A Bayonet Charge in Picardy
(By a British Army Captain)
[The New York Times/Current History, September 1916]
A racy bit of battle description, hot from the guns, as spoken by a wounded Captain who led one of the first rushes against the German trenches in the great British drive.
EH? Oh, just an ordinary frontline trench, you know; rather chipped about, of course, by the Boche heavies, you know; but oh, hang it, you know what the ordinary fire trench looks like; along the north side of the Mametz Wood we were. What? Oh, yes, we were packed pretty close, of course, while we were waiting; only got there a little before midnight. My chaps were all in splendid heart, and keen as mustard to get the word "Go!" I was lucky; met my friend––––, almost directly we got in.
The weather was jolly then; but there'd been a lot of rain, and the trench was in a beastly state. You know what it's like, after a lot of strafing, when you get heavy rains on the churned-up ground. It was like porridge with syrup over it; and we were all absolutely plastered—hair and mustaches and everything—before we'd been half an hour in the place. The Boche was crumping us pretty heavy all the time, but it didn't really matter, because, for some reason, he didn't seem to have got our range just right, and nearly all his big stuff was landing in front or behind, and giving us very little but the mud of it.
What did worry me a bit was his machine guns. His snipers, too, seemed fairly on the spot, though how the devil they could be, with our artillery as busy as it was, I can't think. But I know several of my sentries were laid out by rifle bullets. I particularly wanted to let the others get a smoke when they could, seeing we'd be there three or four hours; helps to keep 'em steady in the waiting, you know; but we had to be mighty careful about matches, the Boche being no more than a hundred yards off.
Just before 3 I got my position, right in the middle of my company. We were going over at 3:25, you know. The trench was deep there, with a hell of a lot of mud and water; but there was no set parapet left; just a gradual slope of muck, as though cartloads of it had been dropped from the sky by giants—spilt porridge. I wanted to be first out, if I could—good effect on the men, you know but I couldn't trust myself in all that muck, so I'd collared a rum-case from –––'s dugout, and was nursing the blooming thing, so that when the time came I could plant it in the mud and get a bit of a spring from that. Glad I did, too.
I passed the word along at a quarter past to be ready for my whistle; but it was all you could do to make a fellow hear by shouting in his ear. Our heavies were giving it lip then, I can tell you. I was in a devil of a stew lest some of my chaps should get over too soon. They kept wriggling up and forward in the mud. They were frightfully keen to get moving. I gathered from my Sergeant their one fear was that if we couldn't soon get going our artillery would have left no strafing for us to do. Little they knew their Boche, if they thought that.
I thought I could just make out our artillery lift, about a minute and half before the twenty-five, but I wouldn't swear to it. On the stroke of the twenty-five I got a good jump from my rum-box, and fell head first into a little pool—whizz-bang hole, I suppose; something small. It loosened two of my front teeth pretty much. I'd my whistle in my teeth, you see. But I blew like blazes directly I got my head up. Never made a sound. Whistle full of mud. But it didn't matter a bit. They all saw me take my dive, and a lot were in front of me when I got going. But I overhauled 'em, and got in front.
I believe we must have got nearly fifty yards without a casualty. But it's hard to say. It wasn't light, you know; just a glimmering kind of a grayness. Not easy to spot casualties. The row, of course, was deafening, and we were running like lamplighters. You remember our practice stunts at home? Short rushes, and taking cover in folds of the ground. "Remember your file of direction, Sir; dressin' by the right," and all that. Oh, the boys remembered it right enough. But, good Lord, it wasn't much like Salisbury Plain, you know. We were going hell for leather. You think you're going strong, and—Woosh! You've got your face deep in porridge. Fallen in a shell hole. You trip over some blame thing, and you turn a complete somersault, and you're on again, wondering where your second wind is. Lord, you haven't a notion whether you're hit or not.
I felt that smack on my left wrist, along with a dozen other smacks of one sort and another, but I didn't know it was a wound for an hour or more. All you thought about was trying to keep your rifle muzzle up, and I guess the fellows behind must've thought a bit about not stickin' us with their bayonets more'n they could help. I was shouting ––––, the local name of the regiment, you know. The boys like it. But my Sergeant, who was close to me, was just yelling, "Down 'em, boys!" and "Stick 'em! Stick 'em!" for all he was worth.
My lot were bound for the second line, you see. My No. 12 Platoon, with thirteen of "D," were to look after cleaning up the Boche first line.
There was no real parapet left in that Boche front line. Their trench was just a sort of gash, a ragged crack in the porridge. Where I was, there was quite a bit of their wire left; but, do you know, one didn't feel it a bit. You can judge a bit from my rags what it was like. We went at it like fellows in a race charge the tape; and it didn't hurt us any more. Only thing that worried us was the porridge and the holes. Your feet sinking down make you feel you're crawling; making no headway. I wish I could have seen a bit better. It was all a muddy blur to me. But I made out a line of faces in the Boche ditch; and I know I gave a devil of a yell as we jumped for those faces. Lost my rifle there.
'Fraid I didn't stick my man, really, because my bayonet struck solid earth. I just smashed my fellow. We went down into the muck together, and another chap trod on my neck for a moment. Makes you think quick, I tell you. I pulled that chap down on top of my other Boche, and just took one good look to make sure he was a Boche; and then I gave him two rounds from my revolver, with the barrel in his face. I think I killed the under one too, but can't be sure.
Next thing I knew we were scrambling on to the second line. It was in the wire of the second line that I got my knockout; this shoulder and some splinters in my head. Yes; bomb. I was out of business, then; but as the light grew I could see my chaps having the time of their lives inside that second line. One of 'em hauled me in after a bit, and I got a drink of beer in a big Boche dugout down two separate flights of steps. My hat! That beer was good, though it was German. But, look here, I'm in No. 5 train, that that chap's calling. I must get ashore. Just want to tell you about that dugout of ––––'s in our own line, you know. It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and we'd got the Bazentin Wood all right then, when my orderly, who never got a scratch, was helping me back, making for our dressing station. We crawled into what had been a trench, and while we were taking a breather I sort of looked around, and made out a bit here and a bend there. Begad, it was the trench we started from.
Seems nothing, but you've no idea how odd it was to me; like dropping into a bit of England after about a century and a half in some special kind of hell, you know. Seemed so devilish odd that any mortal thing should be the same anywhere after that day. Not that it was the same, really. My rum case was in splinters, sticking up out of the porridge, and I found my map case there, torn off my belt as we got over at 3:25. "Won't be much left of that dugout," I thought, and I got my orderly to help me along to see. Couldn't find the blessed thing, anyhow. Went backward and forward three or four times. Then I spotted the head of a long trench stick that –––– had carried, sticking out through soft earth at the back of the trench. The orderly worked that stick about a little, and the earth fell away. It was just loose, dry stuff blown in off the front part of the roof of the dugout, and blocking the little entrance. Came away at a touch, almost, and there was the little hole you got in by. I worried through, somehow. I was really curious to see. If you'll believe me, the inside of that dugout it looked like a drawing room to me, after the outside, you know it was just exactly the same as when we'd left it the night before. There was the fine stove we made the café-au-lait on, with a half-empty box of matches balanced on the side of it, and the last empty tin of the coffee stuff we'd used, with the broken-handed spoon standing up in it, just as I'd left it; and ––––'s notebook lying open and face down on an air pillow in his bunk most extraordinarily homey. There I was looking at his notebook, and his hold-all, and poor –––– dead. Yes, I'd seen his body. And the rats, too; the rats were cavorting around on the felt of the roof, happy as sandboys. They didn't know anything about the Push, I suppose. By the way, we found only dead rats in the Boche trenches. They say it was our gas. I don't know; but there were thousands of dead rats there, and millions of live fleas. Very live they were. I must get. Cheero.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald