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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 4, continued

The trench we were to attack was within range of hand-grenades and our own bombers added to the din by flinging over grenades as fast as they could. "Ready lads? Over you go!" We clambered over the parapet and a few yards away were halted by our own barbed wire which had to be climbed over. Shrapnel was bursting overhead, HE shells were sending up fountains of earth which came raining down in showers and machine-gun bullets were smashing into the ground like hail. Many of the lads got no further than our own wire and those who got clear raced towards the enemy line and more barbed wire. Once there, the enemy fire was so heavy that it would have been suicide to continue and we heard the cry "Get back" We did not need telling twice but raced back towards our own trench like mad men. As I ran, shaking with excitement and fear, I was amazed to see that several of the lads running near me were laughing so much they could hardly keep going. As those of us who were lucky enough tumbled back into our trench, there they were doubled up with laughter crying "Oh! Bloody hell, what a bloody army!" How much of this was hysteria and how much an over developed sense of humour was doubtful. I did ask one of the few survivors what made him laugh and he replied "Well, it seemed so bloody funny to be running away from Jerry."

The area of our barbed wire was absolutely littered with dead, both German and British. Many were wearing the kilt and a thing that puzzled me far a long time was that a number of the dead men were completely naked. Our losses had been severe and we were relieved by men of other companies for the time being.

When we were nearly back to the Front Line we found the RSM waiting for us. He was just in the process of shouting curses and bullying us to hurry when a shell dropped smack in the next traverse to the one in which he was carrying on. As we were all blown on our backs smothered with sandbags and muck, we saw to our delight the RSM go sailing up right out of the trench. Back in the line, having dumped our grenades, we related to the chaps what had happened to the hated RSM and in spite of the terrible time they were having, their faces broke into broad grins.

This particular RSM was a nasty piece of work and many of the officers swore that if he ever went over the top he wouldn't come back alive. Great was our dismay, therefore, on getting back to the reserve line, to be greeted by the raucous voice of the RSM none the worse for his 'flight through the air' except that his usually immaculate uniform was now covered in filth and his usual bad temper was now a frenzy. Trudging back to the supply dump we cursed him with all the foul words we could think of.

Back in the Front Line trench, worn out with continuous nervous tension they joined the survivors of a recent attack. Many of them were showing signs of shell-shock and obeyed orders in a dazed way. There was no hesitation but neither was there any enthusiasm in carrying out orders. Making for the enemy line, the barrage of shells, grenades and bullets forced them to turn and slowly make their way back.

British stretcher bearers, Pilckem Ridge, 1 August 1917. 
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone
British stretcher bearers, Pilckem Ridge, 1 August 1917.
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone

The few of us who got back to our trench just flopped down like empty sacks, completely exhausted. The stretcher-bearers were bringing in wounded all day long, crawling under the wire and dragging some poor devil yard by yard, more dead than alive. The great courage of the stretcher-bearers was something to marvel at and we thought they all deserved VC's.

One young stretcher-bearer, just a boy, he couldn't have been more than sixteen, went out time and again bringing back severely wounded. He got a DCM and if anyone ever earned his 'gong', he did. I'm happy to say he survived the rest of the battle to enjoy his decoration and a leave.

I was trying to rest after our last futile attack when one of the few remaining officers came along looking for me. He told me that the Captain had got hold of some drink and needed looking after. I went in search of him but unfortunately I was too late. He had been seen to go over the top on his own, revolver in each hand and of course he had dropped, riddled with machine-gun bullets before going many yards. That was the end of a fine officer, driven to the bottle by the loss of most of his officers and men. As I had been in the habit of writing to the Captain's wife for him, I was given the unpleasant task of writing to tell her the sad news. Of course I did not give her the actual facts and I hope I made his manner of going seem heroic and soldierly.

There was still a little daylight left when we were rallied together by the Second-in-Command, a grand old major, a regular officer, a fine gentleman. He told us that we were to have another go at the German trench but we were to crawl this time up a sap cut by the RE's and which ended in a large shell hole a few yards from the enemy trench. We seemed to be ages in that tunnel and I was just beginning to panic with claustrophobia when I saw a shaft of light ahead. A few more minutes and I crawled out into daylight and joined four or five other men lining the rim of the shell hole. An NCO there was collecting a few men at a time and then sending them over the ten or fifteen yards of open ground and into the Jerry trench. The Germans had spotted the first few to go over and the gun fire worked up into a crescendo. Ordered forward, the few of us in the shell hole made a dash for it and got into the trench.

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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HE Shells.

abbreviation: High Explosive.

High explosives produce uncontrollable blasts. The first high explosive was nitro-glycerine. Initially dropped from aeroplanes (from World War 1).

R.S.M.

abbreviation: Regimental Sergeant Major.
RSM is an appointment held by Warrant Officers Class 1 (WO1) in the British Army, Royal Marines and many Commonwealth armies. The RSM is primarily responsible for maintaining standards and discipline.

V.C.

abbreviation: Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross is the highest recognition for valour "in the face of the enemy" that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces of any rank in any service, and civilians under military command. It is also the highest award in the British Honours system. The Victoria Cross was created by Royal Warrant on 29 January, 1856, backdated to 1854 to recognise acts of valour during the Crimean War of 1854-1855.

D.C.M.

abbreviation: Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal was a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services below commissioned rank, for conspicuous bravery in battle on land. The medal was instituted on December 4, 1854 during the Crimean War. In 1993, the D.C.M. was discontinued, replaced by the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for all ranks.

R.E.'s

abbreviation: Royal Engineers.

N.C.O.

abbreviation: Non-Commissioned Officer.
An NCO is a soldier who has been given authority by a commissioned officer. The NCO corps is the 'junior' management of the military. Typically NCO's serve as administrative personnel, as advisors to the officer corps, as trainers and as supervisors of the lower-ranking or less experienced personnel.

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.

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British stretcher bearers, Pilckem Ridge, 1 August 1917. 
Photo credit: Mike Iavarone