Flanders. Part 5

VLAMERTINGHE, 17 September, 1917

You will have read of Belgium in every newspaper dispatch and every book written on war. The best I can do is simply to tell you what I experienced and suffered more or less patiently. The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything elsė, pitted with shell-holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death-traps, for drowning is almost certain in one of them. I remember a run I had at the beginning of this week – for dear life, if you like. Five of us had spent the night patrolling and were returning to Brigade H.Q. when the enemy sighted us and put a barrage along the duckboard track we were following. Early dawn broke in the east, and a grey light filtered eerily through dim cloud-masses to a desolate world of brown, touching the skeleton woods strangely, and blackening the edge of ridge where the German trenches lay. First one shell dropped ten yards behind us, then one came screaming so close that we dropped in our tracks and waited for the end. I got right under the duckboard track, and the hail of shrapnel and mud on it was thunderous enough to frighten the most courageous. Then we stood up, all safe though muddy, and with a “Run like hell, boys”, went off in a devil’s race, with shells bursting at our heels, for half a mile, dropping at last in complete exhaustion in a trench out of range.

It is quite the usual thing to stand about a hundred yards away and see some poor devils getting chased for their lives. Our artillery has an interesting habit of putting up a specially warm barrage when the line is being relieved, with the result we get a very thorough shelling in return just when we cannot shelter. When we left the Menin Road and took to the duckboards at a time when the enemy places a barrage on them, the most careless of us cursed the man in front of him if he happened to pause a minute. It seemed the best solace for excited nerves to keep going, no matter whether into or out of danger. Yet, luck stood by us ; in spite of our overzealous artillery, not a shell dropped near us until we reached our trenches, and then we had it stiff. A sergeant and two privates were to pieces twenty yards from me:  all that night and early morning we lay in the shallow trench, trying vainly to keep knees from shaking and teeth from chattering, with a deadly sick feeling in the stomach as bits of shrapnel hit the side of the trench with a dull thud and earth was shaken over our face. In the morning, through a glorious clear sky of pale blue, we watched our own aeroplanes and the enemy’s circling slowly and dropping outside our range of vision, heard the constant rattle of machine-guns and the crack of high shrapnel, white and black. All we could do was to lie motionless on our back and pray that the enemy had not seen us. I tried to sleep, but nervous excitement kept me awake all day until night, when we dug out a new trench. While plying the spade, I encountered what looked like a branch sticking out of the sand. I hacked and hacked at it until it fell severed, and I was picking it up prior to throwing it over the parapet when a sickness, or rather nausea, came over me. It was a human arm.

That did not complete my experiences that night : about eleven o’clock we set out on patrol, but had to take refuge in a deserted pill-box in No Man’s Land because the enemy had sighted us. This pill-box had been used at one time as a charnel-house it smelt strongly of one and the floor was deep with human bones. From there we watched the Vèry lights flickering outside, and, casting a weird light through the door- way, the red flash of bursting shells. Occasionally a direct hit shook us to the very soul. While sitting there, the odour over- came me and I fainted. Waking up an hour afterwards, I found myself alone, without the faintest idea of my whereabouts, uncertain where the enemy’s lines were or my own. Some authors practise the description of fear, but nothing they could do could even faintly realize my state. It went beyond fear, beyond consciousness, a grovelling of the soul itself. For half an hour I stood inside, wondering whether to venture out or stay in at eminent risk of daylight coming to disclose me to the enemy. At last, bravery returned, and I went out only to stumble over a derelict wire a hundred yards farther on, and find my hands clutching at a dead man’s face. But on the other side of it lay our trench, and I was able to calm down in readiness for the morning barrage.

Our road to Company H.Q. from Ypres is shown in places by dead men in various postures, here three men lying together, there a dead “Jock”’ lying across a trench, the only possible bridge, and we had to step on him to get across. The old German front-line, now behind our reserve, must be the most dreadful thing in existence, whether in reality or imagination, a stretch of slimy wicker-work bordering a noisome canal of brown water, where dead men float and fragments of bodies and limbs project hideously, as if in pickle. The remembrance of one attitude will always haunt me, a German doubled up with knees under his chin and hand clutching hair above a face of the ghastliest terror.

Yet my first experience of death was worse than this. Our battalion had entrained almost as far as Ypres, and we rested beside the railway for some time, with the engine standing stationary, sending a high pillar of smoke into the air. I expect the German observation balloons had seen it, for the enemy began to place shells on each side of the railway at regular intervals for about two hundred yards. Of course, we side-slipped until it stopped. Then we began to cross the railway our two companies had just got over when I heard a scream of a shell. Instantly we got on our noses : I looked up cautiously, just in time to see it explode in a thick mass of the other companies on the railway. The scream of despair and agony was dreadful to hear, men shell-shocked out of reason and others dying of frightful wounds. That shell caused sixty casualties and shook the whole battalion for several days. Even when going through the market-square of Ypres, beneath the yellow flash of great howitzers and the roar of naval guns, we thought shells were bursting among us and looked fearfully at every corner, nerve-shaken and absolutely afraid. The sudden roar of a gun made us start guiltily, half-ashamed, and yet unable to control our agitation. That cry of dying men will ring in my ears a long time after everything else will be forgotten.

They have a curious way of finding direction in Belgium. The landscape has no salient features of its own ; everything blasted to mud – railway embankments, woods, roads confused in shell-holes and mine-craters. Trees are only skeletons, and masses of obscene ruins mark farms or houses. You look in vain for a wood where such marked on the map. The only way at night is to bend down close to the ground and gaze at the skyline for black shadows of pill-boxes ; by those shadows you find your way. Or, to remember a road once shown, the oddest details must be noted – a solitary length of rail or wire, a “dud” shell, three stakes together, a fragmentary hedge, a deserted water-logged trench, dead men lying at various angles, and the position of pill- boxes in relation to the track followed. The most exciting time I spent was in hunting “B” Company Headquarters across this monotony of mud and water. I think I must have visited the whole division before finding it, artillery as well as infantry had to lie through a pretty fierce barrage, too.

Of course, we had our recompense. It was night when the two of us set out to find our company and midday when we finished. About eleven o’clock we saw a light bobbing up and down to our left, and going down to it met an artillery officer, who, on being asked, directed us in the wrong direction. Being absolutely dying of thirst, we waited till he had gone and then prospected for his dug-out. There, we were almost drunk on soda-water and lemonade, dined royally off his table, and came out better men. Those artillery officers do themselves well:  this gentleman owned a dining-room as well as a bedroom.

WINIZEELE,  22 September, 1917

Thank goodness, that’s all over. We had practically a walk-over. I shall never forget that afternoon in Ypres, when every officer and man we met asked us how our division did in the attack. I was proud of it, too, in some kind of perverse delight, not keen on fighting, yet glad to be in it. Even then, among all that sordid mass of ruins we call Ypres, memory and recollection have given a romantic aspect, as some monument worthy of valour and enshrined in our deeds, where our bravest fought to the last and never yielded. It may be a cemetery, a horrible cemetery at that, but an air of nobility blows round it yet. The horrible remains a characteristic, instance that story of “Hell’s Fire Corner”, where two battalions of an English regiment lie buried, shelled to death. In Ypres, too, are some billets in cellars (the only safe ones we have), where the rats have become so accustomed to soldiers, and so glutted with their blood, that they won’t move out of the way – loathsome, bloated creatures, half-blind and as big as cats.

One episode still gives me a certain pleasure. One morning last week, two of us came down through the morning barrage into the square across the canal. Deadbeat, we asked a policeman where we would get a decent sleep for about three hours. He pointed out to us the old Cloth Hall, and there, beneath that massive tower, so dented and bruised that no more can be destroyed by shells, behind a wall of sandbags, we fell asleep. About nine o’clock I woke up and explored a little : just inside the arch hung a delicately-wrought iron lamp, quite intact, with some fragments of glass still in it, and below, a pair of wooden wheels belonging to an old type of gun. Just beyond lay the ruins of the church, a mere blur of a building. The Cloth Hall seemed to have been so battered that not a single sculptured figure, or shadow of a figure, remained, except one gargoyle at the end, which leered down as jauntily as ever. When I come back, this incident will remain one of the treasured memories, something to recount time and again, as happening in a land of horror and dread whence few return, like that country Morris describes in the Well at the World’s End.

The village we are billeted in just now lies at the top left-hand corner of France, as far as I can see, not exactly in Belgium. We came down in buses along that confused mass of G.S. wagons and gun-limbers which leads from Popheringhe to Ypres : we cannot call it a road, for the road itself is only seen at intervals through that jostling procession of men coming from the line and going up, endless chains of artillery lumbers and ammunition carts, etc. The main trouble is the branches overhead : both sides of the road are lined with trees ; not pruned too scrupulously, with the result that life on the top of a bus consists in bobbing up and down to escape obstreperous twigs. We saw an aeroplane dropping straight down out of  the sky to fall sideways on one wing, like a stone. It remained in that position, strangely balanced, with the tail pointed towards the grey clouds. Then, again, an observation- balloon went up in flames, struck by shrapnel, and the observer came down nicely in his parachute. Yet we don’t trouble much about things in Belgium : we have all become so accustomed to them.

WINIZEELE, 25 September, 1917

Holding the line is fairly safe, except in a hot corner but our artillery have the enemy so much on the qui vive that hot corners become more their privilege than ours. How he manages to exist at all when a discriminating barrage licks up every yard of ground in his vicinity and over him must be one of the great mysteries of warfare. We can understand partly how he manages from our experience in the outposts, shallow ditches deep enough to allow one to lie flat on the back and not project above the surface. Every morning he puts a barrage on those posts, and there we lie, inwardly quaking, while shells burst behind and before, and bits of shrapnel come down round us with a vicious thud. For a whole week our casualties amounted to four killed, blown to fragments by a 5·9.

However, there is good stuff in him yet! but I think he is on the down-grade, like a street-singer dressed in a frayed frock-coat and tattered linen. The old glory smacks of him, but it’s worn and threadbare. The ideas of conquest and victory may bemuse him and place a narcotic in his soul, thus concealing from him the fact that the hell he once thought to plan for us has been planned most effectually for him. The variety of weapons he uses is bewildering. I have walked along a railroad after a barrage and found the weirdest conglomeration of dud shells – “flying-pigs”,  “boches”, “5 9’s”,  “pine-apples”  “oil-cans” “whizzbangs” etc. Gas-shells lay about just burst at the nose-caps, with the gas oozing out very gradually. I remember one of the type which fell between two branches and lodged in the fork of a tree down the Somme. Every one passing that orchard where the tree stood remarked the sweet smell of fruit, only to discover this dud and very few apples. Beside the shells there were “flying-darts”, gaudy red things, with a long flanged tail to balance (the slightest wound from them is deadly, owing to their being poisoned); clumsy pomegranate-shaped bombs with huge four-leafed appendices of no earthly use (to my idea) the usual “stick-bombs”  in hundreds (I used to alarm the nervy people by unscrewing the tin-can and then pulling the string to set the fuse going) ; boxes on boxes of machine-gun ammunition and powerful machine-guns with the main parts lacking. Belgium is sown with nothing else but those souvenirs of German occupation, and with them helmets, body-plates, and thigh-protectors of tremendous weight held together with leather straps. I should imagine a. German dressed in the armour with that strange helmet would be the image of a Lanzknecht of Wallenstein ‘s time. The armour does not really protect them : I found in a mine-crater two men bayoneted together, a “Cameron” who had been caught in the stomach, and a German in the throat, both locked irrevocably, dead at the same time. Such statues appear frequently one man told me of two he saw at Beaumont-Hamel, not lying down, but standing up, as if wrought in iron.

Of course, if one dwelt on such horrors any length of time, nervous cowardice would ensue, and the result would be disaster. The main idea is to be an Epicurean, get the sum of enjoyment from the smallest detail, and trust to the general disposition of Fate. I can see her smiling faintly and wearily at us all, wondering who is worth life and who death. Like Coleridge’s twain in the Ancient Mariner, the outcome lies in a turn of dice, and yet the result is only rest, or deferred rest, the sum of all endeavour. If he saw so many monuments of youth glowing beneath a calm sky, the old Greek would say, “Eros is dead and there is no more beauty on earth”. But we go on, idealists ever, even if we do not know it or appreciate our ideal, indeterminate Parzivals, and victory flits but vaguely like the Grail, filled with the blood of sacrifice and promising noble gifts.

How I wish such ideas could supplant for a moment home yearnings and make us careless of the future ! Life, after all, is only a combination of chords sounded by home, friends, stages of youth, and education, country and its association : without them we would be mere Hamadryads floating in unsubstantial ether.