“In” or “Out”, No Outing: 2

Having contrived to get washed and shaved and having had a meagre portion of bacon for breakfast, I and the two men who had been on guard with me were called out by a tough looking old sergeant who marched us away to a quiet corner of the farm.

“Alright you lot, so you don’t now how to fix bayonets eh? Right, we’ll soon see about that. Squad ‘Shun. As you were! What the hell do you mean coming out here masquerading as soldiers? We’re here to kill those bloody Jerries not make them die of laughter. What the hell are you grinning at? This is a serious matter, you ‘orrible lot, don’t you know how to ‘fix’? Instead of resting, I’m here drilling you bunch of duds. Now when I say ‘Shun’ you’ll move so quick it ‘urts see? Right. Squad, Shun! That’s better, so you can move then? Stand at ease. Now, when I say ‘fix’ you don’t ‘fix’ but when I say ‘bayonets’ you whips ’em out and you wops ’em on.”

“Right! Squad ‘Shun! Fix… Bayonets, Oh! Hell! What a hopeless lot of bastards! What are you?” No one answered. “Are you bloody well deaf as well as daft, answer me, what are you?”

“We’re a hopeless lot of bastards, Sergeant!”

“How the hell did you manage to get out here?”

“But, Sergeant,” I started –

“Shut up. Don’t you dare answer me back. I’ll have you in clink so fast your feet won’t touch the floor.”

After the dinner break we three were again paraded on our own but this time under a young corporal who quickly licked us into shape. We spent the rest of the day doing ‘fix’ and ‘unfix’ until by the end of the day we could do it like Guardsmen – well almost.

Now he came out of the line for a while, which gave him an opportunity to find out what had happened to Bill who was now attached to another company of the battalion. Returning to the Front he found himself knee deep in water and rotting sand-bags.

I was working one wet day filling sand bags when our Platoon Sergeant came along.

“Don’t you smoke Williams?”

“No Sergeant, not me, it’s bad for your wind.”

“You may have no wind this time tomorrow so you may just as well enjoy a smoke like the others.”

Next day he came along again. “Here you are Williams, I’ve just had a parcel from home and I’ve brought you a present.” He handed me a new pipe and a packet of tobacco. “Start smoking that, it will help you out here and you’ll find it better than fags.” I started there and then smoking my pipe and have done so ever since. Very few of the men smoked pipes, preferring Woodbines and so when there was an issue of tobacco I could get plenty to keep me going.

Working parties in the trenchs had to keep their wits about them all the time as Jerry snipers were very active. They seemed to be well equipped with telescopic sights and binoculars and could soon spot the blade of a spade showing for a second above the trench. They would then train their sights on that spot and wait for someone to be careless enough to show his head. We lost many men in this way. We had a very healthy respect for the German snipers and their fixed rifles. It had a big psychological effect on us, the knowledge that the enemy had superior weapons and much larger numbers of machine-guns, trench mortars and field guns, doing nothing to boost our morale.

Another rest followed, and a luxury – a bath, for the first time in six months.

The usual procedure once out of line was a de-lousing parade at which we all took off shirts and vests and removed lice from the seams. Some used lighted candles, whilst others scraped with knives or used brushes. When our CO spoke to us before we left our training quarters in England he’d said “Hang on to your tooth brushes, you won’t clean your teeth with them but believe me they will come in very handy.” Now we knew what he meant.

Map of the Ypres area (Belgium) showing Poperinghe, Hell Fire Corner, Sanctuary Wood, Westoutre, Kemmel and Messines.

We were now in the vicinity of Kemmel Hill and, our rest period over, we moved into a fresh sector of the line some distance away from our previous place. We found our new trenches much better than those we had vacated.

They were in good condition and fairly dry and there were some very good dug-outs. The German trenches were much nearer at this point and the occupants much more lively than before. We could see the German barbed wire and trenches quite clearly and resorted to the use of periscopes for looking out.

By now we had learned self preservation by picking out the various sounds and so knew when to dive under cover and when to remain as we were. When an artillery duel was going on between our guns and Jerry’s, we ignored the noise of shells passing overhead knowing that they were not meant for us, but when we heard one making a slower umpity-umpity-ump sound, we got out of the way quickly and waited for the crump of the explosion before leaving cover. Bullets hitting the barbed wire went spinning away over the top with a ping-rickety-ickety-plonk into the open land beyond. Bullets hitting the front of the trench made a dull thud, whilst those passing immediately over the gap of the trench made a crack like a whip. This noise was much more nerve racking but having learned the meaning of the sound we soon knew we could ignore it.