Patrolling the Plain: 2

When I finally arrived at the battery, hot and tired, they asked why I wasn’t riding the horse end when I replied “He won’t let me get on,” they roared with laughter.

Next day I sat on the large veranda with a huge telescope much more powerful than the small one I used and I had a great time picking out various items of interest in and around the enemy lines. The CO asked me which I thought to be gun emplacements and I would train the telescope on them, when they were ready to fire they let me watch through one of the telescopes. The first shell fell short of the gun emplacement and I could see Bulgar soldiers running for their lives. The second shot carried over the target but the third shell made a direct hit and I saw what looked like great logs of timber and earth go flying into the air. When the dust had settled there was no gun emplacement left. The CO brought a bottle of whiskey and glasses and insisted that I join them in celebrating a good shot.

When I returned to my battalion I found they had moved to a new sector of the line and I was informed that my rank of full Corporal had appeared in Battalion Orders, so I put on another stripe. I promptly informed Bill that I should expect a little more respect in future and that he should raise his ‘tin hat’ when he spoke to me! Springing smartly to attention and giving me a regimental salute he said “Yes Sir,” and readily obeyed my first order in my new rank, which was to go and drum up some char.

A few days later I took out a small patrol, including Bill, to a forward OP tree. I climbed the tree and had a good look around the foreground. As I could see nothing I told the patrol to relax whilst I got to work with my telescope, scanning the plain and area in front of the Rupel Pass. After a time I became aware of some movement in a long line of scrubby bushes about two hundred yards away. I alerted the patrol and was carefully watching the scrub, when, to my amazement, a whole platoon of Bulgars appeared with their hands in the air. Shouting to my men not to fire, I quickly climbed down the tree and as the Bulgars still had their hands up and were obviously not armed, I beckoned them to approach us. They came slowly towards us and when they were quite near I told my men to keep them covered and went forward without my rifle and tried first by talk and then in signs to explain that no harm would be done to them if they wished to give themselves up. They looked very scared so once we had searched them for any hidden arms, I told my men to sling their rifles and forming them up in single file, led by Bill, we triumphantly marched them back to our lines.

When we passed through our barbed wire and over the trench on our way to headquarters, the troops in the trenches roared with laughter when they saw the stocky figure of Bill, nonchalantly leading in forty, hefty, Bulgars. At headquarters the Adjutant ordered some tea and food to be given to the prisoners and instructed me to interrogate them one at a time, with the help of Tommo, our Greek interpreter.

I told Tommo to ask them why they had given themselves up and they said they were sick of the War as they were short of food and clothes and had not had leave for a long time. They added that they had only been waiting to make sure that the British were in front of them as they would have been afraid to surrender to the French. Their clothing was of very poor quality and in a very dilapidated state and some of them were wearing very poor, worn out, boots while others had their feet wrapped up in old rags and string. Searching their haversacks and pockets we came across a pitiful collection including some very stale pieces of black bread. We thought our rations were bad, but it seems we were well off compared with the enemy. Having been fed and given a few fags, the prisoners relaxed and lost their fearful, haunted look and they readily answered all the questions put to then by Tommo.

A scheme was prepared for clearing the Bulgars out of the village and a volunteer was wanted to enter their trench that night. Harry and Bill both volunteered. The CO only wanted one man so Bill was to go with the platoon who would be covering the attempt.

The plan was for a platoon to get to within one hundred yards or so of the trench and then for me to enter it and if possible work along to the opposite end. If the trench was empty, I was then to signal with two short blasts on my whistle before getting out again. As I had volunteered for this job I asked if I could exchange my rifle for a revolver as I thought a rifle would be too cumbersome at close quarters in the event of my clicking for any Johnnies. I was told that it would be against orders to give me a revolver as had not been trained in its use but they compromised by agreeing to let me take a Mills grenade and a bayonet. I agreed to this as I wanted to be relived of all equipment, including my rifle, so that I could make a good run for it if necessary. I had not previously seen a Mills grenade, in fact they had only recently been issued to us, so I went along to the bombers practice ground and there the NCO in charge showed me how to withdraw the pin and hold the lever in place whilst flinging the grenade. Once the grenade left the hand the lever flew off, releasing the striking pin and it would then explode in a few seconds. I thought this was a grand idea as if I heard any Johnnies when I got in the trench I could let them have the grenade whilst I hopped it for home.

When we paraded that night I had my hands, face, knees and vest darkened and with my bayonet in hand and the grenade in the pocket of my shorts, I felt quite well equipped for the job in hand. We arrived at the appointed position for the covering party without incident and I was pleased to notice for once how quietly the platoon moved. Usually they sounded like a herd of rogue elephants to my scout’s ear. As I lay quietly along-side my officer, nothing could be heard from the trench and presently he said “Right Corporal, off you go, and good luck.” “Thank you Sir,” I whispered back, and then started to crawl away well out to the flank of the trench.

Having reached a point in line with the end of the trench, I started to crawl carefully towards it, pausing every few yards to listen. During one of these pauses I let my mind dwell on the drill of grenade-throwing and suddenly realised that with the grenade bumping about in my pocket, the pin could accidentally be released. I broke out into a cold sweat as I imagined that pin gradually working out. Without more ado, I took out the grenade and levered back the split pin with the point of my bayonet so that it would take quite a struggle to pull it out again. Heaving a sigh of relief I placed the grenade back in any pocket and continued to crawl. Within ten yards of the trench I made a long pause and now my heart was beating so loud I don’t think I could have heard anything. I was thinking, “What the hell makes we volunteer for these stunts?” Plucking up what little courage I seemed to have, I crawled to the edge of the trench; it was traversed so that I could only see into the first section of several yards. I lowered myself down into the trench and stood for a while, hardly breathing, but hearing nothing, I ventured to move slowly forward till I could peer round the corner into the next section. I saw nothing so I slowly moved along. It seemed ages since I’d left the others and the thought occurred to me that my officer and Bill would be feeling anxious.

After what seemed an age I at last reached the end of the trench and relaxed as I now knew that it was not manned. I took a careful peep over the top in the direction of our men but could see nothing, so I took out my whistle and blew two short blasts to signal that all was well. There was a pause, and then I heard the officer’s two short blasts in reply. I raised myself out of the trench and got to feet. There was the crack of a rifle and a bullet whistle past my ear. I dropped back into the trench like a frightened rabbit into its burrow, panting with fright. Then I got really mad, realising that I could have been bumped off by one of our own men. When I recovered my composure I again gave two whistle blasts receiving two more in reply. I raised myself out of the trench, but this time I did not stand up. Instead I crawled away out to the flank and did not stand up until I was well clear of the platoon. I made my way round and approached them from the rear, whistling softly when near to let them know it was me.

When next day I returned the grenade to the Bombing Squad NCO he was staggered to see how I had bent the pin back. “You’re a twerp,” he said, “you would never have got that pin out in time if you had bumped into trouble.” “Well Sarge,” I replied, “I was a lot more scared of that grenade than I was of the Johnnies and the thought of it bumping in my pocket was distracting me from the job.” Shortly afterwards, I suggested to our officer that it would be a good idea for all the scouts to have a short grenade throwing course. He readily agreed and we all had the working of grenades explained to us and then each of us went to the range and threw, first a few duds, and then a few live ones. After that we lost our fear of them and having learned how to carry them safely we were glad to have them with us for emergencies.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) British poet. The Soldier.