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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 3, continued

Having contrived to get washed and shaved and having had a meagre portion of bacon for breakfast, I and the two men who had been on guard with me were called out by a tough looking old sergeant who marched us away to a quiet corner of the farm.

"Alright you lot, so you don't now how to fix bayonets eh? Right, we'll soon see about that. Squad 'Shun. As you were! What the hell do you mean coming out here masquerading as soldiers? We're here to kill those bloody Jerries not make them die of laughter. What the hell are you grinning at? This is a serious matter, you 'orrible lot, don't you know how to 'fix'? Instead of resting, I'm here drilling you bunch of duds. Now when I say 'Shun' you'll move so quick it 'urts see? Right. Squad, Shun! That's better, so you can move then? Stand at ease. Now, when I say 'fix' you don't 'fix' but when I say 'bayonets' you whips 'em out and you wops 'em on."

"Right! Squad 'Shun! Fix... Bayonets, Oh! Hell! What a hopeless lot of bastards! What are you?" No one answered. "Are you bloody well deaf as well as daft, answer me, what are you?"

"We're a hopeless lot of bastards, Sergeant!"

"How the hell did you manage to get out here?"

"But, Sergeant," I started -

"Shut up. Don't you dare answer me back. I'll have you in clink so fast your feet won't touch the floor."

After the dinner break we three were again paraded on our own but this time under a young corporal who quickly licked us into shape. We spent the rest of the day doing 'fix' and 'unfix' until by the end of the day we could do it like Guardsmen - well almost.

Now he came out of the line for a while, which gave him an opportunity to find out what had happened to Bill who was now attached to another company of the battalion. Returning to the Front he found himself knee deep in water and rotting sand-bags.

I was working one wet day filling sand bags when our Platoon Sergeant came along.

"Don't you smoke Williams?"

"No Sergeant, not me, it's bad for your wind."

"You may have no wind this time tomorrow so you may just as well enjoy a smoke like the others."

Next day he came along again. "Here you are Williams, I've just had a parcel from home and I've brought you a present." He handed me a new pipe and a packet of tobacco. "Start smoking that, it will help you out here and you'll find it better than fags." I started there and then smoking my pipe and have done so ever since. Very few of the men smoked pipes, preferring Woodbines and so when there was an issue of tobacco I could get plenty to keep me going.

Working parties in the trenches had to keep their wits about them all the time as Jerry snipers were very active. They seemed to be well equipped with telescopic sights and binoculars and could soon spot the blade of a spade showing for a second above the trench. They would then train their sights on that spot and wait for someone to be careless enough to show his head. We lost many men in this way. We had a very healthy respect for the German snipers and their fixed rifles. It had a big psychological effect on us, the knowledge that the enemy had superior weapons and much larger numbers of machine-guns, trench mortars and field guns, doing nothing to boost our morale.

Another rest followed, and a luxury - a bath, for the first time in six months.

Map of the Ypres area (Belgium) showing Poperinghe, Hell Fire Corner, Sanctuary Wood, Westoutre, Kemmel and Messines.

The usual procedure once out of line was a de-lousing parade at which we all took off shirts and vests and removed lice from the seams. Some used lighted candles, whilst others scraped with knives or used brushes. When our CO spoke to us before we left our training quarters in England he'd said "Hang on to your tooth brushes, you won't clean your teeth with them but believe me they will come in very handy." Now we knew what he meant.

We were now in the vicinity of Kemmel Hill and, our rest period over, we moved into a fresh sector of the line some distance away from our previous place. We found our new trenches much better than those we had vacated. They were in good condition and fairly dry and there were some very good dug-outs. The German trenches were much nearer at this point and the occupants much more lively than before. We could see the German barbed wire and trenches quite clearly and resorted to the use of periscopes for looking out.

Ruined church at Westoutre, a few miles west of Kemmel Hill.
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer
Ruined church at Westoutre, a few miles west of Kemmel Hill.
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer

By now we had learned self preservation by picking out the various sounds and so knew when to dive under cover and when to remain as we were. When an artillery duel was going on between our guns and Jerry's, we ignored the noise of shells passing overhead knowing that they were not meant for us, but when we heard one making a slower umpity-umpity-ump sound, we got out of the way quickly and waited for the crump of the explosion before leaving cover. Bullets hitting the barbed wire went spinning away over the top with a ping-rickety-ickety-plonk into the open land beyond. Bullets hitting the front of the trench made a dull thud, whilst those passing immediately over the gap of the trench made a crack like a whip. This noise was much more nerve racking but having learned the meaning of the sound we soon knew we could ignore it.

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Jerry, also Gerry.

Although a nickname for German soldiers or the German armed forces that was originally created during World War I, Jerry it did not come in to common use until World War II.

Front Line or Front.

Relating to the most advanced or important position - the line along which opposing armies face each other.

Woodbine.

The brand name of a popular and inexpensive cigarette; Also Australian slang: someone English, especially a soldier.

C.O.

abbreviation: Commanding Officer.
The Commanding Officer is the officer in command of a military unit. Typically, the Commanding Officer has ultimate authority over the unit, and is usually given wide latitude, within the bounds of military law. In the British Army the title of Commanding Officer is reserved for commanders of major units (regiments, battalions and similar sized units), almost invariably holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Trench.

From late 1914 until nearly the end of the war the fighting consisted largely of trench warfare. The trenches consisted of parallel lines of interconnected trenches protected by lines of barbed wire.


diagram of typical trench layout

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Ruined church at Westoutre, a few miles west of Kemmel Hill.
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer