In Flanders Fields And Other Poems (4 page)

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Tuesday, April 27th, 1915.

This morning again registering batteries on new points. At 1.30 a heavy attack was prepared by the French and ourselves. The fire was very heavy for half an hour and the enemy got busy too. I had to cross over to the batteries during it, an unpleasant journey. More gas attacks in the afternoon. The French did not appear to press the attack hard, but in the light of subsequent events it probably was only a feint. It seems likely that about this time our people began to thin out the artillery again for use elsewhere; but this did not at once become apparent. At night usually the heavies farther back take up the story, and there is a duel. The Germans fire on our roads after dark to catch reliefs and transport. I suppose ours do the same.

Wednesday, April 28th, 1915.

I have to confess to an excellent sleep last night. At times anxiety says, "I don't want a meal," but experience says "you need your food," so I attend regularly to that. The billet is not too safe either. Much German air reconnaissance over us, and heavy firing from both sides during the day. At 6.45 we again prepared a heavy artillery attack, but the infantry made little attempt to go on. We are perhaps the "chopping block", and our "preparations" may be chiefly designed to prevent detachments of troops being sent from our front elsewhere.

I have said nothing of what goes on on our right and left; but it is equally part and parcel of the whole game; this eight mile front is constantly heavily engaged. At intervals, too, they bombard Ypres. Our back lines, too, have to be constantly shifted on account of shell fire, and we have desultory but constant losses there. In the evening rifle fire gets more frequent, and bullets are constantly singing over us. Some of them are probably ricochets, for we are 1800 yards, or nearly, from the nearest German trench.

Thursday, April 29th, 1915.

This morning our billet was hit. We fire less these days, but still a good deal. There was a heavy French attack on our left. The "gas" attacks can be seen from here. The yellow cloud rising up is for us a signal to open, and we do. The wind is from our side to-day, and a good thing it is. Several days ago during the firing a big Oxford-grey dog, with beautiful brown eyes, came to us in a panic. He ran to me, and pressed his head HARD against my leg. So I got him a safe place and he sticks by us. We call him Fleabag, for he looks like it.

This night they shelled us again heavily for some hours--the same shorts, hits, overs on percussion, and great yellow-green air bursts. One feels awfully irritated by the constant din--a mixture of anger and apprehension.

Friday, April 30th, 1915.

Thick mist this morning, and relative quietness; but before it cleared the Germans started again to shell us. At 10 it cleared, and from 10 to 2 we fired constantly. The French advanced, and took some ground on our left front and a batch of prisoners. This was at a place we call Twin Farms. Our men looked curiously at the Boches as they were marched through. Some better activity in the afternoon by the Allies' aeroplanes. The German planes have had it too much their way lately. Many of to-day's shells have been very large--10 or 12 inch; a lot of tremendous holes dug in the fields just behind us.

Saturday, May 1st, 1915.

May day! Heavy bombardment at intervals through the day. Another heavy artillery preparation at 3.25, but no French advance. We fail to understand why, but orders go. We suffered somewhat during the day. Through the evening and night heavy firing at intervals.

Sunday, May 2nd, 1915.

Heavy gunfire again this morning. Lieut. H---- was killed at the guns. His diary's last words were, "It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep." I said the Committal Service over him, as well as I could from memory. A soldier's death! Batteries again registering barrages or barriers of fire at set ranges. At 3 the Germans attacked, preceded by gas clouds. Fighting went on for an hour and a half, during which their guns hammered heavily with some loss to us. The French lines are very uneasy, and we are correspondingly anxious. The infantry fire was very heavy, and we fired incessantly, keeping on into the night. Despite the heavy fire I got asleep at 12, and slept until daylight which comes at 3.

Monday, May 3rd, 1915.

A clear morning, and the accursed German aeroplanes over our positions again. They are usually fired at, but no luck. To-day a shell on our hill dug out a cannon ball about six inches in diameter--probably of Napoleon's or earlier times--heavily rusted. A German attack began, but half an hour of artillery fire drove it back. Major----, R.A., was up forward, and could see the German reserves. Our 4th was turned on: first round 100 over; shortened and went into gunfire, and his report was that the effect was perfect. The same occurred again in the evening, and again at midnight. The Germans were reported to be constantly massing for attack, and we as constantly "went to them". The German guns shelled us as usual at intervals. This must get very tiresome to read; but through it all, it must be mentioned that the constantly broken communications have to be mended, rations and ammunition brought up, the wounded to be dressed and got away. Our dugouts have the French Engineers and French Infantry next door by turns. They march in and out. The back of the hill is a network of wires, so that one has to go carefully.

Tuesday, May 4th, 1915.

Despite intermittent shelling and some casualties the quietest day yet; but we live in an uneasy atmosphere as German attacks are constantly being projected, and our communications are interrupted and scrappy. We get no news of any sort and have just to sit tight and hold on. Evening closed in rainy and dark. Our dugout is very slenderly provided against it, and we get pretty wet and very dirty. In the quieter morning hours we get a chance of a wash and occasionally a shave.

Wednesday, May 5th, 1915.

Heavily hammered in the morning from 7 to 9, but at 9 it let up; the sun came out and things looked better. Evidently our line has again been thinned of artillery and the requisite minimum to hold is left. There were German attacks to our right, just out of our area. Later on we and they both fired heavily, the first battery getting it especially hot. The planes over us again and again, to coach the guns. An attack expected at dusk, but it turned only to heavy night shelling, so that with our fire, theirs, and the infantry cracking away constantly, we got sleep in small quantity all night; bullets whizzing over us constantly. Heavy rain from 5 to 8, and everything wet except the far-in corner of the dugout, where we mass our things to keep them as dry as we may.

Thursday, May 6th, 1915.

After the rain a bright morning; the leaves and blossoms are coming out. We ascribe our quietude to a welcome flock of allied planes which are over this morning. The Germans attacked at eleven, and again at six in the afternoon, each meaning a waking up of heavy artillery on the whole front. In the evening we had a little rain at intervals, but it was light.

Friday, May 7th, 1915.

A bright morning early, but clouded over later. The Germans gave it to us very heavily. There was heavy fighting to the south-east of us. Two attacks or threats, and we went in again.

Saturday, May 8th, 1915.

For the last three days we have been under British divisional control, and supporting our own men who have been put farther to the left, till they are almost in front of us. It is an added comfort. We have four officers out with various infantry regiments for observation and co-operation; they have to stick it in trenches, as all the houses and barns are burned. The whole front is constantly ablaze with big gunfire; the racket never ceases. We have now to do most of the work for our left, as our line appears to be much thinner than it was. A German attack followed the shelling at 7; we were fighting hard till 12, and less regularly all the afternoon. We suffered much, and at one time were down to seven guns. Of these two were smoking at every joint, and the levers were so hot that the gunners used sacking for their hands. The pace is now much hotter, and the needs of the infantry for fire more insistent. The guns are in bad shape by reason of dirt, injuries, and heat. The wind fortunately blows from us, so there is no gas, but the attacks are still very heavy. Evening brought a little quiet, but very disquieting news (which afterwards proved untrue); and we had to face a possible retirement. You may imagine our state of mind, unable to get anything sure in the uncertainty, except that we should stick out as long as the guns would fire, and we could fire them. That sort of night brings a man down to his "bare skin", I promise you. The night was very cold, and not a cheerful one.

Sunday, May 9th, 1915.

At 4 we were ordered to get ready to move, and the Adjutant picked out new retirement positions; but a little later better news came, and the daylight and sun revived us a bit. As I sat in my dugout a little white and black dog with tan spots bolted in over the parapet, during heavy firing, and going to the farthest corner began to dig furiously. Having scraped out a pathetic little hole two inches deep, she sat down and shook, looking most plaintively at me. A few minutes later, her owner came along, a French soldier. Bissac was her name, but she would not leave me at the time. When I sat down a little later, she stole out and shyly crawled in between me and the wall; she stayed by me all day, and I hope got later on to safe quarters.

Firing kept up all day. In thirty hours we had fired 3600 rounds, and at times with seven, eight, or nine guns; our wire cut and repaired eighteen times. Orders came to move, and we got ready. At dusk we got the guns out by hand, and all batteries assembled at a given spot in comparative safety. We were much afraid they would open on us, for at 10 o'clock they gave us 100 or 150 rounds, hitting the trench parapet again and again. However, we were up the road, the last wagon half a mile away before they opened. One burst near me, and splattered some pieces around, but we got clear, and by 12 were out of the usual fire zone. Marched all night, tired as could be, but happy to be clear.

I was glad to get on dear old Bonfire again. We made about sixteen miles, and got to our billets at dawn. I had three or four hours' sleep, and arose to a peaceful breakfast. We shall go back to the line elsewhere very soon, but it is a present relief, and the next place is sure to be better, for it cannot be worse. Much of this narrative is bald and plain, but it tells our part in a really great battle. I have only had hasty notes to go by; in conversation there is much one could say that would be of greater interest. Heard of the 'Lusitania' disaster on our road out. A terrible affair!

Northern France, May 10th, 1915.

We got here to refit and rest this morning at 4, having marched last night at 10. The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds, and it was sticking to our utmost by a weak line all but ready to break, knowing nothing of what was going on, and depressed by reports of anxious infantry. The men and the divisions are worthy of all praise that can be given. It did not end in four days when many of our infantry were taken out. It kept on at fever heat till yesterday.

This, of course, is the second battle of Ypres, or the battle of the Yser, I do not know which. At one time we were down to seven guns, but those guns were smoking at every joint, the gunners using cloth to handle the breech levers because of the heat. We had three batteries in action with four guns added from the other units. Our casualties were half the number of men in the firing line. The horse lines and the wagon lines farther back suffered less, but the Brigade list has gone far higher than any artillery normal. I know one brigade R.A. that was in the Mons retreat and had about the same. I have done what fell to hand. My clothes, boots, kit, and dugout at various times were sadly bloody. Two of our batteries are reduced to two officers each. We have had constant accurate shell-fire, but we have given back no less. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.

During all this time, we have been behind French troops, and only helping our own people by oblique fire when necessary. Our horses have suffered heavily too. Bonfire had a light wound from a piece of shell; it is healing and the dear old fellow is very fit. Had my first ride for seventeen days last night. We never saw horses but with the wagons bringing up the ammunition. When fire was hottest they had to come two miles on a road terribly swept, and they did it magnificently. But how tired we are! Weary in body and wearier in mind. None of our men went off their heads but men in units nearby did--and no wonder.

France, May 12th, 1915.

I am glad you had your mind at rest by the rumour that we were in reserve. What newspaper work! The poor old artillery never gets any mention, and the whole show is the infantry. It may interest you to note on your map a spot on the west bank of the canal, a mile and a half north of Ypres, as the scene of our labours. There can be no harm in saying so, now that we are out of it. The unit was the most advanced of all the Allies' guns by a good deal except one French battery which stayed in a position yet more advanced for two days, and then had to be taken out. I think it may be said that we saw the show from the soup to the coffee.

France, May 17th, 1915.

The farther we get away from Ypres the more we learn of the enormous power the Germans put in to push us over. Lord only knows how many men they had, and how many they lost. I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days. All the gunners down this way passed us all sorts of 'kudos' over it. Our guns--those behind us, from which we had to dodge occasional prematures--have a peculiar bang-sound added to the sharp crack of discharge. The French 75 has a sharp wood-block-chop sound, and the shell goes over with a peculiar whine--not unlike a cat, but beginning with n--thus,--n-eouw. The big fellows, 3000 yards or more behind, sounded exactly like our own, but the flash came three or four seconds before the sound. Of the German shells--the field guns come with a great velocity--no warning--just whizz-bang; white smoke, nearly always air bursts. The next size, probably 5 inch howitzers, have a perceptible time of approach, an increasing whine, and a great burst on the percussion--dirt in all directions. And even if a shell hit on the front of the canal bank, and one were on the back of the bank, five, eight, or ten seconds later one would hear a belated WHIRR, and curved pieces of shell would light--probably parabolic curves or boomerangs. These shells have a great back kick; from the field gun shrapnel we got nothing BEHIND the shell--all the pieces go forward. From the howitzers, the danger is almost as great behind as in front if they burst on percussion. Then the large shrapnel--air-burst--have a double explosion, as if a giant shook a wet sail for two flaps; first a dark green burst of smoke; then a lighter yellow burst goes out from the centre, forwards. I do not understand the why of it.

Then the 10-inch shells: a deliberate whirring course--a deafening explosion--black smoke, and earth 70 or 80 feet in the air. These always burst on percussion. The constant noise of our own guns is really worse on the nerves than the shell; there is the deafening noise, and the constant whirr of shells going overhead. The earth shakes with every nearby gun and every close shell. I think I may safely enclose a cross section of our position. The left is the front: a slope down of 20 feet in 100 yards to the canal, a high row of trees on each bank, then a short 40 yards slope up to the summit of the trench, where the brain of the outfit was; then a telephone wired slope, and on the sharp slope, the dugouts, including my own. The nondescript affair on the low slope is the gun position, behind it the men's shelter pits. Behind my dugout was a rapid small stream, on its far bank a row of pollard willows, then 30 yards of field, then a road with two parallel rows of high trees. Behind this again, several hundred yards of fields to cross before the main gun positions are reached.

More often fire came from three quarters left, and because our ridge died away there was a low spot over which they could come pretty dangerously. The road thirty yards behind us was a nightmare to me. I saw all the tragedies of war enacted there. A wagon, or a bunch of horses, or a stray man, or a couple of men, would get there just in time for a shell. One would see the absolute knock-out, and the obviously lightly wounded crawling off on hands and knees; or worse yet, at night, one would hear the tragedy--"that horse scream"--or the man's moan. All our own wagons had to come there (one every half hour in smart action), be emptied, and the ammunition carried over by hand. Do you wonder that the road got on our nerves? On this road, too, was the house where we took our meals. It was hit several times, windows all blown in by nearby shells, but one end remained for us.

Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not be done. On the fifteenth day we got orders to go out, but that was countermanded in two hours. To the last we could scarcely believe we were actually to get out. The real audacity of the position was its safety; the Germans knew to a foot where we were. I think I told you of some of the "you must stick it out" messages we got from our [French] General,--they put it up to us. It is a wonder to me that we slept when, and how, we did. If we had not slept and eaten as well as possible we could not have lasted. And while we were doing this, the London office of a Canadian newspaper cabled home "Canadian Artillery in reserve." Such is fame!

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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