Whipped at “Wipers”: 2

I couldn’t remember during the day’s fighting having anything to eat but as my water-bottle was nearly empty I must have taken a drink or two, so when we heard the cry “Tea-up” we began to take a fresh interest in life.

Under different circumstances that tea would have been quite undrinkable, it was thick, black, with only a little sugar and no milk and though it tasted awful it proved to be refreshing and helped us to get down chunks of bully and dry bread.

We were just beginning to wonder where we should bed down for the night when the order came “Be ready to move off in half-an-hour!” Surely they were not going to take us into action again this day, with half our men gone, either killed or wounded? We had no idea where we were but we did know which direction Jerry was in so it was with anxiety we waited to see which way we were led when, as it began to grow dark, we moved off. Bill, as usual, was marching by my side. “Where do you reckon we’re going Bill?” He grunted and jerked a stumpy thumb in the direction of the Front Line.

Some little distance from the road we got the order “Halt! Left turn. Open out. Get down.” We were allowed to rest for a while and then came the order “Take off your packs; fix bayonets! Ready to move in ten minutes!” There began a hasty search in packs for ‘treasures’ which were transferred to haversacks. We had hoped that we were on the way to some nice cosy trench but the abandoning of our packs soon put paid to that illusion.

Advancing a few hundred yards at a time with short rests in between, we approached what seemed in the darkness to be a small wood on slightly raised ground. After resting here for twenty minutes or so we heard the word passed along the line “Ready to charge in five minutes.” A short break then our officer shouted, “Right boys! Let’s go – Charge!” We were up as one man, our weariness forgotten, rushing and stumbling through the wood. Jerry was not asleep. We had hardly gone fifty yards when the guns opened up with shrapnel and HE. Rifle and machine gun bullets were smashing into the trees and men began to go down. I was running about ten yards behind Bill when there was a terrific bang overhead, I felt a blow and falling I called out “Easterby, I’m hit!” I stumbled, fell and remembered no more.

I came to to find myself lying face down in the bottom of a shell hole about ten foot across and fortunately for me it was dry. The sun was shining and it was quiet except for an occasional rifle bullet smashing into the tree trunks. What had once been a lovely wood was now a grave-yard of blasted tree trunks with only a few splintered branches left hanging like crippled limbs. I raised my head slowly to have a look round to see where I was. I got a glimpse of a fairly extensive wood, the ground in between the tree trunks being churned up with shell holes. A bullet smacked into the loose earth of my shell hole and put a quick end to my sight seeing.

Moving back to the bottom of the hole I became aware of a pain in the lower part of my chest on the right side. Investigating gingerly I found that a piece of shrapnel had cut though the webbing of my equipment, my braces were cut, there was a hole in my shirt and my vest was caked in dry blood. Opening my shirt I found that I had a large bruised lump over my ribs about the size of an orange with a ragged flesh wound, but this was not now bleeding. That was where it went in. I was now most concerned to find where it came out. I was very puzzled and finally came to the conclusion that the shrapnel was still in my body.

He was startled as a khaki clad figure rolled into the shell hole. They shared their water and broken biscuits and talked for a time. Neither knew which way led to safety.

The hours dragged by. Nothing happened and my KSLI friend began to get tense and fidgety. Suddenly he said “I can’t stand any more of this, I’m going to get out.” “Don’t be a fool,” I said, “those snipers will get you in broad daylight, stay quiet where you’re safe and see what happens.” He remained quiet for another half hour or so and then suddenly without a further word he scrambled to the edge of the shell hole and whilst still on his hands and knees a bullet took him right through the head and he rolled back, stone dead. I took his paybook and wallet for identification purposes, hoping to hand them over to the RAMC should I be lucky enough to get safely back, but for the present I was firmly convinced that I was right to hang on until dark and settled down to wait.

I was not particularly hungry but nearly mad with thirst, so much so that I urinated in my water bottle and tried to drink it, but that of course was out of the question and the business of spitting it quickly out only increased my thirst. I felt very weak and my ribs were very sore, the weight of my clothing and equipment aggravating the damaged spot. It never occurred to me to take off any equipment as I thought I might be called on at any time to fight for my life.

I became aware of a new sound between the cracking of rifle fire. I thought I knew what it sounded like but it couldn’t be that, not here in this skeleton wood. There it was again and this time so near that there was no doubt, it was a little bird singing! It was quite incredible and I prayed that the little beggar would fly away to hell out of this. Stupid little thing, I thought, and then reflecting knew that the little bird, ignoring the War, singing in the sunshine and going about its normal business was the only sane thing in that devastated wood. I wondered what had happened to old Easterby? I wondered how many of the lads got through? Had they taken the trench? Were they able to hold it? What were they doing at home? What was I doing, lying in a shell hole, listening to snipers bullets, thirsty, wounded, lost? This couldn’t be me – this sort of thing didn’t happen to me. I dozed off.

I feel my own life all the more precious and more dear in the presence of this deflowering of Europe.

While it is true that the guns will effect a little useful weeding, I am furious with chagrin to think that the Minds, which were to have excelled the civilisation of two thousand years, are being annihilated – and bodies, the product of aeons of Natural Selection, melted down to pay for political statues.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) British poet. Letter, 28 Aug 1914