Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Varieties of Trench Life": WWI British Captain A. A. Dickson ("Dickie") tells it like it was

That moment he got me: a terrific "Bung-g-g" on the jaw, and down in the ditch by the track I spun, face and neck streaming blood. Field dressing was pulled out in a moment, but it was no place to stay: back to that trench I must creep, dragging flat along the ditch. Too slow, though; bleeding at that rate I'd never cover 200 yards: up on all fours and crawl. But then "Smack-k!" came the vicious spit again: was I to crawl and be potted at? One hundred and fifty yards to go: "Smack-k-k!" again before half-way, and a spurt of earth just behind. How long—how long, to get into that trench? And how long does it take to reload and fire? I know that perfectly well, and I see time for one more shot before I can reach it. Slacken speed, to make a final effort, and "Smack-k-k!" into the ditch a yard ahead…. And when the ambulance pulled in to a chateau marked "C.C.S.," I heard the voice of an English nurse; and at the sound there came a most wonderful feeling that now everything would be perfectly all right: there was no need to worry any more.
Captain A. A Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters' "Varieties of Trench Life"  is just one of the 60 gripping, first-hand accounts of battle in On the Front Line: True World War I Stories. Besides first-hand experiences of battles in France and Flanders, the book includes reports from Gallipoli, Palestine, Macedonia, Africa, in the air and at sea. Reminiscences from women and prisoners are also featured. Dickson's war begins after training and a detour to deal with some trouble in Ireland:

We did get to France at last, though; and into the trenches, too.  The memory of that is mainly-mud.  There was the ominous donning of "gum-boots, thigh"; the shell holes and slithery duckboards (dear old Johnson and his "following each other about in the dark"); the front line, where, by constant baling, liquid slime could just be kept from lipping over the dug-out door-sills.
And there in that nightmare of mud and wire, by the deathly light of occasional star-shells from over the way, we learned the landmarks to guide us : "Left by the coil of wire, right by French legs."
"French legs?" "Yes, we took over from the French; the legs of one they buried in the side of the trench stick out a bit, you can't miss it."  It was rather startling, but didn't seem to merit a second thought.
Sniping, shelling, and the Sisyphean labour of trench maintenance were endured until relief, and even that was nightmare, too.
British officers undergoing marksmanship training at the front. Illustrated London News and Sketch, 1916. Below right: British officer making night rounds in the trenches, New York Times, 02/17/1918
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Climbing out of the river of sludge called "C.T." we trudged along the top, caring for nothing but those wicked ankle-high strands of wire across the track—oh! the concentrated loathing in that warning growl of "Woy-er" from each man to his follower.  And so we bundled on until the guide — poor lad, he'd only been up once before — confessed he'd lost his way, for the duckboard track we'd struck led up to the line again, to the sector on our right.
Despair?  There was pale grey dawn behind us by the time compass bearings, verified by a periodic "ploomp ah" from one of our own kindly howitzers, led to the double line of shattered tree stumps along the great straight Amiens road; and we held off utter exhaustion until dug-outs, black, boiling tea, and sleeping like logs, ended the first turn in the line.
Roll call in the British trenches at the Battle of the Somme, afternoon, July 1, 1916. The War Illustrated Album DeLuxe, Vol. 1; Amalgamated Press, London, 1915
Then suddenly, those trenches were abandoned: on we pushed for the Hindenburg Line.  But though company after company was flung on a mass of wire with machine guns sweeping its face, the Hindenburg Line was proof against little local attacks like these: mortifying thought after hell let loose with rifle and machine gun, artillery and trench mortar, that the pandemonium whose only visible result was those corpses on the wire—men we had never known till a year ago and since then had known as brothers—was nothing but a demonstration to pin the enemy down, unworthy even of mention in the report of activity on the Western Front.
British troops resting in support trench. New York Times, 30 Aug 1914 (Gertrude Robinson)

Still, we saw a real big push later on.  How many trucks from those mazes of sidings at St. Pol and Hazebrouck are needed to move a battalion?  How many trains to move a division?  And how many divisions poured into that never-ending assault—a division a day, we heard—beyond the Menin Gate, a one-way road for thousands in the British Army?
Down among the tunnels and brick-stacks of La Bassee, trench mortars on both sides rained down their 12lb., 50 lb., 112 lb. of high explosive: and such lumps of death as that can't be thrown about without the casualty returns growing sadly.  It was all in the day's work, but none the less it meant the loss of pals, when one after another went west through a direct hit, or a premature burst, or an unlucky shell clean into the ammunition store.
So all the spring of 1918, ever feebler reinforcements came, slim boys and weary crippled men; and ever rumours grew of the great push coming.
It was a certain satisfaction to the wiring parties of those nights—every available man—that this sector was one of the few points invulnerable to the German rush of March 21st: So that Collishan, the little cook's mate who had been a Manchester coster and showed a magic skill in coaxing barbed wire around those terrible screw-pickets, had accomplished something before the machine gun got him down south.
Weary British troops in a trenche near Ovilliers during the Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme: The First Phase, Thomas Nelson & Sons, London, 1917
Down south again—oh, the pitiful irony of it—on that same old battlefield where the Somme advance had started nearly two years before; and after all that measureless slaughter men were to fight again over that same blood-soaked ground.
And the weary, wearing hopelessness of it joined with the fearful intensity of the shelling to make this such a culmination as even previous experience had never made us dream of.
Shelled continuously through the night; dashing out to tie up and replace the sentry hit by shrapnel; floundering with the dead weight of a wounded man along the collapsing makeshift trench, and then back again, lurking in a flimsy brick cellar that shook with every blast.  And in the morning the rims of five great shell holes around the dome of our tiny shelter.
Blazing away with the dawn at massed attacks in full view.  One gun blown up; dragging back the other to reserve positions, while every pair of men who could walk, or stagger, loaded up with boxes of ammunition, and tramped up the open road with that frightful barrage spouting up cascades of earth on right and left.  What was in everybody's mind?
What was in the mind of old Private Jim Black, a road labourer by trade, when the man carrying with him got a splinter in the leg, and Black tied him up and then humped the 2-cwt. box on his own rheumaticky shoulder and trudged on?
British machine gun company on the march in France.
So it went on for days, with "wounded" and "killed" appearing against name after name. It never crossed my mind to wonder whether I'd ever get hit—too busy to think of such a thing, and that is a literal fact.
That was why it was such a surprise. Up the long valley north of Gommecourt, where bits of line changed hands every few hours, I tramped choosing gun positions: passed a rough trench cutting across the track, and reconnoitered the shoulder of the hill.  "Smack!"  "Smack!" at intervals went the sound of bullets at medium range.  But one had grown to disregard them: till it struck me, "They're sniping from across the valley: they've pushed us off that nearest ridge; and I'm in No Man's Land."
Belgian troops entrenched along a railway line. That moment he got me: a terrific "Bung-g-g" on the jaw, and down in the ditch by the track I spun, face and neck streaming blood.  Field dressing was pulled out in a moment, but it was no place to stay: back to that trench I must creep, dragging flat along the ditch.  Too slow, though; bleeding at that rate I'd never cover 200 yards: up on all fours and crawl.  But then "Smack-k!" came the vicious spit again: was I to crawl and be potted at?
Up and run for it; and "Smack-k-k!" came again as I tottered forward, half the field dressing in its waterproof cover still clenched in each hand.  One hundred and fifty yards to go: "Smack-k-k!" again before half-way, and a spurt of earth just behind.  How long—how long, to get into that trench?  And how long does it take to reload and fire?  I know that perfectly well, and I see time for one more shot before I can reach it.  Slacken speed, to make a final effort, and "Smack-k-k!" into the ditch a yard ahead.
"Ah!  Safe!" and I tumble into that trench on top of a knot of mud-caked Fusiliers.
"My Gawd!  Field dressin', sir?" and the two bits are ripped open and clapped on, and the word goes along for stretcher bearers.
Memories after that?  A kindly efficient American M.O. bandaging cases by the dozen.  Then another figure emerged out of the mist: the dearest old silver-haired padre, who didn't waste any silly words, but brought a luscious sponge and hot water, and tenderly bathed face and forehead clear of mud and blood.
Then they took my boots off: that meant rest for a while, anyway.  And when the ambulance pulled in to a chateau marked "C.C.S.," I heard the voice of an English nurse; and at the sound there came a most wonderful feeling that now everything would be perfectly all right: there was no need to worry any more.
Hospital in Rouen, where at length the M.O. took down the card from my bed, and at that mystic sign the next man—oldest inhabitant of the ward, he had seen dozens pass through while his leg refused to mend, but still he enjoyed their good luck—turned to me and whispered, "Blighty, Dickie."
Captain A. A. Dickson, Inns of Court O.T.C., September to December 1915.  Commissioned to Sherwood Foresters.  Dublin Rebellion.  France, January 1917: Somme, Ypres, Nieuport.  Commanding trench mortar battery.  Wounded, November 1917; again in April 1918, during German attack.  Hospital until September 1918.  Demobilized unfit, January 1919.
Note: All photographs are from the outstanding World War I image archive at http://www.gwpda.org/photos.
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1 comment:

  1. Human stupidity, of course, is more or less endless, but WWI trench warfare has to rank right up there. Over months at a time, in places like Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele, hundreds of thousands of people got killed while opposing armies gained little or no territory. (Despite the title of the famous book, all was definitely not quiet on the Western Front.)

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