Saturday, August 02, 2014

Baxter (6) Trenches

The officers and soldiers in the trenches treated Baxter well. They had heard about his stand, and seemed to respect it. I presume that many felt they were being used on a foolish cause, and wished that they had had the courage to make the same stand. The real hostility came from the officers who remained well back from the front line.

My life dragged on from day to day, each day much the same. Rations were often short up there. The other men supplemented them from the canteen, but I was unable to as I had no money, what I had having been taken from me by the police.

Every day I went up the lines with a man in charge of me. One morning we started off, following the duckwalk in a zigzag course among the shell holes. As usual there was a certain amount of shelling going on. At a corner we came to some bodies lying side by side, wrapped up ready for burial. We walked on, glancing at them as we passed. I thought of them as individuals, of what their lives had been before, of the friends and relatives who would, in time, get this news. Not sentimentality, just as much fact as these corpses lying beside the track. I had felt the same about a dead German we had seen in a shell hole further hack, lying with his arms spread wide and the rifle still beside him. Just after we passed the corner a shell passed close to us and struck a bank a few yards to our left. We were knocked down by something - we did not know what.

When the earth heaved up by the explosion had fallen again we pressed on and found that the duckwalk had been blown up in places. Arriving at the brow of a little hill we - the man who was detailed for my escort and I- found we had lost sight of those in front. We were walking in twos with about ten yards between each pair. Presently we saw some of them in the distance. We left the duckwalk and took a short cut over some low-lying ground to catch up with them.

Halfway across my companion shouted "Gas!", adjusted his box respirator and helped me with mine. I do not know whether it was defective, but I found I couldn't breathe in it, at any rate while I was moving. At the last gasp, my labouring lungs unable to draw another breath, I pulled it off, thinking I might as well take my chance with the gas as die by suffocation then and there. I could smell nothing, but there was a dark blue haze floating among the shell holes. The other man persuaded me to put it on again. It was just as bad as ever, but by the time I was forced to pull it off again we were pretty well out of the area affected by the gas shells. It must, however, have had some effect on me. For weeks afterwards I coughed up black stuff.

We could see the other men going up a hill a little ahead of us. Afterwards heard that that hill was in dlrect view from the German lines. Shells were bursting between us and the men ahead. We paused for a moment, doubtful what to do, then went on. Shells began to fall behind us. As we hurried up the hill they came thick and fast and gained on us. When we got to the top of the hill we met the other men corning back. The shelling was closing in on us from both sides. We were surrounded by a perfect storm of shells. We all stood for a moment huddled together, the last thing we should have done.

The officer in charge of the party was standing close to me as the storm closed over us and I heard him call out "Every man for himself as he jumped over a bank. I had a quickened sense that something frightful was happening. The earth seemed to be like the waves of the sea, and struck me again and again. I felt a strange swaying motion, another bump and then utter darkness and suffocation. There was a violent tugging at my legs and before I could realise that I had landed head-first in the mud at the bottom of a shell hole, I came out choking and spluttering but able to breathe.

One of the two men with me in the hole - they had tugged me out - plunged his arms nearly to the shoulders into the mud, retrieved my helmet and slapped it onto my head. The shelling was still going on. One of the men said, "Come on, it's not good here," and we scrambled out. I gave one glance up, saw dark fragments falling through the air, and looked down again. We were knocked down several times, but not one of the three of us was directly hit. We came right on a little door that seemed to lead into the earth. It was a small dug-out over the top of a shaft. One man was there at the windlass.
"It's no good here," he said. "It won't stand a shell and I am expecting it to go any minute.

He directed us to a place about a hundred yards further on. At that moment a shell almost blocked the entrance. We scrambled out and found the other shelter, a wooden drive with steps leading deep underground. For the present we were safe. The others took out their cigarettes and pushed handfuls into my pockets. I did not know them and I thought it probable that they did not know who I was. I did not feel I could take their help and comradeship on false pretence, so I told them I was refusing service.
Don’t you worry”, they said. “We know all about you”, and they offered me more cigarettes.
Twenty-eight men went out, only eleven returned.

No comments: