Flanders (Continued). Part 4

(On board the Hospital Ship) 19 October, 1917

You will remember the strong, hard faces, held in the unnatural light Brangwyn paints occasionally : that memory realised remains one of the most poignant of my experience. The night previous to the attack we lined up along the canal bank, and as I peered into each face to find my section, the harsh unnatural look was in all, that strange repellent tenseness of feature and expression caused by intense emotion – emotion not only of nerves strung to the utmost pitch, but of body, for almost every man had a dose of rum. The platoon officer, usually a quiet retiring lad, not over-confident, surprised me with a mouthful of curses for being late. It might appear bravado, but I think I was the only cool one among them, actuated by a sense of wonder at so much excitement. After all, the business had to be done, and there was no use burking it or flying into hysterics. The lucky, chosen men would come back, the others would not. That  appeared the sum total, in my modest judgement. Perhaps lack of rum caused this apparent indifference. From the working of his features I thought the officer drunk, but from then until the time I was wounded I lost sight of him.

Then the rifle grenadiers – I was one – slipped on their makeshift bags of bombs, bags made of sandbag with bands of split puttee. If there is an agony comparable to that strain on the shoulder caused by a dangling weight of a dozen grenades, when the pins and rods project and dig into the ribs at every step, I would accept it with wonder as being something unearthly. Then the beastly puttee-band broke in two and I had to fasten it round a corner of the bag. I have lost count of the times that band was fastened. At every jolt it would drop with a thud, and at every irregularity the whole weight would shift forward and bow me down like an old cab-horse unable to see the ground. With a groan I would pitch the ghastly thing back and then the band flew loose. Thus the rotten game started again. The man in front was palpably nervous ; he lost trace of his forerunners time and again, and the whole company would stop till he made good. Every hole in the duckboard track seemed to put the fear of death in him, for he spent valuable minutes gingerly picking his steps, while the men behind me cursed and swore. At last I drew my bayonet and told him the next time he stopped he would stop on its point. That cured him ; he didn ‘t lose connection again.

The dramatic entered into the business. After going about eight kilometres, across a road where a transport lay shattered with men and mules scattered about, the work of a shell not ten minutes before, we entered the salient. Then no one could have told from what direction the shells were coming ; they whistled and screamed behind, before, beside, until one thought the air so full of them that the mere matter of putting up a hand would be a sure way of encountering one at least. We passed a crowd of ambulance men carrying away wounded men who had been lying out for days. The shells began to burst very close ; one dud almost hit me on the toes. That incident decided me: it was bad enough facing shells without courting destruction by carrying bombs. With that, too, the man in front turned round and asked me, “When are you dropping the bombs?”  “Oh ! wait another hundred yards!” After going about twenty, he asked again “ Good God ! When are you dropping the bombs ? Just then a shell hole answered him, for in falling into it the whole affair slipped into the water, and I arose a lighter man. “Oh l drop them now”  I whispered, and the four of them got rid of the nuisance furtively without a sound of splash as the bags disappeared into the slimy pools.

Then rain came down, the true Belgian blend. Like the others, I carried a spade between the pack and back. I never knew how thoroughly soaked one can be in a few minutes on account of this arrangement. The spade-shank led the water nicely to the very small of the back. In a trice a river was running inside my trousers and over every part of the body. A strong wind blew, and the feeling of cold was so intensified that the bravest of us longed for a shell to come and end our misery. We stood for six hours in that blinding rainstorm, in battle position, before the order came to get into shell-holes. This was no easy matter, for every hole appeared a veritable quagmire, where one sunk to the knees in glutinous mud. I found a fairly dry one, and had just scooped out a nice comfortable recess where I could shelter from the wind when the barrage began.

Then, with rifles slung, and great trepidation in our hearts, we scrambled up, in any formation at all, and went forward into the heart of the flame.