry a heavy stretcher over narrow duckboards, laden with rifle and equipment, had been dismissed abruptly, and in the other, an almost unanswerable plea of acting under instructions, had met the astonishing reply that the "wounded officer had not been in a fit condition to give orders
The gloomy trio wandered back to billets, filled to the brim with horror and disgust. Instead of recommendations for bravery, or appreciation of endurance in appalling conditions, they had been "run" for trifles, and punishments had been inflicted that disgraced the judges, and not the prisoners.
Hatred of a system that could allow such injustice filled Lambert's soul that night. The "rewards" for the living; the forgotten heroism of the dead; the instantaneous return to ancient, obsolete barrack-square methods; the horrible ignorance of the fact that the "civilian" army was brain and nerve, as well as bone and muscle, appalled his logical mind, and the thought that practically every chum in his platoon had suffered in an endeavour to add glory to this system brought a lump into his throat. He gulped it down as a flashlamp sent its white ray across the barn, and a loud voice inquired for a man in the platoon who had "gone over the top" at Passchendaele.
Instinctively Lambert answered civilly.
Are you a man of average intelligence ?
Occasionally," returned Lambert drily.
The Acting Adjutant made his way across the crowded forms of sleeping men, and fired off a stream of questions, which were answered without hesitation. The scene was photographed on Lambert's brain, and he was able to describe it graphically and to foil attempts to prove that left was right and vice versa.
Recent events had affected his view concerning officers very considerably, and he withstood his ground steadily during a fierce cross-examination which endeavoured to move a cemetery from one side of a field to another. Sharp retorts and a sketch map from him settled the point.
The questions became more personal, and Lambert described at length the orders given and the steps taken by his platoon sergeant, now Acting Sergeant-Major. Pride in his platoon lent him enthusiasm, and every detail that might rebound to the man's credit was diluted upon at some length, and not a little eloquence. The Adjutant appeared almost satisfied and retired. Next morning some instinct moved Lambert to recount the conversation to his new Sergeant-Major.
"You'll get the D.C.M., sir!" he ended finally, with an air of conviction.
"Some ruddy hope!" was the answer.
When the battalion marched back along the road to Ypres, after ten days at Meteren, the companies were two platoons strong, and Lambert found himself among many new acquaintances. They did not hesitate to comment upon his recent adventures, and dubbed him the "man who got the C.S.M. the D.C.M."
Human nature demonstrates itself in many strange forms. From that day the Company-Sergeant-Major lost no opportunity of exercising a caustic wit, and bestowing plenty of fatigues, upon the private.
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