Friday, August 01, 2014

Baxter (5) Trenches

Baxter was sent up to the trenches too.

I remained with the Otagos and had nothing more to do with him. From that time I received the same food as the other men. A day or two later I saw him departing, no doubt to make his report to Simpson. He had done his best and the unpopularity he had gained in the doing of it - the camp cooks collected and counted him out the night after he had dragged Briggs - probably seemed to him most unjust. After all, he was only carrying out his orders.

Next morning I was standing in the hut alone, the others having gone out, when two men came to me and said they had orders to take me up the lines. "Very well," I said. "You can take me up, but I'm not taking on anything when I get there." All the way up they discussed my position and attitude in a very friendly manner. When we got up there the men in charge of me were told by a sergeant that he intended to give me no orders and, on their asking what they were to do with me, he laughed and said they could show me round. Accordingly they took me about and told me the names of the different positions; pointed out the crooked German lines and many gun positions. We spent the whole day in this way. They showed me how to duck from shell explosions and how to take cover when it seemed that none existed.

At night I went back to the camp. At this time I always slept and got my food with a hut full of men - seventeen of us there were. I found them perfectly friendly. The position of the objectors was the talk of the camp and the anger of the men was aroused against the provost-sergeant.

I lived a strange life at that time. I would not serve in the army and yet I was at the front. In one way I was isolated and alone, and yet I lived the life the soldiers did. I lay in holes and trenches with them round by Hellfire Corner, hour after hour until the shelling slackened or drove us out. I was only seeing a glimpse of the war, but it was enough to bring home to me its terrible reality.

I remember before I reached the front meeting men who had been there and thinking they looked hard and strange. Their faces had a drawn look and they seemed to have eyes like eagles. Now that I was amongst them I did not notice this. They seemed ordinary, but new arrivals looked as gentle as sheep.

I will not attempt to describe the battle front above Ypres, but will try to convey the impression it made upon me. It looked as though a herd of prehistoric monsters had chewed and rooted up the earth for miles around. Not a sign of anything green and not a chance for anything to grow. It was part of the front that had been taken and retaken so often that it presented an appearance of indescribable chaos. Everywhere there was mud and slush and men always floundering through it by tracks and duck walks that were always being blown up. I was told that a million men had fallen there. The cemetery of a million men! It was still being shelled and the yawning mouths of the countless shell holes were ready to suck in the living men who moved day and night among them like maggots in the slime.

I would often stand alone at night gazing at the red glare along the front while everything vibrated to the ceaseless roar of the guns. Thoughts came to me as I stood. Every day the war lasted only made things worse for the world. Victory in the field seemed to me the worst that could happen, no matter which side won - not for lack of patriotism, but because I honestly believed it would be the greatest bar to enduring world peace. At times everything was blackest gloom without one ray of hope. The war might go on for years. I believed it could be stopped any day and that the feelings of all the peoples would be joy and relief. Why should it go on?

I discussed the war frequently with the men I happened to be with. They were not war-minded

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