"Tommy Atkins" in the Trenches
By Alfred Stead
(Special Correspondent of The Independent at the Front)
[The Independent; November 9, 1914]
"Give me a British army and I will conquer Europe," wrote the great Napoleon. When one sees the men who are engaged in beating the German masses, one knows the great fighter was right. In or out of the trenches, marching or fighting, bayonetting or being shelled for hours at a time, the British Tommy is unique. He is cheerful, full of good spirits and knows what he is doing.
"You cannot wear out their spirits, even if you walk them off their legs...they will crawl somehow, anyhow," "they will never stop." That is what their French comrades think of our men. The Germans know that it is not easy to stop them.
If you want to know what a soldier has to do, bar fighting, just load yourself up with all his kit, put on regulation boots and walk steadily some fifteen miles a day for a week on end—not as and how you wish, but as some one else wishes. In peaceful England a walk of fifteen miles is a thing to talk about, without any sack on the back or rifle or ammunition. And it is wonderful what a soldier does carry on active service. If his load did not balance nicely he would never be able to carry it at all. But the muscles of the British army are developed in a way that makes marching with their heavy load even preferable to marching unencumbered. As one man put it, "When we have the safety of Europe on our shoulders, what does it matter if we carry a few more pounds?"
The British army marches much more silently than do the Russians, for instance, at least in war time. There is some whistling, but little singing. The wonderful songs of the Russian regiments are things apart; no other army can compete with them. The Germans sing, but nobody sings much during war marches. These are generally carried out at night and in the utmost silence. You may meet masses of shadowy forms in regular column suddenly emerging from the darkness and hear nothing but the thud, thud of their feet as they go along to take up a new position in the battle line.
Once near the firing line Tommy Atkins is principally in and out of trenches. He has to be and remain alive—for this is an Artillery war. The voluntary service system does make real soldiers, intelligent and bright-eyed, hard to beat, easy to lead to victory. But when one sees Tommy at work in the field-one is inclined to think he should be called Thomas at least, he is so grown up. And yet with it all he remains young; even the most veteran N. C. O. has a fount of youth.
"The army is always smiling and always washing," that is what the French population say. The smile may be a little more grim after a long retreat or when, the nerves are on edge-after days and nights unrelieved in the trenches, but it is there all the same. And water and soap, are the first things asked for when a column arrives in a village.
I have often seen crowds of men surrounding a local barber's, clamoring to be shaved, and the good barber, often just back in his pillaged house, unable to find any of his tools, nearly distracted with emotion and excitement. He has to work for his money, too, because campaigning brings out good, stubborn beards.
The army razors are somewhat below par, "dragging it off" rather than cutting. But they are used all the same. In the trenches under heavy shell fire it is customary to see men shaving—using anything for a mirror, a pail of water, a bit of a petrol can. That is in the deep trenches, where troops have time on their hands. For there are trenches and trenches, just as there are hovels and palaces.
In every fight the infantry, makes itself little local trenches, to cover the head; not easy work this to grub up enough soil often hard as rock lying flat on your stomach.
Then there are the more serious continuous trenches, which are often the outcome of the preliminary work, if the troops have to dig themselves in pending nightfall. These are not much shelter against shell fire or shrapnel, but the palatial trenches are those which now line the banks of many French rivers, permanent trenches six feet deep, half covered in, practically bomb proof, with a ledge on which a wearied man can sleep. In some of the German trenches, prepared beforehand, there were rooms for the officers dug out, and furnished with pillaged furniture, even a candelabra was hanging from the ceiling.
The wet is the greatest discomfort in these trenches and that despite the gutters made to carry water away. The trenches may be good, but life n them under heavy shell fire is apt to be monotonous. It is all right to be a mole, but it is a little wearing after the first few days. The troops remain day after day in the trenches with hardly a sign of the enemy, waiting, just waiting.
Everything possible is done to relieve the strain upon the men. As one miner who had been in more than one accident in a coal mine put it, "we are waiting all the time for the roof to fall in or the coal damp to fire." It needs all the noted phlegm of the British Tommy to stand up. The supplies of food and tobacco are brought up with unfailing regularity; the army newspaper and others are distributed, letters come and go —the latter perfunctorily censored are sometimes, because it is a little difficult for the censor to read closely with heavy shells bursting overhead and around—and the men's families must have news. But when everything possible has been, done, there remain long hours in which the men can only sit and talk and talk, while over their heads flies a constant stream of shells.
The humor which develops in these human rabbit warrens is wonderful. New games are played, often under difficulties. It is more difficult playing shove halfpenny along an earthen uncertain ledge than a table in the village institute, but the chances are the same for all. Backs of cards would need to be of resisting metal to stand the wear and tear—nap is the favorite game, but sometimes one or more cards go astray, and then new and strange variants of the game "according to Cavendish" are developed.
I remember one trench being furious and bitter because one of their number had gone on a sortie with the ace of clubs on him, and never came back—"the only ace we had left in the pack, too." I saw the truant two days later. Alas, he had no use for the ace of clubs, nor for any pack of cards—he was lying blown to bits by a German shell.
I asked one man what the soldiers did all day in the trenches. "We talk about home and wonder what the Fleet is doing." What an epitome of England! Can we not imagine the stories of village friends, of sweethearts—and the efforts of those with more nimble imagination not to be left behind in the race of gossip?
But the Fleet always is asked after—-many of the men have friends on board one or other of the vessels—all expect it to smash the German Fleet when it comes out. "But the beggars stay in their trenches on the sea, just like they do here on land," as one Tommy put it. A crack marksman he was, and had been under, shell fire for days without seeing anything to loose off at.
That is the maddening thing of it, to do and die and never have a chance of getting your own back. It is all very well for the gunners, they do see something and can believe they are doing damage, but the unfortunate infantry are denied that privilege. An infantry attack by the enemy is a godsend; the word past down by the observers that the German infantry is on the move, is like the declaration of war in the barracks of an Irish regiment. Wild excitement fills the trench—all the emotion of days of shelling are to be released. Careful aim is taken—"when you really have a chance, it would be a crime to miss it,"—and bets are made as to the number of soldiers brought down.
There is no animus; it is just relief. Often when the Germans used to advance in close formation and be mowed down again and again, there was actual pity for them in the trenches. "I suppose we must let them have it again," remarked a first class shot at his loophole, as the shattered Germans came on again, game but terribly cut about. And they did "let them have it," for that is the only way to finish this war.
Bayonet charges are rare and only the envied few really get this chance. A bayonet charge is the only real survival of old hand to hand warfare, in which the real joy of fighting comes to the surface. The rest of modern warfare is just digging yourself in, being shelled, and night marching in order to outflank the enemy. Much of the time the infantry are protecting the guns, and get the full benefit of shell fire because the guns always attract guns. And sometimes when the opposing trenches have crept nearer and nearer and an attack with the bayonet is possible, they find, as a Scottish Borderer said, "there are not enough of them left to make the charge."
The French troops and especially the Africans, are much more restive in the trenches. Many times a Zouave regiment or Senegalese troops have taken matters in their own hands after a few hours' shelling and "gone for" the enemy, only to suffer terrible losses. In the trenches there is none of the comfortable ease and leisure which marked life in the blockhouses in South Africa. There it was possible, with your stores list before you, to indulge in the game of seeing how much you could purchase for a given sum—having neither money nor means of reaching the stores. This was a good rival to the excitement of working out quickest times between two railway points in the British Isles with a Bradshaw. In this war there is none of that possible. Shells are too frequent, things are apt to be too rushed.
It is wonderful how little details become of importance. In one trench, where a German sharpshooter regularly opened the day with a shot thru a certain loophole, the trench amused itself by ensuring being waked up for the fighting by hanging a strip of metal back of the loophole. The clang of bullet on metal woke them up—an alarm clock "made in Germany." "It is more pleasant than long marches," writes a private in his diary of life in the trenches. "One would finish by becoming accustomed to this existence if the corpses of men and horses did not smell so badly, and if the flies did not multiply so rapidly.... We could not sleep because we were too wet, but plenty are worse off than we.... All night long there are shells every ten minutes, so that no sleep is possible. When it rains in torrents we can have no fire. Afterward we cook tea and tinned food with rainwater...sometimes on our knees for hours...Very grateful for rum served out at night; nothing warms so well and we need it.... At 800 to 1000 yards we can see the heavy works hiding the German lines.... Today I had my first shot, a German in a tree. I made no mistake."
And so it goes. There is no repining, some grumbling, but not much.
It is astonishing how little fear there is, how fatalistic everyone becomes under fire. Bravery has become a habit; nobody thinks to be agitated at shells and bullets. Friends and pals are killed close by and there is not much more comment than "Bill's gone."
"The only time when anyone can be afraid," said another man, "is when we are far off from the Germans. When we are near we are too busy and too keen to fight."
Dead bodies call for small comment among those in a firing line; only those in curious attitudes are remarked... There are so many and since the beginning of the war there have always been so many.
If there is indifference to the dead there is wonderful devotion to the wounded. V. C.'s are won or deserved every day, almost every hour. Men will do the most astonishingly brave things for wounded pals or officers. "In humanity there is no rank," as a British officer said to his men in the initial retreat. "We have only one rank—that of British soldiers."
The spirit of the men may be seen by this extract from an officer's letter: "Our little trumpeter came back after the charge with a German helmet on his head, wild with excitement, crying, 'I've got it.' He is an extraordinarily brave boy." The British soldier likes his meals; he would like his beer, but as one put it, "The Germans have drunk it all. What wouldn't I give to have a 'pub' 'round the corner." In the advanced trenches under heavy fire it is impossible to have hot food. Brave men of the A. S. C. dash up and bring tinned food...sometimes the men have, to fall back on their emergency rations. These are good, but do not compare, in the men's minds, with a good hot meal. This he gets whenever he can. And what memories I have of a stew prepared by an Army Service man of bully beef, tomatoes and potatoes, eaten hot from the billy in which it was cooked. Frozen mutton and beef are welcome variants to bully beef.
On the march tinned meats are the rule and one can follow a British army by the trail of opened tins left behind; the German trail is bottles. Jam and biscuits are much eaten—in some of the villages of France there are stores of these commodities, left in rapid marches, which will last the thrifty housewife for months and leave her with a taste for British jams.
In the Park Lane trenches, food comes so regularly that the men are grumbling, if ,there is any delay. In one trench under heavy fire a Highlander was very voluble in his disapproval of an hour's delay in his morning meal. "I do not mind being shot," he said, "nor shelled, but, I do not like going without my breakfast!" A very good commentary upon the regular efficiency of the supply columns. In Africa we had the "greatest transport office since Noah"; here in France there are the most efficient commissariat officers since quail and manna came from the skies to feed the children of Israel in the desert. It has made possible British; victories, it is the strength of the army above other armies. If victories are won on full stomachs, then the British army has a good chance. For it is a standing joke in the trenches that the Germans are starved—many have been, altho now there seems some question as to whether these were not outposts and outlying bodies left out of range of food supply.
To catch a German, Tommy has an excellent recipe. "Go outside a wood with some toasted cheese on the bayonet, whistle "God Save the King"—first one will come out to see if it is really British soldiers and not French, then he brings out the rest." It is certain that the Germans for all their hatred of our country prefer to be prisoners of the British Tommy than of the French troops. They are well treated—some think too well—it is probably a survival of the old idea in native warfare, that good treatment of prisoners leads to more rapid surrenders, but I doubt whether it works here.
When Tommy is able to leave the trenches he indulges in football behind the lines. This led to the amusing report of a German air scout that there was great confusion in the British army, men running about in all directions, evidently a panic. Every opportunity is seized for football, and a ball is one of the most treasured possessions of a regiment. Scratch matches are got up, and before the war is over we shall probably have an army challenge being competed for on the field of battle. The difficulty is, however, as one football devotee explained, that "you can never count on getting your team together—only the other day I was talking to four of our best men when bang came a big shell and when I picked myself up I couldn't see a trace of them—blown to atoms like that."
Football is difficult in such circumstances, but think of the spirit which makes football possible!
Another amusement, or sport rather, is the finding of spies. Some of these go even into the trenches. One day a sergeant major saw what looked like a British officer in the trenches, talking to the men, giving them cigarettes, etc. Not recognizing him as one of the regiment, he called his officers. The man was found to be a spy, with a French uniform under his British great coat.
e was shot at once—there are no delays in the field and in the trenches the men may often be heard discussing with wonder the fact that in England thousands of potential spies are allowed to go and come as they please, with at worst only a few months' imprisonment to fear. There, spies are shot; "if we weren't so busy, we would do worse," said one man who had just taken his share in a firing party.
Ever and again, in the trenches, one is struck by the fatalism of the soldier; even chaplains and Salvation Army men with the troops become fatalists while losing none of their power to comfort. Mahomet knew what he was about when he made his religion for his fighting men; now the fighting men have made a religion very similar to the teaching of the Koran for themselves, molded and thought out to the accompaniment of the ceaseless roar of the guns, the shriek of the shells, the whistle of the bullet.
Tommy in the trenches has little to do with his French comrades; for a considerable time at the beginning of the war he never saw them; now they are always somewhere to the right or to the left. In modern warfare, in the trenches especially, one's view is strictly limited. But when behind the lines or in the way up and down, Tommy makes himself quite at home with all the world. The population of France admire him, they try to spoil him. Nothing is too good for him. His baths and his shaves are going to make life much harder in the future for Frenchmen. "Why do you not get shaved like a British soldier?" their womenkind ask them now. There should be a boom in razors after the war!
With all his qualities the British soldier is not a linguist, and so there is growing up a sort of Pigeon English for use in France, or as one officer put it, the British army is speaking "Frenglish," a new language, the golden bridge between allied armies. The African troops of the French are the source of much amusement to our Tommies because of their colored uniforms, while he admires their courage if slightly contemptuous of their methods of fighting. "Colored fellows in Turkish Delight Hats and big trousers from Morocco," as one man put it, adding, "they fight in lumps like the Germans."
As I have said, in the fighting line Tommy sees little of the French pion-pion, with his red trousers, blue coat and indomitable courage and rare dash—but he knows and likes him in hospital or in the streets. Never any fear of disputes or brawls such as occur between Prussians and Bavarians in the enemy's ranks. There mutual admiration and comprehension of the task before them knit firmly together the soldiers of the two lands.
The Indian troops, les Hïndous, as the French call them, rapidly ousted the African troops from the first place in the French hearts. For are they not come from afar to be the saviors of France?
After the first month Tommy began to find that the spreading belief in his mission "to save France" began to lead to demonstrations of affection embarrassing to a sober-minded British soldier. The only grievance against the French which he has is their tobacco. There are no "Woodbines," that fag beloved above all others by the British army, to be had in France. And as for French tobacco, altho it is smoked, it is not the same thing. "I never could l like it; it is too much like kissing one's own sister, no taste to it." But soon doubtless "Woodbines" will be obtainable and then all will be wonderful the last cloud removed, and then if there would only be a little less trenches and a lot more hand to hand fighting, Tommy will be in his element. For Tommy is "a fighting man," and a good-natured one as well.
He is a fine man, and everybody says so; he knows it himself and in that knowledge lies security for the British Empire.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald