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Backs to the Wall
A larrikin on the Western Front
By G.D. Mitchell, Robert Macklin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Robert Macklin
All rights reserved.
To sunny France
Gallipoli, that tale of disaster, was closed and done. New and terrific, at closer view, loomed the battles of Flanders and France.
The wild winds of the autumn of 1916 were blowing the bright-coloured leaves from the trees before I was put on draft for France. I held the rank of full private. Twice while standing on parade with the draft, fully equipped to the last detail, my name was called, and I was taken from its strength. 'No enteric cases to be sent to France yet,' was all they told me. On 4 September 1916 I was finally equipped for draft to France.
In the camp at Perham Downs we rejoiced at the news of a Zepp raider brought down in flames, red-handed.
The train loped through the English countryside. The hop-fields of Kent, then the chalk cliffs of Folkestone.
We packed on to the sharp-bowed cross-channeller Invicta, which plunged into the rough grey seas. From my diary comes the following:
Ere many lengths were traversed the Invicta was in her full stride of 20 knots. The sea is choppy. Destroyers edge in to escort us. Many ships dot the waters — troopers, destroyers, patrol boats, and cargo vessels. One bears the inscription on her side in great letters, 'Belgian reliefship'.
Neutrals have their flags blazoned on their hulls.
It is 4.30 p.m. The day is overcast with the mists of autumn. It is raining.
The last I saw of England was two grey lines. The nearer dark grey and the farther overhanging — a dim, misty grey. Then the fog shut England out. Boulogne takes shape. Cathedral spires and towers rise out of the formlessness of distance.
Alongside us at the wharf is a transport of Scotties. They give us sprigs of heather. We march up a long hill to a camp of bell-tents. One blanket each is issued. The night is windy and it is raining. The mud outside is ankle-deep. Now to get something to eat.
Then to Etaples, and through the sweatshop of the 'bull-ring'.
After a few days we were entrained again — Boulogne, Calais, St Omer, then Hazebrouck. We eagerly watched the green countryside as it slipped by. In the cattletruck the thirty-six of us sang, and we drank wine and beer as we could wangle it.
A party of us, all destined for the 10th Battalion, messed together. Our united efforts produced some wonderful food and drinks at different stopping-places. Our money was a common pool.
We burrowed into wheat stooks in the fields outside Hazebrouck, and slept in perfect comfort through two nights of rain and hail.
On 19 September we marched into the silent, deathly region that was the Ypres salient. The world of life and light was behind us. Here all was still, and we moved under the shadow of death.
A subtle difference pervaded everything. The rough crosses by the road told the tale of the days.
Shattered, mouldering ruins were new to us of Anzac. The chill, still stink of death pervaded everything. 'All hope abandon' seemed to be the message of that region as we marched stolidly over the cobbles in strung-out groups of ten.
We rejoined the 10th at an old ruined barn, its headquarters. For a few minutes we mingled and looked for men we knew. I found some, but very few. The men who marched through Egypt and survived the heights of Anzac had been raked through the hell of Pozières. The reunion was in keeping with the vast graveyard we occupied.
That night, in lashing rain, we marched over shell-pocked fields. We entered shattered Ypres, and saw the abomination of desolation by the reflection of wavering Very lights. Masses of transports rumbled through the darkness. From cellars came streaks of light that denoted some military office. We glanced through the yawning window space of a tall, roofless building. There, by the light of candles, was a group of Diggers playing two-up. A more powerful star shell caused the gaunt ruins to outline stark against the dim, weeping skies.
Out of the town of death and across the bridge — a railway bank, on which there was a duckboard track.
Our heavy kits dragged mercilessly, as we stumbled along the broken boards. The sweat on our faces mingled with the drifting rain. Exhaustion was squeezing us tightly. The oily water of a canal below us gleamed fitfully in the intermittent light. Odd shells crashed far and near into waterlogged fields.
Across a field on broken duckboards, and then — worst of all — a long communication trench. Most of the duckboards were a foot under water. Some were broken, some did not meet. We reeled with exhaustion, stumbled, rose and stumbled again. Now a wire would catch us across our faces; now tangle our feet.
Beyond even cursing, we blundered on. At last we came to a set of dugouts along a hedge. The three of us allotted to a small one crawled through the narrow entrance and collapsed. As our strength was slowly coming back a sergeant splashed up outside, poked his head through the doorway, and said apologetically, 'You chaps have to go on fatigue till daylight.'
We crawled out, cursing with our returning breath. But a crescent moon had come from behind a cloud. With only rifle and bandolier, in the cold night wind, we found that we were good for much more. A string of machine-gun bullets hissed through our ranks as we heaved duckboards. No one was hit. We returned to our dugout at daylight, and slept well. That was the morning of 20 September.
Night after night we went out. Twice we tried to dig trenches in reeking, smashed Square Wood, a hundred yards behind the line. Water filled in what we dug. My shovel struck a twisted Vickers gun. I dragged it from the mud and slung it over the embryo parapet. Then a belt of ammunition snagged my shovel. That, too, went on the parapet. My shovel was again caught. I reached down into the cold, foul water to clear this latest obstruction, and felt a hand down there.
Moved over close to my neighbour on the right and commenced to dig there. 'Dig in your own bloody possie,' he said. 'Not on your life!' I told him. Strange groups of Boche lights would form and hang over us. We would watch with silent apprehension to see if these were to call artillery down on our defenceless heads. The wood behind us was an almost impenetrable maze of broken tree trunks, tangled wire, and dead men.
Great, sleek, corpse-fed rats ran in squads between our legs and over our feet as we stood. Their obscene squeaking could be heard at all times. Some men conceived an unmeasured hatred of these loathsome things, and were always trying to slaughter them. I wondered, as I stood, did they picture themselves as those scattered corpses — a prey to these. Imagination is decidedly not good for a soldier. It is one of the things Kipling forgot to tell us.
Sometimes shells came in a shower, unheralded, out of space. Men flung themselves into whatever cover there was — laughing. The flame and thunder continued a little while, and we went on with our work, cheerful for the break.
One afternoon we sheltered in the trench alongside our dugouts. A pale sun was setting. Five-point-nines were bursting in salvos, raking the ground and tearing chunks out of a weary-looking hedge. A man was being led away by his mates. His face was a mask of blood that dripped and made lines down his greatcoat.
A copy of the Sydney Mail was under my hand. Picked it up, and it came open at the society page. There was an account of a wedding. I read to a group of the boys, 'Mrs Blank looked charming in ninon over nunon.' Blistering comments mixed with the detonations of the shells. Over the page were racing reports. Futility on futility.
On 24 September we examined our rifles and equipments, and moved up through long winding saps to the deep dugouts behind Hill 60. Next morning we marched to the front line on fatigue, and set to work revetting the parapet with sandbags.
During the afternoon a chap looked over where the trench was shallow, and said, 'Look! I can see the German line!' But that was the last thing he saw. He slumped down in the trench, shot through the brain. During the night an original sergeant, out on patrol, was shot. We could see his body when we looked over the parapet.
On 26 September five of us were taken from the platoon to occupy a special listening-post. We filed through the sodden saps to the front line, and beyond the front line to the listening-post on top of Hill 60. The outgoing party whispered a caution that we were within five yards of the German advanced post.
The sap was shallow, and the post was in the state of decay and collapse that we would never have endured on Gallipoli. The sides were caving in, and offered poor cover. Barbed wire, pieces of clothing, smashed rifles, and beams protruded everywhere. But, here, where a spade of earth thrown over the top, would bring down a shower of explosives, we had to endure it. No sooner had two of us established ourselves and noted where the bombs and ammunition were stacked than our guns opened.
For an hour we cowered against the back parapet. Our eighteen-pounders burst their shrapnel ten feet overhead. The pellets swept forward over the enemy positions. But portions of the shell-cases hissed and smacked into the earth round us. We trembled against the sodden ground, naked to the storm. The enemy guns took up the game, and the earth rocked to din indescribable. White clouds of resinous smoke from our shrapnel eddied round us, billows of stinking acid smoke from the German shells. The concussion jarred through us in wave upon wave of fury. Demoniac shrieks of descending shells, snarling of swarms of ragged fragments, blow upon blow of concussion. All the fiends of hell seemed to be struggling and wrangling round us.
With a hissing rush, swift beyond imagination, an eighteen-pounder shell fell short, into our parapet. All was squalling metal violence and thudding earth. We looked at each other, grey-faced, except where we bled from small cuts. The taste of death was very bitter.
'Look up!' said my mate. There through the air was a black shape like a rum jar, spinning and turning through a great arc. Now it reached its peak and commenced to rush down towards us. We watched as condemned men. Just as everything seemed finished we saw that its path would take it beyond us. The air shuddered and the earth rocked to an appalling explosion.
Through the air as we watched came from our lines a string of what appeared to be small sticks. One followed fast in the track of the other — fast as we could count. Swift came the flat crashes of the exploding bombs, swift followed fresh bombs as big Bill Montgomery's crew slammed them into the hungry Stokes gun-muzzles.
Spinning through the air, right into our post, came a German rifle butt. I stared at its broad-toed steel butt plate as it rested beside my foot. Now came a whistling sound as of wild ducks in flight, and I recognised long-shafted rifle-grenades. These burst with a howling noise. From our line went showers of Mills rifle-grenades, to burst with shrill detonations on the enemy lines.
Steadily the fire died down. Odd shells rushed viciously overhead, as if to renew it all. Sergeant Doddridge pushed into our post to see if we were still alive.
'Just the usual evening strafe,' he said, casually.
'But do you think it is fair,' complained my mate, 'that we should get lashed by both bloody sides?'
Doddy laughed, and said that he would report the shells falling short. Tea was brought up to us. Many times I stopped in the middle of a bite, until the menace of some approaching missile was past. Certainly not good for nerves or digestion. No content could be with us when we knew that underfoot were mines and countermines, and that we lived only at the enemy's pleasure.
Through the long troubled winter night we stood our watches, one hour on and two off, bombs stacked close beside us, eyes just above the parapet. At intervals, strings of Maxim bullets squealed and spat around us. With the enemy so close, we had to keep a sharp look out.
Blighty was never like this, I thought, as I remembered the pretty girls I had taken out, the good meals I had eaten, the cosy fires and the warm beds. The crash of a Minnie or the howl of a grenade would call me from my delectable dreams to unpleasant realities. Greasy rats moved about in stinking platoons, sniffed our rifle-muzzles, and sometimes jumped on our shoulders as they came in from their feeding-grounds in No Man's Land.
We stood to arms while the grey dawn of 27 September hesitatingly revealed a world of torn earth, debris and unburied dead. Throughout the day the sun shone and warmed us. At three in the afternoon, while two of us were on duty in the post, Doddy brought up word that our guns were to open.
Again the tale was the same. Guns answered guns. Stokes answered Minnies. Grenades spoke to grenades. Thunder, flame and smoke ruled the world. Two eighteen-pounders crashed into our post. We staggered into the sap, dazed and half blind, falling over the men who lay there. Another shell crashed the side of the sap, and we blundered out into the front-line trench. More shells landed round the trench. Overhead was a double arch of explosives in travel.
Sergeant Doddridge sent back word that our shells were dropping short. 'Just another evening strafe?' I asked him. 'That's all,' he said, and laughed.
To the right of us was the steep bank of the Ypres–Comines canal. Nearby ran a deserted sap into Fritz-land. There lay my pal James with his rifle ready. I visualised a helmeted Fritz at the other end in just such an attitude.
Darkness ushered in a still menacing night. On such a night as this could dead men walk, and speak to us who were out beyond the ways of life only awaiting the reaper. Dread and foreboding possessed me as I went on listening duty. The night seemed to be full of warning voices that made no sound, but formed their messages in the brain.
As Godfrey wrote in The Anzac Book:
This is indeed a false, false night, There's not a soldier sleeps, But like a ghost stands to his post, While death through the long sap creeps.
In that hour was born in me a fear that lasted throughout the whole winter. It was the dread of dying in the mud, going down into that stinking morass and though dead being conscious throughout the ages. It was probably a form of claustrophobia. Waves of fear at times threatened to overwhelm me, but that I kept tight rein on myself. A little weakness, a little slackening of control at times and I might have gone over the borderline. In the light of the sun, on firm ground, I could laugh at fate. But where the churned mud half hid and half revealed bodies, where dead hands reached out of the morass, seeming to implore aid — there I had to hold tight.
The long hour of duty came to an end at last. Two men relieved us. I stepped out of the post into the sap with a sigh of relief. The ground lunged beneath me, rose and fell. The trench crushed in and swung apart. A stunning wall of air battered against me. A few yards beyond the post stood a giant tower pierced through with swords of flame. A mine!
A rushing noise filled the air as the debris began to fall. My tin hat went. I covered my face and head with my arms. Something struck me a frightful blow on the shoulder and pitched me face down. An appalling weight fell across my loins. Clods of earth struck me everywhere.
'This is the end,' I said quietly. But the hail ceased. I groped blindly for my rifle. Found one, not my own. The strap was loose. Mine was tight; no matter. I reeled down the sap. As I bent to get under an arch of iron, a bayonet touched my throat and an excited voice challenged me. First pressure on trigger, I thought, as I answered. Sergeant Doddridge pushed past the sentry.
'Is the post wrecked?'
'No,' I told him.
'Do you know where the bombs are?'
'Come with me then.'
I followed him to the empty post. Together we stood, eyes above the parapet, a bomb in each hand, waiting for a rush. Cool and still he was, as though no hail of bombs flamed around us, or stammering Maxims flailed the parapet. The calm of resignation was on me.
'Raggie' Holland sent reinforcements to the post. I went into the sap to rest. Men walked over me, but I was too dopey to protest. The following from my diary:
About 2 a.m. a feeling of sickness overcame me. Passed the word to the sergeant and staggered out into the more open air of the communication trench. I was in the throes of sickness when Lieutenant Don Chisolm found me. He was sympathetic and ordered me back to Infantry Tunnel to get some rest, and said that he would tell Sergeant Doddridge. So I made my way wearily to Infantry Tunnel, which is a deep drive in the hillside.
I could not rest, partly for a terrible thirst. Wandered through the timbered drive until I encountered a Canadian cook from whom I begged a drink of tea. Lay down in the main passage but could not rest.
At about 9 a.m. so exhausted that I could scarcely crawl. I went up and found the garrison of our little hell-post intact. After collecting my goods the journey to the doctor took me an hour and a half. Got down to the quack at last and sat on a box awaiting his pleasure. He sent me inside the medical dugout where I lay on a stretcher and fell asleep. The sound of voices woke me. Four men were having various wounds dressed. A rum jar had come over and caught seven of them. Three were dead. One had a slight wound in the arm, another the side of his face knocked about, the third had a shattered hand, and the fourth was prostrate after being dug out from beneath the debris. He had my sympathy.
Excerpted from Backs to the Wall by G.D. Mitchell, Robert Macklin. Copyright © 2007 Robert Macklin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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