Flanders (Continued). Part 2

(Written in Hospital) 

LE TREPORT, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now ; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days. As soon as he heard of the division to which I belonged, then it was all right:  the fighting divisions, if they don’t get much of a time in the trenches, are decently treated in hospital, have usually the precedence, and rightly, too.

I just want to tell you about the last affair.

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele of course, the officers told us the usual tale, “soft job”,  and I reckon it might have been easy enough if we had had a decent start. But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white. It was all the same to me: I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on : thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle. 

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun. You know how excited one becomes in the midst· of great danger. I  forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the German’s, as something provided for our entertainment – a mood of madness, if you like.  The sergeant’s face struck me most, grey and drawn, blanched as if he had just undergone a deadly sickness. There was death in it, if ever death can be glimpsed in the living. A fat builder, loaded with five hundred rounds, acted the brave man, ran on ahead, signalled back to us, and in general acted as if on a quiet parade. The last I saw of him was two arms straining madly at the ground, blood pouring from his mouth, while legs and body sunk into a shell-hole filled with water. One Highlander, raving mad, shouted to us, “Get on, you cowards, why don’t you run at them ? “ As if running could be contemplated with a barrage going twenty-five yards a minute.

Then the enemy put up a counter-barrage, something to make the hair stand on end, shells tripping over each other, gas sending out a horrible smell of mustard, shrapnel whirring just over our heads, and a strange explosive which ran along the ground in yellow flame for yards and took the feet from us.  We rested in a shell-hole for a minute, just to give our nerves a rest and escape the machine-gun bullets which pattered thickly on the ground all round us. I saw one gentleman going through  the pockets of a dead German, very careful to unpin the Iron Cross colours on the breast. May he have good luck for his thieving.

The lighting effect appeared in great glory, superb in a word. The enemy knew exactly when the barrage would begin, for at 5.30 he sent up long streamers of green stars and a strange arabesque of yellow, red, and crimson lights ; Vèry lights hovered all over the sky already paling in a grey bleak dawn. Then with a continuous drumming our shells burst on him ; before us the country seemed a mass of crawling flame, wave after wave of it, until the clouds were blotted out, and our men advancing into it grew nightmarish, as if under a cliff of fire. Vaguely, in the distance, several dark forms could be seen running over a ridge, the enemy retiring to be out of range. I had seen a dark blotch to the right, and was going towards it, thinking it a machine-gun post in our advanced line, when the enemy counter-barrage surrounded it and spread in long lines behind us. Thus we were shut in, and the only thing to do was to advance. Some of our shells fell short and exploded in isolated groups of men. But when the mud and smoke cleared away, there they were, dirty but untouched. The clay, rain-soaked, sucked in the shell and the shrapnel seemed to get smothered, making it useless. One from the enemy fell behind me and made me gasp as if some one had poured cold water down the back. A man beside me put his hands to his ears with a cry of horror, stone-deaf, with ear-drums shattered.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell-hole, resting along with some others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life – flames, smoke, lights, S.O.S.s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic ; it had unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell- holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the drifting smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages. They knew our lines better than we. Nothing fulfils the childish idea of a ghoul more satisfactorily than those prisoners  mud-befouled, unshaven, terror-stricken, tattered, and heavily booted, with their huge helmets protecting the head so closely.

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me. The problem now lay in front, how to get through the double barrage of machine-guns and shells the enemy had put behind our advancing columns. I decided to make a run for it, but knew not where to run, and followed a German prisoner to an advanced dressing-station, where four men carried me on a stretcher down the Passchendaele road, over a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shellfire he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were shattering with cold. Besides, shrapnel was drumming overhead, along the line of the duckboard track. Nothing frightens one more  than high shrapnel, a blow from it is almost certain death, for the bullets strike the head first and there remains no way of escaping. With a high-explosive one can side-slip or lie down beside it, letting the stuff go over. An old soldier can tell to a nicety where a shell will land, and makes off to suit, but high shrapnel bursts around one before the hearing or even instinct can warn. I saw two men carrying a wounded Highlander killed at the same time, while the latter got off scot-free ; the only trouble was his being dropped into a stinking shell-hole. I came down myself once or twice, the path being so bad, but my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologising for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.