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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 3, continued

When we were relieved and went out for a rest I enjoyed being Captain's batman as I was excused all normal parades, guards, etc., and spent my time looking after his uniform, equipment, cleaning revolvers and assisting cooks and waiting on in the officers mess. The Captain turned out to be a bit of a tippler and most of the time out at the line he was either 'merry' or just plain drunk. When parades were over for the day he would get down to serious drinking and if anyone wanted him I made the excuse "The Captain is not very well, he's resting!" They understood.

He tried to get me to write to his wife to let her know that he was safe and well. I asked him once "Won't your wife think there is something wrong when I write for you?"

"Oh boy! She'll know there is something wrong alright, she'll say the old so-and-so's drunk again!".

He always treated me very well. There was nothing of the snob in him and I only once remember him getting cross with me. He'd been expecting a parcel of a brace of partridge and sent me to HQ to enquire if it had arrived. I collected the parcel and took it back to the billets. Opening it I took one look at the birds and rushed off to the incinerator with them. Reporting to him I said "I got your birds Sir, but they were rotten so I've thrown them on the incinerator." He shouted with rage "Go and get the damned things off again quick." I retrieved the parcel and poor old Dick had the job of cleaning and cooking the birds. That was one time when I wanted no share of Dick's cooking!

Back in the line we found ourselves in trenches in very bad condition although not water-logged. This had evidently been the scene of a heavy attack when occupied by French troops, there being lots of French equipment and tools embedded in the sandbags indicating that hurried repairs had been carried out during bombardments. At one point there was a gruesome reminder of the attack in the shape of a Frenchman's forearm and hand still sticking out of the trench wall. These trenches were filthy and stank to high heaven.

I lit a small fire in a sap off the trench to warm some soup for the Captain whilst Dick, some distance away, was busy cooking some meat and vegetables. Having got my fire going nicely I saw something bubbling end sizzling from the ground and as there was a terrible smell I called Dick over to investigate.

"Put it out," he said, "and cover it quick, you've started your fire on a dead Frenchman's tummy!"

I had that fire out and shovelled madly with a spade to cover it over in no time at all and found a fresh spot to light my fire as far away as possible.

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

Out of the line again we found ourselves in fresh billets, this time my company being housed on a very smart farm. The buildings were all clean and in good order and everything about the place was clean and tidy. The Captain and four officers were billeted in the farm house and for the first time on active service I found myself with a real posh kitchen in which to prepare meals.

All was comparatively quiet in the section one evening when we got the order to "stand to". We had no idea what the 'wind-up' was all about until we saw away to our left the sky suddenly lit up and a terrific roar like heavy thunder stunned our ears and some seconds later the whole trench heaved and rocked as though it was a raft borne on a heavy sea. Things remained quiet along our sector but we could hear, as we still 'stood to', that a big battle was taking place not far away. We later learned that the mining of the enemy line was at Messines Ridge.

Artillery bombardment of Messines Ridge. 
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone
Artillery bombardment of Messines Ridge.
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone

As the months went by we wondered how long the War would last. We became very weary of it all and the possibility of getting leave seemed very remote. Actually I had to wait three and a half years for mine! In idle moments we used to think about ways of getting out of it. No one wanted to be killed, (even in the worst conditions life was very sweet), but a nice non-fatal - just bad enough to get a man in hospital in England - would have been welcome any day. Some men became so desperate that they stuck a foot or hand over the parapet hoping to get a 'blighty-one' and I heard of men shooting off a finger or putting a bullet through a foot, although I had no personal knowledge of it happening. There was so much talk about this sort of thing at one time that I dreaded getting wounded in the hand or foot in case it as thought to be self-inflicted.

The rear of the support trench we were in was lower than usual and it was quite easy to take a look at the countryside. It was whilst looking out one sunny day, to see if there were any more 'spies' about, that I became aware of poppies and other flowers growing near the line, and I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia when I heard and then saw a skylark singing its sweet song as it spiralled up into the clear blue sty. Closing my eyes I could imagine that I was lying in an English field enjoying the warm sunshine. And then, you know what? Jerry sent over a whiz-bang that nearly made me jump out at of my skin and the little skylark didn't even ruffle a feather.

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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Batman.

An officer's personal attendant; a person in charge of a bathorse (historical).

[French bāt pack-saddle, and man]

Blighty.

military slang: Home; the home country; a wound necessitating return home (World War I).

Poppy.

The sale on Remembrance Sunday of Flanders poppies raises funds for the Royal British Legion that was established under the leadership of Douglas Haig in 1921 to promote the welfare of British veterans of war service and their dependants.

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.

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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Artillery bombardment of Messines Ridge.
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone