The Battle of Fir-Tree Wood

The next two days were spent in settling down to the pick, pick, pick of trench warfare, and to the holding of positions already won. By now my men had all been under fire, and they were as jolly as possible, although we had a casualty every little while, and each of us knew that it might be his turn next. But it takes a thundering lot to depress Mr Thomas Atkins, and to stop him from seeing some humour even in the most critical situation. If there is anything ridiculous to see, he sees it and chuckles at it, though he has to see it through blood, to between death-groans. If there is nothing ridiculous, he invents it. His laugh he must and will have. And I have no doubt that it is this indestructible quality of bubbling jollity that keeps our men the most contented and the most manageable of all armies.

In Gallipoli the so-called ‘rest-camp’ or reserve-trench was the most dangerous place. The firing-line, so long as you kept your head well down, was really the safest place, except just when you were going over the top; that was hot always. In the support-trenches you usually got shelled, and the snipers paid you their best attention. The shells and the bullets that went over the top of the firing-line (as more did than didn’t) found their way to the reserve-trenches. And you were always under fire in every part of the damned peninsula. There was no real cover. In the firing-line you got some of the shots intended for you ; out of it you got all the shots intended for you, and a great many that were not.

I remember a small shell landing in the cook’s fire and scattering it all over the place. Nobody was hurt, but the cook’s feelings were. Most cooks are irascible, and to this rule army cooks are no exception. Another time I happened to be standing near three or four men who were watching a mess tin, full of tea, boiling on a small fire of their own. The owner of the tin went away for a moment, when ‘whack’ went a bullet straight through the precious utensil. Curiously enough, it did not topple over, but it began to leak badly. The men screamed with laughter, and the owner hurried back. He was furious with his fellows ; he thought they were playing a trick on him, and it took some time to make him believe that the practical joker was a bullet.

The snipers seemed particularly busy near our trenches in those first days, but indeed they were all over the place. We used to organise parties to hunt for them. It was like going out for a day’s shooting at home, only a little more risky. For very obvious reasons, the sniper usually didn’t try to pot you when he saw that you were hunting for him : first, his shooting would tell where he was, or at least the direction he was in ; and, second, if he were caught, he would be uncommonly lucky to be taken alive.

We one day caught a sniper standing on a platform he had so fixed in a hole in the ground that his head and shoulders were in a bush. He had painted his face green, and in the cache of his hole he had enough food and ammunition to last him weeks. And I say again that the sniper is a brave man. This man’s ammunition and provender were excellent. We used the food.

Thirst was the greatest plague of my first days in the trenches, and the chalky water, which was all one ever came across and that – not often -made the thirst almost worse. But after the first few days thirst never troubled me much. And used to smoke all day long. Tobacco at the front! Believe me, you do not know what the word ‘solace’ means unless you ‘ve had smokes at the front. Tobacco is every commander’s most valuable aide-de-camp. It is the master diplomatist of every campaign. I don ‘t know what one would do without it on active service ; and I have no wish to know. A cigarette is the first thing a wounded man asks for, almost invariably. And it was tobacco more than anything else that made the trenches home to our soldiers. Tommy is a domestic animal, if ever there was one, and attempts domesticity in the vermin-ridden trenches of Gallipoli and on the blood- soaked plains of Flanders. He sticks his bits of pictures up on the mud walls somehow, he has his remarkable singsongs, and he lights his pipe. Sometimes his songs are ribald, but it is oftener, I think, to cloak a sentiment and an emotion about which he is shy than it is native coarseness.

On our third day in the trenches an order came that an advance was to be carried out, and a little after noon we went up towards the battle of Fir-Tree Wood, going in two columns in file, keeping touch, and keeping well in the nullahs and in the natural folds of the ground.

We came to our positions, and learned that we were in reserve. It was not a comfortable position. It lacked repose. The enemy’s machine-guns were infernally busy, and we had to lie very low, or get picked off. We lay low. The junction of two of the nullahs was just here, and it became a famous spot afterwards, being known as Clapham Junction.

I packed my company into a convenient depression, and for the moment they were fairly comfortable. I slipped across the burn running beside us to see the C.O. ‘Burn’ is not a slip of my Scots pen. Scotland and Gallipoli have many characteristics in common, and often the gruesome peninsula looked weirdly like ‘hame’. Sometimes in the gloaming, I could almost hear the pipes of home playing ; and at night, in the cutting Gallipoli cold, often I thought I smelt the snow blown across the dead and withered heather.

Captain M’Lagan, acting adjutant, was beside Captain Macintosh, the senior captain and acting C.O., who had arrived from the beach two days before, and was now in a place that might be accurately described as a golf bunker. Macintosh, M’Lagan, and I chatted for a little. But there were no orders for me yet, so I left them, and ran down the brae to reconnoitre the company behind mine, just to see that we were all keeping touch, for it would soon be dark. I was talking to the company’s captain when suddenly a quick, wicked whisper ran down to us through the men.

‘The C.O ‘s killed’ it hissed.

‘Good God, no!’ I cried ; ‘it can’t be true. I was talking to him just Now. I left him only a minute ago’.

But it was too true.

Often the despatches of war are mercifully quick.

I could have sworn that the place where he was sitting and where I had left him was as safe as Whitehall. It must have been a long-range bullet with a high trajectory that found him and pierced his head. The adjutant was sitting just below him, actually leaning against his knee, writing out an order. The C.O. stopped short in the dictation. The adjutant heard a soft sigh, looked up, and all was over.

So died ‘very gallant gentleman’ respected by all who knew him, loved by all who served under him. His own company were devoted to him. To me the saddest part was that he had been in the cursed peninsula only two days. He was one of the champion athletes of Scotland in his younger days, and it had been our ambition to see him leading his men in a Bayonet-charge. Would that he had died in such a way rather than by a bullet fired at a venture.

We shall not soon forgive Gallipoli his death.

But we had scant time for grief then. Even as we caught our breath and said, ‘It cannot be true’ orders came for the battalion to go up to the front line to fill a gap, and off it set, a platoon at a time, in extended order, over the ridge. It was practically dark when a further order came for the remainder of the battalion to reinforce, and off we went, into the next battle of our Gallipoli campaign. For me it was my first battle anywhere.

Up the nullah we went in file, and then swung to our left. The great difficulty- and it was very great – was to keep touch, especially when a man got hit. Then instantly, click, like a stop-watch, his pals halted, gathered round him, leaving our game of war to play itself, caring nothing for the Turk (that would come later), and not too much for orders.

I had to keep barging up and down the lines, something like the distracted captain of a badly-in-hand ‘footer’ team. The only thing to do when a man fell was, if he lived, to pull him, as gently as we could, to the side, and leave him there, with a field dressing on (we always managed that), at the same time passing the word for stretcher- bearers. Some at home may call this callous, but it was not. It was merely war. It was our job to keep touch, and everything had to give way to it. It was better, too, more merciful even, that one life should be destroyed than twenty, and that was the proportionate cost of even brief delay.

We reached the firing-line. We found every one digging furiously. Bullets were flying everywhere, thick and fast as fakes in a northern snowstorm, and bullets whizzing about one are a wonderful stimulus to one’s arm-power. No one was talking. The men scarcely looked up at us as we came. They just dug, dug, dug, like infuriated fiends. And sooner than I can tell it we were digging too.

I sometimes think that this war should go down in history as the War of Spades. Certainly the Dardanelles campaign fought with that homely garden tool. I once heard a woman name forty-six things she could do with a hairpin. It was a poor soldier that couldn’t do sixty-four with a spade after a month in Gallipoli. The spade was our father and our mother. When the hell was hottest we advanced a few paces, and then dug ourselves in. More than once the men dug until they began to fall asleep digging. One chap slid gently to earth, pillowed on his spade, and began to snore. A pal rolled him over and over down the easy incline of the half-finished trench, and there he lay, the picture of dishevelled peace, still snoring.

The British Isles should bloom like the rose after this war, for millions of gardeners are coming home from the war to England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales, the expert diggers of all the world, artists in spade-work, drilled and taught and perfected in German East Africa, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Macedonia, in Palestine and France, and in our own Gallipoli.

Soon it was found that there were too many in the firing-line, and two companies were sent back to a small nullah about three hundred yards in the rear, and we were one of them. How we all got into position I don’t know. It was black dark, and we were crowded to the point of cramp. My own job was standing in the middle of an unknown field, and trying to direct a seething lot of excited men struggling about over the treacherous broken ground in the dark. Anybody could have had my job for a tin bawbee, with pleasure. The cursed nightly fusillade had begun. But I got them alI over and tucked into our temporary quarters.

The little nullah we were in had a very high smell – quite the highest I ever encountered. Tommy can live without roses, and often he has to ; but Tommy sniffed, and Tommy swore. ‘Pass the ohder Cologne’, was the mildest comment I overheard, and I heard many. We wondered what the mischief it was. But at dawn we wondered no more. Our nullah was half-full of dead Turks. They were very dead. And there was other filth there, less describable and no sweeter.

I had now taken over the duties of an adjutant. ‘Adjutant’ has a mighty fine sound, but be not deceived. My adjutancy entailed a lot of painful wandering about, searching for things not to be found, &c., for returns have to go in to headquarters exactly as in normal times. And it ‘s Adjutant this and Adjutant that, until a fellow’s head whirls and twirls as if he were a dancing dervish. I hope never to hear the word after the war.

I had had nothing to eat since early the day before. There literally had not been time. But took time now, and thoroughly enjoyed bully-beef, biscuits, and water.

Refreshed, but not feeling altogether like a lion, I started off to try to find out what was going on. I suspect I have some share of Tommy’s child-like and quenchless curiosity. I know I did a world of prying about on my own account while we were at the Dardanelles, and sometimes I did it on legs so tired and feet so sore that they might perhaps have been better employed in doing nothing ; but then, as I once heard a caustic sergeant-major say irascibly, ‘Somebody blooming well has to take a little interest’. Well, I certainly took an interest ; but, for all that, I suspect that my peregrinations were more an indulgence than the flame of a burning sense of duty. I got back from this one of my many pilgrimages just as my watch showed eight, and I found Captain M’Lagan, who was commanding now, looking for me. He showed me a pink slip which read : The 5th Royal Scots will take the wood at all costs, and attack at 10 A.M. – G.O.C. 29th Division’. No long screed of instructions, no barrage-table, no movement-table in those days. A clear and concise order, as laid down in the Manual. We were up against the real thing now!

I suggested to Captain M’Lagan that, as it was my job, I ‘d better go and make a reconnaissance. But he wouldn’t have it, for an order had recently come through that senior officers were not to expose themselves unnecessarily. To be quite frank, I wasn’t gasping for the job (nor were my legs and their extremities), but I knew that it ought to be done, and I thought emphatically that it ought to be done by me, and so would anyone else in my place. You do not always like your job of the moment on active service, but you are always ready to do it, and to do your best. It is a remarkable thing, human nature being what it is, and service fatigue what it is, but it is absolutely true both of the professionals (Regulars) and of the amateurs (Volunteers) in the army that, whatever their job is, they always have a try at it. I have known men grow nervy, I have seen men break down, when they had done all men could do, borne all men could bear, but I have never seen a man disgrace himself funking or hesitating to tackle his ‘bit’. suppose there are bound to have been even such cases. It ‘s uncontrollable temperamental handicap when it does happen, I fancy.

Forbidden to go myself, I called for volunteers to make a reconnaissance, and the difficulty was to pick from among the many who pushed forward. I selected five, and put in charge a man who had once been in the Foreign Legion. And I told him that he would be recommended whether he came back or not. The chances were against him, and we both knew it.

Off they went.

And they all came back That was very remarkable. We were all greatly surprised – and so were they. The private in charge brought back an excellent report and a sketch of the enemy’s position that proved invaluable. He was recommended and got the D.C.M. for that day’s work. He was wounded three weeks later, and died in hospital.

The attack started. We got into the wood, and hung on till four in the afternoon. But the battalion got hell from the machine-guns. The C.O. and I, with our orderlies, had moved up to the jumping-off place, which was the firing-line three hundred yards in front of our stench-ridden nullah. We stood it, waiting for further orders and reports, as long as our nerves would let us. But nothing came. After two hours (an hour is a long time in battle) we sent off an orderly to glean what he could. He never came back. We sent off another. He did not come back either. Then the C.O. went off himself to reconnoitre, I being left where I was to receive any reports that might come in, and to act on them.

At last a report came in from one of the captains saying they were in the wood, but could not hold on much longer, and that he was the only officer left.

The C.O. hadn’t come back, and I began to feel fidgety, when suddenly he came along looking very grave.

‘They are getting knocked about on the left’ he said.

‘And on the right too’ I told him, handing him the pink slip.

‘Damn that’ was his comment. This doesn’t look hopeful’

Damn is more than an oath sometimes. I thought it was as sad a word as I had ever heard as it fell from the C.O.’s lips.

‘No’ I agreed ; ‘it looks very far from hopeful. And, look here, sir, it is my turn now to reconnoitre’.

He nodded grimly. ‘All right. Off you go’

And I went, running as hard as I could and as long as I could, till I came to a tree, banged into it, and flopped down rather hard. I was half-stunned for a moment ; but it quickly dawned upon me that one old tree was a silly place to halt at, so I did another bolt, and sprinted on till I landed in a nullah. Just where I landed I found another of our captains, so they were not all killed – yet. I  gave him some orders and started to get back. I was running like blazes, when a pain like a red-hot iron shot through my side. Down I went, spread-eagle fashion, about five yards from a trench, and gasped out, ‘I’ve got it at last’. 

A voice that I seemed to know called from the trenches, ‘What ‘s wrong?’

I moved my head round, and saw my old second in command, Captain J. W. S. Wilson, latterly well known to all in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. I had scarcely seen him since we landed. He was wounded, badly smashed, but he was confoundedly cheery. I felt like overdone porridge, and had just as much spine in me.

‘Oh, I’ve got it this time’ I insisted. ‘For God’s sake, get someone to take my pack off’

In those days we fought in full marching order, but I believe it was the very next day that we stopped that, and dumped our packs before we went into the thick of it – dumped them all together under a guard when we could, for passers – by had a habit of rummaging. Every man in that army was a splendid fighter, but not all of them were strictly – But there, I said before that Tommy is as inquisitive as a monkey.

I remember rolling over twice, and some one pulled my stuff off. All sorts of thoughts flashed through my mind. I thought of Scotland and a garden where the reddest roses in Edinburgh grow, and I thought quite a good deal of the Germans. It was odd – and yet not so very odd, perhaps – but all through Gallipoli I felt that we were fighting the Germans, and often forgot, even when killing them, that we were fighting the Turks. And I’ve heard a dozen officers say much the same thing: Of course, there were German officers thickly scattered among the Turks.

I thought I was shot through the lungs, and I was rather restless, and pitched about, and tried to sit up. My old friend charged me not to get up at any cost,  me not to get up at any cost, as the bullets were just shaving me. I had thought they were singing pretty close, and I knew the vermin bit! 

The pain grew a little easier (that ‘s the best of pain), and I suddenly began to laugh like blazes. I can hear myself yet. I tried to stop, but I could not stop. I thought I was going to keep on laughing madly for ever.

‘You don’t seem very bad’ someone said.

‘No, you silly blighter,’ I returned, while tears of idiotic merriment ran down my face ‘I’m not even hit. Do you know what it is? It’s a stitch in my side. Oh ! Ho Oh !’ But all the same I was in doubt as to what was causing my torment. It was infernal.

Men have died from having their eyes bandaged, and someone then drawing a bit of ice over their throats and pouring warm water down their backs. And I believe, if any one had told me that he could see blood coming from me, I should have fainted, and felt sure as I did so that it was death.

I had to lie without moving for over two hours. It was terrible. One or two shells landed perilously near. One of them hit a poor fellow already badly wounded. His cries were almost more than one could endure. But, like a great deal else in war, endure it we had to do. There is hardly anything much sadder than the stricken cry of a wounded man who cannot move hand or foot, sometimes cannot even turn his face into the shelter of the earth, or of his coat, when the shells and the bullets are landing thick about him. 

However, the fire slackened sooner or later, and I got up somehow (the relief of being able to move eased my pain wonderfully), and bolted to the C.O., who had quite made up his mind that I ‘d been killed. He listened to me, and then made out a report. But who was to take it? We hadn’t an orderly left.

A young bugler, overhearing, volunteered to go back to General Headquarters with the message. He had been carrying ammunition all day long, up hillocks, down steeps, over brooks, into nullahs, and he looked dead-beat with fatigue. But he saluted with a smile, and went off into a hell-rain of bullets, for the hail of fire had begun again, and, it seemed to us, with added fury. I watched him through my glasses. Before he had gone fifty yards he was enveloped in a cloud of dust from a bursting shell.

‘My God, sir, he ‘s down’ I cried. ‘No. no; he ‘s up and running. Good lad Damn it all, he ‘s down again! I ‘m afraid he has got it this time. I can’t see any more of him’.

We could get no one else at the moment to go with a duplicate report, so we had to risk it. He might get through, or headquarters might learn in some other way what we had reported.

But the boy got through. He hobbled into headquarters dragging a shrapnel-riddled leg, and begged to come back to us with the answer. But the general sent him off to the dressing station, rebellious and ungrateful. He got  the D.C.M. As far as I know, he is still alive. But you lose sight of men provokingly on active service.

A report came down to us, though, to try to charge into the wood, as supports were coming up to the Turks, and all our push was needed at what threatened to become a weak spot. We got in – in a way but we had to get back to our first front line. I went down to the right again, and I saw the Border Regiment advancing to the attack. It was magnificent. To watch them made me tingle then, and to think of it makes me tingle now, and I am very tired as I write this tonight, in another dug-out, somewhere in Flanders, and not too full of the ready electricity of enthusiasm.

I shall never forget one of the Border sergeants leading his section. He shouted to his men, just as they came to the edge of our trench, ‘Come on, lads . jump over’’ And over our heads they all went.

Two of them were hit, just ten yards farther on. One of them never moved again. The other lay groaning pitifully, so two of our men rushed out and brought him in. I myself saw fifty things done that deserved mention. But it was impossible to record them all. There was always a grave chance when you recommended a man that you had overlooked something still braver that another had done, but you can ‘t recommend everbody.

The Borderers got just to the edge of the wood, and there they were held up, and dug themselves in. It was wonderful to see how quickly and skilfully they did it; not a spadeful of earth was bungled, not a stroke wasted or misdirected. In Gallipoli you learned how to dig. ‘Cook’s son, duke’s son’ you all learned to dig.

We heard now that the Australians were going to attack. And when they did, it was the sight of all that wonderful day. I wish could describe something of the picture of war. It is indescribable, for me at least. But no pen, no brush, can overdraw or overcolour it. It is terrible, but superb. Our own show was good, I know ; but I was busy in that, and had no time to play spectator. I felt it, and I heard it ; I even smelt it; but I did not see it – I couldn’t.

But I saw the Australians. Wave after wave of men came across the ridge in splendid order. Oh, they were matchless The enemy’s shelling was shifted on to them in one great concentration of hell. But what of it ? Why, nothing ! They were as devils from a hell bigger and hotter. They were at home in hell-fire, and they caressed it back. Nothing could stop them. when it licked and kissed them. They laughed at it ; they sang through it. Their pluck was titanic. They were not men, but gods, demons infuriated. We saw them fall by the score. But what of that ? Not for one breath did the great line waver or break. On and up it went, up and on, as steady and proud as if on parade. Á seasoned staff officer watching choked with his own admiration. Our men tore off their helmets and waved them, and poured cheer after cheer after those wonderful Anzacs. ‘Australia will be there!’ ‘By the living God that made us’ Australia was there!

On to the face of the guns, into the wood and through it, they went, torn, bleeding, undaunted. So cunningly were the damned spitting machine – guns concealed that the valiant fellows passed through and over and under them, and did not see them.  They seemed to have cleared the wood. They thought they had done so, and we looking on thought so too. They turned to come back, almost at ease, and then they got Hades indeed. Every hidden gun broke out, its venomous torture and death dribbling and frothing like foam from the mouths of mad dogs. What the Anzacs suffered then could not be told, but they came proudly on and through. They finished their job.

They were few when they came back to us into the open, to rest a bit in our trenches. And many a splendid Anzac lay resting in Fir-Tree Wood. The day was done now, and night was wrapping the peninsula in ‘the blanket of the dark’.

The day was gone, and all we had managed to do was to get slightly forward on the left. This the Australians did manage.some ground. And on the right the Borderers had gained We were tired. 

We were hungry. But the men were crammed full of grim determination. They were great, our soldiers, ready to fight to the last gasp, and tuned to fight to the death. Would to Heaven the Turk had come on that same night to counterattack. It might have hastened history. But the Turk had had enough.

The excitement of battle was over for the moment. I had had practically nothing to eat for two days, and the men had not had too much, or too much time in which to eat it. I had a few biscuits in my pocket, and I took them out and munched them. Food never tasted more delicious. The men had to start to consolidate and improve the position. There was worse to come, and we knew it. But they managed to light a few small fires before it was quite dark, So that tea could be had, to wash down the bully-beef and the biscuits. And the Turkish moon rose high over Samothrace, and ten thousand times ten stars glittered like fire-flies over Achi Baba.

Beyond one or two stand-to’s during the night, nothing exciting happened, and the first phase of the battle was over. 

I shall not forget it, my first day of battle. Some men forget their first love. No soldier can ever forget his first battle.

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