"Rations are carried up by other men who are either on rest or in reserve. As a matter of fact when on rest you are seldom more than three miles away. The rations are carried up in sacks by limbers as far as the transport can take them—it varies according to the level of the ground and activities. These limbers are met by ration parties who carry two sacks each, right up to the trenches. Every sack is marked 'D' for company, '15' for platoon, and so we always get them. We carry an emergency ration of biscuits, bully beef, and tea and sugar in case of accidents. I have only once found it necessary to use mine.
"Q. No. 4.—In the battles you have been in, did you come face to face with the Huns, or just shoot at range?
"A.—Yes, once when we were driving them back, and once when they were advancing. Apart from that it has been shooting when a head shows. The nearest I've been in a trench to the Hun was 15 yards, but most of them range from 60 to 150 yards. You see we are a rifle regiment and so do not do many charges, but occupy places for sniping, and relieve the line regiment after it has charged, and by the rifle fire keep the Hun from counter-attacking.
"Q. No. 5.—How do you get posts—are carriers in danger?
"A.—The letters are put in the ration sacks. The party often get some killed or wounded.
"Q. No. 6.—Do you get acquainted with French civilians, and have you picked up any of their language?
"A.—There are a few civilians in the deserted villages near the firing line, and by dint of repetition and purchase I have picked up a little, but I cannot possibly spell it. You see we do not enter towns.
"Q. No. 7.—When one series of trenches is built, how does the enemy get a chance to build close to them?
"A.—How? Why, under cover of darkness, either by putting a line of men to form a screen and keep up firing with men digging behind, or by digging a trench at right angles, and making a T. The first method is mostly used as it is quicker, but more casualties occur.
"Q. No. 8.—Do you have any fear of air raids over the trenches?
"A.—No, because a trench is too small an object to be likely to be hit by a bomb dropping from a height. The flying men would very possibly hit their own people instead. However they drop them on our rest billets. We get used to the shells, and this is only another way of presenting them.
"Q. No. 9.—What about gas?
"A.—They very seldom use it now. Our helmets are so efficient, they cannot do any harm in sending it over. They might catch one or two who were slow in getting their helmets on, but we have gongs to give warning."
One Young Man's Leave
ONE YOUNG MAN'S LEAVE
He again writes:
"We had done two days out of our six in the trenches a little south of Albert. They were in such a state that it was impossible to walk from one post to another. The mud was over our knees and all communication was cut off by day. At night we fetched our rations, water, and rum by going over the top—a little sought-after job, for Fritz was most active and cover scarce. I had just finished my two hours at the listening-post, and had crawled into my dug-out for a four-hour stretch. It was bitterly cold, and although I had piles of sandbags over me I couldn't get warm, and, like Bairnsfather's 'fed-up one,' had to get out and rest a bit. Two hours of my four had passed when word came down that I was wanted by the Sergeant-Major. Hallo, thinks I, what am I wanted for? Ah, letters! I was a source of continued annoyance to the Captain because of my many letters.
"However, he that expecteth nothing shall receive his seven days' leave, for that's what it proved to be. I stood with unbelieving ears whilst the Serjeant-Major rattled off something to the effect that I was on the next party for leave, and was to go down H.Q. the following night. I crawled back to my dug-out, wondering if I was really awake. Eventually reaching our post, I cried, 'John, my boy, this child's on a Blightly trip.' No profuse congratulations emanated from that quarter, but a voice from a dug-out cried, 'Good! you can take that clip of German cartridges home for me.' This was our souvenir hunter; he'd barter his last biscuit for a nose cap of a Hun shell, and was a frequenter of the artillery dug-outs. My next two hours' guard was carried out in a very dreamy sort of way. I had already planned what I should do and how I would surprise them all. Next day I was busy scraping off the mud from my tunic and overcoat. I spent hours on the job, but they seemed very little different when I had finished.
"That night I covered the three miles of mud and shell-holes to H.Q. in record time. There I met the other lucky ones and received orders to turn in and parade at 9 a.m. for baths and underclothing. There were no trousers, puttees, or overcoats in the stores, and so we had to come over as we were, a picture that had no fitting background other than the trenches. At dusk we boarded the motor-bus which conveyed us to the rail-head. That old bus had never had such a cargo of light hearts when plying between Shepherd's Bush and Liverpool Street. At the rail-head we transferred to the waiting train, and it was not long before we were on our way. Bully beef and biscuits were on the seats, our day's rations. Never mind—we shall soon be having something a good deal more appetising. We did wish we had something warmer than the water in our bottles, and at our next stop we found our old benefactors. This was another platform canteen, and we were able to refresh ourselves for the remainder of the journey, which was all too slow.
"Two R.F.A. and one A.S.C. man shared the carriage with me up to London. We did not speak at all, we were far too much occupied with our thoughts and visions of our welcome. It was Sunday, and there were very few people about when we got in. I clambered out of the carriage prepared to rush to the Bakerloo, when a voice at my elbow asked, 'Is there anything I can do for you? Are you a Londoner?' and a host of questions bearing on my future actions. It was a Y.M. official. He took me to the little box where my francs were converted into English coin, then to Bakerloo Tube Station, got my ticket, and with a handclasp dashed off to help another. Had I been bound for the North he would have taken me and given me a dinner, and put me into the right train at the right time. I tell you these Y.M. chaps do their job uncommonly well."
One Young Man Again in the Trenches
ONE YOUNG MAN AGAIN IN THE TRENCHES
On his return from leave Sydney Baxter writes:
January 29th, 1916.
"I am writing this in a small estaminet which is much overcrowded, and in the conversation can only be described as a din. Madame is hurrying round with coffees and fried pommes de terre, whilst monsieur is anxiously trying to find out if we are moving to-morrow. He is much disturbed, no doubt thinking of the drop in the number of coffees apres demain.
"I am keeping very fit and well, and much to my surprise have not experienced any of the 'fed-up-ness' I anticipated on my return from leave. To my mind, there is only one experience to equal a leave from Active Service—that is the final home-coming. My leave was pure delight from one end to the other."
Sydney Baxter's Division was soon again on trek to a new position. He writes:
"We had stayed in, and passed through, many villages, had even had a fire at one, burning down one or two barns, and yet life was uneventful. Marching most days, or, when billeted, doing platoon drill, playing cards, reading or writing in the cafes or our barns. Company concerts were no good. We had heard all of our soloists' repertoire, which was not very extensive. There came the day when we marched into Doullens. Strange were the sights of large shops and smartly dressed townsfolk—we were more used to the occupants of obscure villages. The Sergeant-Major came along with the message, 'Smarten up and keep step through the town.' We needed no bidding. A soldier doesn't want it, you know, when he becomes the object of admiration and the recipient of smiles from the brunettes of France. On past the Hotel de Ville we swung—this was a G.H.Q., and 'Eyes left!' was given as platoons passed the guard. Staff officers, resplendent in red-tabbed coats and well-creased slacks, seemed to be showing the populace what fine soldiers they were, while the M.M. Police stood at the corners directing traffic as only the members of that unit can. Into the Rue d'Arras we turned, and outside an Ecole de Filles we halted. There was our billet, the best we ever had. In the playground stood our cooker. Upstairs we were packed into the classrooms, with just enough room allowed to stretch one's legs and to turn over should one wish. We had our stew, and quickly rushed off to see all the town. In the square a military band was playing 'Nights of Gladness,' and we found a crowd gathered round the bandstand, many of them civilians. We stayed and enjoyed the performance, and at the Marseillaise and our own National Anthem every khaki-clad man from private to general stood at attention, and the latter at the salute. It was a grand spectacle, and one felt proud to be a soldier. We went and had a look at the shops and into the church, until nearly 5 o'clock, when we debated amongst ourselves as to whether we should go back for tea or wait till 6 o'clock when the cafes open.
"Running into a group who had been endeavouring to break the camera, we asked them what they were going to do. 'Why, go to the Y.M.C.A., of course,' they replied. 'Is there really one here? What luck!' We all followed the guide. It was in a market hall, but liberally placarded with the familiar Red Triangle, and so there was no mistaking it. Like most other canteens of the Y.M. it had a long counter and about twelve small tables. The ever-refreshing cup of tea and the good old English slab cake were in plenty, and we asked for nothing better.... It was quite exciting to sit and have tea at a table. Afterwards there was a concert. The artists were A.S.C. men, and, although very markedly amateur, we enjoyed the evening, which was decidedly a change from our usual evening of cards. Unfortunately we marched away next day and so were unable to get full advantage from that depot. It was one of the Y.M.'s smaller ventures and lacked many of the usual articles of comfort that their huts are renowned for. However, it served its purpose. Troops were able to procure English cigarettes and chocolates, and at the same time have a good tea and a jolly evening. A toast to the Y.M. should always be drunk in hot tea, for supplying it to us in France. It's one of the chief blessings the Association confers on the army."
The battalion was soon in huts some way behind the firing line.
Sydney Baxter writes to one of his friends in the office:
"Glad to hear everything is O.K., and that you are still smiling. Thank God for that. Whatever happens, still keep smiling. The greatest tonic out here is to know the girls are working so hard, and all the time willingly and smilingly. We know you all miss the boys as they do you, and to read that our friends at home are enjoying themselves is enjoyment to us. We are out to have the harder tasks, and we want you all at home to have the benefits. That's why we feel so bitter against the Air Raids.
"Well now, I am glad to write the usual formula. I am very fit and well, and not having such a bad time; things are fairly quiet this side, but not for long, I hope. Everyone is expecting a move and looking forward to it in the sense that it will help to finish the war.
"We have had much rain the last few days, and, as these tiny huts we're in are not waterproof, we wake up in the morning soaked and lying in puddles. It's the limit, I can tell you. However, we are on active service and so are not afraid of H2O. Now, as to my Eastertide. My Good Friday brought with it duty. I was on Police Picket, much the same as a village policeman. Our duties are to see every soldier is properly dressed with belt and puttees before going out, and that there are no suspicious persons around, that all lights are extinguished by 9.30, etc. It's not a bad job, but on a Good Friday it's tough.
"Sunday was as usual,—Church Parade in the morning, and free in the afternoon, when we had a cricket match. Monday was the worst day of all. We were called out at 8.30, and from then to 12.30 had to clean up the roads, scrape mud out of ditches, and make drains in our village streets. Nice occupation, wasn't it? The afternoon was not so bad, but we might have had a holiday. Instead we had to go and throw live bombs for practice purposes. The evening, as usual, was free. That ends my Eastertide, and in spite of what sounds a far from good one I enjoyed it immensely and count myself lucky to be out of the trenches for it.
"I ought to have mentioned earlier that we are in a village behind the firing line, in reserve; we shall be having our turn of trenches in a few days, and so we are making the best of our time out. The weather is glorious, and we are having a good time. I do not doubt that there will be some hard work shortly along the front, but it's difficult to say what will happen. Only the folk in charge know. We only obey, and really it's just as well to be in the dark and so escape the worry beforehand."
The death of his chum George was often in Sydney Baxter's thoughts. He writes:
May 21st, 1916.
"I have heard from ——; he also mentions to me the opportunity of revenge. I can quite understand and have felt that a life for a life would wipe out the debt, but when my mind dwells on these things I always try to think what George would have me do, and I know his answer would be: 'Why, the German was only doing his duty. I should have done the same myself.' That is true. We fire, but we little know what suffering we cause. We do our duty and the Germans do theirs. It rests with the Heads as to clean methods or not."
The turn in the trenches soon came, and it was a rough turn too. The following are extracts from letters written to his mother:
June 6th, 1916.
"I have been unable to write before, as we have been having an extremely busy and horrible time. From the day we entered the trench till now has been one series of heavy bombardment, an absolute rain of shells everywhere—a whole week of it. How so many managed to come out alive I don't know.
"We lost four killed in our platoon, including one of my section, a splendid chap, cool and jolly. Three of us went to see him buried yesterday—we had a short service. His brother is with us, a boy of eighteen, and is naturally very cut up. We have now sixteen graves where there were none a fortnight ago. Ten whom I knew personally are gone—such is war.
"All of us have had a shaking up. To many it has been their first dose of real grim warfare, and it has been a sore trial for us to lie out in front with shells bursting all round and no cover. The natural tendency is to run back to the trench and get under cover. However, I managed to pull through, and feel much more confident of myself, and the Captain apparently is pleased, for on the strength of it all I have been made a lance-corporal—only do not yet get paid. That will come later. Of course, this is no big honour, but coming at such a time as this it shows they have some confidence in one's ability.
"There are so many senior in front of me that the possibility of further promotion is somewhat remote. One of our majors has got the D.S.O., one of our company lieutenants a Military Cross, and a lance-corporal a D.C.M., and so we have not come out without honour.
"I am feeling O.K. myself, and by the time you get this shall be back on a month's rest right away from the line, and until I write again you will know I am out of danger. Your parcel arrived whilst in the trenches, and was very welcome indeed. As far as cash goes, don't worry. Don't send any money, and don't worry; there's no need."
June 8th, 1916.
"We are now out on rest right away from our line, in our old village. We are not sorry, as you can imagine, and to sleep in our own little beds once again is lovely. I had a bath this morning, a nice change, and feel quite fit.
"Having now my first stripe, I have to go to No. —— Platoon. They are a nice lot of fellows, and I shall be all right there with my old friend, another corporal, while an old section comrade of Crowborough times is platoon sergeant.
"As to wants—if you have an old shirt at home I could do with it. But I don't want a new one sent. Also a pair of strong laces, a nail brush (stiff)—that's about all, I think.
June 11th, 1916.
"Things are very active along the line, although very little appears in the papers. Our sector has been subject to heavy bombardments, and our first night in the trench saw three separate strafes, and the succeeding days brought a big list of casualties, which by now run well into three figures. The first strafe, which lasted ten minutes according to our artillery observers, brought 1,100 shells of all sizes from the Huns. I was half buried three times, and but for my steel helmet would have had a nasty scalp wound, whereas all that resulted was a dent in the hat and a headache for me."
There follows the last letter Sydney Baxter wrote to his mother before the great Somme offensive. He was facing the possibilities himself and trying to get her to do so too. I have not cared to print this letter in full. Those who have written or received such a letter will understand why.
"My DEAREST OF MOTHERS,
"Owing to increased activity at the front, I hear our letters are to be stopped and only picture, field, and plain postcards can be sent. Therefore you must not worry if you only get such. If I can get a letter through I will. I do not disguise the fact that things are warmer, for you can read that in the papers, and anything may happen any day.
"Thanks for the shirt, laces, brush, cards, and notebook which I received this afternoon; I had just returned after taking a party to another village on fatigue. The P.O.'s have arrived regularly, thanks, dear. I had a good lunch to-day, steak and chips and fruit after, at a little cafe where we went this morning. It was O.K.
"As you will have noticed in the papers, our artillery has been very active along the front, and it's when the Hun replies that most of the trouble comes in, for the Huns won't take it quietly for a minute and will send some souvenirs across. It remains to be seen what will happen.
"I like my platoon very much, and I have had a very happy time these last few months.
"I often think of the time to come, apres la guerre, when we shall have the old tea-time chats, a smaller house and less running about for you, of the time when I shall take up my Church secretaryship again and also my work in the City. I wonder what they will put me into?
"Well, mother mine, don't worry about me. I'm all right and will be home sooner than you think, even if I last the war through and—I might, you know, unless I get wounded. And if I get that I shall be home sooner, and if I get the only other alternative, well, dear, it's merely a reunion with the others, and a matter of waiting for you. But it remains to be seen.
"Well, mother darling, I must now close. I'll drop you both a line every day, so don't worry."
The next line that both received was from a hospital.
One Young Man Gets a "Blighty"
ONE YOUNG MAN GETS A "BLIGHTY"
Sydney Baxter's Division was on the left flank of the British attack at Gommecourt, which met with great stubbornness on the part of the enemy, and resulted in heavy losses. He writes:
"I was in charge of the 'Battle Police' that day, and we had to accompany the bombers. We started over the top under heavy fire and many were bowled over within a few minutes.
"Lanky of limb, I was soon through the barbed wire and came to the first trench and jumped in. Some seven of us were there, and as senior N.C.O. I led the way along the trench. One Hun came round the corner, and he would have been dead but for his cry 'Kamerad blesse.' I lowered my rifle, and, making sure he had no weapon, passed him to the rear and led on. We had just connected up with our party on the left when I felt a pressure of tons upon my head. My right eye was sightless, with the other I saw my hand with one finger severed, covered in blood. A great desire came over me to sink to the ground, into peaceful oblivion, but the peril of such weakness came to my mind, and with an effort I pulled myself together. I tore my helmet from my head, for the concussion had rammed it tight down. The man in front bandaged my head and eye. Blood was pouring into my mouth, down my tunic.
"They made way for me, uttering cheery words, 'Stick it, Corporal, you'll soon be in Blighty,' one said. Another, 'Best of luck, old man.' I made my way slowly—not in pain, I was too numbed for that. My officer gave me a pull at his whisky bottle, and further on our stretcher-bearers bandaged my head and wiped as much blood as they could from my face. I felt I could go no further, but a 'runner' who was going to H.Q. led me back. I held on to his equipment, halting for cover when a shell came near, and hurrying when able. I eventually got to our First Aid Post. There I fainted away.
"I awoke next day just as I was being lifted on to the operating table, and whilst under an anaesthetic my eye was removed. Although I was not aware of this for some time afterwards I did not properly come to until I was on the hospital train the following day bound for the coast. I opened my eye as much as possible and recognised two of my old chums, but conversation was impossible; I was too weak. The next five days I spent at a hospital near Le Treport. My mother was wired for, and the offending piece of shell was abstracted by a magnet. It couldn't be done by knife, as it was too near the brain."
Thus far Sydney Baxter tells his own story of the great day of his life. I leave it as it stands, though I could add so much to it if I would. Will you picture to yourself this sightless young man, with torn head and shattered hand piteously struggling from those shambles? Will you look at him—afterwards? It's worth while trying to do so. You and I have got to see war before we can do justice to the warrior.
The piece of shell which entered his head just above the right eye opened up the frontal sinuses, exposing the brain. "It is wonderful," wrote the doctor who attended him, "how these fellows who have been fighting for us exhibit such a marvellous fortitude." He had lost the end of his fourth finger and another has since been entirely amputated.
To the amazement of all, Sydney Baxter, within a few hours of his operation, asked for postcards. He wrote three—one to his mother, one to someone else's sister, and one to his firm.
This last postcard is a treasured possession of Sydney Baxter's business. It runs as follows:
July 4th, 1916.
"Have unfortunately fallen victim to the Hun shell in the last attack. I am not sure to what extent I am damaged. The wounds are the right eye, side of face, and left hand. They hope to save my eye, and I have only lost one finger on hand.
"I will write again, sir, when I arrive in England. At present am near Dieppe."
"Only lost"—that seems to me great.
Above the postcard on the business notice-board the chief wrote: "The pluckiest piece of writing that has ever reached this office." And by that he stands.
At Treport Sydney Baxter has his last experience of the Y.M.C.A. in France.
"One of its members came round the ward, speaking cheery words and offering to write home for us. It sounds a small work, but it was a boon to those of us too weak for even a postcard, or those who had lost or injured their right arms. The nurses are far too busy and cannot do it, and other patients are in a like condition. I always looked out for that gentleman of the Y.M. I was not allowed to read or sit up, and the days dragged horribly. Thursday evening came and many were sent to Blighty. I worried the doctor as to when I should go, and always received the non-committal reply, 'When you are fit to travel.' Saturday, however, found me on board of a hospital ship, and at 9 o'clock that night we arrived at Southampton. Ant-like, the stretcher-bearers went to and fro, from ship to train. For some reason or other they dumped me in a corner with my head nearest the scene of activities, so that I was unable to interest myself in watching the entraining of others. I feverishly hoped they wouldn't forget me and put me in the wrong train. I was not forgotten by one person, however. He was not an official, not a R.A.M.C. man—no, just a Y.M.C.A. man, ministering to our comfort, lighting cigarettes for the helpless, arranging pillows, handing chocolate to a non-smoker, with a smile and a cheery word for every one. He asked me where I lived and spoke cheerily to me of soon seeing my mother and friends, and then left on a like errand to another chap. This, as I look back, was typical of all the work of the Y.M.C.A. Its helpers are always at the right place doing the right thing. That is why they have earned Tommy's undying gratitude."
Next day this one young man was being tenderly and graciously cared for in a hospital in Wales. He had finished his bit. To the office he wrote:
July 12th, 1916.
"The Hun has put me completely out of action, and I hope within a few months to be amongst you all again—for good, and certainly in time for the autumn session.
"The sight of my right eye has completely gone out, but as long as the left one keeps as it is I shall not be seriously handicapped. My glass eye will be an acceptable ornament. The left hand will mend in time; when healed, it will be pushed and squeezed into its original shape. Apart from the wounds I feel very well, and my rapid recovery has surprised all. The first three days in France were critical, and mother was sent for. However, I pulled through and feel as active as ever—at least, I do whilst in bed."
The hole in Sydney Baxter's nut—I use his own phrase—is healing. His hand has been more than once under the surgeon's knife, and he can now wear a glove with cotton-wool stuffed into two of the fingers. He sees fairly well from the unbandaged side of his face.
The chief tells me that Sydney Baxter will have the desire of his heart: he will be "back at business in time for the Christmas rush."
London: Printed By C. F. Roworth Ltd., 88 Fetter Lane, E.C.4.