Back to the Fir-Tree Wood

After one more day came orders for us to go back to the firing-line, and so, for the time being, our so-called rest was over. It had not been a halcyon time, but it had had its points, and to us one of the pleasantest of them was the issuing of another order of the day which ran :


General Headquarters, 12th May 1915.

For the first time for eighteen days and nights it has been found possible to withdraw the 29th Division from the fire fight. During the whole of that long period of unprecedented strain the division had held ground or gained it against the bullets and bayonets of the constantly renewed forces of the foe. During the whole of that long period they have been illuminating the pages of military history with their blood. The losses have been terrible, but mingling with the deep sorrow for fallen comrades arises a feeling of pride in the invincible spirit which has enabled the survivors to triumph where ordinary troops must inevitably have failed. I tender to Major-General Hunter Weston and to his division at the same time my profoundest sympathy with their losses and my warmest congratulations on their achievement.

Ian Hamilton,


We had come into rest-camp jubilantly, all of us, though some had had to crawl, and some had dropped and slept as they came. We went back very gravely. I believe the second going into battle is much harder than the first. The man who has lived through even one action knows ; the man who has as yet been in none cannot even imagine. War beggars all imagination, as it beggars all description. We went back gravely.

We left the camp about dusk, that we might arrive at the firing-line when it was dark. It was my first experience of relieving trenches. Now much practice has made me a little more facile in this, which at best is difficult and anxious work. But then a few hours of it tired me more than a day’s fighting: did. In those first Gallipoli days we had no communication-trenches, and it took very little to upset the best-made plans, and to deadlock in a nasty tangle the men that were coming out and the men that were going in. And it was important that the relief should be done with the utmost noiselessness.

On arriving near the firing-line I discovered, to my disgust, that we were going back to that pernicious Fir-Tree Wood. The trenches had not been much improved since I was there before. In one of them I found two regiments packed like herrings in a barrel, so tight that the only way to budge them threatened to be to prise the men out one by one with a knife. i made them lie down flat and crawl along the top of the rear, protected only by the parapet. (The dignity of warfare is often more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Many a detachment has crawled on its belly, worm-like, to victory). The enemy, thank goodness, happened to be quiet for once, and after a strenuous struggle we managed the relief, but it was mighty near the dawn before we did!

However, we had only two casualties going up, and not one when actually relieving otherwise I don’t believe that Odysseus in his shining armour and with his singing bow could have saved the situation.

I will not describe our first night in our trench. I wish I might forget it

After breakfast we addressed ourselves to improving the trenches, for there seemed no prospect of an imminent advance. So far it had never been possible to have an officers’ mess. It was getting rather tiresome having people endeavouring to walk over your head just as you were guiding a cup of tea to your lips and heavily shod people at that. We decided unanimously that we ‘d have an officers’ mess of some sort. And we had it. There was a sort of bank at about the centre of our position. We dug into this bank, and made an earthen table. An officers’ mess might have been more private. But this was the Dardanelles campaign. Our alcove was open on its longest side to all who went along the trench. We sat on three sides only of our unfestal board – at each end, and on the long side nearest the outer wall. There were only six effective officers of us now, but we often had a guest. (We had some whisky.) The men, of course, passed up and down the trench freely, at our meal-hours as at all other hours. They had to; it was their only thoroughfare.

Our first afternoon here a box arrived from home. We gathered about it like boys about a box of tuck. In many ways we were rather like boys, and well for us and for our cause that we were ; we could not else have endured to the end. By this time our mess had been landed. It had been well and generously packed before leaving England. Between it and the tuck-box a man’s wife had sent, we were able to show quite a spread, and a fine glitter and litter of tins piled on the floor of our ungilded recess, for that mud -carpeted floor was the only larder we had. We used to have dinner about half-past six. A long communication-trench had been cut now on the left of our mess, and several regiments often passed our table on their way to relieve other regiments on our right. It was amusing to hear the remarks of the men. A slight curve in the trench hid us from their view longer than it hid our stores. Blime, Bill, who owns the picnic? Our orficers does their bloomin’ sel’s bloomin’ well! Co-ome on ; I ve picked a damned fine tin o’ something up, lad. Help yersel’ to a square one o’ Johnny Walker. Good old Johnny! Glad to see yer, proud to know yer, John, me boy. I say, Johnny, me boy, does yer mother know ye ‘re out? Ye’re a damned long way from her. Come right along with me, dear.’ But our mess corporal being a dour Scotsman, Johnny Walker was not allowed to walk out with Mr Thomas Atkins. Suddenly the men, a few steps nearer now, would see that there were officers there, and an avalanche of stone-dead silence would fall, to be broken by gleeful titters that were sternly checked by the non-coms.

It had now been decided by the Higher Command that open warfare was to cease, temporarily at least, and that trench warfare should begin in deadliest earnest. This meant driving out saps and connecting them. The men did not relish this mode of fight. They loathed it – and, for the mattering. of that, so did we. But it was safer, though infinitely harder work physically, than battling in the open, desperately hard as we had found that. And now we had the telephone through to headquarters. That saved a lot of trouble, especially to me, for I still had the charming job of returns.

Near at hand a few Turks that would never fight again were lying about, strangely peaceable, but decidedly odoriferous. And just behind them was a dead mule. It became absolutely necessary to get it buried. So a party was detailed to remove it and inter it somehow. There were no volunteers I not one. Men whom I had seen dash over the top cheerfully, almost gaily, funked this. But they obeyed the definite order when I gave it, obeyed it wryly, and their awful job was accomplished somehow. I forbore to ask how or where. One gets used to anything in war, but I think that the acrid, pungent odour of the unburied dead, which gets into your very mouth, down your tortured throat, and seems even to taint and taste your food, is really the worst thing you have to face on active service. And you have to face several things at which heroism itself must wince, and may wince without shame. Before long you grow quite inured, if not indifferent even, to the sight of the unburied dead. But to the death smell no one can grow used or callous. Rot and decay and the stench of putrefaction are the supreme and the final degradation of our flesh. And the uncontrollable nausea that the smell of the dead too long unburied must cause the living is not, I believe, solely a physical nausea. But, except through one’s nostrils, one grows steeled, if not dense and heartless. You see horrible sights which in peace-time would make your gorge rise uncontainably, and you take them, in the swelter of war, as a matter of course. I have seen men in the trenches making a fire and cooking their bacon close to the corpse of a comrade who had ‘gone West’ not a yard away, not an hour before, and who had shared their last meal with them.

Death is our commonplace on active service, and Tommy accepts and regards it as casually as the grocer deals with his soap, the gardener with his guano. One might think that men become brutes, their finer instincts blunted and rasped quite away, in the lust of killing.

But that is not so. For nowhere will you find a more sympathetic creature than our private soldier is to his wounded pal – and they are all pals. There has been many a hero in this war, who without a thought, much less a regret, has given his life for a comrade whom he has seen lying wounded. I had to quarrel with my men about it constantly. On active service often you have to upbraid when in secret you applaud. A combatant soldier in full fighting health should not risk his life for a man no longer fit. To do so is better saintship than warfare. It ‘s poor warfare. But Tommy does it all the time. He hangs over a wounded fellow as a mother hangs over an ailing baby. Let that same fellow be killed, and Tommy will call him that ‘ere bloomin’ stiff un’ move him a bit out of his own way with his foot, and brew cocoa in the lee of the corpse. Tommy has his complexities.

The next day I had to go down with the artillery observation officer to a position on our right. My business there was as prosaic and uninteresting as it was necessary. But I remember getting an amusing side-light on the character of one type of British combatant. ‘Do you see that chap?’ my companion said – we were in his position now – pointing out a figure squatting over a bubbling kettle. 

I did see him. He was very visible. A London cockney, if ever one wore khaki; a gunner, red-faced, pugnacious in a discreet way, at once shrewd and dense, of uncertain age, munching bully-beef and smoking a rank pipe at the same time.

‘I was rather short of sentries last night, and I had to put him on. He hadn’t done that work before. I noticed him by-and-by walking up and down in rather a jerky way, and occasionally bobbing down to the ground. There were a řew shells just then going over his head into that little wood over there. I  went up to him, and he sprang up mighty stern and straight, and we went through the usual formula of ‘Halt Who goes there?’. ‘All right, sir’ he said in the chummiest way when the formalities were disposed of. ‘Beg pardon, sir ; didn’t recognise you’. 

‘How the devil could he with his nose in the ground?’ But I ignored that, and said,

‘Well, Jones, how are you getting on?’. 

‘Not very nice, sir. Them shells are a bit near, an’ I ‘ve got a missus an’ seven kids at ome in Lunnon, sir’ 

‘Yes, yes, Jones’ I said hastily, but as soothingly as I could; ‘but they aren’t shelling you – they are shelling the wood. Good-night, Jones’.

But Jones wasn’t done with me yet. ‘Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but ‘ow far are the henemy’s trenches?’ 

‘Oh, let me see about two hundred yards away, I think’. 

‘ Thank you, sir.An’ ‘ow far are hour reserve-trenches away, sir?’ 

‘Um’  I told him – ‘oh, about eight hundred yards, I should say’.

Jones was a man again . ‘Thank you, sir’  he said heartily. ‘Good-night, an’ good luck, Sir. There is no Turk can give me two ‘undred yards in a thousand!’

On coming back ‘home’ up the trench I met a stretcher coming down. An orderly who was walking in front told me it held Captain M’Lagan, the Acting C.O., who had been hit in the leg by a sniper. He was quite cheery, and assured me he would be back soon. I met him a long time afterwards in Edinburgh, and he told me that all I had said to him was, ‘Damn you!’ – only that, in an angry tone – and had passed on indignantly. And probably it was true. I don ‘t think I had felt sympathetic in the least. He could ill be spared. There never was a better leader. And we needed our best at the Dardanelles. He was every inch a soldier, as full as he could be of pluck and resourcefulness. He received the D.S.0. in the second award of honours.

I saw red when I learned he was out of it even temporarily. We simply could not spare him, and for myself I was bitterly annoyed, because this made me O.C. Battalion, and that was just the last thing I wanted. I had quite enough to do, and more than enough to carry, without any additional responsibility. I am no more superior to ambition than other men are. To say that I have ever had an advance in rank without being greatly pleased would be ridiculous, and it would be grossly untrue. But my nerves were on edge just then, I was working under terrible pressure, and the constant crisis at Gallipoli was such that an older and far better soldier than I might, in sheer patriotism, have shrunk from unaccustomed authority, from new and terrible responsibilities. I loathed it at the time. Looked back at, it is a different matter, and, frankly, it is the one thing in life of which I am intensely proud, and feel about it very much as Leigh Hunt felt about having been kissed by Mrs Carlyle.

Time, you thief! who live to get

Sweets into your list, put that in.

Say I ‘m weary, say I’m sad;

Say that health and wealth have missed me;

Say I ‘m growing old, but add – 

that I commanded my own battalion in the field, a battalion of the 29th Division. It was only for eight days, and we gained over two hundred yards.

Having received orders that more progress must be made, I decided to advance the next evening after dark. There was only one captain left now (Captain Macrae), so i gave him the job, telling him to be particularly careful of himself, and that he should have support if he found he needed it.

They crept forward, and everything seemed to be going all right, when suddenly men came tumbling into the trench, crying out that they had received orders to retreat. I can ‘t say which was greater, my consternation or my fury. What a beginning!

In a case like this you must make up your mind quickly. I chanced to have a very light pistol in my hand. I clapped it to the head of the nearest man beside me, and told him I ‘d shoot him dead if he didn’t go over the top at once ; and I meant it.

It was a touch-and-go moment. The men were unnerved. But we won through. I was greatly helped by a lance-corporal who gathered a few of them together and made them follow him. I have wondered often and often who he was, but have never managed to trace him. He would have been recommended if I could have learned his name.

My pistol had the desired effect, and they all, unmanned for but a moment, scurried off as pell-mell and as fast as they ‘d come, and went over the top again like true Britons. I went too, to have a look around. It was all quite quiet.

If I could have found the individual who had given the order  for I think that some one had – there would have been a whole heap of trouble for him ; but I could fix the blame on no one. Fortunately it was only a section that had got jumpy. The rest, on the right, where the officer  was, were perfectly in hand.

We managed to go on for two hundred yards and a little more, and our casualties were  astonishingly slight.

The next morning we came in for a particularly bad time. We were enfiladed from an enemy trench on our left. After a bit of hard work we got a barricade built, and it was a material help. But we had lost one of our best sergeants, and in the afternoon we had the cruel bad luck to lose one of our subalterns, Lieutenant Kemp – an invaluable boy. A sniper got him. Moreover, we had loved him, and his death, and the hard way we saw him die, cast gloom over us all. We were down now to two captains (including myself) and two subalterns (Lieutenants Maule and Murdoch), and the outlook was not rosy. The continual losing of officers depresses men badly. However, we had to carry on, and we did ; each one did his bit.

Every morning promptly at four the Turkish fusillade began, and it rarely ceased or slacked while the enemy could see to aim. They aimed well. But nothing out of the ordinary happened for a day or two. One evening a chit came through from headquarters : General evening after dark. presented his compliments, and desired me to breakfast with him the next morning.

I had to rise at three to get myself titivated to look as presentable as was possible. Primping is difficult in the trenches. I had to start off at half-past four at the very latest. It wasn’t healthy near here after that. So, soon after four, my orderly and I sallied forth. We arrived at headquarters safely. I had to wait about until eight. But I had a good rest while I waited, and amused myself reading antique newspapers.

One by one the other C.O.s arrived. With military promptitude, we breakfasted on time to the second. I had imagined somehow that the breakfast would be better than I had had for a long time. It was not. I cannot accuse the staff of doing themselves at all well. I really think that I did myself better at my own mess.

One of the staff from the headquarters boat came in after breakfast, and we all went of  to have a walk around the entire position. Going by the Gurkha Bluff, we got on the high ground on the extreme left, and had a fine view of the position. It was three in the afternoon before we got back. At the end of our jaunt we had a great sprint across a field. A sniper or some snipers had spotted us, and we had to run for all we were worth. And we did, including the general.

I was very hungry when we got into headquarters, and I fully expected a nice lunch. But there was nothing doing. A cup of tea and a bit of cake from some one’s parcel was all the provender we saw. Then we settled down to a long official pow-wow. While we were talking a gaunt figure appeared in the entrance to the dug-out. To my astonishment, it was my own colonel. He had recovered, or thought he had, from his wounds, and was reporting for duty. The general wished him to go back to the beach, at least for the night, but he insisted that he must stay and consult with me. The general shook his head, but said, ‘Oh well, then, if you must, I suppose you must. Wait till I’ve finished with Mure, then’.

After the confab I rejoined my C.O., and found him determined to come up to the firing-line with me, and then go back to the beach. He looked so ill that I’d have ordered him back to hospital then and there if I had had the authority. But I could not order my superior officer ; it is not done in the army. The officer commanding the Engineers of the 29th Division was coming up with me, so we three started off together. AIl went well till we got to Clapham Junction (half Gallipoli had British names by now), when a bullet went whiz between my legs. In a moment another shaved the colonel a shade closer. We thought it wise to take cover. We did but after we ‘d waited a minute or two, I did my usual sprint of fifty yards or so to see if the sniper would have another go. But he made no sign, so I took fresh cover, and then waved to the others to come on, one at a time. They got across all right. We were now in a dip, and soon got very near the firing-line. There was an open bit here which was almost always under fire ; you could not go into it by daylight without calling forth a shower of fire ; yet, very oddly, only two men were hit crossing it alÍ the twelve days we were there. We three did another sprint through it, and got safely home.

Everyone was pleased to see our C.O., and he seemed pleased to be with us again ; and he stayed so long that it would have been dark long before he could have got back to the beach. So he stayed all night ; in fact, he didn’t go back at all. It was awfully plucky of him, coming back so soon. He couldn’t move his arm more than about six inches, and had to be helped on with his coat. I was very sorry for him that night. He was tall. The only place I could put him was a cursed little hole dug into the face of the trench. He had to curl into it like a dog, and with his sore arm that couldn’t have been much fun. I passed him several times during the night, and I don’t think he slept once ; but he never complained,

We had a jumpy time that night. We had to stand-to several times. And one of Bairnsfather’s famous pictures, in which Adjutant B. has been called to the ‘phone in the midst of action to be asked how many tins of plum and apple had been received yesterday, reminds me of a little incident of my own that same night. About half-past twelve I lay down to get a rest. In a quarter of an hour I was roused to answer the ‘phone. This entailed a walk of at least two hundred yards along the trench and over sleeping men all the way. It was the signal officer who wished to speak to me at the other end of the wire. He informed me that in future no parties were to be allowed to proceed to the beach to bathe without being accompanied by an officer. I informed him that he was an unhappy blend of blooming ass and blithering idiot. We knew each other well personally, and I added other unprintable language. Really, it was adding insult to injury, as my battalion had never had a chance to have a sea-bathe since we had landed a month ago. And at one in the morning!

We had done twelve days now up in this blasted wood, and we were pleased the next morning when orders came that we were to be relieved. I didn’t go down myself with the advance party, but sent a subaltern with it to the rest-camp which headquarters said was all prepared for us. We left Fir-Tree Wood early the next morning. We went off casually by platoons, not to attract attention, and to let the Turks think it was just the usual ration-parties and such. For, unless there was a strafe on, they didn’t bother these parties much.

If an unbroken daisy-field is a prepared rest-camp under the Act – well then, I apologise.

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